I didn't know Gamel Woolsey. She had died of breast cancer at age 68, three years before I arrived in southern Spain in 1971, and before I met her husband the British writer Gerald Brenan. But I quickly discovered that she was still with us. Gerald's house was decorated in her style with things she'd bought, mostly simple examples of Spanish artisanal, pottery and hand-carved furniture. She was with us in the books she'd collected and that I read.
Most of all, she was there in the conversations of Gerald's friends. Everyone spoke about Gamel and her extraordinary memoir of the Spanish Civil War, which was little known but considered one of the best personal accounts of the conflict. It contained no formal history or statistics or analysis, only her deeply touching insights about the people on both sides of the war.
In a short time I felt that I knew Gamel very well without ever having known her. Gerald told me that there had been a mist of melancholy to their relationship. Before they met, they had both given themselves inside out to someone else, and the affairs had left both with scars that never healed. In Gamel's case it was an English writer who was married and who was then famous but now forgotten. Gerald was desperately in love with Dora Carrington, a painter and member of the Bloomsbury group, who passed him over for his best friend from World War One.
|Gerald Brenan at 28.
Yet there was something solid to their marriage, which lasted for 37 years, until her death. They shared trust and respect. One can see in "Malaga Burning" that she looked on him with amused affection and admiration. I suspect that there was also something in her South Carolina roots that drew her to him. Gerald was an intellectual of a gentle nature. But he was also a man of high courage who had proved himself in war.
He had served in World War One as the youngest captain in the British Expeditionary Force and had been twice wounded. He always said that he was the youngest captain only because the others of his generation had been killed. He thought he had been saved by his ability to speak French. Translators were in short supply and when it was learned that he spoke the language he was recruited by an aide to the French commanding general.
"Mon Général," said the aide, presenting Gerald to the general. "Here, finally, is an intelligent Englishman. He speaks French."
War also turned out to be my link to Gerald. I had spent five years in Vietnam, first as an army intelligence officer, then as a journalist for Time magazine and later for The New Republic. I had met my wife, Claude, a journalist for a French medical journal, in Saigon. We moved to Spain, looking for a sunny and inexpensive place to settle where I could try to write my first book. By chance, we found a place in the hills above Malaga—a house surrounded by orange trees, facing the snowy peaks of the Sierra de Ronda. Gerald was our next-door neighbor and became our close friend for the following 12 years.
When Gerald heard about my war experiences he volunteered to act as my counselor. After World War One, he had set off to Spain, where he loaded a donkey with books and hiked to an isolated village in the mountains near Grenada. There he settled down to write and to try to exorcise the war from his system. Out of this experience came "South from Grenada," still one of the most charming books ever written about Spanish village life.
"After World War One I thought I would never return to normal," Gerald said. "Tell Claude to be patient. You'll get over it too."
He was talking about what was later known as the post-traumatic stress disorder. He was right and with his help I did get over it. And Claude was patient for the six years it took. This brought me close to Gerald, who was nearly 50 years older than I. He became my brother-in-arms.
Gerald and Claude immediately hit it off. She was an excellent cook and he loved good food and wine. She loved writers and books and he gave her a tutorial over tea every afternoon on English and American literature. As his student, she challenged me to tell her about the Brontë sisters and Mrs. Gaskell—and who precisely wrote what.
|Claude in Spain.
Gerald was also pleased—indeed, quite happy—to learn that I was from South Carolina. He had traveled to Gamel's hometown of Aiken to meet her kin and then on to Charleston where she had spent part of her youth.
There are many reasons to fall in love with Charleston. But Gerald's reason was rather unusual. It involved an attractive African American who was employed as an elevator operator in a Charleston building. On the ride up, she spoke to him about the South and her life. He found her so charming and easy to talk to that he wanted to continue the conversation. The only way he could do that, however, was to ride on her elevator. So Gerald spent hours going up and down and talking until he was dizzy.
It was a tale he told me often, his only regret being, he said, that his time in Charleston was limited and he was unable to ride up and down more, lost in conversation with such an attractive woman.
I explained to Gerald that I was from Cheraw [chu-raw], a small town mid-state near the South Carolina/North Carolina border, named for a Cherokee tribe. I had graduated from Clemson where I was awarded the SC Collegiate Press Association's top prize my senior year, in 1963, for my coverage of the school's integration—the first in the state. I had also worked as a part-time reporter for the Associated Press.
Tim Parker, the AP bureau chief for the Carolinas, had told me on the day that Clemson and South Carolina was integrated by Harvey Gantt that I had a full-time job awaiting me in the Charlotte bureau after I completed my ROTC-required military service. But I caught on as a war correspondent with Time in Saigon and decided to remain in Vietnam.
A week or so after I told Gerald about Cheraw, he introduced me to his visiting close friend, the British writer V.S. Pritchett.
"This is Zalin [zay-len] Grant," Gerald said. "He is a writer from Charleston like Gamel."
The next day I politely brought up his mistake.
"I am not from Charleston, Gerald, I am from Cheraw. It is also a very historic town—called 'The Prettiest Town in Dixie.' One of our lawyers, John Inglis, drew up the Articles of Secession for the Charleston Convention in 1860 and Cheraw was in effect the first town in the South to secede from the Union. General Sherman made Cheraw his headquarters in March 1865, in an antebellum mansion four blocks from where I was raised, and more of his troops passed through our town than any town in the South. After the war Cheraw became, in 1867, the first town in the South to raise a monument to the Confederate fallen."
Gerald listened with interest. He asked a number of questions. He said that Cheraw sounded lovely and that he would like to visit.
