Saturday, 2 March 2013

To Seville, and to Kôr

Reviewer at work (pic: S. Ligabue)

It’s February but I’ve been at a beach resort in the Turks and Caicos, on an inactivity holiday. Not the sort of holiday I would normally choose, but my companion felt it would be good for me and she does seem to have been right. I took about 10-12lbs-worth of books with me. They include Al Gore’s latest (modestly titled The Future), the much-praised Diaries of Count Harry Kessler and J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy. (Her first adult book.)

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All may be the subject of a future blog, but I didn’t read them. I was diverted by two books that have proved oddly apposite. The sea was a vibrant turquoise, the bougainvillea brilliant, the air balmy etc. Yet the resort was strangely divorced from any sense of time or place, and the two books had the odd effect of opening a wormhole to a past that was more real than the manicured lawn in front of me. One is the last book by the travel writer Norman Lewis, and was published soon after his death in 2003 at the age of 95. The other is a book of short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, of which more later.

First, the Lewis. 

The Tomb in Seville
Norman Lewis was born in London to Welsh parents in 1908. I have heard him referred to as the prototypical modern travel writer, but I wonder if that is true; his contemporary V.S. Pritchett wrote of his own travels in Spain before Lewis did, and there are other names from the 1930s, not least the adventurer Fitzroy Maclean. However, the sheer volume and quality of Lewis’s work do mark him out, and although he is no longer fashionable, he remains very widely read. He is remembered today mainly for his writing on Indochina, on the Mafia and on Spain. In 1968 he became one of the first writers to publicise the situation of the tribal peoples on the Amazon, an effort that led to the founding of the NGO Survival International. But it was not a new interest for him; he had been struck by the treatment of indigenous people in Guatemala 20 years earlier.

Lewis’s upbringing was odd; his parents were ardent spiritualists. As a young man he pursued various ventures including the motor trade and motor racing (he was the possessor, at one time, of a secondhand Bugatti). He was married, quite young, to the daughter of a Sicilian of noble Spanish descent, Ernesto Corvaja, and although the marriage was really over after a few years, his relationship with the family was to influence him deeply.

In September 1934, the young Lewis embarked on a mission to Seville in search of his father-in-law’s ancestral tomb, which Corvaja hoped would be found in the cathedral. Lewis was accompanied by his young brother-in-law, Eugene. The trip was bankrolled by Corvaja senior. In retrospect it seems odd that Corvaja would dispatch his son and his son-in-law on a long journey across a country that was already unstable to find a family tomb, the existence of which was uncertain. Lewis’s account of the journey, A Tomb in Seville, does little to explain. Indeed the lack of context is such that one suspects Lewis had originally intended to include the account in his 1985 autobiography, Jackdaw Cake, then held it back, so that it remained unfinished business for years. It eventually appeared nearly 70 years after the journey it described, and it does have rough edges. Yet it has the freshness and warmth of a diary entry. Thus Lewis and his companion Eugene Corvaja cannot find transport to Madrid because of the disorder in the country, and walk over 100 miles through the late-September countryside from Pamplona to Zaragoza:

…the rich gilding of summer returned to the Navarran landscape. …We moved across boundless plains of billowing rock purged of all colour by the sun. Distant clumps of poplar seemed to have been drawn up into the base of the sky in an atmosphere of mirage and mist. Behind the mountains ahead symmetrical and luminous and symmetrical clouds were poised without shift of position as we trudged towards them for hours on end. At our approach an anomalous yellow bloom shook itself from a single tree, transformed into a flock of singing green finches. Lizards, basking in the dust, came suddenly to life and streaked away into the undergrowth.

