JANUARY SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: ‘Boadilla’ by Esmond Romilly

In 1936 Esmond Romilly, nephew of Great Britain’s ‘War Chancellor’ Winston Churchill and outspoken pacifist, went to fight with the International Brigades for the democratically elected Spanish government against the insurgent fascist general Francisco Franco. This is the unheroic, unsentimental account he wrote immediately after the fighting, fresh and personal like no other, spiced with dry English humor.

There have been other records of the part played by the British members of the International Brigade at the siege of Madrid. But Mr. Romilly’s is the most full. He is one of the two survivors of the original ten British volunteers attached to the Thaelmann Battalion in the early days of the war. So his book has its place in the annals of the contemporary struggle for liberty. He writes easily and simply. There are occasional breaths of Hemingway, but in the later chapters especially he displays a detached casualness—unusual in so young a writer (Mr. Romilly is nineteen)—that is genuinely dramatic and moving. Without heroics he conveys the feelings of those untrained enthusiasts (the author’s military experience was confined to refusing to join his school O.T.C.) suddenly plunged into a battle fought apparently at random. Caught between a cross-fire, the little group was almost wiped out. Their bodies were never found.

cover art and blurb via amazon and spectator

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As mentioned a few weeks in ago in This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Week 25: 1 -7 January 1937, the battles for Corunna Road and the fight to take the town of Boadilla del Monte, just outside Madrid, were chronicled by 19-year-old English volunteer Esmond Romilly.

The book starts off by promising to account the battle of Boadilla in a straight-forward fashion, as that it does. It tells a very simple story of what happened, all written while fresh in the author’s mind in 1937, as he holidays on honeymoon in France. Romilly came from a rich family, married in another rich family, but for a few months in late 1936 and early 1937, he fought to make ‘Madrid the grave of fascism.’ He had little stamina for the war, but he was an excellent example of unprepared men thrown into a poorly planned battle, so typical of volunteers in Spain.

The book starts with a background of all the main characters that Romilly met on the trip – Joe Gough, Harry Audley, Aussie Whateley, Jerry Fontana, Lorimer Birch, Arnold Jeans, Bill Scott, Tom Mann and Martin Messer. It seems in this short time, Romilly got to know these men very well. After the battle to claim Boadilla, he would go home alone.

The early chapters show him working to get by in France as he makes his way south, arriving in Spain by ship at Valencia. The Albacete training bases had been set up by this time. Romilly describes this as playing at soldiers. He had no idea how to use a rifle, couldn’t speak any Spanish and was constantly suffering dysentery. He met many Germans, Latvians and French men, as well as his fellow Englishmen, and the story tells of the usual difficulties marching with supplies and being hot, of the whole thing having a ‘field day’ atmosphere while away from the front. Romilly has given some people assumed names, most those who were German or went to Germany after the war (it was illegal for Germans to aid the Republicans. Those returning home were jailed).

One thing that stood out was Romilly being told by French communist André Marty that the Republicans needed three things to win the war – political unity, military leaders with experience, and discipline. They had none of these.

Romilly uses assumed names for the towns of his initial battles. Battle starts in chapter 5 when out of nowhere, Romilly finds himself under fire, his first reality in the civil war just south of Madrid. As soon as they hit the front at ‘Noreno’, Romilly gets lost under darkness, and ends up walking miles the wrong way, meeting up with others, and eventually making their way to ‘Melilla’ (thought to be Villaconejos. No one know why Romilly changed the town names). Though as dawn air raids strike, the men are lucky to have gotten lost and in the wrong town.

Romilly seems to run around, never really having a clue what is going on, where they are heading or what to do. Dysentery is the one thing everyone shares, and the bitter cold of being up on the plain around Madrid really hits home, with only those prepped by anarchists in Barcelona are ready for it, as the rest of the Thaelmann Battalion have to struggle on.

The battalion team up with the Garibaldi battalion and thrown into fighting in University City on the northern tip of Madrid. Romilly recalls seeing Moorish soldiers shooting into trenches were his comrades were, their bayonets slashing at those trapped but not killed. He details his time fighting in University City very well, saying the night smelled night ‘dead men, crackling flames and drizzle’.

Romilly soon is in Madrid at the Ritz, swirling brandy and bathing again. He gets eight days’ training in the town (now suburb) of Fuencarral north of Madrid, before heading back to Majadahonda, a village (now suburb) west of Madrid. Now the battles for Corunna Road and the surrounding towns are all on, and Romilly is sent to hold the tiny town of Boadilla. Under the air raids and against the well-prepped Nationalists, the whole battle falls into total chaos, of watching close friends die and running away in blind panic. One by one, as they retreat, Romilly’s friends are killed, not by the Moorish soldiers that anticipated, but by uniformed Spaniards.

