Book Review: The Age of Disenchantments by Aaron Shulman

May 2, 2020

The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War, by Aaron Shulman. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. 465 pp

Among the more esoteric cultural shocks of Spain’s transition to democracy was a 1976 documentary in which a family—that sacred unit of National Catholicism— tore itself apart in front of the cameras. Three variously self-absorbed, promiscuous, alcoholic, druggy sons denounce their not dissimilar dead father, whom they also plainly revere. The widowed mother reminisces about an extra-marital romance. Everyone analyses and betrays everyone else. The essence of the film’s lasting power is that it represents, in an extreme version, so many averagely dysfunctional families. But in its day Jaime Chávarri’s El Desencanto (‘Disenchantment’ or ‘Disillusion’) had a specificity now lost on most viewers. Felicidad Blanc Panero and her sons Juan Luis, Leopoldo María and José Moisés (‘Michi’) Panero were celebrities—individually, as a family, and especially by association with the paterfamilias Leopoldo, who until his death in 1962 had been, by popular reputation if not quite in fact, poet laureate of the Franco regime. As José Carlos Mainer and the late Santos Juliá were to write in a book about the transition, “Possibly without intending to, the Paneros, so exhibitionist and loquacious, so obsessed with their own lineage, turned out to be a microcosm of the whole country and a precocious symbol of the necessity… of an urgent national psychoanalysis.”

Chávarri trained at the Escuela Oficial de Cine, one of Franco’s surprisingly numerous unintended gifts to Spanish avant-garde art. He was a “Name” (nombre), in the sense used among the Almodóvar generation of which the Panero sons were part: people related to someone famous. In the director’s case, the relation was his great-grandfather, Antonio Maura, five times Spain’s prime minister in the early decades of the twentieth century. Even into the 1970s Spanish society was, at least as compared with the rest of western Europe, constricted, and in general quite a difficult place to make headway without connections. Leopoldo Panero (Senior)’s mother was a distant cousin of Franco’s wife, a link she used to save his life when he was imprisoned in 1936. The poet married one of the daughters of a prominent actress and a Madrid surgeon. Their children were nombres because they were Paneros but also, eventually, on their own account, and while they were growing up their friends and lovers were, too: people called Domecq, Marías, Molina, Ortega. Some of them behaved as if they were the only humans on earth. Not for nothing, one of Madrid’s trendiest bars was called El Universal.

It’s a universe painstakingly reassembled by Aaron Shulman in The Age of Disenchantments, a family history inspired by, and providing a rich contextual gloss on, El Desencanto. Like the film’s early audience, Shulman sees the Paneros as epitomizing their age, and among the book’s successes are the early chapters that bring to life a too easily despised category: intelligent, sensitive, idealistic Spanish Nationalists. Anglo-American ideas about the Civil War—stereotypes that have taken hold in Spain itself—don’t allow for the fact that the side indigenous people are on in any conflict (I’m not talking about foreign volunteers) is generally a result of birth or locality. Only a fraction of participants make a principled choice, let alone of a sort subsequently applauded by history. And even being principled is no protection against changing one’s mind. After a student career in which he read Marx, got to know Lorca, brought the Peruvian communist poet César Vallejo home to Astorga for Christmas and, during a spell at Cambridge, translated for Miguel de Unamuno, Leopoldo had a religious experience that led to his siding with the Nationalists. His brother Juan, also a poet, had joined the army of the governing Republicans and was killed in an accident. Both men had been befriended by Pablo Neruda, who later attacked friends of Leopoldo’s as accomplices of the dictatorship and was in turn savaged by him for his Stalinism.

Leopoldo was right about Neruda. But he was essentially a traditionalist poet of love, religion and nature, not of politics. Being passionate, hard-drinking, and fluent, he was also what poets are supposed to be like, so was useful to a regime shunned by many but not all writers. He held a number of prominent cultural positions in a country where, even today, such jobs are part of an extended civil-service apparatus intimately tied to government. He worked on the new literary periodical Escorial, founded in 1940, and in the state censorship, directed a big series of art exhibitions, and became a literary diplomat, including on the staff of what is now the Instituto Cervantes in London, where he counted T.S. Eliot among his friends. When Franco’s regime became a client of the Cold-War USA, he was made editorial director of the Hispanic version of Reader’s Digest.

It helped that his wife Felicidad was beautiful, intelligent and a bit flirtatious, though she could also be startlingly insensitive. At the première of El Desencanto she invited one her late husband’s best friends, the poet and critic Luis Rosales, to sit next to her. Rosales had appeared in the film without having any idea that its effect, in Shulman’s words, would be “like a ritual sacrifice” in which the subject was “disemboweled.” Other friends, seated further away, left before the end but the polite Rosales was stuck there, speechless. Felicidad not only didn’t understand his consternation, she seems not to have noticed it. Shulman is good on her mix of self-absorption, pragmatic adaptability when she was obliged to work for her living, distinct literary talent and adoring indulgence of her sons (whose waywardness, particularly in Leopoldo María’s case, may have been inherited from her side of the family: one of her sisters suffered a lifelong disabling psychological illness). In defending her against accusations raised by other women in her world that she was just a bad mother, he shows the fair-mindedness that also characterizes his handling of the sons – all of them, sooner or later and in different ways, gifted, truthful writers as well — as fascinatingly disastrous human beings.

This tact, it has to be said, is at odds with the book’s neon-lit subtitle, “The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family.” And while these may be the publisher’s words rather than Shulman’s, his style is often at odds with the subtlety of his opinions. This is partly a matter of his overdoing the microcosm-macrocosm patterning (“Much like Leopoldo’s career at this time, the 1950s were shaping up to be a decade of twisty intrigue.” There’s a phrase like this every two or three pages). He also has a weakness for clunky metaphors. The teenaged boys and their friends not only drink and do a lot of drugs, they read a lot of books, so just as one of them “inhaled tomes on political and aesthetic theory,” another, two paragraphs later, “slurped down all of Kafka and Sartre.” Yet the same writer deftly negotiates car-crashes and police beatings, locked psychiatric wards and acid hallucinations, and can produce flashes of his own such as a description of Dalí looking like “an otter dressed up as a gangster.” Despite its blemishes, this is a thoroughly researched, at best vivid and reliable account of a deeply unreliable bunch of people in an unhappy age.

Jeremy Treglown is the author of Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 (2014) and most recently of Mr. Straight Arrow: The Career of John Hersey, Author of Hiroshima (2019). He has written biographies of Roald Dahl, Henry Green, and V. S. Pritchett, and is a former editor of The Times Literary Supplement.