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.