Monday, 25 May 2015

Torrente Ballester

Nowadays a search at brings up lots of titles on Gonzalo Torrent Ballester. But it was not always so.

“Our writer is famous, he’s granted considerable importance, he’s a member of the Academy, has an undisputed place in Spanish Letters, loyal readers, unconditional admirers, awards, cathedrae; nevertheless in spite of all this he’s a poorly known, badly studied, summarily analyzed writer. When one tries to compile data or consult a solid bibliography on his artistic production, one finds a haunting void: short chapters on his work with a general feel where his most recent books aren’t even mentioned, poorly nuanced judgment calls that repeat themselves over and over from one manual to another, casual articles in specialized reviews that gloss some of his concrete novels. Nothing definite that could be considered an authentic documentation, like a rigorous analysis of his literary figure.”

So averred Alicia Giménez, who in 1981 wrote Torrente Ballester, a “small work of incitement, of provocation,” in the hopes that more scholars would start studying this magnificent novelist’s oeuvre. Me, I read it because I wanted to learn a bit more about GTB and this struck me as a decent introduction.

This book, by the way, is out of print and I got my copy, of all places, from Birkbeck College, University of London. Why was it there? I don’t know. The inner side of the back cover informs me that a whopping two people withdrew the book before the librarians, I suppose, gave it away to a charity shop that put it on sale online: on January 31, 1983, and October 3, 1986. Something tells me the studies Giménez clamored for won’t be found in the Birkbeck College archives. Assuming these library members didn’t end up like my former classmates, who simply gave up on reading after their graduation (they still talk about the books they read a decade ago…) I keep imagining that they visit blogs, will visit mine, read this post in particular and think, hey, I read that on 31.1.83! Perhaps someone will talk about this in Facebook and word will spread around: someone who knows someone who knows someone who read this book on -3 OCT. 1986. I hear the social networks work for that too. And then I’ll find out why they withdrew this book from the Birkbeck College library.

But while I wait for the rendezvous I’ll just share some tidbits from Giménez’ little book.

GTB was born in El Ferrol, Galicia, in 1910. “He had a childhood rich in imaginative experiences, without traumas or painful family events,” Giménez assures me. Ah, damn it! “In his teens he awakened to a great interest in culture and art.” Oh, so he’s one of those, I should have known. No abusive relatives, no kidnapping, no honour killings in the family, no starvation, no forced emigration, not even a snake bite that left him in a coma or at least delirious and talking to angels and demons; zilch, zero, nada, a blind spot right there in his biography, the next interesting date is his going to college to study Law in Oviedo seventeen years later. That’s in 1927. He’s like Jesus Christ, when they make his movie they’re gonna have to make stuff up about his childhood. This isn’t a page turner, no wonder it only had two withdrawals from Birkbeck College library. I mean just read him in his own words: “My parents took me to the theatre from an early age (according to my father the theatre thought us about life) and while we waited for the show to begin my ears listened to the orchestra and my eyes gazed on Harlequin, on Pierrot, on Columbine, on the set and ornaments because everything exerted a hardly explainable attraction on me. The room in that theatre was one of the few places where I was entirely happy, where I felt the plenitude of life.” Phooey!

So what did he do in Oviedo’s Law School? Got in brawls? Stage student revolts? Kill others in duels? Join illegal organizations? “He got in touch with vanguard writers thanks to works that reached his hands from that city’s Athenaeum, works which compelled in him an interest for new tendencies.” Oh, OK. Let me just adjust my expectations and we can continue without further monkey business. In Oviedo he also started writing for a periodical called El Carbayón, the first of many newspaper collaborations that would become integral to his supporting himself and staying in touch with the public.

But then his family moved to Vigo, a town whose cultural dead end made him travel regularly to Madrid where he mingled, without participating intensely, in circles that include the poets Rafael Alberti and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the novelist Valle-Inclán. In 1931 his family made another move to a small village called Bueu, whose circle of intellectuals he’d later portray in his Galdosian trilogy Los Gozos y las Sombras. “He reads a lot. He debates. He writes diaries heavily influenced by Unamuno,” informs Giménez. Next year he married; after a honeymoon in Valencia he returned to Galicia to work as a private teacher (14 hours a day), a career he frequently later transposed to his novels. Badly paid and overworked, those were not happy times for him. “He considers himself exploited,” Giménez writes (whispers) somberly.

In 1935, after completing a History degree, he become an Ancient History teacher at the University of Santiago, a beautiful place I recommend to all tourists. The cathedral is not bad, either. Around this time he also received the opportunity to travel to Paris to compile material for a doctoral thesis. Parisian cultural life charmed him, but the deflagration of the Civil War put a damper on his joy. Returning to Galicia, he resumed his teaching and joined the Nationalists. “The situation of his native land, Galicia, in Nationalist hands, makes him side with the reactionaries. He signs up as a falangista. Throughout most of the war he’ll remain in the rear teaching at the Instituto de Enseñanza Media,” Giménez indicates. But his relationship with the falangistas was never smooth. In the beginning, during the war, he even managed to publish his first book of essays, Razón y Ser de la dramática futura (1937). He also started writing for a magazine called Escorial, as if foreshadowing his future situation (escorial means heap of refuse. It’s also the name of a famous 16th century monument). At first GTB supported the Nationalists, believing that the country needed stability; so he adopted its values and ideas, hoping that the sooner things returned back to normal the sooner he could continue to pursue the life of the mind. Apparently he tried to remain apart from the conflict as much as possible, devoting himself solely to intellectual matters; around this time he joined a group called Jerarquía, which believed Franco’s Spain would help revitalize Spanish culture and art. In time, though, their positions started clashing with the establishment, leading to GTB’s disillusionment with the victors and the realization that Franco heralded many things but certainly not a haven for intellectuals. Problems began in 1938 when he published his first play, El Viaje del joven Tobias; It was denounced as heretical by the Archbishop of Toledo and almost faced censorship, not because of politics, but because “it was a poetical decontextualized interpretation of a Biblical theme.” There was an upswing in 1939 with him receiving a prize for a second play, El casamiento engañoso, but from here on it’d all go downhill.

After the war ended he continued teaching but started facing problems with the regime’s censorship. In 1943, living in El Ferrol again, he published his first novel, Javier Mariño, which the regime censored and later forbid from circulating in bookstores, remaining on sale for only 20 days. Apropos of censorship, GTB later told in an interview that he had his mind “deformed by self-censorship,” a situation he claimed was shared by many other Spanish writers of his era. Although in his case, thinking about the amazing imagination, vitality, humour and transgression of his works, he never gives the impression he’s holding anything back. Ironically, from Giménez’ description the novel seemed to contain very little that the regime would find objectionable. “The plot of his first novel, Javier Mariño,” she explains since I never read it, “is not far from his personal reality: a Galician young man contemplates from Paris with intellectual alienation and a certain cynicism the turn that the early events of the civil war take. Little by little he finds a personal conviction of what his duties are and he returns to Spain ready to fight for those ideals which end up becoming his. Torrente was not a Galician young man and did not contemplate the war with cynicism but with concerned weariness: the war, the division of intellectuals, the disruption of cultural life, the need to adopt a political posture will stop him from doing with normalcy what he desires the most, what he needs the most, what he only cares about passionately: work, read, write, insert himself totally in the intellectual world.” According to her, the novel is execrable and heavy-handed with the Nationalists portrayed as angelical and the communists as vicious. “Its ideological content carries a clearly partisan and reactionary message,” she asserts, implying also that GTB has pretty much disowned it. “The few scholars who have studied Javier Mariño have been more indulgent with it than the author himself, who thinks it’s bad and that he wouldn’t have printed it for his complete works if it hadn’t been necessary for their totalizing purpose.” The curse of complete works! Why do people have to be so fussy about the meaning of words?

In 1944 GTB helped (or was helped) translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and the following year he came back with a second novel, El Golpe de Estado de Guadalupe Limón. Giménez cottons more to this novel, which I have also not yet read. Noticing similarities with Valle-Inclán’s esperpento, she calls it “a story of love and intrigue, told in a farcical vein and located in a South American country” that demonstrates the folly of political utopias and the chasm between idealism and the actual facts of a revolution. And she adds that “the book is a satire” without a rigid worldview, marking the birth of GTB with the ironical and comical traits that will become his trademark.

New books continued to come out: El retorno de Ulisses (1946) and Iphigenia (1949), without enthusiastic reviews or strong sales; print runs were small and were not reprinted for years. As you can also surmise from the titles, GTB was rather fascinated by ancient myths. In fact in 1947, after a stint teaching Ancient History, which is impressive already, he upgraded to something called Universal History in Madrid’s Naval War School. In 1949 he also published a non-fiction book, Literatura española contemporánea, a survey of then-contemporary Spanish fiction where, it seems, he dragged many famous names through red-hot coals. Years later this is what he had to say about the book: “At last it was written and published the first edition of Literatura española contemporánea, which had three main effects: irritating many people, pleasing no one and isolating me immediately amongst the critics. My situation in the Spanish literary world had never been comfortable. Without increasing in wit, it became even more uncomfortable.”

Ostracized from Spanish intellectual circles, and also resenting the country’s cultural isolationism and backwardness, during these years he made periodical trips to Paris and London to buy contemporary fiction and to stay up to date on new literary trends. Unable to make a living from fiction, he continued teaching and also got an extra gig writing theatrical reviews (“a role for which he’ll be famous and much admired,” Giménez writes) for Arriba magazine and the National Radio. After a long hiatus, in 1957 he published the first volume of a Galdosian/Naturalist trilogy called Los gozos y las sombras: El señor llega. Like its predecessors, the book was not a success; and to make matters worse, his wife passed away a year later.

With his personal life and literary career in shambles, he was just about ready to give up writing. In 2 years El señor llega had only sold 700 copies. “I considered myself definitely dead as a writer,” he later stated. Regarding his insecurity as an author, Giménez adds: “Torrente was late in believing in himself, and unlike many Spanish writers he never had an inflexibly good opinion of his past works; he always performed a severe self-criticism which sometimes struck us as too excessive. Even now he publicly thanks his editor for his confidence in him (a rather unusual phenomenon), and even stated more than once that his successes ‘surprised him’ as if he had never truly deserved them.”

But then in 1959 he received a major award with a monetary value attached to it. This allowed him to go on sabbatical and devote himself to the second volume of the trilogy: Donde da la vuelta el aire. It was like holidays, he even took a trip to Mallorca (hey, if you can afford a sunny paradise, why not?). In 1960 he married again, and honeymooned in France and Germany. Upon his return he wrote the trilogy’s finale, La Pascua Triste, published in 1962 and duly censored for political reasons. In the same year Asturian miners held strikes and organized uprisings that the regime quickly quelled, furthermore imposing a silence on the matter. This prompted a group of intellectuals, GTB included, to issue a document requesting more information about the occurrence; they not only distributed their text inside Spain but also managed to get it published abroad, embarrassing the regime’s image. In order to punish one of the co-signers as an example, they stripped GTB of all his jobs: teaching, theatrical reviewer, etc. Don’t forget that at the time he didn’t yet live off his writing.

To get by he made translations, and in the meantime wrote his next novel. Moving away from Naturalism, in 1963 he published Don Juan, another critical and commercial failure. Here’s what Giménez makes of it: “Torrente Ballester had the horrible audacity of creating a fictional book, made of imagination from start to finish, a book where fantasy, the confusing game of reality-unreality was a constant, the sole raison d’être. Amidst rural dramas, unbridled passions, dark psychological portraits, emotional conflicts and characters plucked from life itself, that unheard-of recreation of the Don Juan myth was an island, an oxymoron, something that had come out no one knew where from nor for what.” These circumstances no doubt made it easier for him to accept a teaching position at the University of Albany. In 1966 he moved to the USA.“Torrente Ballester moves on because he’s a victim of injustice, but of the injustice that has turned Spain into a country where indifference, neglect, censorship and the cultural deformation are the only prizes that the man of thought receives.”

