Eva Baltasar is the author of a trilogy of novels, which are being translated by Julia Sanches. An excerpt of Permafrost featured in Granta 154: I’ve Been Away for a While. Boulder is forthcoming in August 2022 from And Other Stories, while Mamut (Mammoth) was published in Catalan in 2021. She is also the author of over ten books of poetry.
Irene Solà’s novel When I Sing, Mountains Dance is published by Granta Books, in translation from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem. She is also the author of a book of poems, Bèstia, which was awarded the Amadeu Oller Poetry Prize and was published in English as Beast, and Els dics, which won the Documenta prize.
They wrote to each other over the winter of 2022, discussing friendship, the sea and living inside novels. Their correspondence was translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.
I’m writing to you from a little house with a very large balcony overlooking the sea. I’ve spent the winter here. I’ve never had the sea before me for such a long time. They warned us that, being so exposed, the north wind would be terrible, but it’s been a fairly tame winter. The north wind that did pay a visit – just showing the little pinky toe of its devastating potential – has been almost entertaining.
I’ve mostly been writing. Working from here has allowed me to really take a deep dive, and live somewhat inside my current project. And I’m grateful for it.
That said, I’ve also been swimming, reading, walking, I learned to fish for urchins and eat limpets straight from the sea and I’ve met some locals, mostly by going for beers at one of the only two bars in town, run by a Belgian woman who makes little meatballs and amazing chips. And on Mondays we go to the market. The market has two stalls. One for vegetables and one for cured meat and sausages. The woman at the vegetable stall, who has a kind and welcoming way about her, and always gives you celery, gave us a mandarin yesterday. An excellent sales strategy, because it was really good and we bought a whole bag.
I’m imagining this email as the first crack in the eggshell that’s surrounded me these last few months (I watched Jurassic Park last night, I suppose that’s where the metaphor comes from). Soon this creative/introspective coastal period will be over and I’ll start traveling to promote some translations of my work. On one of those trips, you and I will be together in England. I’m looking forward to it. I can imagine us in a pub (I lived in England for a few years and pubs are one of the things I miss the most) having a quiet pint, without strangers’ eyes reading our conversation (hello readers’ eyes).
Your book Mammoth was just published, the final book in a trilogy that began with Permafrost and continued with Boulder. Would you like to talk about how it feels to give birth to a trilogy? And how you feel when it’s done?
Of the books I’ve been reading these last few months, probably the first one I’d bring up with you is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Partly because it fits well with my current situation: sea water, seaweed and a pleasant solitude. I found the novel to have a very special sensibility.
The wind is blowing hard. I must confess that I began this email yesterday. While I was writing it the sun set, the wind turned wild, and the power went out (actually, the electricity only came back late this morning). Maybe I shouldn’t have mocked the north wind.
Mmmm. I’m reading your email sitting at the table in my home. In the dining room. I have a house with six tables. Two are my daughters’ desks. One is covered with medical books, pathology books with corpses that watch me hoover or wash the windows. The other one is meant to be for a ten-year-old girl to do her homework on, but it’s covered in Playmobils. There is a tipi, a pirate ship and a dog school, all there together. I don’t know why but the mere thought of a dog school seems horrible to me even though I make my daughter hurry every morning so she won’t be late to children school. In my bedroom, there is a small black table where I write at night. It’s a room with little light, a monk’s cell, a shell. In the kitchen, which is tiny like one you’d find in a trailer, there is a counter with a single stool. It’s a nice spot for drinking coffee and doing crosswords. Ants, nervous but silent, make their way across it. When there are a lot of ants, I smush them with one finger but if it’s only a few I let them do their thing. In the dining room there’s a low table in front of the fireplace, which we burn candles in, summer and winter. We eat at the low table, sitting on a rug, and pick fruit out of bowls as if we were monkeys. We have a little tiny puppy who scratches the rug and gnaws on the legs of the table, which is made of iron. He seems more like a shark than a dog, every day he loses teeth and others come in.
