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February 26, 2008

Bloomsbury's Hombre: Gerald Brenan's South from Granada

Posted by Lincoln Allison

South from Granada
by Gerald Brenan
first published 1957 by Hamish Hamilton
Penguin Books, 1963

Available as a Penguin, Gerald Brenan's South from Granada (Penguin, 1992), £9.99

I have just discovered Gerald Brenan and I feel somehow relieved, as well as pleased, that a writer of his quality exists. He combines a sharp eye with a penetrating intelligence and, best of all, a voracious curiosity about everything, not just a "field" of knowledge. He didn't make much of his education, running away at the age of 16 in the general direction of Central Asia.

And he didn't bother with university; I am becoming convinced that the rejection of formal education is a necessary condition of good writing and clear thinking. On mountain walks Brenan can tell you several names for the plants he passes and what the local people think their properties are and what their properties really are. When he sees a place name he can tell you about its Arabic or Celtic origin and about the legend that has grown up about the place purely because people don't know that the origin is Arabic or Celtic.

In 1920, aged 25 and having won the Military Cross and the Croix de Guerre in the war, Gerald Brenan went to live in the village of Yegen in the Alpujarra region of Spain. The village is four thousand feet up in the Sierra Nevada, vaguely between Granada and Almeria. If not literally off the beaten track it was a long way off the metalled road. For a few years he was in the village nearly all the time and spent most of his time there in the entire period up until 1934; he retained his connection and returned to live in Spain in 1953 after which this book was finally written.

I have seen Brenan referred to as a "travel writer", one of the greatest in the genre. Yet in a sense this book is not about travel at all: it is a man describing the place where he has chosen to live. This particular book has also been described as "autobiography", but it is hardly that either since Brenan apparently had a rather complicated and interesting love life which is barely hinted at in this book.

If one think in terms of genres at all, it is probably best to assume that each of the twenty-one chapters needs to be classified separately. For example, eleven is called "The Lonely Scotsman" and could win prizes in short story competitions. It is about a man called MacTaggart, the only other Anglophone in the region; he has ended up in the Alpujarra despite loathing Spain and the Spanish language and Brenan pieces together his story from a visit and other evidence.

Chapters four, "Lytton Strachey's Visit" and thirteen, "Virginia Woolf's Visit" are about precisely what their titles suggest: Brenan was a sort of member of the Bloomsbury Group, based on his friendship with Ralph Partridge and his attendance at a number of social events between the war and his departure for Spain. I suppose you could say he was a "country member" of Bloomsbury. The Woolfs coped with the adventurousness of getting to Yegen a great deal better than Strachey did.

It is typical Brenan that he has two chapters on the city of Almeria which are called (sixteen) "Almeria and its Brothels" and (seventeen) "Almeria and it Archaeology". The first one is about brothels, but the second is not about archaeology: rather it is a general account of the development of the town which achieves the paradoxical effect of making it sound quite boring but making you want to go there.

The most interesting thing about the brothels is that all the madames are fat. On investigation Brenan discovers that this is a sort of self-fulfilling norm: the girls will not trust a thin lady and the police would not respect one. The worst chapter in the book is fifteen, "A Chapter of History", which is an overview of the Alpujarra. It reads as if the author reluctantly concluded that he ought to have such a chapter, rather than as if he has any particularly clear or unusual ideas on the subject.

But most of the book, nearly all the rest, can be described as popular anthropology, scholarly without being academic. Yegen is doubly fascinating because it was part of the Moorish world for approximately twice as long as it was part of Christendom and it is one of the most isolated and backward parts of Western Europe. In Yegen they live the old life of illiteracy, tradition and self-sufficiency. Apart from some fish and some cloth what the villagers consume is produced in their own district.

A complex and vivid picture emerges of the life of the village. The business of courtship, for example, is ancient and ritualised, based on the traditional assumption that if a boy and a girl are left alone together they will do it, with potentially disastrous consequences.

In some cases, including an involvement of the author's, courting is limited to talking through catflaps - very bad for the back and, though you may find out quite a lot about a girl from her face and her conversation, there is a lot you are not going to know, such as (the crucial issue in Brenan's case) how tall she is. It is normal for a couple not to have kissed before marriage. But if you were to infer from these arrangements that adultery was forbidden and sanctioned by "honour" killings, then you would be quite mistaken. With nothing to lose the married women of Yegen (especially the wives of shepherds) are remarkably promiscuous and it is quite common for a woman to have four or five children by different fathers.

