Magazine article New Criterion

Swapping War Stories

Magazine article New Criterion

Swapping War Stories

Article excerpt

Amanda Vaill

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 464 pages, $28

There have been any number of good books on the Spanish Civil War, but the depictions which continue to affect us are the contemporary accounts: Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Picasso's Guernica, Andre Malraux's Man's Hope, the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, Arthur Koestler's blistering account in The God That Failed, the idealistic poetry of John Cornford, the groundbreaking photojournalism of the young Robert Capa. This was a cosmopolitan crowd for such a local conflagration, but it almost immediately became clear that this civil war was a dress rehearsal for the World War that was brewing, with Russia and Germany fighting by proxy, trying out their devastating new arsenals on the unfortunate Spanish.

To earnest anti-fascists, the lines seemed clearly drawn, and thousands of volunteers arrived from elsewhere in Europe and from North America, eager to fight fascism either in the various Spanish militias that had been drawn up or in the newly created International Brigades. We now know, thanks to Orwell, Koestler, and others, the degree to which the Loyalist campaign was being directed from Moscow, and that the effort was not so much anti-fascist as pro-Russian--a fact that would become all too obvious with the Nazi-Soviet pact a couple of years later.

In 1936 Madrid was overrun with the idealists and opportunists of two continents, eager to join the fray--journalists, diplomats, and novelists as well as eager volunteers. The city also was crawling with Russian spies. Amanda Vaill, the author of a wonderful book on Sara and Gerald Murphy, Everybody Was So Young, and a fine biography of Jerome Robbins, has placed her new book at the epicenter of the action: the once-smart Hotel Florida on the Plaza Callao, which during the war had become a seedy hangout "not for successful business travelers or wealthy tourists, but for a polyglot collection of journalists, French and Russian pilots, and opportunistic ladies of the evening."

Vaill has mustered an extraordinary array of new material--in her own words, "published and unpublished letters, diaries, and personal accounts, official documents, recovered reels of film, authoritative biographies, histories, and news sources"--to construct an elaborately interwoven tale of three couples who came together in Madrid in 1936. There is Arturo Barea, the chief of the Loyalist press office in Madrid, lonely and depressive, who had effectively split from his wife at the beginning of hostilities and fallen in love with his deputy, an Austrian refugee named Usa Kulcsar. There is the twenty-two-year-old Robert Capa (then still known by his birth name, Endre Friedmann) and his girlfriend Gerda Taro (originally Gerta Pohorylle)--two scraps of Eastern European flotsam who had washed up in Paris, early refugees fleeing fascism. And then there was Ernest Hemingway, not yet forty but already, it would appear, past his prime. He had come to Madrid to revive his career and his love life, leaving his long-suffering wife, Pauline, at home in Key West and teaming up instead with a leggy blonde, the ambitious young journalist Martha Gellhorn. "I've got this nice boat and house," he said wistfully, "but they're both really Pauline's. I could stay on here forever, but it's a soft life. Nothing's really happening to me here and I've got to get out.... In Spain maybe it's the big parade starting again."

Vaill had already taken the moral measure of Hemingway by the time she wrote Everybody Was So Young, in which he figures largely. While giving him his due as an artist, she doesn't much like him, and here she makes effective sport of his antics as a would-be anti-fascist warrior. Hemingway was attracted to Spain not only because it was the Next Big Thing but also because he had been offered substantial fees for on-the-spot reportage. …

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