Any thought of escaping home and summer in London for sun, sea and al fresco lunches – paella, gelato, freshly grilled octopus – has been scuppered by the recent global lockdown. The world is at a standstill as we are besieged by Covid-19. Travel plans and holidays have been either postponed or cancelled. A trickle of pictures of lunches by turquoise seas and sun-kissed legs keeping cool under striped umbrellas have only very recently begun to sneak back onto my social media feeds from the lucky few who have managed to get away.
So reading Heaven, Manuel Vilas’s latest collection of poetry and short fiction published by Carcanet Press, translated from the Spanish by poet and Cambridge don, James Womack, abated my craving for the Hispanic sun, cool cobbled church squares and ocean swims. Complex, rich, melancholy, beautiful, biblical and profane, this is one of the finest and most powerful collections of contemporary poetry I’ve read in recent years. Violence, beauty, tenderness, sex and death coexist and have a momentum all of their own, at times even eclipsing the author.Continue reading Guest Review | Rachel Goldblatt | Heaven, Manuel Vilas | Carcanet Press
Wind, snow and ice are perfect conditions for cosying up indoors and making the most of home. For any of you who have missed out on our recent activity, here’s a taste of what’s been happening . . . BookBlast® brings to you gods and African lions, exclusive interviews with some of the best indie publishers at work in the UK today, revolution revisited, a memoir in tweets, strong women strolling with Pushkin, 1960s Damascus and Iran, Arabian aromas, translation as activism, Roger Pulvers and David Bowie in Japan, naughty valentines, French flair, and much more besides.
An article about sparring with Hemingway and the stamina required to be a writer fell out of Gael Elton Mayo’s copy of Robert Ruark’s Something of Value while rearranging the overfilled bookshelves in the hallway this morning. Gael wrote about 1950s Spain in the 1950s in her memoir The Mad Mosaic.
The American writer Robert Ruark was a friend of hers: “He wrote not (yet) bestsellers, but sports columns, that were syndicated and appeared in twenty newspapers at once all over America. We went to see him with Dennis, in his villa near Palamos. The atmosphere was very different from our village. Friends of the Ruarks had houses with floodlit lawns, beach houses, booze and boredom. But Ruark was as hospitable as Dennis, having people to stay, offering meals, drinks, leaving all his guests for a few hours then returning, rubbing his hands together, to announce he had just had someone killed off. He was referring to the novel that he was working on, about the Mau Mau, Something of Value. He had many Tahitian primitive paintings and played Hawaiian music. He drank mainly rum with Coca Cola, and much ice and lemon. He had two boxer dogs who went swimming with him, and a wife called Ginny who looked as if it had all got beyond her long ago.”
To box with Hemingway when he was in his prime was a rather unusual experience for a reporter who had been sent to interview him. I went to cover the arrival of the Pan-American Airways Clipper across the Pacific via Manila to find Hemingway buoyant with the success of his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. He had just sold the film rights to Paramount for a record sum. Some months before the balloon went up at Pearl Harbour he had been sent to China to cover the Sino-Japanese war for Marshall Field’s now defunct paper, PM.
In the northwest of Spain, Brittany, the west of England and Ireland, you find people with the same surnames. They are all Celts. When Breton and Cornish sailors meet at sea they understand each other’s dialects.
One remembers the saying that Brittany was originally joined on to Cornwall, but how Galicia fits into this is more mysterious, even though if you look at the map it isn’t so far – relatively speaking – from the south coast of Brittany to the north-west coast of Spain.
Madrid is a small town, yet it is not provincial; a clever achievement, “There goes so-and-so in his Jaguar, or X on his Vespa,” contributes to a really Main Street atmosphere – yet there are no provincial qualities of narrow mindedness or hypocrisy. On the contrary, we have rarely been anywhere more open in its general views about eccentricities of the human character. The small family is warm – the freedom is still great.
And at night this capital sounds like the country. From our apartment (which is in the middle, of the city) we hear donkeys braying, turkeys and cocks crowing . . . these last live in a barnyard next door to the British Embassy but are apparently not for English breakfast eggs, they just belong to a neighbour with space.
The edge of the town is a real edge. There are none of our dreary suburbs tailing off indefinitely and submerging your entrance or exit to the city in gloom. Abruptly the city stops. You feel the edge distinctly as you actually stand on it (on a parapet about the Palacio, or on the road to the university) and look out from its finality onto the land beyond. The city, the country. No half measure.