Romilly is one of only a couple who survived Boadilla. He speaks of meeting English poet John Cornford along the way, another young Englishman, with his head bandaged. Cornford never made it out alive either. The few remaining living foreigners (just over a dozen volunteers from a combined Spanish and volunteer group of 15,000 at Corunna Road battles) made it to El Pardo (just outside Madrid) where they came to grips with the brutal losses.

Romilly was diagnosed with neuralgia, damaging nerves causing excessive pain, and was sent home, where he married Jessica Mitford, and then wrote the fresh accounts of the men left in the mud at Boadilla. Romilly went on to fight in WWII but died in 1941.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW NOVEMBER: ‘Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting’ by Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs was haunted by Velazquez’s enigmatic masterpiece Las Meninas from first encountering it in the Prado as a teenager. In Everything is Happening Jacobs searches for the ultimate significance of the painting by following the trails of associations from each individual character in the picture, as well as his own memories of and relationship to this extraordinary work. From Jacobs’ first trip to Spain, to the complex politics of Golden Age Madrid, to his meeting with the man who saved Las Meninas during the Spanish Civil war, via Jacobs’ experiences of the sunless world of the art history academy, Jacobs’ dissolves the barriers between the past and the present, the real and the illusory. Cut short by Jacobs’ death in 2014, and completed with an introduction and coda of great sensitivity and insight by his friend and fellow lover of art, the journalist Ed Vulliamy, this visionary, meditative and often very funny book is a passionate, personal manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting.

Cover art and blurb via amazon

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Who doesn’t love a mystery? Especially one where the true answer may never be discovered. Author Michael Jacobs died in January 2014 from cancer at the age of 61. Jacobs was the type of Hispanist we all aspire to become. Everything Is Happening was not finished when he passed away and his friend Ed Vulliamy finished this book on his behalf.

Everything Is Happening is about the work of the great Diego Velázquez titled Las Meninas (Ladies in Waiting), painted 1656. The painting (see below if you are new) is what was supposed to be the artist painting the King and Queen, and instead they are only reflected in a mirror as the princess and her entourage are seen instead, along with the artist himself. The painting, widely recognised as one of the most analysed of all time with its unique perspectives, was to the author, the greatest piece of art ever painted.

Las Meninas 01.jpg
Diego Velázquez, 1656. Oil on canvas 318cm x 276cm

Jacobs first travelled from England to Spain 1968 and saw Las Meninas in Madrid first hand. In the dark days of Spain in the late sixties, Goya was one of the collections most often visited, yet Velázquez stole Jacobs’ heart. Nearly fifty years later, it is Las Meninas which has a long queue before it (trust me, I’ve been there twice. To be fair, Goya’s is still massive too). 

The painting is set in the artist’s studio in the Alcázar Palace in Madrid, to be a portrait of King Philip IV and his wife, Mariana of Austria. The painting instead shows young Infanta (Princess) Margaret Theresa, and her companions – her ladies-in-waiting, chaperone, bodyguards, dwarfs, and dog. Velázquez stands to the left as he paints.

It’s long been thought/assumed/theorised that the painting depicts what the King and Queen would have seen, rather than what the artist could see. But this book asks the questions of different perspectives – were the King and Queen ever there at all? Were they in another room, or looking from another angle? Was the artist simply looking in a mirror at himself and those who walked by?

The author of Everything Is Happening doesn’t agree with much of the analysis work done to Las Meninas, suggesting that the constant discussion of the work destroys much of the Velázquez mystery. The French 1966 analysis particularly gets criticism from Jacobs, who is angered by the view that the painting is merely ‘an audience looking a painting while the painter looks at the audience’. But from that opinion climbed to more intense and detailed opinions over the years, thus ruining the mystery. As a different take, Jacobs believed the painting is one that shows realistic children of the age, and of textures and colours that are completely authentic and lifelike.

Jacobs himself as about to enter the room where Las Meninas was originally hung when the books stops, his illness drawing this particular search to a close. But Ed Vulliamy, the book’s second author, assumed the book would have met Anthony Blunt, a tutor who taught Jacobs how to read paintings created during the reign of King Philip IV, Velázquez in particular.

