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Arturo Serrano-Plaja


You know how it is: some years down the road you can look back at college or grad school and easily pick out what you really learned--the things that proved to be of lasting value to you. And I've been thinking, recently, how grateful I've been for the immense amount of useful information and background I came away with from my grad school experience, though truth to tell, most of it didn't come from the classes I took. Rather, it came from the generous, unassuming man whose picture you see at left, and the amazing, first-hand knowledge he so freely shared.

I first met Professor Serrano-Plaja when I signed up for a class on Spanish surrealist poetry of the famous Generation of 1927. The class contained mainly Spaniards and South Americans, sharp students all, and yet for the life of us we could never quite discover the key to a given poem on our own. Serrano, on the other hand, made it seem easy. He would go over a poem, explain it, and then would often drift into reminiscence, noting what had been going on in the writer's life at the time he'd written the particular poem we were studying (maybe he'd just broken up with his lover, or his father had died.) He could tell us these things because he'd hung out with all these writers.

His sharing was never bragging; in fact, once he'd caught himself, he'd smile in his typically self-effacing way and apologize for 'boring us with his personal reminiscences'. My own internal response was always, "Please, bore us some more!" because this was a man who had known Unamuno and Alberti, Guillen, Antonio Machado, Garcia Lorca and all the rest. He was original source material at its best and we, the students in the class, lived for the moments when he would digress and fill us with living history.

A year later I was taking a class on 20th century Spain from a professor who abhorred the idea of tests. Instead, he required one paper from each student at the close of the term--anything at all to do with the class's subject matter. Since I'd lived a year in Madrid, a tickle in the back of my head drove me to choose the topic of life in Madrid during the Civil War (1936-39.) The problem was that there were really no books on such a potentially mundane topic. I did manage to enlist the cooperation of an office mate of mine, a fellow grad student who allowed me to interview his older sister, who had been a teenager in Madrid at the time. It was fascinating stuff, but aside from that I seemed to come up dry in terms of material. Hoping for help, I went to visit my assigned advisor. He immediately suggested that I go talk to Serrano-Plaja, who was a good friend of his. "He was there," he said. Yes, I thought, he'd been there; he'd been captured and held prisoner in the jail below the city hall, and tortured. I could hardly ask him to tell me about something so painfully personal. "Tell him I sent you," Martinez-Lopez said, and ushered me out the office door.

So I found myself, some minutes later, knocking on the door to Serrano-Plaja's office. When he came to answer it, I explained that I was looking for information for a paper and--chicken that I am--inquired if he knew of any books on the subject (though I'd already been to the library and had found nothing.) He paused a moment, thinking, finally looked up, shrugged and said, "Well, I was there. Ask me anything."

And with that the magic door was opened. In contrast to those professors who set office hours for 5 p.m. on Friday afternoons, or who would frown deeply if you came in asking a question that didn't directly pertain to the lecture they'd given the hour before, Serrano welcomed whatever questions occurred to me about the war and about life in Madrid at the time. Sometimes we would talk for several hours. He told me about holding a position in the culture ministry, about the mix-ups of government in chaotic times, about communists and Russian support of the Republic. He told me about meeting George Orwell, and described how when he'd first met Hemingway, Hemingway had moved into the vacated first floor apartment of the Hotel Florida far out on the Gran Via, a trendy and prestigious Madrid avenue the west end of which was close to the incoming shelling from Franco's advancing troops. As the location got riskier and more residents left, Hemingway would move up a floor, and move up another, until finally he was living in the penthouse, the building's only resident. (Later, rereading For Whom the Bell Tolls, I had to smile at protagonist Robert Jordan's dream of taking Maria away with him to stay at the Hotel Florida when his mission was over, knowing the origin of that desire.)

We talked about the barbarity of war, and what it does to normal human beings (he recalled women in Madrid lifting their skirts to urinate on the dead bodies of enemy soldiers being dragged through the streets.) He talked about the effect the murder of Federico Garcia Lorca by Franco's troops had had on the Spanish literary community. He fumed over the barbarity of the building of Franco's hated monument to the war afterward (Valle de los Caídos), where thousands of Republican prisoners died during bitter cold winters working on the project. He told me about leaving Spain for France after the war, like most of the literati, and settling in Paris. He shared how he'd seen Picasso go out into the streets of Paris early in the morning with a sketch pad to capture the spontaneous sidewalk drawings of children, and how he'd taught his good friend, the French writer Andre Malraux, Spanish in return for English lessons from Malraux. Which explained, I suppose, why Serrano spoke English with a French accent.

Later, at a time when I needed a committed advisor for my Master's project (heretic that I was, I'd settled on a path outside the traditionally accepted ones of literature or linguistics and nobody else was interested), Serrano welcomed me with, "Well, I don't know how I can help you... but count on me!" I remember telling him when I'd found out I was pregnant with Annie, and insisting that I wanted to go forward with my academic work, to model for my daughter something more than 'mom as housekeeper'. (I laughed years later, looking back, because I went on to spend many years at home raising kids, seeing a value in it that I never would have imagined earlier.) I remember him telling me about his background (all his ancestors coming from the town of El Escorial, outside Madrid) and how amazed he always seemed at the idea that mine had come from England and Scotland and Norway and the Netherlands.

The last time I visited Serrano and his Russian wife at their home in the hills above Santa Barbara was in 1977; I remember Annie was a little over a year old at the time and I took her along with me. He passed away several years later, but over the years I've thought back time and time again to the things he shared with me or that we'd discussed. In an academic environment where most professors were much more interested in their research than in students whose interest might diverge ever so slightly from their own chosen fields of specialization, Serrano welcomed me as simply another person with an interest we could discuss together, and I benefited more than I can say from the richness of our exchanges.

Recently I began thinking of Serrano again. Googling his name, I started looking at some of the books he'd written, but those offered online were almost all very expensive (one I saw was selling at $70, another at $250.) Then I discovered a novel he'd written late in life at the bargain price of about $15, so I ordered it. It turned out to be a copy in which he'd written a personal inscription for someone, and I immediately recognized the familiar handwriting. Beginning to read through the book has been like a reunion of sorts, seeing his characteristic phrasing and subtle humor again. I can just imagine him smiling as he tells the tale.

All this could have been different, of course. Most Spanish men with any claim to fame or prestige tend to flaunt it. There was no reason this man, an amazing repository of living history, should feel the need to open himself to a lowly grad student who happened to have questions and interests outside the scope of standard course work. But pretentiousness wasn't his style. He was an unassuming man, a warm human being, a lively intellectual and a valuable, enthusiastic instructor. And really, how often do you come across someone like that who greets you with, "I'm not sure how I can help you... but count on me!"

I count myself very lucky to have known him.


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