Hotel Florida: truth, love and death in the Spanish Civil war, Amanda Vaill

Summary as written on the site of a well known online retailer

Madrid, 1936. In a city blasted by a civil war that many fear will cross borders and engulf Europe―a conflict one writer will call « the decisive thing of the century »―six people meet and find their lives changed forever. Ernest Hemingway, his career stalled, his marriage sour, hopes that this war will give him fresh material and new romance; Martha Gellhorn, an ambitious novice journalist hungry for love and experience, thinks she will find both with Hemingway in Spain. Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, idealistic young photographers based in Paris, want to capture history in the making and are inventing modern photojournalism in the process. And Arturo Barea, chief of the Spanish government’s foreign press office, and Ilsa Kulcsar, his Austrian deputy, are struggling to balance truth-telling with loyalty to their sometimes compromised cause―a struggle that places both of them in peril.

Beginning with the cloak-and-dagger plot that precipitated the first gunshots of the war and moving forward month by month to the end of the conflict. Hotel Florida traces the tangled and disparate wartime destinies of these three couples against the backdrop of a critical moment in history: a moment that called forth both the best and the worst of those caught up in it. In this noir landscape of spies, soldiers, revolutionaries, and artists, the shadow line between truth and falsehood sometimes became faint indeed―your friend could be your enemy and honesty could get you (or someone else) killed.

Years later, Hemingway would say, « It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is very dangerous to come by. » In Hotel Florida, from the raw material of unpublished letters and diaries, official documents, and recovered reels of film, the celebrated biographer Amanda Vaill has created a narrative of love and reinvention that is, finally, a story about truth: finding it, telling it, and living it―whatever the cost.

Summary if I had written it

The story of 3 couples caught in the Spanish Civil War and of how the consequences of the war on their lives and loves.

Isa Kulcsar the austrian communist sympathiser and Arturo Barea the Spanish businessman who wants to help the Republic, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, and of course Gerda Taro and Robert Capa.

It is a story of love, but also of death, of the relation to war, and how to tell the truth of a war, if such a thing exist.

The three couples are very different, with Kulcsar and Barea the most sympathic, and Hemingway the most unpleasant in my view. Taro and Capa are a bit more complicated to understood. Theirs seem to be a reverse Pygmalion relationship. She created him, but he’s the one who fell madly in love. And of course, their love story is the most tragic of the three told.

Review

I found the book very well written. It’s not a novel, but a novelized account of the lives of the 6 main protagonists. Sometimes I was a bit wary of the statement of the book (e.g. when the author says that Capa paid for the Giacometti sculpture on Taro’s grave) but the notes after each big chapter corroborate them (in that case, he said so in a letter to his mother), so no worry here.

Not all character are as likable. I found Hemingway frankly disgusting. A man more interested in his own glory than in the world around him. Taro as usual is hard to understand because she left so little writing about her thoughts and her feelings (most biographers now agree that Capa and her had made up after the hiatus of the Spring 1937. Whether he had again asked her to marry him, what she had said, only them know and they didn’t say anything to anyone). That she loved Capa a lot is not in doubt, that she was torn between her feelings and her ambition to establish herself as a war photographer in her own right is also very clear. It’s not easy being recognized as a war photographer when your lover is « the greatest war photographer of all time ». The striking thing about the Capa/Taro couple is how young they were, and in a way how naive. Capa was barely 23 in 1936 and it’s heartbreaking to think he would see (and document) so much suffering in such a mature way, and also suffer so much himself.

Kulcsar/Barea was for me the most interesting story as it’s the one I knew almost nothing about. I really enjoyed reading about them.

The book also opens very cleverly a discussion on intellectuals and the war. Kulscar and Barea are deeply involved because they care about the Spanish people (also because Barea is Spanish). Taro and Capa first get involved because it’s a story of a fight against fascism, and as Taro grows as a photographer, her photos take a more militant turn (although the photos of the Valencia morgue are shocking, I can’t help thinking they look like shots that can be used for propaganda purpose). Capa on the other hand, slowly becomes more involved with the people and less with the politics. He too really becomes a photographer in Spain, but his photos are growingly apolitical. You feel that he cares about civilian casualties more than he cares about the politics behind. As for Hemingway (Gellhorn seems to be mid-way between Taro and Capa on that point), he appears at the typical intellectual who uses a cause to serve his profile. He cares about the war, but he’s ready to swallow any propaganda if it gives him public exposure. He reminds me of BHL (a French intellectual), although he is a far better writer.

All in all, I think the book gives a very good account of the Spanish Civil War, undeniably a more readable one than Beevor’s account.

Warmly recommended.

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