Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Gerald Brenan, Richard Ford, Ronald Fraser

Gerald Brenan (portrait by Dora Carrington)

(Image from http://www.losgazquez.com/blog/?p=342)

Gerald Brenan, South of Granada (1957) 

This feels like it's becoming a rare occasion. I've actually finished a book, what's more a book that I haven't read before, and I've even read it in the prescribed order, from start to finish!  Dr Johnson, they say, never finished a book. I fear I'm going the same way, and can only look back with some relief at all the books I got under my belt in my twenties.

South of Granada, published in 1957 but mainly about Spain in the 1920s, is probably the most admired book in the "Hispanist" genre (i.e. books about Spain in English), notwithstanding Richard Ford. Most of it is about living in a then-remote village (Yegen) in the Alpujarras. The road from Almeria to Granada didn't yet exist, and only mule-traffic was possible. Don Geraldo is now remembered by a plaque, a circular walk (Brenan walked vast distances) and a projected museum. [Chris Stewart's popular books (Driving over Lemons etc) are also set in the Alpujarras. Did you know Chris was once a founder member of Genesis? Wikipedia can be quite interesting sometimes. Eventually everything becomes swamped by its hyperreal projection. The trivia section is what makes tomorrow's news. (In effect, the word "iconic" means "rich in trivia"; there's a vacuum at the heart of it.)]

One of the nicest things, I now remember, about writing about a book is that it gives me a chance to re-discover the pages that, by the time I finish it, are already gliding out of my memory.  Have I commented before, on the tendency of book reviewers to get hung up on the book's ending, to the detriment of their review? And sadly it's rare for the ending to be the most important part of a book.

In this case I'd be dwelling on a musical ending, an elegy and retrospect on returning to Yegen in 1955; a visit by Bertrand Russell amusingly not recounted, for the sake of the music; on the Civil War atrocities suffered by the Alpujarras as disputed territory; on the sad decline of his former servant Maria Andorra into madness and death. And the image of these final chapters does leave a long silence in which my own scurrying meditations make themselves heard.

But this is to get the emphasis wrong. I think the most valuable parts of the book are on the society of Yegen, its laws, seasons, clouds, winds, feasts, superstitions, folklore and habits. Brenan travelled widely and wrote interestingly about e.g. courtship in Granada, or the brothels of Almeria, or botanical treasures; but the book is best when least a travel book. For example, the August harvest:

Then, as darkness fell, preparations for the winnowing would begin. [There was no breeze except at night.] A group of men and women would assemble on the threshing-floor, a lantern would be lit, someone would strum on a guitar. Unexpectedly a voice would rise into the night, would hang for a few seconds in the air, and then fade back into silence again. From the poplar trees close by the trill of a nightingale answered it.

And now the wind had begun to blow. At first it came in little puffs, then it died down, then it came on again. Whenever it seemed strong enough, one or two men would take their long forks of ash or almez (the lotus or nettle tree) and begin tossing up the ears. This went on at intervals all night. The wind blew most steadily towards sunrise, and often I would come out of my room, where I had sat up reading, and climb the slope to watch the work going on. The great trough of mountains below would fill, as from a tank of water, with rippling light, the shadows would turn violet, then lavender, would become thin and float away, while, as I approached the threshing-floor, I would see the chaff streaming out like a white cloak in the breeze and the heavy grain falling, as the gold coins fell on Danaë, on to the heap below.  Then without clouds or veils the sun's disc appeared above the Sierra de Gádor and began to mount rapidly. The sleeping figures rose and stretched themselves: the men took a pull at their wine-skins, the women packed their baskets of provisions and returned home. Within half an hour they would be out again at the streamside washing clothes. 

As I copy this out, I think that the scenic description, though it reports Brenan's experience, is also essential in order to suggest, so far as it was possible for him, the experience of the unnamed threshers. It is a little idyllic, but that isn't wrong. Yegen, despite its coarse culture, its adulteries and envies, its idiots, lunatics, quiet tragedies and occasional rapes and killings, was generally a happy village.

