C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid and the literary lure of the “Good Fight”

Winter in Madrid Both American presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, named Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when asked recently by journalists to cite their favorite novel. McCain has said that during his captivity in North Vietnam as a POW he recited portions of the book to himself.

It’s intriguing that both McCain and Obama chose a novel set not in the United States, but in Spain during its fratricidal Civil War in the late 1930s.

The protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls is an American, however, Robert Jordan, a leftist college professor and International Brigades volunteer who embarks on a dangerous mission to blow up a strategic bridge in the Iberian hill country. At least one conservative writer, Michael Knox Beran, has tartly suggested that McCain should find a different favorite, one that isn’t “a maudlin lament for a socialist bridge-bomber.”

There is some irony in Beran’s critique of the politics of Hemingway’s novel, because the hard Left in the United States, including some of the American Communists who served in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (part of the International Brigades), ferociously attacked the book (and its author) after its publication in 1940. These critics, among them former Lincoln commander Milton Wolff, objected to Hemingway’s negative portrayal of Soviet motives and tactics in Spain and to his unsparing and harsh portraits of political commissar André Marty (known as the “Butcher of Albacete” for his purge of non-Communists in the International Brigades) and the Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri, the Leftist icon also known as La Passionara. (Hemingway, never one to duck a fight, responded directly and profanely to those he called the “ideology boys.”)

Hemingway made a distinction between supporting the Loyalist cause, as did his fictional character Robert Jordan, and endorsing the Soviet strategy of deception and manipulation in dealing with the Republican government. Such an approach was anathema to the hardliners. There’s an amusing anecdote (recounted in Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War) involving the actor Gary Cooper, Hemingway’s choice to play Robert Jordan in the film of For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Alvah Bessie, a Lincoln veteran and screenwriter. During the filming, Bessie lectured Cooper about how the Spanish conflict hadn’t been a civil war, as Cooper believed, but instead was a German and Italian invasion designed to overthrow the legal government of Spain. Cooper’s laconic, and classic, response: “That so? That’s what so great about this country…a guy like you can fight in a war that’s none of his business.”

Art and the “Good Fight”

It’s not hard to see why the “Good Fight” (as the Spanish struggle was dubbed) inspired artists, poets, playwrights, novelists and short story writers from the start. The conflict was rich with dramatic, and tragic, elements. Writers have been drawn by the idealism of many of the defenders of the Republic, and by the idea that the Spanish hostilities represented a dress rehearsal for World War II. Some of the best works about the conflict, such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s novel, have explored the tensions within the ranks of the Loyalists. This artistic and literary fascination with the “Good Fight” has continued into the 21st century as evidenced by a continuing stream of books (fiction and non-fiction) about the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades, including English author C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a best-seller in Britain.

Sansom has set his fictional story in 1940 Madrid, a year after General Francisco Franco’s victory over the Loyalists, and Winter in Madrid shines brightest in its evocative portrayal of the grim life in Spain’s capital city: the compromises, and sacrifices, required for survival. The novel’s protagonist, Harry Brett, a veteran of Dunkirk, is recruited by British Intelligence to spy on a former schoolmate, Sandy Forsyth, who is involved in shady business dealings with the Spanish government. Brett’s mission exposes him to the corruption and venality of the Nationalist victors, and to the growing rivalry between the Royalist and Falange wings of Franco’s regime.

Sansom’s characters reflect the range of British attitudes toward the Spanish conflict. Harry Brett is a self-described liberal Tory (“As far as I am concerned, Spain before the Civil War was rotten with chaos, and the Fascists and Communists both took advantage”). The crypto-Fascist Forsyth is balanced by a British Communist, Bernie Piper, an internationalist who embraces the Republican cause as part of a broader struggle against Fascism. And there is an English Red Cross nurse, Barbara Clare, an idealistic, but fragile, fellow traveler who becomes romantically involved with both Piper and Forsyth. The three men—Brett, Piper and Forsyth—have all attended Rookwood, a traditional British public school, and Sansom intersperses flashbacks of their school days throughout the pages of Winter in Madrid, linking past and present friendships and rivalries. That’s a lot of baggage for any novel to carry, and Sansom struggles to pull off the dual narratives.

