Nada, Carmen Laforet

Four years ago next month Milly and I met up with our daughter, Gee and grandchildren in Paris and travelled with them to Avignon where Gee had taken a house for a week. Milly was to stay and help with the kids but my Eurail pass was burning a hole in my pocket so after one night I caught the local train out to the mainline station. Choices! I could go north to Lyon, Paris, Frankfurt; south and east to Marseilles, Nice, Monaco and on into Italy (as we indeed all did at the end of the week); or south and west to Spain – Barcelona and Madrid.

I had already decided on the last, and was reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in readiness. For some reason – I have no French and the ticket sellers had no English – I could only get a ticket to the Spanish border. I paid my €10, and at the border jumped off briefly to pay another €10 for a ticket to Barcelona (which is not how the system is meant to work, but no matter, I was happy).

A couple of more hours and I was there. And I did not want to be. There were thousands of people watching motorbike races in the plaza outside the station and thousands more queuing up all down the street to go into some exhibition or other. I walked around the motorcycle crowd to the ruins above them, back down again to the station and caught the next train to Madrid where I spent the night and a pleasant morning before making my way to Zaragoza and Huesca, on the edge of the country where Orwell saw action, and from there by local transport over the Pyrenees to Toulouse. Milly and I had hoped we might make a more successful visit to Barcelona this year, but it was not to be.

Orwell entered Spain, as I did, from the south of France, in 1936 to join the Trotskyite forces in the coalition fighting to save the left-leaning Second Spanish Republic from General Franco’s Fascist/Monarchist armed takeover. He found Barcelona in a state of Anarchist self-governance

It was a town in which the wealthy classes had ceased to exist… All this was queer and moving. There was much in it I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State …

Nada (1945) is set in Barcelona, in 1940, after the Civil War and with the rest of Europe in the early stages of WW II. A year in the life of Andrea, an orphan country girl who comes up to the city to stay with her once prosperous upper middle class relatives, and attend university. Andrea is largely oblivious of the Civil War which must have been fought all round her as she was growing up, and only mentions it in the context of her two uncles’ – Roman and Juan – uncertain allegiance to the Republican side and their now uncertain tempers.

The family home, a third floor apartment in an once ‘good’ street, is now decrepit and dirty and housing too many people – Grandma, pious Aunt Angustias, Juan and his beautiful lower class wife, Gloria and their baby, the maid and a dog. Roman lives some levels above them in the attic. Food is scarce, the family is almost entirely without income. Juan is a talentless artist. Gloria who must spend hours modelling for him, sells his paintings for their scrap value, and goes down to her sisters’s in the slums to play cards for money, at which she is successful and for which Juan beats her mercilessly and repeatedly. Roman is a fine musician and composer which talents he has always been too lazy to profit by and instead brings in a small income from smuggling. Andrea, when she gains control of her student allowance from her aunt, spends it all at once in the first days of the month then starves through the remaining weeks, Her bird-thin Grandma leaves out portions of her own meals for her for when she gets home, and as she slowly makes friends at university they too conspire to keep her fed. Only the dog eats well.

This is one of those brilliant novels played out entirely in the head of the first person protagonist. Roman attempts to persuade Andrea that the only life of any importance is that of the apartment, where he is the centre of all disruption – attacking Angustias for her ‘secret’ lover whom her father had forbidden her to marry but who was now rich (and married to someone else); attacking Juan for bringing Gloria into the household; and Gloria for her attraction to him (Roman) when he rescued her during the war.

Juan put Gloria in the bath and without taking off her clothes ran the icy shower over her. He brutally held her head so that if she opened her mouth she couldn’t help swallowing water. Meanwhile, turning to us, he shouted:
“All of you back to bed! Nobody has any business here!”
But we didn’t move. My grandmother pleaded:
“For your baby’s sake, for your baby! Calm down Juanito!”

Slowly, Andrea, poor and unfashionably dressed, an outsider at University, is befriended by the beautiful Ena and by some of the arty boys, all of course from well-off families. They come and go in the story over the course of the year as Andrea pays them attention, or not, and as they do other stuff. Ena, is clearly fascinated by Roman, and we live with all Andrea’s reactions to that as the reasons for Ena’s fascination slowly become clear.

