The first comprehensive biography of Jorge Semprún (1923-2011), whose sprawling life includes exile during the Spanish Civil War, working for the French Resistance in World War II and being nominated for Academy Awards, is receiving a lot of attention in Spain since its May release there. Written by Soledad Fox, professor of Romance languages, and published by Penguin Random House Spain, it’s being hailed as the definitive biography of Semprún, and a mirror of the history of 20th-century Europe.
In the book, Fox follows Semprún’s incredible journey, from his childhood in a well-to-do family in Madrid to his deportation to the Nazi camp Buchenwald. She traces his political career from his work as a clandestine Communist agent in the 1950s and 1960s to his break with the party and his later role as minister of culture in the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez. She also discusses his major books, including the award-winning Long Voyage and Literature or Life and screenplays (which were nominated for two Oscars) and explores the area between his creative retellings of his life and his actual experiences.
Fox spent five years researching and writing the book. Using archival sources from several countries, she also interviewed more than 50 family members, friends, politicians, and intellectuals from different backgrounds to give Semprún the kind of in-depth biography Fox says he deserves.
“Biography has often been considered a cursed genre,” she says. “Some people still think it is taboo to bring emotions, or the personal, into serious academic work. I think that people’s private lives—seen through diaries, letters, photographs, and other sources—shed a great deal of light on history. I like to start with the particular and the personal, and see the context through that lens. Though her work is very different, I think that Svetlana Alexeievich has a beautiful way of putting this: “I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, one individual. It’s where everything really happens.”
Semprún was exiled from Spain at age 13 during the Spanish Civil war, and with his anti-Franco family he wandered through Southern France, Switzerland, and Holland, and eventually moved to Paris to study. After the Nazis occupied France, he was recruited to join the French Resistance. He was trained in covert sabotage operations, blowing up train tracks, and given a false identity, but just a few months into his work he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. He remained there for 16 months until the Americans liberated the camp.
“He had a very European life, but I consider this a truly international book, and a Spanish-French-American hybrid in every sense,” Fox says. “This book has its roots in my teaching at Williams. I have taught his books in my comparative literature and Jewish studies course on exile, directed a comparative literature honors thesis about him, and wrote about his work for a semester-long Oakley Center discussion seminar.”
Fox says in these contexts, thanks to students and colleagues, she began to question many of her assumptions about his work and his life.
She wanted to give the “big picture” of his life, which was a challenge, because he was constantly reinventing himself. She describes the “master copy” of the manuscript a linguistic mess: her text was in English, but the quotes were mainly in French, Spanish, with some in Russian and German thrown in for good measure. She relied on excellent translators for the latter two languages, which she doesn’t speak. Some of her research materials came from important Holocaust collections in the U.S., and she consulted with local experts, including the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. She also paid a visit to Semprún’s former sister-in-law, who lives in a tiny town in New Hampshire. She shared dozens of photographs with Fox, and confided that in her attic she had an old double bottom suitcase that Semprún and his brother used to smuggle anti-Franco pamphlets from France to Spain.
The book launch in Madrid was hosted by Felipe Gonzalez, who was president of Spain for 14 years. It will also be presented at Casa-Sefarad Israel in Madrid, and in the Fall Fox will give a talk for Clark members about Semprún and the Prado Museum. The book will be published in France in October. English and German language editions are expected to follow in 2017. For Spanish speakers, the book is available now on Amazon in hardcover and for Kindle.