The last table is the one I’m at now. It’s the largest one, the one we all share, for everything from arts and crafts to writing novels. This is where I work during the day, when the house is empty. The sun sets the table and I get to work in the patch of sunlight. This is where I finished the Mammoth you asked after, that is just coming out now. Mmmm. How does it feel to give birth to a trilogy? Since I’ve given birth to people twice, I can tell you that the trilogy was nothing like being in labour. It’s more like being carried along, no shouting, no nausea.
My first novel, Permafrost, just emerged of its own volition. But with it I discovered a new way of getting to know women. I would make them speak and tell me about their lives, and as I did they would appear before me. I fell in love with those three women, the main characters of each book. It was a fleeting love, each one lasting a year. Now they’re no longer with me, they are out in the world, with other people who read them as if touching them. But somehow they still remain by my side. Do your characters also stay with you?
Now that I’ve finished it’s as if I were trapped in wet sand after the tide pulls out. I know I can escape, walk toward the rocks or the beach, but my feet move sleepily over the sand that holds them. The thick sky is pure peace. The tide carries my books from my head to a place that is no longer mine. I feel like I’ve handed them over, as if I’d got rid of them, as if they’d grown up in my hands and now had to lead their own lives. Do you feel that way? Does it frighten you? I don’t know England or Piranesi, but it would make me happy if you told me about your tables. Inside a writer often lives a nosy parker.
In the hopes that the north wind blows this letter quickly over to you, I’ll drop it out the window.
There are five tables in this house. I was surprised when I counted them. Four were already here and we brought the fifth with us. There is one outside, where we have breakfast when the weather’s nice, that creeps along the balcony like a thief when the north wind really picks up. There is another one, in the back office. Near Siberia. In the dampest, coldest part of the house. That’s where the printer is. Then there are three in the dining room. A coffee table in front of the couches. The one we brought with us, which is covered with books that we also brought with us. And the fifth. Where I’m writing this email from and where I write everything these days, and where we have most of our meals. This one looks out on the sea. As I write this it’s getting dark and the sky and the sea are practically the same color.
When I finish a novel I usually feel a mix of things. On one hand, I normally feel an irrepressible desire (which I have to learn how to control) to start a new one. Please, don’t let the fun stop. To start researching and taking notes and thinking about the next project. On the other hand, though, I feel sad. It isn’t a bad sadness though. It’s a sadness that has to do with the certainty of having to say goodbye. And not only saying goodbye to the characters, but also to the life you shared with those characters. Of the place you’ve built, and where you lived for a certain stretch of time. And it’s not that you can never go back there. You can go back, but when you do it’s through memories. And memories are fantastic, but living in a place isn’t the same as remembering having lived there. (It’s a terrible analogy, but I can’t stop thinking about my Erasmus exchange during university, and about the relationship of love you establish with a place, the house and the city where you live, and about the intense friendships you make when you’re on an Erasmus. So happy. So finite.) The moment of writing a novel, for me, has a lot to do with living inside it. That’s why it feels increasingly important for me to truly enjoy and protect the process.
In fact, shortly after I finished When I Sing, Mountains Dance I read A Mercy by Toni Morrison. I love her writing – Beloved is out of this world). In A Mercy there’s a character who, in the seventeenth century, sets off from England on a ship bound for the New World to marry a man she’s never met. She leaves knowing she will never again see her parents and her siblings. In the book this certainty is not terrible but it is a certainty. And in that moment, I thought, that’s it, that’s it! (Apart from the obvious differences). Finishing a book is like being slightly orphaned, even though no one has died. It’s continuing along your paths and your journeys (and that’s fine, thank goodness for them, long live the paths and journeys) and saying goodbye to a place where you lived and to the people you lived with.
As for the novels themselves, I feel like when I’ve finished them, they sprout four little legs (and a tail) and start to wander through the world. Alone. As their own entities. They travel to places I’ve never seen. Countries where I’ve never been. Homes I will never enter. Like animals that are no longer mine, they wander alone. And that’s a feeling I truly enjoy.
I’m curious about the medical books and the pathologies and corpses resting inside them (that watch you hoover).
