Review: Lazarillo de Tormes

Review: Lazarillo de Tormes

La vida del Lazarillo de TormesLa vida del Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One can imagine the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes sitting down to write in a mood similar to that of Erasmus when he penned In Praise of Folly, or of Voltaire when he composed Candide: full of the wry amusement of one engaged in a learned, witty, and irreverent literary exercise. And yet this book, like those other two, quickly became something far more than an elegant diversion. For with Lazarillo the author spawned an entire literary genre, the picaresque, creating a character and a story that have retained their charms long after the targets of the author’s satire have passed out of this world.

The most conspicuous target of the author’s derision is the church—which is likely why the author wished to remain unknown. Pardoners, priests, friars, and chaplains are exposed as hypocritical sinners—as gluttons, profligates, and fornicators, with a pious word for everybody. But the writer also takes aim at the inflated sense of honor that infected society in his day, which most famously compels a starving knight to go about town, pretending to be well off, preferring to suffer and even to die rather than have his poverty revealed.

We see all this through the eyes of Lázaro, a man of humble origins whose highest ambition is to have a full belly. This proves extremely difficult, however, as he goes from one master to another, each of them proving unable or unwilling to satisfactorily feed the ravenous rogue. Like all picaresque heroes, Lázaro is, at bottom, simple and good, with a robust and hearty humor, but who is nevertheless forced into cunning and trickery by hard circumstances. This formula—so successful in the age of television—was used to its full potential in its first historical appearance. Even through the difficult lens of old Castilian, Lázaro’s schemes to steal some crumbs of bread or some swigs of wine are still wonderfully funny.

But the novella is more than a slapstick comedy. The necessities of his belly and the earthiness of his mind allow Lázaro to penetrate all the hypocrisies of those around him—since, after all, hypocritical words cannot be eaten. Lázaro thus proves the ideal vessel for exposing the gulf between being and seeming. The reality he faces is bleak: full of sin, suffering, and poverty. And yet his society is in a state of constant denial, covering up this bleak reality with noble phrases and unheeded pieties. That this is more or less always the case in human life is why this book remains one of the jewels of Spanish literature.

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Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Review: Rimas y Leyendas

Rimas y leyendasRimas y leyendas by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I know a hymn, giant and strange, that announces an aurora in the soul’s night; and these pages are from that hymn: cadences which expand in the overshadowed air.

Bécquer is an example of that species of national writers, almost universally known in their own countries, almost universally obscure elsewhere. Here in Spain he is the second most commonly assigned author in schools, only bested by Cervantes himself. But how many readers—even avid readers—outside of Hispanophone countries even know his name?

For an iconic Spaniard, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer has a curiously Germanic name; change a few letters and you have Gustav Adolf Becker. Indeed, “Bécquer” wasn’t the name he was born with, but one he adopted later in life. (It was his father’s mother’s last name, of Flemish origin.) To me this Germanic tinge is singularly appropriate, since Bécquer was a prophet of Romanticism, an intellectual movement I most strongly associate with German authors.

Notwithstanding this Teutonic whiff, the writer who, in many ways, most closely resembles Bécquer is Edgar Allen Poe: both of them are authors of creepy tales and charming verses. Romantic writers to the bone, they both died relatively young (Bécquer at 34, Poe at 40), although Bécquer perhaps beats Poe by never having achieved widespread fame during his lifetime. This book, Bécquer’s most famous, is a collection of his most popular short stories (“Legends”) and several dozen short poems (“Rhymes”). Poetry was his first and truest love. Yet, as befalls so many of us, penury forced him into prose.

I read the Legends before the Rhymes. These are distinguished, most of all, by their atmosphere. The plot, the dialogue, the characters, the description—everything is subordinate to a certain mood, a mood of mystery and foreboding. The characters wander, wide-eyed and wondering, through haunted glades, enchanted monasteries, and cursed dens. And as is so common in literature written by men, beautiful women are mixed up with these demonic haunts; and Bécquer’s women are always surpassingly beautiful—with pure white skin and pure black hair. Added to this medieval twilight is a strong dose of Spanish Catholicism: beautiful Jewish and Moorish maids are whisked away by their Christian paramours, saved from their heathen fathers.

Some examples might illustrate these tales. In “El Rayo de Luna,” a wandering poet, who walks aimlessly from dawn to dusk in his aesthetic quest, encounters a beautiful woman, chases her until she mysteriously disappears, and then spends the rest of his life comparing everything to “a moonbeam.” In “Tres Fechas,” the Narrator spends most of his time in extended descriptions of old buildings in Toledo, only to be interrupted, three times, by a fleeting vision of a beautiful woman—with ivory-white skin, of course—until finally he encounters her taking the vows of a nun. In “Creed en Dios,” a young atheist kills a priest, gets lost in a forest, is overwhelmed by a cosmic vision, and suddenly awakens to find that generations have gone by—a sort of Catholic Rip Van Winkle. You get the idea.

Although I enjoyed the overwrought atmosphere of these legends, I must say I was surfeited by the end. The Rhymes, on the other hand, are absolutely charming from first to last. The poems seem to have been especially written for Spanish students, since they are surprisingly simple and easy, while maintaining a high quality throughout. In form they are as simple as can be, rhyming couplets or alternating ABAB patterns, sometimes with a refrain. In subject matter they concern themselves with the usual holy trinity of poetry: death, immortality, and love:

“What is poetry?” you ask while
You fix in mine your eyes of azure
What is poetry! And you ask me this?
Poetry… is you

It is light and airy, and appeals to the teenager in all of us—sometimes even to the wistful adult. For any students of Spanish, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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