Mary Lee Settle, on Spain
"To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world. I went to Spain alone."
Mary Lee Settle, "Spanish Recognitions"
I was bound to love a book with that opening line, wouldn't you say?
One of the books I picked up in Hay on Wye was a paperback copy of Spanish Recogitions by an American novelist, Mary Lee Settle, author of an acclaimed (so the book jacket tells me) book about her wanderings in Turkey called "Turkish Reflections."
At 82 years old, Mary Lee Settle flew into Madrid, hired a car and started out in "search of Spain." An ambitious project, but she winds up doing what we'd expect a history buff with an interest in Turkish culture to do: following the path of history in her rented car. She traces the Moorish conquest of Spain sweeping north, then the Christian reconquest in the other direction. Along the way she ponders Penninsulan wars I'd never heard of, but now recognize in Salamanca street names. She looks briefly at the Civil War, in Madrid and later in Granada, with the eyes of a woman who remembers it, who had an opinion as it happened in the 30s, and who knew young Americans who came to Spain to fight with the Republican forces.
I left this book with a long list of people I want to know more about, history I want to dive into, and places I want to visit. I will do all of that, in Spanish. Settle doesn't speak Spanish, and, despite having read extensively before visiting, isn't always academically straight-on in her history. The Amazon page includes a post by a reviewer who loved the book, but hopes a new revised edition will straighten up some historic references, questionable translations, etc.
So why does the reviewer who chronicles Settle's every error love the book? Why do I?
Because Mary Lee Settle writes lovely, lyrical prose. And she's my kind of traveller:
I had all day to roam. After all, I was alone, and almost asking to get lost. I was looking forward to discovery, not to being tied to that deadening word, itinerary. How can you know ahead what you are going to see, find, lose, discover any more than who you are going to fall in love with the day after tomorrow?
She finds duende in Salamanca's Plaza Mayor. Despite not speaking the language she "meets" my Spanish neighbors, and I recognize them. On the Sunday morning she arrives in Salamanca, an older man leaves his wife with the newpaper and baked goods they just picked up in town, climbs off the Gran Vía into the passenger seat of Settle's car, and guides her to her hotel with hand signals. When the 82 year old stranger doesn't understand his directions in Spanish, he escorts her to her hotel before heading home to his wife and newspaper.
She joins the nightly paseo in the cities and pueblos she visits, and calls the Spanish "the most accomplished strollers in Europe". I'd add they beat any North Americans I've ever met, as well, but she is indeed on to something "Spanish". As she dives into the story of Juana la Loca, or Lorca, or Unamuno, or Teresa of Avila, or Isabel la Católica (yes, Americans, of Columbus fame) she walks through their "places" to get to know them, and she "recognizes" something "Spanish": a character, a history, a way of looking at the world, a set of beliefs and customs. She gets, as she writes in her final paragraph, "a half-caught glimpse of that essence which is Spain".
I closed the booking feeling like I'd met a new friend. Sadly, when I surfed away to locate her, I found instead her obituary in the Guardian and the Washington Post.
I'd hoped to write and thank her for resparking my own passion for wandering Spain, and for giving me a long Spanish reading list and a longer travel wish list.