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Short story: Summer House | original spanish interview | bio

Nuria Amat
Nuria Amat

Ana Alcaina

translated by Sue Brownbridge


Introduction from BR editor:

Barcelona native Nuria Amat is a well-known and highly respected author in the Spanish reading world, both here in Spain and in Latin America. She holds a degree in Spanish Studies and a doctorate in Information Science; she taught for many years at the University of Barcelona and has written numerous works of fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent work includes the novels El país del alma (The Country of the Soul) [1999] and La intimidad (Intimacy) [1997] along with a collection of essays Letra herida (Wounded Letter) [1998].

Barcelona Review translator, Ana Alcaina, met up with Nuria Amat at Happy Books café the first week of April where Michael Garry Smout and myself joined the two near the end of the interview to take photos. Nuria is a tall and slender brunette with long straight hair, attractive, sexy, quick and intelligent; she’s full of high energy and her passion for words and literature comes bursting through. We’d all met up for lunch at the bistro El Salón in the Barrio Gótico about a month before and here, as the wine flowed, the conversational gamut ran the course of much European and Latin American writing. I was amazed to learn that she’d spent time with Samuel Beckett while he was working on the production of his plays in Berlin. She laughed when she told us that he used to turn to her, a young girl in her twenties, during rehearsals and ask her opinion on how this or that worked. She was also very inquisitive about our backgrounds and our reading and who we considered the most important English-language writers today (who she can only read in translation) and if there were many good small presses in America and the U.K. (We assured her there were and gave her a run down.) It was an altogether delightful meeting, and here she shares some of her personal views and perceptive observations with Ana Alcaina...

BR: What exactly do you mean when you say that books protect you from the tedium of life and from the risk of dying? What is literature to you and why this obsession, this consuming passion for books, libraries and writers that are always to be found throughout your books?
NA: When I was very small, I discovered literature and writing to be a way of life. This world disgusts me no end. I truly believe that the world is evil and unjust, though, in addition, I have a certain ingenuousness, which I also believe is necessary for writing. However, I have always been sickened by the world, and so I found in literature a kind of stopping place, somewhere I can cling on to and live pretty much the way I want in accordance with the values I hold to. If I hadn’t found this way of life…  
        Writing is a vocation, that’s how I experience being a writer, it’s a vocation, an exceedingly important life choice. Seeing things from the perspective of the world of literature is to see the more human side of things, if you like, and that’s what most interests me, that’s what I’m into. We writers are somewhat obsessive (to my mind, it’s one of the qualities of a writer). Another issue is madness, not so much being in the depths of madness yourself as being on the edge in order to be able to write. I have needed to build myself this kind of family, I say that to some degree books are my family, together with, well, these marginalised minds that are a bit strange, that make subtle distinctions in life, outlandish, eccentric people, I’m not saying mad… well, that too. When I reflect on the suicide (or accidental death) of this poet [José Agustín Goytisolo], I feel that it is entirely consistent with what I have been writing in Letra herida (Wounded Letter). The death of Goytisolo follows what I believe about literature; in Letra herida, I constantly talk of poets who commit suicide, and I think it is a gesture (throwing yourself out of the window and killing yourself) that is almost typical of the writer today. Cesare Pavese started to write, saying "All of this is repugnant. That’s it. I’ll not write anything else." And he killed himself. When a writer becomes aware of the uselessness of the word and especially when he or she has no words left, then this gesture is a coherent act.
      However, there is a major contradiction here: on the one hand, I am subjected to the pressure of the market, and on the other, I am opposed to the market. What is happening here in Spain isn’t happening to the same extent in other countries because the commercial prizes we have here don’t exist there. Instead, there are genuine literary prizes. Though it has to be said that I am gradually making a living from my books, and that is one of my goals. If I rank my ambitions, the first would be to contribute something new, to have my own voice, which doesn’t have to be just a style, a form, a way of seeing … in my case it is more of a voice, that is what is important to me, something that is not happening now, like everything, the media are devouring every kind of art, we have to live with that, you can’t attack it. The other day, a few of us, Juan Goytisolo and some other friends, we were talking about it, and thanks to the fact that some people sell a lot, we can sell too. But the market (el mercado) I am opposed to.

