My rating: 3 of 5 stars
All I have aimed at is to entertain a few armchair travellers, who may enjoy whiling away a rainy night in reading of how people live in remote mountain villages in the serene climate of the South Mediterranean.
This book left me cold. I didn’t expect this. Early on in the book, Brenan tells us how he used to sit under an orange tree in Andalusia, reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Shortly thereafter, he moves into a little town in the Alpujarras and brings along with him hundreds of books, with the intention of educating himself. It is hard for me to think of a more promising start to a memoir. But as I turned the last page, I felt only relief that the book was over and I could move on.
Perhaps this coldness is due to the long gap between Brenan’s stay there and his writing of this book. South From Granada is an account of Brenan’s time living in Yegen, a small town in Andalusia, in the years between 1920 and 1934. The book was written about twenty years later, and published 1957. The intervening time seems to have dulled Brenan’s memories or taken some of the tang out of his experience, for I found many of the descriptions of Yegen in this book underwhelming bordering on soporific. And this, despite all of the things this book has going for it: skillful prose, an interesting story, as well as cameos from Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. What went wrong?
Even though Brenan spent an awful lot of time in this village, I got the impression that he didn’t get to know most of the people all that well. His fullest portraits in this book are of his landlord, his servant, a drunken Scottish person who lived a few miles away, and his friends who came to visit him. Maybe he spent most of his time reading? (He mentions at one point that he was reading all twelve volumes of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.) Much of the rest of the book is given over to descriptions of the countryside—very good descriptions, I might add—and other amateur interests of Brenan’s: archaeology, botany, history, poetry, folklore, and anthropology.
As that list suggests, Brenan was an exceptionally well-rounded and well-educated man. Yet he doesn’t manage to translate this into interesting or insightful writing. Each chapter is much too short and too sketchy to provide any real understanding for the reader; and besides, I often felt that Brenan wasn’t the most trustworthy person to consult in these matters, and my skepticism got in the way of my enjoyment. In the introduction, Christ Steward suggests that Brenan’s versatility is a reproach to our overly specialized age. Yet for me this book taught the opposite lesson: if you want to do serious intellectual work, you’ve got to specialize. Otherwise, you end up like Brenan, with a superficial understanding of many things but a deep understanding of nothing in particular.
Brenan’s excellent prose might have been expected to remedy this situation. And indeed, much of the book is very impressively written. Nevertheless, even here Brenan irked me a little. First was his habit of using “one” in his descriptions of the countryside:
One flies over the villages in the air, one seens their strange names on the map, one may even, if one leaves the main road, bump past them in a car, but their life remains as mysterious at that girl with the unforgettable face one caught sight of for a moment through the window of a railway carriage.
Second was his habit of using “would” to describe his routines and village life:
I would come back tired and stiff from a long expedition and, while I washed and changed my clothes, the fire would be lit and a meal brought in. My post would be waiting for me and a copy of the Nation—that ancestor of the New Statesman—and over my coffee I would read my letters and begin to answer them.
This second habit I found especially distracting, because I’ve caught myself doing the same thing in my own writing and have tried to get rid of it as much as possible.
Both of these habits—using the impersonal “one,” and frequently using “would”—reinforce the feeling of distance and coldness that I experienced. It would have been much better, I think, not to tell us of what “one” would see, but of what he saw; not to tell us of what “would” happen, but of what did happen. There are too many generalities in this book and not enough specifics; there is too much description and not enough action.
Nevertheless, the book redeems itself in several places. The first is Brenan’s description of Virginia Woolf’s visit, in which he gives us an excellent portrait of her personality and also some details about his experience in the Bloomsbury Group. I actually got the feeling that Brenan was not a little in love with Woolf, his descriptions of her are so vivid and so thoughtful. The other standout chapter was Brenan’s account of his visits to the brothels of Almeria. The brothels themselves sounded dull, but the companion Brenan takes with him was a real character. But then just as the book is ending, Brenan tells us that he won’t give an account of Bertrand Russell’s visit—which really frustrated me, since I think that would have been another great chapter.
In any case, it must be admitted that this book is probably the most readable account of a time and place that no longer exists. According to the Wikipedia article, now there is a sizeable expat community of British people living in the town, probably in part thanks to this book. Still, I can’t help being disappointed that something with so much potential came out so mediocre. Wasted potential is always vexing.