A few years ago here at Write in Languedoc we ran a very successful writing week whose theme was life writing and I always find it fascinating to see the ways in which different writers approach this. My sequence of poems, In Sight of the Sea (published by Alun Books in 2007), was based on the life of my grandmother, so it’s a particular interest of mine. Recently I’ve been reading two books about lives lived in similar circumstances, in the same family, but which give two individual views, by sister and brother Lucia Graves and William Graves, daughter and son of the poet Robert Graves.
Both these books give wonderfully detailed portrayals of the writers’ respective upbringings and experiences as part of a bohemian family living on the island of Mallorca from the 1940s onwards. However, their reactions to this are very personal and distinctive. For instance, William seems able to remain detached from the political conditions and restrictions of the Franco era in Spain, even suggesting that on the island life was freer than on the mainland, which may well have been true – isolation is not always a bad thing. Lucia, though, writes long passages about the ways in which women were subdued during this period – women like Blanca, the village midwife, who
belonged to a particular type of Spanish woman whose mind and spirit had fed on the liberal ideas of the Second Republic; women who never forgot the sense of personal emancipation and achievement they enjoyed during those years, and whose strength of character allowed them to remain free thinkers throughout the long oppressive years of the Franco regime. (p.34)
I enjoyed both books and felt personal links with the experience of growing up in a literary environment surrounded by another culture – because of my childhood in Libya and Turkey – but, perhaps because I’m a woman, found I identified more with Lucia Graves’s writing and her feeling of being unsure to which culture she belonged. I’ve been engaged in literary translation recently and my translations from Occitan of some of Max Rouquette’s poems have appeared in the latest issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, so another link for me is that Lucia’s uncertain identity and her fluency in Spanish and Mallorcan (a dialect of Catalan) as well as English led her to become a translator. She writes vividly of becoming immersed in the books she was translating:
For although the ultimate aim of any translator is to become invisible to the reader, and make him, or her, forget that the words in the translated book were originally written in another language, it is also every translator’s duty to try to retain as much as possible of the original content, including its linguistic subtleties…..in becoming so involved in each book, the book often coloured my whole perception of life. (p. 194)
Interestingly, she gained a fuller sense of who her father was as a person and a writer while ‘becoming immersed’ in his books and translating them into Catalan and Spanish.
For my part, these two books have given me the encouragement and inspiration I needed to return to some writing projects that have remained on the shelf for a couple of months.
Lucia Graves, A Woman Unknown: Voices from a Spanish Life was published by Virago in 1999; William Graves, Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves was published by Pimlico in 1996 and reissued in 2001.
A third sibling, Tomás Graves has also written about his life in Tuning up at Dawn: A Memoir of Music and Majorca, published by Harper Perennial in 2005.