BR: Some general comments on the publishing world today?
NA: It’s saturated. Everybody is writing. It’s absurdly inflated, corrupt (tramposo); the author is not important. The only importance is selling. I feel like a puppet. My romantic idea is that serious authors should be published by small houses, as a reaction against the commercial market, but we don’t have that here in Spain. I would love it if the market were like it was twenty years ago. It was more honest, much healthier.

BR: In La intimidad (Intimacy), you say "the first thing a true writer learns is to accept the absence of original phrases and that all true literature has an air of disguised plagiarism and that now, more than ever before, writers’ muses are libraries." Could you elaborate on this?
NB: I’ll explain it but of course you can’t take it literally. There is an element of irony, which is essential for writing, but there is another important feature; I have just been reading the biography of Beckett, a writer I knew personally and who, like so many other writers… like Borges, for example, got his ideas from encyclopaedias. He chose Britannica or some other encyclopaedia and got on with a story… Well, as I was saying, Beckett - one of the most innovative writers ever in the history of literature - was accused for years of imitating Joyce. And it is true that his early works had a touch of Joyce about them. To enter into the sphere of literature that interests me, you have to have read a lot and even, I would say, to have copied a lot in the sense that you have to have influences. The only way you can acquire your own voice, your particular gaze in the literary world, is after you have soaked up these authors. This voice only comes out when you have steeped yourself in these authors. It’s rare for it to be any other way. It is possible to get your own voice when you’re 20 years old, but then you lose it later.

"The university in Spain today is dead, period. It’s an absurdly bureaucratic system."

BR: And so, when it comes to writing with the aim of having your own voice, how do you overcome the "disease" or "complex" of wanting to compete with these great authors, or even of outdoing these muses?
NA: I believe that writers live in a constant state of contradiction. On the one hand, the writer has to be very ambitious because every time you set about writing seriously, you are in reality saying "I am going to compete with Cervantes". Because if you don’t, what are you writing for? However, on the other hand, you have to live with this degree of irony. That’s how I live, but my fear is not so much over whether I have or have not achieved this personal voice, but rather that I don’t want it to disappear. I am always afraid, especially now that I have just finished a book (El país del alma [The Country of the Soul]), that I have reached a moment when I am unable to write. This is when this fear, this vacuum, arises, and I think that many writers commit suicide because of this, because of the silence that either they impose upon themselves or which is imposed upon them by the outside world. For certain writers (and I consider myself to be one of them), words are very closely linked to life: while there are words, there is life, and when there are no more words, life is over. It’s good that the market exists because it helps we writers who are more ambitious in literary terms to be able to publish and to publish well. However, it is so inconsistent - I am playing at something I don’t believe in. To an extent, this is our contradiction at the end of this century: here we are, we who have survived some unknown experience for some unknown purpose, because there is no escaping the fact that literature is not useful. On the one hand, I know that it is useless, socially speaking, and on the other, I believe that if people read more, they would be better in the sense that they would be more human.

BR: This reminds me of some of George Steiner’s books. In Letra Herida, you also talk of an encounter you had with Steiner. I don’t know if the story is true or not.
NA: It is true. I am often asked about it because most of my stories are fictitious. I have felt the need to create a world for myself, writing is a very solitary task, and I have needed to create a kind of "family", and it is because of this that I have had to relate these meetings with writers. I suppose that we writers need to incorporate the life of the imagination into our real daily lives. But going back to Steiner, it is true that I keep up a correspondence with writers in other countries. I have, you might say, excellent godparents, and one of them is Steiner. The conversation that appears in Letra herida is entirely true. I have made the opening of the story a little vague in order to throw the reader off the scent, but what interests me about Steiner is his love of literature.

BR: And what is the role of literature today? Why write?
NA: To survive. I think that’s the most sincere reply. We writers are often asked this question, and there are lots of possible replies - and all of them are true. Some will say that we want to be loved more, etc. and you could say something different every day. But the most honest answer is because it’s how I can live. Still, there comes a time when I don’t know if it’s the clothes that make the man or the other way round, but for me it’s a choice I have made in life. Plus, it has to be said as well that the world has changed a lot in the course of the last 20 years. I am a child of 1968 and I believed passionately in values that have now disappeared: feminism, leftwing politics, etc. We were trying to change the world but all of this has turned out badly. So, in a sense, literature is a refuge, a way I can denounce things. In literature, the world has changed to the point where there is an enormous difference between the seventies, the time of the boom, García Márquez, etc. and the present day. Before, serious authors had a certain standing and were important to society but nowadays, writers are nobodies. This is related to something that was said in the last Woody Allen film, Celebrity, which was that every generation has the heroes it deserves, and it’s true that you need to be a failure in literature, because being a hero is suspicious, very suspicious.

