Camilo José Cela Cela, Camilo José (Vol. 122) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Camilo José Cela 1916–

Spanish novelist, poet, dramatist, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cela's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 13, and 59.

Camilo José Cela is considered to be among the most important voices in Spanish letters since the Spanish Civil War. His work ranges from the psychological to the surreal, often mirroring the tragedy Spain has experienced with harsh realism and violence. Cela's prose style is experimental, frequently employing elements of fragmentation, repetition, and interior monologue within a shifting narrative perspective. Critics laud Cela's prose for its powerful characterization and effective dialogue.

Biographical Information

Cela was born on May 11, 1916, in Iria-Flavia in the province of Galicia, Spain. When he was 9, his family moved to Madrid where he attended various Catholic schools. In 1934, Cela began studying medicine, but he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and began an extended stay at a sanatorium during which he read extensively in Spanish literature. His illness initially prevented him from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, but in 1937 he was accepted into the Franco Nationalist army. He fought until he was wounded in 1938. Following the war, Cela held a variety of odd jobs, including movie actor, an apprentice bullfighter, and an advice columnist for a women's magazine. It was also during this time that Cela contributed to various fascist publications—and event which aroused suspicions about connections to the fascist party. In 1942, Cela published his first novel La familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte, 1942). The novel upset General Francisco Franco's censors and helped quell some of the rumors concerning Cela's conservatism. Cela married in 1944 and had a son, Camilo, Jr., in 1946. He continued to write novels and several travel journals. In 1957, Cela was inducted into the Spanish Royal Academy, which he proceeded to offend by publishing Diccionario secreto (1968–70), a scholarly collection of obscene definitions left out of the Royal Academy's dictionary. In 1989, Cela won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Major Works

In Cela's first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, the title character, convicted of murder, composes his memoirs while awaiting his execution. A victim as well as a criminal, Pascual describes his squalid upbringing by an abusive, bitter mother whose other children turned to prostitution or proved mentally incompetent. Pascual also recounts his descent into violence, beginning with the death penalty for yet another homicide. Pascual refuses to blame society for his downfall and instead attributes his actions to fate and his own innate sinfulness. For Pabellón de reposo (Rest Home; 1943) Cela drew upon his own experience to examine the private anguish of tuberculosis patients confined to a sanatorium. Set in working-class Madrid immediately following World War II, La colmena (The Hive; 1951) chronicles three days in the lives of approximately 300 people who frequent a seedy café. The Hive has a highly experimental structure including techniques such as simultaneity of action, fragmentation, lack of chronological sequence, and a large number of characters. Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo (Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son; 1953) contains more than 200 short, unrelated chapters constructed around the rambling letters of an elderly Englishwoman to her dead son that reveal her incestuous love for him. In San Camilo, 1936: Visperas, festividad y octava de San Camilo del ano 1936 en Madrid (1969), Cela utilizes a stream-of-consciousness narrative style to examine the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War through the perspective of a young student. In addition to his novels, Cela also has written several travel sketches, including Viaje a la Alcarria (Journey to Alcarria; 1948), that recount his foot treks through Spain.

Critical Reception

Critics credit Cela with ushering in a new literary movement in Spain with The Family of Pascual Duarte. The movement, called "tremendismo," is characterized by an emphatic realism, the use of experimental techniques, and a new philosophical outlook. Some critics assert that tremendismo is not as much a literary movement as a trend. Other reviewers point out similarities between aspects of tremendismo and existentialism, but many dismiss it as a superficial connection. One of the overriding observations by critics is the tremendous pessimism in Cela's fiction. Robert Kirsner writes, "The course of Cela's writings has followed a determined path of misfortune, morbidity and mordacity." He further explains that "Cela's propensity toward the sordid and the shocking expresses a desire to experience all aspects of human existence." Some reviewers feel that Cela's writing declined throughout his career, and some complain that he did not deserve the Nobel Prize in 1989. Francis Donahue observes that "[o]ver the years, Cela's powers of novelistic invention have declined somewhat, but this has been offset by his growing mastery in the field of travel and local-color sketches." Cela's technical virtuosity, especially his unique approach to each project, is much discussed in criticism of his work. Sarah Kerr says, "… Cela, far from plagiarizing his own early success, has shown extraordinary technical resolve, creating a different shape and narrative technique and language for each project." Often, however, focus on the technical aspects of Cela's writing has prompted critics to neglect in-depth discussions concerning the themes of his novels. J. S. Bernstein asserts. "Too often, it seems to me, Cela's critics view him as an imperturbable virtuoso, a sort of literary prestidigitator whose remarkable successes are gained with no investment of self, and at little expenditure of talent and energy."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

