World Literature

Ramon del Valle-Inclan

 

BORN: Villanueva de Arosa, Spain, 1866

DIED: Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 1936

NATIONALITY: Spanish

GENRE: Drama, Fiction, Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

Femeninas: Seis historias amorosas (Feminines: Six Love Stories) (1895)

Romance de lobos (1908)

Lights of Bohemia (1924)

The Tyrant (1926)

 

 

Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan. Roger Viollet Collection / Getty Images

 

Overview

An acknowledged master of prose style, Ramdn Maria del Valle-Inclan was one of the great modernizers of twentieth-century Spanish drama. He invented a new genre: the esperpento, in which all the elements of drama are satirically distorted to create Goyaesque images of horror and comedy. Conveying a sense of dehumanization and senseless struggle in an irrational world, the esperpentos are now seen as the forerunners of absurdist works such as those of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. In addition to his esperpentos, he is also known for his novels, particularly the Sonatas, a collection of elegantly styled, fictive memoirs of the rakish Marquis de Bradomin.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Restless Spirit in Need of Adventure. Valle-Inclan was born to a family of disinherited aristocrats at Villanueva de Arosa in the region of Spain known as Galicia, and spent his youth in this rugged land of primitive Celtic customs. Educated in Pontevedra, he studied law briefly at the University of Santiago de Compostela, where he also began to write poetry and prose. Often described as restless and eager for adventure, he left for Mexico in 1890, claiming that he went there because ‘‘it was the only country whose name is written with an X.’’ He worked as a journalist in America for three years, then returned to Galicia. In the interim, he transformed his physical appearance: Valle-Inclan now wore long hair, a beard, and a cape, often carried a cane, and presented himself as an eccentric, bohemian writer. After publishing his first book, Femeninas: Seis historias amorosas (1895), he traveled to Madrid and began to move in the capital’s literary circles. By the turn of the century, Valle-Inclan had begun work on his Sonatas, the series of four novels that brought him fame in the early twentieth century. He recorded his impressions of World War I in La media noche (1917), a collection of essays written while he served as a newspaper correspondent on the Western Front.

Dramatic Shift in Style. Valle-Indan’s literary development is generally divided into two periods. The first, extending from 1895 until World War I, is characterized by an end-of-the-century decadence, reminiscent of Barbey d’Aurevilly and Gabriele d’Annunzio. In Femeninas, a collection of love stories, Valle-Inclan employs an exquisite, romantic style while treating erotic themes. Similarly, in the Sonata de otono: Memorias del Marques de Bradomin (1902; Autumn Sonata: Memoirs of the Marquis of Bradomin) he projects an overtly romantic portrait of himself as the Marquis of Bradomin. Also in this period, Valle-Inclan wrote the novel Flor de santidad (Flower of Sanctity; 1904) and the first two dramas known collectively as the comedias barbaras, Aguila de blason (1907) and Romance de lobos (1908), which draw on the traditions and folklore of his native Galicia.

Carlism Stirs Controversy. A controversial aspect of Valle-Inclan’s life is his adherence to Carlism. The Carlists were a branch of the Bourbon dynasty who claimed the right to the Spanish throne and held the most conservative positions with regard to absolutism, Catholicism, and traditionalism. Although Valle-Inclan expressed his support for Carlism in many ways, some critics believe that his commitment to the cause was an aesthetic pose. His La guerra carlista trilogy (1908-1909; The Carlist War), historical novels of the Carlist Wars in Spain—the last major European civil wars—mark a first departure from the eroticism of his earlier works. Included in the trilogy were the novels Los cruzados de la causa (1908, Crusaders of the Cause), Gerifaltes de antano (1909, Gerfalcons of Yore), and El resplandor de la hoguera (1909, The Glow of the Bonfire). In the first novel, which is set in Galicia, Bradomin is a committed Carlist trying to convey weapons to the soldiers. The following novels are set in the Basque and Navarre regions, where the hostilities actually took place. The unforgettable protagonist of El resplandor de la hoguera, the priest Santa Cruz, is a cruel warrior who is depicted as a fanatical and epic hero.

Following World War I, a drastic change took place in Valle-Inclan’s writing. In 1916, he outlined his new aesthetic theory in The Lamp of Marvels. Discarding the Decadents’ notion of the artist as one who finds pleasure in beauty, Valle-Inclan enunciated a disillusioned vision, which he hoped would achieve an objective view of reality and allow things to, in the words of Manuel Salas, ‘‘reveal their flaws and imperfections, their absurdities and dissonances.’’ Following the war, Valle-Inclan wrote his first esperpento, Lights of Bohemia (1924), and also composed dramas and novels, wherein he incorporated the satirical and grotesque elements of the esperpento form.