BR: You mentioned feminism earlier. What’s your view of so-called women’s literature and of feminism in general.
NA: I don’t believe that there is such a thing as women’s literature. I am a feminist and I believe that everybody should be, although it’s true that you have to fight all the time, it’s my daily struggle. I’m not a member of a group anymore, but if there’s something to be signed, I sign it. Although it seems to me that all these movements, well, they either do no good or… I don’t know, I’m just a bit disenchanted with it all. They don’t pay any attention to us anymore, there are other interests, but it’s true to say that I have always been rebellious by nature.

BR: Is the Spanish university a healthy one today; i.e., there appear to be a growing number of protests among the university students lately: How do you see this? Is it a positive movement?
NA: The university in Spain today is dead, period. It’s an absurdly bureaucratic system. When I was teaching I felt like I was the persecuted character in The Trial by Kafka, so I resigned. There is no movement, no interest in independence, creativity, art, free thinking. The university is a machine that strangles creative thinking. Unfortunately, the future will be the private university. Teachers are more interested in keeping in their own little areas, in their own tight departments, their little power cliques; the students are protesting for their own self-interest within their own particular group. There is no collective movement. It is the reign of mediocrity.

BR: Is there any hope? You wrote a manifesto with some other teachers not long ago [including Juan Goytisolo, Javier Marías and over 60 others, entitled: Un Manifiesto de Intelectuales Denuncia el Inmovilismo y la Endogamia en la Universidad Española. Available on-line in Spanish]
NA: We got no response from the manifesto, no one paid any attention. There is no hope.

BR: What writers and what kind of literature are you interested in at the moment?
NA: The literature that has most interested me recently is poetry. There’s even a poetic tone to my latest novel. I suppose it’s a natural progression of what I was saying before: libraries, madness, etc. I have felt better sheltered, more protected in this world that I have, well, in the world they say I have when writing. I am interested in what I call "true" books, with words that reach right inside me, books that are precisely not the light literature that is popular today. When there is a truth, when there is an intention, when there is magic… I enjoy reading works that let me see a new world, this new way of seeing things.

BR: Why do you write in Spanish if you are a Catalan author?
NA: The prime reason is that I am Catalan but I grew up speaking Spanish and it is a language I adore and which I have to fight for to make mine. I believe that the writers that exist at the end of this century that I call bilingual, or who swap languages, writers on the periphery, if you prefer, are very interesting. My maestros, as I call them, are all bilingual - Juan Marsé, etc. That’s to say, I am the offspring of these authors and I seek to defend bilingualism because I believe it’s very healthy for literature - not having your own language or having two, three, however many - it’s very healthy. I’d even go as far as to say you write better. It’s very positive for literature. The very fact of believing that a language is common property is very good, nobody can see themselves as its owner, particularly in these times of rampant nationalism. I have written the odd play in Catalan, but I feel more comfortable, or uncomfortable, in Spanish. As Spanish is not my language, as it’s not my natural language, I have had to make it mine and when I come to write, there is a greater sense of emotion. In Latin America, my books are relatively popular - something found surprising - and I believe that it must be because for them Spanish is a stepmother - the language they speak is not the language of the "fatherland".
Nuria Amat     I have got an incredible advantage out of being bilingual and I am against any kind of imposition, wherever it might come from, and if certain things are forced upon me in a dictatorial or pseudo-dictatorial manner, I shall always be against them. In my view, the Catalan language is a way of life, a way of talking, a way of communicating with friends and with my family. There is no need to defend it, that’s the way it is, and I’m not going to go out and wave a flag over it, just like I wouldn’t for Spanish. Curiously enough, though, my literary world is a Catalan world. Elsewhere, they call me a Catalan novelist. In Venezuela, for example, in relation to the plot in La intimidad, they told me, " But it seems as if this has happened here." And I’m talking of a completely Catalan world. Or when I was in Granada recently, people said "I’ve bought two books by the poet J.V. Foix." In other words, Catalan nationalists should be overjoyed because it is a way of advertising the culture itself.
      What a contradiction, don’t you think? Here, we are sometimes criticised because we write in Spanish, when what we are doing is promoting Catalan culture. I am a bilingual writer who has chosen the Spanish language as a form of writing, and I am Catalan, and despite writing in Catalan, I have no particular interest in doing so. Beckett of course wanted to write in French and he made this decision as a way of leaving his country behind, he hated Ireland. I don’t feel this need. I identify more with South Americans, for example, for some reason. One of the characteristics of good literature is that it lies between borders. One of the ways of developing a new voice is to exploit, if you can, the bilingual condition. The sign of the times is purity, but the most interesting literature in Spain is the literature to be found on the periphery amongst the Galicians, Catalans, etc. A "pure" Spanish literature cannot be defended, even if those in Madrid think it can. The most important literature of this century is not being written at the centre, but rather on the outskirts of Spain.

