Notebook: Spanish Interlude, Part I

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Desperate Literature bookshop, Madrid, Spain. Photo by Jacob Click for Wild Detectives

We here at Book Post been plotting an epic bookstore road trip, taking us this month to our spring partner, Raven Books in Lawrence, Kansas, to learn more about how people are reading and how book criticism can serve them better. We kicked it off, though, somewhat perversely, with a trek last week to the Desperate Literature bookshop in Madrid, on the occasion of the first-ever Unamuno Authors Series Festival.

Desperate Literature was founded five years ago in a storefront about the size of a VW bus on a steep side alley in downtown Madrid, stocking “English, French & Spanish used, new & fancy books.” Its dapper proprietor, Terry Craven, got his start at the grandmama of all expat English bookstores, Sylvia Beach’s heir, Shakespeare and Company in Paris, and the colorful legacy shows, in the store’s phenomenally robust inventory and its funky vibe. In a parallel development, American writer Spencer Reece (read his Diary for Book Post last fall) was settling in Madrid as a chaplain and national secretary to the Bishop of Spain’s Anglican Church, based at Madrid’s Catedrel del Redentor. Spencer had learned Spanish while in divinity school in order to minister to the emergency rooms of Hartford, Connecticut. After his ordination, he received a Fulbright to travel to the Our Little Roses orphanage in Honduras to teach poetry, a journey chronicled in Brad Coley’s film, Voices Beyond the Wall (watch here), and the anthology Counting Time Like People Count Stars.

One afternoon in 2012 Spencer spontaneously invited the writer Richard Blanco, downcast at the struggle to find an audience and the death that day of literary pioneer Adrienne Rich, to read at the church, proposing that it would be a kind of homecoming for an English-language Cuban-exile writer born in Madrid (and raised in Miami) to read for a Spanish-speaking audience. They printed posters, strung up lights, and more than fifty people showed up at the Catedral’s patio—some churchgoers, some expats hungry for a taste of home, some locals wanting to try out their English. The Unamuno Author’s Series was born. Spencer named the series, once he realized he had one, for Spanish philosopher and intellectual Miguel de Unamuno, who had befriended the Anglican priest Atilana Coco in the months preceding the Spanish Civil War. Like dissenting Spaniards since the Inquisition, Unamuno was seeking a form of worship distinct from Spain’s then conservative and state-controlled Catholic Church: the name invokes for Spanish listeners the Spanish Anglican Church’s historic role in sheltering free artistic expression. The series eventually made its way into the welcoming, if somewhat diminutive arms of Desperate Literature and its hardy band of avid multilingual readers. Meanwhile Richard Blanco went on to read at Obama’s Second Inaugural.

The series culminated this week in a gigantic festival encompassing sixty writers, reading to vermut-sipping audiences spilling onto the sidewalk outside Desperate Literature and in other sites around town dedicated to cultural mingling. The eclectic cast of characters—writers and readers—spanned English and Spanish and lots of shades in between as well as a wide swath of ethnicities and sexual identities. The literature and the companionship were great, but to this pilgrim the big revelation was the depth of familial connections joining writing and reading in Spanish and English across generations and continents, a journey on which the Festival came to seem like just a more-recent stop.

Many of the festival’s participants, for example, stayed in the beautiful Residencia de Estudiantes, which was brought to a tree-shaded Madrid hilltop in 1915 in order to energize the arts and sciences of Spain and bring together its most promising thinkers. Unamuno himself, we learned, was a frequent visitor, staying in the modest student digs, sharing the traditional tea with the estudiantes, and teaching spontaneous seminars to whomever was about. But the generation that got the biggest boost from the Residencia was the so-called Generation of (19)27, the remarkable flowering that included the poet Federico García Lorca, the artist Salvador Dalí, the filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and many other prodigious originals that we would all do well to know more about. The archivists at the Residencia (about whom more shortly) pulled from the vaults some amazing specimens of the letters, literary magazines, manifestos, dedications, drawings, and other colorful ephemera that this lively band was producing all the time, often together. Unamuno, we learned, though by then in exile in France, was a guiding spirit for them: a figure who celebrated youth and originality and encouraged them to defy a stifling political and traditional culture. During Lorca’s day the Residencia was boldly publishing Unamuno’s works, whose unfolding influence, we learned, could be traced in his young protégés with each new volume that appeared.

But this generation is haunted by tragedy. In 1936, a fascist military uprising engulfed the fragile Republican government in a brutal civil war, and its forces crushed the freethinking intelligentsia of the era. Lorca and Father Coco were executed, Unamuno died of a heart attack while under house arrest, and millions of Spaniards sympathetic with the Republican cause fled the country. Several of the specialists who participated in the festival’s “Academic Cycle” (see a full list here) were themselves descended from these exiles (including Lorca’s niece Laura García-Lorca), who had been welcomed in the US by Spanish departments and given the opportunity to preserve their threatened culture and continue their creative work even as they spread their influence through the study of Spanish literature and civilization in the US for generations to come. Laura García-Lorca remembered as a child singing Spanish songs on the lawn of Middlebury College, which she recalled as a refuge sheltering the four generations of García Lorcas still haunted by the death of Federico and traumatized by their flight from home and the destruction of their world. (Laura noted that the women of this generation, while burdened with the responsibility of caring for displaced families and preserving tattered domestic traditions, had more professional opportunities in exile than they would have had at home.) I was reminded of Vladimir Nabokov’s immortal character Pnin, a fictional doppelganger who captured some of the author’s own bemusement at finding himself teaching American students in bucolic Ithaca after having been violently flung across Europe by the revolutionary convulsions in Russia … [read Part II and Part III here!]

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