Wednesday, August 23, 2006

South from Granada

Gerald Brenan was a Bloomsbury fringe figure who spent much of his adult life living in and writing about Spain. This is his much-loved travel memoir which recounts setting up home in the 1920s in the Alpujarras - a beautiful but fairly remote area of the south between Granada and the coast. It's a joy to read for all sorts of reasons - partly because of his amazing fortitude and resourcefulness, and partly because of the empathy he shows towards everything with which he comes into contact. At first he lived on next to nothing, with no water, gas, or electricity, settling in a village miles from anywhere. His idea was to spend his time reading, catching up on an education which he had not received at public school. His food came virtually straight off the land - for this area is rich in fruit, vegetables, and the olive oil for which it is famous.

He integrates completely with the locals, and gives wonderfully sympathetic accounts of their customs and behaviour. Anything he wants to buy is miles away in Almeria, Orgiva, or Malaga, and his account includes expeditions we would now consider positively heroic:

I set out therefore on foot by the still-unfinished coast road, buying as I went bread, cheese, and oranges, and sleeping on the beaches. Since I was in poor walking condition, I took five days to do the hundred a fifty miles.

He is amazingly at one with nature. I imagine a keen botanist would find double pleasure in his description of excursions into the Sierra Nevada. And literary fans will be amused at his accounts of visits from Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington, then Leonard Woolf and Virginia Woolf. His portrait of Strachey's calvary on the outing to Lanjaron, riding over mountains side-saddle on a mule, carrying a parasol, and complaining of piles - is pricelessly funny.

There are chapters on the calendar of village life, of festivals and religious beliefs, and in particular the powerful local superstitions; a whole section on local food - paella, bacalao, and gazpacho - all quite common now, but at the time, like food off another planet.

There's a chapter which creates en passant a whole analysis of the Bloomsbury Group and most of its major figures, plus why he felt that by 1930 it had outlived itself as a cultural force. His description of the pleasures and riches of walking in the mountains would take you several holidays just to re-trace his steps.

He offers a history of the region which starts at the Mesolithic Age and traces its development in terms of agriculture, architecture, politics, and land cultivation. He even throws in a chapter describing a guided tour to the brothels of Almeria.

It's no wonder why this book has remained a popular classic which never goes out of print. Read it if you are interested in Spain, Bloomsbury, or just an account of life, art, and culture from a sensitive and intelligent human being. He went on to write one of the definitive accounts of the Spanish Civil War - but it's this book which you will want to keep on your shelf.

Gerald Brenan, South from Granada, London: Penguin, 1963, pp.320, ISBN 0140167005

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