He also misses the mark in his characterization of Forsyth, a straight-from-Central-Casting sadist, exactly the sort of predictable Fascist bad guy found in innumerable World War II thrillers. Franco’s Spanish supporters are also uniformly portrayed by Sansom as grasping, or evil, or both. Yet, it is possible for a novelist to write about the complex human dimensions of those loyal to a twisted ideology. For example, Alan Furst has created a number of fully-rounded characters drawn to totalitarian creeds in novels like The World at Night, Kingdom of Shadows, and Dark Star, and David Downing’s Zoo Station and Silesian Station give us flesh-and-blood Germans struggling to retain their decency in Nazi Germany. Winter in Madrid would have been better served by grays instead of black-and-white, and it would have been a much better novel if Sansom had risked more by creating less predictable, and less cliched, villains.

To his credit, Sansom gets his history right. There’s no whitewashing of Comintern treachery during the Civil War, and also no shying away from the post-war reality of Nationalist brutality. At one level, Winter in Madrid can be read as an indictment of Britain’s accomodationist policy toward Franco and the Spanish Right in the 1930s and 1940s, and yet Sansom acknowledges that by the time of the Battle of Britain, Whitehall’s options had narrowed. No matter how distasteful the Franco regime might be, keeping Spain out of an alliance with the Germans had to shape British policy.

Sansom’s imaginative leap in setting Winter in Madrid after the end of the civil war deserves praise as well. We see Spain confronting not only the human costs of its ideological death struggle—the shattered veterans, the orphans, the despairing widows—but also the grim prospects of life under a dictatorship. It is a fascinating, and haunting, story and Winter in Madrid tells it well.

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Anton Chekhov and “The Lady with the Pet Dog”

I have come to appreciate Anton Chekhov’s stories more as I move deeper into middle age. Chekhov’s fiction explores the quiet drama in the lives of ordinary people, and the prolific Russian author often concludes his stories without much of a clear-cut resolution, something I found off-putting when I was younger but now, with the benefit of life-experience, recognize as closer to reality than the tidy and clever concluding epiphanies offered by more conventional writers.

Antov Chekov
Chekhov is fascinated by people, by their contradictory behavior, by their elusive inner lives, and their capacity for cruelty, and pettiness, and, yes, love. There’s little in the way of enveloping action in Chekhov’s fiction—few Tolstoyian connections to the political and social issues of the day—but his characters are universally human in a way that transcends the 19th century bourgeois Russian setting.

Chekhov approaches his characters with a slightly ironic empathy—the legacy, no doubt, of his years as a physician—and with few illusions. That’s evident in his much-anthologized “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” where we learn of the flaws of the two main characters, an adulterous couple, as Chekhov introduces them in the first few pages of the story. (That Chekhov narrows his focus to the couple is deliberate; he once wrote: “Let two people be the center of gravity in your story: he and she.”)

A flawed couple

Dimitry Dmitrich Gurov is a Moscow banker, trapped in a loveless marriage (he is, Chekhov tells us, somewhat afraid of his severe and forbidding wife); the story traces his seduction of a young married woman while they are both vacationing in the seaside resort Yalta. His conquest, Anna Sergeyevna, has been raised in St. Petersburg but now lives in a remote provincial city with her husband, a government official she describes as “a flunkey.” Her vacation is a break from her stifling marriage; she is vulnerable, alone except for her white Pomeranian (the pet dog of the story’s title). Gurov is not, at first, a sympathetic character—Chekhov describes him as having a “coarse arrogance,” and Gurov treats women with a mixture of calculated charm and disdain.

Gurov admires Anna Sergeyevna’s “slim delicate throat, her lovely gray eyes” but beyond the sexual attraction, this jaded Moscuvite isn’t particularly impressed by his younger lover (” ‘There’s something pathetic about her, though,’ he thought…”); later we learn he is quickly “bored with her” and “irritated by her naive tone.” Anna Sergeyevna seems starved for attention and love, although she is guilty and anxious about their affair; it is easier to sympathize with her neediness than with Gurov’s selfish vanity.

And there, you might think, it would end: a brief dalliance far from home, a liaison carrying more significance for the naive Anna Sergeyevna than for the worldly Gurov. Yet that is not what happens. When Gurov returns to his daily routine he finds that rather than fading from memory, Anna Sergeyevna remains more and more on his mind (“And his memories glowed more and more vividly.”)

He has been somehow touched deeply by his connection with this fair-haired young woman; when he tries to verbalize his feelings, however, he finds he is blocked both by convention and by the emotional tone-deafness of those around him. There is a tragi-comic moment when he broaches the subject of Anna Sergeyevna and finds a friend more concerned with the freshness of the fish being served at their club than with hearing about Gurov’s “fascinating woman.”

