As the title of Fox Maura’s book — Exile, Writer, Soldier, Spy — suggests, Semprún had a wildly eventful life. After the outbreak of the Civil War sent him and his family into exile in France, he joined the French Resistance, only to end up in Buchenwald. He survived, which led to a stint as a communist secret agent, followed by a career in France as a writer, public intellectual, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter. While he is largely unknown in the United States — his best-known work is Literature or Life, published here in 1997 — he led one of the more interesting lives of the 20th century, and he has an oeuvre to match. As Fox Maura shows, just as Semprún’s books on Buchenwald and the Spanish Communist Party are neither fully factual nor primarily fictions, neither was the author fully Spanish, French, or anything else. He was a nowhere man who managed to be everywhere. Fox Maura’s impeccable biography expertly dissects the complex nuances of Semprún’s work and experiences, doing justice to a singular life.
AARON SHULMAN: As I understand it, you’re distantly related to Jorge Semprún. Can you explain that relationship and tell us why you wanted to write about him? Were there any creative challenges as a result of the familial connection?
SOLEDAD FOX MAURA: It’s definitely a name that has been a part of my life since childhood. I knew that he was a writer and connected to the film world, that he was a cousin of my mother’s, and that he was considered a revolutionary and intellectual hero by many of her generation who grew up under Franco. But I didn’t meet him until 2001. He was raised and lived in exile in France. I was raised between the United States and Madrid. So the family connection was more of an idea than a shared reality. I have to say that it wasn’t until I was in college at Sarah Lawrence, and then in graduate school studying comparative literature in New York City and later in Paris, that I realized what a major figure he was.
A few people had suggested that I start working on a biography of him while he was still alive, but I never came round to the idea of collaborating with a living subject who had himself already written so many versions of his own life. Soon after he died in 2011, Penguin Random House approached me to do it, and I agreed to the project right away. I knew that the research would be challenging because he had a long and complex life and was a professional dissembler. But I didn’t feel any ambivalence about the distant family connection; in fact, the shared family roots allowed me to understand the kind of world he had been raised in and how devastating the loss of that world was because of the Civil War.
Semprún has a kind of European Forrest Gump quality in that he was buffeted by the forces of history, though he also seemed to pursue those forces. Do you think writing and political resistance were a way for him to control a life he in fact had little control over?
He was a Spanish exile, a French Resistance fighter, a Nazi camp survivor, an anti-Franco underground agent, a novelist and screenwriter and committed Europeanist — what more could a biographer ask for?
I think that Semprún’s life and work were as shaped by the forces of history as they were by his own vision of himself and his literary fame. Entire generations were deeply affected and often destroyed by Europe’s violent history during the 1930s and ’40s. Among those are many whose names we do not and probably will never know. Although one of seven siblings, Semprún had been picked out for greatness by his mother before her tragic and premature death. She had told him that when he grew up he would either be a great writer or the president of the Spanish Republic. The Spanish Republic was destroyed during the Civil War, so becoming its president was never an option, yet it is uncanny how he successfully sought out other contexts of political action through which, despite his exile, he could connect back to Spain. And of course he also, as she had predicted, became a famous writer.
He had no choice about going into exile in 1936 with his family — he was only 13 years old when they fled Spain — but he definitely exerted a fierce control, as much as was humanly possible, over the next 75 years of his life. He survived terrible experiences: sudden poverty and the refugee’s plight, being arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Buchenwald. Yet throughout it all — and this is very clear in his work — his inner core managed to remain above the fray. I would even say that, despite everything, he maintained throughout his life the aura of a golden boy or chosen son.
After Buchenwald was liberated by the US Army, he was returned to France with other surviving Spanish deportees. Despite the fact that he had fought in the Resistance, he was not, as a foreigner, given a hero’s welcome. This was a crucial crossroads, as he tried to figure out what kind of future he would have. Joining the Paris-based anti-Franco movement was a natural choice for him. How could the world have left a pro-fascist dictator in charge of Spain after the end of World War II? It was an intolerable situation for all Spanish exiles and for many Spaniards who had remained in Spain. His role as a clandestine agent trying to liberate Spain was perfect for him.
The risks and challenges of slipping across the border and blending in with Madrid life were enormously appealing to him. First of all, being a go-between gave him the chance to spend time in his hometown and mother country, where he had not been for nearly 20 years. Furthermore, he was there for the right reasons, and he was a brilliant actor. Using several pseudonyms, the most famous being “Federico Sanchez,” he played the part of a suave, debonair, impeccably dressed man about town. This glamorous image was, ironically, his life insurance. “Federico Sanchez” became the most wanted man in Spain. But the authorities were looking for a mole-like apparatchik, not a Mediterranean James Bond.
You describe Semprún as “a man of action and thought,” which feels like a romantic yet outdated archetype today. In what ways do his life and work speak to the present?
I’m so glad you brought up that archetype: the fact that the expression is the man of thought and action is in no way arbitrary. There are clearly very macho values intertwined with the kind of heroism Semprún aspired to embody, and this male-dominated culture that he spent most of his life within was difficult for me to navigate at times as a female biographer. On the other hand, this combination has deep roots in Spanish literature. The most obvious example that comes to mind is the speech on arms and letters from Don Quixote. Cervantes himself of course was both a soldier and a writer; however, Semprún was also clearly looking to more contemporary models, the two standouts being Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux. Malraux had illegally smuggled planes for the Republic’s defense during the Spanish Civil War. He then wrote one of the most famous novels about the conflict, L’Espoir (Man’s Hope, 1937), which Semprún carried in his knapsack when he was in the French Resistance.
Ultimately, I think that Semprún’s life shows that he couldn’t be a political activist and a writer simultaneously. It was only when he broke with his militant underground past that he was able to emerge into the literary world and, under his real name, start a new life as a full-fledged author. It was an exciting transformation for him; for lack of a better term, one could say that he came out of the closet as the writer and public figure he had always hoped to be.
Semprún’s work is slippery when it comes to testimony versus artifice, especially his books about Buchenwald, since they are drawn from his experiences but shot through with literary flourishes. He believed only literature could fully capture life. How should new readers to his work, in your view, approach his autobiographical fiction?
I think that all autobiographical works and perhaps all literary works to some extent are “slippery,” as you say. In fact, the unreliable quality of literature is what makes it so exciting to read; it is why every reader can have a unique response to the same text. That said, there are fierce debates regarding testimony, autobiography, and fiction. The case of Rigoberta Menchú is perhaps one of the best-known examples of the fraught relationship between these genres.
Jorge Semprún, like all autobiographers, devoted himself to both narrating his experiences and self-fashioning. I think that it is important for readers to be aware that writers are always self-fashioning — either self-consciously or unconsciously. In the case of Semprún, the line between testimony and fiction becomes charged, in my opinion, when he takes on the subject of the Holocaust and World War II in general. He writes about these topics beautifully and convincingly — he won many awards, including the Jerusalem Prize — yet there are moments when he seems to trade in real experience for what he would call literary truth. His own favorite defense of his poetic license was to quote Boris Vian: “Everything is true because I made it all up.”
I would recommend that readers explore The Long Voyage (1964), his first novel about Buchenwald, and Literature or Life (1994), his biggest international success, and, as they read, consider where the lines are drawn separating memory, experience, and fiction. In Semprún’s self-fashioning, he creates narrators and protagonists who are appealing because they are simultaneously heroes and antiheroes. They are never victims. As I reread his books to write this biography, I looked both at what he said and what he didn’t say. The empty spaces in his work reflect his pride and an unwillingness to share vulnerability and the personal tragedies that truly shaped his life.
His autobiographical oeuvre is political and literary “autofiction.” My biography has tried to fill in the blanks, to portray someone who lived from 1923 to 2011 and to tell his story free from the conventions of the male literary role models of the 20th century. He’s a seductive writer, and when I first read him I was quite worshipful. Now I think I read him with much more empathy. No matter how talented an author or artist is, at the end of the day we’re all human beings, and I hope that my biography humanizes Semprún and brings him closer to readers.
You worked on this book for six years, and it draws on a vast trove of documents, from Semprún’s file in the USSR to Franco’s police files on the author. What was the research for this book like for you?
The odyssey was complex, international, and expensive. Semprún had a long life and knew many people, especially in France and Spain. I’m pretty independent, but when you’re researching a biography like this, you need others, and you have to depend on the kindness of many people. Getting access to these people and to archives in Paris, Spain, and Moscow was challenging, but also of course incredibly interesting and often quite fun. I met with several Spanish politicians, including former president Felipe González, and with people from the film world, including Costa-Gavras. The daughter of André Malraux, Florence Malraux, was one of Semprún’s closest friends for decades. She was key to this project and was my French fairy godmother. Though I had been to Paris many times in my life, I can say that being in Paris in the company of Florence Malraux made me feel like I was there for the first time.
Having more contacts in Spain, I had been worried about how to break through into the world of the Parisian intelligentsia that was Semprún’s true habitat. I eventually made it, however, and am happy to report that, once the French let you in, they really let you in. I have a completely renewed passion for France after writing this book. I interviewed a few dozen people, primarily in their homes, and these encounters were like being in a time machine that allowed me to revisit different moments of Semprún’s life, in different countries and different contexts.
I was very eager to see what files the Russians had kept on Semprún. Getting my hands on these files involved months of what seemed like running around in circles and going nowhere. I eventually confirmed that, yes, the files existed, and I established their location, which was not in the archive I had originally thought. Finally, a friend of a friend in high diplomatic circles put me in touch with a brilliant woman who broke through all of the bureaucratic red tape by sailing into the archive armed with apricot jam and biscuits. The all-female team of archivists succumbed to her charm. About a week later, I had my documents.
I also particularly enjoyed reading the reports Semprún wrote as a clandestine agent, all from the Historical Archive of the Spanish Communist Party in Madrid. He would record his daily impressions of life under Franco, his thoughts and reactions, turning an otherwise rote checking-in exercise into a rich training ground for an autobiographical writer. He acquired the great habit of writing every day, trying out his colorful descriptions, his sense of humor, and his charming persona.
Because so much of my research took place in Europe, Semprún’s Europeanism really came out for me — especially in talking to his associates. He had always gone against the grain, by necessity and by choice: a Spanish refugee, a French Resistance Fighter, an underground communist in a Nazi camp, a clandestine anti-Francoist in Spain. But he eventually came to live in a united Europe: one currency, no passport control at the borders. Toward the end of his life, he was worried that younger generations did not value this incredible situation of unity and freedom, which had been so hard-won. He did not live to see Brexit.
In our current, fiercely polarized moment, writers of all genres — poets, essayists, novelists — are feeling driven to be politically active. Unlike Semprún, however, who became a resistance fighter and then a clandestine agent working directly for political change (and who later wrote about it), today’s writers seem to have recourse only to social media and the occasional protest. What can we learn from Semprún’s lifelong engagement with literature and politics that might help today’s aspiring writers more effectively fight for the future? Or is the real work to be done just bearing witness the way Semprún did? After all, his legacy as a writer is arguably greater than his political legacy.
As a professor, and as somebody whose family lived in a country with no democracy and no elections for 40 years, I think about this all the time. A lot of what I teach is both literary and political. In my course on the Spanish Civil War, one of the subjects we explore is the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, the nearly 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic against Franco. Their stories are powerful, and as we consider this type of political volunteerism from the 1930s, we are also forced to acknowledge that there is no clear analogy in the United States today. So what has changed?
As I ponder the complex questions you raise, the name that comes to mind, in the context of the United States, is James Baldwin. Baldwin embodies a powerful, radical eloquence. He was incredibly well read and thoughtful, and he mobilized these qualities, along with his huge emotional force, to ask the most uncomfortable questions and to lead people in positive directions. I am not really one who goes in for heroes and role models, but if someone were to ask me what they should do if they want to make a difference, I would say to study history — in particular, the history of their own country — and to read James Baldwin, whose writings will always be ahead of the curve. While they’re at it, they should also read The Long Voyage by Jorge Semprún.
I’ll stop there, but I do want to emphasize how important education is, and how humbling it is when you read and realize how little you know — which, ideally, is something that should happen to us all the time. The opposite stance is to think you know everything, and to not be interested in learning anything. At the same time, education helps us see patterns. We realize that this or that has happened before, that we’re facing problems that were never resolved, and that knowledge is empowering. I find it very disturbing that people question the value of the humanities today. The kinds of political, humanitarian, and environmental crises we are facing cannot be resolved by mathematicians and scientists alone. I think that the humanities are more necessary now than they have ever been.
Can you tell us a little about the Semprún film series you’ve put together?
Even though the book is out in three languages now, it continues to demand my attention. I often wondered how I could do justice to his amazing work in movies. His films were a part of this book but not the main focus. Well, now the Film Forum, my favorite cinema in New York City, has programmed a series of his movies in October to coincide with the release of my biography. It is so exciting to me that Semprún’s films will now be rediscovered by audiences in the United States, thanks to this book. I am scheduled to introduce some of the screenings, including Les deux mémoires (1974), the only film he both wrote and directed, for what will be its US premiere. So, I guess the real answer about the making of this book is that the odyssey isn’t yet over.
Aaron Shulman has written for the New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Awl, among other publications. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War.