Ramón Pérez de Ayala y Fernández del Portal was born on August 9, 1880, in Oviedo, a major city of the mountainous Asturian region in the northwest of Spain—a region whose natural beauty would later find lyric expression in his novels. At the age of eight, he was sent to the Jesuit school of San Zoilo in nearby Carrión de los Condes. After studying there for two years, he went on to finish his baccalaureate at the Jesuit Colegio de la Inmaculada in Gijón, where he remained until the age of fourteen. His studies under the Jesuits, particularly in Greek, Latin, and the classics, gave him the basis of a sound humanistic education.
On the other hand, Pérez de Ayala would always consider the rigors of the Jesuit system of education to have done permanent damage to his sensitive nature. His second novel, A.M.D.G., whose title is taken from the Jesuit motto, “ad majorem dei gloriam” (to the greater glory of God), is bitterly critical of that early educational experience. The author later described himself as having possessed an inquisitive and discontented nature—thus earning the nickname the Anarchist.
After four years at the Jesuit school in Gijón, Pérez de Ayala returned to Oviedo to study law at the university under what was at that time a highly distinguished faculty. After finishing his courses in law, he traveled to England, where he wrote, read, and dabbled in painting. His sojourn was interrupted by the suicide of his father following the collapse of the bank in which his money was invested. It may have been as a result of this family tragedy that Pérez de Ayala decided to become a professional writer. At any rate, he moved to Madrid intending to study for a doctorate in law at the university, and there he became acquainted with the major literary figures of his time. In 1903, he helped found the journal Helios and went on to collaborate in many of the leading periodicals of the epoch. He published his first book of poetry, La paz del sendero, in 1904 and his first novel, Tinieblas en las cumbres (darkness on the heights), shortly thereafter. In 1911, he obtained a grant to study art in Germany and Italy. It was in Italy that he met the American Mabel Rick; in 1913, they were married in the United States. By this time, he had written his four autobiographical novels and was about to enter what he himself later called a “transitional phase” in his life andnarrative.
During this transitional period, Pérez de Ayala replaced personal themes with political ones, prompted by the outbreak of World War I as well as by his increasing involvement in Spanish politics. He visited the Italian front as a war correspondent and in 1917 published a collection of essays, Hermann, encadenado (Hermann, enchained), based on those experiences. In general, the many essays Pérez de Ayala wrote between 1913 and 1919 represent an attempt to gain a philosophical perspective on human history. His novels Prometheus, Sunday Sunlight, and The Fall of the House of Limón belong to this phase of his career. Between 1919 and 1920, Pérez de Ayala again traveled in the United States, sending articles to newspapers in Madrid.
The third period of Pérez de Ayala’s career as a novelist stretched from 1921 until 1926, and it was during those years that he wrote his three major novels. His last full-length novel, Tiger Juan, received the National Prize for Literature in 1926. In 1928, Pérez de Ayala published his last known work of fiction, the short novel Justicia; in the remaining thirty-four years of his life, he published no more fiction. This prolonged silence continues to puzzle critics and biographers, who attribute it in part to Pérez de Ayala’s disillusionment over the Spanish Civil War and the fall of the Second Spanish Republic, an ideal for which he and many of his literary colleagues had worked. Pérez de Ayala served the Republic as ambassador to London from 1931 until his resignation in 1936, upon the outbreak of the civil war.
Pérez de Ayala then spent the war years, 1936 to 1939, abroad, and during the next fifteen years, he would return to Madrid only for brief visits, taking up residence in France, Lima, and Buenos Aires and continuing to publish newspaper articles on a variety of topics. After his final return to Madrid in 1954, he lived a quiet and private life, receiving a few friends, reading classical literature, and publishing occasional articles on cultural topics in a Madrid paper. By the time of his death on August 5, 1962, he had been virtually forgotten by the literary world.