Call Her by His Name: Caterina Albert and Catalonia’s Tradition of Radical Women

November 17, 2019   •   By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

FOR A LONG TIME, Caterina Albert — one of Catalonia’s most radical, rigorous, and sophisticated writers — was known as Víctor Català. Like the Brontë Sisters, she published her novels, poems, and plays under a male pseudonym. The descendent of an intellectual, land-owning Catalan family from L’Escala, she was highly educated and a vocal advocate for women writers.

Her papers are now in the care of the Department of Culture at L’Escala’s City Hall. Her life and work were marked by political and social upheaval — the Carlist Wars, the Spanish-American War, the restoration of the constitutional monarchy, the restoration and fall of the Spanish Republic, the “Tragic Week” of Barcelona, the subsequent rise of fascism.

Kathleen McNerney is Caterina Albert’s translator, as well as a translator devoted almost exclusively to women writers from Catalonia. Her work captures the vivacity of the Catalan language, its musicality and regional fluctuations, and her commitment to female intellectuals is unparalleled. I spoke with her about living in Barcelona in 1974, the last year of Franco’s dictatorship; about the marginalization of Catalan women authors; and the clandestine Catalan lessons run by women intellectuals during Franco’s regime.


AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Can you describe your first encounter with Catalan literature and with Catalonia? When did you first travel to Catalonia, and what did you discover?

KATHLEEN MCNERNEY: I first came across mention of Catalonia as a college student majoring in Spanish and French, and of the language later as a graduate student. In a course on philology, we were asked to change Vulgar Latin words into the Romance languages, with Catalan at the end of the column. I asked my professor about it, and he said it was a dead language. That led me to the library, and I found a few books in and about Catalan there, and the search began.

In the meantime, in a literature course, I kept coming across footnotes to poetry saying that various Golden Age poems we were studying were influenced by the 15th-century poet Ausiàs March. None of the footnotes offered further information. One of the books I found in the library was a collection of March’s poetry, and another was a good dictionary, and the dissertation began. I took a semester off and went to Barcelona, where I found that Catalan was anything but dead, even after centuries of repression, and then political affiliation began. I spent most of 1974 there, while the dictator was still alive, but barely, and the repression had lessened to some extent, though Franco’s last executions were just weeks before his death in 1975. So there I was, hooked on Barcelona, Catalonia, and its language and culture.

When did you begin translating Catalan literature?

At the time of my dissertation, there was no translation of Ausiàs March’s work into English, so I translated all the poetry I quoted by him. When I started teaching at West Virginia University in 1980, I was asked to translate an essay by Fernando Alegría from Spanish to English, and did so. I enjoyed it, but also realized that there are a lot of people who can translate from Spanish to English, and I didn’t continue. A few years later, I met the Majorcan writer Maria Antònia Oliver Cabrer, who was just back from the Frankfurt Book Fair. She had met a publisher there who liked her work and wanted her to get it translated into English. Thus began my translations of her novels, as well as a lovely friendship that lasts to this day. I followed with translations of stories and poems by other Catalan writers, mostly women, since my interests took me in that direction and complemented my scholarly work on women writers.

You are a scholar of Latin American, Castilian, and French literatures, but most of your work focuses on Catalan women authors. What drew you to their work specifically?

In addition to what I’ve explained, I was finding that their literature was on a par with, if not superior to, the “canonical” writers I had studied, first in graduate school and then as a developing scholar. Some of the very best, such as Mercè Rodoreda and especially Caterina Albert, were virtually unknown outside of Catalonia, due to their double marginalization, as women and as Catalans. Again, many people can and do write well about Latin American, Castilian, and French literatures, but not so many about Catalan and fewer about Catalan women, so I felt I could offer a worthwhile contribution while making these great writers available to the English-speaking world. The two I mentioned and others can be fruitfully compared or contrasted with their contemporaries in other countries, like Virginia Woolf.

In your introduction to Silent Souls and Other Stories, you write that the study of Catalan literature raises interesting questions with regard to “concepts of nation, national consciousness, and national literature.” Can you define and elaborate on a few of these questions? What, in your view, would an accurate and just representation of the Iberian Peninsula’s literary canon look like?

Western Europe (and many other parts of the world) has a number of stateless nations, with little or no representation in literary canons. The linguistic factor makes it difficult for these minoritized cultures to get a fair reading, or a reading at all. Whereas in the visual arts, language is not a factor, and I think we can say that Gaudí in architecture, Dalí and Miró in painting, for example, form part of the canons in their fields. With literature, the “canon-makers” have to either learn another language or depend on translations. In Spain, two of the three minoritized languages, Galician and Catalan, have Latin roots, so Spanish speakers could easily learn them, but alas, they have shown little interest in doing so. That leaves translation. By contrast, Portuguese is represented in the Iberian canon, at least in part because it has a recognized nation behind it.

