Ramón María del Valle-Inclán Essay - Critical Essays

Ramón José Sim&o Peña

Ramón María del Valle-Inclán Long Fiction Analysis

“We are no longer a race of conquerors and theologians, and that fiction always breathes in our ballads and our popular speech.” This statement, from The Lamp of Marvels, is central to an understanding of Ramón María del Valle-Inclán’s novels, for it suggests and synthesizes his most important ideas about the potential of fiction and its position in contemporary Spanish literature and culture. In the first place, there is an unmasking of Spain’s self-image, which is described as a false expression frozen in the pretense that Spain is still the imperialist world power it was at the time of the Catholic kings. Such self-deception is dangerous, according to the wise old poet who narrates The Lamp of Marvels, particularly because of its effect on Spanish sensibility, which—because of its egotism and lack of perspective—refuses to grapple with significant spiritual and historical issues.

In the second place, the fiction of Spain’s importance is shown to be closely linked to its language and literature; instead of expanding to include the linguistic changes it has undergone in the New World, Spanish is rigid and brittle. It insists on the fiction of its own purity, which implies an inappropriate, warped perception of integrity. Furthermore, the literature that could work to renovate language and open perspective is also locked in a dead rhetoric that maintains the lie of Spanish sovereignty: Both popular speech and the ballads, the traditional repositories of spontaneous popular expression, reveal the deterioration of language and an obsessive national pride.

For Valle-Inclán, then, the writer of fiction is linked to the poet as a “visionary” who can break the limits of his or her own sensory perceptions. Although this vision, as it is presented in The Lamp of Marvels, does not unlock the secrets of the future, it is able to recognize the complexity of the present, to perceive and present an incident—or an instant—from multiple points of view. It is clearly linked to the irony that characterizes Valle-Inclán’s work from his earliest stories, as well as to the aesthetic and artistic perspectives that he enumerated in the three esperpentos of Martes de carnaval.

The world, Valle-Inclán explained, can be witnessed with reverence, on one’s knees, as if events and characters were larger than life; it can also be seen eye-to-eye; and it can be watched from above, with distance and even with disdain. Although each of these attitudes can be said to predominate at one time or another in Valle-Inclán’s work, the aesthetics presented in The Lamp of Marvels suggest that the ideal fiction has something of each: A certain distancing is necessary to break free of traditional perspective, but in the same way that an excess of awe leads one to “wallow” in emotions, extreme distancing can lead to overabstraction and a lack of feeling. The nature of language, which is always rooted in the “earth” of human feelings, is, when perfected by poetry, a link between the two extremes that hold them both in a kind of dynamic stillness or insight, which the poet calls “aesthetic quietism.”

This aesthetic experience or principle is valid for both Valle-Inclán’s fiction and his theater, for even though he was well aware of their differences and distinct possibilities, he continually explored the boundaries and relations between them. In his early work, this exploration includes the use of dramatic settings in his novels whereby characters and situations are presented in a series of tableaux, as if they were on stage. Ambience, gesture, and the spoken word are always important, and even in the first-personnarrative of The Pleasant Memoirs of the Marquis de Bradomín, the reader becomes acquainted with the narrator through his poses and highly selected “confessions,” not through the “inner workings” of his thoughts. This absence of psychological development remains constant in Valle-Inclán’s fiction; in fact, individual characters became less important as Valle-Inclán strove to encompass Spanish society and create a collectiveprotagonist.

As the novels and plays developed, the perfected vision he described for Spanish fiction in The Lamp of Marvels became increasingly linked, for both forms, with the absence of any true Spanish collectivity and with the distortion and deformation Valle-Inclán perceived around him. As Max Estrella, the blind poet-protagonist of Bohemian Lights, explains, old literary forms are inappropriate for contemporary Spain; a new aesthetic genre is necessary, one that—like the distorting mirrors found in a fun house—will mathematically distort an already deformed society and sensibility. Estrella names this genre the esperpento (literally, “absurdity” or “nonsense”), a term that Valle-Inclán used to label some of his own plays. Hence, to capture the distortions of reality, Valle-Inclán peopled his dramatic works with unheroic, grotesque characters presaging the Theater of the Absurd. Although Valle-Inclán does not label his novels esperpentos, he does discuss them in terms of the esperpentos and indicates ways in which their fragmented structure is “almost theater.”

This deliberate fusion of genres mirrors the careful way in which Valle-Inclán controlled the story of his own life, intentionally mixing fact and artifice and elaborating a fiction that welded those two ingredients. His “real” life was not a particularly exciting one: He frequently lived in poverty, he was often ill, and he had few adventures. He nevertheless was able to declare himself “an aesthetic adventurer”: He knew how to make his own life a supple fiction by continually experimenting and taking risks as a writer, by rethinking and restating his opinions, by publishing fictional autobiographies and giving conflicting interviews, and by encouraging multiple versions of the events of interest that did happen to him (among them, the loss of his arm and his trips to South America). In other words, in the same way that his fiction and drama were developed as interlocking forms, fiction and history were seen and lived as interchangeable rather than mutually exclusive.

Thus it was especially appropriate when in June of 1981, Spain’s king Juan Carlos created the marquisate of Bradomín, a hereditary title that he bestowed on Carlos Luis del Valle-Inclán, the writer’s eldest living son. During his lifetime, Valle-Inclán had petitioned to have the nobility of his self-defined titles recognized. That petition was denied, but after his death, in recognition of his contribution to Spain’s fiction, his heirs were awarded the title he had created for his best-known fictional character, a most controversial being who appeared in both plays and novels, who both does and does not resemble his creator.

The Marquis de Bradomín made his definitive appearance in 1902 as the narrator of Autumn Sonata, Valle-Inclán’s first major work of fiction, but he had been prefigured earlier in some short stories and articles. There is also a hint of him in Cara de Dios (the face of God), a long novel that, although it was published in 1899, is generally considered Valle-Inclán’s first because it was a serialized adaptation of a play by the Madrid dramatist Carlos Arniches. Although Valle-Inclán never hid the fact that he began his novelistic career by writing fiction in installments, he did not include Cara de Dios in his Opera omnia, and for a long time it remained out of print and virtually forgotten. All of this early work was important to the development of Valle-Inclán’s later novels, for in it he experimented with different styles and themes, and much of it he reworked for incorporation into his later books. It was, however, the publication of Autumn Sonata that established him as one of Spain’s most talented and promising writers, at the same time that influential and innovative novels were also published by Azorín, Baroja, and Unamuno.

The Pleasant Memoirs of the Marquis de Bradomín

Autumn Sonata is the first of four novels of The Pleasant Memoirs of the Marquis de Bradomín. The title character is an aging dandy who defines himself as “ugly, Catholic and sentimental.” He begins his narrative in the autumn of his life and moves “backward” to summer, spring, and, finally, winter. The novels can also be read according to the calendar, for in Spring Sonata, the marquis is a young man who proceeds to age as the seasons progress. Each novel has a different setting and, to some extent, a different tone: Autumn Sonata is set in Galicia; Summer Sonata, in Mexico; Spring Sonata, in Italy; and Winter Sonata, in Navarre.

The four novels are unified, however, by the personality and the prose of the marquis and by the fictional purpose that Valle-Inclán had in mind for them as a whole. As he explained himself, in these novels he wanted to work with an “eternal” Spanish theme, the legend of Don Juan. For Valle-Inclán, Don Juan was a complex figure, and in addition to presenting him as a great seducer of women, Valle-Inclán believed that it was necessary to examine Don Juan’s lack of respect for religion and the dead, along with his willingness to satisfy his own desires by trampling on the rights of others. Valle-Inclán’s “Don Juan,” the marquis, defines himself in terms of those three themes—the trinity of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil—presenting his exploits and conquests in a tongue-in-cheek manner that is at once sentimental and stoic. As if fully aware of the ironic self-portrait he is drawing, the marquis speaks proudly of his aristocratic lineage, his participation in the Carlist War, his ability to resist pain, and the great attraction he has for women. At the same time, he is conscious of the various elements of decadence that characterize his life: the excessive sentimentality of his writing; the morbid, even macabre nature of some of his experiences; the fact that Carlism has become a lost cause.

The irony and ambiguity is what makes The Pleasant Memoirs of the Marquis de Bradomín fascinating; thanks to the richness and precision of “his” writing, the Marquis de Bradomín seems to breathe life into the decadent figure whose death he exemplifies. His prose is elegant and highly refined; its musicality and suggestiveness reveal Valle-Inclán’s reading of fin de siècle writers from Spanish America, France, and Italy. His sensuous descriptions are highly visual, and each sonata evokes its different setting. On the other hand, there is something too precious about the writing, the descriptions are complex but static, the Marquis repeats his images of regret, and his laments of lost youth and the absence of further adventures grow tiring. His reader is likely to recognize long before the Marquis does that he is—as he fears—like a god whose cult has died out and that the greatest loves of his life have not led to enduring relationships but to melancholy, resentment, and even death.

Although Valle-Inclán eventually referred to the Sonatas as “trivial tunes for the violin,” the Marquis de Bradomín continued to appear throughout his work (in La guerra carlista, Bohemian Lights, and El ruedo ibérico). This reappearance and the many similarities between novelist and character (for example, a noble Galician birth, journeys to Mexico, the loss of an arm) have prompted much speculation about the extent to which Valle-Inclán’s stories about the Marquis and his adventures are autobiographical. It is clear that the Sonatas are, in many ways, “writer’s novels” (for example, the Marquis is a highly self-conscious narrator who continually refers to himself as a confessional writer, constantly examines the possibilities and power of language, and...

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