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the Complete Review
the complete review - diary

The Gray Notebook

Josep Pla

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To purchase The Gray Notebook

Title: The Gray Notebook
Author: Josep Pla
Genre: Diary
Written: (1966) (Eng. 2014)
Length: 642 pages
Original in: Catalan
Availability: The Gray Notebook - US
The Gray Notebook - UK
The Gray Notebook - Canada
The Gray Notebook - India
Le cahier gris - France
Das graue Heft - Deutschland
El quadern gris - España (Catalan)
El cuaderno gris - España (Spanish)
  • Catalan title: El quadern gris
  • Though based on his 1918-19 diaries, The Gray Notebook was first published in 1966
  • Translated by Peter Bush
  • With an Introduction by Valentí Puig

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting picture of time and place, and a young man becoming a writer

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 10/10/2007 Walter Haubrich
Libération . 20/3/2013 Javier Cercas
NZZ . 5/4/2008 Markus Jakob
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/4/2014 Alan Riding
Die Zeit . 4/10/2007 Merten Worthmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wenige Schriftsteller haben so differenziert mit einem so umfangreichen und variablen Vokabular über Wind und Wetter geschrieben wie Pla auf Katalanisch. Eberhard Geisler hat die eher sensible als brillante Sprache in ein ausdrucksstarkes, originelles Deutsch übertragen." - Walter Haubrich, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(C)’est l’un de ces livres rares et heureux qu’on peut ouvrir à n’importe quelle page et qui offre, à n’importe quelle page, quelque chose de plaisant et d’intelligent. C’est aussi, peut-être, la meilleure introduction à l’œuvre d’un écrivain indispensable." - Javier Cercas, Libération

  • "Plas Menschenporträts, von Erörterungen der eigenen Zerrissenheit durchwirkt, verdichten sich zum Sittengemälde. Seine eigentliche Kunst jedoch bleibt ganz an der Oberfläche. Firnis fast, hält sie die unmittelbarste, epidermische Wirklichkeit fest: was über die Ramblas huscht oder an einem Dorfrand ihn anweht." - Markus Jakob, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "For the moment, then, the Catalonia portrayed in The Gray Notebook might seem like a far-off land. Yet what survives in its pages is a vibrant testimony to the power of words to transcend time. Such was my surprise when a passing reference to, say, traveling by horse and cart or celebrating the end of World War I reminded me that Pla was writing almost a century ago. For the most part, he seemed to be addressing me today." - Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Trotzdem ist die monumentale Nachbesserung nicht einfach ein Betrug am Leser, denn als strategisches Manöver gehört sie unmittelbar zum thematischen Kern des Buches. Im Grauen Heft baut sich ein Autor seine schriftstellerische Identität auf in Auseinandersetzung mit der familiären und regionalen Prägung, durch das Ausprobieren verschiedener Stilmittel, im Abgleich mit literarischen Vorläufern." - Merten Worthmann, Die Zeit

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:

       The Gray Notebook is, nominally, Josep Pla's diary from when he was in his early twenties, from 8 March 1918 through 15 November 1919 (when he sets off for Paris). Apparently, however, Pla fiddled with and re-shaped the text over the next decades, until it was first published in 1966, almost half a century later. As Valentí Puig suggests in his Introduction:

