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Spanish Lesson for Writers

July 27, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

In 1952, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy began accusing prominent Americans in all walks of life of being Communists, schoolroom wall maps in many parts of America showed the Communist nations of the world in red, each nation bearing the date of its fall. Russia, 1917; Ukraine, 1922. And then, after World War II, the fearful acceleration: Lithuania, 1944; Albania, 1946; Poland, 1947; Czechoslovakia and North Korea, 1948; China, 1949. Who was next? There were Communist guerrillas in Greece and powerful Communist parties in France and Italy.

But 50 years ago, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the color that seemed to be spreading across the face of the Earth was not Communist red but Fascist brown and black. Italy, 1922; Japan, 1931 (the invasion of Manchuria); Germany, 1933; Austria, 1934 (the Nazi assassination of Chancellor Dolfuss). When a Fascist coup threatened the democratically elected government of Spain in 1936, the questions that anti-Fascists around the world began asking were just the questions that anti-Communists would ask in 1952: Where will it all end? Could it happen here? To which the response was not declarative but hortatory: We've got to draw the line somewhere!

This may explain, at least in part, why so many good writers produced so much bad writing on behalf of the Spanish Republic. I mean to suggest that--like McCarthy in this if in nothing else--they thought they were drawing a historic line beyond which, as the defenders of Madrid cried, "They shall not pass!" But, like McCarthy again, they were blinded by their own imagined importance.

Two collections of Spanish Civil War writing have been published in this anniversary month: "Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War" (Oxford University: $17.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 416 pp.), edited by Valentine Cunningham, and "Voices Against Tyranny: Writing of the Spanish Civil War" (Scribner's: $16.95, hardcover; $7.95, paperback; 227 pp.), edited by John Miller, with an introduction by Stephen Spender.

The collecting and editing of these writings and recollections is a laudable enterprise. The writers collected are unquestionably distinguished: W. H. Auden, Andre Malraux, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, Arthur Koestler, Claude Simon, and many others of almost equal repute. And the event should have been important enough to call forth their best efforts.

The fact is, however, that often it was not. The further from the event, the better the writings here collected seem to become. The nearer to the event, by contrast, the more they become prey to a hallucinatory persuasion that the writer himself is standing at the very hinge of history. And as in all hallucinations, details--a cigarette, the sound of street noise rising to a hotel room, random place names, snatches of song--take on a kind of revelatory importance. But this is the kind of importance that, once down from the trip, quickly sours into boredom.

In the Miller/Spender collection--shorter, more literary than the Cunningham one--John Dos Passos writes: "I wake up suddenly with my throat stiff. It's not quite day. I am lying in a comfortable bed, in a clean well-arranged hotel room staring at the light indigo oblong of the window opposite. I sit up in bed. Again, there's the hasty loudening shriek, the crackening roar, the rattle of tiles and a tinkling shatter of glass and granite fragments. Must have been near because the hotel shook. My room is seven or eight stories up. The hotel is on a hill."

Plod, plod, plod.

Perhaps some of this is simply the literary fashion of the 1930s. In his review of Ernest Hemingway's "The Garden of Eden," John Updike recently wrote of that writer's "betranced descriptions of the weather, the meals, the landscape, the chronic recreations . . . everything they do described with that liturgical gravity which Hemingway invented."

Hemingway may have invented the liturgical entrancement of the everyday, but in these collections, many others seem to be practicing it. The trouble is that in 1986, it is nearly impossible not to awaken from the trance. Hemingway's own contribution to the Spender collection opens: "On this evening I was walking home from the censorship office to the Florida Hotel and it was raining. So about halfway home I got sick of the rain and stopped into Chicote's for a quick one. It was the second winter of shelling in the siege of Madrid and everything was short including tobacco and people's tempers and you were a little hungry all the time and would become suddenly and unreasonably irritated at things you could do nothing about such as the weather."

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