love and loss in ¾ time
By Kristine Rabberman.
Francesc Trabal, Waltz, trans. Martha Tennent, Dalkey Archive, 2013
In the 1930s, Francesc Trabal was at the center of the thriving Catalan arts scene. Born in 1899, he started his career as a journalist, serving as editor and later as director of Diari de Sabadell. He soon shifted his focus from journalism to literature, reflecting his immersion in a cultural milieu enriched by Dadaism, Surrealism, and Modernism. In the 1930s, before he was forced into exile by the Spanish Civil War, Trabal published a series of novels that humorously depicted life among the Catalan bourgeoisie. His most celebrated novel, Waltz (1936), has been published by Dalkey Archive in a new English translation, bringing Trabal’s cinematic comedic style to 21st-century readers. In this novel, Trabal draws on modernism’s interest in psychological representations, surrealism’s delight in the unexpected, and a cinematic flair to tell the story of a young man’s sexual and romantic coming of age. Trabal’s comically incisive representation of middle-class society, combined with his unrelenting depiction of his 19-year-old protagonist Zeni’s missteps and misjudgments, make Waltz a delightful read, particularly for readers interested in a Catalan classic of modernism.
The novel is structured in five sections, reflecting the movements of a waltz: Prelude, Invitation to Waltz, Divertimento, Waltz, and Finale. In Prelude, Trabal immerses his reader in the middle-class world of the Assens family, in a fast-paced party scene at the home of Zeni’s Uncle Agustí and his Aunt Silda. Trabal shifts point-of-view rapidly in this opening sequence, moving from character to character abruptly. The result is a cinematic montage, a disorienting sense of a camera panning ceaselessly through a crowded house. This technique also allows Trabal to reveal what characters think of each other, how they interpret each other’s actions and statements, often to satirical effect. Throughout the early parts of this scene, the focus is on tensions between Agustí and Silda, as seen in the novel’s opening paragraphs:
“WHY ARE YOU tearing up the cards?”
With this, Silda’s husband began to shred with even greater rage the pile of greeting cards he had separated from the stack of letters lying on the table. This strange surge of energy was his way of expressing disdain for people who chose to convey their good wishes by means of postcards or calling cards. “You either do it in person or if you can’t, at least you write a note,” he grumbled, emphasizing each word as he spoke. Then he proceeded to address his wife with fine, eloquent phrases in support of this opinion, for he delighted in sketching brilliant associations, verbal embellishments, in an attempt to confuse her, such as: “What would you say if I called Eulàlia before leaving for the office and told her to come kiss you because you knew I was leaving?”
Silda’s wry smile—which was characteristic of her and a quirk familiar to all her friends—remained unaltered, but her pupils fluttered exaggeratedly, giving the impression not that her head was spinning, but rather that her eyes could not rest calmly when confronted by the spectacle of her husband’s penchant for “showing off”—that was it exactly, what people referred to as “showing off.”
In this world, characters show off in front of their neighbors – and relatives – in many ways: through their speeches, their cars, even their garden swings are a focus for competition. Showing off is simply an act, as Agustí later collects his crumpled and torn cards to read in private. And characters believing they are being discreet are transparent to their spouses and neighbors, as seen by Silda’s frustration over Agustí’s love for their maid, Cèlia.
Zeni makes his entrance partway through the party, when he and his parents Antoni and Helena emerge from an “electric-blue” car. From the moment that he emerges from behind the wheel, Zeni charms relatives and neighbors alike, not only during the party, but also during his brief visit with his aunt and uncle (who views Zeni as another possession to increase his own status among his neighbors). Especially comfortable talking to adults, Zeni is handsome, well-spoken, thoughtful, charismatic. He also is relatively innocent, especially when compared to his cousin Ricard, who has worked out a system whereby his latest girlfriend places a white rose on a red rosebush to signal that Ricard can come up to her room. And Zeni makes an equally strong impression on the girls in the neighborhood:
Did Isabel, Clara, Mercè, Roser, the other Isabel, Teresa, Sally, and their girlfriends find themselves in a similar state of agony? For them, Zeni had been a sort of unexpected atmospheric phenomenon. Little did he suspect, but that afternoon, that evening, on the many following days, his appearance on the scene would become a topic of burning interest. Nobody, other than the Fàbregas family, had expected this. And perhaps that was why he fell onto the group of young people like a fiery meteorite.
In this middle-class community, gossip runs rampant, as people look for any event or person out of the ordinary to break the daily monotony. And for a short time, Zeni provides them with a remedy for bourgeois boredom.
Zeni’s state of innocence changes when he meets Teresa, who is thoughtful and sensitive. Despite a 7-year age difference, they draw close, share confidences – and then kiss. When Zeni is about to leave for an unexpected family trip to Vienna, he asks Teresa what he can bring her, thus introducing the central symbol of the novel:
“Please tell me, Teresa!”
Hearing her name brought her back. She realized what was happening and knew she needed to be alert. Should she give in to the spontaneity of his young heart? What was it that she would like? Or rather, what would he like to bring her? And like a coil springing back into place, she glanced around, searching, then responded, sending it out like a bullet:
A waltz. What did Teresa mean by a waltz? He should bring her a waltz? Then the association with the city he’d be visiting became clear.
“As you like.”
“To be sung?”
“Whatever you want.”
“But on a record? A record?”
“A waltz, Zeni.”
Although Teresa is never able to accept the recording of a waltz that Zeni triumphantly buys for her, her request serves as Zeni’s entrée into a confusing world of love, sex, and passion. Thrown by the abrupt conclusion of his relationship with Teresa, Zeni first mopes, and then turns his eye to other women. Trabal returns repeatedly to the waltz to describe Zeni’s journey through a series of romantic entanglements with a whole host of women, some his own age, some older, some unattached, others married or in serious relationships, even with his friends. When he meets Raya, a beautiful friend of Teresa’s who suffers from tuberculosis, Zeni expresses his longing for her in musical terms: “He had lost his way, like a note that had escaped the musical staff. As though he were part of a waltz, floating in the air, waiting for a loving hand to grasp it.” And later, when Zeni is reeling after his cousin Victor suggests that he is leading on the many women he is seeing, he expresses his confusion, as well as his detachment from his actions, through the waltz yet again:
Zeni knew that Viennese waltzes rotated in the opposite direction, making the turn toward the left side; but he couldn’t figure out why they turned so often. Víctor had sneered at his waltz, had disparaged it. When Zeni finally succumbed to the idea of reviving it, he felt self-conscious. He wished he could observe himself, from a seat in a theatre box, to perceive the effect.
As Waltz progresses through its movements, Zeni’s romantic life becomes increasingly entangled and confusing. The novel’s pacing accelerates, as Zeni loses control over his relationships and himself. In some scenes, particularly in the ones involving Raya, Trabal draws from 19th-century romantic novels, with soldiers falling in love with doomed tubercular heroines. In others, both in Barcelona and back in his uncle’s home, Trabal takes a modern approach, exploring the psyches of Zeni and his many love interests, as well as the reactions of Zeni’s friends and parents as they watch his life unravel. The novel also reflects on the importance of genetics in determining individuals’ behavior, a chilling focus given the rise of the Nazis during this period.
Throughout the novel, Trabal maintains a balance between comedy and tragedy. And throughout, there are occasional passages that show his love for the surreal, the unexpected, as seen in the following passage, in which furniture comes to life:
And Agustí Assens—with his hand on his head, a little cough, and a quick straightening of his jacket—set his chin forward as if sporting a goatee and headed down the side corridor, so that he could bestow a certain solemnity to his appearance on stage. The oil portraits hanging on the walls let out an enormous, long yawn and stretched their arms as though attempting to restore feeling to them. The curtains trembled as though experiencing the first breeze of morning. The stuffed boar’s head slowly opened his eyes. The chairs sat down from exhaustion and the divan lay prostrate in discouragement. Only the fur on the white bear remained motionless, absent, not a breath of life to it, as though it were made of papier-mâché, in that nonchalant attitude it had assumed when its stomach had been opened up and the bear had been planted there to camouflage the chipped tiles.
Even these humorous passages reveal Trabal’s main critical interest. Just as the Assens family placed the white bear to hide chipped tiles, so do Waltz’s characters act to mask their true feelings and desires – or to hide their imperfections and secrets from each other. Individuals are performing on a social stage, but there are real consequences to their actions. In the end of the novel, although Trabal keeps us laughing, there is a nagging sense that Zeni cannot out-dance his imperfections.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kristine Rabberman is the Director of Academic Affairs for the University of Pennsylvania’s Division of Professional and Liberal Education, a job that provides her with ample opportunities to read books and work with faculty across many different subject areas in the arts and sciences. She holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Penn, and teaches gender studies, history of sexuality, and academic writing and research design in addition to her full-time work for the university. She has reviewed works of literary fiction for 3:AM and California Literary Review. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 18th, 2013.