Gurov, now obsessed, decides that he must see Anna Sergeyevna again, and so he concocts an excuse and heads off to her drab, provincial city. He attends the opening night at the local theater, hoping to see her, and he is in luck; she is there, with her husband, seated in the third row.

…when Gurov looked at her his heart contracted, and he understood clearly that in the whole world there was no human being so neat, so precious, and so important to him; she, this little undistinguished woman, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy, the only happiness he now desired for himself, and to the sounds of the bad orchestra, of the miserable local violins, he thought how lovely she was. He thought and dreamed.

The passage captures Chekhov’s clinically ironic approach as a writer. Gurov’s sudden awareness of his romantic love for Anna, is balanced with the reality that she is a “little undistinguished woman” with a “vulgar lorgnette”; and this moment of passion has a musical accompaniment of “miserable local violins.”

“The Lady with the Pet Dog” does not end with this dramatic reunion; instead, Chekhov describes the continuation of the affair, as Anna Sergeyevna visits Gurov in Moscow and their relationship and secret life together becomes “…everything that constituted the core of his life.” Doctor Chekhov is sensitive to the contrast between the external and internal—what is truly going on with a person (their health, their feelings, their desires and needs), he suggests, is hidden from public view.

What will happen to the lovers? Chekhov does not tell us directly but hints that, while “the end is still far off,” there will be no conventional happy ending—that there are complications and difficulties ahead. It is a mark of Chekhov’s artistry that, by the end of “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” we very much want to know how it turns out for Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna, ordinary people with an extraordinary love.

Excerpts from Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s translation of “The Lady with the Pet Dog.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Katherine Mansfield and “The Garden Party”

Americans don’t pay much attention to social class. Most of us think of ourselves as middle class, especially the “self-made” with their considerable wealth, and we’ve proved relatively resistant to the class envy found in other societies. It’s different for those who remained part of the British Empire for a longer period of time than did American colonials, because they seem to have inherited that particularly English obsession with relative social standing.

Katherine Mansfield

Outsiders and the excluded are often close observers of the world around them—which helps explain why a long line of authors and film-makers from former British colonies so tellingly limn the English class system. Take, for example, Jamaica Kincaid or Philip Michael Ondaatje or Timothy Mo—recent post-colonial outsiders with sharp insights into English manners and prejudices.

Katherine Mansfield fits this outsider profile. Born in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand into a proper, bourgeois family, Mansfield left her comfortable and conventional existence to move to England to write. Her life in Europe was, to use the euphemism of the time, unconventional: affairs with men and women; a first marriage that lasted only a few days; a stint as an opera extra; the shame of catching gonorrhea; a second (happier) marriage to editor John Middleton Murry (a one-time tenant in her flat); friendship with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda; and death in January 1923 of a pulmonary hemorrhage, following a long bout with tuberculosis.

A story of memory

Mansfield wrote “The Garden Party” while being “treated” for TB at the mystic guru George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau; it is a story of memory, drawn from her privileged New Zealand childhood. Mansfield is direct and unflinching in her description of the prevailing class structure, one imported from England, yet it would be a mistake to see “The Garden Party” as exclusively about social class; for it is also about the coming-of-age of a sensitive girl, Laura Sheridan, the protagonist of the story.

As the story opens, Laura’s upper class family is holding a garden party. We watch the interaction between her family and the servants and other working people as they prepare for the party; we see how their world is carefully ordered (“The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine.”) When a group of workmen come to set up a marquee for the party, Laura finds herself drawn to them, although Mansfield has some fun with Laura’s youthful flightiness (“Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.”) We learn that Laura has no use for “stupid convention” or “absurd class distinctions,” or at least that is what she tells herself.

The story darkens when we learn that a young working man who lives nearby in a small cottage with his wife and five children has been killed in an accident (a tumble from a horse). Laura’s first impulse: the garden party must be canceled. Her sister, Jose, is astonished at the idea.

“Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”

“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”

When Jose makes a nasty remark about the dead man (“You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental”) Laura turns to her mother for support, but discovers she shares Jose’s world-view (“People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”) The party goes on, and Laura “goes along to get along.”

