What makes Brenan’s writing so irresistible to me is that everything he writes is vivid and compelling and imbued with his seemingly effortless talent for detailed observation. I am instantly drawn in by his mildly sardonic style, his facility to absorb everything around him, processing it intelligently and drawing unobvious and often ideosyncratic conclusions.
Brenan was possessed of an avid and insatiable appetite for discovering what lies on the surface as well as below it and a jackdaw’s talent for storing odd bits of whatever attracted him – whether they were details of dress or conversation or landscape – and of course the chaotic and convoluted politics of the time, a time when good and bad, tragic and ludicrous, blended seamlessly into the almost – but never quite unmanageable – blend of recent events and intractable ancient customs.
His all-surveying eye and his finely tuned, acute sense of hearing make him the perfect proxy, and I feel myself becoming an enthusiastic voyeur. In fact, this was one of Brenan’s favourite predilictions, and one he indulged without a trace of either shame or guilt!
The feeling for a place which infuses his writing makes reading it feel a bit like reading about paradise, a countryside which is a microcosm of early creation – of ilex trees and broom and expansive views extending into the distance, but a paradise where terror and despair and human confusion all have a part.
I remember reading somewhere, (perhaps it was in an old Spanish short story) something that lodged itself indelibly in my memory, which fits well with Brenan’s experiences with the typical Spanish pride in social standing. His glimpses of the Spain reminiscent of the time of Cervantes when even the nobles starved, making a pretense of grandeur over their sparse and deficient meals, prandial rituals rigidly and helplessly followed when a liveried servant would ceremoniously serve his high-born but impoverished master a single egg on the ancient family silver, after which the master would ostentatiously pick his teeth in public to show he had dined well.
This particular book, The Face of Spain, with its endless kaleidoscopic shifts people, places things – the unstoppable course of onrushing life like a stream which passes through an endless expanse of space and time – transforms and transports one with the greatest immediacy to another time and place.
Brenan visited Spain in the aftermath of the civil war, during the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In the last four hundred years everyone had had a go at Spain – England’s Drake and the disastrous loss of the Spanish Armada, ( though to be fair Spain brought this upon herself,) France’s Napoleon, and his butchery, so graphically immortalised by Goya, then the Nazis and fascists, ( and who can forget Picasso’s memorial of Guernica) and finally after a disastrous civil war, the grandest scourge of them all, the mean-eyed, pudgy-faced Franco with his revolting moustache. Under his baneful tyranny Spain became a creature which resembled Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring its young: liberals, intellectuals, poets, anarchists, peasants, clerics, and ordinary people all fell willy-nilly into the gaping maw.
Though Spain remained nominally neutral in WW2, The Germans and the Italians (Franco’s allies) enthusiastically launched several massacres. The Spanish Civil War drew in the young idealists from Europe in droves to fight against the Fascists. Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell lost his life in the Spanish Civil War. Communist lesbians Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland were active volunteers, raising money and involving themselves in many aspects of the conflict such as providing transportation, medicines and other necessities. Rosamund Lehmann (writer of wonderful novels such as The Ballad and the Source, Invitation to the Waltz and Dusty Answer, with its ever-so-deeply enduring lavender tinge) contributed money for soap, a commodity in extremely short supply at the time, and one can only imagine the morale of a fighting force which lacks even the basic ability to stay reasonably clean.
Brenan has some fascinating antecedents as one of the fringe elements of the Bloomsbury group with its brilliant women of ambiguous, uncertain or confused sexuality (for my purposes lesbian) including his first love the brilliant painter Dora Carrington, (it is her portrait of Brenan which is at the top of this post) whose life ended tragically in suicide. His wife, the writer and poet Gamel Woolsey, to whom he dedicated The face of Spain, was connected to the well-known Powys family and in particular to the much older Llewellyn Powys (and also perhaps with Lewellyn Powys’s brother John Cowper Powys) with whom she had an affaire. Gamel and Llewelyn’s wife Alyse Gregory were close friends; nonetheless Powys wished Gamel to bear him a child. Brenan too wandered from the path of marital fidelity when he fathered a child, his daugter Miranda, with one of his Spanish domestics, Juliana Pellegrino. However, it should come as no surprise to anyone that among this loosely knit group of of writers and artists and thinkers who all came from one tiny and remarkable segment of British society, sexual heterodoxy was the norm rather than the exception.
Brenan, like some of the superb writers and literary luminaries of his social group such as Virginia Woolf, was self-educated. His style of writing – the kind of polished and striking prose which makes portraits and landscapes out of words, is his own unique skill, and cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. Though Spain remained his most important subject, he was not restricted to one kind of writing. His book St John of the Cross is one of the very best on the subject I have ever read. Last night I read its preface in which Brenan pondered the difficulties and challenges of translating the saint’s Spanish poems into English, and was amazed at how exactly he defined and described the very heart of the problem, he encountered in his book about this saint and his poetry, (here Brenan points out the fascinating fact that Garcilaso de la Vega had a significant influence on John’s poetry) which in essence is the difficulty deciding between the importance of a rough and clumsy but accurate translation of Spanish into English, or a refined English poem in which the original expression has been diluted.
When one reads his books, Brenan’s fascination with Spain becomes infectious. His grasp of the very nature of this fascinating country and people, its history of brutality and violence in conquest, its religious intolerance, its art and its poetry, is in my view unsurpassed. This Spain, with its tendency in modern times to fall into one financial crisis after another, seems to have lost some of the historical hauteur with which Brenan tinged her. His descriptions brought to mind for me the image of a noble old dowager, somewhat the worse for wear, but still keeping up appearances and clinging to tradition. This intractable cycle of poverty is of ancient duration, for even in the past, the wealth of colonial plunder brought inflation and hardship. When Spain’s colonies were lost, along came still more hardship, but throughout it all the Spanish people clung stubbornly to the pride of their imperial inheritance. We tend to forget that a Spaniard – Cæsar Nerva Traianus Germanicus (Trajan) once ruled Imperial Rome. Once again in need of a European bailout, Spain stands hat-in hand, its financial fate in the hands of wealthier nations, and one has to imagine that the country’s self-respect is getting a bit tattered at the edges.
Before Brenan died at the age of 94, had hoped to avoid funeral expenses and accordingly he had made arrangements to donate his body to a Medical faculty in Málaga. However, and perhaps due to some compunction about using the body of a well-known and much admired man of letters, the body was not put to the use to which Brenan intended it. Thus it remained unburied (and one would hope in cold storage) for 14 years, after which it was cremated and the ashes interred beside the burial plot of Gamel Woolsey in the English cemetery in Malaga.
I wish Brenan were still alive to cast his keen writerly eye on Spain at this juncture of her national life, but alas he is not, nor could anyone else take his place.