The immemorial life of the village appeared, to Brenan, to survive continually despite the comings and goings of people. The values of the village were turned inward; nothing outside it had significance. So only the road of his own time changed it for ever. This may be an over-simplification, but reading the book you will give it some credence.


It makes sense, I think, to add to this post what I have written previously about the books of Richard Ford and Ronald Fraser.

Richard Ford (oil after Antonio Chatelain)
(Image from National Portrait Gallery, http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02288/Richard-Ford?)

Richard Ford: Gatherings from Spain (1846)

In October 1830, Ford (then aged 34), travelled with his family to Spain, originally for his wife’s health. They returned to England in the spring of 1833. Rarely has a stay abroad been turned to better account. Ford spent much of his time in Spain travelling from end to end of the country. He produced over 500 accurate sketches of Spanish scenes (now of importance to historians); seven years after his return, he began to write the topographical Handbook for Travellers in Spain. It took five years to write, amounted to 1500 pages, and was celebrated as a triumph. But Ford’s editors saw that he had material which would please a wider audience. The Gatherings (some 350 pages) re-used some of the best passages from the Handbook, along with much new material, but the re-structuring was crucial. Neither autobiographical nor topographical, the Gatherings was a book that sought to capture the essence of a land by focussing on topics. I am turning over a few random pages here; the running-titles say “Asses of La Mancha”, “Olla Podrida”, “Iced Drinks”, “Guerrilleros”, “The Beard”, “Music in Ventas”...

Ford was a patriotic Protestant who regarded Spain as a desperately backward, underlyingly Oriental nation. (England and Spain were, however, allied in their recent opposition to France under Bonaparte, and while he was composing the Gatherings Spain was again being threatened from the north, this time by the sabre-rattlings of the Second Empire.) Ford was also besotted by Spain and it was the centre of all his creative imaginings. The result was at the time an object lesson in dealing intelligently with the struggle to extend one’s humanity beyond a narrow localism. It was also a theme on which he improvises with great enjoyment on almost every page, being incessantly witty about Spanish improvidence, often crushing the French (largely despicable, except for hair-dressing and cookery), and not uncommonly refreshing himself with a raid on the complacent and stupid of his own nation.  

Ford’s two seasons of riding through Spain were a gentleman’s life in microcosm. Never returning, he celebrated it and meditated on it ever after. Though he was in a foreign land and in unusual circumstances, his chapters on horses and servants are an immensely illuminating insight into the mundane preoccupations of his class; the things that, in novels, are usually not mentioned. Besides, Ford’s style is a search for the admirable; a never-ending moral adventure. This seems like a good place to get a sense of that style – it needs an extensive quote:

