The Ink Runs Dry

L to R: Jay Parini, Salman Rushdie, Amanda Vaill, Christopher Mason, David Gilbert, Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Borgesian understatement, Nixonian analysis, Putinian philosophy, and a rediscovered Kodak disc camera. The ink, the wine, and the laughs were all flowing at Tuesday’s Seriously Entertaining show as another smashing line-up of writing talent mused aloud on the creative process and the terror that one day the ink might just dry up altogether.

Amanda Vaill (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Amanda Vaill was first in the spotlight with a tale from her new book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). When war broke out, the writers who answered the call to arms were all generally afraid that “their ink was running dry”, not least Ernest Hemingway, one of the stars of Hotel Florida, whose writing career in the mid-1930s was far from soaring. “But those who were the new face, the new day,” said Vaill, “were the photographers, the film-makers.” Most famous amongst them were Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, whose philosophy was summed up by Capa’s maxim, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Capa and Taro are perhaps best known for the image of the “Falling Soldier”, which Vaill contends was a staged shoot gone fatally wrong. Whatever the circumstances, it made their name, and when Gerda was tragically killed later in the conflict, tens of thousands followed her coffin through the streets of Paris. Capa survived the Spanish Civil War only to be killed when he stepped on a landmine in 1954 while covering the First Indochina War. Is this how the intrepid war photographer would have chosen to go? wondered Vaill. Or would it have been better to let the ink run dry?

Jonathan Alter (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

“In 1988, to my mother’s dismay, I launched a project to bring Nixon to Newsweek,” began Jonathan Alter, our second speaker. “Nixon was not a small-talk man,” he recalled; “he was a man who wore his black oxfords on the beach.” Still, what he lacked in social graces he more than made up for in the astuteness of his observations. When asked how he thought history would judge him, Thirty-Seven responded, “You have to distinguish between history and historians, because history is written by liberals.”

Nixon was a notorious user of tape recorders, a habit that contributed hugely to his downfall. But despite their destructive potential, the humble recording device has flourished in the White House ever since. After a tense conversation in 1999 with Bill Clinton during which Alter asked him if he would be seeking psychiatric help — this was following the infidelity-impeachment double-header — the writer discovered that his interview tape was totally blank. “So I called the White House and asked if the presidential limo has a recording device… fortunately it did…”

And a recording device played a key role in the 2012 election, too, as Alter reveals at length in The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies (Simon & Schuster, 2013). He closed his great set with the story of Scott Prouty, the waiter whose secret recording of Mitt Romney’s “forty-seven percent” comment may well have been one of the most significant factors in Obama’s re-election.

Christopher Mason (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie, who won the inaugural Tip of My Tongue competition at the House of SpeakEasy gala in January, returned as host of this month’s quiz, delighting the crowd with three mystery literary passages.

After the interval, satirical songwriter Christopher Mason launched into a new and brilliantly witty take on the crisis in Ukraine entitled “Putin On The Blitz”. “You say Ukraine / I say Mykraine,” says the Russian premier in Mason’s hurlyburly retelling of the currentest of affairs. “Haunting former Soviet republics”, the bare-chested leader goes “advancing in Ukraine” to the tune of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Watch this space for a video of Christopher’s performance, coming soon.

“I really have to follow the fucking piano player?” asked David Gilbert, author of & Sons (Random House, 2013) and the next writer to take the stage. “I was nearly in a taxi!”

David Gilbert (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Fortunately for us, Gilbert stuck around, unspooling a brilliant story of writerly procrastination and recovered photographs. Writing’s hard at the best of times, but Gilbert would make it even harder for himself by attempting to contrive lines of prose that were exactly the same length. “This was before I discovered ‘Justify All’… But then I noticed the gaps between words, which annoyed me even more than the right-hand margins!”

One day while cleaning out his closet (to avoid writing, naturellement) he came across a roll of undeveloped film from one of the Kodak disc cameras from the early 1980s. “You just know these prints are gonna be terrible,” he said, but set out merrily nonetheless to find out what they contained — “maybe all those fun times, the secret adventures of your teenage years?”

Instead he finds a succession of selfies. “Me looking in a mirror. Me looking to the right. Me looking to the left… Then the first two buttons of my shirt are undone. Then my shirt is off. Then my pants are off… Here I am looking at my selfie self, and I can see this poor kid trying to figure things out.” He grinned. “Then the last picture is of my dog.”

Jay Parini (Photo: Carly Gaebe)

Our final guest of the night was poet, biographer and critic Jay Parini. “In 1968 or so, I was being chased by this fucking government that wanted me to go to Vietnam. So I went to Scotland for seven years and enrolled at St. Andrews.”

There, Parini was given the task of chaperoning the visiting Jorge Luis Borges, a name unknown to him at that time. Unimpressed by this supposedly famous writer, Parini asked Borges why he’d never (even) written a novel. It turned out that Borges had in fact considered doing so for many years — a giant blockbuster epic of a novel, no less. Rather than that, though: “One day I went to my desk and wrote a two hundred-word review of this novel instead,” said Borges. That would do.

Parini later became friends with Gore Vidal, whose biography he is currently writing. When he first met Vidal’s partner, Howard Austen, Howard was introduced as secretary to the great man. “Howard, what does that entail?” asked Parini. “Put it this way, big boy,” responded Austen: “I don’t type.”

Parini closed the evening with some fine words of advice. When working on a novel about Walter Benjamin, he asked Vidal if he could really have two characters discussing Heidegger’s philosophy for thirty pages. Gore’s response was quick and invaluable: “Only if they’re sitting in a railway car and the reader knows there’s a bomb under their seat!”

Watch out for videos from The Ink Runs Dry, coming soon to the House of SpeakEasy website and our Twitter feed.

Between the Crisis and the Catastrophe: Amanda Vaill on the Spanish Civil War

Spain’s war had become an experimental exercise — which will prevail, fascism or socialism? Whose weapons are stronger, Germany’s or Russia’s? — that the rest of the world was watching with interest.

This is “a bleak and terrifying epiphany” for Arturo Barea, an aspiring writer working in Madrid as a press censor for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. When the conflict began, in 1936, Europe was shifting gears: those loyal to the Republican government found themselves ignored by a nervous Britain and France while the Nationalist insurgents, led by the ruthless General Franco, were being granted fabulous access to new innovations in warfare from Italy and a swiftly rearming Germany. Barea, realising that Spain was viewed internationally as little more than a test run for what was shaping up to be an even bigger conflict, was understandably put out.

He’s one of a handful of characters at the centre of Amanda Vaill‘s superb close-up study of the conflict, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), and although of Vaill’s six protagonists he’s the only Spaniard, it’s his heart that the book’s beats in time with. His confreres on the frontline of this splendid work of biography are his girlfriend, the Austrian-born Ilse Kulcsar; the photographer couple Robert Capa and Gerda Taro; a swaggering Ernest Hemingway; and the young Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemingway’s third wife and one of the greatest war journalists of the century.

Madrid’s opulent Hotel Florida is the surreal fulcrum for much of the book’s action. This “ten-story marble-clad jewel box” becomes, in wartime, a haven

for a polyglot collection of journalists, French and Russian pilots, and opportunistic ladies of the evening. The pilots and the tarts (and some of the journalists) spent their evenings getting roaring drunk in the little bar, and when shells weren’t whistling over the building the night was punctuated by shrieks and slamming doors and running feet.

Author Amanda Vaill

One of many nice touches: each time Vaill returns to the hotel, she checks in with the concierge, Don Cristóbal, and in glimpses we see him move the reception desk from the front of the hotel to the back to avoid the flying glass from the frequent shellings — but continue to tend to his stamp collection, even as his international guests are forced to move out by the onward creep of Franco’s troops. Moments like these capture the special melancholy of the interwar years, which saw the last hurrah of an Old Europe soon to be completely destroyed by the Second World War. (It’s hard, with all the louche activity going on behind closed doors and the peculiar nonchalance of the book’s actors in the face of danger, not to be reminded of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which captures a similarly bittersweet moment in time.) Vaill’s characters waltz in and out of the Hotel Florida, their paths crossing not only each other’s but those of George Orwell, John Dos Passos, André Malraux and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It was a writer’s war, evidently. Indeed Hemingway, in the employ of the North American Newspaper Alliance, made up to $1,000 for each article he sent back. In a series of brilliant vignettes, Vaill records the many fights he had with Dos Passos, amongst others, over the relative veracity of his and others’ reports. But given that one of his motives for heading Spainwards was, in the first place, to find inspiration for “any number of novels”, it’s difficult not to share Barea’s concern that the expat journos flooding into the country didn’t understand “that this was Spain’s war, Spain’s agony.”

It was also a photographer’s war. “If your pictures aren’t good enough,” Robert Capa would say, “you’re not close enough.” He and Gerda Taro certainly got close enough. One of the most famous images of twentieth-century warfare was Capa’s snap of a falling soldier in the early months of the war, a photo which would later attract controversy over allegations that it was staged, but nevertheless became “the symbol… of Loyalist sacrifice”. (See also Vaill’s recent Foreign Policy article on the “Falling Soldier” photo.) Making a living from war reportage often comes at a price, of course; towards the end of the book, Capa confesses, “Slowly I am feeling more and more like a hyena”…

Like Capa and Taro, Vaill understands the power of the snapshot to bring home the horror and surrealism of warfare, and Hotel Florida is full of them: “children lying in neat rows, their eyes closed and their lips parted as if in sleep, numbers on their chests for identification”; a Nationalist air assault that kills only a single frog; Hemingway blasting Chopin to drown out the sound of aerial bombardment. Alongside these telling details, Vaill’s analysis of the interpersonal relationships of her subjects is novel-like in its depth, especially the fraught three-way between Hemingway, Gellhorn and Ernest’s second wife, Pauline. But it’s a portrait of war in deep focus. Vaill is equally skilled when it comes to the long shots, zooming out to take in the bloody territorial back-and-forths in Guadalajara, Guernica, Teruel, Brunete and Madrid — as well as the metastasising threat of wider warfare in response to the agitations of Hitler and Mussolini.

These are the storm clouds that are gathering as Vaill’s story ends. As the Brigades are disbanded, it’s left to Mikhail Koltsov, Pravda‘s Spanish correspondent, to suggest — with final-act abandon — “in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne”. The world would end a thousand times more before the storm was over.

You can read an excerpt from Hotel Florida on the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website here. Amanda Vaill will appear at the next House of SpeakEasy show, The Ink Runs Dry, on May 20. You can buy tickets here and follow Amanda on Twitter here.