There is a moment in the old age of a writer when he finds the prospect of one more long haul in prose intimidating and when he claims the right to make utterances. We grow tired of seeing our experience choked by the vegetation in our sentences. We opt for the pithy, the personal, and the unapologetic. For years we have had a crowd of random thoughts waiting on our doorstep, orphans or foundlings of the mind that we have not adopted: the moment of the aphorism, the epigram, the clinching quotation has come. So, in his eighties, Gerald Brenan has sat in his Spanish house, ignoring the fame that has gathered around him as the unique interpreter of Spanish history, politics, and literature, his energetic past as a sort of scholar-gypsy in Europe, Morocco, his previous hopes as a poet and novelist, and his interest as a confessional biographer, and has set about polishing his pensées in this miscellany which he has called dismissively Thoughts in a Dry Season. (Dry is the wrong word: the juices are very active in him.)
Brenan has always been a man of vast reading in many languages, interested in everything from religion, politics, literature, men, women, animals, down to flowers, trees, birds, and insects: he has lived for inquiry and discovery. Although he left school young and is innocent of the university, he cannot be called an autodidact. Greek and Latin came easily to him, he is not a dogmatic “knower” but, as he says, a “learner,” and he has had the advantage of rarely having reviewed a book or given a lecture. A Chair has not allured him. None of his sayings is therefore a regurgitation. He confesses to having kept a commonplace book earlier in his life, but he did not keep it up. His only regret is that the exigencies of modern publishing have made him cut out his longer reflections on history, philosophy, politics, and the phases of the revolution we are now passing through and which have been his passionate pre-occupation since, I suppose, the Spanish Civil War.
Since Brenan, or Don Geraldo as the Spaniards call him, has been my closest friend for the last forty years, I cannot look at the present volume with detachment. I have sat by his blazing wood fire in his Spanish house listening to him talk this book into existence. I see and hear him rather than read it. The tall man whose glasses flash as if he were sending out signals, as he slippers about the room talking fast and softly while he looks above my head into a vast distance, or looks down suddenly as if puzzled by my existence, pops up between the lines of the printed page.
He is an egoist, a performer, who invites one into the upper air of his fantasies and insights. He is one of the excited conversationalists who at once defines and transforms the people, places, and ideas that have set him off. If he is an encyclopedia it is an encyclopedia that has wings. He will punctuate his talk with the most elegant of smoker’s coughs and the most enticing of suggestions or gossipy innuendos. I have often wished I could transcribe his manner of conversation, his sudden darts into some preposterous item of sexual news, his pleasant malice, the jokes that enliven the quirks of learning and his powers of generalization, but the thing escapes me. But now, in the epigrams and discursive entries in this book, I hear his voice.
How does Brenan talk, what is his manner? Here it all is. This is Brenan, any day, on his terrace or by the fire or talking his way up Spanish paths, passing from village to village, switching, for example, from the idea that no village loves the next village, but only the next village but one, and that this may have its roots in Arab habit, to expounding on the cultivation of plants, the habits of birds, the moral and social influences of architecture, the problems of abstract art, T.S. Eliot’s deficiency in historical sense, the nature of pretty girls, the ups and downs of sexual life, the phases of marriage, the patterns of theology, the difference between the nature of the poet and the prose writer, the differing formalities of the Mediterranean, the northern European, the Muslim, and the American cultures and their historical causes. Things are things and events are events, and he knows all about them, but they suddenly take off and become ideas and then become part of the flow of historic instances before they drop into some comical anecdote.
He has arranged his utterances in groups about life, love, marriage, death, religion, art and architecture, literature, writing, people, Nature, places, introspection, and dreams. He has invented a terse Chinese sage, Ying Chü. In his talking life these matters will run from one to another and we shall have scarcely time to agree or disagree. Here I shall note varieties of his manner, remembering that what may sound dogmatic and like a sharp military order—for there is something of the curt soldier in him—is really put forward as a question he invites us to dispute.
Poverty is a great educator. Those who have never known it lack something.
Most of our personal opinions lie on the board like iron filings. But pass the magnet of a strong emotion over them and they will change overnight and point in the opposite direction.
Some girls only fall in love with ugly men. These are the girls who when they were children preferred golliwogs to dolls.
Love and admiration often precede sexual attraction and may even exclude it. Think of Stendhal and the fiasco. The following is a real Geraldo-ism:
But women also have their problems. Thus making love to a girl for the first time can be like going into a dark room and fumbling for the electric switch. Only when a man has found it will the light come full on.
