Anna Caballé (L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, 1954), professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Barcelona, is one of the greatest experts and promoters of the genre of biography in Spain. From the Biographical Studies Unit that he directs, he not only teaches theory, but has taught and teaches with practice. Literary critic and writer, she has published several biographies and in 2019 she won the National Prize for History for her work Concepción Arenal. The walker and her shadow (Taurus). Now publish Biographical knowledge (Ediciones Nobel), which won the Jovellanos essay prize. “Biographers are great lovers of the past determined to combat oblivion and learn from the lives of others,” he told elDiario.es.
“Concepción Arenal was a reformist rather than a revolutionary, but she went far in defending women”
The result of decades of teaching, Caballé’s latest book reflects on the genre of biography, while analyzing its evolution in Spain until the 1970s. Despite regretting the weak tradition of the genre in our country, the teacher is optimistic about its progress in recent years in which, in her words, “a biographical school is taking shape that did not exist and that offers many works written and investigated seriously. ”
“Biography must be defended,” he points out, “as an instrument of culture and knowledge that explains where the interest in the lives of others arises. Furthermore, this culture is not limited to biographies, but also includes newspapers. , the correspondences, the memories, the traces of the past in short “. However, the author emphasizes that the biographical school that was grouped around Ortega y Gasset in the twenties of last century was a failed experience. “Writers such as Antonio Marichalar or Benjamín Jarnés did not take the genre seriously and devoted themselves to an exercise in style. It should be noted that good biographies require a literary part and a research part and a portrait of an era”. When Anna Caballé is asked if a biography is one of the best ways to explain an era, she answers without hesitation that it is. “If you illuminate a character, you illuminate an entire era, said Simone de Beauvoir, and biographical writing forces us to place ourselves in a specific historical period and to very measured judgments”.
In Caballé’s opinion, the need to reconstruct our past with freedom is at the origin of the relative boom that the writing and reading of biographies has had in our country since the arrival of democracy, although very far from the enormous interest that it arouses in the countries Anglo-Saxons, in Germany or in France. “A certain crisis of fiction”, comments the essayist, “has favored interest in genres such as biography, which are based on real lives, on a desire for truth, in the search for knowledge in contexts that are accredited. In times when there is such a wild separation between what is and what is not, between reality and hoaxes, a good biography becomes a relief. Somehow the biography demands more freedom than the novel because you have to tell reality “.
Caballé’s book also addresses the recent phenomenon of so-called self-fiction cultivated by successful authors such as the French Emmanuel Carrère and the Spanish Javier Cercas, among others. “Although this literary formula always existed in the form of autobiographies or fictionalized biographies,” explains the professor, “now autofiction is nourished by literature, journalism and historical research. This way of approaching writing also responds to eclecticism. that we live in all facets and in all fields “. However, Caballé emphasizes that autofiction authors must measure up when readers do not question the data they offer in their works and as good examples of this genre he cites Anatomy of an instant (Random House), by Javier Cercas; and The chauffeur’s son (Tusquets), by Jordi Amat.
When it comes to naming famous twentieth-century Spanish biographers, Anna Caballé highlights Manuel Azaña in her work, for his symbolism as a politician and intellectual and for his biography of Juan de Valera, a book awarded with the National Literature Award in 1926 ; and especially to the great innovators of the genre who were the Andalusian Manuel Chaves Nogales, with Juan Belmonte, bullfighter; and the Catalan Josep Pla, with Manolo’s life. Journalists and writers both, both raised the genre of biography in our country to a great literary height. On the other hand, the practical absence of women in the Spanish biographical tradition, as authors and as objects of study, is attributed by Caballé, of course, to their relegation to secondary roles in the culture. “Except for the lives of queens and saints”, he comments wryly, “the trajectories of important Spanish women have been forgotten and discriminated against until very recent dates. It is clear that the characters that are of interest at a given time serve as a thermometer of that time.”
Author of books on Carmen Laforet, Francisco Umbral or Víctor Catalá, this writer has come to the conclusion that the last years of people’s lives tend to be more decisive than their youthful stages and regrets that some biographies do not deal with old age Of the characters. “I believe in the reverse of the plot,” he argues, “and I think that in youth almost all of us are quite alike in our impulses and desires. On the contrary, from the age of 70 people are usually quite different from each other, or either they are in their prime or they are a ruin to mention the extremes. We could affirm that the endings of the biographies are more different than their beginnings “. In any case, Caballé never tires of repeating that there are many personalities in Spain pending a biography and in his book he remembers an unknown Antonio Espina, a republican writer and politician who fell completely into oblivion during the Franco regime. “Espina, like so many others and so many others, would have been a magnificent writer, but in a more favorable context”, concludes Anna Caballé.