Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Non-Poet King of Poetry: Ramón Gómez de la Serna

Ramón Gómez de la Serna in his studio. Photograph by Alfonso Sánchez Portela.

Either Spanish literature consists of nothing but anomalistic masterpieces or I’ve had exceptional good fortune in my selections for Spanish Literature Month.[i] I decided to stick to Spain itself (easier said than done), and have been surprised, humbled, and not a little awestruck by what I’ve found. My choices came largely by chance; I read each knowing next to nothing about its author, content, or place in the Spanish canon. Each not only turned out to have had significant impact on Spanish literature, but also moved into the ranks of my personal favorites from any literature. Following Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) and Angel Ganivet’s The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya (1897), my final selection for the month hails from the 20th century, two books by an author who came to my attention only this week. Thanks to terrific posts by Miguel of St. Orberose concerning lists compiled by Jorge Luis Borges for two book series Borges had started to edit, I took a look at some of the names on the lists I didn’t recognize.

How is it possible that I’ve made it this far through life without ever hearing of Ramón Gómez de la Serna (1888-1963)? Any of you who might also be late to this party may well ask: why should I have heard of him? Let’s see what the introduction to one of these books, a collection of eight novellas by Gómez de la Serna entitled (with remarkable restraint) Eight Novellas[ii], has to say about him:

…the literary mentor of Buñuel and Dalí.

…the Spanish writer most sought after and the one who had the strongest impact on the Latin American avant-garde writers from the nineteen twenties on…

…often considered one of the two true artistic geniuses of his time in Spain, the other being Picasso.

Okay, so that’s the opinion of the editors/translators. Do they provide assessments other than their own? They do:

As Ortega [y Gasset] describes how the new [modernist] art looks at reality…he refers to Proust and Joyce but cites only Ramón.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez declared that Ramón was the most influential writer of his formative years.

Cortázar regarded him highly, and used to follow him along the Calle Florida as an idol.

Okay then. But how about some primary sources?

“…for me he is the great Spanish writer” – Octavio Paz

“…a visionary of the universe, mental monarch and king of poetry” – Pablo Neruda.

Coming full circle, the introduction notes: “Borges wrote a book about him.”

One excuse for my not having heard of Gómez de la Serna is that little of his work has been translated into English, aside from scattered anthologized stories; an old issue of the literary journal Zero containing a handful of stories translated by Paul Bowles; and the Eight Novellas I’d found in the library. There’s a selection, published in English as Aphorisms and which I also found in the library, of the literary form Gómez de la Serna invented and called greguerías – short, humorous, imagistic, aphoristic one-liners. Finally, there’s one of de la Serna’s twenty novels translated as Movieland! (it’s supposedly about Hollywood). This, alas, was not in the library, and the price of the sole copy I could find for sale - $1,000 U.S. - put me off a bit.

The biographical details of Ramón’s life - I’ll switch to using his first name, as that’s apparently how he’s known in Spain - are perhaps even more incredible than the praise heaped upon him. It’s worth picking up these books just for the biosketches they contain; the Wikipedia entry for Ramón does not quite convey the outlandishness and electrical presence he apparently commanded. Suffice here to say that he was a catalyst – really the catalyst – for avant-garde Spanish literature and art, living a wildly inventive lifestyle and inhabiting a Madrid apartment more like a cabinet of curiosities than a residence. He bridges Spanish and Latin American literature, as he left Spain at the beginning of the civil war and lived out his life in Argentina. His prolific literary output comprises some 90 books of short stories, plays, novels, essays, literary criticism, biographies and, the contribution for which he may be best known, his beloved greguerías.

The greguerías make a good a place to start, especially since they make their way into his longer pieces with a style so singular that it bears his name: ramónismo. Aphorisms is a curious title for this collection of some 400 greguerías, since translator Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth goes to great lengths to distinguish them from aphorisms (his introduction is as succinct and invaluable an analysis of the aphoristic genre as one is likely to find anywhere). Ramón’s greguerías are exceptionally playful, experimental, lyrical condensations that illustrate how Neruda could call him a “king of poetry” even when poetry was one genre Ramón did not attempt. Poetic they are nonetheless:

Clouds should bear tags disclosing their destination so we don’t worry about them.

In the background of all mirrors there crouches a photographer.

The fragrance of flowers is an echo.

It was such nice weather that all keys took the day off.

Cloves of garlic: witches’ teeth.

Distant sails like napkins in the goblets at the banquet of the sea.

We should take more time to forget; that way we would have a longer life.

