The Gray Notebook (New York Review Books Classics)

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The Gray Notebook (New York Review Books Classics) Essays
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Josep Pla, a budding young writer, was studying law in Barcelona in 1918 when the university was shut down because of the Spanish flu epidemic. Pla returned to his parents’ house in the coastal town of Palafrugell, and with nothing to do he decided to keep a journal in which he would describe—as a way of honing his skills as a writer—everything about the daily life of his family and friends that had any interest for him. The gray notebook in which he kept this journal would survive the Franco regime, when Pla’s native Catalan tongue was suppressed, to emerge, some fifty years later as The Gray Notebook, the most celebrated work of twentieth-century Catalan literature, admired as much for its pitch-perfect prose as for its shrewd observance of the human comedy, the great book of the great city of Barcelona and of life on the beach. The Gray Notebook, full of incident and humor and light, is pure pleasure to read: a glowing Bonnard interior on an epic scale.

The first part of the book, which begins on March 8, 1918, is a story of family life on the Costa Brava and the coming-of-age story of a young man torn between an old-fashioned ideal of a life of quiet dedication to work and family and the intellectual seductions of European culture. Pla’s enthusiasms and uncertainties, friendships and crushes, his reading, the drama and politics and absurdity of family life—we are drawn into all these as we also follow Pla in his wanderings through town, scrutinizing his fellow citizens, or out under the magnificent skies of the still-unspoiled countryside of the coast. In January 1919, Pla returns to Barcelona to complete his studies, and the book’s second part paints a hilariously revealing picture of student life. He learns next to nothing from his teachers, a good deal more from the writers and artists he meets in cafés and salons, and most of all from Barcelona itself, with its night life and ramblas, the city of Gaudi and Modernisme, where just outside the city limits the seemingly timeless life of the country still went on as before.

Combining delightful informality with a perfect clarity of expression and an attention to the detail of day-to-day life that makes it seem anything but banal, The Gray Notebook is both a revelation of its author’s singular sensibility and a universal work of art.

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