Mercedes Monmany: “These are times when there is no room for soft, grey, indeterminate tones. We have to choose. And the choice is none other than the commitment to what is just”

If we talk about literary criticism today, the Spanish Mercedes Monmany is considered one of the greatest writers in the world. Her articles and essays (published in El País, Revista de Libros, Revista de Occidente, La Vanguardia and now in ABC) are considered references. In addition to this work, she is the author of books that are considered classics on European literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. Let us think, for example, of the monumental Along the borders of Europe (2015, which had a prologue by Claudio Magris), You know I’ll be back. Three great writers in Auschwitz: Irène Némirovsky, Gertrud Kolmar and Etty Hillesum (2017) and the no less monumental No time for goodbyes. Exiles and emigrants in 20th century literature (2021), published by Galaxia Gutenberg.

La República spoke with Monmany about this last title. What he analyses in his pages is related to the current global situation, marked by polarisation, extremism and totalitarianism, and literature, it is understood, is not alien to this reality.

—Of all the European writers you discuss in No Time for Goodbye, which one did you find to be the most dramatic case?

I would say that rather than cases, since they all start from a tear, from a suffering that is inevitably attached to what their future life in an unknown country will be like, rather, as I was writing my book, scenes or shocking passages appeared to me, just loose phrases from some of them. It is when Irène Némirovsky’s husband, a Russian Jew, who had already escaped from Soviet tyranny, says “I am tired of fleeing,” abandoning himself to his fate in Nazi-occupied France, or when, with that sterile and sadistic cruelty of which the officials of totalitarian systems were capable, they repeatedly prevent Brodsky’s elderly parents, exiled in the United States, from leaving Russia to go see him and at least hug him one last time before he dies. Or when Hannah Arendt says that, in order to fit into the new host society in the United States, the refugees preferred to avoid any kind of allusion to the concentration camps from which they had escaped, since they had been repeatedly told that “no one wanted to hear it.” As Brecht says, they become “messengers of misfortune.”

—In the 21st century we are witnessing painful migration processes and there is no doubt that there are artists and writers among them.

Indeed, the relevance of this sad and eternal theme never fades away. New wars, new conflicts and persecutions, escapes from a threatened present life and a denied future, continue to occur without ceasing in these first decades of our century, the 21st. To the last gasps of the previous century, with the Balkan wars, after which some of its most splendid writers, such as the Bosnian Velibor Colic, now in France, or the recently deceased Croatian Dubravka Ugresic, who emigrated to the Netherlands, would never return, wars that would expel many artists, writers and intellectuals in general from their borders, we must add all the incessant wars in the Middle East, the invasion of Ukraine, or the fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban. Intellectuals, men and women of culture, in many cases take the road to exile. Others stay to fight, risking their lives, given the deep hatred that tyrannies have for all kinds of creators.

—Many masterpieces of the 20th century are based on exile.

I have chosen, in fact, great admired masters (Mann, Broch, Nabokov, Zambrano, Seferis, Gombrowicz) and others who could be described as secondary, within a general and canonical history of literature, but who for me have always exercised, for some reason, a great fascination. This would be the case of someone greatly admired by Kafka like Alfred Polgar, author of Life in lowercase; by Henry Roth, a writer who fascinates me but who is obviously not as widely read as Joyce or others; by the Italian Carlo Levi, author of a beautiful work Christ stopped at Ebolior a contemporary writer who fascinates me, like the Greek Theodor Kallifatides. All of them, the most well-known and universal, or the most minority, are not necessarily specific writers “of the exile”, although they have some very significant works on that subject. It is not always necessary to have them. Sometimes, in my book, the real flesh-and-blood character of the exile was the author himself. The important thing was the biography. But it is true that, although there is a great variety of archetypal themes repeated in literature, everything begins with Ulises and the Odysseywith Ovid exiled in Constance or with the book Exodus from the Bible. Since the beginning of humanity, the topic has always been there.

—Of the authors you analyse, I was struck by Varian Fry, a young American journalist who had created a rescue network during the Second World War. Fry had many problems for protecting Jews and anti-Nazis.