Her mother then encourages Laura to visit the grieving family, bringing a basket of sandwiches left-over from the party. (Is her mother guilty? Or does she want to jolt Laura by exposing her to the non-romantic realities of the working class?) To Laura’s dismay, once at the cottage she is brought to see the body of the dead man. Yet her reaction to the body surprises her (and us):

…He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

Laura has found death to be quite different from what she expected. When her brother meets her outside the cottage and asks “Was it awful?”, Laura struggles to capture her feelings in words, unable to fully explain the epiphany that she has experienced. That is where Mansfield ends the story.

An inevitable beauty

A Marxist critique of “The Garden Party” would see Laura’s coming-of-age as an awakening to “the hypocrisy of bourgeois society” and “middle class ruthlessness” (in the words of critic Simon Korner). While it is true that Mansfield touches on class and how it unites and divides us, there’s much more going on in “The Garden Party” than a simple parable about the evils of class. What propels the story is Laura’s perceptions, her feelings, the mix of her emotions, and her newly-awakened understanding of some of the contradictions of life—more so than any political or ideological lesson (although Mansfield’s sharp portraits of Laura’s mother and sister suggests that she despises upper class snobbery).

There are clues to this in a 1922 letter about “The Garden Party” to novelist and playwright William Gerhardi (who later spelled his last name with an “e”—Gerhardie), Mansfield wrote that she was trying to convey “[t]he diversity of life and how we try to fit everything in. Death included.” She added:

That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, “But all these things must not happen at once.” And Life answers, “Why not? How are they divided from each other.” And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.

What happens in “The Garden Party” is what happens in life. Confronted with tragedy, or injustice, we avert our eyes, or we do what we can (or some of us do), but life goes on. Cathedrals are built, bread baked, weddings celebrated, satellites launched, classes taught, legislatures convened and yes, fatuous summer garden parties are held. The ridiculous and the sublime, the comic and the tragic, are all mixed up together. Mansfield asks: how could it be otherwise?

Perhaps Mansfield was thinking about her own isolated and desperate situation at Gurdjieff’s “clinic” as she wrote “The Garden Party,” wondering whether there would there be any interruption in the garden parties of her literary friends when death came for her. There is an air of resignation about “The Garden Party,” a sense that the world will indeed spin on, and a desperately ill Mansfield may indeed have accepted the “beauty in that inevitability.”

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Blocking and tackling

I’ll confess that I was pleased to find this quote from Joseph Heller the other day: “Every writer I know has trouble writing.”

Whenever I am struggling to find the right words—the blocking and tackling of writing—I’m convinced that others must find it easier to write than me. I’m jealous of the facile writer, the first-time-right composers, those with the gift of “flow.”


So Heller’s comment lifted my spirits.

I’m a block writer, for the most part. My method is similar to Ring Lardner’s (according to Harold Ross,”…he {Lardner} said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces.”), followed by revision. And more revision. I spend more time rewriting than writing.

Some writers I’ve talked to tell me that they can only write from front to back, from the lead sentence onward. They don’t move on until they’re happy with each sentence. Adopting that technique would give me a vicious case of writer’s block: I find skipping ahead to work on a sentence here or a paragraph there keeps me going. I think of my writing as a patchwork quilt, passages and paragraphs stitched together with transitions.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders

Writing it down

“A poet never takes notes,” said Robert Frost. “You never take notes in a love affair.”

Frost knew something about writing poetry, but I think he was being a touch precious about the question of notes.

Isn’t it the rare writer who can create totally from memory? Perhaps I betray my journalistic roots, but I know that I find myself scribbling notes to myself all time—observations, phrases, something overhead, a particularly good argument I’ve made to myself. They come in handy, because of my all-too-faulty memory.


In fact, I regret the times when I didn’t stop to write down some particularly apt or telling idea or sentence or description. Too often it would be lost forever (floating somewhere in my subconciousness, I suppose).

Now I would agree that Frost’s image of the lover obsessively chronicling the love affair—making notes instead of making love—isn’t an appealing one. But has all great love poetry been created from by noteless poets? I would think not. What are journals, diaries, letters, writer’s notebooks for?

I remember reading once that William Carlos Williams, a doctor and marvelous poet, would scrawl lines on his prescription pads; Wallace Stevens, insurance executive and poet, kept his “poetry notes” in the lower right hand drawer of his desk where he could quickly add ideas or words when the Muse moved him.

Yes, I have deliberately taken Frost’s comment too literally—he was, I think, contrasting the need to live without self-consciously observing that life while in the moment—but it got me thinking about “writing it down.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved