Ramón Pérez de Ayala Essay - Critical Essays

Ramón Pérez deAyala


Ramón Pérez de Ayala’s novels can be divided into three categories: the four interrelated autobiographical novels (Tinieblas en las cumbres, A.M.D.G., The Fox’s Paw, and Troteras y danzaderas), the transitional novels of Spanish life (Prometheus, Sunday Sunlight, and The Fall of the House of Limón), and the mature works that focus on major themes (Belarmino and Apolonio, Honeymoon, Bittermoon, and Tiger Juan). Despite the author’s development between the composition of his early novels and that of his later ones, several features remain constant: the tragic sense of life and the humanistic spirit that inform his work, the classical vision that conceives of the universe as an ultimately harmonious confluence of antitheses, and the narrative techniques that are necessary for expressing the complexity of such a worldview.

Pérez de Ayala’s novels reflect the various influences that were brought to bear on them. At the basis of his vision is the excellent foundation he had in the classics of Greek and Latin literature. His novels abound in allusions to classical heroes and mythological figures, and he often gives their names ironically to rural characters singularly devoid of grace. More important, however, is his classical conception of the universe as an assemblage of warring elements. Individuals, from their limited perspectives, can discern only the discontinuity of the parts rather than the harmony of the whole. Because the perception of cosmic unity is beyond the grasp of the rational mind, the happy coexistence of contradictory truths may approach expression only in aesthetic orders. Thus, the task of the novelist is to challenge constantly the partial truths that constitute the individual perspective and open them up to new vistas.

Pérez de Ayala’s technique is, on the whole, Jamesian. It serves his belief in a multifaceted reality and his advocacy for the virtue of tolerance. By providing multiple points of reference and juxtaposing conflicting opinions, Pérez de Ayala reminds readers of the inadequacy of the individual perspective and of the necessity to expand the mind to encompass alternative realities. In Troteras y danzaderas (mummers and dancers), a spokesman for the author insists that all so-called golden ages have been social states brought about by a few conspicuous thinkers who believed in the compatibility of intelligence and strength, art and money, science and religion, philosophy and arms. By way of encouraging such marriages, Pérez de Ayala constantly reminds his readers that what they perceive as truth is merely one side of a coin. For example, in the prologue to the stories of El ombligo del mundo (1924; the umbilical center of the world), the narrator explains that everything that happens in the world is equally a cause for laughter and tears. The comic and the dramatic, he asserts, depend on one’s perspective. Pérez de Ayala’s own worldview as presented in the novels is tragicomic.

Pérez de Ayala’s literary friends and associates, among them many prominent members of the Generation of ’98, had a hand in shaping his views on art and life. Among his acquaintances were Antonio Machado, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. An outspoken admirer of Darío’s poetry, Pérez de Ayala appears to have been affected by his sense of the burden of consciousness. Pérez de Ayala’s early novels bring to mind lines from Darío’s well-known poem “Lo fatal” (“Fatality”): “For there is no greater grief than the grief of being alive/ No greater affliction than conscious life.”

Unamuno’s basically existentialist philosophy and his “tragic sense of life” also exerted an undeniable influence on Pérez de Ayala, whose humanism, like Unamuno’s, arose from his knowledge of pain and his sympathy for the suffering that is the lot of all people. These feelings were no doubt intensified by the historical events of the period: the two world wars, the Spanish Civil War, and the Spanish-American War. Particularly in his later works, Pérez de Ayala deplores the shortsightedness that makes adversaries of people. His response to the events of his time took the form of a comprehensive humanism and desire for social reform—much the same spirit expressed in Ortega y Gasset’s famous statement in Meditaciones del Quixote (1942; Meditations on Quixote, 1961): “I am I and my circumstance, and if I do not save it, I do not save myself.”

Tinieblas en las cumbres

Pérez de Ayala’s first novel, Tinieblas en las cumbres, is a fitting introduction to his canon. It is the story of a young artist, Alberto Díaz de Guzmán, resembling Pérez de Ayala himself, who makes a trip to a mountain summit with a group of friends and prostitutes to witness a solar eclipse. Nearing the summit, they are enveloped in a dense fog; this fog becomes a symbol for the crisis in consciousness that Alberto is about to experience and is thus a precursor of the mist of Unamuno’s novel Niebla (1914; Mist, 1929). As Alberto approaches the peak, he engages in a colloquy with an intellectual friend, a discussion that leaves him questioning the meaning of existence. His friend, Yiddy, demolishes his romantic illusions concerning the transcendent value of the natural world and the immortality of art, and also informs him that consciousness is a nervous phenomenon.

This conversation is typical of Pérez de Ayala in its presentation of radically opposing viewpoints and metaphysical speculations that digress from the action of the novel. Also typical is the author’s statement at the beginning of the “digression” that the reader may skip this “superfluous colloquy” if he or she desires. This section, rather than being expendable, contains the key to the novel. A person’s unique ability to contemplate his or her own death forms the basis of the “tragic sense of life,” as defined by Unamuno. A corresponding alienation from nature is a logical consequence of this awareness of impending death. Alberto’s question at the end of Tinieblas en las cumbres is how one should live in the face of such understanding. He seems to decide in favor of hedonism, a decision that is followed by intimations of the Apocalypse. It has been suggested throughout the expedition that this solar phenomenon might signal the end of the world. Certainly, for Alberto it means the end of innocence as he feels a permanent darkness engulfing his soul. Deciding to embrace momentary pleasures, he proceeds to drink his way home and falls unconscious in his room as the novel closes.

Tinieblas en las cumbres is interesting as a first novel in that Pérez de Ayala begins his narrative career by exploring the existential void of a man overwhelmed by the reality of death. Unlike certain bildungsromans, such as D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), in which the character is formed by his experiences of life and becomes the author of his own existence, this novel sees the character-artist stripped of his certainties and left half-dead. It was, for Pérez de Ayala, a fit beginning. In fact, his art—his humanism and his search for meaning—grew out of such an existential necessity, but before he was able to develop completely the comprehensive philosophy that shaped his later novels, he pursued the causes and effects of Alberto’s mental state in the three autobiographical works that followed Tinieblas en las cumbres.


Pérez de Ayala’s second novel, A.M.D.G., continues the story of Alberto Díaz de Guzmán by flashing back to his education (based on the author’s own) in a Jesuit school, which is presumably at the root of his spiritual dilemma. The novel itself created a scandal upon its publication because of its shocking, and perhaps overstated, portrayal of the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Jesuits’ methods of educating the young. Artistically, it is a failure, but it reveals both the best and the worst aspects of Pérez de Ayala’s work.

Pérez de Ayala’s novels being typically novels of ideas, the essayist is never far from the surface. Occasionally, the proper balance is not observed and the message becomes obtrusive. A.M.D.G. is an impassioned criticism somewhat lacking in the aesthetic detachment and spirit of tolerance that characterize Pérez de Ayala’s best novels, yet the motivation behind it, to expose and thereby correct injustice, is also characteristic of his best work. Ortega y Gasset praised the novel for that very reason. Having had similar experiences with the Jesuits, he claimed that the novel transcended literature and was a valuable document for pedagogical reform. Pérez de Ayala never forgot his case against the Jesuits, but he did gain greater artistic control over it. Representatives of the order appear in unflattering contexts in his later fiction, and many of their basic principles, such as the separation of body and spirit, are severely criticized.

The Fox’s Paw

The Fox’s Paw resumes the story of Alberto Díaz de Guzmán at the point where Tinieblas en las cumbres concluded. The title is a reference to the fox’s strategy of biting off its own paw when caught in a trap. Alberto wakes the morning after the eclipse feeling trapped by the conditions of life. Existence, he feels, is a flame between two shadows. Thus begins his search for meaning. Throughout the novel, Alberto vacillates between the desires of the flesh and the possibility of artistic commitment. Whenever he finds himself lured into demeaning emotional or physical involvements, he longs for the detachment from life that art affords. Life, he finds, enslaves the man, but the artist controls life. There is one possibility available to him for incorporating the real and the ideal, the flesh and the spirit. This is in the love offered him by his fiancé Fina—a love he has not the wisdom to accept nor the will to pursue.

Alberto, it is clear, has not made much progress since his setback on the mountaintop in Tinieblas en las cumbres. In fact, he seems to be moving in reverse. In the course of the novel, and in the process of trying to find himself, he joins a circus, travels to England, lives in Madrid writing books, and goes bankrupt. At his best moments, he is able to feel himself part of a cosmos that is harmonious and all-encompassing. He is never able to sustain that feeling; hence, he wanders. At the conclusion of the novel, he decides to return once again to Fina, but as a punishment for his moral failure, he is told by her furious old aunt that she is dead and that his desertion killed her. Pérez de Ayala’s later novels show the main characters achieving the wholeness that eludes Alberto here. This novel, however, like Tinieblas en las cumbres, ends in a void. The last novel in the series, Troteras y danzaderas, fittingly descends with Alberto into the underworld of the Madrid literati and accounts for a gap in the chronology of The Fox’s Paw.

Troteras y danzaderas

Something of a departure from the other autobiographical novels, Troteras y danzaderas shifts its focus from Alberto in order to portray several of the literary figures with whom Pérez de Ayala associated in Madrid, among them Valle-Inclán and Ortega y Gasset. An involved, intelligent, ambitious, and finally an ungainly novel, it is interesting from the viewpoint of literary history and also for the insights into human nature and the lectures on art that the author delivers through Alberto, who in this work has become more of a mouthpiece than a character.

Nevertheless, the novel does not lack for characters; it contains innumerable starving artists, politicians, prostitutes, and related entertainers. Ultimately, it is a novel about people of mainly mediocre talents living a bohemian existence that has been divested of the innocence of Bohemia. The nadir of this Madrid underworld is an expedition Alberto and some friends make to the brothels, with each successive visit more horrifying than the last. The novel ends with the death of one tubercular artist, a discussion of politics, and Alberto’s ironic response when asked what Spain has produced: “Mummers and dancers, my friend, mummers and dancers.”

If, on the whole, this work appears to be a collection...

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