Jason Wilson. Becoming a hispanist

Whatever drove me to becoming a Hispanist (a stimulating teacher, Moorish Spain, Aztec Mexico, escaping my family etc), my first trip to Spain was when I was 16. I went on my own by air but happened to sit next to E. M. Wilson, then a professor at Cambridge. I later learnt that he had befriended the exiled poet Luis Cernuda and tried to persuade T. S. Eliot to publish him, but at the time I was struck by how badly he spoke Spanish. The first poet I met, through friends, in Franco’s Madrid, with its serenos, jazz bars, police and priests, was José Antonio Muñoz Rojas. He had known Lorca, but was too much of a conservative gent for me then. But I liked his down-to-earth poems. Recently, I was invited to celebrate his 100th birthday, but couldn’t go, and then he died just days before. He has been rescued from being tarnished by Francoism, but back then in the early 1960s, I picked on León Felipe as a possible poet to research and then met him in Mexico, skinny, wrapped in a rug with a spittoon at his feet and chatty. I also enjoyed Pedro Salinas’s love poetry, a passion I shared with my friend Tono Masoliver. By the mid 1960s I had finally decided to work on Octavio Paz, André Breton and surrealism, and went to live in Mexico. By 1969, with a post at Kings College London (and for my first year sharing a room with Mario Vargas Llosa), my professional career as a Hispanist had begun. But although I had read deeply into the Spanish literary tradition from Berceo to Borges, I did not speak the language fluently.

Mexico and then Buenos Aires were clearly the publishing centres in the Hispanic world at that time. I had fed on the Losada and Austral paperbacks. New writers emerging from houses like Sudamericana were very exciting to read as they appeared, especially Julio Cortázar. I remember the thrill of picking up a copy of Mundo Nuevo in Paris in 1966 with a chapter from García Márquez’s unpublished Cien años de soledad and interviews with Carlos Fuentes and Juan Goytisolo. Franco still ruled Spain, but Spain played its part in this thrilling literary renovation with the Biblioteca Breve prize given to Vargas Llosa’s best novel, La ciudad y los perros. Over the years, publishing power has shifted back to Spain, after a golden period with its exiled Republican publishers. Today, young Latin American writers yearn to be published in Spain and redistributed back to the Americas. Indeed, those who manage to publish in Spain or be taken on by Carmen Balcells can dream of becoming professional writers, earning enough to keep writing, while those who publish in their country cannot. So the shifting powers of publishing houses and literary prizes have ensured that the Hispanic world remains tied together, with more or less the same language. There might be lingering scorn for the ‘madre patria’ and concomitant jibes of ‘sudaca’, but at the literary level it is one interlocked world. In my case, I only really felt at home in the Spanish language after 5 months in Buenos Aires in 1970, married a porteña and now have a porteño lilt. My first days there, though, I was lost, not grasping a word.
I have travelled most of Latin American and much of Spain, with vivid stays in Soria and Córdoba and more recently around Almería where our grandchildren live. Another form of travel is reading and I have read widely across Hispanic poetry, especially of the c20, meeting, even befriending some of the poets. Poets rarely live from poetry (Neruda was a great exception), are not so commercially driven as prose writers, and are far more generous readers (you can’t write poems all day, but you can prose all day), so in general poets are better company. But as I became a professional Hispanist, I grew aware of another kind of Hispanist fascinated with all matters Hispanic and that is the non-academic Hispanist. Most of these independent travellers and writers I have only read, like Malcom Lowry, Norman Lewis, Gerald Brenan or Graham Greene, but they have, as a body of outsiders in love with another culture, guided me in my outsider status. I am still learning the language and culture as a continuous enriching process and remain in my middle 60s a student, picking up bits and pieces of experience and information. Being an outsider / insider in Buenos Aires or London, that is, a Hispanist, and being from an ex British colony, have rooted me with a foot in or ‘a caballo de’ different cultures in a state of ‘vasos comunicantes’ where place and language free different selves.

