Reading the Spanish Civil War…

¡No pasarán!
They Shall Not Pass!

The Spanish Civil War is one of those periods of history about which I am embarrassingly ignorant despite the fact that it inspired so many writers at the time and afterwards. Sometimes ignorance becomes self-reinforcing – when I see a book about the Spanish Civil War, I avoid it because I feel I don’t know enough about the history to understand the book, and therefore I never learn about it. But having enjoyed my Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge a couple of years ago, I feel inspired to finally read myself into this period of history in the same way.

I’m going for a mix of fact and fiction, and am hoping to read a selection that will show me the war through the eyes of contemporaries and also retrospectively, through history and novels. As well as books by British authors, I’ll be trying to read some Spanish writers, though unfortunately I’ll be restricted to those which are available in English. I’ll be hoping to mix some lighter, action reads in with the heavier stuff as I go along. I expect my initial list will expand and change as one book leads to another.

I’m already conscious that the books I’ve selected seem to be heavily weighted to the Republican side, so if anyone knows of any good fiction from the perspective of the Nationalists, or indeed other good books from the Republican perspective, I’ll be grateful for recommendations. It seems to have been the accepted position of most British writers of the time that we should be on the side of the Republicans, but I have no real view on the matter as yet, not being a fan of either fascists or communists as a general rule, so I’ll be starting at least with an impartial eye.

Here’s my initial list, in no particular order:

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (fiction)

High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…

The Battle for Spain by Anthony Beevor (history)

With new material gleaned from the Russian archives and numerous other sources, this brisk and accessible book (Spain’s #1 bestseller for twelve weeks), provides a balanced and penetrating perspective, explaining the tensions that led to this terrible overture to World War II and affording new insights into the war – its causes, course, and consequences.

In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (fiction)

Natalia is hesitant when a stranger asks her to dance at the fiesta in Diamond Square in Barcelona. But Joe is charming and forceful, and she takes his hand. They marry and soon have two children; for Natalia it is an awakening, both good and bad. Then the Spanish Civil War erupts, and lays waste to the city and to their simple existence…

The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes (fiction)

Alvaro discovers an old folder with letters sent to his father in Russia, faded photos of people he never met, and a locked grey metal box. From the provincial heartlands of Spain to the battlefields of Russia, this is a mesmerizing journey through a war that tore families apart, pitting fathers against sons, brothers against brothers, and wives against husbands…

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (memoirs)

Young Laurie Lee walks to London, and makes a living labouring and playing the violin. But, deciding to travel further afield, he heads for Spain. With just a blanket to sleep under and his trusty violin, he spends a year crossing Spain, from Vigo in the north to the southern coast. Only the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War puts an end to his extraordinary peregrinations…

Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom (fiction)

Madrid: Sept., 1940. Enter British spy Harry Brett, sent to win the confidence of a shadowy Madrid businessman. Meanwhile, ex-Red Cross nurse Barbara Clare is engaged in a secret mission of her own—to find her former lover, whose passion for the Communist cause led him into the International Brigades and who vanished on the bloody battlefields of the Jarama.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (memoirs)

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism…” Thus wrote Orwell following his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Here he brings to bear the force of his humanity, passion, and clarity, describing with bitter intensity the hopes and betrayals of that chaotic episode.

Homage to Caledonia by Daniel Grey (history)

Thirty-five thousand people from across the world volunteered to join the armed resistance in a war on fascism. More people, proportionately, went from Scotland than any other country, and the nation was gripped by the conflict. What drove so many ordinary Scots to volunteer in a foreign war? Here, their stories are powerfully and honestly told, often in their own words.

¡España una, grande, libre!
Spain, one, great and free!

60 thoughts on “Reading the Spanish Civil War…

  1. What an interesting challenge, FictionFan! And you make an interesting point about the perspective of the books you’ve chosen. I think it does help to get both sides, if you can, to get a more complete picture of the times. You have a solid mix here, too, of fiction and nonfiction, and I’ll be really interested in your thoughts and what you learn as you go along.