The cook should take with him a stewing-pan, and a pot or kettle for boiling water; he need not lumber himself with much batterie de cuisine; it is not much needed in the imperfect gastronomy of the Peninsula, where men eat like the beasts which perish; all sort of artillery is rather rare in Spanish kitchen or fortress; an hidalgo would as soon think of having a voltaic battery in his sitting-room as a copper one in his cuisine; most classes are equally satisfied with the Oriental earthenware ollas, pucheros, or pipkins, which are everywhere to be found, and have some peculiar sympathy with the Spanish cuisine, since a stew – be it even of cat – never eats so well when made in a metal vessel; the great thing is to bring the raw materials, – first catch your hare. Those who have meat and money will always get a neighbour to lend them a pot. A venta is a place where the rich are sent empty away, and where the poor hungry are not filled; the whole duty of the man-cook, therefore, is to be always thinking of his commissariat; he need not trouble himself about his master’s appetite, that will seldom fail,– nay, often be a misfortune; a good appetite is not a good per se, for it, even when the best, becomes a bore when there is nothing to eat; his capucho or mule hamper must be his travelling larder, cellar, and store-room; he will victual himself according to the route, and the distances from one great town to another, and will always take care to start with a good provision: indeed to attend to the commissariat is, it cannot be too often repeated, the whole duty of a man-cook in hungry Spain, where food has ever been the difficulty; a little foresight gives small trouble and ensures great comfort, while perils by sea and perils by land are doubled when the stomach is empty, whereas, as Sancho Panza wisely told his ass, all sorrows are alleviated by eating bread: todos los duelos, con pan son buenos, and the shrewd squire, who seldom is wrong, was right both in the matter of bread and the moral: the former is admirable. The central table-lands of Spain are perhaps the finest wheat-growing districts in the world; however rude and imperfect the cultivation – for the peasant does but scratch the earth, and seldom manures – the life-conferring sun comes to his assistance; the returns are prodigious, and the quality superexcellent; yet the growers, miserable in the midst of plenty, vegetate in cabins composed of baked mud, or in holes burrowed among the friable hillocks, in an utter ignorance of furniture, and absolute necessaries. The want of roads, canals, and means of transport prevents their exportation of produce, which from its bulk is difficult of carriage in a country where grain is removed for the most part on four-footed beasts of burden, after the oriental and patriarchal fashion of Jacob, when he sent to the granaries of Egypt. Accordingly, although there are neither sliding scales nor corn laws, and subsistence is cheap and abundant, the population decreases in number and increases in wretchedness; what boots it if corn be low-priced, if wages be still lower, as they then everywhere are, and must be?

It’s a style that makes heroic use of semi-colons, is ample and even allows repetitions, which however always contribute to the enlargement of the prospect.

The paragraph ends (as not uncommonly) in a very different place from where it began, yet plainly there are connections. His interest in the travelling gentleman’s well-being is in the in end inextricable from his interest in the well-being of a people where scarcity is everywhere.

One part of his interest lays in the lack of industrialization. In Spain Ford is constantly reminded of biblical, classical and Arab ways of life; this must have been commonplace and therefore unnoticeable before the Industrial Revolution, but now it quickens his imagination, which really enjoys what his judgment as sincerely laments.

The  chapter on sherry (XIV) is one of the best (where all are good) and is still informative. When we need a pause from information a switch-sentence comes along like this: “There is an excellent account of all the vines of Andalucia by Rojas Clemente. This able naturalist disgraced himself by being a base toady of the wretched minion Godoy...”  or an image like this (on the Capataz leading a tasting): “on whom wine has no more effect than on a glass”.* One thing I don’t understand is that Ford gives the strength of fine sherry as 20-23% but today 20% is, I think, the upper limit not the lower. He despises sherries that are made to look pale by chemical means. He was also an early champion (I mean, among the British) of manzanilla, which he says the local inhabitants of Jerez much preferred to drink themselves as it was so much less inebriating (he does not seem to know of other finos). The only other Spanish wine he praises is Valdepeñas – now considered a modest table wine. Rioja and Penedés had always produced wine but it seems that their market identities really emerged in the mid-nineteenth century when they were the regions selected by French expertise who because of the Phylloxera plague could not grow grapes in France.

[The enormous Handbook is one of those volumes that one enjoys longing to possess. If you make the mistake of becoming serious about this, it ought to be the first (1845) edition; Ford, and then others, made destabilizing alterations to the later ones. In truth it is probably only a book for amazed dips, unless you plan to give up your whole life to a former existence.]

[*I have since discovered that this joke appears in Tom Jones (Bk 9 Ch 6), but Ford's version is snappier.]


Ronald Fraser

(Image from Melville House Press: http://www.mhpbooks.com/hail-farewell-ronald-fraser/)

Ronald Fraser: The Pueblo: A Mountain Village on the Costa del Sol  (1973). 

In the USA, this was published as Tajos: A Mountain Village on the Costa del Sol.  "Tajos" was a fictional name, in fact; the book was about Mijas, now one of the best-known villages in Spain. Fraser related his book to Julian Pitt-Rivers' People of the Sierra (1954) and to Brenan's South from Granada - all three were about isolated Andalucian mountain villages.  (Fraser and Brenan became close friends, incidentally.)  Fraser claimed, somewhat inaccurately, that his village was about 50 miles from the other two; Grazalema to the west and Yegen to the east (in fact, Mijas is a lot nearer to Grazalema than to Yegen).

Of course these villages are not isolated now. Especially Mijas, which is right on the doorstep of Fuengirola, Benalmadena and Torremolinos, and is now really a show-village though a very lovely one - about as transformed from the stories of the hungry '40s recounted here as it's possible to conceive. And part of the story of The Pueblo is a story of the unforeseen and extraordinary changes from the older world of hunger and inequality and the Civil War to the sudden prosperity that happened (almost "overnight") once the foreigners arrived, at the beginning of the 1960s.

In that respect the history of "Tajos" could be described as exceptional. But in a way it is not so; Tajos even typifies, though with exceptional starkness, the enormous changes that took place throughout the West in the course of the 20th century; the incredible technical advances and the social changes that, as this book shows, led to a profound dislocation between the experience of the old and the experience of the young.

This is what we think of as history, though the suddenness, the sense of miracle, leaves behind it a baffled sense of non sequitur; what came to pass was not something long nurtured through the dark days, but a supersession of them; - even a kind of cancellation. And I think the oral history brings this beautifully to life.

But the other great thing about oral history is that it doesn't simplify, doesn't subordinate everything to an epic theme. Coexistent with this story is a series of portraits formed of details which remind me a little of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. And this aspect, just as much as the other, is history, though it resists historicism. The methodology of The Pueblo brings out many such details. For instance, a wastrel elder son of the owner class, Lazaro Lopez, now in his sixties:

I spent my time doing nothing -- and that's what I've done ever since. To begin with I used to get rather bored, it was monotonous. But one gets used to it in the end. ... I used to go to Gibraltar a lot on my motorbikes.

The smallholder Francisco Avila, now 76:

How else could it be when everyone was so poor? A man and his family couldn't live on a day wage of 1.50 pesetas, even if that had been the money he earned. But in reality it wasn't. His real wage was closer to 50 centimos, since two-thirds of the year he was out of work. What could he and his family eat? They didn't, and that was that. Yes, a day-labourer's life was abysmal -- but a small-holder had to work even harder. Twice as hard, I'd say. From before light until long past nightfall. A day-labourer works his fixed hours, but there are no hours for a small farmer. It had to be that way to win any sort of living from the earth... Just speaking for myself, I can tell you there have been more times than I can remember when I've worked a day and a night through without rest and gone on the next day working the same. I'd be busy digging or ploughing the terraces all day, at night the water would come and I'd irrigate by the light of an oil lamp, and the next day I'd go on digging. In those times the only rest was work.


Ronald Fraser: Blood of Spain: An Oral History of the Spanish Civil War (1979)

This brilliant book re-creates a unique succession of events in a unique historical situation – one of the lasting impressions of the book is that “the Spanish Civil War” was not like any other episode in history. This, for me, formidably validates the author’s procedure.

Nor, of course, was the war the same for any two of the hundreds of witnesses that Fraser interviewed. Yet their stories are by no means entirely detached, since they occupied a shared time and space, more importantly shared social conditions, which become clearer with each page. The book is a way of treating these (perhaps they might be identified with the war itself) without imposing a historian’s marshalling.

It’s best to read it straight through. The structure is improvised; the paragraphs and pages, though approached by the reader in a linear sequence, do not mimic the sequence of passing time. But this is a necessary discipline for the emergence of the image. Quite hard work at first, eventually compulsive. Though the book consists mainly of unliterary testimony, it becomes a seminal literary work, and characteristically so in demanding a new way of reading. It may be one of the lasting achievements of its own era, in the aftermath of ‘60s radicalism. 

