“There is so much influenza about that they’ve had to shut the university.” The opening line in the diary of Josep Pla sets the stage for what would become a transformative period in his life and, subsequently, a landmark in 20th-century Catalan literature. In 1918, the Spanish flu was rampant, causing global devastation and bringing ordinary life to a standstill for millions. Among the disrupted was Pla, then a law student in Barcelona, who retreated to his rural family home in Palafrugell and began to keep the diary which, when published fifty years later, would become his masterpiece. This entry came seven months in, with deaths rising sharply and funerals so regular an occurrence that to attend them all was an impossibility.
The Diary Entry
18 October, Friday.
Influenza is causing terrible devastation. Our family has had to split up to attend all the funerals. Marian de Linares’s was held in La Bisbal. In Palafrugell, an eighteen-year-old girl’s (a lovely child) in the S. family. I went to La Bisbal.
The crying could be heard from the street. Sobbing in houses and on stairways. A striking spectacle that contrasts with people’s silent mood—a mood that dips and sinks the second they hear that sobbing. These expressions of grief transform everything, even the countryside. When people hear sobbing, they adopt the expressions of people who are unfailingly good. Suddenly a man who had remained still, stiff, and dry-eyed shifts nervously and begins shedding tears. Which is preferable: to barricade oneself in icy indifference and fatalism, or to lapse into lachrymose ululations? When people cry, do they suffer? Those who don’t cry, suffer less.
The funeral of Sr. Linares was a highly emotional affair.
The small train takes us home in the evening, in the dim, murky carriage light. The engine sputters despairingly and sparks fly up from the chimney. The train is full. People sit in subdued silence. Those coming from market imitate those who’ve been to the funeral. If one imagines a train full of thinkers, this would be it. The brims of our hats cast shadows over our faces. What are we thinking? Nothing at all, I expect. The drama derives from the fact that there is so much here we cannot understand—so much that it renders the mechanics of our minds quite useless.
Josep Pla’s diary was originally published in 1966 by Editorial Destino with the title, El quadern gris. An English language edition arrived in 2014 courtesy of New York Review Books, titled, The Gray Notebook, with an introduction by Valentí Puig and a translation from the Catalan by Peter Bush. It’s a beautifully written, profoundly moving book.
- I enjoyed this piece in The Paris Review: ‘The life, times, and meteorological theories of Josep Pla’
- Spanish flu at Wikipedia
- A 2014 review of The Gray Notebook in the New York Times
- The Josep Pla Foundation
Diary entry excerpted from The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla. First published in English by New York Review Books. Translation Copyright © 2014 by Peter Bush. Reprinted with permission.