A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I moved to Spain in 2003 I already knew that this was where I wanted to live. I did not want to stay for a couple of years and then go back to Scotland. A five day city break in Madrid in the spring of that year had convinced me of this. Not, I admit, the strongest criteria on which to base a life-changing decision but sometimes we gamble on life and sometimes it pays off. I had a job and a place to live. I did not speak Spanish and this, I knew, would be the biggest obstacle to achieving my goal. I went to Spanish classes for a couple of months. The teachers were nice, we studied verb tenses, I completed exercises in a text book and, in October, I stopped going to classes. There was no structure that I could see, no programme of studies and I felt I was learning very little. It was this decision that led me to reading regularly in Spanish.
I was never worried that I would not learn to speak Spanish. There were enough commercially available resources (this was before Google Translate so I bought a dictionary and my brother gave me his book of grammar exercises) to provide me with a base on which to develop my conversational skills. I drank in Spanish bars (not that I needed much encouragement) and shopped in local shops rather than supermarkets. Unlike the latter, I would have to ask for what I wanted rather than point. I remember the first time I asked for oranges in the barrio fruit shop. I had the script in head of what I wanted to say – Quiero naranjas. It never occurred to me that the shop owner might ask me what kind of naranjas I wanted. Like many Britons before me, I simply repeated what I had already said but a little louder.
I needed to improve my Spanish vocabulary. But how? Like any good primary school teacher I looked for a reading scheme which started with the basics and took the reader up to advanced. I found it in Español Lengua Extranjera, a series of classic novels adapted for learners of Spanish that took me from the Salamanca of Lazarillo del Tormes to the Castilla la Mancha of Don Quijote. On the way I learned about the picaresca, that blend of looking out for number one that was essential to surviving in what was a cut-throat environment and outright trickery; unlawful passion in nineteenth-century Oviedo (a priest with a telescope and a church tower to watch over his flock is never going to be the good guy) and the laugh-out-loud humour of the gentleman from Castilla la Mancha who saw giants on hilltops.
I began to develop a grammar I could use in conversation. A phrase as simple as lo que (what) allowed me to join two parts of a sentence and, for the first time, speak with a degree of fluency. It also led me to my first realisation about written Spanish. Reading novels in English I now saw was to read authors trying to catch the intonation of spoken English and use it to delineate characters or to give a tone, a sound, almost something musical, to their work. From the use of dialect by Elizabeth Gaskell to ennoble those from the industrial working class to the vibrancy of speech employed by James Joyce, a sense of, one might say, playfulness with language has characterised fiction written in English. Spanish, reflecting its origins in the endless flat dry plains of Castilla, is a more austere language. It is not given to embellishment or experiment and is largely free from the intonation that makes our sing-song elliptical speech frustrating at times to Spaniards. Castilian Spanish says exactly what it wants to say, no more and no less. No irony, no sarcasm, no sub-text.
That lack of experiment and playfulness through word games and levels of meaning has led, in part, to a division between spoken and written Spanish. Without that need to capture the peculiar flow and rhythm of speech, a form of Spanish has developed that is used only in literature. For example, cuyo (whose) is almost never used in speech but it is used frequently in novels; as is usted, the formal you that English stopped using around the time of the Puritans. Reading Spanish novels, however, did improve my vocabulary. Even when I got lost in the subjunctive, Spaniards would complement me on it and said it was better than their own. I am called culto – cultured. This might happen when I use the word chubasco, talking about the recent shower of rain. I have read the word in a novel, understood it and used it in everyday speech. But I do not have the sense of context to say the more normal ha llovido – it has rained.
Spanish literature suffered a double whammy in the twentieth century from low literacy rates and the harsh censorship that defined the post-civil war repression. Popular fiction, as it is understood in Britain, did not flourish. There are no middlebrow studies in Spanish Universities. The Arnold Bennetts, Elizabeth Von Arnims, E.M.Delafields, Naomi Mitchinsons, as I have found out, simply did not get published in Spain, or if they did they have still to be rediscovered. But that may change in the future. In my journey through Spanish literature I have walked the dangerous seventeenth century night time streets of Madrid in the company of the cynical but noble Capitan Alatriste, creation of the writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte; I have marvelled at the Faustian ascent and descent of Onofre Bouvila in Eduardo Mendoza’s La ciudad de los prodigios; I have become friends with the women who worked in a tea room in 1930s Madrid (Luisa Carnés, an example of a rediscovered writer from the Second Republic) and I have strolled through the cobbled streets of an abandoned pueblo in the Pyrenees of Aragon filled with the ghosts of the past in La lluvia amarilla by Julio Llamazares. These may be the books taught in literature courses in a future Spain.
Reading in another language, like cooking or falling in love, offers another perspective on your host country. The biggest change, however, has come in the way I look at all things British. Habits, mannerisms and social norms that seemed, there is no other way of putting it, normal are now seen against the backdrop of another society’s ways of doing things. I also appreciate so many things I once took for granted. The English language, I now see, is an amazingly adaptable and creative means of expression. The literary tradition in the United Kingdom is stunning in its variety, invention and history. Reading in Spanish, in the end, has taught me to appreciate the riches to be gained from reading in English.