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Against Nostalgia: Esther Tusquets and the Remembering of the Gauche Divine

By Alberto Villamandos

Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures

It was the worst of times but, was it the best of times? Definitely, by the end of the 1960’s inBarcelona, under the Franco regime (1939-1975), things were looking a little better than a few years before. A change in the government to a more “liberal”—although undemocratic–administration eased up on the official censorship of the media, tourists from Northern Europe flooded the beaches every summer by the millions and a new consumerist society was being born. It was the age of wonders: Mary Quant’s mini skirts, blonde Swedish tourists in bikinis, TVs and washing machines bought in installments.

 In those times of economic boom and political stagnation, university campuses were battlefields where politicized students and heavily armed police forces often collided. A new phenomenon was forming in Barcelona.  Young, educated friends from the urban upper class with a progressive political agenda were coming together with new projects: leftist publishing houses were created, like Anagrama, Tusquets and Lumen, following the model of Seix Barral; architects built urban utopias, like Walden 7; filmmakers gave way to a (very) experimental School of Barcelona; and a new poetics based on camp, irony and the irrational, the novisimos, appeared in a controversial anthology in 1971 which influenced Spanish poetry for a decade.

The Gauche Divine, as coined ironically in French by a journalist in 1967 in order to emphasize paradoxical leftist elitism, madeBarcelonaa stage for nightclubbing, work projects and sexual liberation. “Culture is sexy”, as said by the female photographer Colita, while the Gauche Divine considered other foreign groups like the Italian “novissimi” and the New York “radical chic” as role models. Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1970’s the political climate experienced a dramatic change towards repression and violence; political commitment became an ethical mandate. The party was over and many of the members of the Gauche Divine retreated to their “winter quarters”, keeping a low profile until the dictator’s death and in many cases, permanently.

With time comes remembering and with it nostalgia. The “Divine Left” has experienced a notorious revival since the 1980’s with a great number of memoirs published. Architects, photographers, writers, philosophers, filmmakers, and publishers gave their autobiographies to the presses in growing numbers. In my recent book The discreet charm of subversion, I contend how, in spite of the obvious individual perspective of each text, the memoirs actually wove a collective identity founded on shared motives in narration: the privileged upbringing; the morally and sexually repressed education; the coming of age at the university; the key role of friendships; the political awakening against the regime followed by a disenchantment; and the beginning of a successful career.

A striking aspect of this stream of memory is the lack of women’s voices, which contrasts with the critical role that female publishers, photographers, writers and actresses played during the short but intense life of the group. Beatriz de Moura and Esther Tusquets brought to Spanish readers among many others the work of Umberto Eco, the erotic comic of Guido Crepax, and classic science fiction authors. Later, when the new democracy abolished censorship, they created prestigious awards for erotic fiction and women writers. What may be the cause of women’s autobiographical silence? Was it perhaps due to some kind of modesty or a class and gender bias which allowed men to mention their sexual awakening in well-to-do brothels, even when accompanied by their fathers?

Due to this significant silence, Esther Tusquets’ three volume autobiographical oeuvre (with a new book written along with her brother published this month) seems even more striking. Sidonie Smith points out in her foundational book on women’s autobiographical writing, Subjectivity, Identity and the Body, that the narration of the “I” as a modern genre emerges closely linked to the Cartesian subject of the “I think, therefore I exist”. Smith does not forget the fact that this modern subject was also implicitly bourgeois and male. Represented as “Otherness” and estranged from language, the female identity could not fully reflect on herself, under the threat of becoming a “carnivalesque monstrosity”. More than as a monster, Tusquets depicts herself as the other motif for the 19th century female writer, the “Madwoman in the Attic,” as her last volume of memoirs points out, Confessions of a Disgraceful Old Lady (2009). Whereas her male counterparts used a restrained tone to narrate their professional achievements–veiling personal and familial failures–Tusquets systematically reviews all the taboos of Catalan high society. In her second volume, We Had Won The War (2007), the author exposes the Falangista (Franco’s response to Fascism) genealogy of her family and of a great part of Gauche Divine’s members, therefore dismantling the myth of aCatalonia loyal to the Republic defeated by Franco.

This political aspect in her books is linked particularly to the politics of the body: Tusquets extensively explores her sentimental and sexual biography, providing details and names. A special place is held for her close relationship with two youths she met during those “golden years” of the Gauche Divine, the writer Ana María Moix and the poet Pere Gimferrer, an intense friendship already fictionalized in Tusquets’ Love Is A Solitary Game (1979). But this sexual discourse also refers to the myths of that so-called sexual revolution of the time, unveiling insecure masculinities and an ironic female agency. Some members of theBarcelona elite sketched in their memoirs an idealized and/or mystified portrait of themselves.  One example of this “mystified self-portraiture” is the publisher Carlos Barral, who in his three volume memoirs refers to himself as “the character”. Tusquets chooses another mask, “the disgraceful old lady”, as a distancing, ironic interpretation on her own life with a paradoxical twist, undoing the self-complacent, nostalgic view that the Gauche Divine created of itself.