FEBRUARY 19, 2012
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.
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 milieu that demanded their formal obeisance to conservative conventions, but little else.
This I understood intuitively. I was introduced to the Sonata de Otoño while I was a student of Spanish literature at university in Madrid, during the winter of 1983. Alienated from almost everything American, in an age when Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan were enjoying a triumphant ascendancy, I had, the previous summer, launched myself abroad, having renounced all intentions of leading what I believed would be a mundane life in the United States in favor of expatriation in what I took to be the more “romantic” countries of southern Europe. My upbringing in the household of a successful Washington attorney left me with a visceral dislike for all the accoutrements of that success: status-consciousness, obligatory politesse, ceaseless networking, reasoned career moves. The vaguely puritanical atmosphere in our home inoculated me against piety, inclined me toward the search for sensual extremes, be they in love, literature, travel, or cuisine. Having grown up with security, I wanted, on reaching adulthood, nothing more than to flee from it, to ditch it for risky adventure. Hence I absconded overseas.
But I lacked a guide. Thanks to my literature professor in Madrid, an elderly, lean, disheveled Spanish poet of some renown (whose name escapes me now), in the Sonatas of Valle-Inclán I discovered a manifesto for a lost young man in search of quixotic, emboldening direction. The Sonatas confirmed for me the idea that life, which must necessarily culminate in defeat, can nevertheless be lived heroically for beauty and adventure, passion and love. Florid, verging at times on the affected, in places intentionally shocking, the Sonatas have rewarded me with varying, and often contradictory, impressions on each rereading. They have remained with me ever since that winter, in their brittle-spined, blue-and-white Colección Austral editions, illuminating my inner life and motivating me to travel and take risks, to be a more demanding author of my own days.
The Sonata de Otoño exudes a maturity, even a cynicism, lacking in the first two novelettes, and abounds in the beauty that can inhere in decay. It opens with the Sonata’s protagonist, the proud Marqués de Bradomín, having entered decisively upon his Don Juan phase. Hopes for epic romance have now given way to the pursuit of selfish, carnal conquests. From his former lover Concha, a younger, married (but separated) woman whom he has left two years earlier, he receives a letter: “¡Mi amor adorado, estoy muriéndome y solo deseo verte!” By the time the Marqués is writing his Memorias Amables, however, he confesses to having lost the missive (which casts doubt on the depth of his feelings for Concha), but he informs us that the very possibility that they might revive their love fills his life with “un aroma de fe: era la quimera del porvenir” (“the chimera of the soon-to-come”) and, most evocatively, “la dulce quimera dormida en el fondo de lagos azules, donde se reflejan las estrellas del destino. ¡Triste destino el de los dos!” (“The sweet chimera asleep in the depths of blue lakes reflecting the stars of destiny. How sad the destiny of the two of us!”)
Reading these lines about la dulce quimera and el triste destino, and attempting to translate them into English in a manner that conveys their poignancy in Spanish, confronted me then in Madrid, as now in Moscow (where I live), with the near-impossibility of the task. Again and again I have pored over the passage, luxuriating in it and striving to fathom its magic. Its beauty, I finally concluded, dwells largely in the Spanish, embedded in the Latin- (and Greek) rooted words like an ancient wasp-ant trapped in amber. Nevertheless, the hope that somehow non-Spanish speakers might be induced to perceive their power (and that of the Sonatas as a whole) compels me to write the piece you are reading. Moreover, sharing the Sonatas, I’ve decided, is one way to inveigle others to take the liberating risks I’ve run myself, at a time when, it seems, conventional, prosperity-based lifestyles have vanished forever. The bourgeois stability in which I (and Valle-Inclán) grew up has been shattered and chaos seems to loom ahead; for those aspiring to live with verve and die with panache, the time has come to quest after worthier, more elusive gods.
To reunite with his dying lover, the Marqués, accompanied by his manservant, sets out on mule back for the two-day journey from Viana del Prior through hilly rural Galicia to her ancestral abode, the Palacio de Brandeso, across countryside enveloped in mist and a “sudario ceniciento de la llovizna” (“an ashen shroud of drizzle”), drizzle that Valle-Inclán would have known well from birth, and that I found so enchanting after long stays in the arid environs of Madrid, Castile – La Mancha, and Aragón.
