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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Private Life

Josep Maria de Sagarra

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To purchase Private Life

Title: Private Life
Author: Josep Maria de Sagarra
Genre: Novel
Written: 1932 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 493 pages
Original in: Catalan
Availability: Private Life - US
Private Life - UK
Private Life - Canada
Private Life - India
Vies privées - France
Privatsachen - Deutschland
Vida privada - España (Español)
Vida privada - España (Catalán)
  • Catalan title: Vida privada
  • Translated by Mary Ann Newman

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyably overwrought novel of ca. 1930 Barcelona

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 14/11/2015 Eileen Battersby
The National A 19/11/2015 Malcolm Forbes
NZZ . 29/7/2009 Kersten Knipp
TLS . 11/5/2016 Adrian Nathan West

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a risqué novel, sustained by humour and a sleazy elegance, all steeped in ironies. (...) The tone is conversational and barbed; the narrative voice is that of an observer who collects information, the hints of scandal and the dormant secrets, later to gorge upon it in the manner of a vindictive squirrel. (...) Written as a human comedy in the style of Balzac, it is far racier than Dickens, although Sagarra certainly has the Victorian’s flair for creating characters. (...) (A) sprawling soap opera writ large" - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Private Life is a scathing satire of class and privilege in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. However, the novel’s vivid tableaux of a Barcelona undergoing radical societal change are exclusively the skilled handiwork of Josep Maria de Sagarra." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

  • "Sagarra verzichtet darauf, die Geschichte als Etüde über moralische Verstrickungen zu gestalten. Stattdessen entwirft er ein ebenso grossformatiges wie grossartiges Panorama der katalanischen Gesellschaft am Vorabend der Republik. (...) Die Gran Fiesta ist zu Ende. Warum sie nicht weiterging, warum am Ende gar nichts mehr lief in Barcelona und dem restlichen Spanien, das erklärt Sagarra mit solch scharfsichtigem Sarkasmus, dass man ihn als einen der ganz grossen Spötter der spanischen Literaturgeschichte bezeichnen kann." - Kersten Knipp, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The large cast of characters offers an ideal canvas for Sagarra’s withering wit. (...) The book’s second half is less convincing than its first; what had been a satire on manners becomes a racier, but also more mechanical, account of prurient liaisons larded with sometimes dreary philosophical divagations." - Adrian Nathan West, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Private Life, first published in 1932 (but only translated into English now), is very much a novel of its times, the second part -- jumping ahead five years from the first -- finding the characters in the contemporary thick of things, after the shift from the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera to the short-lived Spanish Republic under which Catalonia briefly enjoyed much greater autonomy.
       Private Life is a novel of Barcelona that ruthlessly peels away the layers to reveal its beautifully rotten core -- one that Sagarra regards and describes cynically, but warmly rather than coldly, bemused by all the hypocrisy that is also the source of much of Barcelona's wonderful-terrible vibrancy. The family at the heart of the novel is an example of decadence long past full bloom, a family that just barely can maintain the necessary superficial appearance but has collapsed almost entirely from within.
       The novel begins with Frederic de Lloberola, the opening scene having him waking up in the bed of mistress. It's a pretty low point, but then by this point they're all pretty low:

     The story of the Lloberolas was one of many family histories that come to a distasteful and impoverished end, without even a reaction to lend it some tragic nobility or, at very least, a scandalous or picturesque vivacity.
       Frederic -- "the hereu, the heir and firstborn" -- and his brother Guillem (and sister Josefina, who however had: "escaped the conflagration" through marriage) are: "Don Tomès's torment" -- but the pater familias had already steered the family to the point where it's all hopeless anyway. Typically:
Frederic's brain was in a quixotic lather. At every step reality was revealing his mediocrity and his failure but, if nothing more, the blood of the Lloberolas was good for fabricating illusions.
       Frederic finds himself in a spot of trouble over a debt which is about to come due -- and which he of course does not have the funds to cover. He'd rather not force his father to provide surety -- but assumes that, in order to prevent scandal, Don Tomès would. But it's brother Guillem who bails him out, having quite a card up his sleeve, as it turns out he has been rather intimately acquainted with the man Frederic is in debt to. Indeed, the whole affair not only extricates Frederic from one financial mess but lands Guillem with a handy bit of blackmail material, which he takes full, cruel advantage of.
       Frederic's idyll with his mistress -- and Guillem's putting the screws to his blackmail-victim -- last a mere "four months and three days"; it is a touch typical for the book that when Frederic's mistress Rosa Trènor resurfaces in the story, it is as a provider of abortions -- and, in news that falls: "like a bombshell in the world of the posh" that Guillem will wind up marrying the widow of his victim.
       Decadence prevails -- but in the second half of the novel decadence takes on an entirely new air, too, with the advent of the Republic, the noble classes initially fearing for their lives (and status) but soon enough playing right along.
       When the novel begins:
     Outward morality was so fastidious in these families that often it was considered scandalous merely to drop the name of a famous actress or dancer, or intelligent author, or the title of a novel. During visits to the lady of the house no lips would ever mention a topic of conversation that might be considered even remotely free
       But times change -- fast. Barcelona is suddenly a happening metropolis, it: "shimmered like a shooting star". And the goings-on get considerably wilder -- though of course some try to still maintain at least certain appearances.
       Much of the second half of the novel centers on Frederic's children (whom he brought: "into the world without a drop of enthusiasm"), as they begin to mature, especially daughter Maria Lluïsa. A failure in everything, Frederic also failed as a father:
     His influence on his children was disastrous. If ever there was a man who didn't have the slightest idea of what it meant to educate a child, it was Frederic.
       Maria Lluïsa tries to take a sensible path, but of course also gets caught up in the times, the opportunities, and the urges that come with maturity.
       Sagarra ruthlessly exposes personal weakness, from sad sack Frederic to the Barò de Falset, driven to his death by his shameful excesses. Sagarra also revels in the contrasts between affected claims and appearances and realities. Under the Republic there's a more open embrace of the more shocking, but many of the people are stuck in their skin and habits; typically, Frederic is not a practicing Catholic any more -- but can't admit that even to those closest to him: his "anticlericalism was cowardly and shameful, like everything else about him".
       Much of Private Life -- the action, and Sagarra's writing -- is overwrought -- admittedly often appropriately so. Occasionally, Sagarra goes completely overboard in wild abandon:
Like a marvelous sea anemone found at water's bottom, with a wary contractile antennae full of corrosive viscosities that open up at a given moment and expand in a multicolored swoon that brings to mind perfectly denatured chrysanthemums and perfectly artificial orchids, so was the soul of that woman, and her sex and her ferocity and her joy and her enthusiasm and her tenderness began to liquefy, released and rendered in a gelatinous mystery of effusion, in a sighing melody beyond physiology, in a perspiration perfumed with a whole gamut of ultramarine atavisms and dark nights lit by the glow of shooting stars.
       Stylistically, Private Life is all over the map, leaning obviously on everyone from Balzac to Oscar Wilde. From elaborate description to the succinct (and often dismissive) summing-up, Sagarra is hit and miss ("He was a bit past his prime, but he had a perfect command of the use of gardenias and of double-entendres"), but it's not so much that inconsistency that's problematic, but rather that Sagarra can't quite settle on a voice and approach of his own.
       Part of Sagarra's difficulty presumably also stems from the fact that he suddenly found himself within a completely different world: Private Life was conceived and written as Spain (and Catalonia, and Barcelona) made the transition from dictatorship to Republic, and Sagarra wound up writing from within the midst of turbulence that wasn't even close to settling -- and it's all too visible in the novel, the shift too radical for him to fully digest and work into his work.
       The Lloberolas are a fine family to put at the heart of the novel, but Sagarra seems to feel much more comfortable dealing with them (and his peripheral characters) more individually. He describes their various relationships with one another, but generally only in snapshot momentary detail, and the novel falls a bit short as family-portrait, as he simply can't comfortably juggle them all together. That said, the individual stories and episodes are often very good, and well done.
       Private Life is a fine novel of its time and place -- if too immediate, perhaps; it could have used more distance. Sagarra is an often very good but rarely great writer, not quite up to the challenges he gives himself -- though he seems to have a lot of fun trying. And Private Life is good -- and sometimes delicious -- fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 November 2015

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Private Life: Reviews: Josep Maria de Sagarra: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catalan author Josep Maria de Sagarra lived 1894 to 1961.

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