I met Laurie Lee, one of those Hispanists outside academia (and its safe salaries) on a train while still at boarding school. I had sneaked into a first class cabin and pulled my school tie off. He noticed this and warned me that I didn’t look like a first class passenger. Nor did he, I thought. We got talking and he told me countless tall stories about Spain, even though he recently published Cider with Rosie, his account of growing up in a Cotswold valley. I met him on and off in different pubs, liked his poetry but loved his Spanish trilogy. He had a fantastic knack for sensuous detail, more created than remembered, and was a natural fabulator. His Spanish was not great – you could hear the Gloucestershire burr under it -, but he had lived through pre-Civil war Spain and then the Civil War itself. Through him, I felt I had touched what has driven countless Anglos (I count myself as one now after so many years in London) to become Hispanists. It’s to do with contrast, landscape, exotic histories (the Moors, the Discovery of America, Aztecs, Incas, and Maya) and that abrupt crossing of cultural frontiers, a sense that we are universal through knowing at least two languages, even if rooted to our ‘patria chica’.

Democratic Spain today is far from that one I first knew under Franco, clapping my hands to call a sereno, going to parties with all the girls at one end of a room and all the boys at another, or being spat at because I had long hair. Just looking at the titles of the books we perused on the New Spanish Books panel, with so many having foreign places in them, tells a story of Spanish cultural desires, travelling abroad to find yourself, becoming a nomad or a prodigal son or daughter. Under Franco, abroad had been exile and bitterness, but today Spanish writers are travelling in fiction as much as in travel accounts. Spain has come out of its Catholic medieval prison and joined the world, as most of Latin America has slowly jettisoned military coups and dictators. Knowing how to speak and read Spanish, becoming a Hispanist, hints at a universal ‘brother and sisterhood’ that translation and literature let you glimpse by recounting other lives, the many lives you cannot live except through your imagination, the real nation.

I end on a sadder note as I recently learnt that the poet José Viñals had died in Málaga. I first met him in Buenos Aires in 1970, though he was from the provinces, born in Corralito, near Córdoba, son of a baker, a Spanish exile. I then stayed with him in Bogotá. He had to leave Argentina during the 1970s dictatorship and ended up with his family in Jaén, where I often visited him and where he promoted bull-fighting and art, while writing his linked, baroque poems and prose to the sound of the Vivaldi or Bach that he loved. He was particularly fecund in his later years. I wrote the introduction to the three volumes of his first complete works, including his drama of self - consciousness titled Coartada para dios (Losada). His nomadic life – he moved flat or house continuously -, illustrates a Hispanic cohesion, between Argentina, Colombia and Spain, across massively various landscapes and peoples. But as much as his work, I loved his vitality, his generous gregariousness, sharing whatever was on his table with Marta and his many painter friends (he once ran a gallery). He dedicated his novel Padreoscuro to me as his ‘hermano’, that is exactly what I felt, across age differences, cultural backgrounds, eye colour, countless experiences, that sudden ‘puente’ that is communication beyond the monolingual jail. His empiricist or sensualist’s credo was ‘con sus gafas graduadas para ver de cerca, el anciano poeta mira el infinito’ [with his glasses to see close up, the old poet stares at infinity].

Finally, I have always been fascinated by the temptation to change language, not only as a writer, but as a person, for that is also to become someone else, more free, less weighed down by a past. My mother complained that my first language as an infant in Mauritius was ‘créole’, which was a good start. There’s a tradition of writers embodied by Conrad, but including Borges (poems in English), Nabokov, Kundera, Beckett, T. S. Eliot (poems in French), Octavio Paz (also in French), Pessoa (in English) and many Rumanians from Ionesco to Cioran. Hispanic poets who chose to write in French like César Moro, Vicente Huidobro, Alfredo Gangotena and Juan Larrea are trail blazers for a notion that real identity is not necessarily in your mother tongue. Hispanist is an awkward term for crossing over the language-cultural fence, but it’ll do. I once wrote some ‘Cartas de Londres’ for Octavio Paz’s magazine Vuelta, but found it hard to gauge my Spanish. In fact, writing-in-Spanish is my latest challenge. I am still becoming a Hispanist – there’s no end in sight - and maybe can tap into that ur-self, the post Babelic dream.

Jason Wilson
Jason Wilson