The Marqués arrives at the palace and discovers Concha ill with an unspecified malady apparently evincing no symptoms that would dampen his middle-aged ardor. He first catches sight of her as he dismounts, and his description justifies all presentiments of the evanescent, the deathly, the elegiac: “De pronto vi una sombra blanca pasar por detrás de las vidrieras” (“I suddenly saw a white shadow pass behind the window panes”). She greets him, waving her “brazos de fantasma” (“ghost’s arms”). She is pallid, with a mouth resembling “una rosa descolorida,” with “pies blancos, infantiles, casi frágiles, donde las venas azules trazaban caminos ideales a los besos” (“white, childlike, almost fragile feet on which blue veins traced ideal pathways for kisses”). Moreover, “su boca sin color, sus mejillas dolientes, sus sienes maceradas, sus párpados de cera velando los dos ojos en las cuencas descarnadas y violáceas” (“her pale mouth, her pained cheeks, her soaked temples, her waxen eyelids veiling eyes sunken in cadaverous, violet-hued sockets”) give her is an aspect “espiritual de una santa muy bella consumida por la penitencia y el ayuno.” Such mortal pallor attracts him: “antes eras la princesa del sol,” he tells her. “Ahora eres la princesa de la luna,” a princess graced with a “blancura eucarística” in her cheeks, smiling with “aquella sonrisa doliente que parecía el alma de una flor enferma.” For the Marqués, una flor enferma (“a sickly flower”) is, counterintuitively, an object of beauty, a modernistic gem of the decadence of which he is enamored. There follow more sick flowers and other unwell oddities, all described with an evocative rue that inspired my young eyes to perceive, at least at times, reality through a poetic prism.
Concha still loves the Marqués, but ill as she is, she warns him that there can exist between them nothing more than “un cariño ideal,” because, “Morir en pecado mortal … ¡Que horror!” Alone in her bedroom, submerged in silence (for neither of them wants to recall the past, with his infidelities, and her status as a married woman), he thrusts his face into the velo oloroso of her hair and breathes lustily, with “la faz sumergida como en una fuente santa” (“his face submerged as if in a holy fountain”) and asks her to whip him with her locks, as she used to do. Her heart pounds as he undoes her gown: “¡Mi vida!” they murmur to each other, a commonplace endearment in colloquial Spanish, but here ringing rare and true. Only the Marqués and the sexual passion he arouses in Concha brings the blood to her cheeks and returns her to life.
But she is Catholic – that is, avowedly devout until she chooses not to be. She pulls away, uttering “¡Vete! ¡Vete por Dios!” and avers again a fear of dying in mortal sin. But he does not go away. All night, within her “la fiebre ardía como una luz sepucral en vaso de porcelana tenue y blanca” (“the fever burned like a sepulchral light in a glass of fine white porcelain”). She possesses “la palidez delicada y enferma de una Dolorosa” (an image of the Virgin Mary grieving over Christ’s death), and is “tan bella, así demacrada y consumida, que mis ojos, mis labios, y mis manos hallaban todo su deleite en aquello mismo que me entristecía. Yo confieso que no recordaba haberla amado nunca en lo pasado, tan locamente como aquella noche” (“so beautiful, thus gaunt and emaciated, that my eyes, my lips, and my hands found all their delight in that which saddened me. I confess that I do not recall having loved her as wildly in the past as I did that night”). This is as perverse as it is meant to be beautiful, and he admits it, terming “La perversidad” a “rosa sangriente“: a bleeding rose.
Perverse or not, finally Valle-Inclán puts his protagonist in bed with a real woman (in contrast to the only partly believable, quasi-saintly or lustfully pagan heroines of the previous Sonatas), a woman who will discuss her children, her husband, and her mother-in-law, revel in her sexuality, and violate for her own pleasure the Catholic strictures she has been taught to obey. Still, I pore over all this verbiage about deathly pallor and the charm of the moribund, and discern a repulsive, affected selfishness: how could anyone find the serious illness of a lover arousing? Only burdensome, twisted religious dogma, imbibed from birth and rendering unnatural innate carnal desires, can account for the “perversity” in which the Marqués revels.
What I have always found most striking about the Sonata de Otoño is Valle-Inclán’s use of words that simply cannot be made to carry the same beauty in English that they do in Spanish, surely a factor contributing to his obscurity outside the hispanophone world. “Aquel renacimiento de nuestros amores fue como una tarde otoñal, de celajes dorados, amable y melancólica.” (“That rebirth of our love was as an autumn afternoon, with sun-gilt clouds, pleasing and melancholic.”) Could one describe a late-in-life love affair more poignantly than this?
