A NOTE ON GERALD BRENAN
January 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of Gerald Brenan’s death, so I was rather disappointed, in December 2016 to read Andrew Walsh’s recent conjectures and speculations about this singular and extraordinary writer*. Walsh’s very title, “Gerald Brenan: Hispanophile or Hispanophobe – A Critical Rereading of The Face of Spain” proposes the factitious if not pointless question of whether Brenan (and by implication, such other distinguished British literary expatriate-survivors of WW1 as Ford Madox Ford, Richard Aldington and Robert Graves), could ever have truly loved and understood their adopted countries, or expressed politically astute, accurate and – via 21st century hindsight! – correct attitudes toward their foreign friends and neighbours.
Walsh’s piece makes many sweeping generalisations of the sort for which he criticises Gerald Brenan, and it makes me wonder if he actually knew Gerald and learned from him things I didn’t. I must be one of the last and certainly oldest survivors of a group of friends who rented a house on Churriana’s main square through the summer of 1962. Gerald’s house was only a few minutes walk away, and there, with amazing generosity, the drink and conversation flowed. Gerald was especially kind and hospitable to me as a recent Cambridge graduate with an Eng. Lit. degree then working on my second novel and first full poetry collection. When Gerald discovered that I too had had a wretched time in exactly the same ‘social’ (house) at Radley, a place where nothing much had changed in the intervening 50 years, he remarked that “in many ways, it was easier to cope with the trenches during the War”. With great warmth and good humour he at once presented me with the newly published first volume of his autobiography A Life Of One’s Own, inscribed ironically with the school’s Latin motto. Oddly enough, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s 1993 fine biography of him confirms that Gerald had recurrent nightmares of public school well into his fifties. Nevertheless he recovered from his war wounds, Spanish flu and much mental suffering to live a long and highly productive life.
Since his death I’ve written about Gerald in several books, and recall his wit, discerning and helpful criticism, and his wonderful hospitality. So when a longtime friend, the eminent Hispanist Professor Richard Hitchcock, showed me Walsh’s nitpicking assumptions and wouldbe iconoclastic observations, I was as bemused as he was to read them. Unlike Andrew Walsh, I don’t profess to be a Spanish expert – nor, pace Walsh and his facile categorising, either a Hispanophobe or –phile, come to that! But I do lament the sad irony of an article that criticises, in such a contentious, contextually dubious, repetitive and stodgy fashion, a classic stylist who himself wrote so beautifully, informatively and memorably. By contrast, there’s Walsh’s own style or lack of one: for instance, his use, passim, of the wouldbe authoritative, or academic-regal, first person plural: “We would even suggest…”; “We could contend…”; “In our view…”; “Our intention in this article”; “In conclusion we believe”, etc. I fear it all smacks of thesis-mongering and joyless contrariety, and, in conclusion, I (if not We) found it all too depressingly forgettable.
[ * in Bulletin of Spanish Studies, Vol. XCIII no. 5, June 2016]