Why keep a good thing under wraps?

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of Joan Maragall’s birth in 1860.  And next year we commemorate the 100th anniversay of his death in 1911 at the early age of 50.

Two years, back to back, packed with all kinds of celebrations:  poetry recitals, dramatic readings, concerts, exhibits, documentaries, TV programs, monuments, literary walks, academic events, lectures, anthologies, critical editions, new books on the author...

Why all the fuss?  The answer is relatively easy.  Joan Maragall was a literary giant.

He opened the doors to the modern movement in the stuffy age-old Catalan literary tradition.  He was the first public intellectual to appear on the Catalan horizon.  Single-handed, he revolutionized every literary genre he tried his hand at.  He modernized lyric, epic and dramatic poetry.  To cite one substantial example, from what we know, he put the finishing touches on his long poem “El comte Arnau” [“Count Arnold”] in early months of 1910, years before acknowledged modernists such as T. S. Eliot or Charles Péguy completely reshaped and rechanneled the epic poem according to the aesthetic demands of High Modernity.

He created the field of modern literary theory in Catalan.  He modernized journalism.  He made letter writing an integral part of the literary arts.  He translated Pindar, the Homeric Hymns, Goethe and Novalis in a personal and writerly way that brings to mind modern translators and their urge to appropriate and internalize the authors they transfer across literary boundaries.

And now I must my readers to bear with me and not write Joan Maragall off as a matter of local interest since his name doesn’t sound at all familiar.  Just to give you a quick idea of his stature as a literary artist, let me call your attention to the fact he was translated by Eugenio Montale, Albert Camus and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

On the strength of his work, collected by his children in 25 handsome little volumes, Maragall deserves to considered a great European and world author. For the moment, Maragall has attained the status of a hidden treasure.

Unfortunately, Catalans have great difficulties in standing up for their literature and making their extraordinary ancient and modern classics known on an international or global scale.  And the Spanish national government doesn’t aid them one bit, even though the Spanish constitution theoretically acknowledges the co-officality of the Catalan language.  So far the Spanish Ministry of Culture, to cover appearances, has contributed funds for a large exhibit on the life and works of Maragall to be held in Barcelona in the spring of 2011.

Maragall merits much, much more.  He should be read and enjoyed not only in Catalonia but throughout the rest of Spain and Europe and the world.  Catalans must learn to become more forceful and effective while Spaniards must learn to be more generous and understanding.

What sense does it make to keep a writer as excellent as Maragall hidden away?  Imagine, if you can, Charles Baudelaire or Thomas Hardy concealed under layers of unconcern and indilligence?

D. Sam Abrams

Literary critic and member of the Advisory Board of Intransit       

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