I have just started reading Paul Preston’s “We Saw Spain Die”, a study of the foreign correspondents who reported on the Spanish Civil War. This august group included writers of contemporary and posthumous global reputation, such as Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, John Dos Passos, and Arthur Koestler. It also included my favourite poet, (and possibly my favourite writer) WH Auden. Of course, also amongst their ranks were many obscure working journalists, who tried to frame a rational, or committed, response to Europe’s gravest crisis between the First and Second World Wars – indeed, a crisis that, if it had been handled more robustly by Britain and France (the two main European democracies imposed a shameful arms embargo on the Republicans), could very well have prevented the Second World War in the first place, or at least postponed it for a crucial few years.
This was a period where political commitment on the part of writers meant rather more than composing an op-ed piece for the Guardian, or lending your voice to a sit-in or protest march. Orwell picked up a rifle for his political ideals, and he was shot in the throat because of it. Hemingway broke every law that governed such things by being a foreign correspondent who wasn’t adverse to helping out the comrades when they needed it – there’s an excellent photograph in Michael Reynolds’ biography of Hemingway in the 1930s, depicting him clearing a jammed rifle for a Republican soldier on the front, under fire. Arthur Koestler spent months in a fascist jail cell, fully expecting to be executed at any moment, before the British government reluctantly agreed to let him into the country.
I come to the Spanish Civil War at the moment more because of a general programme to re-read some of the books and writers that meant a great deal to me when I was younger. At the moment, I’m on Hemingway again. I first read Hemingway at school, when I felt profoundly disappointed that there wasn’t more Sven Hassel-style action in “A Farewell to Arms”, but as my literary tastes matured (although I still think Sven Hassel is ace), Hemingway came to play an important part in showing me how books could be written, and how what the writer omits says volumes more than what he puts in. Early Hemingway, including all of the short stories, “The Sun Also Rises”, “A Farewell to Arms”, “To Have and Have Not”, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Death in the Afternoon”, and two or three others that I’ve probably forgotten, are unmissable, and amongst the greatest books written in the 20th century. Later Hemingway, when he was ill, and drunk, and had utterly lost whatever made him great in the beginning, is embarrassing and depressing and should be avoided at all costs. The terrible, money-grubbing posthumous printings of books like “The Garden of Eden” and “True at First Light” don’t in the least detract from his earlier achievements, but you need to be careful as a Hemingway fan that you don’t swallow the whole reputation, and that you can distinguish the image from the man, and the man from the writer.
Reading about the Spanish Civil War also reminded me of a particular confrontation I had when I still worked in bookselling. (Note: booksellers rarely serve customers; they confront them, and then are appalled at what the customers reveal about the state of humanity.) I was shelving books in the history section when a young hipster type and his friends started disparaging the fact that Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” was on display under Spanish history, alongside many academic works about the civil war. According to this young man, such a book deserved to be shelved in fiction, because Orwell had got everything wrong about the conflict. Naturally, because this was said in my earshot and felt like a deliberate provocation, I had to respond. (Note: booksellers never think that the customer is always right. In Larry David’s words, the customer is usually wrong, and an asshole.) I said that Orwell had got enough right based on his position as an active participant in the fighting. He was right about Stalin, and he was right about what the Communists did to POUM. (See Christopher Hitchens’ excellent “Orwell’s Victory” for a robust defence of his civil war experience. I’m appalled to see that this book is out of print.) This young man in Waterstone’s though, who, because he had studied the Spanish Civil War thought he had the last word on it, demonstrated the classic post-Popular Front mindset, the same one that made Kingsley Martin reject Orwell’s articles because of the political trouble they would cause, regardless that they told they truth about what was happening within the Left in Spain. In his opinion (which he didn’t present to me as opinion, but as solid, incontestable fact), Orwell had betrayed the Left and the anti-fascist cause by claiming that Stalin, Moscow, the Comintern, and the Spanish Communists, were less interested in defeating Franco that they were in defeating Trotskyist tendencies in the Republican movement. This isn’t an unusual position to take, and I imagine that he had got it from this writer in particular.
In the end, I demurred, and we agreed to disagree. (Of course, what I wanted to say to him was “Why don’t you fuck off, you jumped-up little cunt, and take your fucking haircut with you!” I’ve said as much to other customers at times, generally just after they’ve spat at me, threatened to give me a black eye, or threatened to stab me. Bookselling can also feel unusually front-line at times.) It demonstrated two things to me though. One: some people still believe that the ends justify the means, which usually leaves you knee-deep in corpses and the end still mysteriously far away. Two: some people really have a weird conception of history if they believe that every title in a bookshop’s history section should be 100%-tested, fully accurate, verifiable fact. History is not “facts”. History is not the weight of the past hanging off the neck of the present. History is not even just one damn thing after the other. History, if it is anything, is . . . Well, answers in the comments section below, if you will.
The Spanish Civil War still has a strange pull for anyone who cares about literature, or art, or politics. Everyone at some point must have asked themselves if they would have made the journey across the border from France in 1936 to volunteer for the International Brigades (or, like a surprising number of Europeans did, to volunteer for Franco). The young man in Waterstone’s, who still stokes my ire all these years later, probably thinks himself a vociferous opponent of fascism, and thinks Orwell a traitor to the cause by washing the Left’s dirty linen in public. But I wonder how deep his commitments go, or how deep mine go, and whether either of us would have picked up a rifle when our principles came to the test?