BR:You recently went to Granada at the invitation of the Faculty of Psychology to talk on the issue of madness in La intimidad. What did the experts ask you?
NA: They asked me how it was possible for me to write this novel if I’d never been in a mental hospital. They also asked me if I’d read a lot of books on the issue and I replied that I hadn’t read any specialist books but that I had read a lot of novels (I always do my homework for all my books), books about the lives of heroines such as Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre. I’ve learnt a lot about life through literature. In the literature I’m interested in, the great characters are outlandish and strange, though I don’t like to use the word "mad". My theory is - and I told them this in Granada, paraphrasing Lacan when I told them that all women are mad - my theory is that all novels are mad. Cervantes’ hero, so they say, was a madman, but rather than mad, I think he was a writer because he’s always confusing literature with the real world. Quixote is the prime example of a novelist. But I believe that the leading characters in great literature are generally all a bit mad. In fact, I think that we are all a bit like that.

BR: This issue of the BR is running a retrospective on Felipe Alfau, native of Barcelona, but relatively unknown here as he lived most of his life in New York and wrote his two novels in English. You’ve mentioned earlier that you read him in Spanish translation. Some thoughts on his work?
NA:You’re doing Alfau? Yes? That’s wonderful! He’s the perfect example of what I’ve been talking about, a "true" writer who stood apart from the mercado, who didn’t write for the commercial market. . . . What I like best about Alfau, more than the particular style of writing, are the stories; that's what I remember, those wonderful stories. [She refers to Locos. She didn’t know Chromos was in translation (unfortunately now out of print).] I’m very happy to be appearing with him.

BR: Can you tell us anything about your next novel, which is just about to be published?
NA: I can tell you the title, El país del alma (The Country of the Soul), and I can say that it as a novel about love, about the love of words. It’s not set in the present and it is against excessive nationalism. I believe it’s quite human.

BR: And do you now have this sense of the vacuum that you talked about at the beginning, this fear that you will have no "voice" left?
NA: Yes, and increasingly so, I think. The older we writers get, the more we feel the terror of silence, although I believe that novelists have the advantage over poets: it lasts longer, you can take more time… but because I have this breath of poetry inside, I suffer a lot in this respect. I need to publish in order to write something else. I try to make every book different, I try not to continue in the same tone of the previous book, I wait until a new tone comes and if doesn’t, I don’t write. Every novel has its story; in the case of La intimidad, for example, I remember that I "saw" the first page. I remember I was doing nothing, I was writing something else, and suddenly I heard this voice and I saw the first page of the novel and I set about writing it and put everything else aside.Nuria Amat

BR:An "inspired dictation", as Benet would say.
NA: Yes, well, put like that it’s very appealing. It’s also true that I have written this last novel five times, so it can’t be that inspired. But yes, and now what I’m worried about, what I fear is that I won’t hear this "voice" ever again.

© 1999 The Barcelona Review
translated by Sue Brownbridge

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navigation:                                          barcelona review #12   mid-april to mid -june 1999 
-Fiction Prologue by Felipe Alfau
Identity by Felipe Alfau
Summer House by Nuria Amat
Knock on Wood by Frank Thomas Smith
Scar by Lee Klein
Africa on the Horizon by Carlos Gardini
-Poetry Virgil Suarez
-Interview Nuria Amat
-Retrospective  Felipe Alfau
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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