BOOK REVIEW / Out of the cloaca into the stars: Jan Morris on a learned literary travelogue of Spain which flirts with the picaresque

Between Hopes and Memories: A Spanish Journey - Michael Jacobs: Picador pounds 17.99

BETWEEN Hopes and Memories is an apt if sententious- sounding title for a book about contemporary Spain. Not long ago the memories would have overwhelmed the hopes, and most Spanish travel-books were regretful - as Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, Spain was like a cloud of dust, left in the air when a great people went galloping down the highroad of history.

Spain may never get back in the fast lane again, but it is famously on the move, and Michael Jacobs' travels through it are only intermittently nostalgic. He has taken his title from a poem called 'The Journey' by Antonio Machado, in which the poet wrote of labyrinthine journeys, tortuous paths, deep crypts and ladders to the stars: it is in this spirit of jumbled expectation, feet in the cloaca, brow touching heaven, that Jacobs sets out from the Escorial to meander through the kingdom.

He is a kind of polymath: a specialist in European art history and highly knowledgeable about Spanish literature. He is also a writer of guide-books (Provence, Czechoslovakia, Andalusia, Seville. Madrid), and is alleged to have spent seven years travelling around northern Italy on a moped. This makes him a successor not so much to Laurie Lee, V S Pritchett or George Borrow, as the blurb variously suggests, as to Richard Ford, whose classic Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) displays just the same kind of learned, detailed but down-to-earth gusto.

The geographical pattern of the book is unconvincing. It does not really describe a journey at all, but a whole mosaic of journeys, some of its chapters reading like reprints or at least rehashes of earlier essays, some indeed like Sunday supplement contributions. This does not matter in the least. The book is far more a ramble than a quest, Jacobs being mercifully aloof to the 'finding oneself in the soul of Spain' syndrome; it alternates between moods of profound literary inquiry, wry contemplation and hangover.

If there is a theme to this long book at all, it is a theme of literature: almost everywhere he goes, Jacobs relates landscape and history to literature, and seeks out the homes, the memories, the associations and the subjects of Spanish writers. Most of these authors will be unknown to your average islander (me, for instance) and I thought the greatest pleasure of the work was the sense that one was being personally introduced to the immense company of literateurs, past and present, whose lives have given their country so much of its varied nobility.

The worst part of the book is Jacobs' persistent flirtation with the picaresque. There is something faintly embarrassing about his frequent nights on the tiles, spent with companions hazily alluded to in the manner of Lawrence Durrell or Claudio Magris, embarrassing not only because he is himself a man in middle-age, no longer an art student on a moped, but because the long roster of drunken nights and gluttony seems to attribute to Spain itself an adolescent frivolity.

It is my only complaint. For the rest Jacobs is an engaging, wonderfully informative and ever-surprising companion. He doesn't mind how he travels, whether it be on foot in the time-honoured manner of the foreign observer in Spain, or by extravagant taxi. He is interested in everyone, from grandees of modern Spain like Camilo Jose Cela ('El Nobel'), whom he didn't like at all, to the couple of English drop-outs masquerading as Irish (better-liked in Spain) whom he found shacked- up in a particularly remote and uninviting corner of Extramadura.

He can be tartly outspoken, not only about people he meets, but about other foreign writers on the Spanish trail. My own book on Spain gets off lightly, being characterised merely as 'slender' and 'straightforward', but H V Morton's A Stranger in Spain is waspishly defined as 'aptly titled'. Robert Hughes is ticked off for thinking a Barcelonan stew more traditional than it really is, and the more susceptible celebrants of romantic Spain, like the 'gushing' Edmondo de Amicis, are in general given a rough ride.

Nothing gushing about Michael Jacobs. His eye is clear, except on mornings after, his style is sceptical, and one feels throughout that what he writes is true. Whether it be a functionary in a tourist office, a touchingly high-flown village Councillor of Culture, an Islamic revivalist in Grenada or a disagreeable Galician monk, his characters are drawn without fear or favour, and add up to a grand gallery of Spanishness. I wish he had been around to interview General Franco - though in fact many of his planned appointments never happen anyway, because an interviewee doesn't turn up or it's closing day, or too late, giving to his narrative a beguiling sense of the haphazard.

One does not ask for a conclusion to such a work - the medium is the message, to travel is to arrive - but Jacobs does provide one of a kind. By the end of the expedition he has come to be more interested, after all, in the memories than the hopes - perhaps he has come to feel, with those gushing romantics of old, that the true fascination of Spain is the antique separateness it is fast losing. 'Other writers of today,' he says in his barbed way, 'might have looked for an image to convey a sense of an inherently dynamic country enjoying a new dawn.' He preferred to end by calling upon a figure of mythical decay - the last surviving ferry-man of the river Guadiana, who lives in a half-submerged village on the edge of a reservoir.

But it is proper to Between Hopes and Memories that this ancient sage, far from recalling Charon-like legends of the past, should bring the book to an end with a series of salacious jokes about monks, making his listeners laugh until they cried, and now and then popping outside to urinate against the wall of his hut 'so abundantly that the whole structure seemed to shake'.

Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf