Ramón María del Valle-Inclán was born Ramón José Simón Valle Peña in Villanueva de Arosa, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain, on October 28, 1866. His father, Ramón Valle Bermúdez, was an amateur writer and a seaman. Both of his parents belonged to distinguished families; it was from their names that he created his authorial name and the aristocratic titles he bestowed on himself: Ramón María del Valle-Inclán y Montenegro, Marqués del Valle, Vixconde de Viexín, and Señor del Caramiñal. These were names that also reflected his ties to Galicia, a region that is still known for its myths and legends, for the survival of its Celtic, pagan substratum, and for the rural, medieval ambience that characterizes both the many tiny farms of its mountainous interior and the small ports—such as Villanueva de Arosa—that dot its rocky coast. The landscape and the culture are often likened to those of Ireland and northern England, and their stamp on Valle-Inclán’s work was strong and lasting. From his earliest writing, he seemed to identify both with Galicia’s rural, oral tradition and with that of its declining aristocracy.
The Galician language also survives in Valle-Inclán’s work, for although he wrote only a few poems in his regional tongue, he infused Spanish with the Galician vocabulary, syntax, and tone. Like other writers of his generation who were not born in central Spain, he brought a critical vision to bear on the crisis confronting the nation; unlike most of his contemporaries, however, his harshness toward Castile never softened. He lived a large part of his life outside Galicia but continued to return and to stay for varying lengths of time.
Valle-Inclán first left Galicia in 1890, when he went to Madrid. He had studied law for two years in Santiago de Compostela, but he left the university after the death of his father. Although he had published a few short stories as a student, and he published a few others while he was in Madrid, it was during a trip to Mexico in 1892 that his career as a writer truly began, with the stories and newspaper articles that he wrote and published there. In 1895, after a period of several years in Pontevedra, where the library of one of his father’s friends enabled him to read widely in contemporary European literature, he published his first book, Femeninas. The following year, he went back to Madrid, where he began to establish himself as a writer. He frequented artists’ cafés; made friends with artists, critics, and writers (including the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío); and soon acquired a singular reputation for his extravagant bohemian appearance; his highly articulate, witty, and forthright opinions; and his famous lisp.
Because there is no definitive biography of Valle-Inclán and because he deliberately elaborated a complicated and at times contradictory series of anecdotes about his experiences, it is difficult to speak with certainty about many of the details of his life. It is certain, however, that he lived in Madrid from 1896 until 1912. During those years, he lost his right arm after a skirmish with another writer, Manuel Bueno. He published extensively, both fiction and drama, and was active in the theater. There he met the actor Josefina Blanco, whom he married in 1907. In 1910, he accompanied his wife’s theater company to South America and in Buenos Aires delivered a series of lectures about aesthetics.
In 1912, Valle-Inclán decided to move his family to Galicia; the first two of his six children had been born, and despite his publications and growing literary reputation, his financial situation was precarious. He continued to live in the north until 1924, although on many occasions he left to travel. In 1916, for example, as a correspondent for the Madrid newspaper El imparcial, he journeyed to France and the Allied war fronts. In 1921, at the invitation of the Mexican government, he made his second trip to Mexico, to participate in the centennial celebration of Mexican independence. While he was there, he created no small consternation among the representatives of “Official Spain” by publicly supporting a popular land reform designed to break up large estates, many of which were held by wealthy Spaniards. This outspokenness was consistent with Valle-Inclán’s lifelong articulation of his convictions, which were often both controversial and apparently contradictory. His opinions, which would be echoed directly in The Tyrant, reflect the increasingly social and political nature of his writing in the years following the trip to France. These were years of intense creative work; in 1920 alone he published four plays, two of which, Divine Words and Bohemian Lights, are among his finest.
In 1924, Valle-Inclán returned once again to Madrid, where for nearly all the next decade he continued to write prolifically and develop as a writer. Although he was never wealthy, for a time his writing brought economic security as well as considerable esteem. His outspoken comments continued, in particular his opposition to the military dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera; three of Valle-Inclán’s plays were banned by the censors, and in 1929 he spent several days in a Madrid jail. After the dictatorship ended, Valle-Inclán tried unsuccessfully for a seat in the constituent Cortes, representing one of Galicia’s districts as a member of one of the newly founded republican parties. The republican government, however, was to honor him with an appointment as director of the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, a position he held for almost two years, between 1933 and 1935. During this time, both his financial position and his personal life were difficult; he had divorced his wife, and he was quite ill with health problems that had plagued him for many years. In 1935, he returned to Galicia, where he continued to work on El ruedo ibérico and to receive friends at the sanatorium where he was hospitalized until his death from cancer on January 5, 1936.
The task of presenting an objective biography of Ramón José Simón Valle Peña (later Ramón María del Valle-Inclán) is complicated by his extravagant appearance and his mania for projecting a distorted anecdotal view of his own life. His noble origin exerted a strong influence on his social views, and the folklore, superstitions, and natural beauty of his native Galicia provided him with the material for many of his works. His life in that province, in combination with a sophisticated, intellectual orientation developed through reading and frequenting Madrid’s literary cafés while he resided in the capital, helped to shape his artistic vision. The young Valle-Inclán soon abandoned the requisite study of law for a literary career. Journalistic endeavors provided income in periods of economic hardship. By 1895, Valle-Inclán was living in Madrid, where he led a bohemian existence. His interest in theater, a reflection of the theatricality of his own lifestyle, led him to attempt acting and playwriting. His marriage to the actress Josefina Blanco helped solidify his contact with the world of theater; he was to write more regularly in that genre than in any other. In 1912, Valle-Inclán returned to Galicia, where he found the inspiration for his finest works in all genres. He twice ran for political office—once as an archtraditionalist and later as a radical—but was unsuccessful each time. The turmoil of the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and of the Second Republic that followed was echoed in his personal life. The 1930’s were marked by his separation from his wife, by economic straits, and by ill health. He spent some time as director of the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts in Rome but had to relinquish that post because of medical problems. He returned again to his native Galicia, where he died in 1936.