I had a good laugh with your Erasmus analogy. It’s not terrible! I don’t know you very well, but from the few times we’ve met and all of your work that I’ve read, I can perfectly imagine you establishing that love relationship with the city, the house, the friendships. I can imagine your radiant love. The gleam of that love that in memories, like all loving memories, is golden. I remember my Erasmus in Berlin. The dark grey light of that tinplate sky is also in the memories.
I’ve never been able to love a city. Or a house. I can love a room, if it’s small enough. I have the feeling that a house never allows you to inhabit it entirely. There’ll always be a corner, a tile, an angle that remains completely unknown, for whom we will never be anyone. Can you love the unknown? I would say that, as happens with people, the unknown angle can be accepted, but not loved. Accepting its possibilities, receiving its influence, and embracing it within a greater love, that I would like.
You asked me about the corpses in the books. Real bodies, stretched out on flat surfaces, cut into pieces, soulless. I feel them watching me even though they have no eyes. Because a body doesn’t need eyes to address you. It can be dead, it can be naked, gaunt, with dark, wrinkled skin, it could look like what you’d take as provisions on an Arctic crossing, but it’s still a body. A human body. I don’t know why, it seems the soul and the will of the soul still linger, that they’re somehow stuck to it. Those are the souls I sense when I run the feather duster over the pages of the pathology books. The invisible eyes of souls with intentions. All of this leads me to believe that I couldn’t study medicine.
I have to thank you, in this new paragraph, for the books you mention that are new to me. I’d like to do the same for you, cite some that you have yet to read or remind you of some you have. I have beside me The Man of Jasmine by Unica Zürn. And I also have the first part of it inside my head and scattered sentences, tacked on with pins, in another place. A place that hurts. It can’t be my heart, I repeat, it cannot be my heart. I don’t want it to be my heart, let it be my mute throat. I won’t let it be my heart, let it be my knees that carry me, my crooked knees. I read Unica Zürn for the first time shortly after Permafrost was published and I remember feeling small and wishing she were my sister. For some reason I can’t put my finger on, I prefer to read dead authors. I have the impression I have better dialogue with them. An asymmetrical dialogue between the absolute and the imagination.
Tell me about your dialogues, if you will. Sending my warmest wishes, perfumed with chicory and spattered with coc crumbs.
I’ll be in Berlin in a few weeks’ time. I’ve only been there once before, and all my memories are at night-time. Going there was a last-minute decision: I remember drinking Club-Mate and riding the metro and going into buildings that looked like houses, but were actually dance clubs.
I have a close friend who’s a doctor and works in palliative care. I’ve always been interested in other people’s lives (the nosy parker inside every writer). This friend is the same age as me and lives nearby, but death and terminal illness are present in her day-to-day life. She is one of the wisest people I know, and also one of the most tranquil. And I love talking to her about her serene, everyday relationship with death. About her life that is so close and at the same time so different from mine.
I couldn’t choose between living and dead authors. And I suppose there’s no need. We’ll all be dead authors one day. (I smile as I write that last bit.) I’ll look for the book by Unica Zürn, I don’t know her, and I love to get reading recommendations. In that vein, I’ll tell you that I’ve been thinking about houses lately. About all the things that’ve happened inside a house and all those who’ve lived there before we showed up, and about how, often, we think of ourselves as the only inhabitants and meaning in that space, with our near-sightedness and forgetfulness that knows so little about the prior experiences and memories of that place. One of the most interesting and ravenous houses I’ve been in (speaking in a literary sense) is the House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.
When you ask me if one can love the unknown, it makes me think of the fox who tells the little prince you can only understand what you tame. And I think that perhaps we don’t always need to understand something, and perhaps we don’t always need to love it either.
I had to look up what a coc is. I was imagining a biscuit. But I found a recipe on a cooking blog and I think where I’m from we call that cake a coca or a coca de iogurt. In the comments people were discussing whether it had to have a pinch of salt or not, how do you make it? You’re making me envious. A piece of coc and some tea, a treat fit for a prince! I really enjoy cooking, but I haven’t had much luck lately with ovens. There isn’t one here where I’m staying now. And I miss making cakes, among other things.
