[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Breaking Point' and 'The Tomb in Seville': In Another Country

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'The Breaking Point' and 'The Tomb in Seville': In Another Country 
New York Times Book Review, 5.


THE BREAKING POINT: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and the Murder of José Robles.
By Stephen Koch.
308 pp. Counterpoint. $24.95

THE TOMB IN SEVILLE: Crossing Spain on the Brink of Civil War.
By Norman Lewis.
150 pp. Carroll & Graf. $20.

    SO what went wrong between Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, the
    two most famous writers of their generation? As Stephen Koch tells us
    in ''The Breaking Point'':

    ''Hem was . . . more famous than Dos.

    ''Way more famous.'' Still, Hemingway was fighting off ''the hyenas of
    a pathological depression.'' ''He needed a new grip on his sanity. He
    needed a new war. He needed a new woman.'' Along came the Spanish
    Civil War and Hem had what he needed, including the new woman, Martha
    Gellhorn. And then Dos had to come along and spoil things by making a
    fuss about some friend who disappeared in the middle of the war.

    The tangled politics of the Spanish Civil War is at the center of
    Koch's odd version of the strained and, finally, broken friendship
    between Hemingway and Dos Passos. As it happened, Dos Passos' old
    friend José Robles was working with the Loyalist government (which
    both Hemingway and Dos Passos supported). Robles was highly educated,
    with Russian among his languages, making him an invaluable asset as
    liaison and interpreter to the Russians who were soon sending their
    political and military ''advisers'' to Spain. In March 1937, Robles
    was arrested, never to be seen again.

    Robles's murder, which surely followed, has never been officially
    documented. Koch assumes what few knew at the time and many more know
    now: Stalin's interest in the war was to prevent social revolution in
    Spain, and so to keep his options open regarding an alliance with
    either Hitler or the democracies. In Spain (as in Moscow) he ordered
    his agents to execute as ''fascist spies'' many antifascists who
    disagreed with his policies, including the Marxist leader Andrés Nin,
    the anarchist Camillo Berneri and, without doubt, Robles. Dos Passos
    arrived in Spain in the early spring of 1937 and was unable to find
    Robles. Hemingway, who at that point was in thrall to the Communists,
    had been told that Robles was executed as a fascist spy. He gave Dos
    Passos the news. Dos Passos knew Robles, and knew the charge was
    unthinkable. And that was pretty much the end between him and
    Hemingway, and of Dos Passos' own flirtation with the Communists.

    Now, this story has often been told. Indeed, Koch's copious endnotes
    make it clear that he relies heavily on these secondary sources. So,
    absent new material, is there a reason to tell it again? Koch may
    believe his style of narration has freshened the story. In fact, his
    intrusive comments often seem like comic-strip balloons. And except
    for Dos Passos, Koch seems to despise all his characters, each one a
    Soviet agent or a dupe, all of them sinister. Martha Gellhorn is
    accused of lying and shopping (no doubt she did both). He has
    particular contempt for the novelist and journalist Joséphine Herbst,
    gratuitously commenting on her looks (unattractive) and grading her
    talent as of ''the second or third rank.'' But although he names her a
    Soviet agent, he relies on her account when it suits him.

    Koch is not wrong in his assessment of the tragically devious role
    played by Stalin in the Spanish Civil War, and of the American writers
    and journalists who, wittingly or not, assisted his goals. But he
    lacks a historian's feeling for the times, and he further undermines
    his material with an unnuanced, prosecutorial style. In the case of
    history, if you can't trust the teller, can you trust the tale?

    If it's Spain you want, put your trust in the renowned travel writer
    Norman Lewis, whose book ''The Tomb in Seville'' begins in 1934, at
    the moment when the miners of Asturias rose in armed revolt against
    the government of Spain. With shooting on the streets of Madrid, the
    government declared a state of alarm: a curfew was imposed and all
    public transportation came to a halt. But two young travelers -- Lewis
    and his brother-in-law -- were determined to continue on their journey
    to Seville. They begin by walking 110 miles to Zaragoza: ''We moved
    across boundless plains of billowing rock purged of all color by the
    sun. Distant clumps of poplar seemed to have been drawn up into the
    base of the sky in an atmosphere of mirage and mist. . . . At our
    approach an anomalous yellow bloom shook itself from a single tree,
    transformed into a flock of green singing finches. . . .

    ''An eagle detached itself from a boulder and flapped away towards the

    This was Lewis's first journey to Spain, and it became the subject of
    his first book, one which Lewis came to dislike and allowed to go out
    of print. But the reader is now in luck. Toward the end of Lewis's
    long and immensely productive life as a writer and traveler -- ''one
    of the best writers . . . of our century'' as Graham Greene called him
    -- his thoughts returned to Spain, and he reworked his first book into
    ''The Tomb in Seville'' before his death in 2003. There is a plot of
    sorts, but it hardly matters. What matters is the journey, and that
    Lewis saw everything: the landscape, the people, the poverty, the
    intimations of war to come, the medieval strangeness of Spain to
    modern European eyes. In a style that only seems artless, he tells an
    entranced and entrancing story, beautifully observed, of a young
    writer's meeting with the people and the country he loved at first

    Dorothy Gallagher is the author of a biography of the anarchist Carlo
    Tresca and, most recently, of a memoir, ''How I Came Into My

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