    • I’m sure there must be books written from the National perspective in Spanish, but I suspect not many of them may have been translated into English. It’s at times like this I wish I was multi-lingual! However, hopefully the history books will provide a bit of balance. The fiction all looks excellent, and I cheated by already reading the Hemingway… review soon! 😀

  2. And you are embarrassed? That makes me, who hasn’t read anything I believe, but a mere historical fiction novel not even well known or important, go hide in a very remote place where nobody can find me!

    Thanks for the post. I’m keeping the recommendations as reference.

  3. ¡Qué genial! Had the feeling you’d get some Hemingway in there since he was known for his involvement at that time. So impressed by your embracing of this challenge.

    • ¡Ooh! I love that upside down exclamation mark – I think we should always use it! 😉 I actually cheated by reading the Hemingway just before Christmas – brilliant! Review soon, if I ever get around to writing it. 😀

  4. The only one of these that I’ve read is Winter in Madrid, which I really loved. Not sure if you’ve read Sansom’s Shardlake books, but I really found Winter in Madrid to be much better than those (even though I liked them). One of those books that I kept thinking about for a long time afterwards.

    • That’s interesting! I love the Shardlake books but didn’t love Winter in Madrid so much when I read it when it came out years ago. But even at the time I thought it was because I know quite a lot about the Tudor period and nothing at all about the Spanish Civil War, so I decided to put it on for a re-read once I’ve got more familiar with the history, to see if it makes a difference. I hope so – Sansom is usually one of my favourite authors. 😀

  5. This sounds like it should be an interesting challenge. Like you, I know little to nothing about the Spanish Civil War, so hopefully I can pick up some snippets of information from your own reviews. I might get around to reading some of these eventually, but I need to get through some rather hefty French and Russian classics first, as they have rather dangerously reached the top of my own TBR.

    • Ha! I’m considering putting some French and Russian classics on my next Classics Club list when it’s due, but they do tend to go for massive ones! Enjoy! I’m looking forward to the Spanish challenge – some of the books are such classics and it will be nice to stop avoiding them. If it’s anything like the Russian Revolution challenge it will grow and grow, as one book leads to another… 😀

    • Oh, that looks excellent, José Ignacio – thanks for the recommendation! Especially since the blurb says he tries to give a balanced account, which is exactly what I want. 😀

  6. Oh dear. I’m right there with you, FF, in knowing so little about that period in history. I haven’t read a single one of the books you’ve challenged yourself to read either. This promises to be an interesting journey through Spain, and I’m looking forward to learning through your eyes. Who knows? Maybe your reviews will tempt me to play along!

    • I think maybe it got overshadowed by WW2 – I don’t remember being taught about the Spanish Civil War in school at all (though maybe I slept through that class… 😉 ) But it seems to have inspired some of the great writers of the time, so I’m looking forward to reading some of them. 😀

  7. ¡There you go again with all that fun punctuation! 😉 I’m another who knows very little about the time period and place. I feel sure I read the Hemingway in school, but remember nothing about it. I’ll be curious to know what you think about the Sansom, since I’m such a fan of his Shardlake books.

    • ¡Hahaha! I love that upside down exclamation mark, and now I’ve worked out how to do it I might do it all the time! 😂 I cheated and read the Hemingway just before Christmas – review soon! I read the Sansom when it came out and didn’t enjoy it as much as the Shardlake books, but I think that’s because I didn’t know enough about the period to really “get” it. So I’m going to leave the re-read till quite late on and see if my opinion changes once I’m an expert… 😉

  8. This is perfect! I am embarrassingly ignorant about the Spanish Civil War as well. But now you learn about it and write reviews. I read the reviews and can hopefully pick up a few facts to throw around in order to appear slightly less ignorant in the future. 🙂

    Good luck with the challenge, it’s a great idea, but you certainly don’t take the easy way out. I mean, there are always two (or more) sides to a story, but I would probably just have picked one book, which seemed to cover the subject reasonably well.