It makes me very happy to be able to write that I have a friend too. For three years now. Before that I’d only had one, during secondary school. We were nothing alike but we understood each other, we’d skip Latin class and plan trips to Australia and she’d tell me about her siblings, who were my heroes. A helicopter pilot, a mathematician, a dancer . . . What an interesting life, being a little sister, don’t you think?
The friend I have now is a writer like I am. And an editor, too. We often have lunch together, go on trips, recommend films to each other. We understand each other because we are both from the forest and because we share an essential book. We read it at the same time and we would talk to each other about it every day. That book is the foundational sack of bones of our friendship: Christ Recrucified, by Nikos Kazantzakis. I like it because it’s a book filled with light and bushes that give off the scent of my tradition, pure blue and with incense, the tradition of the sacred word on the parched ground. It’s one of those books that incite me to dine on lamb with honey and grapes and cheese. That make me want to touch someone. That remind me that I’m very alive. Does that happen to you, feeling like that because of a book or some other work of art, a landscape, music?
This friend of mind talks a blue streak and I love it. I love listening to her talk about people, she knows many and she’s very observant. Sometimes I imagine her talking about me with her other friends, because she has more, unlike me, who only has her. I would love to spy on her, I would crack up laughing. I wouldn’t say that she’s a serene woman, like your friend, even though if I limit myself to the core of the definition I have to admit she is. She’s nervous on the outside and with a fearful soul, but deep down she’s tranquil. She takes life as it comes, accepts it as an adventure… Why shouldn’t she be calm?
In the summers we often have dinner together and end up making gin-tonics in front of the fireplace in my house, the one with the candles. With each gin-tonic we come up with a new novel. Or the big idea that will get the one we’re writing flowing. At some point I leave my body and look at us from behind the sofa. I find it moving, as if I were actually very alone and that the Eva I’m looking at, so normal and so happy, were my daughter. My friend’s name is Antònia. And yes, I put salt in the coc, and in the muffins and biscuits I make. A pinch of salt to elevate everything, half a pinky nail.
It’s time for me to make dinner now, I wish you a lovely night.
In a little while (which I hope comes quickly) I’ll make a gin-tonic and think of you, Antònia and your fireplace with candles. It will also be a farewell gin-tonic because my time here, overlooking the sea, is coming to an end. I realise that I like change. But I like routine just as much. And I’m saying goodbye slowly, bit by bit, not really knowing how to.
There’s an island near here. The day before yesterday, the tide was lower than ever. They call it minva up here, when the sea retreats somewhat and is still as a pool. But they used that word for the ebb tides in January. I don’t know if it can be applied to early March, or if it’s some other phenomenon altogether. In any case, the day before yesterday the water was so low that we could walk to the island and barely get wet. You have to imagine it as some sort of huge square rock, fallen from god knows where. And we climbed up onto it. It’s tall enough that if you tumbled off it you wouldn’t live to tell the tale. Long, like a small kingdom. The top was flat, and there were weeds and bird poo and wind. It seemed bleak and incredibly, starkly beautiful.
Yes, it happens to me too and I think of it as a gift to treasure, when a book or some other work of art touches me or tears at my soul a little. For a few years I worked at an art center called the Whitechapel Gallery. When I started out there, I had just emerged from the eggshell of my master’s program, and there was an exhibition called Electronic Superhighway. It had a piece by the French artist Camille Henrot entitled Grosse Fatigue. It’s a video piece that the artist only allows to be seen within the context of a gallery, so if you don’t see it in person when it’s exhibited, it’s impossible to find. The video lasts less than fifteen minutes but it attempts to explain all the beginnings of the universe. At the same time. It shows you a series of images, like cascades, like infinite windows on a computer screen, that open, close, and overlap, while the voice of a poet named Jacob Bromberg recites an incredibly epic poem that blends most of the stories (scientific, religious, from folklore . . . ) that try to tell how the universe began. It is a piece that I find very moving. And it is one of the first works that come into my mind when I think of that sensation you describe.
