South from Granada

Gerald Brenan

Book cover

I got this book unexpectedly as a gift from a friend–I had never heard of it or the author, but the friend thought I would like it. I did, and I’m glad I read it.

The author was an Englishman and a peripheral member of the Bloomsbury circle who, after WWI, decided to take his military stipend to live somewhere remote where he could make it last for a while and just live a quiet life. That turned out to be a village in southern Spain called Yegen, which by the author’s telling was quite remote indeed–the nearby towns seem to have generally been several hours’ walk away.

I found the book by turns very engaging and pretty dull. The author set himself an interesting task, because part of his motivation in coming to Yegen was to find somewhere that he could live a pleasant, non-striving, non-dramatic life. It seems that he achieved this, but as it turns out it is a difficult type of experience to write engagingly about. Brenan draws an interesting portrait of the people of Yegen, with an outsider’s eye for detail and strangeness, but also with a clear love for them and for the place. He seems to be something of an amateur historian, and gives some interesting commentary on the close links between the rituals of the village and ancient pagan traditions–so much so that the nominal Catholicism of the village seems to be just a thin veneer.

In several chapters, though, Brenan departs from his own firsthand experience to talk about the pre-history and ancient history of the era, and this just came across as very boring to me. It very much seemed as though he was filling space because he only had a limited number of personal experiences he could write about.

Ultimately, my main disappointment with the book was the lack of strong characters. Brenan discusses a lot of people that he meets, but I got the feeling that he didn’t know most of them all that well. Perhaps the language barrier was an issue (though it seems he spoke fairly good Spanish), or perhaps he is just not that good at imparting the characters. There are entertaining accounts of the visits of Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf, but neither is long enough for much character development. I can think of a couple of locals in the book whose stories are quite memorable, but they are both single-encounter characters, and not individuals who develop throughout the book. I suppose in a way I am just wishing for the book to be something other than what it is.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars