Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good Company

Some of my recent reading about the 1936-39 Spanish Civil war was inspired by my recent visit to Catalonia: I’ve posted on Lydie Salvayre’s Cry, Mother Spain; George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia; back in 2014 I wrote about Javier Cercas’ semi-fictional Soldiers of Salamisin which the lives of real and possibly imagined heroes of that terrible conflict are recounted in the context of the post-Franco ‘pact of forgetting’ – la desmemoria. In 2000 the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory was founded; here’s what they say on their website:

In the spring of 2002, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called on the Spanish Government to comply with international law, calling on Spain to: undertake a proper exhumation of the bodies; return the remains to family members; arrange for their proper burial; and undertake a judicial investigation of the facts surrounding the disappearances.

Such developments have enabled the ARHM to campaign for the exhumation of the graves of the estimated 134,000 who disappeared during the war, and in the Franco dictatorship in Spain 1939-75:

It is estimated that 200,000 men and women were killed in extrajudicial executions during the War, and another 20,000 Republicans murdered by the regime in the post-war years. Thousands more died as a result of bombings, and in prisons and concentration camps. [ARHM website]

The recent news of the pending exhumation of Franco’s body from its grandiose tomb at the Valley of the Fallen complex 30 miles from Madrid, where lie buried some 34,000 bodies – most unidentified – from both sides of the conflict has led to calls for a South African-style ‘truth commission’ in Spain. It’s to be hoped that this will end the ‘desmemoria’, and enable exhumation, identification and decent burial of as many of those victims of the fascist era as possible. (I’m reminded as I write this of Javier Marías’s treatment of this theme in many of his novels).

Cover of Richard Rhodes, Hell and Good CompanyPulitzer Prizewinning author Richard Rhodes has produced in Hell and Good Company something rather different from the standard and well-known histories of the war by the likes of Hugh Thomas, Anthony Beevor and Paul Preston. He does give a highly readable, well researched chronological account of the war, from Franco’s shipping over thousands of Moorish mercenaries to support his coup against the democratically elected socialist Republican government, to his ultimate victory, taking Barcelona and finally Valencia, whence the government had decamped from besieged Madrid.

Also well known, and retold here, is the story of the military support provided to Franco by the shambolic but ruthless Italian duce and by Hitler – who cynically held back some of his troops and munitions to ensure the war dragged on as long as possible, to distract the attention of the British and French from his own sinister preparations for world domination.

Rhodes gives us the familiar stories of the big names associated with the war, including writers Orwell, Hemingway, Gellhorn and Dos Passos, and artists Picasso and the Catalan Miró. More interesting are the profiles of less prominent participants, from volunteers in the International Brigade to doctors and nurses (like Patience Darton) who pioneered medical and technological developments such as blood collection systems and the methods for preserving and subsequently using the stored blood in field-hospital transfusions – or simply made huge personal sacrifices in their struggle against the larger, better trained and better equipped fascist Nationalists.

The western democracies and the USSR effectively abandoned the anti-fascist Republic, while fascist states leapt at the chance to crush a leftist regime while establishing a strategically vital political-geographical foothold in preparation for the world war to come:

[French and British] businessmen allowed Franco to order on credit; Germany and Italy supplied him in exchange for shipments of Spanish minerals. The Soviet Union required the Spanish Republic to pay in gold, however, for its strictly commercial transactions. Spain shipped $518 million in gold to the USSR in late 1936, primarily to move it beyond the reach of Franco’s forces.

The Republic’s only major ally and supporter, the Soviet Union, gradually lost what little enthusiasm it had for the anti-fascist cause, and proved to be as cynical in its policies during the war as the Nationalists were murderous. Stalin seemed more anxious to eliminate anti-fascist, pro-Republican fighters like the POUM and the anarchists, as Orwell recorded, than to defeat Franco.

Particularly chilling are the accounts of the growing sophistication and thoroughness of the fascist aerial bombing campaigns that were to become such a feature in WWII; Spain was the testing-ground for Hitler’s infamous blitzkrieg – targeting and near-annihilation of largely civilian urban populations. Most famous, and related in sobering detail by Rhodes, was Guernica. The obliteration of the symbolic heart of the Basque Country by the ruthless German Condor Legion finally persuaded Picasso in Paris to paint his famous mural and openly declare his opposition to the fascist coup.

Despite shelters, Haldane reports that nationwide, up to May 1938, the number of Spanish children known to have been killed by bombing was 10,760…Civilian deaths from Franco’s bombing raids throughout Spain would total around 54.000 men, women and children among more than 100,000 civilian casualties from bombing alone.

