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Fact versus Fiction? The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination

Wednesday 24 February 2016
LSE Literary Festival
Fact versus Fiction? The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination
Speakers: Eduardo Mendoza (novelist), Helen Graham (Royal Holloway)
Chair: Paul Preston
Time: 18.30 h.
Place: LSE, New Academic Building, Wolfson Theatre
Poster
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Marking the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, a panel composed of one of Spain's leading novelists, Eduardo Mendoza, and the eminent historians Professor Paul Preston and Professor Helen Graham (Royal Holloway) explored the effect of the war on the literary imagination, from George Orwell to the present day, and reflected upon the challenges of incorporating real events into fiction.

Paul Preston, The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination, 24 February 2016

Paul Preston opened the evening’s event with an address to the full capacity audience. In introducing the panel, he referred to himself as a historian who knows nothing about literature, to Eduardo Mendoza as a novelist who knows nothing about history, and to Helen Graham as a historian who knows all about history and about literature. He alluded to the fact that far more people read fiction than history. He also stated that what is important in the fiction on the Spanish Civil War is historical truth and accuracy, and that the contribution made by novelists in helping recreate the everyday fabric of ordinary life can be invaluable in interpreting those areas that historians avoid due to lack of empirical evidence.

Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination, 24 February 2016

Helen Graham referred to the fact that some historians have imaginary insights which they know to be right but are constrained by empirical approaches. Nevertheless, she also stated that historians have a duty to tell a story well, and later comments made by Paul Preston backed this argument when he observed that, when translated, the term 'history' in most European languages has ‘story’ at the heart of its meaning.

Helen explained that wars produce reductive mythologies, and that despite good novels being about invention, they can also have an important role when it comes to busting myths. The two books she cited as being particularly useful in this regard were Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales and One Day I will return (Un día volveré) by Juan Marsé.

Eduardo Mendoza, The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination, 24 February 2016

Eduardo Mendoza acknowledged the novelist's duty to be truthful, but commented that a novel once written stays written, unlike history which changes. He went on to describe how his own experience of growing up amongst a contradictory culture of silence where families and close friends would talk about the war, stories of fear and hunger, stories of knocks at the door in the middle of the night, stories that were nevertheless pieces of memory with no opinions attached, had influenced his own later writing. He recounted how it had taken him years to realise there had even been a war, and that growing up this past of which he knew so little fascinated him, and in becoming a novelist he wanted to tell the story of how people lived their lives, in other words, their stories, not their history.

It was these factors that influenced his writing with his first novel The Truth about the Savolta Case, published in 1975, originally running afoul of the Francoist censors. Eduardo finished up by stating that he hoped that the important work carried out by memory organisations within Spain which concentrated on exhumation could branch out to deal with wider issues arising from the suppression of memories.

The Spanish Civil War in the Literary Imagination, 24 February 2016

There were a number of questions from the audience, ranging on subjects concerning what the panel considered were the parameters for allowable errors in historical fiction, through to the role played by George Orwell’s role as a non-fiction writer on the conflict and his influence on the creation of myths.

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