Gonzalez-Gerth notes that the form originated during a visit to Florence when, gazing upon the Arno, Ramón “suddenly perceived that each of the two banks of the river wanted to be where the other one was…an extraordinary perception [by which] all pairs and even peers among things became involved in a sort of natural and fatal competition of desire which altered the whole humdrum surface of reality.” Thus the genre was born, and Ramón came to define it mathematically: “metaphor + humor = greguería.”

This condensed metaphorical form gets woven into the absurdist stories constituting the enormously enjoyable Eight Novellas: a man’s liver appearing at his doorstop one day to move in as a constant companion; a misanthrope who spends a part of every day aspiring to become a physical feature of Naples’ Principe di Napoli galleria; a battle against influenza waged largely by amateur medical opinion; a revolution of hat haters; a mathematical approach to understanding social interactions in an apartment building; a lady who vanishes mysteriously from a hotel (the inspiration for the Alexander Woollcott novel that in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes); a man attempting to recuperate from a failed marriage by building a short-wave radio and immersing himself in its aural world; and a mad scientist intent on splitting the atom. These cursory descriptions barely hint at the humorous, often moving and glittering poeticism mingled with glimpses of the profound that one finds in these tales, which call to mind the work of Nikolai Gogol, Daniil Kharms, Dino Buzzati, and Frigyes Karinthy (Gonzalez-Gerth also mentions the poet Christian Morgenstern), but with a lighter yet more wildly energetic touch by which ideas shoot off like showers of sparks from a Roman (Ramón?) candle.

In “The Flumaster” (“Le Gran Griposo”), Ramón presents a plethora of dazzling greguerían descriptions of what it feels like to have the flu and addresses the myriad ways people deny illness by proposing all kinds of rationalizations and quack therapies. The afflicted protagonist even wonders if “he could ever find the word that would banish the flu! Success might come by using one word against another.” This remarkably pure modernist concept suggests something of the quality of ramónismo. Ramón writes as though slowly turning a complex kaleidoscope filled with words that tumble into different metaphorical combinations. But – and here he differs from surrealists out for pure effect – he also seems to point his kaleidoscope/microscope/telescope towards every emerging aspect of the modern world, sometimes with a penetrating view into the future. The introduction notes Ramón’s uncanny anticipation of such things as the Internet, various medical and psychological discoveries, the impact of car culture, and even a frighteningly prescient prediction of the atomic bomb, which, via his far-seeing 1926 story “The Master of the Atom” (“El dueño del átomo”), he claimed to have invented. The sophistication of Ramón’s surrealism shows in his story “Kill the Morse!” (“¡Hay que matar el Morse!”), where he refers not to the difference between the real and the unreal, as would be the expected approach, but to that “between the real and the real that seems unreal because it is so far away.”

Ramón’s imagistic sentences often display a kind of fever of composition and experimentation, frequently resulting in startling originality, energy, lyricism, depth, and varieties of beauty that could make the snowflake community jealous. Far from appearing labored or crafted, his prose has a wildly free, extemporaneous quality, a vital and living language. Like his revolutionary hat-hater, “free from the torture of holding onto his hat” and at liberty to stroll through the world “enjoying the challenge of a cane, twirling, riposting, parrying,” Ramón Gómez de la Serna demands the new, and delivers it with flair, joy, and a freedom of spirit rare in literature. I can’t wait to read more.

[i] Co-hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog.
[ii] Herlinda Charpentier Saitz and Robert L. Saitz, translators.


  1. Great choices, Scott! I read many of the greguerías for a class years and years ago but had somehow forgotten how amusing many of them are. Was totally in the dark re: "Ramón"'s other work, so this post comes as a very nice surprise. P.S. Neruda's "mental monarch" = awesome--as long as he wasn't imputing intellectual butterfly qualities of some sort to don Ramón...

  2. Thanks, Richard. I think you'd like the stories a lot. And while underrepresented in English translation, Ramón was apparently a big deal in France, so a couple of cheap French translations are on their way to me. And no, I doubt Neruda was being cleverly equivocal. Ramón's images are just too striking, and besides, the introduction adds that Neruda sought to stay with Ramón every time he visited Buenos Aires.

  3. Greguería - what a marvelous, gregarious form! So concise and at war (guerra) with verbal chaff. You've unearthed some treasures, Scott.

  4. Loving the idea of the humour & poetics, am off to find out more thanks for the intro

  5. The original greguería is actually "Fragance is the flowers' echo.", not "The fragrance of flowers is an echo." I'm a native Spanish-speaker and I translate small or medium-sized texts as a hobby, I'm willing to translate anything you want from Gómez de la Serna, just ask.

    1. LH - many thanks. That is certainly a far more poetic translation, and makes quite a lot more sense. I wish you'd been the translator for that whole book of greguerías!