The hardships endured by the thousands of Basque women and children evacuees foreshadowed the shameful anti-refugee callousness being witnessed again in Europe and elsewhere today. Near the end of the book Rhodes has this quotation from the Caudillo:

“Our regime”, Franco announced grandly [after his victory parade in Madrid], “is based on bayonets and blood, not on hypocritical elections”.

The ARHM website reminds us of Spanish-born philosopher Santayana’s famous statement, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. As one contemplates the anti-democratic behaviour of some of the western world’s leaders, and the disturbing rise of the forces of reactionary nationalist chauvinism, these are salutary words.

Hell and Good Company: the Spanish Civil War and the World it Made is a Simon and Schuster paperback, published 2016. Unfortunately the black-and-white photo glossy plates numbered 15-26 in my edition are given twice; numbers 1-14 therefore are missing – annoying.

Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset

Anthony Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset. First published by George Smith (of Smith, Elder & co.) in 32 monthly parts, each one with an illustration by George H. Thomas, 1866-67; 2-vol. edition 1867 (there’s a feature on these images at the Trollope Jupiter blog HERE; the Jimandellen blog has a detailed account with reproductions HERE)

For a more general feature on Trollope and his illustrators there’s a useful guide by Simon Cooke at the Victorian Web site HERE

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition depicts 'The Bromley Family', 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

The cover of my 900-page Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition depicts ‘The Bromley Family’, 1844, by Ford Maddox Brown

In this sixth and final Barsetshire novel (I’ve posted on the previous five earlier this year) Trollope reworks some familiar themes from the previous volumes, especially the central feature – the threat to rural-pastoral peace from metropolitan and other destabilising agents. This is achieved when in the final chapters the troubled and penniless Rev. Crawley replaces Harding in the role of vicar of St Ewold’s, which the former warden of Hiram’s Hospital took on when he resigned that post as a matter of honour and morality in the first novel in the chronicles: The Warden. He is thereby accepted fully for the first time as a ‘gentleman’ into the contemporary Barsetshire clerical circle, while symbolically inheriting from the saintly Harding the role of guardian of its traditional moral values. He’ll fulfil that role with less charm and self-effacing grace than his predecessor, but with the stern asceticism of St Simeon Stylites – with whom he’s overtly compared in Ch. 41, when he pushes himself to physical and mental breaking point in his parochial duties as a way of atoning for his failings (he’d been charged with the theft of a £20 cheque):

He would spare himself in nothing, though he might suffer even to fainting…But he would persevere…No personal suffering should deter him. He told himself that there had been men in the world whose sufferings were sharper even than his own. Of what sort had been the life of the man who had stood for years on the top of a pillar? But then the man on the pillar had been honoured by all around him. And thus, though he had thought of the man on the pillar to encourage himself by remembering how lamentable had been that man’s sufferings, he came to reflect that after all his own sufferings were perhaps keener than those of the man on the pillar. [ellipses mine]

Trollope has become a skilled and often subtle narrator of these otherwise rather creaky and glacially-paced plots – the mystery of the provenance of Crawley’s cheque isn’t resolved until p. 757 of this 900-page novel, largely because the person who could have cleared his name is conveniently out of the country and incommunicado. Those looping verbal repetitions (in the quotation above) demonstrate Crawley’s tendency symbolically to flagellate himself in order to show how he can outdo the world in inflicting pain and suffering on himself, while railing at the world’s failure to esteem him. This tendency has been largely responsible for the frequently-expressed view in his community that he’s prickly, proud and obsessive to the point of insanity (young Lord Lufton, a key character from earlier volumes in the series, calls him a ‘poor, cracked, crazy creature’). His bizarre forgetting where he obtained that cheque is typical of his manic, half-mad eccentricity and morose self-absorption. His self-pity at the ‘trials’ of poverty he suffers as a member of the ‘poor gentry’ verges on the monstrous, especially in his overbearing, patriarchal treatment of his children and his indulgent wife, whose love and devotion to him never falters, even when he’s at his most high-handed and bitter. Indeed, Mrs Crawley, who ‘saw clearly the workings of his mind’, perceives that he was

good and yet weak, that he was afflicted by false pride and supported by true pride, that his intellect was still very bright, yet so dismally obscured on many sides as almost to justify people in saying that he was mad. She knew that he was almost a saint, and yet almost a castaway through vanity and hatred of those above him.

This astute insight into her husband’s grotesquely conflicted, flawed character from one of Trollope’s typically wise, sympathetic mature women is again highlighted by that telling use of repetition and the symmetrical balancing of synonyms with their antonyms, enhanced by the spot-on rhythm, imagery and cadence of the sentences.

This narrative skill changes up a gear in the next sentence:

But she did not know that he knew all this of himself also.

