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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?