Six Great Books About Spain in English
Whether it’s Norman Lewis eulogizing Costa Brava fishermen, Robert Hughes taking on Barcelona’s modernist monuments or Hemingway’s Civil War opus For Whom The Bell Tolls, few countries have offered refuge and inspiration to so many foreign writers.
We begin with Laurie Lee, a young vagabond with a violin, who portrayed street life in towns and villages across Spain in the period just before the Civil War…
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
‘…Ominous days of nerve-bending sirocco, with peasants wrapped up to the eyes… but far down in the valley, running in slow green coils, I could see at last the tree-lined Guadalquivir.’
Laurie Lee left the comfort of his Cotswolds village Slad in 1934 to tramp around pre-Civil War Spain, playing his violin in pueblos and plazas from Vigo to Almuñecar. He paints a lyrical portrait of a rural, religious nation unaware of the prospect of war on the horizon. Lee’s descriptions, though semi-romanticized by the golden lens of youth, have a striking poetic beauty, leaving you with the impression that no-one inhabited the Spanish streets quite like him. A book which transports you, not just to the Spain of the times, but to youth itself.
Barcelona by Robert Hughes
In his architectural ode, the Antipodean critic takes on ‘the most un-Spanish city in Spain’ and eats it whole; arms, tail and brains included, and without a sprig of romance. As a chronicler of Barcelona’s history, his explorations into local mythology – in particular a chapter on the legendary, Griffon-slaying Dark Age Count, Wilfred the Hairy (Guifre el Pelòs) - are very entertaining. But it’s Hughes’s unyielding appetite for art, be it a Miró mural, a Gaudi lamp or a Romanesque arch, and a full-blooded investigative curiosity allied to an unlinching critical eye, which gives this read iconic status:
‘Across the street one could see the even worse vandalism inflicted on Domènech I Montaner’s Casa Lleó Morera by a luxury leather goods firm named Loewe. These handbag makers tore out the whole street-level façade, destroying its scultpures by Eusebi Arnau, along with all the rest of its decorative detail and stuck in plate glass instead.’
South of Granada by Gerald Brenan
An early 20th century travel classic. A member of the artistic movement known as the Bloomsbury Group, Brenan made a memorable adaptation to life as the solitary Brit in a remote village in the Alpujarra. Investigations into local folklore reveal some interesting local customs: ‘it had been common for a girl who had been initiated into the hechicera’s arts to give her young man a drink which turned him into a donkey, after which she mounted him naked, or rather with her skirts bundled around her head, and so rode about very pleasantly through the air all night.’ His strivings to fit in with the primitive rural community, helped by his patient friend Agustín and his maid Maria, are equally engaging, as are his attempts to court girls in the local fashion – visiting an Almerian girl called Carmen at a reja (barred window) of her home each evening to woo her in stumbling Spanish and without the usual prop of a musical instrument, he later realizes she is half his size and has been standing on a wooden board. Not so gratifying are the visits to this rural retreat of Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, who remind him of the supercilious intellectual insularity of the milieu he has tried to escape.
Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis
‘On the first of September the curandero told the fishermen that all his prognostications were complete and that they should be prepared with their bait… the ritual was quite inexplicable even to the fishermen who practiced it. Several boats swept the seabed with shallow nets and while this was going on custom insisted that the fishermen keep up a tremendous outcry, as one man after another would boast of his capabailities in the fields of fishing and lovemaking and the others would respond with a chorus of mockery and oaths… I was not allowed in a boat.’
Norman Lewis, like Gerald Brenan, strove to forget the ills of a British upper-class upbringing and military career by renting a room in an isolated Spanish community. In his case he found a refuge in the feudalistic and deeply paganistic Costa Bravan fishing community of Farol, where he tried to earn a living as a fisherman. When he left it three summers later, the village was on its way to becoming a tourist haven.
Like Brenan, Lewis amuses the reader with the usual tales of the Spanish temper and shibboleths of an era now consigned to blurry old postcard images; for instance, the mortal enmity between the people of his village, Farol – ‘the cat people’- and its nearest neigbour, the agricultural village of Sort, (the ‘dog people’) each of whom are so suspicious of the other they refuse to eat each other’s produce.
But despite all Lewis’s comic portraits of local characters and customs, Voices is a poignant valediction to an ancient way of life the author genuinely cherished. The fishermens’ habits and heathenistic connection to the sea and its tides, give Lewis some fascinating material, before he witnesses first-hand how the local wealthy land-owners try to modernize the village and attract the first tourists. A new hotel is built, simulacran festivities are held, with flamenco and folk-dancing, the waterfront is bulldozed to make way for a hideous concrete promenade, and something similar happens to the villagers sensibilities; particularly with the medieval-minded fishermen, who, though appalled by the idea of acting as gondoliers to drunken foreigners, find they can earn in a day what they would have earned in a season, and end up doing something they viewed as being beneath their dignity. Voices of the Old Sea, for this reason, ends up being a very enlightening elegy to a near-forgotten world which wasn’t so very long ago.
Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving
The excitable tone and hyperbole of Washington Irving’s 1832 classic (‘Lovely Granada! City of delights! Whoever bore the favors of thy dames more proudly on their casques, or championed them more gallantly in the chivalrous tilts of the Vivarambla? Or who ever made thy moon-lit balconies, thy gardens of myrtles and roses, of oranges, citrons, and pomegranates, respond to more tender serenades?’) has long been imitated and mocked (by the contemporaneous Edgar Allen Poe for one) in equal degree. But Irving has a scintillating turn of phrase, and as an ambassador who actually resided in the palace itself, had all the time in the world to explore every nook of it, and to avidly document all its myths and legends. The result is an entertainingly energetic read, which, with its lofty, vaunted style, influenced travel writing immensely.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway’s fictional account of the Spanish Civil War incesticide - observed through the eyes of an American dynamiter fighting in the Republican International Brigades in the Guadarrama mountains - is a death-obsessed epic. Its simple pounding rhythmical style is both stunning and massively influential, owing much to the idioms of colloquial Spanish itself. The Guadarrama Mountains and its pine forests make an atmospheric backdrop. The dialogues, despite a strange insistence on thees and thous that bring to mind Yorkshire farmers as opposed to Spanish peasants, are full of such pearls as ‘I obscenity in the milk of my shame.’ And there are countless unforgettable set-pieces, among which the executions of fascists at a village church – said to be inspired by a similar event at Ronda - stays in the mind. “Wipe the pap of your mother's breast off thy lips and give me a hatful of that dirt,' the man with his chin on the ground said. 'Not one of us will see the sun go down this night.”