CERTAIN PASSAGES come sifting through the slats in this rambling and blowzy book that hold the ring of epic truth. The first is an outburst from the author's husband. He is seriously ill, they have just discovered, and will die a few pages beyond: "In my next marriage," he rages, "I'm going to marry a woman several years older than me--no more of this waiting for someone to grow up. GROW UP!"
You soon come to know what he means. Barbara Probst Solomon must be well into her fifties by now, but she's lodged in her early twenties like a stuck phonograph needle. She's parlayed not growing up into a growth industry, with branches on three continents and a head office in Madrid.
Until her clock stopped, she was a nice Jewish girl, fresh from the Dalton School in New York, studying in Paris at the Sorbonne. But in 1948 she and Paco, her Spanish lover, helped two political prisoners escape from a concentration camp outside Madrid--using Norman Mailer's car. (Many famous names have walk-on parts, you will find.) All else stems from that event; sooner or later all roads lead back to it.
Paco is later killed a Jeep in Iran. Barbara goes back to New York, marries an American lawyer, has two daughters, is widowed young, and finds solace with many lovers here and abroad. But that moment of high adventure in Spain, and the intensity of the relationships that ensued, has been the controlling metaphor of her life. It gave rise to Arriving Where We Started, her first volume of memoirs, and now Short Flights, which circles back over the ground, like an infinity of mirrors.
The book's vague time-frame connects it with events in Spain. It opens as Franco is about to die (with Solomon in New York), and closes with Spain's first free elections after he's gone (which Solomon is assigned to cover). Between these poles, the narrative wanders forward and backward in interlocking loops, as Solomon rummages through drawers and closets, handing you random memories as she goes along: snatches of old letters; extracts from her notes; conversations over lunch; the death of her father ("I'm giving my pieces to Mount Sinai," her mother announces. "It's all pledged, so they'll never bury me, I'll be just cut up and dumped in the eye bank."). Her concerns about Israel, socialism, and the fate of the Jews are interlarded with colloquies with her shrink. In no special order; just whatever's on top.
Brand names are big. She types on a Smith-Corona; listens to Judy Collins tapes; carries a Vuitton bag; serves Skippy peanut butter and Kraft strawberry jam to Clancy Sigal, the American novelist--before their tryst in a Chicago hotel room while her dying husband is off teaching law. (She decided on beige underwear, rather than black.) She serves strawberries in Lillet to Juan Goytisolo, the Spanish novelist, whom she shares with Ahmed, the Arab from Casablanca. ("In the presence of the two men, I become more alive, my skin takes tone, I feel I've become better-looking.") Juan has a wife somewhere, and Ahmed has two, but they stay out of sight as the central threesome rockets about from New York to Paris to Rotterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Casablanca, and Marrakech.
She covers distance, but gives you no sense of place. She volunteers at one point (en route to an interlude with Juan in Marrakech) that North Africa "has the familiar smell of a Mediterranean country suffering from a mysterious historic wound," and notes elsewhere that a Paris apartment "overlooks the Ile St.-Louis, Notre Dame's a--," but you wouldn't want her for your travel agent. You could survive the French accent tilted wrong and the Paris street names slightly off; but you'd never get to Amsterdam from the Gare de Lyon, as she and her two lovers claim to do. Those trains all leave from the Gare du Nord.
She travels as a journalist, but you wonder when she works. On one reporting trip to Madrid, she stayed at the Wellington and had a casual affair with a European journalist based in Spain. She felt "no urgency to file articles; I need to relocate my own center." For research, she mostly phones her old cronies, who call her "Barbarita," while they natter over meals.
When Franco finally dies, and she and her Spanish connections and the political exiles converge on Spain, her paralysis is complete. Heretofore her reporting has been a tool in the service of her Spanish friends, suppressing facts that could harm them, emphasizing what would help--a sort of Pasionaria with a notebook. Now, faced with turning in plain old copy like everyone else, she is lost.
And here another epic truth begins to emerge. Born too late to participate in the Main Event in Spain, "The Passionate War," as Peter Wyden calls it, yet yearning desperately for a role, she's allowed her Substitute Event (helping to free the two prisoners in 1948) to become so pivotal to her own existence that she begins to think that Spain itself pivots around it, too. "I needed to redefine myself," she writes, as she's supposed to be covering the exiles' return, but joins them as a friend instead. "I have been one of the few witnesses to a political period most Spaniards know little about. The beginning of the second wave of Resistance in the late forties."
So no one is allowed to forget what she did. Those who do get reminded. Sooner or later, her conversations and interviews are nudged around to it. One Spaniard at a party tries to claim that the event never took place, or "is of no importance--prehistory." But she zaps him with a fast left chop. "Oh, prehistory--that's a misuse of a Marxist term," she counters, and her triumph is complete. "He looks away, he understands I have realized he was a Fascist youth."
As the book ends, she is back in New York, but Spain is always just a short flight away. I suppose it's a measure of our neglect of that complex and ravaged land that Barbara Solomon should claim such a toehold on the turf.