Beloved Emeritus Professor Josep Miquel “Pep” Sobrer died peacefully, at home, from complications of metastatic colon cancer.
The outlines of Pep’s professional career are quickly told—in fact, he told them himself in his obituary in the Bloomington Herald-Times. He earned his Licenciatura from the University of Barcelona and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. After a few years as Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan he moved to IU in 1981, where he directed the Catalan program, rose to Full Professor of Spanish & Portuguse, and served more than once as department Chair. He retired at the end of 2008.
But this captures so little about Pep’s work. He began as a medievalist, with books on early Catalan historical chronicles and the poet Ausias March. The Franco dictatorship, which banned any public use of Catalan, lasted from before Pep was born until he was over thirty and had finished his American Ph.D. To anyone who grew up then, writing in the language was a subversive and defiant act. Pep’s good luck and great gifts brought him to IU to direct our Catalan program, the most respected among the very few in the U.S. For three years in the 1990s he was president of the North American Catalan Society, which earned the Catalan government’s highest cultural award, the Creu de Sant Jordi, at the end of his tenure.
Over the course of his career, Pep’s scholarly publications in or on Catalan would touch on its entire history up to modern poetry and fiction. His 2011 book was on Josep Maria de Sagarra, a twentieth-century dramatic poet. He composed the “Catalan Literature” entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica Online. He edited the volume Catalonia: A Self-Portrait to introduce the region to American readers at the centennial year of 1992. His superb translations from Catalan to English – that is, into his non-native language – include major modern novels by Mercè Rodoreda and Carme Riera and an autobiography of the painter Antoni Tàpies. The works that he translated from English to Catalan encompass some of the greatest poets in English from Chaucer to Sylvia Plath, as well as novels by Ian Fleming, H.G. Wells, and the Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake. In short, our knowledge of Catalonia and Catalan has been immensely enriched by Pep’s work.
Pep pursued his academic career within Hispanism but all of his studies versed on Catalan literature. While working on non-Castilian archives has fortunately become more accepted today, nobody in the US academy before Professor Sobrer had reached full professorship by writing exclusively on a linguistically non-hegemonic literature. Catalan Studies but also Hispanism as a whole owes a debt to him for helping bring visibility to the multilingual reality of the Iberian peninsula.
Pep was a true writer, and writing just poured out of him. One book of poetry and prose was inspired by the Tarot. Many of his projects enlivened our local scene: He read his Spanish essays, “Cinco Minutos de Soledad,” for a year on WFHB radio. For two years he wrote a community column for the Herald-Times; some of that material reappeared in Catalan in Desfer les Amèriques – not surprising to those who knew him, it would be subtitled a contradiccionari –which introduced readers in his native land to the unimaginably exotic life of a Midwestern college town. The Bloomington Playwrights’ Project staged a 3-minute play from his pen. He collaborated with musicians: his libretto based on works of Cervantes was performed locally by an early-music group, and he reconstructed lost stanzas for the Baroque opera “La púrpura de la rosa,” staged in Spain and Switzerland. The Hotel Romàntic near Barcelona, long owned by his brother Gonçal, inspired a privately printed memoir, again in Catalan and English. Many of his friends have read his blogposts (http://pepsobrer.blogspot.com/ ), and his last CV lists a forthcoming memoir that we will all want to read: La llum d’aquells dies. Pep will have a great deal to say to us yet.