The novel in Spain: 1550-1630
Most historians see the Spain of the mid-sixteenth century as the birthplace of the novel, or at least of a form of fiction that they see leading clearly toward the eighteenth century novel of sensibility. The feature that sets these Spanish novels apart from their predecessors is their use of a first-person narrator who relates with unembarrassed candor the degradations of his life. Moreover, this character is a believably real Spaniard of the current time, who vividly depicts the sights, sounds, and, particularly, smells of the actual environment. One way to see this development of the novel is as a combining of the realistic/satiric mode with the confessional mode in Christian devotion, as exemplified by Augustine’s Confessions. However this form is defined, the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554; English translation, 1576), which began this trend, hit upon a formula that changed European fiction and set it on a road it has followed ever since.
Why this phenomenon first occurred in Spain rather than elsewhere in Europe has been much debated. One reason frequently cited involves Spain’s position in the sixteenth century as the most religiously and philosophically conservative nation in Europe, the country under the strongest domination by the Catholic Church and with the most rigid socioeconomic stratification. Whereas in England, for example, the satiric impulse produced visions of reform, such as Utopia and countless manuals for improvement in education and manners, in Spain the satiric eye looked inward and beneath the skins of other humans, to dwell on corruptions of the soul. In this climate, Renaissance Humanism merely deepened the cynicism, because it kept the observer focused on the imperfections of the here and now by denying the medieval choice of seeing this “vale of tears” as a mere stepping-stone to eternal glory. Whereas Augustine’s Confessions become a prayer of hope and thanksgiving, Lazarillo de Tormes and the works to follow—including the greatest, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615)—end with the hero facing death or in a temporary lull before the next, and certain, disaster. What makes this literature comic and compelling is that the narrators are so resigned to the status quo that they can view the grotesque happenings they relate without anxiety; by contrast, the greedy and ambitious in these novels appear funny fools indeed, because they lack the hero’s peace of mind.
In design, Lazarillo de Tormes and its followers retain the episodic structure of the medieval satires and the travel motif—the movement from adventure to adventure—of the Pentateuch, the Odyssey, and the tales of knighthood, but Lazarillo de Tormes departs from this tradition in its exact descriptions of the contemporary milieu and in the confessional candor of the title character. The portraits of Lázaro’s masters, in particular the blind man, the squire, and the pardoner, are precisely drawn; one is convinced of the actuality of these men, even as one understands their function as representatives of several classes of Spanish society. Lázaro’s self-portrait is the most convincing. He describes his experiences so minutely and accepts his sufferings so humbly that there can be no doubt that the reader is being addressed by the same man who has lived these adventures. One does not question, while reading, how the illiterate son of illiterate parents can so casually allude to the classics during his discourse; one merely enjoys his erudition, his practiced blending of formal address with the minutiae of the streets. The allusions, it is assumed, are convenient phrases he has picked up during a lifetime of surviving by his wits and his tongue. Yet herein lies the romantic illusion of the story and perhaps the essence of its charm, both in the sixteenth century and now: Lazarillo de Tormes simultaneously allows the reader to rub elbows with the oppressed, persevering child of poverty and to be comforted that Lázaro’s life of pain does not lead to early death or to a career of villainy, but rather to mental serenity and the material reward of his clever tactics.
Lazarillo de Tormes spawned many imitations; what was fresh at the origins of the Spanish picaresque became, in a period of some...
(The entire section is 1777 words.)