I am glad you mention this, because Fry, symbolically, occupies a central place in my book. These are times in which there is no room for subdued, grey, indeterminate tones. You have to choose. And the choice is none other than the commitment to what is just, to the Good (or the kindness, as the Russian Vasili Grossman used to say) of the time in which you live. This is how the British poet and activist Nancy Cunard expressed it, referring to the Spanish Civil War and the need to fight fascism: “Many of us, everywhere in the world, are clear, with greater certainty than ever, that we are obliged to take sides. The ambiguous attitude, the ivory tower, the ironic detachment, the paradoxical, are no longer useful.” It is the eternal struggle of civilization against barbarism.

“No time for goodbye” (Galaxia Gutenberg.

—The case of the Austrian author Hermann Broch is equally special. He was generous to many intellectuals and writers, but the system treated him very badly.

A literary giant like the author of The Man Without Qualities, one of the undisputed peaks of the last century, Robert Musil, found himself isolated, in a state of total non-existence during his exile in Switzerland, before dying, almost destitute, helped only by a small group of friends who protected him and his Jewish wife Martha. And the same happened with another of the greatest and most important writers of the last century, Hermann Broch, who lived with enormous and distressing difficulties in his exile from the United States until the last moment. Only a year before he died, as incredible as it may seem to us now, he was offered a discreet position at a university. But he did not stop trying to always help others, including Musil himself. Hannah Arendt portrayed him very well in an essay dedicated to him, saying that every time an exiled friend was sick, in need of money or was dying, Broch, “who had neither time nor money,” as Arendt said, took charge of everything.

—What role should the intellectual or artist play in turbulent times?

Sándor Márai will make a clear decision, as he states in his Diaries: “No matter where I got to, I would always be a Hungarian writer.” It may be an unspectacular role, which is not appreciated at the time, but over time it is a fundamental task for an intellectual living in turbulent times: not for a moment to stop fulfilling authentically, honestly, sincerely, bravely and convincingly, against all odds, the task that is required of any self-respecting artist or writer, of any era. To continue creating a personal work, beyond censorship, threats and any form of impediment that distorts or restricts it.

—You also highlight the high level of journalism that was being done. It was a golden age.

Many of these masters lived through the golden age of journalism, practising it and being very well paid for it. From Walter Benjamin, Joseph Roth, Siegfried Krakauer, Ödön von Horváth, Carl von Ossietzky, director of the weekly Die Weltbühne and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1936, tortured by the Gestapo and died after being interned in a concentration camp in 1938, Egon Erwin Kisch, called “the frenetic reporter”, whose motto was “nothing more exciting than the truth” and Franz Hessel, father of the famous author ofBe indignant!Stéphane Hessel, to Kurt Tucholsky, one of the most brilliant stylists of the time, who after fleeing the Nazis ended up committing suicide in Sweden. There really was a “golden age” of newspapers during the last century. As incredible as it may seem today, when there is so much talk about the decline of the written press, in what was called the “press city”, in interwar Berlin, in 1927, there were 147 daily newspapers. A golden age, with written media competing fiercely with each other, while fighting for coveted headlines, which had its unparalleled splendor above all during the era of the Weimar Republic. A Republic, a precarious interlude of peace before an unprecedented conflict that lasted from the end of the First World War until the arrival of the Nazis, and which embodied all the best, but also the worst, with extremism running rampant, causing frequent clashes, score-settling, riots and murders, on the right or the left, whether they were National Socialists or Communists.

—This book can be read by anyone, not necessarily an academic. What does criticism mean to you?

Indeed, anyone can read it. My intention was not to offer an academic, purely critical essay, in its most epistemologically “technical” and leaden version, with a bare, arid and “soulless” enumeration of works and authors, but to provide the reader with a succession of linked stories, a kind of micro-chain of collective stories. Stories starring writers. My admired Primo Levi said that, although his books were signed only by him, he wanted them to be read at the same time as collective works, “as a voice representing other voices.” He always insisted on this. I think it is a wonderful idea.

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