Last week I suggested that I might move seamlessly on from Norah Lofts to a study of late medieval Britain. I’m afraid I could manage no such continuity, but I did at least turn to history of one period or another. First this week, I read Spain in Our Hearts (2016), by Adam Hochschild, a book about the Spanish Civil War. My only previous knowledge of the conflict was whatever little I had gleaned from reading For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) when I was fourteen. It took me until this week to learn that Hemingway was more than just an observer of the war (though he didn’t fight in it, as Orwell did). Indeed, his was an overbearing presence among the raft of international journalists who flocked to Spain to cover the war, each of whom observed and reported on the bitter fighting in Madrid, Brunete and Teruel, some of whom proffered unheeded advice to the embattled Republic, and none of whom, tragically, could galvanise western powers to challenge Franco’s barbaric rebellion.
Adam Hochschild is the one historian whose new release I will always read, regardless of its subject. As I’m sure is the case for many, my first encounter with his work, and the one that made me a fan for life, came when I read King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), a tremendous, righteous account of the capture and keeping of the Belgian Congo. The book was required reading for a class I took at university on the history of Africa, and while I may not remember the name of the professor, I know that I owe him a debt. King Leopold’s Ghost is a book that cannot help but be terrifying—its subject matter dictates its effect. It was my introduction to Hochschild’s signature technique, more narrative-minded than academic, typically a reorientation of the historical viewpoint away from the lionised lives of rulers and their influencers. In each book Hochschild builds up a vivid time and place in the world from the ground, and inhabits it with the men and women who seem, upon close and overdue inspection, to have done the dirty work of shaping the world. In King Leopold’s Ghost, this strategy rendered a chilling portrait of Léon Rom, a failed officer in the Belgian army who found the ideal spot to express his awful cruelty in the nascent Congo Free State, where his word was God’s, and the adornment of the fence stakes lining his compound with the decaying severed heads of African bondsmen his right. In Bury the Chains (2005), which recounts the movement to end slavery in Britain and its colonies, the indelible story is that of an opposite kind of man, Thomas Clarkson, who campaigned so fervently, rode so many miles, to bring the horrors that Europeans were committing against millions in Africa (see Léon Rom) up to the surface of everyday discussion in every town and city he visited. And in his most recent book before this one, To End All Wars (2011), Hochschild offers a kind of compendium of British First World War dissenters, which did much to rearrange my understanding of the less than perfect Pankhurst family. The fact that I can recount some of the details contained in these three books from memory—not something at which I am usually adept—tells you something.
While Spain in Our Hearts isn’t the best of these four books, perhaps because there seems just to be less meat on the story and the pay-off isn’t quite there, the consummate researcher cannot help but bring to light some extraordinary lost lives. The book is subtitled Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, and within that prescription it includes a full diasporic range of characters. One of the two New York Times reporters who covered the war, Herbert Matthews, is shown to be in turmoil as Republican defeat looms—his home is in the Soviet Union, where Stalin’s Great Purge is surely drawing a net ever tighter around himself and his family, and the threat of the Gulag is not farfetched. Torkild Rieber, the Norwegian-American immigrant who literally fuelled the ships and bombers that rained death for Franco’s army, emerges in the second half of the book as its chief fascist sympathiser and villain. Finally, there is a young American couple, the Merrimans, who were on the point of achieving great success at home when, spurred by the widespread labour action that included the largest and bloodiest strikes in US history, they enlisted to fight in the newly formed International Brigades on the side of Republican Spain. (All told, 2,800 American civilians would offer their services in the four-year fight.) The story of the Merrimans serves as a structure to Spain in Our Hearts—Hochschild’s narrative begins with their meeting at university, and ends with their moving attempts at reunification. As an introduction to this under-understood conflict, I would certainly recommend this book. As an introduction to the work of Adam Hochschild, I would not be so inclined.
I went on a very long walk one morning this week with The House of the Seven Gables (1851) for company. Provided there is a pleasant path to follow, like the one I took that followed the West Branch Susquehanna River upstream, this is one of my favourite ways to read. I like to mark books with less-than-witty comments to my future self—“Naturally”, when a character suggests something completely objectionable; or “quite”, when the author picks up on a detail I think especially piquant—and walking tends to imperil one’s handwriting, but otherwise, on a dry day, I need make no concessions to the outdoors. Just words, exercise and the world at large.