Unfortunately she doesn’t discuss the American years with the detail I’d like; I’m very curious to know what books he read, what writers he met, if any at all, what he thought of US literature. I think his trip to America was of the utmost importance for his future novels, considering their similarities with the type of novels John Barth and Thomas Pynchon were writing at the time. In the USA he only published one novel, the 1968 Off-Side, a long novel which Giménez describes as one of raw realism, investigating for-the-time taboo subjects like homosexuality, and curious about the society’s seedier aspects like crime and fraud. Again the novel received no acclaim and did not captive the public.

Returning to Spain because of his mother’s declining health, he stayed and started teaching History of Literature in Madrid. Then in 1972 he published his masterpiece, La Saga/Fuga de J.B. This is the start of the GTB I know; the novel is a major success, he receives awards for it and it puts him on the map forever. It was a huge surprise for him, who before publication had written to his long-suffering editor: “It is the most difficult and the most intellectual of my novels. I don’t think many will like it. If you agree with me return it to me without problem, because I don’t want to be responsible for an economic failure like Don Juan and Off-Side.” But reviews were stellar and the success unexpected and tremendous.

La Saga… arrives at a moment of crisis in our Letters,” writes Giménez as she explains what made this unexpected success so important. “Known writers have cocooned themselves in their styles, writing works that although possessing intrinsic quality, do not manage at any time to move beyond their horizon-frontier, nor do they succeed in changing the national panorama that remains static. Each one does exactly what he’s expected to do, sometimes better, sometimes not. Younger talents don’t show up: whenever they exist they’re refused entrance through the editorial door which is going through an economic crunch and which refuses to take chances based on personal trust. On the other hand, the South American boom continues strong, although more moderate, and the works of Latin American writers continue to meet the readers’ favour.” Then GTB, in his sixties, showed up with a gigantic novel that, in my meager knowledge of Spanish-Language South American literature, only has equals with One Hundre Years of Solitude and Terra Nuestra. “This novel,” she continues, “imposed imagination without ever forgetting an erudite backbone, decreed humour from satire to the absurd as a narrative golden rule and, taken in conjunction, resulted in an authentic explosion of entertainment, ideas, poetry and new formal possibilities.”

As it is, the La Saga/Fuga de J.B was just the beginning of a fantastic trilogy; and although the following volumes did not reach the heights of their predecessor, they were nevertheless intelligent bestsellers that confirmed GTB’s position in Spanish Letters and that constitute fine novels in their own right. For Giménez, the fantastic in his oeuvre means “the interchange and the interrelationship of levels of reality and imagination in a diffused location, usually invented, where a weakly painted plot fuses myths, legends, true history, human peculiarities, thoughts and personal experiences with pure inventions and dreams.” After a brief return to the USA, by 1973 he was back living in Vigo. The seventies were a productive decade that saw him publish a book-essay on Don Quixote, one of his favorite novels, El Quijote como juego (1975), where he explores Cervantes’ novel as an intellectual game. Indeed, GTB once asked, “Is it really that hard to admit that this writing stuff is nothing but a game?” This is one of my favourite writing quotes, by the way. Then in 1977 he published Fragmentos de Apocalipsis, a remarkable meta-fictional novel for which I have a special predilection. That same year he received membership for the Royal Spanish Academy, giving a lecture entitled “On the Novel and its Art.” Joining the establishment did not diminish his skills and he continued to write many interesting novels until he passed away in 1999. Giménez’ book stops in 1981, with La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, concluding the fantastic trilogy. My review can be found here. As for what he wrote afterwards, well you’re going to have to wait for my future reviews. But I hope this gives you a new appreciation for an extraordinary novelist who must be translated into English.


  1. Thanks for this write-up! I am planning to read and subsequently review Saga/Fuga for my blog (which is why I still haven't read your piece, sorry) because it's one of those works that have fallen through the cracks: it does not exist in the frame of reference of the English language reader, it's not as well known as it should be. Your enthusiasm for this author is infectious, and I'm sure I'll be reading more of his works.

    1. My pleasure. The more bloggers championing GTB the better; we'll still make him a household name, damn it!