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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Vacations and Memories

Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerda.(We are alive as long as we are remembered)
La Sombra del Viento -Carlos Ruíz Zafón

I was wasting some time in a downtown bookstore one day when I noticed a small section of books in French. Among the modest collection I came across a memoir written by my great-uncle, Marc Bernard, recipient of the 1934 Prix Interalié for his novel Anny, and also the recipient of the more prestigious Prix Goncourt for his novel Pareils à des enfants in 1942.

The book I discovered is called Vacances and was published in 1953. I have read a few of his books, none of which have been translated into English but most are still in print 25 years after his death. I was never able to meet my uncle although I made a half-hearted attempt to look him up during my first trip to France in 1979. I didn’t have much to go on at the time. I simply traveled to Nîmes where my family had lived. As I later learned, Marc Bernard had actually returned to this southern French city to live after spending most of his adult life in Paris and other places. We never got a chance to meet but I’m sure he would have been pleased to know that his nephew has become a great admirer of his work.

Vacances begins with a wonderful introduction by the French author, Roger Grenier, which describes the career of Marc Bernard from orphan at age 11, to the factory worker and self-taught intellectual who wrote his first novel during a bout of unemployment. He was holed up in a hotel and a maid noticed that he seemed to work night and day. She asked him whether or not he ever stopped writing to eat. “It’s just that I don’t have much to eat.” She made sure from then on that he ate with the others in the hotel.

He had a friend present his manuscript for his first novel, Zig-zag to a Paris publisher who immediately accepted it. Marc Bernard soon went to the office of his publisher, Jean Paulhan, to thank him. There in the office Paulhan asked my uncle if he had read anything by André Gide. Marc Bernard said that he had and that he liked his work. Paulhan then introduced him to Gide who happened to be sitting directly across from them in the office at the time. Paulhan presented my uncle to Gide saying that he was a factory worker who wrote and who had also read Gide’s work. Gide asked him if any other workers at the factory read his stuff. "Non. Je suis le seul." I’m sure that Gide was disappointed to learn that he wasn’t popular among the factory workers of France in the 1920s. They became friends after that and Gide remained an admirer and promoter of Bernard’s work.

He starts out the memoir by declaring that he is a man of vacations and that he wishes that the world were nothing more than a vacation spot, that factories and offices be closed for months throughout the year while their workers and staff enjoy the pleasures of time off. He wished that man could return to the wisdom of our primitive forefathers who dedicated themselves to nothing more than fishing, hunting, and love; activities particularly suitable for vacations.

In Vacances Marc Bernard tells stories about his life of travel, war, idleness, work, and vacations. What a cool and full life he led. He seemed to be particularly fond of Spain as he dedicated three chapters in this book to my newly adopted country. He writes about two trips he makes to the Spanish Balearic islands. His father, Juan Bernat (my namesake), was born in Soller, Majorca. I haven’t been to Majorca but I plan on making a visit to see from whence I came. I hope to be speaking a bit of Valenciano/Catalan/Majorquino (They are all very similar) dialect before I get there.

He tells a story in the book about a trip he took to Majorca in 1937. He was passing through Barcelona on his way there. He was walking along the beach, smoking a cigar that he describes as being a big as a walking stick (a fondness for puros, or Cuban cigars is another similarity between the two of us) when he was approached by an armed soldier. This was during the Spanish Civil War and my uncle, being a worker, a unionist, a communist, was obviously a Republican (they were the good guys). He was taken in for questioning on the suspicion of being a German spy for the fascist nationalists. He was asked about the stamp he had on his passport (French) for Majorca two years previous when he took another trip there to explore his roots. He was put in a car with an armed escort and driven into the countryside. After a while he realized that he probably wasn’t going to be executed because they would not have wasted so much gasoline if that was their intention. He was released when someone who spoke French verified that his accent was indeed French. He was then driven back to Barcelona’s Ramblas and bid farewell in the Spanish custom of effusive hugs and handshakes.

The most remarkable coincidence in all of this was discovering a chapter dedicated to Valencia in his book, a book that I discovered while living in Valencia. He was here in 1952 for La Feria, a week of bulls, which I assume was the Fallas festival which takes place every year in March. It was during this festival when I saw my first bullfight. As I mentioned, he was from Nîmes, in the southern French province of Languedoc which has bullfighting festivals in the Arènes, a first century a.d. Roman amphitheater. Marc Bernard was obviously a huge aficionado of la corrida and this chapter is one of the most eloquent descriptions of the art of bullfighting that I have read in any language. I would have loved to have attended a corrida with my uncle with the two of us smoking the biggest cigars that money can buy. I wonder if I also inherited my love of fermented grapes from this side of my family.

My detour into French came at the expense of my Spanish. I had lunch in the home of a friend of a friend while I was plowing through this book in French. I felt like my Spanish had never been worse. I was mis-conjugating verbs, speaking with an atrociously bad accent (I thought), and just thoroughly mangling the Spanish language. After lunch, when the adults went out to the patio for a cocktail and to enjoy the late afternoon sun, I chose to stay inside and improve my Spanish by watching a Sesame Street (Barrio Sésamo) video with my newest Spanish amigo, Quino (age 5). In the video a woman walks up to a group of people on the street and starts speaking French. I pointed out to Quino (short for Joaquín) that she was speaking French. He looked at me with a bit of surprise and asked, “Tu tienes ésta péli?” (you have this video?). Probably the most humorous moment thus far for me in Spain. Gracias, Quino.

 This is something I wrote a while back and recently edited.

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