Not long afterward, he introduced me to another close friend, David Garnett, a member of Bloomsbury whose mother, Constance Garnett, was a translator of Tolstoy.
"David, this is Zalin," Gerald said. "He is a writer from Charleston like Gamel."
I realized that Gerald wanted Gamel and me to be from Charleston, even though he knew she was from Aiken, and proud of it, and that I was from Cheraw, also proud. He liked that link between us. Besides, there was the elevator operator.
Several years later, when Gerald was summering in the mountains and I was minding his house and cat and garden, he wrote me a note asking that I arrange for Bruce Chatwin, an up and coming British writer, to stay at his home for several days. I picked Chatwin up at the Malaga train station.
"Hi," I said, "I'm Zalin Grant from Charleston, South Carolina."
"Yes, I know," Bruce said. "Gerald told me. Great city, Charleston."
I was not surprised to learn that men loved Gamel. After all, she was beautiful and warm and ready to laugh at their jokes. But when the philosopher Bertrand Russell wanted to take their lightly flirtatious relationship a step further, she proved that she had mastered the feminine art of saying "no" without ever enunciating the word, leaving men to believe that, whatever the reason for her turn-down, it certainly had nothing to do with their overwhelming charm and scintillating brilliance.
But I was indeed surprised by the reaction of other women to Gamel. When a woman is so lovely and accomplished and stylish, one sometimes hears a certain meowing in the background. But not with Gamel. She was loved by her women friends and acquaintances. I was talking to two women about Gamel, trying to get a less idealized version of her personality than I was hearing.
"Well," said one woman, "I think she could be a bit too dreamy."
"No!" said the other woman, quickly stepping in. "She was a poet. That's why she was dreamy."
Gerald was always looking for more links between Gamel and me. One day he remarked on the fact that we both had unusual given names.
"Southerners will name their children anything, won't they?" he said.
"My sister is named Thurma Dean," I replied.
In fact, Gerald and I were having trouble with our own names in the village. He had become the most famous non-Spanish writer in Spain. He did the earliest work on the murder of the poet Garcia Lorca during the war. His books, which included "The History of Spanish Literature" and "The Spanish Labyrinth" and others, were taught in schools in Spain. Our village, Alhaurín el Grande, was soon to name its main road the Avenida Gerald Brenan and a statue would be erected in his honor.
The well-off classes called him Don Geraldo. But that was too difficult for the toilers of the soil. So they turned Gerald Brenan into a more familiar name, hierbabuena--which means "mint," as in mint julep. They had a problem with my name too, so they renamed me Antonio, which was the name of about one out of every five men in Andalusia. My dog was called Pataud, an old French name. He was a goat dog of the same breed as President Obama's. But P-a-t-a-u-d sounded like P-a-t-o in Spanish, which means "duck." The villagers found it hilarious that the crazy foreigners would name their dog Duck.
We learned of our name change when women of the village started stopping Claude on the street to report, "Yesterday we saw Antonio and Don Hierbabuena and Duck walking in the village." Gerald and I enjoyed our name change and Pataud seemed to bask in his new celebrity.
Gerald asked me to read Gamel's memoir called "Death's Other Kingdom" and to tell him what I thought. Of course I thought like everybody else who had read the book: It was wonderful. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and truth of Gamel's memoir. To me it ranked with George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, my favorite book on the Spanish War, although different of course, since Orwell participated in the war as a soldier on the republican side. Orwell's book was published around the same time in Britain as Gamel's work and it quickly went out of print, too. But it was later introduced to the American public after Orwell's death by his wife.
I told Gerald that the title, which was taken from a poem by T.S. Eliot, Gamel's favorite poet, was a bit too recondite for the general public, in my opinion. He agreed but we didn't hit on anything better at that time.
Gerald had tried without success to get the memoir republished in England. He had succeeded with her poetry. He had enlisted Warren House Press to publish four of her books of poetry, including "The Last Leaf Falls," "Twenty Eight Sonnets," "Middle Earth," and "The Weight of Human Hours."
Claude and I were soon to leave Spain to live in France. Shortly before our departure, he asked me, in a formal way, to step outside to the garden which was filled with the flowers Gamel had loved. He carried a copy of Gamel's book. He told me that it was his annotated personal copy, the last copy he had. He asked if I would accept it and perhaps one day try to get it published in America.
"I would be honored to try, Gerald. But you know the publishing business and I don't think it will be easy. I will give you my word, though, that I will try."
"That is all I ask," Gerald said. "And I thank you."
Nearly twenty years passed. The Internet age was suddenly upon us. I opened a small Internet publishing venture called Pythia Press. Claude was the CEO of the company. We published "Death's Other Kingdom" as "Malaga Burning" and it received enthusiastic reviews.
I believe that it was our destiny, Gamel and I. As Gerald wished, there actually were many links between us. We were two South Carolina writers who had found themselves far from home in a Spanish village.
She was, in a way, a granddaughter, and I was a great-grandson, of the War Between the States—as the name we were both required to call it in our schools. Her people were of the soil and my grandfather had farmed 500 acres of cotton. She loved nature deeply and wished to protect our heritage. My father had served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and helped create the beautiful Cheraw State Park, where I spent some of the happiest moments of my youth.
She stood up for racial equality. I had been denounced in the SC State Legislature, along with my mentor A.M. Secrest, editor of the Cheraw Chronicle, for promoting—as one legislator put it—the "communistic" idea that the black citizens of our state should be free to attend our schools and universities. Gamel had seen a civil war and its horrors in Spain. I'd experienced the same in Vietnam.
And, of course, we were both from Charleston.