From the point of view of the writers themselves, many have been asked why they don’t write in Castilian. Their response usually is that even though they speak Castilian, it is not their native language, and beyond the understandable wish to express themselves in their own language, they wish to preserve and promote their culture. An interesting parallel is the case of Welsh poet Menna Elfyn, who writes in Welsh and does not translate her own work into English because she wants to be known as a Welsh poet, not an English one. Finally, all canons have to be adjusted to include more women writers; their neglect goes back to the beginnings of writings, which, in the Romance languages, starts in about the 11th century. And, contrary to popular belief, women did not start writing in the 19th century; they go way back!

Where do you locate Caterina Albert’s work in the history of Catalan language and literature?

Definitely at the top. Her prose is second to none, comparable to the well-known writer Josep Pla, and to the aforementioned Mercè Rodoreda. Albert’s long life spanned the reemergence of Catalan as a written language after a long period of sparse publication in the language. It also reflects the lack of schooling in the language, which became “normalized” during her lifetime. 

What stylistic elements does Caterina Albert share with other writers? Her work often reminds me of Anton Chekhov, for example, and Emilia Pardo Bazán.

She exhibits a real willingness to experiment with different styles and forms: changes in narrative voice, distancing of narrator from protagonists, breathtaking descriptions of nature in contrast with grotesque social situations. Both Pardo Bazán and Albert were considered rural writers in spite of their vast array of techniques and situations and their deep psychological studies of characters.

Can you describe the Jocs Florals and Caterina Albert’s history with the literary contest? What were the gender politics of the time, and how did they affect Albert’s trajectory as a writer?

The Jocs Florals were a medieval tradition among troubadours in Provence and Catalonia, but with changing literary tastes and the weakening of political power in these areas, they faded away and were not reinstituted until the mid-19th century. In Catalonia, a poem, “Oda a la Pàtria,” published by Carles Aribau in 1833, encouraged people to write in their own language, and many people took up his patriotic fervor. The Jocs Florals encouraged this effort with prizes and recognition for the author. These literary contests took place in various locales in Catalonia, notably Olot, a charming small city in the province of Girona, north of Barcelona and famous for its volcanoes. Olot is not far from L’Escala, Caterina Albert’s birthplace, and she was expected to attend when she won two prizes in 1898, but she was discouraged by the reaction to her monologue, “La Infanticida.” Yes, it won the prize, but when the jury and others realized it was by a young woman, they were scandalized. In her own words, from an interview given much later: “They thought it unacceptable for me to write about an infanticide. But can the work of an artist have limits? I don’t believe art can be restrained by moral norms.” In any case, Albert was never keen on being the center of attention, and she did not go to Olot, but her trajectory as a writer was unhindered. Always sui generis, and independently wealthy, she continued writing, ignoring the prevailing styles of her day, especially “Noucentisme,” which she found narrow and restraining.

When did Caterina Albert begin to use the masculine pseudonym Víctor Català? Did she ever abandon her pseudonym?

Precisely at the time of the Jocs Florals of Olot in 1898. The name is taken from a novel she never finished, and it has both masculine and patriotic overtones. She continued to publish with this name, though some critics (Gabriel Ferrater and Marta Pessarrodona) use her birth name consistently, and it is worth remembering how many women writers of the period used masculine names: her own Catalan contemporary Felip Palma [Palmira Ventós i Cullell], the Brontë Sisters, George Eliot and George Sand, et cetera.

There are many great women writers in Catalonia, like the poet Carolina Coronado, Josefa Massanés, and Dolors Monserdà. What characteristics did they have in common, if any?

Carolina Coronado is not actually a Catalan poet, but she was one of the women who devoted herself to engaging with and promoting the work of her fellow women writers and thinkers. The practice mentoring of other women writers forms a sort of chain: Massanés and Monserdà were both intellectual feminists in Barcelona, a generation apart, and Monserdà wrote about Massanes, her mentor; Monserdà was in turn studied and praised by Carme Karr and Maria Aurèlia Capmany. These writers used a variety of genres to further their cause: essays, novels, poetry, and drama. They evoked Catalonia, expressed religious and family sensibilities, and sometimes political and social criticism. In a eulogy for Monserdà, the most prolific of the group, Albert complained that Monserdà’s work had been underrated. All this indicates a rootedness in their literature, a search for foremothers, an attempt to circumvent the patriarchy.

Who were the most important women intellectuals in Barcelona, and how did they communicate with and engage with one another?

Albert had personal correspondence with Monserdà as well as with Roser Matheu, a poet and bibliographer who specialized in studying Catalan women writers. She also exchanged letters with Maria Domènech and Maria Antònia Salvà. She maintained a friendship with Aurora Bertrana, who dedicated two books to her. Other leading intellectual feminists of the day, in addition to those mentioned above, would include Maria del Pilar Maspons, who wrote of the loss of Catalan autonomy as a result of the Spanish War of Succession as well books of poetry and folklore. There was also an intellectual-feminist movement in Majorca, headed by Manuela de los Herreros, who became well known in Barcelona for her work in social services, including protection of children and abolition of female slavery. In 1909, Francesca Bonnemaison founded the Institut d’Estudis per a la Dona and donated a palace in Barcelona as a library for women, which is still in use.

We should also remember that Caterina Albert maintained an apartment in Barcelona for many years, and seldom missed the season for theatrical performances. She surely knew some of her contemporaries based in the city, whether or not she corresponded with them.

The documentation and recovery of Catalan literary history often prioritizes male writers. What is being done to memorialize and promote the work of these important women writers?

In 1994, the Modern Language Association published Double Minorities of Spain: A Bio-Bibliographic Guide to Women Writers of the Catalan, Galician, and Basque Countries. It is an example of works dedicated to recovering women writers, both in the United States and in the Spanish state. Much work remains to be done; the fact that many women published only in periodicals because it was easier to enter the literary world that way, makes it more difficult to recover their work now, since much of their work is not available in book form. Work written in convents is also difficult to access, but convents are slowly opening up their archives to scholars. Many university professors are including women in their syllabi now and writing about women in their scholarly books and articles, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Can you talk about the clandestine Catalan lessons run by women intellectuals during Franco’s regime?

The best-known case is that of Maria Aurèlia Capmany, a writer, politician, and beloved figure in Barcelona. She held classes in her home, and her most famous pupil was Montserrat Roig, novelist, journalist, and influential figure in the political and literary scene in Barcelona until her untimely death in 1991. The Institut d’Estudis Catalans also offered classes in Catalan language and literature. By the time I studied there in 1974, it was sort of semi-clandestine. Everybody knew about it, and no one bothered them. In Majorca, linguist/philologist Aina Moll Marquès played a similar role.

Caterina Albert’s life was marked by a series of political upheavals. Albert came from an elite, well-to-do Catalanist family, and their home was ransacked by anti-fascist soldiers in the ’30s. What were the political dynamics of this situation, and who did Albert’s family identify or align with politically?

The Albert family was a land-holding one in a rural, conservative area of northeastern Catalonia, not far from the French border. Caterina’s father was intensely involved in some of the 19th-century conflicts, mostly as a Catalanist and a liberal vis-à-vis the extremely conservative Carlists and others. Caterina was rather non-political — not a declared feminist — though her work shows her sympathy with the plight of women. She was most passionate about artistic freedom. She no doubt feared the extremes on the left, which included burnings of churches and convents, but at the same time detested the right’s suppression of Catalan language and culture. She stayed aloof from the nitty-gritty politics, saving her words and works for artistic developments. She longed for a Catalan society of well-read people, versed in their own culture, and lashed out at those who criticized writers trying to advance the culture without a solid public educated in Catalan. I believe she would be pleased with the level of culture in Catalan schools today, and horrified at the continuing efforts from the right to suppress Catalan once again.

Some of Caterina Albert’s papers and manuscripts were lost when their home was ransacked. Were they ever recovered? Where are her papers archived now?

No, they were not recovered; among the lost items were two more chapters of her best-known work, Solitud, and her collection of artifacts from the nearby Empúries Ruins. For years, her papers and paintings were held by the Albert family in L’Escala, but all was recently given over to the Ajuntament, L’Escala’s City Hall, whose Department of Culture cares for them.

Was Caterina Albert considered a radical, experimental writer? How did she respond to, embrace, or reject the Catalan grammar and language normalization project of the time and the Noucentisme aesthetic that flourished alongside it?

She was considered experimental, and criticized for being too grim in some of her rural stories, as well as for not adhering to the Noucentisme aesthetic, which she found too constraining. Most would now call her modernist in the widest sense. She found it difficult to be told how to write by those who were trying to normalize Catalan, and indeed she is sui generis in her various styles and her imitation of peasant speech, which she knew very well.

Retablo is Caterina Albert’s only work published in Castilian. Despite long periods of silence during which she did not publish any work, Albert continued to publish in Catalan throughout the Franco dictatorship. How did she achieve this in spite of the oppressive censorship laws against the use and dissemination of the Catalan language? 

Censorship is always uneven, depending as it does on the whims of a wide array of censors. I always wondered that Cervantes wasn’t hanged for writing chapter six of Don Quixote, with its book-burning session clearly pointed at the Inquisition. In any case, several small publishers and journals continued working in Catalan as best they could, and many Catalans published their work from exile in Mexico or Argentina. In Albert’s case, many of her works were published before or after the Franco dictatorship, but Editorial Selecta published a first version of her Obres completes in 1951, with a revised version appearing in 1972, both during censorship in some form.

Caterina Albert is from the seaside village of L’Escala on the Costa Brava. Has her home been converted into a house museum?

The house she grew up in still belongs to and is used by the Albert family. A small seaside house was bequeathed to Caterina Albert by a close friend, and it served for a long while as a sort of house/museum, attended to by family members. But as I mentioned earlier, all her works have now found a home in the Department of Culture at the City Hall in L’Escala.

What is your favorite place in Catalonia? How often do you return there?

Barcelona and its environs. I love walking the city streets and have a network of friends in all the Catalan-speaking areas, including Majorca, Alacant, and Valencia. I go there every year, sometimes twice, and I look forward to spending a month in Andorra, at the Faber Residency, this fall.


Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Call Me Zebra.