Esperpentos. In Lights of Bohemia and the esperpentos that followed, Valle-Inclan pursued this aesthetic, producing seriocomic distortions of reality. These later dramas focus on society and its conventions and deal with contemporary life, satirizing institutionalized vice, militarism, political corruption, and human frailty—all of which aligned Valle-Inclan more closely with the socially progressive Generation of 1898. His novels continue in the same spirit, as in The Tyrant (1926), the story of a rebellion in the fictional Latin American state of Tierra Caliente, wherein he analyzes the failures of Spanish society. This is also shown in the first novels of the El reudo iberico cycle, which indict Isabella II’s government. He also composed dramas and novels, wherein he incorporated the satirical and grotesque elements of the esperpento form. He began his El ruedo iberico cycle, a projected series of nine novels, in the late 1920s, but finished only two of the works—La corte de los milagros (1927) and Viva mi duern (1928)—before his death. Ramdn del Valle-Inclan and his wife were divorced in 1932. Valle-Inclan died of bladder cancer on January 5, 1936. He had chosen to return to die in Santiago de Compostela, where he had many friends, and to be buried, rejecting Catholic rites, in its small cemetery.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Valle-Inclan's famous contemporaries include:

Bram Stoker (1847-1912): Irish novelist, short story author, and theater manager who wrote the horror classic Dracula (1897), the most influential interpretation of the vampire myth ever written.

Jack London (1876-1916): American novelist and short- story writer who was one of the first writers to make his living exclusively from his stories. Famous chiefly for his realist, naturalist tales of adventure and man versus the elements in such stories as The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and White Fang (1906).

Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956): French composer, whose first opera, Louise (1900), is also his best known. The opera, depicting the life of the working class, was part of the verismo, or realist, school of opera developing at the time.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936): English novelist and poet who enjoyed tremendous success in his own lifetime for his tales of colonial India and the British Empire. He wrote both children's and adults' stories; today his children's books are generally considered his best work.

Alfonso XIII (1886-1941): Alfonso ruled Spain from his birth to 1931, when the monarchy was abolished and the Second Republic was established. His reign saw the loss of the last of Spain's great overseas colonies in the Spanish-American War and the dictatorship of Primo Rivera.

 

Works in Literary Context

Ramon del Valle-Inclan was one of the most controversial literary figures in Spain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was a reformer of the modern Spanish stage, an inventor of new narrative and dramatic modes, and a highly original re-creator of the Spanish language. Although Valle-Inclan wrote in Spanish, his ties to Galicia and the Galician language are discernible in the themes, vocabulary, and rhythms of his writings.

Generation of ’98. Although a writer of poems, essays, short stories, plays, and novels, RamrSn del Valle-Inclan is most renowned as the prose stylist of the Generation of ’98 whose works most clearly approach the modernist mode. For him there was no clear demarcation between prose and poetry, so his earlier critics argued about whether he should be classified as a modernist or as one of the members of the Generation of ’98, who analyzed Spain’s internal problems in their writings. Though these writers also experimented with aesthetics, they were more motivated to inspire a national consciousness. Because Valle-Inclan exhibited both characteristics in his writings, recent criticism has placed him within both literary camps. With his considerable emphasis on poetic style, it is ironic that only a few collections of poetry appear in his long list of credits; however, these works fit both thematically and stylistically within his overall literary production.

Esperpentos. The term esperpento merits definition. Properly speaking, an object reflected in a concave mirror produces an esperpento—that is, an image distorted, hence grotesque and ridiculous. The esperpento is to reality what the caricature is to the portrait. This term is used by Valle-Inclan to characterize the product of his second style, essentially a humorous caricature of contemporary life. Such a deformation of a realistic genre descends directly from the picaresque. Like the picaresque or rogue novel, it has for its characters every social type from the highest to the lowest. The esperpentos are written in a broken Spanish filled with slang, dialect, interjections, and discordant elements; the dehumanized characters react mechanically in mean and vile ways.

In this form of literature Valle-Inclan shows himself the resolute foe of vice and ignorance, of injustice and oppression, in whatever guise; he takes us with him to visit palace and prison, cafe and saloon, street and square, church and cemetery. Through his pages flit kings and ministers, poets and novelists, Bohemians, and even Valle-Inclan himself, like shadows. He tells us that this form of caricatural vision was invented by the artist Francisco Goya in his sketches included under the motto: ‘‘The sleep of reason engenders monsters.’’ The select and musical diction characteristic of the Sonatas is replaced in the esperpentos by the ampler and more varied speech of common life. The language is rich in slang and the jargon of gypsies and thieves. The grotesque element of the esperpento affords freer scope for the use of the comic, and wider range for the tragic.

