BOOK REVIEW / A long journey into the labyrinth: David Gilmour on a searching study of Gerald Brenan and his passion for Spain :The interior castle: A life of Gerald Brenan - Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 25

GERALD BRENAN hoped to be a great novelist, a great poet and a great lover. Unfortunately, his novels turned out to be second-rate, his poems ninth-rate, and his love life handicapped by recurrent impotence. So instead he became the greatest of Hispanists, combining - almost uniquely - fine scholarship with a sensuous intuitiveness about Spain and its peoples. He was also the author of three works of autobiography and a compulsive writer of very long letters.

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy confronts his first difficulty in the first sentence: how does one write a biography about a successful autobiographer? The best answer, clearly, is to prove him a liar. Gathorne-Hardy is sympathetic to Brenan, whom he knew well, and indulgent towards much of his curious behaviour. But he paints a very different picture from the autobiographies by demonstrating how Brenan's impotence obsessed him and affected his life even in old age. The man who boasted of his sexual exploits - a foolish habit for someone with his problem, because women can get together and compare notes - becomes the pathetic voyeur with binoculars scouring beaches for canoodling couples.

The impressive extent of the author's research is revealed by his pursuit of the supposed conquests - an embarrassing quest, since they invariably deny that anything took place. But his views on the subject are not altogether convincing. Quite a lot of people may be surprised to learn it is 'almost universal' for men to be impotent at the beginning of a new love affair. And the creativity thesis - 'The diverted stream may turn aside into strange and fascinating country which the coarse rushing river completely misses' - strikes me as pretty dubious.

After a restricted and disagreeable childhood both at home and school, Gerald understandably ran away to avoid Sandhurst. He longed for freedom, poverty, and an immense trek to the Pamirs: the author makes an engaging comparison with Ferdinand the Bull, Brenan preferring to smell the flowers of the Oxford countryside rather than associate with the hearties of Radley. In fact he got as far as the Balkans before coming home and fighting on the Western Front. After the war he mooned about on the fringes of Bloomsbury, embarking on a series of literary projects without managing to complete one; he did not publish his first book, a novel, until the age of 39. During the same period he began a part-time life in Spain.

Brenan settled in a remote region of eastern Andalusia in 1920. He was not interested in Spain, knew little about the country and did not intend to write on Spanish subjects. Nor did he try to make Spanish friends. He wanted somewhere cheap to live where he could read books, go for prodigious walks, and occasionally entertain his Bloomsbury friends: the least appreciative of these was Lytton Strachey, who made a painful journey with piles on a mule, 'holding an open sunshade above his head - like some figure in a limerick by Lear'. It was not until the civil war, when he had moved to the coast, that Brenan became interested in Spanish politics. The interest rapidly became an obsession, leading to support for the Republican cause on his return from Britain, and accumulating in the writing of The Spanish Labyrinth.

Gathorne-Hardy believes that one of Brenan's later books, the largely autobiographical South from Granada, will last longer than the others. It is certainly a minor classic, worthy of a permanent place in the lists of anecdotal travel books, but it lacks the power and sweep of that masterpiece on the origins of the civil war. The Spanish Labyrinth is not an academic's book, although Paul Preston has rightly called it the foundation of all modern scholarship on the period. Nor is it simply a survey of the background to those disastrous years. It is a wonderfully subtle portrait of a country in its agony, but a portrait that also, as the title encapsulates, brings together all the complex and bizarre turnings of Spain's history. Some of Brenan's arguments have been disputed, others will be revised, but the picture - of a now almost unrecognisable country - still holds, because of the imagination with which it was written and the sympathy it displayed towards the peoples of Spain. Hugh Trevor-Roper told Brenan that he was his 'ideal historian - you see the past in the present, and the present in the past, imaginatively . . . ' What a pity that he bragged about women when he should have boasted of his understanding of the Andalusian anarchists.

The Interior Castle is an astute and enjoyable biography, and its Spanish sections are a tribute to the skill of an author who has no particular interest in Spain. It is rather too long for its subject, particularly the chapters on the years of going downhill with boring expatriates in the Costa del Sol. The death of Mrs Brenan, a far better poet than Gerald, is recounted with unnecessarily detailed descriptions of her decline, her alcoholism and her incontinence.

Her husband's senility was also pathetic. The sounds of nightingales and golden orioles in his village were replaced by motorcycles, and he himself was forced to flee to a more remote place. Even in old age, however, he made a fool of himself with young girls, telling people he slept with them, making a scene when they acquired boyfriends. Yet his last years also brought him the fame that he had once hoped to achieve with Bloomsbury. After Franco's death Brenan became a cult figure for the new Spain. He received prizes, invitations to shoot with Spanish aristocrats, exhortations to appear on television. He was also awarded Spain's ultimate accolade, as deputations of ministers of culture (every region has one as well as the state government) wound their way up to his last home to pay homage to a man described by a recent Spanish ambassador to London as someone who 'knows us better than we know ourselves'.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us