    • Hahaha! Maybe, but I’m notoriously unreliable and opinionated so you should only believe half of what I say. The trouble is knowing which half… 😂

      That’s what I usually do too, but I did a huge Russian Revolution challenge on the centenary in 2017 and loved the mix of history, memoirs and novels, and I really did feel as if I understood it by the end. (Of course, tragically I’ve forgotten most of it now… 😉 ) So I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this period in the same way. I told you I was weird, didn’t I??

  9. I’ve read the Laurie Lee one and Homage to Catalonia but that’s all. We lived in Kirkcaldy for years and there is a memorial to the men who went from there to the Spanish Civil war and didn’t come back. Laurie Lee was accused of not exactly being honest in his book as he was one of the people picked up by a British Navy ship at the beginning of the war, he just happened to be in Spain then. He claims he went back to fight when he got home and discovered what it was all about but I don’t think he was believed.

    • I was intrigued to discover that so many Scots went – I knew some did, but hadn’t realised we were proportionally the biggest contributor of volunteers. That’s fascinating about Laurie Lee – I had no idea! I’ll bear that in mind when I’m reading it then. If I enjoy this one I was thinking of reading the sequel too, which I assume is the one when he tells about his experiences in the war – but maybe I’ll wait and see if it feels as if it’s worth it, if he maybe wasn’t actually there. Thanks – that’s such an interesting insight! I’m ashamed of never having read Homage to Catalonia…

    • I’m kinda ashamed never to have read the Orwell – it’s considered a real classic over here, especially for people on the left of the political spectrum. But I’m looking forward to them all – the fiction sounds good… 😀

  10. Oh, I am going to lap this up. You’re so thoughtful taking on these challenges so that the rest of us can maybe learn along with you 😂 The Spanish Civil War seems from my position of relative ignorance to be complicated and confusing, perhaps made the more so by the portrayal (or lack thereof) from the media and indeed by historians. By the latter I refer to those involved with the school curriculum: it just never figured on my radar, maybe overshadowed by WW2 or perhaps for other reasons known to those behind the scenes who deemed it unnecessary for the public to know too much. In that respect I see echoes today in the various current conflicts but back then it was perhaps easier for those in power to control what was fed to the masses. Anyway, suffice to say I know very little but my interest has been piqued by what little I’ve read.

    I read Winter in Madrid a while back and enjoyed the fast-paced tale. It taught me that off the battlefield, the Civil War was a complicated and messy busines: much political shenanigans going on while young men and women fought and died. War in a nutshell, I fear 😞 I also read As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning and was disappointed by it. As Katrina has said, Lee does get picked up very early on. It offers a glimpse into the country as Lee journeys through but I don’t recall it adding much to my limited knowledge of the situation. You might care to take a look at Ruta Sepetys’ The Fountains of Silence. Really not your type of book, FF – billed as YA and with a romance at the the heart of it – but it certainly opened my eyes to the impact of the war and Franco’s regime on life in Spain and how far that impact stretched over the years. The novel is supported by extracts from real documents and testimonies from the American government officials working behind the scenes. I found it eye-opening. Easy and quick to read and left me sickened and needing to understand more. As a novel I wouldn’t recommend it to you at all. But possibly it might add some immediacy to the histories you have planned.

    I’m eagerly awaiting the Hemmingway review!

    • Yes, I don’t remember being taught about it in school either and was amazed to discover that so many Scots volunteered – I knew some did, but not that it was such a big thing. I’m really looking forward to learning more about that aspect of it – it’s already put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in a different context for me. I wonder if part of the reason it gets relatively little coverage is because Franco won, and therefore in a sense we lost? We’re always more likely to be taught about our glorious victories…

      That’s a pity about the Laurie Lee. I shall read it early then so it doesn’t disappoint me near the end – like chocolates, where I always eat the ones I like least first. 😉 Thanks for the rec – I shall look into it! Part of my enjoyment of this kind of challenge is reading books I wouldn’t normally read, and in the Russian challenge some of the ones I was least enthusiastic about turned out to be the most enjoyable. Haha – I’m eagerly awaiting the Hemingway review too – every day I hope I might wake up and find somebody’s written it for me overnight…

  11. What an awesome challenge FF! I can’t help but feel how better off our world would be if everyone was assigned this kind of challenge on different conflicts in our past-if people are FORCED to look at both sides of a war, I bet the perspectives would change quite a bit. I’m really excited for your George Orwell review!

