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)