Elsewhere Lewis describes the Spain encountered along the way. In San Sebastian, he and Eugene join the paseo, the evening walk when the town emerges to greet itself. He quotes for us a leaflet that advised them how to do it:  “always smile, but laugh with caution… Gestures with the finger are to be avoided. Do not wink, do not turn your back on a bore in an ostentatious manner, and, above all, never spit.” One wonders who printed this leaflet, and who handed it out. There are bleaker moments. After their long strange walk from Pamplona, the pair arrive at Zaragoza. “Old Spain,” writes Lewis, “was a country of white cities, but Zaragoza’s outline was dark”:

I could not remember ever visiting a town in which poverty presented itself in so stark a contrast with wealth. The number of Rolls-Royces in its streets could only have been exceeded by those in the West End of London. The poor were …sifting through rubbish bins and dumps, and …even guarding the sewer mouths for the nameless garbage vomited at intervals into the river. Communist propaganda posters were abundantly on display.

Even in Zaragoza the pair have their lighter moments. (“We were staggered to learn that the city was in the grip of a purity campaign …we were encircled by young Leaguers of the Pure Lily who tried to pin flags on our shirts and to explain how best to keep ourselves unsullied by the world.”) Even so, it’s October 1934 and it is not the best time to be in Spain, as they discover when they secure a place on an armoured train that takes them to Madrid. Here they alight to find themselves in the middle of a firefight, and as they dodge bullets to leave the station, Lewis notices a poster that assures them, in English, that “Spain Attracts and Holds You. Under the Blue Skies of Spain Cares Are Forgotten.”

Therein lies this book’s great strength; besides being well-observed and well-written, it is an almost covert glimpse of a world that has been forgotten. To most, the civil war in Spain began in 1936; few outside Spain would remember this earlier conflict – I did not; I knew of the insurrection of the miners in the Asturias in the autumn of 1934 but had no idea that the violence had spread across the country, presaging the horrors to come. Lewis and Eugene find themselves taking cover in Madrid, running from one street corner to another with their hands up. They are assured, however, that it’s safe enough in the morning, as people need to do their shopping. Sitting in a café, they overhear a well-to-do businessman describe how he and his friends had been chased out of a fashionable billiard room by police who mistook the click of cues for firearms. But in time the left-wing forces are driven from the streets. It is not yet their time:

With nightfall, a searchlight that had been mounted on the highest building in Madrid – the Capitol Cinema – came into play. In view of the non-appearance on the streets of any organised socialist forces, the Government had decided to declare war on the snipers. …The Guards and the soldiers followed its beam with their rifles. In the morning they went round collecting the bodies of those who still believed in the revolution.

The book is packed with bizarre incident. As the fighting comes to an end, the Lewis and Eugene Corvaja attend a bullfight, and see the rejoneador­ (a lead bullfighter who fights with a lance) apparently gored to death (“it was given out that he was dead”).  They then decide to investigate a reported mania amongst Madrileños for drinking animal blood. They visit a slaughterhouse, but are “deterred by a woman on her way out, made terrible by the smile painted by the blood on her lips.” Later, on their way through Portugal, the pair hear of a witch-burning, no less, in a small village in Porto called Marco do Canavezes. They travel there to find that the story is substantially true.

Was it? Marco do Canavezes (actually Canaveses) is real enough (and is, oddly, the birthplace of the singer Carmen Miranda), but I can find no mention of the story although that does not make it false. As for the rejoneador, Don Antonio Cañero was not dead, but Lewis does not say that (true, he may not have known; but that seems improbable). But does that matter? Why strain at a story of witch-burning in 1934, when a much larger outbreak of atavistic savagery was just beginning? For the most part, the narrative seems heartfelt; the journey clearly left an impression on Lewis and, like Laurie Lee a few months later, he was struck by the poverty (in Andalusia, they “pass through settlements of windowless huts consisting of no more than holes dug in the ground with branch and straw coverings …to take the place of roofs”).

To find out whether the two young men reach Seville, and find the tomb, one should read the book. The point for me is the way this book opens a wormhole into the past. This is in part due to the vivid simplicity of the writing; Lewis was good. But there is a further dimension to A Tomb in Seville: it was written in our own time, not the time that it describes, and we are reading modern English and seeing the scene through 21st-century eyes.