She does not comprehend that he castigates himself constantly with the knowledge that people ‘were calling him mad and were so calling him with truth’, and neither does she ‘dream’ that ‘he was always inquiring of himself whether he was not mad’, and should therefore resign his pastoral office.

Even as shrewd an observer of this difficult man’s complex nature as his wife is surpassed by our narrator in psychological perspicacity – and all of this conveyed with a subtlety and sympathy that in other Victorian novelists would be praised as genius.

GH Thomas illustration of the Crawleys

Image above of the Crawleys at the Victorian Web Here:

This bleak and imposing design is Thomas’s first illustration and establishes the anguished tone of the Crawleys’ narrative. Though modelled on Millais’s earlier design for Framley Parsonage, it shows the reverend and his wife in later years; both have aged and their economic circumstances have declined from poverty into penury. The glum ambience is powerfully conveyed by the worried gestures and glances and the emptiness of the room suggests both material poverty and the emptiness of anxiety. [Simon Cooke, cited above]

This is a superb ending to the Barsetshire novels. The three sub-plots are less satisfying than that of the public humiliation and redemption of Crawley: Trollope’s lack of sustained interest in romantic plots is apparent in his recycling of the doomed Lily Dale-Johnny Eames affair from the previous novel – he even gives Eames another foolish and dangerous romantic London dalliance to take his mind of his humiliating, dogged pursuit of annoying country belle Lily. Trollope also returns to his staple plot of a spirited son’s defiance of parental disapproval of his choice of wife whose lowly social-financial status is their main concern (Henry Grantly and Crawley’s daughter Grace). The other London plot involving a society artist’s flirtation with a woman married to a dodgy city ‘financier’ (usurer/loan-shark) is more lively and exciting, but skirts close to farce towards its end – as the Johnny Eames flirtation plot does.

What lingers in the memory after finishing this fine, uneven novel is the portrayal of noble, heroic, infuriating Crawley, wallowing in self-pity and rancour, spurning the kind offers of aid from his loving friends and family, but capable of facing down the bullying of Mrs Proudie, and of providing genuine support and comfort to the oppressed brickmakers and their families who live in his impoverished parish.

Good to see the indomitable Miss Dunstable, now Mrs Thorne, reappear and provide moral sustenance for faltering lovers – though even she’s incapable of enlightening the ‘morbid’ tenacity of Lily’s infatuation with the scoundrel Crosbie.

Catalunya one year on

Exactly one year after my long road trip with TD jr and two cats from Berlin to his family’s new home at Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, Mrs TD and I revisited the new house to which they moved a few months later. It’s in a community called La Floresta, some kms nearer the city, on the other side of the mountain that looms over Catalunya’s capital.

Early in the week we drove into Sant Cugat to the Mercantic antique market. There is found the most amazing bookshop: part of it is in what must once have been a cinema or theatre: the curtains are still there, and some of the seats. Next to the main store is a buzzy bar, also lined with books.

Theatre bookshop Sant Cugat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next day we went to the seaside resort of Sitges, some 30 kms down the coast from Barcelona. Flags were draped everywhere to celebrate the Fiesta Mayor the previous week. Then the town goes crazy, in honour of the town’s patron saint, Bartomeu. Here’s a link to a site with images of the celebrations, including a trailer for a documentary on the week’s festivities

S Bartomeu flag

S Bartomeu’s flag, with that of the town of Sitges (presumably: it was seen on nearly every balcony)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later this month is the slightly less elaborate fiesta of Saint Tecla:

S Tecla flag

 

 

 

 

A couple of days later we were on the way home when out of the forest and on to the road round the corner from TD jr’s house came a mother wild boar and her family of babies. My snap was taken hurriedly through the car’s rear window, and quality has suffered where I’ve enlarged the image:

Family of wild boar

 

 

 

 

 

 

Near the end of the week we took the local train to the city and on via the R line to Sant Pol, 30 km north. The railway line skirts the coast all the way, with sandy beaches right next to the line:

Line outside Sant Pol station

Line outside Sant Pol station

There are some lovely old buildings in the town; the bougainvillea tumbling down the side of this one was glorious, and the hibiscus put to shame my own puny plant at home, which produced just two blooms this summer for the first time in four years.

Old house Sant Pol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a week with two small grandchildren we spent our last days in the city having grown-up time. This was the view from our hotel window – the magnificent Gaudi house, Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

While on the trip I finished reading the last in the Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope – post coming soon. I then started a history of the Spanish Civil War, Hell and Good Company, by Richard Rhodes. It doesn’t just relate the usual sad story of the fascist coup in 1936 that ground on for three terrible years, but focuses on the developments in medicine, technology and the arts at that time.