El quadern gris: un taller d’escriptura – The Gray Notebook: a writing room

These fragments of El quadern gris (The grey notebook) show the elaboration of the text we know today (the first manuscript, the original manuscript of the book and the published version) in which one can observe the constant process of elaborating and writing literature that Pla used.

The obsessive underlined parts of the manuscript show the author’s decision to use each part of his main idea for the definitive version and the dates at the top of the page prove the fictionalisation in which the diary is submitted. Pla was always interested in following the calendar of the years 1918 and 1919 in order to be able to write the book.

Comparing the texts, one can see there is a real stylistic evolution which involves, among other things, suppression of references to his private life, more extended descriptions and above all, literal ideas which in the first manuscript are only simple notes. Although one can see that he usually keeps the initial images; the linguistic work was what allowed him to construct better sentences, organise them according to their meaning and turn the adjectives into the characteristic series of Pla’s descriptive prose.

“Objectively speaking, it’s highly unpleasant to feel one has nothing much to look forward to—in respect to women, money or ever making a mark in life—beyond this secret, devilish, maniac need to write (with so little to show), to which I sacrifice everything and will probably continue to sacrifice everything in life. I wonder: What’s better—a halfhearted, resigned, mediocre passage, or living with this passionate, tense, relentless obsession?”

Josep Pla. The Gray Notebook. New York Review of Books, 2013, p. 303 .

The Grey Notebook, first volume of l’Obra Completa (The Complete Works)

El quadern gris (The Grey Notebook), published by Editorial Destino in 1966 as the first volume of l’Obra Completa (The Complete Works), is one of the pivotal works of Catalan literature of the twentieth century. When it was published, the critics unanimously decided that it was Josep Pla’s most important work. The writer always treated this piece of work as if it had been his real diary of youth; as if he had been writing the diary throughout 1918 and 1919 and had first published it in 1966.

It is a narration of memories written in the first person in the form of a diary, and describes Josep Pla’s early years. The main theme is the disturbing arrival of a young writer into the adult world and the slow awakening of his consciousness as a writer.

The book starts with a vivid account of the situation in which the main character is living: March 8, 1918, his 21st birthday, he was in Palafrugell and had just left Barcelona because of an influenza epidemic. From this beginning he is able to look back into his past life and start writing, developing a real obsession: the landscape of the Empordà and, above all, the lighthouse of Sant Sebastià which became a real narrative, descriptive and stylistic challenge for the young apprentice writer.

The book continues with the introduction of Josep Pla’s relatives and his self-portrait, which describes both the character’s physical appearance and his moral situation. Always worried, obsessed with writing, the young student needed to finish his studies in order to have financial security so that he could return to his father with dignity; being able to face the truth of reality and life. In January 1919, he returned to Barcelona and slowly, thanks to his passion for reading, the help of his friends (from Ateneu Barcelonès) and his entry into the world of journalism; he started to become fully conscious of his maturity as a writer.

At the end of the book, the main character successfully completed his law studies, entered the world of journalism, became a correspondent in Paris, continued to write and developed an appropriate literary style. His friend Alexandre Plana gave him some advice which allowed him to start writing his diary; the diary the reader is already holding in his/her hands, El quadern gris (The Grey Notebook).

The manuscript of The Grey Notebook

After narrating the first diary known as the “primigeni” (the original diary), Josep Pla carried on writing, at various points throughout his life, the work which turned out to be the most important of his life. During the twenties, he changed some paragraphs, added and removed parts, and also introduced articles (cutting them out and sticking them in) he had published in the Catalan press. It is quite probable that since the 1940s, when he went back to Empordà, Pla started a complete narrative of the book, which continued to grow from the first stage of writing.

During the fifties and sixties, Pla may have thought about having it published, and for that reason he started to arrange it into a book (a volume for the year 1918, another one for 1919), working with the first diary (primigeni) in front of him, he spent time removing some references about his private life or maybe some aspects of his daily life which could disrupt the general image he wanted to present of the main character of the book i.e. himself.

In the final phase of the narrative, at the start of the sixties, Pla went on elaborating and making up his manuscript, obsessively underlining the fragments he could re-use in the final version. In addition, he also used other descriptions, narratives and portraits which had already been published in some other of his books.

The original Grey Notebook

The original diary of the years 1918 and 1919 was first shown to the public in 1997, during the celebration of the centenary of Josep Pla’s birth. This manuscript, which remained unknown for decades, is a unique piece of contemporary Catalan bibliography, and its study and comparison with the published book version of 1966, adds new interpretative clues which help us to better understand the way Josep Pla worked.

The original manuscript of El quadern gris (The Grey Notebook) is, in fact, an untitled diary which occupies the hundred pages of a grey-covered notebook, and which has a short continuation in a similar notebook with a red cover. The notebook is written in both pen and pencil, with slightly rounded handwriting and leaving a considerable gap between lines, forming a contrast with the sharp, dense handwriting (that occupies the space of each page) of the published book version of 1966.