One word in the above line has evolved, for me, into a reverie-inducing synecdoche for the entire Sonata: celaje. Defined by the authoritative Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (the OED of Spanish), celaje denotes “the appearance of the sky when filled with clouds that are tenuous and of various shades,” as at dusk; but also as “the presage, announcement, or beginning of something hoped or desired.” Celajes certainly merits induction into English as a loanword.
“Aquella tarde el sol de otoño penetraba hasta el centro como la fatigada lanza de un héroe antiguo.” (“That afternoon the sun of autumn penetrated to the center [of the labyrinth in the palace garden] like the fatigued lance of an ancient hero.”) Can a lance tire? Perhaps not, but the wistful sonority of the phrase so beguiled me that I notice this minor solecism only now, after dozens of readings. The line conjures up a gilt aura of tempus fugit far more elegiac than anything Horace ever composed, and evocative of mournful landscapes I have found myself searching out all my life. Again, the beauty inherent in decay; something I had not perceived before reading Valle-Inclán.
Yet much of the beauty derives from the music of Spanish and translates poorly into English. In the middle of the Sonata, the Marqués, seeking surcease from his emotions, makes a wish: “¡Quién fuese como aquella fuente, que, en el fondo del laberinto aún ríe con su risa de cristal, sin alma y sin edad!” (“Would that I were as that fountain, which, in the depths of the labyrinth, still emits a crystalline laugh, soulless and ageless!”) “Alma” in Spanish trips more easily off the tongue than “soul” does in English; “cristal” (“glass” but also “crystal”) just resonates more deeply in Spanish than would an English equivalent.
Elsewhere, a lamp is described as “temblaba con agonizante resplandor,” with agonizante here meaning not “agonizing,” but “suffering the throes of death” (from agonía, or “death throes”). A candle flame in English can gutter, flicker, or die, but not agonize.
When faced with samples of such verbal virtuosity, which seem more frequent in Spanish (and French and Italian) than in English, a thought arises: if the “romance” in “romance languages” formally refers to linguistic roots in Rome’s vulgar Latin, nevertheless the romance languages are simply more, well, romantic. They allow for more artfully impassioned turns of phrase, ones that do not cloy or sound risible to the modern ear of their speakers. The essential separateness of languages, and the cultures in which they are embedded, was new to me when I first encountered Valle-Inclán’s work, but obvious to me now. One cannot necessarily, when living through other languages, as I have for most of my life, simply “translate” one’s thoughts into a given tongue and expect always to be understood, loved, or even liked.
Concha, we recall, is doomed. The Marqués, excited by her wasted state, begs her again to whip him with her mane of hair as one would lash a “divino Nazareno“: a sacrilegious invocation of Christ surely intended to shock, but which leaves me cold. But she suddenly dies in his arms. He is left holding her lifeless body, dumbstruck by her demise. Valle-Inclán then produces the most, to my mind, striking simile. The Marqués wonders what he should do — flee?
Miré en la oscuridad con el cabello erizado, mientras en el fondo de la alcoba flameaban los cortinajes de mi lecho y oscilaba la llama de las bujías en el candelabro de plata. Los perros seguían aullando muy distantes, y el viento se quejaba en el laberinto como un alma en pena, y las nubes pasaban sobre la luna, y las estrellas se encendían y se apagaban como nuestras vidas.”
(“I gazed into the darkness, my hair standing on end, while deep in my bedroom my bed’s curtains fluttered and the candles’ flames oscillated in the silver candelabra. Dogs were barking in the distance, the wind groaned in the labyrinth like a soul in pain, clouds passed before the moon, and stars lit up and died out as do our lives.”)
Our lives as ephemeral and numerous as stars in the remote, icy-black vault of heaven, twinkling into being, fading into extinction! It is as if Valle-Inclán had observed humanity’s fate from outer space, and grasped the fragility of its existence, the ease with which each one of us may, for any number of reasons, vanish suddenly and senselessly from the ranks of the living. At age 22 the impact of these lines escaped me; but now, at 50, having suffered through the deaths of many relatives and friends, and having at times myself perilously approached, during my travels, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” I find them strikingly accurate.
