Spanish Recognitions

'To be alone by choice is one of the great luxuries of the world.'

While I was staying alone by choice in L’Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine at le Barroux last week I read Mary Lee Settle’s book Spanish Recognitions from which the quote above is taken. Mary Lee Settle has never been a fashionable author, explaining: 'I don’t write about being vaguely unhappy in Connecticut'. Instead she produced epic works such as the five novel Beulah Quintet, and her wise and graceful travelogue Turkish Reflections.

Her latest book Spanish Recognitions continues the style of her highly acclaimed Turkish travel volume. The context is unlikely; an eighty-two year old American writer tackles southern Spain armed with a hire car and laptop. But this is most definitely not travel writing in the ‘look at the silly things I did on my travels’ style of Bill Bryson. This is great travel writing equal to the best of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. This is travel writing that uses fine prose. This is travel writing that is meticulously researched. It makes you think, and most importantly it makes you want to be there.

Mary Lee Settle’s own reasons for returning to Spain also sum up her philosophy of travel: 'So I yearned to go again, and learn, and be there, if even for a few days, as one who lived, ate, slept, made habits as structures for my stay, however short. I think that is the only way of beginning to know a place, instead of seeing from outside, like a perpetual stare through a window'.

Spain has a unique position in European history. Much of it was occupied by Muslims between the 8th and 10th centuries.
(The picture at the head of the post is the Alhambra in Granada which was built for Mohammed ibn Yusuf ben Nasr in the 13th century). After the Christian Reconquista was completed in the 15th century the Catholic church was not subject to the Reformation that changed the face of northern Europe. Mary Lee Settle’s linking of Spain’s Muslim past to our troubled present is the high point in what is consistently an outstanding book, and is the reason why the volume is subtitled The Roads to the Present.

My own words are inadequate here, instead let me quote the author again: 'No one in the new millennium should ignore what happened in Granada in 1492. Al-Andulas, Analucia, Spain – it was one of the first places mentioned as having been stolen from the Muslims in an early televised Osama Bin Laden (above)
tirade of bitterness and intent. Few in this country knew where it was or what he was talking about. He was using ancient hurts, ancient trials, ancient brutalities to fuel his own modern hatred.'

William Faulkner wrote: 'The past is not dead. It isn’t even past'. It just takes an author with the skill of Mary Lee Settle, and a book as fine as Spanish Recognitions to remind us of that.


I wrote this article in the sun-filled cloister of a Benedictine monastery in France. I didn’t have access to the news media. When I returned to England I learned that while I had been reading Spanish Recollections Mary Lee Settle (right) had died at the age of eighty-seven. Let us not mourn her passing. Instead let us celebrate her talent.

Photo credits:
Alhambra, Granada -
Photo Atlas
Osama Bin Laden - Biografias y Vidas
Mary Lee Settle - West Virginia Humanities Council

If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Musicians against nuclear weapons


Pliable said…
Mary Lee Settle wa a remarkable woman, and some more biographical information may help flesh out the picture.

One of her biggest achievements was the establishment of the Pen/Faulkner Award for literary fiction which is not judged by the usual panel of grandees, but rather by authors.

Mary Lee Settle was committed to encouraging other writers, and taught at Bard College in New York State (where I know there are regular readers of this blog), at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, and the University of Virginia.

Writing for Esquire she reported from Vietnam in the late 1960's. Her strong liberal democrat views (which drove the founding of the Pen/Faulkner Award) prompted her to leave the US in 1969 when Richard Nixon was elected president, and she subsequently lived in England and Turkey before returning to the US in 1974.

A life very well lived.
Garth Trinkl said…
Ancient Egypt, Ancient Rome, Islamic Iberia, Ancient America ... Jerusalem in 0 CE, Granada in 1492, Mexico City in 1521, Mohács in 1526, Waterloo in 1814 ... why is it that "popular" television and movies, and serious and semi-popular literature seem so much more educated about, and intellectually involved with, world history than today's "world of classical music" -- a world where composers and librettists once regularly addressed major topics of world history, admittedly often from a simplistic and unsatisfactory viewpoint? I also wonder how many of those in the "world of classical music" know who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature for the past two years?


pliable, while I had heard the quote you begin with, I never knew its author. Now I do. Nor had I ever been aware of the wider literary, historical, and travel interests of this founder of the Pen/Faulkner Award -- of which I am somewhat aware, it being administered from Washington, D.C. and whose events I have attended upon occasion.
Pliable said…
Garth, the quote comes from Nielsen's memoir My Childhood which I have in front of me as I write.

I cruelly abbreviated it for practical reasons, but this space gives me the luxury of quoting the whole passage.

The right of life is stronger than the most sublime art, and even if we reached agreement on the fact that now the best and most beautiful has been achieved, mankind thirsting more for life and adventure than perception, would rise and shout in one voice: Give us something new, indeed for Heaven’s sake give us rather the bad, and let us feel we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional.

Amen to that.
PeaceBang said…
Thanks for this post. I am travelling to Spain in January, 2006, and while I am getting a lot out of Ms. Settle's book, I have to say that I find it to be very poorly written. The first few chapters were such a mess of competing verb tenses and bad syntax I actually looked at the Acknowledgments to see if anyone had actually edited the thing!

That said, she certainly did do her research, and the book improves several chapters in. I love her chapter on Teresa of Avila, and the one on Zamora is a honey.
May she rest in peace.

Recent popular posts

Can streamed music ever be beautiful?

All aboard the Martinu bandwagon

Great music has no independent existence

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Programme note for orchestra touring China

Mahler that dares to be different

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Who are the real classical role models?

He was not an online kind of person

Will this attract young audiences? - discuss