“But this is the twentieth century and no one believes any longer – not even the slow, reflective Spaniard – that we are sane.” @ViragoBooks #kateobrien


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??? 😀

The Lure of the Frozen North #viragoauthorofthemonth @margaretatwood


Strange Things by Margaret Atwood

In what subtle way does the universe convey the knowledge that it has ceased to be friendly? (W.H. Blake)

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this post that I am a massive admirer of the great Canadian author Margaret Atwood. I’ve been reading her work for decades, and she’s a writer I regularly return to over the years, always discovering something new and wonderful in her books. The LibraryThing Virago group have been picking an author of the month to read this year, a challenge I’ve been dipping in and out of, and November’s choice was Atwood. I almost ran out of time with this one, despite being desperate to read more of her work, but I *did* manage to squeeze in one title. And oddly enough it turned out to be another non-fiction book, which would fit in with the Non-Fiction November challenge that’s going around, although that’s purely coincidental…

You might have noticed that I flagged up the fact that Atwood is Canadian, a fact well-known and one that I wouldn’t normally have mentioned. However, it becomes relevant here because ‘Strange Things’ is specifically about Canadian literature and how it’s been informed and influenced by particular themes or events in the country’s past. I do have a little connection with the country, as my late father was actually born there while his parents were working abroad, and so he held dual passports; and I’ve always felt an attraction to the place which hasn’t diminished in recent years as Canada does come across in the media as a rather tolerant and nice country to live in. In fact, during the Brexit shenanigans, several family members joked half-seriously that it might be worth us all decamping there…

If you ask a writer to give a lecture, you’ll get a writer’s lecture; and as we all know, the inside of writers’ heads resemble squirrel’s nests more than they do neatly arranged filing-cabinets.

But I digress. Onto the book, which is a collection of four pieces delivered as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford University, and these focus on the influence of the wilderness of the Canadian North on writers and indeed Canadian culture. I should ‘fess up that I’m actually pathetically unwell-read when it comes to CanLit, so much of what was discussed was new to me – which is good, but embarrassing…

Vintage photo by Caroline Moodie

The four starting points for the lectures are the doomed Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the mysteriously monstrous (and cannibalistic!) Wendigo; and how women writers have developed their own take on exploration. Within these topics Atwood ranges far and wide, exploring all kinds of sub-concepts, from the fact that the North is usually portrayed as female and how women writers deal with that aspect; our love of a tale of doomed exploration; the various aspects of being a monster, whether a completely external kind or one which is part of ourselves in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde way; through to the strange need of non-native peoples to adopt a native image or heritage. All of this is delivered in Atwood’s trademark crisp prose and dry wit – until re-reading her recently I had forgotten just how funny she can be, but once again I was laughing out loud in places.

These two renditions of Native people, as either better than whites or worse – with whites being the norm, the standard for comparison – ought to sound very familiar to women, polarized as they have been until so recently into angel-wives or demon-whores.

However, there *are* serious points to be made here, not the least of which is the fact that women have regularly been marginalised in Canadian mythology, never the ones who go out and explore but rather the ones that stay inside and make the homes; or worse still, allowed to personify the wilderness that has to be explored and penetrated. Atwood also expresses concerns about our behaviour towards the natural world, commenting:

… if white Canadians would adopt a more traditionally Native attitude towards the natural world, a less exploitative and more respectful attitude, they might be able to reverse the galloping environmental carnage of the late twentieth century and salvage for themselves some of that wilderness they keep saying they identify with and need.

It’s funny how there can be little synchronicities in life, and unexpected connections that pop up when you’re reading. For example, in the section of the book on Canadian women’s writing, which Atwood entitled ‘Linoleum Caves’, she covers “Bear” by Marian Engel; and I got much more from this particular section having read Books,Yo’s recent illuminating post on this book. Although Atwood comments on the bear’s particularly talented tongue (ahem….), like Books, Yo she’s aware that this is not the real point of the work, though perhaps both commentators here draw different conclusions as they’re coming from very different angles.

Atwood also touches briefly on the work of Robertson Davies, an author I have lurking close at hand, and certainly “Strange Things” has made me very keen to explore Canadian literature in more depth. She closes the book with another stark warning about the effect that our inability to address climate change is having on the world, and this resonated particularly strongly with me too; I haven’t recovered from the section of Simon Reeve’s recent “Russia” documentary when he explained how much of the permafrost had melted – it’s quite terrifying…

So, yet another masterly work by Margaret Atwood; I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed by her work and I’m finding her non-fiction works particularly engrossing lately. Eldest Child has indicated a wish for some Atwood books for Christmas, so I now have the lovely task of trying to decide what to treat him with – and the quality of her work is so high, that I think the choice will be particularly difficult….!

A reading update – and forthcoming plans!


I can’t believe that it’s actually June already – where the time goes, I don’t know, but to suddenly find myself halfway through the year is a bit of a shock!

May was a reasonable reading month, although I didn’t make it through as many books as I intended; things started well but then I found myself involved in a very looooong review book which took up the back-end of the month! Now I’m through that and trying to decide what to read next…

This month’s Virago author is Margaret Laurence and the choice of which I could read is going to difficult:

These are the only two Laurences I own, and I believe they’re both part of a sequence and not the first part! I’m trying not to buy books at the moment, but I may have to make an exception here if I want to read something by this intriguing-sounding author in June…

Speaking of buying books, I have purchased just one volume recently, thanks to a hint from a certain sci-fi blogger who’s aware I have an interest in Soviet sci-fi written by women (You Know Who You Are….)

This one took a little bit of tracking down, and I eventually had to procure an ex-library copy from the USA – but it’s in really good condition, and I don’t mind it being ex-library. I get a little sentimental about old-school library cards and trappings in this kind of book and I like to give books like this a good home. Pleasingly, as well as the story by Olga Larionova, whose work I rate highly, there is also one by Kirill Bulychev who I also rave about regularly. So a good find!

And there was a good bookish find of another kind recently! Youngest Child and Middle Child paid a flying visit at the end of May, which was absolutely lovely, and while they were here did a bit of room clearing (as we still have so much of their junk stuff in the house). Whilst rooting about in her room, Youngest Child found she had two of my books hidden away on her shelves, one of which in particular I was very pleased to have back:

I’ve had the Emily Dickinson book since I was a teenager and was most aggrieved that I couldn’t find it. So at least it is now back on my shelves with my other poetry books – result!

Continuing with my plan to have no plans, I don’t have any idea what I’m going to read in June and as I’m feeling a bit undirected reading-wise at the moment, I may well be lurching into more classic crime – well, you can’t go wrong there, can you? 🙂

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