Thanks to Vulliamy writing an introduction and an afterword on the book, despite the author’s demise, the book is one where suggestions and realism can work together to tell the story of Las Meninas. No need to be an art lover to understand and enjoy.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW OCTOBER: ‘Hell and Good Company’ by Richard Rhodes

This book skims the basics, which, in theory, should be good for newcomers. But with the omissions of this book, those new to the subject won’t get the full picture. Bonus point from me – New Zealand journalist Geoffrey Cox gets a mention, someone often missed. This book is suited to those looking for something specific, and in the style of the author. To enjoy, make sure that is you before you buy.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW SEPTEMBER: ‘­­¡No Pasarán! Writings from the Spanish Civil War’ by Pete Aryton

Hope, resignation, despair, sadness, humour, confusion, ruthlessness, compassion, kindness, generosity and love inhabit Pete Ayrton’s anthology of writings from the Spanish Civil War: there is little sense of certainty and still less of triumphalism among the bewilderingly diverse Republican and Nationalist coalitions, all shades of which are represented here. Previous collections privileged the writings of the International Brigades over those of the Spanish, sometimes excluding them altogether. ¡No Pasarán! corrects the balance: by far the largest contingent of its thirty-five writers are Spanish, including Luis Buñuel, Manuel Rivas, Javier Cercas, Arturo Barea, Joan Sales and Chaves Nogales. The remainder offer contrasting perspectives of participants in the conflict from America (among them John Dos Passos, Muriel Rukeyser and Langston Hughes); Italy (Curzio Malaparte and Leonardo Sciascia); France (Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux and others); Germany (Gustav Regler); Russia (Victor Serge); Great Britain (including Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and Laurie Lee); Cuba, Argentina and Mexico.

Pete Ayrton brings together hauntingly vivid stories from a bitterly fought war. This is powerful writing that allows the reader to witness life behind and at the front lines of both sides.

cover art and blurb via Amazon – released 2016

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¡No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, is a selection of texts, mostly from Spanish writers, all brought together by Pete Aryton. The story of the SCW is so often told by foreign journalists and writers, and through the eyes of the International Brigades. This time it is a far more Spanish view of the war.

The book makes a strong start with Luis Buñuel with My Last Breath, which forms part of his autobiography. The chapter tells of when Franco arrives in Spain, when Buñuel was in Madrid. While Buñuel longed for revolution, the initial siege between Spaniards in Madrid is shocking for the artist. The book goes a long way to describe all the groups on the Republican side (Anarchists, Socialist, Communist, etc,) trying to come together to fight a far more organised enemy. Importantly, what the anarchists wanted for Spain – their own utopia-like society is explained and discussed. Buñuel is one, if not the best, voice in the book and the one who explains the war the best, from the beginning, and from the ideas of multiple sides.

A great piece of writing is that of Dulce Chacón. Her chapter -The Missing Toe’, part of her novel The Sleeping Voice, is about a female prison, Prisión de Ventas in Madrid. The prison is run by guards and nuns and is vicious place to be.

One advantage of this book is the voice of José María Gironella, who fought for Franco and was Catholic. This way, the destruction of churches and burning of priests can be explained from the religious-minded and the destruction (in this particular case) by Communists. The Republican crimes aren’t glossed over in this book.

One excellent read is a part from Forbidden Territory by  Juan Goytisolo. In a rich part of Barcelona, Franco supporters hide in wait for safety. The writer’s family themselves are affected and killed. While Barcelona during the war is so often centred on the controlling Anarchist/Republican factions, an insight to the enemy side is confronting and sad.

A portion taken from The Wall, by Jean Paul Sartre, is short but essential. Pablo Obbieta is a Nationalist prisoner, threatened with death unless he tells info to his captors. But as Nationalists never keep prisoners and leave only bodies, nothing can end well.

The eternal voice of Arturo Barea is naturally included, ‘The War is a Lesson’ from The Clash. It focuses on the portion where Barea needs to leave Madrid for his safety, though never wants to leave the besieged Madrid, the centre of the battle for his country.

This collection by Pete Aryton is an essential read. It not only beings together Spanish voices, it can also be a literal reading list of other writers to look for, voices often forgotten in SCW reading lists. Other notable voices included are Lee, Orwell, Rivas, Cercas and Soler, while including lesser mentioned authors Rororeda, Atxaga, Fraile, Etchebáháre and many more, a total of 38 writers. Everybody needs this book.

SPAIN BOOK REVIEW AUGUST: ‘Lorca, Buñuel, Dalí – Forbidden Pleasures and Connected Lives’ by Gwynne Edwards

Lorca, Buñuel and Dalí were, in their respective fields of poetry and theatre, cinema, and painting, three of the most imaginative creative artists of the twentieth century; their impact was felt far beyond the boundaries of their native Spain. But if individually they have been examined by many, their connected lives have rarely been considered. It is these, the ties that bind them, that constitute the subject of this illuminating book.