Blood of Spain is a large book but one of its virtues is the impression that each narrative takes place in the open air, a solo in the midst of unrecounted life. Eschewing the inclusiveness of summary, the mastery of De bello gallico, its selectiveness is open to the gaze. The focus is on certain areas of Spain at certain times – we never, for example, enter Galicia. The interviews were conducted in 1973-1975, some forty years after the events; it follows that while those who were children at the time are well represented, there is nothing from those who were old. Other limitations are stressed in the Foreword. Fraser admits that he tended to suppress acerbic material about enemies in favour of self-criticism; that perhaps contributes, in a small way, to the overwhelming sense of shock at how such reasonable and comprehensible people could find themselves in the position of slaughtering one another.

That is one of the central preoccupations for any reader. Equally fascinating is the political situation on both sides; revolutionary Catalonia, for example, is I think the only occasion when an anarcho-syndicalist system has subsisted, or tried to subsist, on a grand scale; in a region containing one of Europe’s major cities. But the situation everywhere had unique features – in the Basque country, for example, impossible contradictions of loyalty arose. The political complexities on the Right were less turmoiled (they were winning) but no less unpredictable (see e.g. Dionisio Ridruejo’s view of Falangism).

The front line is avoided in favour of the rearguard; it is not so much the military actions as the radicalization of individuals that impresses us as the primary condition of civil war. But Guernica, Oviedo, the siege of Madrid and the terrified descent on Alicante are all here.  We also encounter (among a hundred other memorable and distressing histories) Asturian fugitives in the mountains, refugees in Leningrad, rural collectivization in Aragon, village civil war in Córdoba province...

I’m looking for a quotation, but will just pick the page I happen to be re-reading. José Avila, a labrador (farmer):

Politics, that was where the trouble lay. Everyone read a lot, everyone had his own point of view, everyone went his own way. If there had been just two sorts of politics, left and right, things would have been better. But there were so many ideologies, especially on the left: republicans, socialists, communists, anarchists. I don’t know what the labourers really wanted. I don’t think they knew themselves. But whatever it was, it wasn’t good for us farmers. At work they began to make remarks to our faces. “Not a single fascist must be allowed to live.” It became risky for us to live on the cortijos (large farms). The labourers talked of the reparto (division of estates) but was that what they really wanted? When the republic took over the duke of Medinaceli’s three estates near here, the people didn’t seem satisfied with the land they got. They wanted something else. If only there had been a strong political organization, left or right, republican or non-republican, things wouldn’t have reached the stage they did. Guarantees, rights – fine! But law and order as well. That was what was missing.

And Juan Moreno, a landless day-labourer:

What did we want? Not the sort of agrarian reform the republic was trying to make. The state and capitalism are the worker’s two worst enemies. What we wanted was the land – for the workers to take it over and work it collectively without the state intervening... The reformists, the state socialists, wanted agrarian reform, wanted everything controlled by the state. When the state said “stop” – stop; when it said “render accounts” – render accounts; when the harvest was in – it would be there demanding its share. We didn’t want that. The land must be in the workers’ hands, worked and managed collectively by them. That was the only way the workers could control their own affairs, ensure that the produce which resulted from their work remained theirs to deal with as they freely decided. Not that each collective could remain isolated, a unit on its own. No! Each would be responsible to the local CNT organization (anarcho-syndicalist trade union), the local to the regional, the regional to the national. But each would be managed by a committee elected by the collectivists themselves, each at the end of the year would divide up the surplus produced among the collectivists... We hated the bourgeoisie, they treated us like animals. They were our worst enemies. When we looked at them we thought we were looking at the devil himself. And they thought the same of us. There was a hatred between us – a hatred so great it couldn’t have been greater. They were bourgeois, they didn’t have to work to earn a living, they had comfortable lives. We knew we were workers and that we had to work – but we wanted them to pay us a decent wage and to treat us like human beings, with respect. There was only one way to achieve that – by fighting them...  In many ways we were worse off under the republic than under the monarchy; the right became even more aggressive and reactionary, and we had to defend ourselves...


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