    • You’re so right! It’s similar to the reasons I read political memoirs of people on the opposing side to me – I hate the way people tend to stay in their own “bubble” and only read books they know they’ll agree with. How on earth can you change someone’s opinions if you don’t make the effort to find out what their opinions are? And war is the same – usually you find that both sides have both right and wrong on their side…

  12. Exciting! I really enjoyed your Russian Revolution reading so I’m looking forward to following along with this one. Everything I know about the Spanish Civil War is from Ernest Hemingway and Ferdinand the Bull (which is to say, my knowledge is very limited).

      • It’s a lovely book! I’m not sure how much it actually has to do with the Spanish Civil War (or whether or not Leaf intended any connection at all) but it certainly seems to have caused an uproar!

        • It does seem to have a fascianting story beyond the actual story of the book. What a world that books should be banned for fear they might brainwash children into being peaceful…

          • It’s so weird looking into kids books that have been banned. There was one by Garth Williams (I think) that was banned in the states because it depicted a black bunny and a white bunny being friends. God forbid kids learn to be friends with those who don’t look like them or want to smell flowers instead of fighting…

            • Yes, I think we should ensure all children’s books involve violence, war, drugs and swearing or else how are the poor little things ever supposed to learn how to be adults… 😉

  13. This is a fascinating exploration and I look forward to hearing about your experiences and thoughts. I have only a vague awareness of the Spanish Civil War too but have occasionally seen it referenced in NZ literature of the period. I’ve just looked up some more information from a NZ perspective and find that fewer than 30 NZers went to the war but that there were some fundraising activities from communist groups and trade unions here. It will be interesting finding out more about the Scottish connection with Spain at that time.

    • I’m intrigued by the Scottish links too. I have the feeling that most of the Scottish support went to the Republican side but that some volunteered for Franco’s forces too. Looking back at McIlvanney’s Docherty, he certainly seemed to be suggesting that young Scots between the wars were divided between extreme left and extreme right politically, and Miss Brodie was certainly pro-Franco. Of course, WW2 meant that we all became anti-fascist, and I think history has been gently air-brushed now to imply that we never flirted with going down that road ourselves. I’m looking forward to the challenge and hoping to stumble over more good fiction as I go…

      • Of course, strangely I’ve not highlighted that thought for myself before when thinking about pre WW2 politics – that definitely left us with an anti-fascist filter.

        • I’m always intrigued by the way we rewrite the past. At the moment I’m fascinated by how people my age and older have managed to convince themselves that they never used racist or homophobic language in their youth, since to my recollection everyone did, even BBC sitcoms… but now apparently we were all PC liberals. And then the faux outrage when someone finds a forty-year old quote from a politician using a term we all used. I wonder what we’re doing today that fifty years from now will be airbrushed gently away…

  14. When I saw your ¡No pasarán! title, it immediately took me back to the mid 80s when I was travelling in Central America. This was at a time when America was actively menacing the first elected Nicaraguan government after their revolution. For a month or so, I joined some other internationalistas and Nicaraguans and travelled into the country to the coffee fields to pick berries for the harvest. Every morning (very early) we would have to gather together for a talk from the leaders and to sing a song or shout some revolutionary slogans including the one you quoted and others such as ¡Patria libre, o morir! before we climbed the hills to get to the coffee fields. Quite a time!

    • Gosh, yes, that must have been exciting, and maybe a little scary! Although I think when we’re young and in groups somehow we don’t feel fear the way we tend to once we’re older. Cynicism and caution seem to grow on us as we age – is that a good thing? Well, being old, I think it is, but I didn’t think so when I was young…

      • Yes, I do think that openness to ideas and possibilities we have when young does become refined (at best, or calcified, at worst) as we age. Not to mention bodies calcifying; I certainly couldn’t sleep in a barn just on wooden floors as I did then!

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