In one of these emails I told you that I enjoy when people tell me about books they love. I also enjoy hearing about food. About lamb with honey and grapes and cheese. About muffins and biscuits with a pinch of salt. I enjoy it, even though it’s food someone else is going to eat. I even (secretly) like to read the menus of restaurants where I will never dine. I also like to watch trailers. For the pure pleasure of watching trailers. Arrive at the cinema early and not start eating popcorn until the film I’ve come to see starts, but watch all the trailers. The more, the better. I don’t know if there’s any connection between those things.
If you have any favorite dishes (to cook or to eat), and you’d like to tell me about them, I would love that.
I have no idea where this is reaching you. I imagine the little house by the sea where you spent the winter. Doors and windows shut tight. Closed houses remind me of small temples, as if there were a treasure inside. I hope that house retains a bit of your happiness. And that the next person who enters can secretly drink it in. Perhaps I’ll ask you for the address or a contact, it would be good for me to have a place where I could be alone, there’s always someone at my house: my daughters, my eldest’s boyfriend or schoolmates, the younger one’s friends. When by some rare alignment of the stars I arrive home in the evening and find myself alone, I lie down on the couch with a tiramisu and a film and I attentively observe every piece of furniture and every object. The tiramisu on the little plate reaching room temperature. The paused film. It is a fascinating exercise because in the silence and the calm, inside the circles of little orange lights, gravity disappears and it seems like the furniture is floating and the objects are levitating. Just a tiny bit, like I am, so so so light, knowing that no one will ask me for anything, that I don’t have to be there for anybody, just for myself, in that small patch of time. As I levitate slightly, as if in an imperceptible dance, I eat my tiramisu while I watch the film.
I make the tiramisu myself, I have an infallible recipe. I don’t usually drink coffee, but I make a strong cup to dip ladyfingers in it, after adding a long shot of Marsala wine. The egg whites whipped high, Italian mascarpone, the yolk beat until the sugar is absorbed. I use brown sugar, and powdered cacao, the blackest, the kind that’s rough on your tongue. I love dishes that are built in layers: lasagna, moussaka, stuffed cakes, mille-feuille, tiramisu itself. I like things to be organised. Like having a library on my plate, and eating it in little bites with my eyes closed, my tongue melting the wettest bits between each layer.
What you told me about that Grosse Fatigue reminded me – even though they’re nothing alike, except for the shared medium – of an exhibition I saw a few months ago, in a gravel pit, part of the Planta project, of the Fundació Sorigué. There are site-specific permanent exhibitions by Juan Muñoz, Anselm Kiefer, Chiharu Shiota and Bill Viola. Bill Viola’s piece made a particular impact on me. Ocean Without a Shore. And that place, so unsettling. Like the inside of a pyramid, but tiny. The screens, those people. The hypnotic slowness, that calm rebirth that left me wanting more. I could have stayed there for days. People would leave and there I stood, as if inside my own screen. That exhibition stayed with me for a long time, some of those bodies got stuck to me. I would dream of their faces. I even thought about writing about them, but I felt there was some violence in that thought. Because souls get trapped inside literature. I forced myself to rethink it long enough to rule it out. And I forgot, I forgot about them until I read your email, three days ago now.
I have a fickle memory, I forget things I want to remember, especially the titles of books and the names of their authors. I would be so pleased to have them all neatly classified inside of me, and have them come to my rescue when I need them! In conversations with other writers, for example, or in talks with readers, or conferences and fancy dress parties. But no. All I remember about the books I’ve read are images, sensations, impressions. All very vague, inaccessible. It’s very impractical, but lovely. And, if I’m truly honest, I prefer to remember those flashes than to have authors’ names on the tip of my tongue.
I’ll sign off here. Enjoy your travels. I hope you find good houses. And that you are happy both inside them and on their porches.
Irene Solà and Eva Baltasar are among the authors taking part in Spotlight on Catalan Culture, a celebration of Catalan language, books and literature organised by the Institut Ramon Llull. More information here.
Images © David Ruano and Àlex Garcia