WHEN HE DIED in Madrid at age 67, in 1936, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán was a leading figure in Spanish literature, known as much for his plays and novels as for smoking a cigar while his right arm was being amputated after a fight with another writer. Born in 1866, in the verdant, mountainous northwestern province of Galicia, Valle-Inclán penned politically pointed plays that were to Spain as Brecht's were to Germany. Yet in the Anglophone world it would be charitable to call him little known. He is unknown.read more
Valle-Inclán's circumstances in no way destined him to a literary vocation. His father, of noble descent, sustained his family with only a modest civil servant's salary, and, though he possessed a considerable library that enchanted the young Valle-Inclán, he seems to have aspired to nothing greater than the position he achieved as secretary to the local government at Santiago de Compostela, the provincial capital.
An often desultory pupil, Valle-Inclán devoted himself to his private studies and to Galician cultural circles; he was, after all, a Gallego by birth, not a Spaniard, and the still largely unrecognized legends of his region's heritage exercised an early pull on his imagination. At his father's urging, Valle-Inclán enrolled in law school, but the former's death in 1890 liberated the latter to escape abroad, to Mexico, where he earned his living as a journalist. There he came to know the works of the nascent avant-garde literary school of Modernismo, controversial, then, for its embrace of decadence and even eroticism: qualities anathema to the bourgeoisie, dominated by Catholicism and hidebound mores, into which the aspiring author had been born.
In 1893 Valle-Inclán left Mexico and took up residence in the ancient Galician coastal town of Pontevedra. He began sporting the long locks, goatees, and dashing cape that conveyed the enfant terrible image he was to cultivate to his life's end. Three years later he moved to Madrid and, cutting an imperious figure, immersed himself in its culture of cafés and literary circles. At age 36, after publishing two undistinguished collections of short stories, and impecunious to the point of hunger, he began composing the masterpieces of his four Sonatas (prose-poems, named after the seasons, corresponding to the stages of life), the Sonata de Otoño and Sonata de Invierno.
The Sonatas purport to be the memoirs — or, more specifically, "un fragmento de las Memorias Amables," written in exile — of a daring, dissolute, yet artistically gifted Galician nobleman, the Marqués de Bradomín, who describes himself, somewhat disingenuously, as "feo [ugly], católico, y sentimental." Approaching 40, Valle-Inclán wrote them in part autobiographically and published them dyschronologically, beginning with the autumnal (of middle-age) opus, moving on to summer's chronicles, and ending with the hibernal Sonata de Invierno. His marriage to a theater actress 30 years his junior testified to an élan vital similar to that which propelled Bradomín through turbulent love affairs in Spain and abroad. Both Valle-Inclán and his literary doppelganger were Casanovan creatures of passion, bent on living for themselves (and their appetites) in a hypocrisy-soaked Catholic mi...