They were born within six years of each other and, as Gwynne Edwards reveals, their childhood circumstances were very similar, each being affected by a narrow-minded society and an intolerant religious background, which equated sex with sin. All three experienced sexual problems of different kinds: Lorca, homosexual anguish, Buñuel sexual inhibition, and Dalí virtual impotence. They met during the 1920s at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which channelled their respective obsessions into the cultural forms then prevalent in Europe, in particular Surrealism. Rooted in such turmoil, their work — from Lorca’s dramatic characters seeking sexual fulfilment, to Buñuel’s frustrated men and women, and Dalí’s potent images of shame and guilt — is highly autobiographical. Their left-wing outrage directed at bourgeois values and the Catholic Church was sharpened by the political upheavals of the 1930s, which in Spain led to the catastrophic Civil War of 1936-39. Lorca was murdered by Franco’s fascists in 1936. This tragic event hastened Buñuel’s departure to Mexico and Dalí’s to New York and Edwards relates how for the rest of his life Buñuel clung to his left-wing ideals and made outstanding films, while the increasingly eccentric and money-grubbing Dalí embraced Fascism and the Catholic Church and his art went into steep decline.

cover art and blurb via amazon

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I can’t remember where I got this book – probably on one of my book buying binges (say that three times fast) – but it has sat unread on my shelves for to-reads. Since I wrote my Lorca 80th anniversary article just over a week ago, I thought I could dedicate this month’s book review to the man as well.

Federico García Lorca, Manuel Buñuel and Salvador Dalí are three very well-known men. All born wealthy around the turn of the century, by the early 1920’s they were already established in their fields: Lorca with his writing, Buñuel with plays and film creation and Dalí with his painting. Each was rare and unique in a world filled with many artists exploding onto the European scene at the time. All housed at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid to study, these three artists came together to bond, collaborate and touch each others lives forever.

This book doesn’t necessarily reveal any new information about the trio, rather tells details, big and small, in a clean, easy-to-read way. Four pages in I was already enjoying the book, with its interesting yet gentle flow of the lives of these men. The book does lean on info about Lorca a lot, but he was always a strikingly interesting soul. The book discusses Lorca’s love for Dalí in the 20’s, and doesn’t suggest impotent Dalí ever accepted any of the advances, but it doesn’t clearly say he didn’t either. These men have intensely interesting sex lives, each forever influenced (scalded?) with the Catholic faith. Lorca and his homosexuality interwoven with his depression, and pain of never having children, Buñuel and his religious thoughts that sex was sinful, even when married, and Dalí with his impotency, voyeurism and his wife’s need to find sex elsewhere. Every aspect of their lives is deeply shaped by what Spain was, and wanted to become.

Things became strained with the threesome in the late 20’s and early 30’s with Lorca leaving the country for some recuperation. Buñuel continued to live his strict, regimented lifestyle while pursuing films and abusing his wife, and Dalí continued to be a real dick (literally incapable of being a functional adult after a weird childhood), and showing off, plus his desire for fame and fortune totally went to his head. Lorca meanwhile continued to produce incredible works and establish his career. Then the war came along.

The outbreak of the civil war, and the state of Spain is well covered to the point the book needs, to show what the men faced. Lorca’s last weeks are well covered, from the moment he decided to leave Madrid for Granada to save his parents. Buñuel begged him not to go, as it would not be safe. Lorca’s time there and his attempts to help his beloved family are covered, along with his mysterious and tragic execution in the forest. There are many places in which to read about Lorca’s last days, but this book does a great job on the subject.

Buñuel went into exile in Paris, much different from Lorca’s need to jump headfirst into Spain’s crisis. Dalí was the opposite; he turned his back on his country and went off making money from rich Americans. When he was ready, Dalí and his wife returned to Spain as fascism lovers, supporting Franco, since that was the in-vogue thing to do. His life fell apart, and being so, well, douchey, Dalí had it coming. Buñuel too had moments of bad behaviour, though his art never suffered for it, continuing to create films on his own terms. In many, many writings and interviews, Buñuel continued to talk of Lorca, his work, and their time together, forever touched by their connection. After Lorca’s execution, Buñuel and Dalí unsurprisingly grew apart, and Dalí’s feelings for his murdered friend never really made sense, or could be trusted.

As I said, this book covers the lives of well-known men, so information isn’t necessarily new, but it does bring all very important parts together in one book, and shows the intertwining links of these three men, and the things which separated them. Never has Spain had such a generation of artists, and maybe never will again. A wonderful read.