La familia de Pascual Duarte [The Family of Pascual Duarte] (novel) 1942
Pabellón de reposo [Rest Home] (novel) 1943
Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes (novel) 1944
Esas nubes que pasan (short stories) 1945
Viaje a la Alcarria [Journey to Alcarria] (travel essay) 1948
La colmena [The Hive] (novel) 1951
Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo [Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son] (novel) 1953
Historias de Venezuala: La catira (novel) 1955
Judios, moros y cristianos (travel essay) 1956
La cucana: memorias (memoirs) 1959; portion reprinted as La rosa, 1979
Gavilla de fabulas sin amor [illustrated by Pablo Picasso] (nonfiction) 1962
Izas, rabizas y colipoterras (short stories) 1964
Viaje al Pirineo de Lérida (travel essay) 1965
Diccionario secreto 2 vols. (nonfiction) 1968–70
San Camilo, 1936: Visperas, festividad y octava de San Camilo del ano 1936 en Madrid (novel) 1969
Oficio de tinieblas 5; o, novel de tesis escrita para ser cantada por un coro de enfermos (novel) 1973
Enciclopedia de erotismo (nonfiction) 1977
Cristo versus Arizona (novel) 1988

Times Literary Supplement (review date 7 August 1953)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hungry Present," in Times Literary Supplement, August 7, 1953, p. 505.

[In the following review, the critic asserts, "As a social document [The Hive] is exceptional."]

It is some indication of the remarkable quality of this novel [The Hive] by the most eminent young writer of General Franco's Spain that the most eminent refugee writer from the same Spain should have written 5,000 words introducing it to the British public: and it is some indication of the gulf which yawns between contemporary Madrid and contemporary London that every sentence of Señor Barea's introduction is needed to make this vivid, brutal and almost despairing work of art intelligible to a British reader.

Camilo José Cela fought for General Franco and holds a government position, which has made it possible for him to write this book apparently with impunity. His earlier novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte, even achieved publication in Spain. Señor Pío Baroja refused to write a prologue to it and advised him not to publish. "If you want them to put you in prison, go ahead." "I didn't go to prison," Señor Cela explained in the fourth edition to this novel which made him famous, "but the novel was withdrawn from circulation." The Hive has never been published in Spain, but on the dust-cover of the first—the Argentine—edition, Señor Cela himself explained his literary method and purpose:

My novel La Colmena, the first book of the series Caminos Inciertos [Uncertain Roads], is nothing but a pale reflection, a humble shadow of the harsh, intimate, painful reality of every day. They lie who want to disguise life with the crazy mask of literature. The...

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Pete Hamill (review date 10 January 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "When the Castanets Stop Clicking," in New York Herald Tribune Book Week, January 10, 1965, pp. 3, 12.

[In the following excerpt, Hamill complains that Cela's Journey to the Alcarria does not teach the reader anything about Spain or its author.]

Ah, Spain. Her very name calls up the images: the swirl of skirts and hard white teeth and dark eyes of the women; the men with lined faces, quick eyes, calloused hands; all of them passing on dirt roads in the raw brown hills, with the tough masculine Sierras climbing away to the South Quaint trains, storks in the chimneys, mule carts and Hemingway. Those Spaniards are not like milk-veined Americans. They know...

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Raymond Carr (review date 25 November 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Spanish Tragedy," in New York Review of Books, Vol. V, No. 8, November 25, 1965, pp. 23-25.

[In the following review, Carr describes Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, as seen in Gabriel Jackson's The Spanish Republic and the Civil War 1931–1939 and Cela's Journey to the Alcarria.]

The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and for a period Europe was engulfed in a larger tragedy. In retrospect the Spanish Civil War seemed what one of the Republican Ministers once called it—a paupers' war. The exiles, like the issues, were forgotten. They were embarrassing relics.

Why should the Spanish Civil War now compel an interest...

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Francis Donahue (essay date Autumn 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cela and Spanish 'Tremendismo,'" in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XX, No. 4, Autumn, 1966, pp. 301-06.

