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Friday, May 27, 2022

Francisco Rico: “RAE is a myth because the dictionary gives power”

Latest NewsFrancisco Rico: "RAE is a myth because the dictionary gives power"

Francisco Rico in the library of his home in Sant Cugat (Barcelona), last April.Vicens Gimenez (© Vicens Gimenez)

For Francisco Rico, breathing is what is done between two cigarettes. “How much do I smoke a day? Everything,” he clarifies in the kitchen of his home in Sant Cugat. It was built by architect Manuel de Sola-Morales in 1967 when Rico and his wife, the philosopher Victoria Camps, who can be heard from a distance via videoconference, were teaching in the United States. On the table are freshly served tea, three newspapers, a book about Vladimir Putin and a Nobel package, which the philologist does not return.

The days of this retired professor from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​who turned 80 on April 28, begin and end in this kitchen. Every evening, after dinner with escudella broth and watching a movie – “in Filmin” – he stays in the kitchen until 2:30 pm to “google something.” He says he doesn’t read much these days — and “never reads modern novels” other than those by Eduardo Mendoza, with whom he regularly dine — but he has Anthony Beevor’s D-Day book next to his reading chair. and an essay by Eric Michaud on the Nazi war. aesthetic. “I have days”, it is justified.

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In 2004, Rico donated to his university a large part of his library, which included unique editions of Don Quixote, including one from 1605, the year of its publication, as well as studies on ancient printing, stories from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, or Medieval literature in various languages. On the ground floor of the house there were paintings related to the characters of Cervantes, some collages from his long-awaited “don” Juan Benet and the work of his friends such as Jaime Gil de Biedma or Javier Marias, who included him as a character in novels such as Yours the face of tomorrow”, “Hobbies” or “This is how bad things begin”.

“A classic is a work that is still in good bookshops 70 years after the death of its author. Also the one that is known without reading it”

Born in Barcelona in 1942, Rico is usually presented as “Castilian” on the covers of his books. A member of the Royal Spanish Academy, the Accademia dei Lincei and the British Academy, the author in Italian of books on Petrarch and Boccaccio, he always managed to combine the highest erudition with strict disclosure of information. “Spanish style,” he explains, “because my parents were from Aldeamayor de San Martin in Valladolid, and I consider myself an old Castilian. Revealer? I insisted that there be good editions of the classics.” What is a classic? “I have a very prosaic definition: a work that is still in good bookstores 70 years after the death of its author. Also the one that is known without reading it.”

He likes to say that the modernity in which he feels comfortable should be dated to around 1600, but the truth is that the idyll that the Spanish market lives with Central European authors such as Josef Roth, Arthur Schnitzler or even Stefan Zweig is partly is his thing. When, in the mid-1980s, Jaume Valcorba, founder of Quaderns Crema, decided to create the Spanish label Sirmio, he placed his most cosmopolitan collection, called La caja negra, in the hands of an enigmatic director who signed the credits as FR The company failed with the same writers, who soon succeeded in her sister and successor: Cliff. “It was a matter of time,” explains the person behind these acronyms. “Adelphi saved them in Italy and I read them there. Valcorba commissioned new translations and edited them beautifully.”

Rico was the director of the collection that relaunched Central European literature in Spain by authors such as Stefan Zweig or Josef Roth.

Director of the Department of the History and Criticism of Spanish Literature, which has taught generations of philologists, and of the reference publication Don Quixote, Rico was elected a member of the RAE at the age of 43, in 1986, a few months before the premiere of Spanish television. Speaking clearly, the program is on the correct use of the language in which he was an adviser. Today he is the second oldest academician after Pere Gimferrer and director of the monumental collection of the Classical Library of the learned house. Realizing its influence, he states: “The academy in Spain is a myth. His influence and presence on the streets is unmatched in other countries. Why? Because creating a dictionary gives power.”

Works of art related to Don Quixote in the personal library of Francisco Rico.Vicens Gimenez (© Vicens Gimenez)

Although he claims he will not see the completion of this Library and hardly writes, he now publishes two of his own books summarizing his quest for a synthesis between rigor and clarity: Lesson and Legacy by Elio Antonio de Nebrija, edited by the Academy itself and A Long Loyalty, a collection of portraits of friends and teachers published by Cliff. He warns that this is the closest thing to a memoir he is about to write. “What am I going to say? I read more than I lived,” he says with the mixture of irony and coquetry he always speaks with. As he himself says of his colleague Eduardo Valenti, Francisco Rico alternates distance with passion or zumba, if appropriate. And depending on who you want to stun. You can leave the academic plenum, smoking and swearing, and talk to the waiter like a Latinist.

July 2 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Nebrija, the author of the first Castilian grammar. Professor Rico acknowledges that this work was “a stroke of genius” but emphasizes that his Latin manual was important: “There were 100 editions in the 16th century. It was the door to classical culture.” The owner of transparent prose, nothing “university”, Rico published in 1993 a key essay for understanding Western culture: The Dream of Humanism. “Thanks to the restoration of ancient letters, the first humanists discovered that we do not live in an eternal essence, but in history, in change and diversity, in relativism. From this arises the hope that life can change, improve. Over time, he adds, humanism was limited to classical philology. What was a “revolutionary cultural ferment” became a “special discipline”. However, “in Spain, its imprint is not in philology, but in basic education. At the beginning of the 17th century, there were about 4,000 training centers. It expanded the beginnings of classical culture, but at a very low level.”

“What if I was a good teacher? Ask Javier Sercas, who was my student.”

However, there was also a Spanish counterpart: the birth of the modern realistic novel. “Because the doctrine was more general but weaker, humanism did not take root, as in Italy or France. Classical principles were not taken so literally, and writers broke with them. For the Greeks, the subject of art is reality, but not what we see, but the ideal. The social conditions are further marked by the treatment of the characters. Noble: tragedy. Plebeian: comedy. “As Victor Hugo said, kings didn’t ask what time it was. Suddenly, in Celestina, humble characters live with tragic passions, Lazarillo makes fun of everything. This is connected with modernity, that is, with the individualism of money and the bourgeoisie. And with a printing press.

Therefore, he believes that the problem of these works in high school is not so much in the texts as in the curricula: “It’s hard for someone not to love Don Quixote. To a lesser extent in Spain, but abroad, it was widely read as a book for young people, as we read Verne or Dumas. Of course, at a certain age you need guidance. Teachers are key. You have to let them work because they know how to do it.”

Francisco Rico, 2015, during the presentation of his updated edition of Don Quixote.Carlos Rossillo

It is full of teachers who know long fidelity. Starting with José Manuel Blekua who changed his life. Attending one of his classes caused him to give up his first calling: journalism. His father, an artificial stone dealer in Sant Cugat, did not think it was a serious career, and philology came to the rescue. “I have a feeling that I didn’t leave this class,” he says with a rare fit of melancholy. AND? Was he a good teacher? “I would say yes. I didn’t make the students dizzy with what I was researching. But boy, ask them. To Fences, for example. If you catch it, why don’t you stop? The writer was educated as a medievalist and called his teacher a character in the novel “The Belly of the Whale”, which preceded the “Soldiers of Salamis”. Now it is located between Santiago de Chile and Buenos Aires. And via WhatsApp, he confirms: Professor Francisco Rico was “extremely brilliant.”

“Long loyalty. Philologists and the like. Francis Rich. Cliff, 2022. 280 pages. 18 euro

“The Lesson and Legacy of Elio Antonio de Nebrija”. Francis Rich. Royal Spanish Academy, 2022. 564 pages.

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