He transformed a document of youth into a -- or the -- work of his prime, the entries of a diary into an autobiography built of fragments.
       While there are some entries that are typical diary-jottings -- a quick mention of some event or occurrence; a clever, well-turned sentence or thought -- there are also more carefully narrated stories that suggest considerable reworking. Pla did seem certain from early on that, at best, these notebooks would be published only far in the future -- "in thirty or forty years -- if they ever are", and that any possible publication lay: "so many years from now that what I write here will be beyond any suggestion of vanity". Still, he's curious as to how they will be handled -- and notes (one wonders if at the time or in a later addition ...):
I only ask one thing of this hypothetical reader: I ask him to read it slowly and calmly.
       If occasionally he thinks about: "ditching these regrettable, infantile notebooks and dedicating myself full time to studying, to cramming" he can't ever bring himself to do that. He doesn't get much out of his studies -- and he obviously gets a great deal out of engaging himself with these exercises-in-writing: after a year he finds keeping the notebooks: "has now become a burning inner necessity".
       The diary covers Pla's last years at university, as he completes his law degree in Barcelona. He also spends time in his native Palafrugell, up the coast, and there are brief summer vacations and the like, too. The First World War, winding down in the background, remains largely peripheral, but obviously its effects also reach Spain; Pla's own military service amounted just to basic training -- "short, interminable, and slightly crazy". There's some political talk and unrest -- the Barcelona general strike ("the situation in Barcelona is still very tense and you can't go anywhere without putting your arms in the air") -- but Pla's focus is on his writing and his studies.
       Pla is studying law, but his heart is barely in it (and he's unimpressed by academic life and the university: "So far I've found nothing there to spark the slightest curiosity"). His family's financial situation -- increasingly precarious -- also precludes a career in law even after he gets his degree, and he turns to journalism instead. The diary ends with his setting out for the next stage of his life, as he gets the opportunity to be the Paris correspondent for the paper he works for.
       Pla admits: "I often wonder if this diary is sincere, if it is a bona fide record of my innermost state". There's a lot of personal reflection, but Pla is careful about what he reveals and there's only a limited sense of who he is and his more personal and intimate relationships. In part that's a reflection of what kind of book this is: a chronicle of a young man trying to figure out who he is, or rather who he could be -- finding a purpose in life, and how to go about pursuing that. Somewhat coddled by his family, and pursuing a dead-end course of studies, he still has a way to go. So, for example:
So far in life I haven't earned a cent. Money is extraordinarily important. That's only too clear. On the one hand, I feel my provisional immunity from its impact makes me seem an incomplete man; on the other, it keeps me in a state of almost angelic innocence. I am a kind of cuddly, infantile, foolish thing.
       It's clear that his path leads to and through literature, even as he finds it difficult to make his way.
       Pla doesn't come from a bookish family; indeed:
Modesty aside, at the age of twenty I have purchased more books than the previous dozen generations of my family. I am not sure this augurs well for the sane, sensible progress of our family as an institution. Perhaps Aunt Lluïsa is right when she sees me coming with "another book" and rasps, "More money wasted !"
       He has a hard time writing -- and very clear ideas about how he wants to write; in this sense, too, the notebooks are exercise books that at least give him some outlet:
These pages help me to learn to write. Not to learn to write well but simply to learn to write. They imply a huge, continuous effort, which goes unrewarded but is innocent.
       Pla is intrigued by the limitations of the Catalan language -- and approves of some contemporary writing:
     Catalan literature today has a very attractive quality: It is a literature completely devoid of mannerism. Mannerism palls immediately. Its style is so difficult, so hard, so stiff, and so rigidly written and hedged with obstacles, that everybody writes as best he can ... and make of it what you will !
       So, too, he argues: "affectation is the worst defect a writer can have" -- and suggests:
     As I see it, a genuine literary challenge would be an attempt to attain the most complete ordinariness.
       He is drawn to an older crowd -- one more interesting as far as his literary pursuits go, but obviously separating him from the usual student-fun his classmates enjoy:
A student who is my contemporary has never caught my attention. All my friends are at least fifteen years older than I am.
       While the university does not offer much that appeals to him, he does find a temple of sorts, the more intellectual Athenaeum where he whiles away much of his time.
       Pla is, by and large, no fan of the novel; Proust is an exception ("Proust is one of the highest peaks of contemporary literature") but then Proust's fiction is much less plot-driven than most, and is detailed and realistic in a way that he admires, it: "goes more to the heart of the matter, is more complete". That's what Pla aspires to, too. As to the novel generally:
     Despite my passion for literature I have never been able to warm to novels. I take no issue with the way novels begin and set the scene; when tensions and the fiction of the denouements begins, I can read no more -- the book inevitably falls from my hands. Novels are children's literature for adults.
       It makes for a fascinating exercise -- but, for a diary, also one that is only limitedly revealing. Among the (rare) more personal and telling passages is one in which he tries to explain part of his personal (and literary) philosophy, and argues:
     Sensuality makes young people miserable. It's bad business.
     I sometimes think of the number of hours I've wasted thinking about fornicating with dreamy, imaginary young women. Nevertheless, you might perhaps draw a single conclusion in this respect: Those hours would probably have been even more wasted if I'd actually spent them fornicating with real, tangible young women.
     When one is young, sensuality is inhuman, insoluble, and unbelievably grotesque.
       (Here again is a passage where one wonders how much the older Pla revised the thoughts of the younger.)
       It's also good to see that, as part of his literary apprenticeship, Pla comes to learn and recognize, when someone advises him to translate: "a really touch French book":
Translation is a devilishly difficult occupation but I see how useful it is. Especially useful for getting to know one's own language.
       The Gray Notebook is an interesting account of a writer slowly coming of age. Specific and yet surprisingly broad, it's an appealing personal document, even as it only sheds light on parts of the author's personality. Pla himself admits:
     When I was twenty, at an age when remoteness led me to confuse intelligentsia and intelligence, I might still have managed to separate a distinguished work from its author. Now I am twenty-two and I find it completely impossible.
       So too, The Gray Notebook is entirely Pla -- and a quite wonderful thing that is.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 April 2014

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The Gray Notebook: Reviews: Josep Pla: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catalan author Josep Pla lived 1897 to 1981.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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