[In the following essay, Donahue describes how Cela's The Family of Pascual Duarte ushered in the Spanish literary movement "tremendismo."]

In 1942 when twenty-six-year-old Camilo José Cela published a first novel in Madrid, The Family of Pascual Duarte, Spanish literature, strait-jacketed by the Civil War and its aftermath, began to take shape again.

Before Pascual Duarte, the literary shades had been tightly drawn in Spain. Readers were turning to the past—to Benito Pérez Galdós' social realism of the nineteenth...

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David William Foster (essay date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Social Criticism, Existentialism, and Tremendismo in Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte," in Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, Vol. XIII, 1967, pp. 25-33.

[In the following essay, Foster provides an analysis of Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte and its relationship to social criticism, existentialism, and tremendismo.]

La familia de Pascual Duarte shocked the sensibilities of the Spanish reading public when it was published in the early '40's. Somehow, despite the cruel experiences of their Civil War, his countrymen were not prepared to receive graciously the repentant confessions of a man whose story relates in turn the...

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J. S. Bernstein (essay date Winter 1968)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pascual Duarte and Orestes," in Symposium, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Winter, 1968, pp. 301-18.

[In the following essay, Bernstein presents parallels between Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte and the myth of Orestes.]

Classical mythology has continued to be a fruitful source of themes for the contemporary writer. Although no comprehensive survey exists of the presence of mythological material in modern European literature, several partial treatments have appeared. Classical mythology has also been a suggestive basis for studies in criticism and literary aesthetics. The modern writer often finds important stimuli in mythological motifs. A case in point is the...

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David William Foster (essay date Spring 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Pattern in Two New Novels by Camilo José Cela," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. V, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 204-8.

[In the following essay, Foster discusses how Cela uses pattern to structure the plots in his Tobogán de hambrientos and La familia del héroe.]

The modern novel has undergone three major developments in the concept of plot structure: "total plot," "loose-ends plot," and pattern as a substitution for plot. Although the so-called "new" French novel—the third of these developments—has been principally a French phenomenon, it is possible to point to a few writers outside of France who have availed...

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Robert Kirsner (essay date 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cela's Quest for a Tragic Sense of Life," in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, 1970, pp. 259-64.

[In the following essay, Kirsner explores the elements of tragedy in Cela's fiction.]

From the very beginning of his literary career, even before the birth of that famous family of Pascual Duarte, Cela has sought to express a tragic sense of life. His first creation, Pisando la dudosa luz del día, composed presumably in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, attempts to depict the waning of a doubtful light as life passes into the cavernous darkness of death. "Ven, Muerte, ven" cries out the youthful poet.

La familia...

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Brian Steel (essay date May 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Recurring Structures in Cela's Prólogos," in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. VI, No. 2, May, 1972, pp. 249-64.

[In the following essay, Steel analyzes Cela's use of parenthesis and apposition to draw conclusions about the author.]

No one who has read any of Cela's Prólogos can have failed to notice the vigorous personal style in which they are written. In all but the more deliberately scholarly of these essays, the writer gives us a series of reflections on a variety of subjects and in a style which one would expect of a stimulating and provocative essayist or lecturer.

What contributes especially to this personal...

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David Henn (essay date October 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theme and Structure in La colmena," in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. VIII, No. 4, October, 1972, pp. 304-19.

[In the following essay, Henn presents the themes Cela addresses in La colmena and how the structure of the novel supports these themes.]

Discussions of Camilo José Cela's fourth novel, La colmena, have too often been centered around the structure of the work whilst thematic aspects have usually been subordinated to this formalistic emphasis. The formal complexities of the novel, the cinematographic technique, simultaneity of action, fragmentation, lack of chronological sequence, the large number of characters appearing...

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Robert C. Spires (essay date December 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cela's La Colmena: The Creative Process as Message," in Hispania, Vol. 55, No. 4, December, 1972, pp. 873-80.

[In the following essay, Spires asserts that the theme of Cela's La colmena can only be understood by experiencing its form.]

Camilo José Cela's La colmena has received almost universal acclaim as one of the most important post-Civil War Spanish novels largely on the basis of its interesting stylistic innovations and/or its social content, i.e., the social-moral atmosphere of Madrid immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Although these two aspects are of historical significance, to speak of the novel primarily in these terms...

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J. S. Bernstein (essay date 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Confession and Inaction in San Camilo," in Hispanofila, 1974, pp. 47-63.

