Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Mallorca And The War: Gertrude Stein

Mallorca was, on the face of it, immune to great and terrible events elsewhere. Beneath the surface, despite the island's remoteness, it was not immune to the tensions that existed in Spain when the Great War broke out. Many have been the debates as to why Spain opted to be and remained neutral during World War I. Spain had little to gain (and much to lose) by entering the war on either side.
Heaven knows how the course of an in-any-event troubled Spanish history at the time would have been changed by war.

Mallorca's remoteness nevertheless offered a refuge from the troubles on the Spanish mainland. This, combined with its landscapes and climate and the promotional efforts of many artists, was what helped to attract foreigners seeking an escape from war. There were some foreign residents and visitors, who primarily lived and stayed in El Terreno in Palma at the start of the war, and there were others who had been to Mallorca previously and who chose to come back.

Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas were two such visitors. Stein had been in Mallorca before the war. She and Toklas were in England when war was declared. By October, strangely enough perhaps, they were preparing to return to their home in Paris. "It was not a very cheerful winter," Toklas didn't write. Stein wrote these words. "The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas", which was Stein's work, gives an account of their decision to go to Mallorca. "At last the spring came and we were ready to go away for a bit." "We decided we would go to Palma too and forget the war a little." The use of "too" was a reference to the fact that their friend, the American painter William Cook, had also decided to return to Mallorca.

The story of their stay in Palma isn't that long but it gives a flavour of how the war was perceived in Mallorca. But before they arrived in Palma, Stein and Toklas went to Barcelona. Stein makes a striking and poignant observation: "It was extraordinary to see so many men on the streets. I did not imagine there could be so many men left in the world".

Of the foreign residents at that time, Stein says that, in addition to several French families, "in those days Cook and ourselves were the only Americans to inhabit the island. There were a few English, about three families there". "Life in Palma was pleasant" and so they decided to spend the whole summer and to then extend their stay to the following spring. They had a house in Calle Dos de Mayo in El Terreno. As to Mallorcans' impressions of the war, feelings "were very mixed".

Stein gives an explanation of the locals' fascination with how much the war was going to cost. "They could discuss by the hour how much it cost a year, a month, a week, a day, an hour and even a minute." (A Mallorcan obsession with money and with what everything costs is not, one might suggest, anything new.) Stein observes that the subject of the cost was made even more fascinating by the fact that even men from the better middle classes "read, wrote and ciphered with difficulty", while the "women not at all". She tells of a German governess at a neighbour's house who would hang out a German flag when there was news of a German victory. She also reports that the "lower classes were strong for the Allies". A waiter looked forward to Spain entering the war on the Allies' side.

This pleasant life in Palma started to turn sour when the attack on Verdun began in February 1916. "We were all desperately unhappy." It is at this point in the story of their stay in Palma that events took an odd turn. Stein relates that there was a German ship called the Fangturm in the port. It had seemingly been a merchant ship as it sold pins and needles to Mediterranean ports. When war started, it had been unable to leave. It was rusting, but when the Verdun offensive started, "they began painting the Fangturm" (they, presumably, were German sailors who hadn't got away to Barcelona). One whole side of the ship was painted but then the painting stopped. Verdun, it seemed, was not going to be taken.

It's hard to know what Stein and others were worried about. It is also hard to understand why "when it was all over, none of us wanted to stay in Mallorca any longer". (Verdun was far from over.) Anyway, Stein and Toklas left some time in the spring of 1916 and went back to a Paris where "everybody was cheerful" and they joined the American Fund for the French Wounded. Back in Mallorca, they were still counting the cost of war, while there was a half-painted German ship in Palma's port.

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