I was interested in the Catalan (separatist) side to this, but very little is said. It becomes apparent that the family mostly speak Castillian Spanish and Catalan only to working people. Apparently it was better for Laforet to gloss over the Catalan problem to evade Franco’s censors.

Thank you Pam/Travellin’ Penguin for sending me this. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Carmen Laforet, Nada, first pub.1945. translated by Edith Grossman. Edition read: Vintage 2008. 241pp

22 thoughts on “Nada, Carmen Laforet

  1. This was one of my top books of the year so far. Really liked it. Still think about those people. I will also never forget how chaaotic the Barcelona train station is. It was just crazy when we got there. Never thought we’d get out of it.

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    • It deserves its status as a classic, doesn’t it.
      I had the greatest time going from station to station. I don’t remember Barcelona but Zaragoza had maybe half a dozen platforms and was completely empty.

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    • You’re probably right. I read that the citizens of Venice were happy to have their home back for a while, though I suppose all the tourist-dependent workers are suffering. My concern would be sitting for 18 hours each way in a winged incubator just to get there.

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  2. You have a tag for Existentialism? I’m impressed. 🙂 Edith Grossman sounds familiar; I must have read something else in her translation oeuvre. Too bad you didn’t get more of the Catalan side of things, but it sounds like you found it a very enjoyable read, even so!

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    • I studied Existentialism in 1971, and have always counted myself an Existentialist. Rightly or wrongly. I think Sartre was too anarchist for the Communists, so that always gave me hope I was on the right path. BUT. Unlike Emma, I didn’t see the Existentialism in this novel, nor did I think about its timing in relation to say Sartre’s great Roads to Freedom trilogy. I have blogged about Existentialism in the past (the same month I wrote about Homage to Catalonia in fact) but in this case I saw a reference somewhere else and thought “I’ll have to think about that”, but I haven’t yet.

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      • There’s a loooong list in my mind (and, once, I actually started to write down a portion of it) of things “I have to think about”. At least, in the meantime, we can occasionally think while we read! 😀

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      • I’ll sometimes drive for hours, thinking rather than listening. It never gets me anywhere, all my best ideas and phrases just disappear into the ether.

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  3. Ah, Spain, land of my fathers. Well, my grandmother’s grandfather, anyway. The genes are still strong in his great-great-grandchildren. This sounds like a very atmospheric read.

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    • My grandmother’s grandmother was a Luya, a Spanish Hugenot family who came to London via France in the C17th. That’s as close as I get.
      It’s a great read, and if I’m ever in Barcelona for longer than a few hours I’ll read it again and walk the streets Laforet describes in such detail.

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  4. I can’t help but think that it sounds less like a family in a home and more like a co-op for artists! Except the dog; he’s living the good life. When I hear about families in which both adults are artists, I always wonder how that affects their children and the family’s sense of stability. Is it selfish to have two artists in the house with no “regular” job to speak of? In the U.S., that can mean years without health insurance, for instance.

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    • It does sound like an artists’ co-op. The family’s poverty was initially down to the Civil War but was continued mostly by the sons’ not facing up to the need to accept working class employment to go with their new, no longer upper middle class situation. (What I’m saying is that artists’ poverty is generally a choice).
      What you say about health insurance just illustrates how third world life is for poor and even many ‘middle class’ Americans.

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      • I read another fiction work recently, Some Sing, Some Cry, that had a family from the South just after the Civil War that could not face up to being poor, so they continued to live as if they had all the money while they’re house literally rotted in the sweltering, humid heat.

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  5. I hadn’t heard of this, or the author, but I have heard of the translator. Does that count?

    Seriously though, this sounds really interesting. I have been to Barcelona and loved it, been to Madrid and love it. In fact I loved Spain and really want to go back there. I think it’s very appealing to Aussies.

    Oh, and I have read Homage to Catalonia, as I think I have said before.

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