Biography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893

Novelist and essayist Juan Benet (buh-NEHT) was one of the leading figures in what has been termed the “New Wave” of Spanish literature. Benet, whose full name was Juan Benet Goitia, was born in Madrid in 1927, the son of Tomas Benet and Teresa Goitia. Benet’s childhood was dramatically affected...

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Novelist and essayist Juan Benet (buh-NEHT) was one of the leading figures in what has been termed the “New Wave” of Spanish literature. Benet, whose full name was Juan Benet Goitia, was born in Madrid in 1927, the son of Tomas Benet and Teresa Goitia. Benet’s childhood was dramatically affected by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. His father was killed early in the conflict. His family left Madrid and settled for the duration of the war in San Sebastian, where Benet began his education. After the war’s end, Benet returned with his family to Madrid, where he continued his studies and in 1948 enrolled in the University of Madrid’s School of Civil Engineering.{$S[A]Goitia, Juan Benet;Benet, Juan}

Throughout his youth, Benet’s older brother, Francisco, was an important shaper of the future author’s literary tastes, recommending books and encouraging Benet’s pursuit of a personal literary education to complement his university studies in engineering. Among those writers whose works would later have a profound influence on Benet’s own were William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and Herman Melville. As a university student, Benet moved in circles that included many of Spain’s leading young writers and intellectuals, and his own literary career began in 1953 with the publication of his short play Max.

Benet graduated from the University of Madrid in 1954. He then moved to the northwest of Spain, where he remained until 1966 as a director of public works. The area of Spain in which he lived during those years became the inspiration for Región, the mythical setting of the majority of Benet’s novels. Often compared with Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Región has been described as a microcosm of Spain and Spanish society at the time of the civil war, with overtones of the decadence that would follow the war under Francisco Franco’s rule.

The first of Benet’s works set in Región is a collection of short stories. Published in 1961, Nunca llegarás a nada (you will never get anywhere) introduces Región and its inhabitants and establishes the themes and literary style that would inform Benet’s later work. The year after Benet left northern Spain for Madrid, the first of the Región novels, Return to Región, appeared. A difficult and enigmatic work now acclaimed as perhaps his finest book, Return to Región examines the legacy of the Civil War in modern Spain. Not widely read when it first appeared, the book benefited from the broad critical acclaim that greeted Benet’s second Región novel, A Meditation, which received the Seix Barral Prize.

Both novels demonstrate the complex use of language and literary allusions that have become the hallmarks of Benet’s work. Like Faulkner’s style, Benet’s is characterized by sentences that often continue for pages, imagery rich in references to a wide range of classical and modern authors, and an obsession with the dual themes of time and memory. Benet followed A Meditation with Una tumba (a tomb), a novella cast in the mold of the ghost story, and Un viaje de invierno (a winter journey) and La otra casa de Mazón (the Mazón’s other house), the third and fourth entries in the Región series.

Benet was also acclaimed for his short fiction, and in the early 1970’s he published Cinco narraciones y dos fábulas (five narratives and two fables) and Sub rosa, followed in 1977 by his fifth novel, En el estado (in the state). A two-volume collection of stories, Cuentos completos (complete stories), appeared that same year, followed in 1978 by Del pozo y del Numa: Un ensayo y una leyenda (of the well and of Numa: an essay and a legend), which contains a novella centered on El Numa, a character from Return to Región.

Benet also earned a reputation as one of Spain’s foremost essayists, publishing several collections of literary and social criticism. Among the most important are La inspiración y el estilo (inspiration and style), El ángel del Señor abandona a Tobías (the angel of the Lord abandons Tobit), La moviola de Eurípides (Euripides’ replay machine), ¿Qué fue la guerra civil? (what was the civil war?), and Articulos, 1962-1977 (articles, 1962-1977).

Saúl ante Samuel (Saul before Samuel), published in 1980, continued the Región series, while El aire de un crimen (air of a crime) represented a departure by Benet from his usual, inaccessible style—a fact that won for its author a host of new readers. These novels were followed by two collections of short stories, Trece fábulas y media (thirteen and a half fables) and Una tumba y otros relatos (a tomb and other tales), a novella entitled En la penumbra (in the shadow), and the beginning of a multivolume series, Herrumbrosas lanzas, I-VI (rusty lances), which won Spain’s prestigious Premio de la Critica award in 1984. Also set in Región at the time of the Civil War, the novels in that series are written in the more accessible style that marks El aire de un crimen and seemed certain to enhance Benet’s reputation as one of Spain’s most important literary figures. His career was cut short, however, when he died of cancer in 1993 at the age of sixty-five.

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