José Lezama Lima 1910–1976
Cuban poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Lezama Lima's career. See also Jose Lezama Lima Criticism (Volume 4) and Jose Lezama Lima Criticism (Volume 10).
José Lezama Lima is considered one of the greatest twentieth-century Latin American writers. His first and most famous novel Paradiso (1966) is the culmination of his lifelong work as a literary theorist and poet. In Paradiso and its sequel Oppiano Licario (1977), Lezama Lima embraces themes of sexuality and friendship, mythology and religion, to create an aesthetic world of his own: erudite, baroque, and rich in symbolism and allusion. When Paradiso was first published Lezama Lima's unorthodox depiction of family life sparked controversy in Fidel Castro's Cuba and led to official efforts to repress the work. However, the praise of other Latin American writers brought Lezama Lima's work to international attention.
Lezama Lima was born on December 19, 1910 in a military camp near Havana, Cuba. His father was a military officer who died at a young age in 1919. This haunted Lezama Lima throughout his life and served as a preoccupation of his writing. Lezama Lima formed an unusually close relationship with his mother and lived with her throughout her life. Chronic problems with asthma led him to spend much of his childhood reading in solitude. He studied Spanish literature before entering the Universidad de la Habana to pursue legal studies. The student protests against the dictator Gerarado Machado awakened his political consciousness and the school shutdowns which resulted from the protests led to a four-year hiatus during which Lezama Lima read widely and began to develop his interests in Cuban intellectualism and culture. In 1927 he began to write poetry and in 1937 he published his most important poem, Muerte de Narciso (Death of Narcissus). From 1937 through the 1950s he edited a series of journals devoted to literature, politics, the arts, and culture in Cuba. At odds with the Batista regime, Lezama Lima became director of the department of literature and publications of the National Council of Culture after Castro's rise to power. In 1964, following his mother's death, he married Maria Luisa Bautista Trevino, an old friend of the family. The publication of Paradiso two years later brought trouble: authorities labeled the book pornographic due to its homosexual content, and in 1971 Lezama Lima was accused of antirevolutionary activities. He died in 1976, alienated from his friends and the Cuban culture to which he had devoted his life.
Lezama Lima's two best known works, the novels Paradiso and Oppiano Licario, build on his early work as essayist and poet. In poems and essays such as The Death of Narcissus, Enemigo rumor (1941; Enemy Rumors) and La fijeza (1949; Persistence) he explores themes such as the role of poetry and the poet, life, death, God, and religion. In La expresión americana (1957; The American Expression), Lezama Lima claimed that American culture, in contrast with that of Europe, creates an environment where neo-baroque aesthetics, ecstasy, joy, and magical realism converge to produce a uniquely American literary hermeneutic. In Introducción a los vasos órficos (1971; Introduction to the Orphic Vases) the author contended that the poet is the intermediary between God and humankind and alone can express the unlimited possibilities which exist in life. The somewhat autobiographical Paradiso follows the life of Jose Cemí as he comes of age in pre-Castro Cuba, exploring issues such as the connection between the material and spiritual worlds and the nature of family life. Cemí is taught by his friend and mentor Oppiano Licario that he must live his life through the eyes of a poet. Oppiano Licario and a collection of poems, Fragmentos a su imán, were published posthumously.
Lezama Lima has been labeled a "difficult writer" because of his use of arcane language and obscure imagery. However, many critics praise his aesthetic innovations, both in his poetry and his novels. Paradiso sparked negative comments from some critics in the United States—Michael Wood called the book "less a modern novel than a garrulous, old-fashioned treatise about a modern novel which hasn't been written yet"—but Latin American writers such as Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Octavio Paz argue that Lezama Lima's work represents some of the finest of twentieth-century writing and that he deserves to be considered one of Cuba's greatest writers.
Muerte de Narciso [The Death of Narcissus] (poem) 1937
Enemigo rumor [Enemy Rumors] (poetry) 1941
Aventuras sigilosa [Secret Adventures] (poetry) 1945
La fijeza [Persistence] (poetry) 1949
Analecta del reloj [Analecta of the Clock] (essays) 1953
La expresión americana [The American Expression] (essays) 1957; enlarged edition, 1969
Tratados en La Habana (essays) 1958
Dador [Giver] (poetry) 1960
Paradiso [Paradise] (novel) 1966
Orbita de Lezama Lima (selected works) 1966
Posible imagen de José Lezama Lima (poetry) 1969
Poesía completa (poetry) 1970
La cantidad hechizada [The Bewitched Quantity] (essays) 1970
Esgeraimagen: Sierpe de don Luis de Góngora; Las imagenes posibles (poetry) 1970
Introducción a los vasos órficos [Introduction to the Orphic Vases] (essays) 1971
Obras completas, 2 volumes (collected works) 1975
Cangrejos, golondrinas (selected works) 1977
Fragmentos a su imán (poetry) 1977
Oppiano Licario (novel) 1977
Cartas (1939–1976): José Lezama Lima (letters) 1979
Imagen y posibilidad (selected works) 1981
El reino de la imagen (essays) 1981
Juego de las decapitaciones (short stories) 1982
Cuentos (short stories) 1987
Relatos (selected works) 1987
Confluencias (essays) 1988
SOURCE: "A Sentimental Realism," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 46-7.
[In the following essay, Alonso contends that while Lezama Lima's realistic writing style was influenced by the works of Ruben Dario and Maria Eugenia Gongora, Paradiso is sincere but unconvincing in its realism.]
Perhaps, as the dust jacket claims, Paradiso was met with "unqualified enthusiasm" in Italy and France. But this was not the case here, and it is easy to see why.
Although comparisons can and have been made between Paradiso and Ulysses and Remembrance of Things Past, Lezama's book owes much more to the poetry of Dario and Góngora than to the novelistic breakthroughs of Proust and Joyce. Not surprising, perhaps, since Lezama is known as Cuba's premier lyric poet. However, this also means that Paradiso is rooted in precisely those literary traditions that, more than just foreign, have long been regarded in English with an open hostility as downright alien. They are considered, I think it is fair to say, decadent and in the worst of taste. It is true, of course, that Spanish literature has also struggled against this tendency, but it is not for nothing that the term Gongorism has an even more unforgivingly pejorative ring in English than it ever does in Spanish. In Latin America, however, this baroque strain has tended to remain alive, even gaining a new respectability with Alejo Carpentier, for example, declaring in the recent past that the baroque is a natural and legitimate mode of Latin American expression.
Therefore, quite within this baroque tradition, Lezama continually sacrifices narrative pull for the sake of stopping to display his lyricism. His style is an openly Dandyish cult of cultivations, unashamedly filled with long, elliptical sentences featuring a distinctly self-congratulatory inclination for the most learned if not arcane choices where simpler ones seem quite possible. And thus it parades itself for more than four hundred pages, dripping with all the junk jewelry left over from Modernismo, and then some, with the very charm of the book depending on it. Unfortunately, rendered into English, I believe it only succeeds in offending a puritanism that has progressively been dominating English writing since the days of the Royal Academy of Science and its battle against the Metaphysicals.
But what makes Paradiso truly off-putting here, I believe, is what has caused it to receive a bad reception wherever else it has, which includes many quarters of the Spanish-speaking world. I refer now to Lezama's underlying but obvious protest of aristocracy which is...
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SOURCE: "Confluences," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 6-16.
[In the following excerpt, Lezama Lima discusses his theory of poetics and philosophical views in regard to the creation of the plot and characters of Paradiso.]
I saw night as a descent, as if something had fallen over the earth. Its slowness kept me from comparing it, for example, to something descending a staircase. One tide atop another, and so on incessantly, until it came within reach of my feet. I united the fall of night with the sea's unique extension.
The cars' headlights shone through in zigzagging planes and the "who goes theres?" began to be heard. The voices skipped from one...
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SOURCE: "The Text in Its Context," in Review, No. 74, Fall, 1974, pp. 30-4.
[In the following essay, Monegal compares Paradiso's themes and structure to the works of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Dante, focusing on the novel's literal, allegorical, and spiritual elements.]
It is easy to make the wrong assumptions when reading Paradiso. Originally published in Havana in 1966, the first and (until now) only novel of the great Catholic poet circulated almost clandestinely throughout the entire Hispanic world until 1968 when it was republished simultaneously in Mexico and Argentina. The original edition, by the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC),...
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SOURCE: "The Sensorial World of Lezama Lima," in Major Cuban Novelists: Innovation and Tradition, University of Missouri Press, 1976, pp. 53-79.
[In the following essay, Souza discusses the structure of Paradiso, focusing on Lezama Lima's symbolic use of characters and the story's themes, which include time, chaos, and freedom.]
Carpentier's and José Lezama Lima's works are often considered by critics as baroque, that is, complex and ornate. When used in this general sense, particularly with Lezama Lima, the term is an appropriate one, for Paradiso is the most complex novel ever published in Cuba. Indeed, it is perhaps the most intricate novel in Spanish...
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SOURCE: "Reader's Guide to Paradiso," in Review, No. 29, May-August, 1981, pp. 47-54.
[In the following essay, Fazzolari discusses the sequential development of Paradiso's storyline, focusing on Lezama Lima's use of a "poetic system" that utilizes metaphorical images and language, and symbolic characters and events.]
José Lezama Lima, the outstanding writer to appear in Cuba in this century, began his career as a founder of literary magazines. Verbum, Espuela de Plata (Silver Spur), Nadie Parecía (No One Appeared), and Orígenes (Origins) form a chain of magazines that rescued Cuba from...
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Cascardi, Anthony J. "Reference in Lezama Lima's Muerte de Narciso." Journal of Spanish Studies 5, No. 1 (Spring 1977): 5-11.
Discusses the poetic style, structure, and thematic content of The Death of Narcissus.
Cortázar, Julio. "An Approach to Lezama Lima." Review, No. 74 (Fall 1974): 20-5.
Remarks on his reactions to Paradiso.
Firmat, Gustavo Pérez. "The Strut of the Centipede: José Lezama Lima and New World Exceptionalism." In his Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, pp. 316-32. Duke...
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