Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476
The sixteenth century in Spain brought a flood of idealistic novels as well as the first picaresque novel, which was introduced with Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554. Although religious censorship under Philip II discouraged imitators of Lazarillo de Tormes for a time, the king’s death allowed writers to react against idealistic and didactic fiction and to turn to realistic and satirical novels. The author of one of the best, Guzmán de Alfarache, was Mateo Alemán (ahl-ay-MAHN), who as the son of a prison doctor of Seville had learned about rogues as a child. Trying to follow in his father’s profession, Alemán succumbed to love affairs and debts for which he was jailed three times, the first in Seville in 1580.
Many scholars believe that during Alemán’s second imprisonment, in Seville in 1602, Miguel de Cervantes was a fellow prisoner. The two have many points in common: They were born within a few days of each other, they studied under the same teacher, and they wrote at the same time. Perhaps both were in the army in Italy, and it is known that both sought assignments in the New World, Alemán successfully. There he died, perhaps within a year of the death of his great contemporary.
Where they differ is in the tone of their writing. Alemán was lacking in love for humankind and in a philosophy to compensate for life’s trials. His writing has the cruel, heartless quality of the picaresque tradition. Guzmán, a rogue of Seville, wanders as widely as his author did, lying and stealing in Madrid, Toledo, and Rome, where he was beggar, page to a cardinal, and servant of the French ambassador. More important than the plot, however, are the keen observations of life at all social levels, accompanied by a wealth of folk material, proverbs, customs, and philosophical interpolations. The book’s chief flaw is its moralizing, inserted so that it might pass the scrutiny of clerical censorship.
The story pattern, a series of incidents strung like beads on the personality of its chief character, became the model followed by many Spanish authors since. In Germany, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing commented on its greatness, and it also influenced French writers. For some time the book’s part 1 far surpassed Cervantes’ Don Quixote in popularity, going into a score of editions in five years and provoking a spurious sequel in 1602, two years before Alemán published his own sequel. The character of the protagonist is more thoroughly developed than that of Lazarillo de Tormes but compares less favorably because of its digressions, its bitterness, and its literary rather than popular language.
In 1608 Alemán obtained permission to emigrate to Mexico, where a relative was already established. There he wrote a book on Spanish spelling and some religious tracts. He died unrecorded in any official document.
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