The Marqués deposits his lover’s corpse on his bed and hurries out into the night-darkened palace in search of his cousin Isabel (also related to Concha and residing in the palace, and another “pious” Catholic in the Valle-Inclánian sense) to tell her of the death. He enters Isabel’s bedroom, but the hour being late, and he being a notorious womanizer, she suspects him of coming for other reasons. Still trembling, he decides not to disappoint her: “¡No quise contrariar las sospechas de mi prima Isabel!” Keeping mum about Concha, he suppresses sobs of grief (which she mistakes for “muestras de amor“) and the two consummate their lust.
Later, the Marqués ponders his deceased paramour. She seems almost unreal to him: “¡Pobre Concha! No podía dejar de su paso por el mundo más que una estela de aromas. ¿Pero acaso la más blanca y casta de las amantes ha sido nunca otra cosa que un pomo de divino esmalte, lleno de afroditas y nupciales esencias?” (“Poor Concha! She could leave nothing behind save a scented wake. But perhaps the whitest, chastest love” — that is, Concha — “has been nothing but a flask of divine enamel filled with aphrodites [a flower sacred to the goddess of love] and nuptial essences?”) Her now-orphaned children (and Isabel) might beg to differ. Concha was more to him, though, and he is now mature enough to recognize it. Her death leaves him bereft, if not entirely for reasons we might imagine. With chilling honesty he explains:
“¡Había muerto aquella flor de ensueños a quien todas mis palabras le parecían bellas! ¿Volvería a encontrar otra pálida princesa, de tristes ojos encantados, que me admirase siempre magnífico? Ante esta duda lloré. ¡Lloré como un Dios antiguo al extinguirse su culto!“
(“That dream-flower, to whom all my words seemed beautiful had died! Would I ever find another pallid princess with sad enchanted eyes who would admire me as always magnificent? Doubting this, I wept. I wept as an ancient god would at the death of his cult!”)
Age is catching up to the Marqués, and it pains him.
Valle-Inclán composed the final Sonata, Sonata de Invierno, when he was 39 years old. This might seem a young age for nostalgic retrospection, but in his day, one was lucky to live so long. (Shortly thereafter, already a famous playwright and concerned with his legacy, he began compiling his opera omnia.) In Sonata de Invierno, the Marqués de Bradomín has returned to Spain to fight in the Carlist Wars, in the guerilla ranks of the reactionary pretender to the throne, Don Carlos VII, against the adherents of mainstream parliamentary liberalism in power. (The wars were ongoing in Valle-Inclán’s day, and for a while he was a Carlist.) The Carlist intrigues in this Sonata have never appealed to me. But Valle-Inclán’s overarching preoccupation remains love, or love as the ageing Marqués understands it, and the maturation of his protagonist. With growing consternation I interpret passages of this Sonata as ominous presages; and, as I pass 50, struggle to grasp their message to me in my own peripatetic life, a life still driven by the pursuit of passion, literature, and at times extreme travel, if, now and then recently, I’ve found the flame waning, a tristeza waxing.
The opening finds the Marqués in the landscape of death — the bleak, wintry mountain fastnesses of Navarra, in northeastern Spain — still a bachelor and having outlived many of his lovers. The romántica peregrinación that has been his life is coming to an end. He combs through his locks, locks once caressed by princesses but now grown hoary, and laments that he dwells “en la más triste y más adusta [austere] soledad del alma.” He senses “un acabamiento de todas las ilusiones, un profundo desengaño de todas las cosas. Era el primer frío de la vejez, más triste que el de la muerte” (“an end to all illusions, a profound disillusionment with everything. This was the first cold snap of old age, sadder than that of death.”) Finally, for the Marqués,
había sonado … la hora en que se apagan los ardores de la sangre, y en que las pasiones del amor, del orgullo, y de la cólera, las pasiones que animaron a los dioses antiguos, se hacen esclavas de la razón.”
(“…the hour had sounded in which the carnal desires die out, and in which the passions of love, pride, and anger, the passions that animated the ancient gods, become the slaves of reason.”)
Though once a “galán [ladies’ man] y poeta,” he hardly recalls the amorous dalliances in which he took such pride: “Los días lejanos florecían en mi memoria con el encanto de un cuento casi olvidado que trae aroma de rosas marchitas” (“Distant days flourished in my memory with the charm of a story, almost forgotten, that exudes the scent of withered roses.”) He approaches love-making with some trepidation; his nights, he admits, are no longer always “triumphant.”