I can remember being very startled, some years ago, by The Bells of Hell Go Ting-a-ling-a-ling, by Eric Hiscocks; a First World War memoir, it was published in 1976 and had clearly been written in the tranquillity of retirement, using modern idioms. It thus packed a punch that many memoirs of the Western Front, including Robert Graves’s, did not. Moreover the author is able to say things that would have been left unsaid at the time; for example that there were homosexuals in the army, or that the Royal Army Medical Corps was sometimes known as Rob All My Comrades – we see a stretcher-bearer taking valuables off a corpse in the Flanders mud. (The book is long out of print and Amazon appears to list it under children’s books, which is about the last place it should be.)

There are other examples. Laurie Lee’s extraordinary account of his participation in the Spanish Civil War was not published until 1991, and has a straightforward style, and a ring of truth and frankness (though its accuracy has been challenged). Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, recounting a walk across Europe that also began in 1934, was written well over 40 years after the journey it described, and has a readable and contemporary feel. Lewis’s own masterpiece, Naples ’44, was written in the 1970s. The author, having experienced the past, describes it for us in the present; they are our wormhole.

The Demon Lover: Elizabeth Bowen and a sense of place
The wormhole can also open through the agency of quite trivial human experience. Elizabeth Bowen does that superbly in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, published at the end of the Second World War – in which the stories were mostly set. Most had been published during the war in various magazines that were then famous but have long disappeared, though they did include The New Yorker.

Bowen was an Anglo-Irish writer who died in 1973 at the age of 73. She is, perhaps, a little like her contemporary V.S. Pritchett; a writers’ writer, whose books are sometimes still in print and are admired by the cognoscenti, but wouldn’t now be widely read. Her atmospheric 1949 novel of wartime London, In the Heat of the Day, is an exception – and was adapted for TV, very well, by Harold Pinter in 1989. However, her work is not modern. The short stories are written in the English of their day, and are rooted in a world that no-one under 80 would remember, and no-one under 50 would understand.

But they bring that world very much alive. They do it not through “powerful” descriptions of air raids or bereavement, but through human experience that is common to all. Thus The Square begins with a taxi arriving in a London square at sundown; a man alights and calls on a woman, in a house where he sometimes used to dine; little of note happens in nine or ten pages – he is admitted, there is a disjointed conversation, a nephew of the woman appears and disappears – but there is a powerful sense of lives disrupted. The household arrangements are ad hoc; there is dust; the parquet no longer shines.

He looked at the empty pattern of chairs around them and said: “Where are all those people I used to meet?” “Whom do you mean, exactly?” she said, startled. “…Oh, in different places, different places, you know. I think I have their addresses, if there’s anyone special?”

The nephew, sixteen, wears slippers, smokes openly, and goes out in search of food:

“I expect I’ll pick up something at a Corner House.” …When he went out he did not shut the door behind him, and they could hear him slip-slopping upstairs. “He’s very independent,” said Magdela. “But these days I suppose everyone is?”

In one of the shortest stories, Careless Talk, Joanna arrives from the country and has lunch with friends in a crowded restaurant in which “every European tongue struck its own note, with exclamatory English on top of all.” The male friends arrive late and in uniform. The conversation is disjointed. Joanna is told she is missed in London; why does she not come back? She explains she has nowhere to come back to. ““Oh, my Lord, yes,” he said. “I did hear about your house. I was so sorry. Completely?”...” Nothing more is said of this. Brief references are made to absent friends who are involved with Poles or Free French. “I hope it didn’t matter my having told you that…” It is careless talk, but not really in that sense; it is bright, brittle and inconsequential, and the men leave early to attend to business, while the women worry about three eggs that Joanna has brought from the country, which they have given a waiter for safekeeping. Bowen herself worked through the war in the London bureaucracy and the scene would have been familiar to her.

