Hemingway casts a shadow on this novel of romance and student rebellion in postwar Spain, inspired by the author’s Harper Prize–winning Vangel Griffin (1960).
The year is 1956, and Jude Winterside, disillusioned with his life in New York, makes himself a deal: He’ll leave his wife and career to become a student at the University in Madrid, and if, after one year, he has not “found some reason to continue living longer,” he’ll swallow pills and brandy and enter the abyss. Fortunately for him, events occur that pierce his ennui and make him feel alive for the first time. He meets Alonso, an idealistic but disturbed critic of Generalissimo Franco and the Falangistas, and Alonso’s sister, Satry, with whom Jude begins a romantic relationship. Woven into the action, in ways reminiscent of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Hugo’s Les Miserables and Papa’s The Sun Also Rises, are passages of spoken and internal dialogue that grapple with larger philosophical issues. What is the nature of love? What is honor? Is all life pain? These are earnest explorations in a riveting story but with a few flaws. In apparently reworking his prized novel from 50 years ago, Lobsenz (Succession, 2008, etc.) presumably intended, at least in part, to make it more relevant to modern audiences; however, his skillful but mannered prose seems lifted directly from that earlier era. Most sentences are in the active voice and contractions are often avoided; enigmatic non sequiturs abound in what could only be a conscious emulation of Hemingway, a hero to many writers of Lobsenz’s generation. The romantic duo of Jude and Satry also seems an obvious and intentional reincarnation of Jake and Lady Brett, although Jude’s impotence is only metaphorical, and there’s nothing androgynous about Satry. The meditations on love, sex and gender seem dated—a reflection of the story’s original time period—but could have benefitted from a more nuanced treatment, acknowledging the passage of years since Vangel Griffin’s publication. Still, there are moments in the story—atop the tower in Avila, in a seedy Madrid bar—when a deep understanding of character and place emerges from the spare, narrow style, encouraging readers to forgive its limitations.
Engrossing, fiercely intelligent fiction redolent of another era.