Aaron Shulman’s new book, The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War, describes for American audiences a cult documentary film that is basically for Spain what Grey Gardens, or maybe Capturing the Friedmans, is for us. El desencanto (1976) features the Panero family—the three grown sons and the widow of its patriarch, Leonardo Panero. Panero had been a well-known poet who’d devoted himself, and poetry, to fascism during the Spanish Civil War. The documentary subsequently made about his surviving family members—the sons were poets themselves—has enchanted and obsessed viewers, perhaps for what it describes about a dysfunctional family and country. More, the Paneros led an epic life which touched many others. To write their biography is to describe and connect many things—Franco, Octavio Paz, Gilles Deleuze, Emma Bovary, Garcia Lorca. This is what my friend Aaron tasked himself with. The book reads as so many squiggling lines of startling connections, a grave revisiting of the horrors of the Civil War, and as genuine wonder and appreciation for a singular family. The way the Paneros moved, changed, decayed, and ended is astonishing.
Caren Beilin: The exquisite Mexican writer Sergio Pitol wrote (in his last book), “Sometimes I imagine I am near the Threshold, that mythical garden where I’ll discover that everything is in all things.” For you, you found a key to that garden—maybe a path [or what is that Spanish word you told me once, for a super-curvy alley in Córdoba?]—with the Paneros. A writer must always be looking for that curved alley into Everything. So maybe you could tell me why the Paneros, for you?
Aaron Shulman: You’re right, the Paneros were a life-changing “Threshold” for me. I suppose they were the perfect way for me to callejear—to meander, and I always think of this verb as describing the feeling of navigating a tangle of narrow alleys, like those in old Jewish Quarter of Córdoba—into that garden, where so many of my interests and experiences converged: Spain, its history, and the Spanish language; the interplay between writing and politics, and art and social justice. Also, when I first saw El Desencanto, the documentary about the Panero family, I was infatuated with Roberto Bolaño and they seemed ripped from his imagination (though I would discover that in fact they had inspired his fiction; one of the sons, Leopoldo María, in particular). But maybe what drew me the most to them was their insistence on living literarily, as if literature were an instruction manual for life rather than a dramatized reflection of it.
Although it’s a bit cringe-y to recall this now, when I was in high school, a bored privileged kid in a Midwest suburb in search of meaning, I fell in love with Kerouac’s On the Road and used it briefly (and tritely, like many before me) as user’s manual for life: road trips, epic nights, and writing these experiences down. The Paneros did something similar, but much more extremely. The space between works of art and their creators is a breeding ground for myths, and they wanted to live in that space. When I encountered the Paneros, I was 30, with a decade of hard work as a writer behind me but little to show for it beyond two half-finished novels I had abandoned and a newly finished one that would also be a failure. So I was trying to figure out what a literary life was for me, and the family gave me lots to think about.
The matriarch, Felicidad Blanc, fashioned herself out of Emma Bovary, and Natasha Rostov, too, from War and Peace—the trapped dreamers. But I wonder if, as Felicidad valorized Emma Bovary, she even caught Flaubert’s irony… The Paneros exhibit such an intense sincerity around literature, and conceptions of their own legacy. It makes them (at least partially) comedic. I think now that sincerity must be, at least at certain times in one’s life, a very self-preserving thing—like with you and On the Road. (And with me and On the Road—I remember my grave high school cathexis to Sal.) But at some point, and I think of it as a moment of growth and maturity, one moves into irony—glimpses a larger machine, and the small smooth function of its sincerest cogs. On the Road, a young-white-men-can-do-anything-go-anywhere-learn-about-anything machine? What would Flaubert do to Sal?? Would he be as brutal as he is with Emma? You speak about your failure as a novelist, I wonder if this is the final failure of your sincerity? Has nonfiction been your entry into irony?
Yes, the earnestness of the Paneros in how they relate to literature—and in many cases even their reading of it, as you point out with Felicidad—oscillates between comedy and tragedy, courage and foolishness. It’s audacious and appalling. Or maybe it’s not oscillation—they simultaneously are hilarious and calamitous, brave and ridiculous, bold and pathetic. I think this accounts for the fact that, during the research and writing of the book, I was frequently both filled with joy at their antics, but also depressed by where their behaviors took them. I relate to the desire to make life as grand and interesting as literature. Who doesn’t want to visit Alexandria, Egypt, like the Paneros did, and believe you are entering Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, instead of admitting that you are simply a tourist visiting a foreign country? Who doesn’t want to imagine that your family’s ancestral home is a version of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Contini, as some of the Paneros did about the family’s gated home in the town of Astorga. Most of us make poetry from life, but the Paneros insisted on making life from poetry. And the dark underside is that a literarily inflected suicide attempt (inspired by Cesare Pavese) is still a suicide attempt. Mimetic alcoholic drinking inspired by one’s literary heroes is still alcoholic drinking. They confused the raw material with the artifice it lends itself to, to an entertaining yet self-destructive degree. But I think you’re right, they needed it to help them get through life. They succeeded at bending space and time with their earnestness. For example, through a cocktail of insanity, brilliance, and intention, Leopoldo María Panero, the middle son, crafted himself as a poet into a maudit legend, as famous for his poetry as for his myth, or arguably his myth eventually even consumed his poetry. And the family itself did something similar with their performance in El Desencanto, turning themselves from mere people into symbols. The Paneros got what they wanted: They became literature, in a sense. And here I am with this book about them—one of many.
As for the lack of irony, it’s interesting to note that Michi Panero, the youngest son, who was a celebrated ironist both in his conversation and the columns he wrote as a TV critic, and who constantly complained about his family’s literary obsessions…even his irony succumbed to what I’ll call an earnest literary consciousness. As a young man he considered himself an “elegant loser,” a kind of romantic drop-out at life because he was too cool for pursuing a stable existence, but by the end of his life he was a literal loser. He didn’t know how to work, alienated friends, and drank health away. This loss of irony has a whiff of tragedy to it, I think, which maybe brings us back to your question about my arc as a writer, since you suggested the opposite, that I perhaps gained irony with time. I’m not sure. My failure as a novelist is owed to a lot of things, but I think you’re right. I was too sincere to be able to step back and have the distance to see how certain things worked: my skills (or lack) inside the conventional realist system of fiction, my lack of understanding of the systems for how to convert personal obsessions into narrative, as I tried to do with my novel. I’m grateful to the Paneros for giving me the story it feels as if I was somehow meant to tell. I would love to read a Flaubert-esque telling of the first decade of my writing life, in which great naïveté and blind, youthful self-confidence led to a despair which was actually pure, beautiful privilege. I spent years inside my head, playing with language, inventing stories and characters, and I didn’t get money or recognition from it—Oh, poor me! In reality, what a luxury that I got to do that, even if it didn’t pan out how I wanted. But I think in some way it prepared me to write about the Paneros with the right balance of irony and earnestness.
I’m glad for this recasting—not my harsh “final failure” of your sincerity, but your balance of irony and earnestness, and that is how I see you. And I’ll say that I was overcome with earnest appreciation of the Paneros as I read your book, or more particularly, I enjoyed Leopoldo Panero’s poetry—”To lose you would be like crushing a nightingale in my hands.” This poet, the patriarch of the family, becomes a poet in service of fascism. Perhaps in order to survive, he becomes incredibly sincere in this change of politic. Let’s callejear over there—the Spanish Civil War was dreadful. You retell it pungently. I wonder how traversing for so long in such a darkness forced you to reflect on what’s going on now? Reading your book, I started to think we were doing pretty good…
Leopoldo Panero wrote some very good poetry, but yep, he also allowed himself, quite enthusiastically, to be instrumentalized by the Franco regime, which of course came into being thanks to the Spanish Civil War, “the great flood of Spanish pain,” as Panero himself put it. As for our current moment, I would say that, at the risk of sounding swaddled in privilege (I don’t have friends or family in detention centers, being persecuted by the authorities, and I’m financially okay), studying the Spanish Civil War has made me relatively upbeat. Things are bad right now, especially in terms of rising authoritarianism and xenophobia and racism and polarization, not just in the US but globally, but here we’re still quite a ways away from the conditions that produced the Spanish Civil War and its massive bloodshed and trauma, followed by thirty-six years of dictatorship. Many historians agree that one of the main reasons the war in Spain occurred was because a significant portion of the public and leaders, on both the left and right, stopped believing in democracy and its institutions. While we see many undemocratic behaviors coming out of the White House and elsewhere that constitute threats to our institutions, I think that on the whole both our political class and the citizenry strongly believe in democracy. The importance of this can’t be overstated.
I sincerely enjoyed Leopoldo’s poetry and I re-fell in love with Lorca. For me there was a shared spirit in their poetry, the strike and passion of the noun. All the sadder because they divide utterly. You begin the book with Lorca, and his merciless assassination, and then Panero, this alternate poet of that time—a poet not murdered but brutally imprisoned and threatened and really terrified, and then making that switch in cause, orientation. Poetry was such politics in Spain—but also, the story of the Paneros becomes just conventional, familial, like the story of any alcoholic and his bitter, alchoholizing sons.
The history of poetry in Spain, or really in the Spanish language, is shot through with so much life-and-death drama. From the rivalry between Quevedo (who was imprisoned in the San Marcos Convent three centuries before Leopoldo Panero) and Góngora to the political, poetic, and personal battle between Leopoldo Panero and Pablo Neruda, which I write about, poetry hasn’t been merely poetry—it has been war and peace, betrayal and loyalty, victory and defeat, love and hate. That’s hard to imagine now, not just because of how culture and technology have changed, but also because of how warfare and political activism and dissent have changed. What best captures Spain’s high-stakes love affair with poetry for me, I think, is picturing Miguel Hernández reading poems to Republican troops during the civil war—while his voice was simultaneously being broadcast on the radio and his verses were being circulated in newspapers and booklets—and then racing out into battle with them. Gabriela Celaya wrote the famous line, “Poetry is a weapon loaded with the future,” and as we all know, words more broadly do indeed shape politics and history. And, of course, Lorca’s assassination is often invoked to remind us how powerful words are, that they can be so threatening that people will kill you to stop you from writing or speaking. (That said, the circumstances around Lorca’s death have arguably been simplified at times for political or symbolic ends; at least one Spanish historian makes a case for his assassination being more a result of local intrigues and long-time rivalries in Granada than as the embodiment of fascism versus democracy.) While it’s hard to picture a present-day warrior-soldier like Miguel Hernández, what hasn’t changed is the power with which a poetic or narrative overlay infuses events. This is one of the main themes of my book. Like you said, in a certain sense the Paneros are just a banal dysfunctional family. But by way of the white-hot, myth-making smithy of words, they became literature.
I have been wanting to ask you about research because the bibliography at the back of this book is like its own novella! You travelled, you visited a lot of cool archives, and met with amazing people—but the Paneros are gone. I’m working on a project now that involves a lot of solicitation of people way outside of my ken and this process has a lot of highs and lows. I want to make contact with all kinds of people, but not everybody’s just, there. People are in their lives, it feels like a miracle when the energy matches and someone feels impelled enough to be generous, to be storytelling to you and kind and, you know, respond to emails. When that happens, everything feels possible again. Sergio Pitol begins the book I mentioned earlier—you’d love him, do you know this great Mexican writer?—with an epigraph from E. M. Forster: “Only connect…”
Can you say who you connected with that simply blew your mind, who you got to talk to for this book?
Writing an interview-intense book makes for a challenging, but really special experience. Most people were astoundingly open when I reached out to them, usually by email. My wife Elisa thought this had something to do with me being American—people’s curiosity about my curiosity, or maybe some weird cachet an American writer might have (even though Spaniards love shitting on the US) that earned me an opening of some sort. There’s also a long tradition of Anglophone writers and historians coming to Spain and producing respected books, and this may have helped me more than I realized. One person actually told me he had decided to speak to me because of how much he respected Ian Gibson, Lorca’s biographer. Also, a lot of people cared about the Paneros, or cared about giving their perspective on the Paneros, and that was why they were willing to speak to me. All in all, I had very good luck “only connecting,” in part because people I had good rapport with people who connected me to other people, or people I sought out for their expertise or wrote chasing a chancy lead were just really generous.
For example, a local historian from a town in northern Spain named Ernesto Burgos helped me track down the daughter of a woman who had a brief romance with Leopoldo Panero when he was a soldier stationed in her town during the Spanish Civil War. She had memories of her mother’s memories. That was really exciting, a kind of miracle, like you say, but like you also point out, people are busy in their lives, and after a few emails back and forth, this woman told me she didn’t have any more time to correspond. But people really were just so open and giving. (Michi Panero’s teenage love only wanted to communicate over email, and I had this weird moment of wondering if she was psychic because she anticipated questions before I asked them, though maybe it was predictable that I wanted to confirm his claims that they had engaged in group sex together.) I spoke to Javier Marías on the phone, which was cool, since I love his work. He was best friends with Michi Panero when they were young. I also emailed back and forth with Enrique Vila-Matas, which led to me having some experiences that felt like I was inside an Enrique-Vila Matas novel. I interviewed Leopoldo Panero’s niece, who is in her nineties, and it was incredible hearing her memories of her family and the civil war. Getting to know Jaime Chávarri, the director of El Desencanto,was also very special, since he made my favorite film, and one that led to such a meaningful, life-changing project. Now he’s a good friend who Elisa and I see him every time we’re in Madrid. Of course, there were people who refused to speak with me, no matter how much I delicately bugged. But those disappointments were counterbalanced by surprises, like an American man who contacted me out of the blue because he had lived with the Paneros as a study abroad student in the early 1970s. He had vivid memories.
And you’re going on tour soon to a bunch of U.S. cities? You are releasing this film for the first time for American/English speaking audiences? You write about one early outstanding moment in the film (definitely my favorite), a conversation between brothers—”When he said Leopoldo’s name for the first time, Juan Luis made what is surely one of the strangest facial expressions ever captured on film. It occurred in four seamless stages: a sideways slide of the eyes, raised eyebrows below a laddering of forehead wrinkles, a pained grimace, and a labored inhalation.” Between this scene and just, watching the amount of alcohol swirled, beheld and consumed… Does Chávarri have a favorite moment after all these years? What about you?
This spring and summer the film will be screening at Film Forum in New York (the big premiere, if you will, on April 13th), at the Spanish embassy in DC, the Roxy Theater in Philly, Zoetropolis in Lancaster (PA), the Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, Ohio), MOCA Jacksonville (FL), the Santa Barbara Central Library, and several other places around the country. It’s all super exciting. I feel so lucky to be doing this.
Jaime has an interesting relationship with El Desencanto. In part, I think it’s because he can’t separate the final film from the making of the film, which was a very difficult process for him because of how intense the Paneros were. Now he makes light of the experience, but in a short essay he wrote the year El Desencanto came out, he describes crying in his hotel room at night, vomiting from self-doubt, and drinking heavily. It’s not like any other film that he made and it’s not the type of film he dreamed of making when he did so as a young man—he never aimed to be a documentarian and that wasn’t his career arc even after the success of El Desencanto—yet it’s had a bigger cultural impact and longer-lasting appeal than any of his other many films. It’s odd for him that, more than forty years after making this film that was initially intended to be just a twenty-minute short and grew into something else, he’s still celebrated and interviewed for being the director of El Desencanto. On the one hand, he is amazed and pleased that he managed to produce a timeless work of art. On the other, it’s like, Hey, I did a lot of other stuff too. He’ll never be free of it or the Paneros, though he gave me one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received about my writing after reading my Believer piece about the film. He told me that after forty-plus years he feels like he finally was able to see El Desencanto and appreciate it as an artifact on its own, as if entirely separate from him and his life, and that it was a very liberating experience.
My favorite moment…that’s so hard. Probably the moment of Juan Luis’ incredible facial expression that you mentioned, but really there are so many moments that are burned into my mind: the whole argument between Juan Luis and Michi out in the garden, Felicidad in the sitting room of the Astorga mansion reciting the first love poem Leopoldo wrote for her in 1940 as sunlight streams in the window around her; Juan Luis enumerating his “fetishes”; Leopoldo María with his gurgly-froggy voice humorously telling the story of trying to hang himself in prison with the lining of his coat only to take a “phenomenal fall”; all of Leopoldo María’s blazing pronouncements, such as “School teaches us to forget childhood,” and “In childhood we thrive and after that we survive”; the confrontation between Leopoldo María and Felicidad in the Liceo Italiano; and of course the image of the statue of Leopoldo Panero, silent and powerless as his wife and children rewrite the family history.
Caren Beilin is the author of a novel, The University of Pennsylvania (Noemi Press, 2014), a memoir, Spain (Rescue Press, 2018), and a forthcoming nonfiction book (and podcast) on women’s health, Blackfishing the IUD (Wolfman Books, 2019). She teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and lives in North Adams, MA.