It is also common that if negotiations between young man and young woman break down the young man goes round to the girl's house and shouts or sings to the effect that she is not up to much and he didn't want her anyway. (I take it that this practice is rare even today in Britain and has never been normal.)

Although (perhaps even slightly because) this is a country which is 100% Catholic, Brenan reports that the Church is not taken at all seriously. And priests even less so; Yegen is without a priest much of the time. The idea of the celibacy of the priesthood is neither believed nor approved. There remain all kinds of pagan beliefs and rituals, some residues of Islam and an almost universal belief in witches.

One of the most interesting subjects which Brenan discusses, given that it has played a crucial part in English stereotypes of Spanish culture, is the attitude to animals. Yes, Spaniards are capable of great cruelty to animals - as to people - but it is very rare: in most circumstances that he witnesses the Andalucians are closer and more affectionate to their animals than the English would be and incapable of the kind of "tough love" (as we should now call it) which the English seem to practice so easily. It is true that they push donkeys off cliffs, but in all the cases he comes across it is because the donkey is no longer supportable and they cannot bring themselves to dispose of it in any other way.

It is on the question of death that Brenan has his most disturbing things to say. He comes to the conclusion that the Spanish are interested in death and preoccupied with it in ways the English can barely imagine. There is a yearning for death and a belief that death is either the meaning of life or the irrefutable proof that it has no meaning. Without understanding this one will not understand Spain (p. 116):

A mysterious change comes over some Spaniards in the presence of death and suffering. These things seem to draw out of them some deep approval, as if their own death-instincts had been unloosed and given vicarious satisfaction. It is not sadism or love of cruelty, but a sort of fascinated absorption in what they regard as the culminating moment of existence. They unite themselves to it, as the voyeur may do to the spectacle of another person's orgasm. I have seen this attitude displayed on many occasions in Spanish life, including some of the most important and sacred, and have noted that the prelude to it is often a numbing of the ordinary responses. When, for example, they are put in the position of witnessing some act of which they would normally disapprove, both the wish and the power to intervene are atrophied. This is a feature which struck me very strongly during the early days of the Spanish civil war. On both sides the murdering was done without official sanction by a very small number of persons, most of whom were under twenty-four, and the majority in whose name it was done maintained a passive attitude. It was very rare for anyone to protest openly. Was this because Spaniards are lacking in moral courage, or because there was all the time some part of their nature, a part to which they could not even privately admit, that took sides with the killing and drew a lugubrious satisfaction from it?
This is not personal. In his Postscript Brenan reveals that Yegen was one of the few places in Spain where no-one died a violent death during the Civil War and its aftermath. It was remote and backward; it lacked leftists, fascists, rich bourgeois and even priests. Although Brenan left under Franco, returning in 1953, he is moderate and equivocal on the Civil War, seeing peculiarly Spanish vices and virtues on both sides.

Brenan is, I suppose, a Hispanophiliac: he loves Spain and is fascinated by it. (I have an interest in this condition because one of my sons also enjoys it.) But it is no mindless infatuation; nor does it imply any kind of rejection of his homeland, to which he returned in the Second World War to become both an Air Raid Warden and a member of the Home Guard. He died in 1987, two years after Spain's entry into what is now the European Union. I just wonder, in total ignorance, what he would have made of two places as different as England and Spain drifting towards political union in a kind of pseudo-state. And I surmise that he would have disapproved.

Finally, I must record that I am awed by the physical presence of Gerald Brenan in this book. Forget the MC and the Croix, which are never mentioned. This is a chap who, if he has to get to Almeria and hasn't got enough money, simply gets up at 3am and legs the 60 miles. And when he is told that there are some pretty nasty bandits in the mountains he intends to cross he is secretly confident that there isn't a bandit in Spain whom he can't outrun. There are many writers of his generation whom I variously admire or am fond of, but they are usually effete or sickly if not both. I feel sure that Gerry could outpace the lot of them and lick any three. This is one tough hombre.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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And he didn't bother with university; I am becoming convinced that the rejection of formal education is a necessary condition of good writing and clear thinking.

From my experience and observation, this extends even into the sciences. Whether in exams, tests, or simply handing in homework, the overriding concern is “what do THEY  require of me?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 8, 2008 05:12 PM
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