Farewell Spain by Kate O’Brien

One of the triggers for me starting the Ramblings (six and a half years ago!!) was the discovery of a number of book blogs via the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group. It’s a wonderful community of booklovers, and they always have lovely reading challenges going on during the year – in fact, I was in the middle of taking part in their Elizabeth Taylor readalong when I started rambling… I don’t always participate in the various projects, but I do drop in when the mood is right, and this year the focus was on authors of the month. I’ve taken part in a few, and some were more successful than others (I abandoned a Stevie Smith re-read after a few pages when I hit some casual anti-semitism…) December’s author is Kate O’Brien, an Irish writer I’ve never read, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read her fiction at the moment. However, the bio of her posted on LT revealed that she’d written a kind of travel book about Spain in the 1930s, and that sounded irresistible. So I may have had to send off for a copy…

The book was published as part of the Virago Travellers imprint, and I have a *lot* of these on my shelves; pioneering works of women travellers, they make up an eclectic collection (and I by no means have all of them) and are worth a reading project of their own (if I did such things any more…) Many of these books focus on early journeys, with authors like Isabella Bird, Flora Tristan and Lady Montagu featuring. However, a number of the books are women travellers from the 20th century and O’Brien’s books sits in that category alongside luminaries such as Beryl Markham and Gamel Woolsey. Really, this *would* be such a good reading project. But I digress…

O’Brien (1897-1974) was an Irish author, known as a playwright and novelist, and a number of her works are published by Virago and set in Spain. This edition, from 1985, is illustrated and introduced by artist Mary O’Neill; the latter features in the book and from what I’ve picked up elsewhere was O’Brien’s life companion. You wouldn’t know it from here, and although I can understand the 1937 edition being discreet about such things, I’m surprised at a 1985 issue being that coy. That’s by the by, however – what we want to read about is Spain.

“Farewell Spain” was written over the period from October 1936 to February 1937, and is very much informed by the conflict that was taking place in space. In fact, although it’s described as a travel book, the blurb on the back comes closer when describing it as “a distinctly personal elegy”; although you could argue that it’s in fact a political book disguising itself as travel and memoir! The book was written at the height of the Spanish Civil War by someone who had lived in Spain, travelled through Spain and loved Spain. So whatever label you want to stick onto it, it’s a bracing, beautiful, poignant and sometimes problematic read.

Pablo Picasso [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D – via Wikipedia Commons

O’Brien knew Spain well, having worked there as a governess and travelled extensively through it. Much of this book draws from events and visits in 1935, the year before the bloody conflict between the fascist General Franco and the communist Republican regime broke out and began to tear it apart. That conflict would be reflected in the coming World War, and indeed O’Brien recognises that this fundamental dissonance will tear Europe asunder. Hence, perhaps, the elegiac tone of the book, because she certainly seems to be lamenting a Spain (and a world) that is lost. O’Brien makes no bones about her grief at the loss of the Spain she knew; she bemoans the fracturing of the world which will descend into chaos and destroy the freedom to roam and travel through it; she laments the destruction of cities she knew and innocent lives; and I wonder how she would have reacted to the massacre of Guernica.

The hotel at Covadongo is rather grand and very quiet. As I sat on it its flagged terrace and heard the soughing of the trees and the running of the water, as I admired for the millionth time the Spanish sky and tried to count the points of the coronet of mountain peaks which, because I was nearly as high as they, did not oppress but only stimulated me, as I watched the village drowsing in the sun, and drank the cool, thin air – I had a deep desire to stay where I was then. The peace of the place seemed impenetrable that morning.

However, the book is not all doom, despite an air of melancholy. O’Brien uses her pages to celebrate the villages, towns, cities, regions and peoples she’s known; she relates humorous tales of tourists and their disillusion when the reality of Spain doesn’t match up to the travel posters; and she writes lyrically about the architecture, the countryside and the Spaniards in prose that can be beautiful and sometimes haunting.

Nevertheless, the book is not without issues. On a purely practical front, I found O’Brien’s prose a little heavy-going in places and it took me a while to get going. When her prose soars, it really soars, but there were areas where it was perhaps a little dense for me. Then, as I should have expected, there were the bullfights. You’re not likely to have a book about Spain without them, and fortunately the coverage was brief, but I did skip those bits. More problematic is O’Brien’s attitude to what she calls the Moors and the Moorish influence on the country. She states quite baldly at one point:

I, for my part, detest all signs of the Moor in Spain.

It’s a view she reiterates at intervals throughout the book and frankly, it rankles. She’s entitled to her preferences when it comes to architecture and the like, but to dismiss the richness of a whole culture in this way seems breathtakingly arrogant and pretty unpleasant – I’m not even sure if it’s acceptable to use the term ‘Moorish’ nowadays and I wouldn’t wish to offend anyone. My knowledge of Spain and its history is limited so maybe I’m not qualified to comment, but from what I understand the influence of that culture is strong and respected, and an important part of what makes up its past. If she decries the colonisation of parts of Europe by the Arabic world that’s a heap of steaming hypocrisy from an author from a European world which colonised left, right and centre. I’ve read that O’Brien may have been influenced by the fact that Moroccan troops were fighting in support of Franco’s regime and she was very much pro the Republic. Additionally, as she came from an Irish Catholic background, she may have perceived that religion’s cultural influence as being more important (and certainly large portions of the book cover the religious buildings and St. Teresa of Avila). However, I was unhappy and uncomfortable at times with this aspect of the writing, even considering giving up at one point. I stuck with the book, however, as O’Brien’s pen portraits brought the country she knew to life, and I did find it fascinating to read a book, written as it was in a world in a state of flux, by an author who had no idea there was a cataclysmic upheaval to follow and that Spain’s democracy would be destroyed.

So an intriguing, sometimes enlightening, idiosyncratic and very personal book on Spain by Virago author of the month. I’m glad I read it, and it will definitely stay on the shelves with the rest of my Virago Travellers; although if I’m truly honest I’m not sure I will read any more of O’Brien’s work. “Farewell Spain” is perhaps a bit of a curio: a missive from a time gone by, from a world descending into conflict and an era when fiercely opposing viewpoints were threatening to destroy the world – so, hey, a time not so different from ours, really…. 😦


Just for the hell of it, I went upstairs and checked my Virago Travellers after finishing this post; normally they lurk at the back of a double stacked shelf, but here they are revealed in all their glory:

Fact is, I had more than I thought, although I suspect I’ve read only a few (this, of course, needs checking). But ain’t they pretty??? 😀