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Books on Spain

A round-up and review of Books on Spain. Some old some new, fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes brief, sometimes in depth but never negative. If I don’t like it, I won’t review it!

Tales of The Alhambra
21 November 2014 @ 15:14

Tales of The Alhambra 

For most visitors to Andalucía the highlight is a trip to Granada and a visit to the Alhambra Palace. There cannot be many visitors who have not availed themselves of the use of the handheld audio commentary devices that go with the tour. It is through this commentary that I first heard the words of Washington Irving describing the architecture, history and legends of the Alhambra as we toured the grounds and which prompted me to buy the book.
 Published in 1832 and from the man famous for giving the world Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow, Tales Of The Alhambra seems like a strange shift of literary direction. Until that is, one realises that this is also the same author who wrote arguably the definitive biography of Columbus and the controversial Conquest of Granada  detailing the lives and wars of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
Irving also had a great influence on other writers of his day and personally encouraged Herman Melville, Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe in their careers.
Following up on an invitation from an acquaintance to go and stay in Madrid, Irving seized the opportunity to find fresh material for his voracious writing habits. It was while he was there that he researched and wrote his biography of Christopher Columbus.
During his travels he discovered Granada and fell in love with the rich history surrounding the region.
Struck by the beauty of the city and its palace, Irving asked the Governor for access in order to produce a ‘Sketchbook’. Contrary to Irving’s account, the Alhambra was neither abandoned nor derelict at the time he arrived. Although not in a good condition, it was however undergoing what repairs could be afforded and many of the rooms were actually inhabited. The Governor, recognising Irving’s fame, felt it would do no harm to the cause of his palace and granted access. Irving later took up residence inside to write his book.
In his writing Irving clearly reflects the mood of the period with its over romanticisation of all things Eastern or Oriental to the point of almost deifying the Moors who built the palace. What started out as a sketchbook quickly drifted into a mixture of sketches, history, myth and pure fantasy culminating in the not insignificant volume it is today. For an author who carved his fame with fantasy tales then transitioned to in-depth biographies of the likes of Columbus and Mohamed it is not surprising that this book comes together as a combination of myth and narrations of real historical events.
For me, Irving clearly demonstrates the workings of an author’s mind as he describes what he is physically seeing then interpolates and dives into the stories behind the detail, whether real or imaginary. The way one can look at a good painting and imagine the events behind the scene. This is certainly one of the tools I use as a fiction writer, to look at a scene in front of me and wonder at the background. How did these people come to be here at this time and what did they do previously or next? It’s interesting for me to see this device presented within narrative and shows great confidence in his standing to be able to risk this melding of fact, supposition and pure fantasy.
As we explore the palace through the pages we have a feeling of being in the company of a good friend with an eye for detail and a repertoire of entertaining anecdotes. He details the history with the accuracy of a great biographer then embellishes it with folklore he picked up from the local people. Sometimes the edges blur as he portrays the palace as being held in some sort of superstitious reverence by the locals. Both local legend and the Moorish traditions tell of the king who built it as being a great magician. It is even believed that he sold himself to the devil, and set the whole fortress under a magic spell. This is posited as the reason it has remained standing for several centuries.
Indeed, so blurred are these edges between fantasy, history or superstition that at one point Irving even warns, ‘If anything in these legends should shock the faith of the over-scrupulous reader, he must remember the nature of the place, and make due allowances. He must not expect here the same laws of probability that govern commonplace scenes and everyday life; he must remember that he treads the halls of an enchanted palace, and that all is haunted ground.’
Despite Irving’s obvious love of the Spanish people and the country, it is clear he holds in higher regard the architects and original inhabitants than the locals of his day. And once even describing the locals as "gay Andalucíans dancing away the summer nights" while he loiters the halls of this great and cultured pile. He shows his clear sympathies towards Boabdil, the last Emir of Granada, when he was thrown from his beloved palace and forced into exile after the conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. Whose own mother chided him, ‘You do well to weep as a woman over what you could not defend as a man.’

Shortly after writing this book Irving served as the U.S. ambassador to Spain. He later claimed the success of his book led to the restoration work at the palace however as noted, that was well under way at the time he arrived although it is likely his fame helped secure the longer term funding.
What is certain though is that he is largely responsible for the romanticised image of Andalucía that persisted for the next century and probably lingers to this day.



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1 Comments


blueeyes said:
21 November 2014 @ 22:39

Paragraphs please! Then I will read it.

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