An Inspiration to Absurdist Drama. Valle-Inclan’s reputation grew in foreign countries after his death and in Spain during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 to 1975, even though censorship kept the full meaning of his work from being known. Since the political transition to democracy in the 1970s, Valle-Inclan’s work has increasingly attracted the attention of critics, translators, and the general public. However, his success among English-speaking audiences is still greatly limited by a lack of available translations of his works. Despite this, Valle-Inclan is credited with being an important precursor to absurdist theater, inspiring authors such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Tom Stoppard.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Valle-Inclan's esperpentos have been called precursors to the Theater of the Absurd—a designation pertaining to the work of particular European playwrights of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the absurdist works influenced by Valle-Inclan include:

Waiting for Godot (1953), a play by Samuel Beckett. Perhaps the seminal, if not most well-known absurdist work, this play revolves around the cast of characters waiting for the appearance of a central figure who fails to materialize by play's end.

Rhinoceros (1959), a play by Eugene Ionesco. Set in a small French town in which every resident but the main character turns into a rhinoceros, this play is a meditation on conformity and the herd mentality.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), a play by Tom Stoppard. This absurdist tragicomedy follows the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

 

Works in Critical Context

Valle-Inclan’s oeuvre has been discussed by critics largely in terms of temporal divisions. His early works, especially the Sonatas, won him popularity, though some critics disparaged their eroticism. By contrast, other critics regarded Valle-Inclan as one of the most significant writers of his time. Critic L. A. Warren, a contemporary of Valle-Inclan writing in 1929, comments on Valle-Inclan’ place in literature: ‘‘Valle-Inclan comes after Ruben Dario as the leading modernistic writer. He is the most important man of letters in Spain today and is equal in aesthetic merit and interest to Gabriel d’Annunzio.’’ Reaction to Valle-Inclan’s later writing was also mixed. Some scholars objected to the grotesqueness of his esperpentos and the severity of the political satire in his later writings; however, his contemporaries, such as the writer Jose Martinez Ruiz, the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, admired Valle-Inclan for his adept, innovative style and unique use of language. Modern critics have followed these writers in appraising Valle-Inclan: Manuel Salas, for example, has called him ‘‘a musician with words, a sovereign artist, a master stylist.’’ Lights of Bohemia

In an edited volume of the work, Ramon del Valle-Inclan, Luces de Bohemia, its editor, A. Zamora Vincente, expresses the view that one of the most outstanding characteristics of the play is its portrayal of society as a whole, which subsumes the plot and development of individual characters. Literary scholar A. R. Pastor characterizes the novel as ‘‘a powerful and dreamlike vision of the literary underworld of Madrid,’’ and it seems clear that as recent translations make the work more accessible to an English-reading public, admiration for Valle-Inclain’s writing and his ‘‘lonely place in the social literature of our time’’ will only continue to grow.

 

Responses to Literature

1. In what ways does the term esperpento accurately describe Valle-Inclan’s works? Cite specific examples from his work to support your response.

2. What social and political movements and sentiments are evident in Valle-Inclan’s dramas?

3. What is the significance of the title La Marquesa Rosalinda, farsa sentimental y grotesca? Why do you think Valle-Inclan chose it?

4. Research the Generation of ’98. Who were the other notable members of the group? What principles or common stylistic traits united them? What qualities, if any, did Valle-Inclan have that made him unique among the group?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Lima, Robert. Valle-Inclan: The Theatre of His Life. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988.

Maier, Carol, and Roberta L. Salper, eds. Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan: Questions of Gender. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

Vila, Xavier. Valle-Inclan and the Theatre: Innovation in La Cabeza del dragcin, El Embrujado, and La Marquesa Rosalinda. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1994.

Periodicals

Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Volume 33, 1956, pp. 152-164; July 1962, pp. 177-187; Volume 46, number 2, 1969, pp. 132-152.

Drama Critique, Spring 1966, pp. 69-78.

Drama Survey, Spring-Summer 1967, pp. 3-23. Hispania, May 1961, pp. 266-268; September 1974, p. 600.

International P. E. N. Bulletin of Selected Books, Volume 21, number 1, 1970, pp. 108-112.

Modern Language Quarterly, September 1964, pp. 330-337.