A series of talks dedicated to Gerald Brenan suggests that the travel writers of today are vastly different from the likes of Richard Ford and Walter Starkie. And it is all down to the author of South from Granada, writes MARK ROULSTON
Miguel Martinez, publisher Antonio Garcia, co-organiser Antonio Lopez, journalist Harry Eyres, writers Chris Stewart and Michael Jacobs and co-organiser Carlos Pranger
“[THERE is] a feeling of air surrounding one, of fields of air washing one that I have never come across anywhere else,” wrote Gerald Brenan in his seminal work, South from Granada. And so it was 24 hours after the violent storms had washed away the heaviness from the late summer air.
I am in Yegen, the central character in Brenan’s 1957 book that depicted his years in that Alpujarra village, and it is the start of the second symposium on the English author’s life – a series of talks lasting four days.
I arrive 60 minutes later than the scheduled mid-day inauguration in the village’s social centre. But with this being Spain, I am still on time.
Author Michael Jacobs has the honour of launching the II Jornadas de Brenan and he starts by waxing lyrically about the venue. “This is the finest salon de actos in Andalucía.” I look around the place and see a non-descript room with stark white walls. Bare concrete slabs pass themselves off as a ceiling. “I remember dancing the pasodoble here 14 years ago.”
He obviously had the time of his life.
The theme of Jacobs’ talk is of travel literature and its role in promoting-perpetuating the romanticism of Andalucía.
He mentions not only the subject of this symposium, but Chris Stewart (also here in attendance and due to speak in three days time), Pedro de Alarcon, Richard Ford and Walter Starkie.
He claims Brenan broke the mould when he put pen to paper and wrote South from Granada.
“He arrived in La Alpujarra with all the prejudices of the romantic travellers of the 19th century. But from the off he broke away from the hereditary topics of those writers. Brenan offered an Oriental image of La Alpujarra, more authentic than the Alhambra and Granada, a city that had left him with great feelings of deception.”
Jacobs then talks about one (the only?) difficulty about being a travel writer; making the complexities and simplicities of life in a Spanish village the central theme of a tome.
“Writing about a village is a dangerous thing. There are always people who misinterpret what is written. There is always a lot of jealousy.”
Brenan (centre) at home in Yegen with Gamel Woolsey (left) and Ralph Partridge (right)
And he is speaking from experience. His Factory of Light, which depicts his time in Frailes, Jaen, is being translated into Spanish.
“I have had to cut some parts out, because I want to continue living in my village,” he jokes.
But would Brenan have felt forced to censor his work if he had still been a resident of Yegen when South from Granada was published (it was released three decades after he left)?
And would he have faced the wrath and envy of his neighbours if they had ever seen that they were subjects of a book?
How about the Rats. Would that family like being very publicly referred to as cuckolds, black witches and sexual teases?
This correspondent is unsure. Of course, you cannot imagine the likes of Jacobs and Stewart documenting the intimate affairs of Frailes or Órgiva.
But at the risk of sounding condescending towards the past, Brenan wrote of a time never to return. He captured the innocence of the age when people did not even know how to spell litigious. They would not have given a damn what he had put down.
After the official inauguration, we take a stroll around Yegen. It is my first visit and I am surprised by its size and the cleanliness of the streets, nothing like the “poor village… with its grey box-shaped houses of a battered Corbusier style,” Brenan wrote of.
I catch up with Carlos Pranger, who is at the head of the 50-strong walkabout. He is one of the organisers of the event and godson of the writer.
He tells me about the “tiring” ten-hour days, spent in a room with council officials and other bureaucrats, hammering out the logistics that has brought academics from Spain and the United Kingdom to La Alpujarra.
I ask him why it is only the first day that is spent in Yegen, with the main event 30 kilometres away (as the crow flies, mind) in La Taha.
“It is perfect symmetry. Brenan began his time in La Alpujarra in Yegen and ended it by living in La Taha,” says Carlos.
He asks me not to mention the specific village. His parents still live in the same house that Brenan used many years ago. “I do not want people knocking on my mother and father’s front door. It is not a museum, it is a family home.”
For those who do not know, La Taha is a collective of six quaint pueblos centred around the hub of Pitres.
Today, Carlos has double reason to celebrate. Not only is there a fine turn-out on the first day of the second Brenan symposium, but he has also secured a deal that will see two unpublished works of his godfather seeing the light for the very first time.
The first is a theatrical piece: the King of the Castle and his Prisoner. This will be released in March next year; the second, He, will follow later and its subtitle gives away the nature of its content: Originally intended as an Autobiographical Sequence of Thoughts.
“Brenan is a cult writer in both Spanish and English, so these two will be published bi-lingually,” Carlos says.
A certain dead Granada poet dominates the headlines on this first day. Federico Garcia Lorca is in the news after the descendants of Dioscoro Galindo, a man claimed to be dumped in the same mass grave as Lorca, made a direct appeal to the Supreme Court in Madrid.
The family wants to force through an exhumation that could put to an end a drama that was started by Brenan in the late 1940s; the author is believed to be the first person to seek out the burial place of Granada’s most famous son (turn over to read an account of Brenan’s search).
Pranger tells me his godfather had a love of poetry, but was dissuaded by his own ability to take this further. “The great frustrated passion of Brenan was poetry. He wrote many poems, but he was conscious of the fact that he was not a good poet.
“However, a large part of his prose was poetically charged,” he says.
Putting down roots
Fast-forward three days. We are in Pitres and Chris Stewart is holding court in the modern town hall. The turn-out is good, which is expected given the speaker.
He is as popular here as what he is in the United Kindgom following the success of the Spanish translations of Driving over Lemons (Entre Limones) and Parrot in the Pepper Tree (El Loro en el Limonero).
He is returning to the theme of travel writing and how the Spanish preoccupy themselves how they are portrayed abroad.
He is blunt: “Spaniards are very vain because they all ask me who does an Englishman see the inhabitants of this country. Because of this, being a hispanist is a very profitable job.
“The English, however, do not want to know how others see them.”
Stewart then draws parallels between Brenan and himself. In the introduction he has written for the new edition of South from Granada, he writes of how Brenan was “a bohemian, a poet and a restless wanderer, rebelling against the strictures of middle class English life.”
He returns to this in his talk and explains how he came to live on a farm close to Órgiva. “Like Brenan, I was a little fed up with life in England. So I decided to take a trip to Sevilla, where I fell in love with Spain. I later fell in love with La Alpujarra. But then again, I am a person who falls in love very easily.”
Through the warmth and friendliness of his neighbours, Brenan wrote how he became to feel less like an outsider in Yegen. This is a sentiment shared by Stewart.
“I am a farmer just like my neighbours. One day I was bemoaning the fact that I was not a true native of Órgiva, but a vecino contradicted me and said that I was. I had planted my seed here. He was talking about my daughter.”
Brenan, who died in Alhaurin el Granade, Málaga, in 1987, was also responsible for another important document – the Spanish Labyrinth, which recorded the outset of the civil war that tore Spain apart between 1936 and 1939.
And it is this internal conflict, in relation to Gerald Brenan, that will form the basis of the third symposium next year.
The new edition of South from Granada, with an introduction by Chris Stewart, is published by Penguin Classics