Towards the end of a long life that was more eventful, more peripatetic and more exquisitely chronicled than most, María Teresa León came to a painful conclusion.
“Living,” wrote the Spanish author and anti-fascist activist, “isn’t as important as remembering. What a horror to have nothing to remember; to leave nothing behind you but blank tape.”
The lines are from León’s 1970 autobiography, Memoria de la Melancolía (Memory of Melancholy), which has been republished to mark its 50th anniversary and to rekindle interest in a writer whose literary achievements have all too often been overshadowed by those of her second husband, the poet Rafael Alberti.
Along with Federico García Lorca, Ernestina de Champourcín, Pedro Salinas, Rosa Chacel and Vicente Aleixandre, León and Alberti belonged to the so-called Generation of ’27, named after the year the avant garde literary group met.
Lorca’s poems and plays – not to mention his martyrdom at the hands of a firing squad – earned him literary immortality. But León, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during her final two decades before dying in Madrid in December 1988, remains far less lauded and remembered.
Her life, however, was extraordinary. Over the 430 pages of Memory of Melancholy, León travels to the Soviet Union, where she meets Joseph Stalin – “thin and sad, worn down by something – perhaps by his destiny”.
After the Spanish civil war breaks out, León and her group of anti-fascist writers unite against Franco’s coup and, when the bombs rain down on Madrid, find themselves supervising the evacuation of the Prado’s artworks.
“The exodus began under our sadly scared eyes,” she writes. “We watched those extraordinary pictures move towards the light with a fear that was almost religious.”
That fear increases when they notice, to their horror, that the face of Velázquez’s The Buffoon Calabacillas has disappeared behind a layer of grey mould. Thankfully, an expert is on hand: “We get a technical explanation: the painting’s got a cold. Paintings cool down when they’re moved. Tiny fungi can cover the surface. A clean will do the job. I’ve never breathed out so deeply.”
Like so many republicans, León and Alberti left Spain following Franco’s victory in 1939, and spent almost four decades in exile in France, Argentina and Italy before finally returning home in 1977. But the homecoming was bittersweet. Alzheimer’s had already gone to work on León’s brilliant mind, erasing most of the tapes of her memory.
Memory of Melancholy, haunted as it is by themes of memory and loss – and memory loss – can be seen as an act of self-defence against the future and an effort by León to seize and fix the events of her life and the people who were in it before they are snatched away for ever.
She recalls the American writer’s love of danger, whether in a wartime city or a bullring – “he carried inside him an image of Spain where one died happily in the afternoon and his Spanish was flecked with bullfighting slang”.
Albert Camus turns up in Buenos Aires, where he shares his trick for screening people’s characters: “If I want to know someone, I ask them, ‘Which side did you back during the war in Spain?’. If they say Franco, I won’t say hello to them again.”
The Spanish novelist Benjamín Prado, who has written the foreword to the new edition of Memory of Melancholy, points out that it would have been hard to invent León had she not existed. “Her own peripatetic life seems to belong more to an adventure novel than to reality,” he told the Observer.
“If you put María Teresa into a work of fiction, people would go: ‘Come on!’ Be serious!’ How can one person have such an extraordinarily interesting life and hang out with many of the major intellectuals of the 20th century – Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus, Maxim Gorky, Paul Éluard? She’s right there, on the frontline of some of the essential events of the 20th century.”
Prado, who was friends with Alberti, often visited León as a student, hopping on his motorbike to deliver clothes and other things to her sanatorium at her husband’s request.
He does not, however, claim to have known her. “The person I met wasn’t María Teresa any more,” he said.
“She was like a little girl. She switched, indistinctly, between Spanish and French and Italian. She would talk about having tea with her mother, but she also said some amazing things. I’d say to her, ‘María Teresa, aren’t the flowers in the garden beautiful?’, and she’d reply: ‘Yes. They were all black but I took a brush to them and painted some of them red and some of them blue’.”
By the time he met her, the firebrand who would bellow at republican troops trying to abandon their positions had been replaced by an affectionate old woman who would take his hand and stroke it.
He has never forgotten the time he took her a first edition of Memory of Melancholy and asked her to sign it. “She signed for me with a red Biro I handed her. Then she started to read her own autobiography without recognising any of it. It was like she was reading about someone else’s life, about which she didn’t know a single word.”
León’s grave is inscribed with a line from one of her husband’s poems: “Esta mañana, amor, tenemos veinte años” – “This morning, my love, we are 20 years old”. León would surely not object to being bound to her husband in death as she was in life. But for Prado and many others, the time has come to gently prise their legacies apart. “In a way, I think we need to divorce her from Alberti,” he said. “We need to separate her from Alberti as a writer because it really isn’t fair.”
Memory of Melancholy is the first in a series of León’s books that are being republished by Editorial Renacimiento. Prado and the publishers hope that when people read some of León’s short story collections, such as Morirás Lejos (You’ll Die Far Away), and some of her novels – Juego Limpio (Clean Game), Contra Viento y Marea (Against All Odds) and El gran amor de Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s Great Love) – they will see her for who and what she really was.
“I don’t like arranging writers on podiums,” said Prado. “But if you forced me, then I’d say that María Teresa León was the best prose writer, male or female, of the Generation of ’27. That’s why the oblivion to which she’s been condemned is doubly unfair.”