Inspiration for The Spanish Bow

Locations featured in The Spanish Bow

In this novel, the fictional pianist Justo Al-Cerraz is disappointed when he discovers that Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” was originally inspired by a cheap book that the famous composer had purchased on the rue de Richelieu, in Paris. (Al-Cerraz hears this from Falla himself. I read it in liner notes written by Phillip Huscher.) The Alhambra is a real place, and Falla would later live not far from it, but the Spanish composer started his score without having visited the Alhambra, and he succeeded in conveying the romance of that Moorish fortress rather than the facts of it.

Why should Al-Cerraz have minded? The pianist, I’m sorry to say, always had a hard time deciding whether he favored fact or fiction, romance or reality. (Even Al-Cerraz’s claim to have been mothered by La Belle Otero may not be entirely reliable; the famous courtesan was sterile, evidently. But who can know for sure?)

We all enjoy hearing that a story is based on real people or inspired by real events. I know I do. But we also revel in fiction, a genre that allows us to find meaning and pattern in the otherwise confusing maelstrom of life. No matter how a work is labeled and no matter what we intend or desire—as readers, as authors, as people recounting our childhoods around a dinner table—what we most often end up with is a collage.

I love collages. (Is it any wonder I found room in this novel for Picasso?) I like the look of bits of newspaper and cloth stuck with paint, and violins shaped from torn paper, and familiar items rendered unfamiliar. This book is such a collage. While I would direct readers to pay more attention to the final fictional design, here are some notes on my materials for the benefit of readers like Al-Cerraz, who may be on a quest for unadulterated truth.

I started this book planning to write a nonfiction account about the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. This was in late 2001, about a decade into my career as a freelance journalist and travel writer. Most recently I’d been struggling to find a new way to write about marine environmental issues, but was bogging down in jargon, burdened by the knowledge of a limited audience resistant to hearing more about obscure or intractable environmental problems. Even I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to hear any more about environmental problems. Then, like many Americans, I was jostled awake by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which forced me to ask myself that clarifying doomsday question, If I could do only more thing with my life—if I could write about only one more thing—what would it be?

What I longed for that autumn was a chance to immerse myself in something beautiful and hopeful, and for me, the sound of hope and humanity has always been the cello. (Why the cello? I wrote this book in part to find out.)

The doomsday atmosphere of 2001 also infused me with the desire to find a heroic story to tell, because that was the kind of story that I needed to hear. The search for a hero led me to Casals, a cellist known for his stance against fascism. In early 2002, I visited Puerto Rico, where the musician spent the last years of his life. There, I studied archival footage of Casals, sifted through documents, and met people who had known the maestro or his students.

Almost from the start, there were aspects to Casals’s life that didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell; aspects of other musicians’ lives that did; questions that could not be answered (problematic for a journalist, but alluring for a would-be novelist); and a rich overlap of incident and experience that showed me that Casals’s life as a musician and public figure was not altogether unique. The lack of uniqueness did not mean I’d stumbled into a dead-end. It promised, instead, a doorway into other places and lives. Casals’s story, itself more complex than I’d first imagined, pointed the way to stories of many other European musicians and composers and even visual artists. Most interesting to me were the similarities of these individuals’ backgrounds, challenges, and moral dilemmas. I found I was interested in these composite stories and situations—a broader scope and larger canvas than my original vision had allowed, with room for quixotic digressions (and even for Don Quixote himself, another source of inspiration).

Where imagination promised to lead me in a fruitful direction, I followed it, becoming, to my complete surprise, a novelist in the process. In the end, I chose to shelve all plans for a nonfiction book and instead write a novel about protagonists who ask themselves some of the same questions I asked myself in 2001: Is this what I should be doing with my life? In difficult times, is art an indulgence or a necessity? Must I sacrifice my own happiness to what is going on around me? And, politics aside: Who will remember me?

While I ask readers to interpret the final work as fictional, music-oriented readers may still recognize purposeful similarities between Casals and my main character, Feliu Delargo. Casals and Feliu share a Catalan upbringing, royal patronage (by different queens), ownership of a gem-studded bow, and Republican political views. However, Casals was born in 1876, Feliu in 1892, putting them in contact with a different range of musicians, politicians and monarchs, and different artistic and political events. Casals never toured with anyone like the Al-Cerraz and Aviva characters of my book, had no relationship with Franco, and never performed for Franco or Hitler. While both Casals and Feliu refused to perform musically (musicians and composers of the 1930s and 1940s commonly struggled with the question of performing in politicized situations), they did so at slightly different historic junctures, and with different consequences.

In a similar vein, Justo Al-Cerraz shares some superficial traits—iincluding girth and a flair for mythologizing—with the Spanish pianist and composer Isaac Albéniz, but the two men are more different than alike. Albéniz lived from 1860 to 1909, meaning that he was terminally indisposed before much of my story takes place. He had no political difficulties or involvement in the Spanish Civil War, logically, and did not disappear at the end of his life. He never toured with a well-known cellist. His compositions, unlike Al-Cerraz’s, were successful and accepted.

Having vouched for the fictional (or mostly-fictional) natures of my main protagonists, I nonetheless admit to filling many smaller roles with characters drawn from real life—partly to enhance the appearance of reality, and partly for my own entertainment and for the entertainment or consternation of my protagonists. These less-fictionalized minor characters include King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena of Spain, Manuel de Falla, Sir Edward Elgar, Pablo Picasso, Varian Fry, Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, Bertolt Brecht, and Kurt Weill. Of course, I felt free to take liberties with all of them, where it suited the needs of my story.

Travel, including visits to palaces, musicians’ birthplaces and other settings used in this book, was the most important component in my research. (I did choose to walk through the gardens of Spain, rather than rely on any book from the rue de Richelieu.) For period detail and thematic inspiration, the following books also proved essential: The Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 and Franco: A Biography, both by Paul Preston; Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell; The Week France Fell by Noel Barber; Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changed the World by Russell Martin; Kurt Weill on Stage by Foster Hirsch; Theatrical Performances During the Holocaust, edited by Rebecca Rovit and Alvin Goldfarb; and Ena, Spain’s English Queen by Gerard Noel. I learned much from The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan and quoted from it directly in describing the “sin of Liberalism” as taught to young Feliu by his catechism teacher. I also relied upon detail provided by a documentary, Assignment Rescue: the Story of Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, directed by Richard Kaplan and written by Christina Lazaridi. For impressions of Isaac Albéniz, I am indebted to Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic by Walter Aaron Clark. Interviews and museum visits provided primary source materials from the life of Pablo Casals; however, his voice comes across most clearly in Joys and Sorrows: Reflections by Pablo Casals, as told to Albert E. Kahn.

The author with her cello, at home in Alaska.

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