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Wednesday 29 June 2011

Editing Reality

On Sunday mornings I zip through the online press, British, Spanish and American, pausing, of course, if an item catches my eye.

Sometimes this is a catch-up – I had previously missed, for example, that Patrick Leigh Fermor had died.

And then there are my regulars, writers I check up on to see what they are saying each week. One of these is Javier Marías in El Pais. Given the lead time – the article is in the supplement – there can be an air of relatively short term memory recovery about the piece.

On June 11 Marías tackled the respective briefings and leaks in an upcoming legal case involving a recent head of the IMF. His title, La Historia Doblemente Increible, hardly needs translation. That’s doubly and that’s incredible.

I should make it clear that Marías does not prejudge, does not take one side over the other in the conflicting stories , though his vocabulary choice when writing of the accused is not sympathetic to the man.

What he does bring is a novelist’s eye to the stories being offered and points out how utterly unconvincing they both are.

There is Coleridge’s famous line about ‘the suspension of disbelief’. I’d guess that Marías is talking of the reports as such sensationally bad fiction that it is impossible to suspend any disbelief. An editor would be saying ‘Doesn’t add up’ or ‘Makes no sense’ – though here we are talking of a future legal reality and judgement, and their preparatory public spin.

One of the reasons I like his books is because Javier Marías brings such respect and care to the craft of fiction. Good fiction brings a degree of inner logic and a convincing measure of observation and perception to an invention we can recognize or, if very novel, learn to recognize.

The only physical newspaper I now read is the weekend edition of the Financial Times. Last weekend Jan Dalley interviewed Philip Roth and asked him about ‘the limits of fiction’. Mr Roth was not drawn.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Jorge Semprún – A country called Buchenwald

Jorge Semprún who died on June 7 has received praise from both his countries, namely Spain and France.

He had two countries because of certain events last century. Born to a well-off family in Madrid in 1923 he was out of the country when the Spanish Civil War started, his father being Ambassador for the Republic in The Hague.

As a result he was educated mostly in France and was there when the Germans invaded. He joined the resistance and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 at the age of twenty.

He was sent to Buchenwald, tattooed with the number 44.904 and experienced conditions that he would later say explained why he was not quite French and not quite Spanish. The camp destroyed all the certainties he had been brought up with and made him renegotiate his ideas of what living meant. What kept him going was his youth and the existence of a camp library, ‘behind a fence, between two huts.’

On being liberated by two American-Jewish soldiers he returned to France. Spain was not an option.

In 1952 however he changed his name, or at least acquired papers and passport as one Federico Sanchez and joined the Communist Party in Spain. He was expelled in 1964, returned to being Jorge Semprún and living in France. By this time he had begun a wide-ranging career as a writer mostly in French.

As well as novels, memoirs and articles he wrote 15 film scripts including those for Costa Gavros’ Z and Resnais’ Stavisky.

Jorge Semprún’s elegance had a lot to do with his integrity. This caused some delightful if doomed episodes. In 1988 the Spanish Government invited him to be Minister of Culture. He was reasonably effective – he negotiated the von Thyssen legacy – but fatally honest and unpartisan. He lasted three years before his public criticism of some corruption had him removed.

Once again he returned to France. I am not going to talk about his qualities as a writer –the films in particular have dated – but I don’t think there are any doubts as to his qualities as a person. His experiences in Buchenwald made him espouse justice for others and to that he brought intelligence, charm and clear-eyed practicality.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Reading and Football

Yesterday I trotted along to a book swap run by the Edinburgh Book Shop at Henderson’s in Hanover Street in Edinburgh.

The place was packed. There were two speakers: Sara Sheridan and Ian Rankin, who was kindly substituting for someone who hadn’t been able to come. That’s probably trading up but I don’t know who the original speaker was.

The idea is that, over a glass of wine, people pass on books they have bought specially for the event, and receive another they would like to read. I gave a Judge Dee book by Robert van Gulik, and received David Mitchell’s One Day. I’m not sure how many people had actually bought a book, rather than go to their shelves.

Conversation was various but I particularly remember a chat about FC Barcelona. For those who don’t know, Barcelona won the European Cup last Saturday and were rather impressive. Their trainer is the elegant Josep (Pep) Guardiola. He is a reader – not something closely associated with most football trainers in the United Kingdom. In Catalonia, as in other parts of Spain, it is traditional on April 23 to give someone a rose and a book.

I remember a footballer called Michel in Real Madrid saying that his greatest regret was that he had not studied as a boy and in consequence was the only member of the first team not have taken or be taking a degree.

Recently the Madrid version of Guardiola, the elegant, well-read Jorge Valdano (often referred to in Spain as the ‘philosopher of football’), has lost out to the ex-trainer of Chelsea. Those who read Spanish can consult writer Javier Marias’ articles for El Pais – there he gives vent to his disappointment that the club he grew up with has decided on a different tactic that he considers meaner, chippier and altogether less generous. It’s not just about winning, but winning with great skill, honest manners and the kind of intelligence that values these attributes as much as just winning.

Romantic? I hope not.