The Presence of Spain
An Explanation of Spain
Take a look at Evelyn Hofer’s photographs in James Morris’s The Presence of Spain. Probably no other photographer has got Spain so instinctively right. The nuns, the lottery-sellers, the shaft of sunlight on the Romanesque cloister—here, sharply delineated, and only occasionally over-dramatized—is Spain as it is: a country at once timeless and time-worn, a country frozen, in that brilliant sunshine, into a succession of immobile façades which yet dissolve as you look at them, to reveal the vigor and the misery, the integrity and the emptiness, that lie beneath. Everything is here; everything, at least, which emphasizes the solitary and the individualistic in the life of the Spaniard. For, if Miss Hofer’s camera misses anything, it is the sociability and gregariousness which represent the other side of the coin. Her Spain is essentially the Spain of the monk and the shepherd, lonely figures lost in immense landscapes, clinging to their identity in the midst of nothingness. But where is that other Spain, convivial, affable, and totally indifferent to the demands of privacy? The Spain, above all, of the café and the railway compartment; the Spain not of the individual but the group?
Perhaps nobody, not even Miss Hofer with her camera, can catch it all. In the end the generalizations cancel each other out, and the kalcidoscopic pattern, momentarily fixed, dissolves, before it can be recorded, into a cascade of splintering fragments. It is, however, this very diversity and endless self-contradiction which make Spain peculiarly well adapted to the literary gifts of James Morris. Mr. Morris’s technique is by now well known—the verbal pyrotechnics, the dazzling use of detail to evoke a scene and a mood. He has, I think, never written better or more convincingly, and the hard brilliance of the Spanish landscape is splendidly reflected in the hard brilliance of his style. At times, no doubt, he over-writes, as if he found it difficult to leave a good adjective alone. He can be repetitive, too: twice in a book of a hundred pages Colonel Moscardo makes his famous telephone call from the Toledo Alcazar. At times, also, the details are too deliberately scattered over the page, and Mr. Morris assumes a fleeting resemblance to the Bishop of Ciudad Rodrigo, who (he tells us) was found by his assassins in the Civil War to have been devoting his energies to sorting out his 13,400 card references to the history of Toledo. Spanish bridges; dogs and cats—one occasionally has an uneasy feeling that the conscientious card-indexer, enamored of his references, is breathing too heavily down the author’s neck. But, at his best, how good, and incisive, he can be! It is hard, for instance, to recall a neater or more effective description of El Greco’s great “Burial of Count Orgaz.” Perhaps the best tribute that one can pay to Miss Hofer’s and Mr. Morris’s book is to say that it makes one want to take the next plane to—well, not Madrid, but virtually any other city that Mr. Morris cares…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.