PART THREE: Continuing his introduction to Karel Capek’s travel books, Alan Riach looks at the writer’s journey to Spain, his account of the nation’s distinctiveness, and three of its greatest painters

KAREL Capek’s Letters from Spain was published in English in 1931, translated by Paul Selver. In the first paragraph, Capek sets the tone: “Time after time in modern poetry the Transcontinental Express dashes past you, and a mysterious porter calls out the names of stations: Paris, Moscow, Honolulu, Cairo; the sleeping cars dynamically scan the rhythm of Speed, and the Pullman, as it whirls by, suggests all the magic of distant places, for you must know that nothing less than first-class travel accommodation will satisfy the fine frenzy of the poet.”

It’s quite a train that, to connect “trans-continentally” Paris and Honolulu. The demeanour of Capek’s prose is Buster Keaton deadpan and sometimes, for wayward and perverse folk like myself, laugh-out-loud funny. He delivers a careful explication of the risks involved in reaching the upper berth of a sleeping car when someone is already asleep in the lower berth (which he illustrates with four diagrammatic pictures), noting that there are “various wearisome methods of getting on top: by such physical jerks as the upward stretch, with or without a preliminary jump, by vaulting, by straddling, by fair means or foul …”.

By page 16, we’re beginning to wonder whether we’ll ever actually get to Spain. But we do! And wonders follow. Spain’s cities and territories are vividly evoked. Madrid is “a city of courtly show and fitful revolutions”; in Toledo you can “wander through winding Arab by-streets, gaze through gratings into Moorish courtyards”; Seville “glistens as if it were freshly whitewashed every Saturday” and between the roofs, the awnings are “intersected by the sky, as by a blue knife” and “the windows of the apartments look like bird-cages hanging on the walls”. In “every corner” of the city’s “eyes and mouth there is a flutter of merriment and tenderness”.

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Characteristics are briefly noted: mantillas, gardens, patios, cities and plains, the Basque game of “pelota” (involving swiping pods or “pellets” with a scooped bat), and on bullfighting, Capek gets the ambivalence of the spectacle precisely: “arms in hand, face to face with death, risking life” but ultimately, “a revolting piece of butchery”. His recipe for a flamenco is: “Take a Highland fling, a cake-walk, a tango, a Cossack gopak, an Apache dance, a fit of frenzy, unconcealed lechery and other frantic movements, kindle them to a white heat, and begin to batter them with castanets, shouting all the while.”

Capek is particularly good on painters. Along with international travel, in these lockdown times,

I find it especially valuable to consider the quality of life that is enhanced by closely looking at real paintings. Screens cannot suffice. What oil paint and watercolour do is humanly shaped, its shaping made visible by the texture of the pigments, the understanding of what brush strokes are and how colours work.

SO, we have those marvels of Spanish art, Velázquez, El Greco, Goya and others, brilliantly indicated in words. Velázquez (1599-1660) was appointed court painter by “that pale, cold and strange Philip IV”: the artist “has grandeur” but “there is in it a trenchant coldness, a delicate and yet unrelenting sense of detail, an uncanny sureness of eye and brain that rules the hand.”

He “painted the pale king with the weary eyelids and frozen eyes, or the pale infants with rouge on their faces, poor, tightly laced puppets. Or the court dwarfs with the dropsical heads, the palace jesters and fools, swaggering with grotesque dignity, a crippled and imbecile plebeian monstrosity unwittingly traversing the grandeur of the court. The king and his dwarf, the court and its jester. This is the king and the world he lives in.” Velázquez “saw too well not to allow his eyes to serve as a medium of vision for the whole of his clear and supreme intelligence”.

Capek describes the world of El Greco (1541-1614) like this: “Imagine Gothic verticalism which has encountered a blast from a Baroque whirlwind; the Gothic line warps, and a surge of Baroque darts up and permeates the perpendicular eruption of the Gothic; at times it seems as if the pictures were cracking with the tension of these two forces.

“There is such an impact that it distorts the faces, warps the bodies and flings garments upon them in heavy tempestuous folds; clouds uncoil like bed-linen fluttering in a tempest, and through them penetrates an abrupt and tragical light, enkindling colours with an unnatural and eerie intensity. As if judgement day had come.” His people are “without faith, who are in no way startled by the shrill and despairing outcry of the Greek’s piety”. This is art criticism that gives the reader real information.

He’s even better on Goya (1746-1828). “Goya’s portraits of kings are not far short of insults. Velázquez did not flatter; Goya went as far as to laugh, Their Highnesses to scorn. It was ten years after the French Revolution, and a painter, without turning a hair, told the throne what he thought of it.”

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His work, especially the execution of the Spanish rebels, “are specimens of reporting, which for sheer genius and emotional eloquence, have not their equal in the whole history of painting”. And here we have “Maja desnuda: the modern revelation of sexuality. A barer and more carnal nudity than any which had preceded it. The end of erotic pretence. The end of allegorical nudity. It is the only nude by Goya, but there is more exposure in it than in tons of academic flesh.”

For Capek, “Goya turned mankind inside out, peering through his nostrils and his yawning gullet, studying his misshapen vileness in a distorting mirror. A nightmare, like a shriek of horror.”

You can feel Capek’s personal sensitivity as he imagines “the horns of the Catholic devil and the cowls of the inquisitors” protruding from “this hysterical inferno”. Civil wars, the fanaticised mob, the “dark and bloody reaction of despotism”: “Goya’s chamber of horrors is a ferocious shout of disgust and hatred”. Even now, Goya “is erecting barricades in the Prado”.

What examples! What aptly horrifying depictions of royals and their world, of the people of a faithless church and their human judge, and of the violence of tyranny and repressions of sexuality! So much piety, hypocrisy and cover-up blasted away by great art! And all conveyed by a Czech visitor’s perceptive, patient prose.

Oh, Scotland!