In another story, Green Holly, Bowen uses a different technique. Several individuals are gathered together in a house in the country; it is Christmas, they have been together some time, and they are bored with each other; indeed they are unprepossessing (one has a large boil; another has baggy, shapeless trousers). As they irritate each other, one sees a ghost.  The ghost’s provenance would appear to be a crime of passion committed in the house some years earlier and it is thus a counterpoint to the drabness of the living. The whole thing is done with a strong sense of the absurd – it would scarcely work otherwise. But we are told little about the living, or the reason why they have been cooped up together in the country for so many months. We learn only that they are “experts” (“in what, the Censor would not permit me to say”); and now and then one or other is called away, it seems to decode an incoming transmission. Their work is secret but their lives are drab. The story is meant to, and does, amuse, but it also conveys a strong sense of the drabness of war – especially in its later stages, which is when one senses this was written.

But the high point of this book is its final story, Mysterious Kôr. Pepita meets her soldier on a night when London is flooded by moonlight. It is clear that they have only tonight. They must spend it in the two-room flatlet that Pepita shares with Callie, another young woman but one with which she plainly has little in common, and who has not troubled to leave for the one night. Instead, Arthur will sleep on the sofa where Pepita normally sleeps, and she will share a bed with Callie. They are in no hurry to go there; but Callie, needy, and filled with a sense of occasion, has set out cocoa for them and is waiting up. As they stand in the bright moonlit night, Pepita recites to Arthur fragments of a poem about a pristine abandoned city, Kôr:

Mysterious Kôr thy walls forsaken stand,
Thy lonely towers beneath a lonely moon...

Bowen does not say where the poem is from, but her readers would have known. Kôr is a lost city in H. Rider Haggard’s work She, then still very popular; it influenced the young Bowen greatly, and she was to name it in a 1947 BBC interview as a favourite book. The poem Mysterious Kôr was not in fact by Rider Haggard himself but by his friend the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang; however, it was printed in several editions of She, and 70 years ago a young woman like Pepita might well have known it.

The night does not really end well. They make a late and awkward entry to the flatlet; there is no privacy; they have not even been able to sit quietly during the evening, as every bar is very full and the very pavements so crowded that they are jostled. Wartime London is packed with the soldiers of every nation, and there is no room at the inn. As Pepita finally falls asleep she imagines them walking through the pristine deserted city, untroubled by other humans:

With him she looked this way, that way, down the wide, void, pure streets, between the statues, pillars and shadows, through archways and colonnades. With him she went up the stairs down which nothing but moon came...

Bowen’s narrative and descriptive skills are considerable and her sense of place superb. A nightclub, for example, is “not quite as dark as a church... what lights there were were dissolved in a haze of smoke... on the floor dancers drifted like pairs of vertical fish.” She also has a gift that she shares with another distinguished exponent of the short-story form, V.S. Pritchett – that of equipping her reader with the information they need for the story and no more; there is not an ounce of fat in any of these. A few sparse keys are enough. Bowen is a master of allusion.

Yet the real skill here is the depiction of a time and place that is in no way crass or obvious; rather, it is through a private sense of dislocation. Arthur may soon be dead but we don’t need to be told that, and we’re not – it is Pepita’s yearning for Kôr that tells us, far more vividly, how they feel. Joanna’s London house is a smoking ruin but that is not discussed; her friend frets that the three eggs she has brought her from the country will be stolen, and somehow that tells us more. Magdela and her caller say little, but it is clear that their relation was in a time and place that is gone, and it is now hard for them to communicate.

Spain in 1934 and wartime England have been brought vividly alive. In the first case, the past is written in the idioms of the present; in the second, it is brought alive by the mundane. The methods are different but the effect is the same: to see the yesterday today and to be reminded that the past was in colour. They are us, and we are them, and no part of history is unique.

The Demon Lover and Other Stories has been out of print since the 1960s but all the stories, plus many more, are in Vintage’s Elizabeth Bowen: Collected Stories (in the US, The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Anchor). Lewis’s The Tomb in Seville is published by Carroll &Graf Publishers Inc.; oddly, the paperback, although available in the US, appears already to be out of print in Britain.  A wide range of other work by both authors remains in print in both the US and the UK; however, neither author is widely available for tablet or e-reader, though there are exceptions. The other authors’ works referred to in this post are also still in print, with the exception of The Bells of Hell.

A collection of Mike Robbins' travel pieces, The Nine Horizons, will be published in spring 2014

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