Coming around a shallow bend, I looked up from the page and saw two women coming towards me, their active wear and perfect hair suggesting a boutique fitness kick. I moved over to the riverside to let them by, smiled and nodded.
The woman nearest me was having none of my brush-off. “Well look at that!” she cried. “Mull-tie tasking—reading and walking!”
“And I’m very goodadit by now!” I said, triggering unearned hysterics.
It was the closest I came to a thrill over all those seventeen miles until I was almost home, standing waiting at the side of a busy road for the pedestrian light to change. I wasn’t waiting long, and stepped out. I have still yet to decide whether it is a good or a bad thing that traffic lights in this country are sequenced in such a way that those in cars turning right on a green light must give way to those crossing on foot, who also have a green light. Needless to say my opinion of the system took a knock when a pick-up truck took the turn at 30mph just as I stepped onto the road, while the teenager in glasses who sat in the pedestrian seat, looking eerily like I did at his age, stared me down and gave me the finger.
All of this is to deflect attention from my low opinion of the Hawthorne. In the first place, it certainly doesn’t help that the ex-school library copy I read this week had been mauled by twenty or more sets of hands before me—both the front and back covers are missing whole corners and the binding is loose. To be fair to those previous readers, this Signet Classic edition could hardly have been handsome even when new, with its dismal bright brown cover.
I studied English Literature and American Studies as an undergraduate, and if there is one author who came up more than once over the course of those three years, it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne. His short stories, like ‘The Birth-Mark’ (1843) and ‘Young Goodman Brown’ (1846), are excellent, and I’d say they tend strongly towards the Gothic. His most famous novel is of course The Scarlet Letter (1850), an excoriation of Puritan New England that is also a very good story. The House of the Seven Gables also has much to say about the sins of the Puritans, here manifested in the living death of the Pyncheons, whose earliest ancestor in the region initiated a generational curse when he laid spurious claim to an inhabited plot of land and proceeded to build the eponymous house upon it. Given all the work that Hawthorne evidently put into this premise, you would think that a writer of his undoubted brilliance could write something special. Instead, as I see it, he indulged himself.
Hawthorne is insightful; he has a knack for catching a character’s deepest understanding as it floats up to the surface of a scene and pinning it down, though it may be vague, making it plain to see. Along these lines, he has fun with a young character by the name of Holgrave, who boards in the northernmost gable of the Pyncheons’ vast house. He earns money as a daguerreotypist, rendering primitive photographic images and thus creating a portrait of posterity in unheard-of detail and fixing, for the first time, the actual surface of life. It is by contrast, then, that we hear Holgrave expound a personal philosophy that places the highest value on at once denouncing the arrogance of a presumed permanence (as in building a house to pass down to the next generation) and then the recognition of one’s own ignorance. “The more I look at [the world],” he says, “the more it puzzles me, and I begin to suspect that a man’s bewilderment is the measure of his wisdom.” We will discover, in the end, that there is a nicely folded-in irony to Holgrave’s embrace of others’ “bewilderment”.
The shame, for me, is that such clear-eyed characterisation will be followed by ten pages of description and roundabout narration in which the word ‘immitigable’ will almost certainly find its place, alongside ‘torpid’. I was going to offer here a sample of this kind of long-windedness, and found a few choice passages, but naturally they are each far too long to quote in full and expect you to stay with me. If you don’t believe me, I suppose, you can read it yourself and make your own judgement. I can only say that I found myself skimming the page on occasion. I would try, at the end of a few egregiously prolix paragraphs, to remember the content of any of the fifteen preceding clauses, and I would always fail.
Strictly read on its own merits, stripped of the author’s name and the context of its production during the remarkable emergence of modern American literature, I don’t think this book would be a classic. If you want a narrative from this period about an ersatz house that seems to reflect and respond to its inhabitants’ moral frailty, I implore you to read ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, instead.
Image: Author’s own photograph