In a happy marriage it is the wife who provides the climate, the husband the landscape.
On religion he is a moderate skeptic. He does not care for utilitarianism. He is not a humanist because he does not feel “Man is a sufficiently noble animal to be given absolute power over his destiny.” He needs authority:
What authority I do not know, but my need has made me a fellow traveler of the religions, though I shall get out of their bus several stations before the end.
(He is close to Montaigne. Above all he admires his prose, but “not in translation.”)
The paintings that move him most are those that express a moment in time when things seem to be arrested and made to stand still.
I am not drawn to Rubens because in his paintings every little detail is on the move. Nothing has weight, there is no rest for the mind, one thinks chiefly of the skill and mastery.
On painting, he passes from the pensée to the essay, but the pensée punctuates the essay. On the abstract painters:
There is no struggle in their canvases, no tension—only choices and hesitations.
Yet the works of the American abstract expressionists
surge up from some deep layer on the borders of the unconscious and make a strong emotional impression.
The essay goes on to architecture—
Modern states [being strictly utilitarian] are the natural enemies of good architecture
—and an analysis of the Romanesque, the Gothic, and the Byzantine, and praise of the Muslims for their “abnormal sensitivity to small variations.” These are intended to “lull the senses,” and he has a eulogy of the mosque of Adrianople. All this ends with an odd kind of aside that gives a sparkle to the learned phrases of his talk. The bishop who completed Salisbury Cathedral had been Queen Philippa’s chaplain, a dwarf who was notoriously impotent. He built the finest spire in England.
The entries become longer when he moves to literature. He looks at Stendhal (“an amateur among professionals”), Balzac, Flaubert, Henry James, Quevedo, Italo Svevo—a talking author very close to him, indeed I often confuse my friend with him—Jane Austen and even P. G. Wodehouse, Gongora and many other poets, and each paragraph contains a startling aperçu. These pages are too long to quote but I have heard many of them thrown off in high moments of his talk where they were as precise as they are in print; his conversation has the glancing quality of something rapt and yet prolonged. His afterthoughts are sudden:
Who, for example, among English writers of talent could have written a serious poem on dentifrice, as Apuleius did, except Nabokov? And in their use of erotic subjects for unerotic ends they are also similar.
The cliché is dead poetry. English, being the language of an imaginative race, abounds in clichés, so that English literature is always in danger of being poisoned by its own secretions.
Whereas French writing—until “Sartre eroded the language”—relied on the precision of its syntax. All the same:
Clichés, if well chosen, give a rest for the mind and give a more leisurely movement to the sentence…. A good deal can be done by words that are vague and plastic: consider the use that Vergil makes of the word res.
So one listens to Brenan’s talk for its vivacity and for the extraordinary breadth of its interests. In one section he amuses himself by bringing in his imaginary Chinese sage to whom modern rulers, from Hitler onward, come to ask advice. The troubled Nixon asks whether there is any chance of being born again in another life in which he could fulfill his potentialities. The sage reminds him that if he is reborn he will find that billions of others will be reborn—“including all your compatriots”—and suggests he will cease to be tormented by this craving for immortality if he reflects on this, before breakfast.
As for himself, there are discreet revelations: he has the writer’s shame before his own writing. Out of dullness he wakes up when he gets to his desk, but cannot believe that he is the “I” who has written and is praised. Modesty? No, he says, conceit. Fog surrounds him: only intuition can give access to the vague shapes he discerns in the fog. All his remarks on nature—on the toad, the snail, insects, and birds—are delightful to hear. He is a connoisseur of the distribution of the olive. To walk with him is to see creatures, trees, rocks, and soils come to life, not only because he knows so much, but because what he knows comes lightly to his tongue. A bore would have stunned us with more information. He does not inform: he incites. There is no melancholy in this Jacques:
Rain, rain, rain. It brings out all the scents—roses, heliotrope, lemon leaves, loquat flowers, freesias, but subduing them a little and mixing them with the smell of the wet earth. This garden is where I should like to live if I were blind, because in its soft air the sounds as well as the scents have a soothing and memory-provoking quality. Ordinarily the senses take in too much. One would better enjoy using one’s eyes if they recorded fewer things, because the less clearly objects are defined, the greater is the charge of emotional association they carry.
Brenan ends by cursing the critics of poetry who insist on “explicating.” He is no sentimentalist. He is always exacting. Be careful: if he is drawing his portrait he may be drawing yours. It will be sharp and yet you will be enlarged by his fantasy.