[In the following essay. Bernstein outlines Cela's ideas about Spain and politics as expressed in his San Camilo.]

In Cela's long-awaited novel about the Spanish Civil War we find as comprehensive and explicit a statement of his stance on political and social issues as any in his previous work. The novel's unnamed narrator delivers, in more than four hundred pages, a general confession of sins committed and imagined in which we hear a recital of details of the lives of historically prominent madrileños, and of the lives of some whose historical importance is negligible....

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Cedric Brusette (essay date January 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "La familia de Pascual Duarte and the Prominence of Fate," in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. VIII, No. 1, January, 1974, pp. 61-7.

[In the following essay, Brusette asserts that the importance Cela places on fate in his La familia de Pascual Duarte causes the novel's pessimistic tone.]

It is generally agreed that the tone of La familia de Pascual Duarte is one of extreme pessimism. The novel begins with the re-ordering of the events of the life of the protagonist, Pascual, starting with his childhood and ending with his execution. Since the form of the novel is largely first-person memoir, the vision of life of the...

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Lynette Hubbard Seator (essay date October 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Antisocial Humanism of Cela and Hemingway," in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. IX, No. 3, October, 1975, pp. 425-39.

[In the following essay, Seator traces the parallels between the work of Cela and that of Ernest Hemingway, including their focus on the primacy of the individual, their affinity with the natural world, and their presentation of the restrictions of civilized society.]

Ernest Hemingway's affinity for Spain is well-known. He was attracted by the Spanish character, and as proposed in a recent article, was perhaps influenced by the work of Pío Baroja. Whatever Hemingway may owe to the generation of 98 novelist, a comparison of him with...

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Michael D. Thomas (essay date Summer 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narrative Tension and Structural Unity in Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte," in Symposium, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 165-78.

[In the following essay, Thomas discusses the social and ontological questions in Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte.]

In past years, a fundamental difference of opinion has prevailed among critics of Cela's La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942). On the one hand, historians of Spanish post-Civil War fiction such as Gonzalo Sobejano, Pablo Gil-Casado, and Eugenio G. de Nora have presented a "social" interpretation of the novel. These scholars contend that Cela's first novelistic effort illustrates the decadent...

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Sarah Kerr (essay date 8 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shock Treatment," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 16, October 8, 1992, pp. 35-9.

[In the following essay, Kerr presents an overview of Cela's life and major works, and traces his relationship to the political and cultural climate in Spain.]

After the death of General Franco, King Juan Carlos appointed the novelist Camilo José Cela to Spain's Parliament and asked him to help oversee the literary style of the new democratic constitution. Cela remembers a Senate vote in which he managed to avoid taking a position with the same steadfast, principled evasion that has been a theme in his fiction: "President Fontan said, 'Senator Cela, you vote neither...

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Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (review date 29 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death and Revenge in Spain's Backwoods," in New York Times, November 29, 1992, pp. 15-7.

[In the following review, Echevarria praises Cela's Mazurka for Two Dead Men as "a powerful book."]

Through the bus window, the change in landscape from Castile to Galicia is abrupt. The colors change suddenly from ocher to green. The harsh rhythm of crags and arid flatlands is replaced by lush hills with sensuous curves, shrouded in mists or crowned by shockingly low clouds. The air is cool and humid, and a pungent smell of grass and dung fills the air. The winding road curves around small dairy farms and through tiny hamlets with incongruous signs advertising...

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Javier Escudero (review date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of El asesinato del perdedor, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 165-66.

[In the following review, Escudero complains that Cela's "El asesinato del perdedor is terribly boring and difficult to read from the very first pages."]

Camilo José Cela, the author of such famous novels as La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942), La colmena (1951), and San Camilo 1936 (1969), received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of his valuable literary work. His novels, especially those published before 1975, are characterized by innovative narrative recourses and preferential attention paid to...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cela, Camilo José. "Nobel Lecture: In Praise of Storytelling." PMLA 106, No. 1 (January 1991): 10-17.

Praises the importance of storytelling to the history of humanity upon his acceptance of the 1989 Nobel Prize.

Dougherty, Dru. "Form and Structure in La colmena: From Alienation to Community." Anales de la Novela de Posguerra 1 (1976): 7-23.

Discusses how the structure of Cela's La colmena leads to the restoration of social harmony and community at the end of the novel.

"Snapshots of Madrid." Time 62, No....

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