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The Passion According to Renée Vivien (1994)

by Fina Llorca
Restless and inquisitive, a demanding and attentive reader, fascinated by narrative, Marçal had always wanted to be the author of at least one novel, much in the same way that she had expressed (Ibarz, 2000) the desire to write for movies or television.

La Passió segons Renée Vivien (The Passion According to Renée Vivien) is a title that, like all Marçalian names, concentrates various meanings: from the “Passions” of baroque music to The Passion According to G. H ., by Clarice Lispector. The novel, explained Marçal, is a result of falling in love with a figure from the past, the beautiful Pauline Mary Tarn (http:www.reneevivien.com/vie.html), a Parnassian poet from the turn of the century who openly sings of Sapphic love. Pauline lived in a female atmosphere of creative effervescence that transgressed the norms of her times, and died before she was forty. The twentieth century poet had an uncanny sense that she could identify with this Englishwoman who wrote in French, and with the passionate attachment to life and literature she seemed to possess, and thus decided to follow in her footsteps. Her first project was to write a thesis, but afterwards this desire channeled itself towards fiction. The work of the scholar precedes the task of the novelist: in the Library of Catalonia, one can consult two boxes of material related to the long gestation of the project. Marçal made pilgrimages to the significant places of Vivien's life, traveling to Mitilene and spending summers in Paris; she hand-copied the correspondence kept at the National Library and translated some poems that, linked together, form the book's final “Monody,” a poetic text that, while not inventing anything that is not translated from Renée Vivien, is a beautiful Marçalian recreation.

The result is a novelesque biography in many voices, which are necessary in order to present multiple perspectives of the same person, depending on their relationship with the object of the biography, the place from which she is seen and from which they write. The novel thus incorporates a multiplicity of points of view and registers, which range from the first person of the “Letters of Sara T.”, the contemporary scriptwriter, who has been seen as the narrator's alter ego, to the third person of the narrative voice, wisely distinct from the character of Sara T. The latter is able to incorporate an ironic register, as are the carefree conversations of some fin de siècle courtesans, a register which is not easy to discern in Marçal's poetry. The girl of the late 1980s, the biography of the poet, the narrator, the maid, and the Turkish lover Kerimée: all of these voices revolve around the absent protagonist, the only one in the novel who speaks exclusively through her work.

The novel contains incisive and original thoughts on love and friendship, on passion in life and writing, on minoritized languages and the literature written in them, on knowledge and knowing, on relationships between women, on death and posterity, all of this from the experience of a woman who is very aware of being a woman. In this ambitious narrative experience, when all is said and done, what one knows is not much more than a sketch. It includes a Rodoredan evocation, a long monologue by the poet's chambermaid, which naturally she does not end up writing down. It is an homage paid to one of the symbolic mothers of Catalan women's fiction.

Lluïsa Julià has written that, throughout the novel, Marçal constructs a powerful symbolic female subject who may be a stand-in for the writer, the creator herself, who is at once Dante and Beatrice, Laura and Petrarch, the muse and the poet, brilliant author and passionate lover. She praises and at the same time incarnates passion in her life. Renée, dead at thirty-eight in a quasi-religious setting, betrayed lover and singer of love at the same time, can become the archetype. In Renée the late twentieth-century author can see a mirror image of herself, and reflect on episodes from her own life: her relationship with her father, her daughter, or her obsessive loves. She can reflect, too, on her relationship with posterity, which Renée, like a premonition, seems to understand. Various passages in La Passió thus become keys to unlock our reading of Marçal's poetry; in a round trip voyage, the two texts explain and mutually nourish one another.

Changing for each character or narrative moment, Marçal's beautiful, precise language—as the words of a poet must be—seemed to surprise and seduce readers more quickly than her poetry. Marçal received various honors for this novel: the Carlemany Prize and the Critic's Prize, and the Prudenci Bertrana, Institute for Catalan Letters, and Joan Crexells awards, and it was soon translated into Spanish and German. She felt discovered as a writer once she had made the step towards fiction, and she planned to continue on that path.

Translated by Robin Vogelzang
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