A ghastly event in Valle-Inclán’s life serves as the precipitant for the Sonata’s climax. In 1899 he lost an arm to gangrene following an injury he received in a café during an altercation with a journalist. (The journalist struck and fractured Valle-Inclán’s wrist with his cane, and the wound became infected, necessitating amputation.) Valle-Inclán endured the operation without anesthetic, only losing consciousness once, and even, as the doctor sawed through the last segments of bone, managed to puff smoke rings from a Cuban cigar. Similarly, the Marqués, as a result of a bullet wound received in a Carlist skirmish, finds himself in dire need of an amputation, and undergoes the drugless procedure in a convent in Villarreal de Navarra, displaying the same fortitude: “No exhalé una queja, ni cuando me rajaron la carne, ni cuando serraron el hueso, ni cuando cosieron el muñón” (“I didn’t breathe a word of complaint, either when they ripped through my flesh or when they sawed through the bone or when they sewed up the stump”). What sustained him, gave him courage? His saving virtue: his orgullo machista, or macho pride.
But his past soon catches up with him. Attending his recovery is a 14-year-old novitiate, Hermana Maximina, who possesses “un nimbo de tristeza infantil y divino,” with eyes “aterciopelados [velvety] y tristes.” But the Marqués can only describe her as “feúcha” (“homely”), the very adjective used by one of his lovers in a previous chapter to describe the daughter she had borne him a decade and a half earlier and sent off to a convent.
Valle-Inclán offers us no further evidence of the Marqués’ paternity, but Hermana Maximina’s age, her feúcha looks, and her presence in the convent suffice: the sad, homely girl is his daughter, and he knows it. Experiencing a (modernist) frisson of the perverse, without confessing that he is her father, he asks her to love him, kissing her eyelids and savoring “una voluptuosidad nunca gustada.” But for the first time, he restrains himself, feeling only the “amor que da una profunda tristeza a las vidas que se apagan” (“the love that grants a deep sorrow to lives that are dying out”), the love “del moribundo que contempla los encendidos oros de la tarde y sabe que aquella tarde tan bella es la última” (“of a dying man who contemplates the glowing gold of an afternoon, and knows that that beautiful afternoon is the last one”). He finally recognizes that what he feels for Hermana Maximina is, in effect, less love and more gratitude for reaffirming one thing: he is not too old to be loved by a young woman. The Marqués is searching for affirmation that, hoary locks and all, he can still inspire love: the summum bonum we all strive for, whether we admit it or not, the affirmation that we’ve not lost it, that we could, if need be, begin again.
The Marqués has matured. He forgoes the chance to bed his daughter and leaves the convent alone. His galavanting days, he perceives, are behind him: “cuando se tiene un brazo de menos y la cabeza llena de canas, es preciso renunciar al donjuanismo” (“when one is missing an arm and has a head full of gray hair, it’s necessary to give up being a Don Juan”).
But one last disappointment awaits: the admission, made by his “saintly” lover María Antonieta, that she has slept with other men. Will he hold this against her, she demands to know? He responds frankly: “No es rancor lo que siento, es la melancholía del desengaño: Una melancholía como si la nieve del invierno cayese sobre mi alma, y mi alma, semejante a un campo yermo, se amortajase con ella.” (“It’s not bitterness that I feel. It’s a melancholic disillusionment, a melancholy as if winter snow were falling over my soul, and my soul, similar to a barren field, were being enshrouded in it.”) A woman professes guilt about the very deeds of which the Marqués has always boasted … Valle-Inclán does not note the irony or contradiction here, because for him, a product of machista Spain, there was none.
The winter Sonata opens and closes with desengaño (“disillusionment,” or literally “de-deception”). I think back on who I was when I first picked up the Sonatas, in their Colección Austral editions, still then bright white and blue, still supple-spined, but now yellowed and brittle. As a 22-year-old reader with scant experience of death, whose parents and grandparents were all alive, a reader who was certain of life’s inexhaustible bounty — exploits to be performed abroad, beautiful women to be loved, wisdom to be acquired, rivers to be run and mountains to be climbed — what could I have understood of disillusionment? I wanted all this and resolved to get it. The Marqués’ tales inspired me, but the parts about desengaño made no impression. I would embark on my own romántica peregrinación, and, I liked to think, I would never see it end. I would perish in the middle of it, liberated at last from my wanderlust.
But here I am, 28 years later, having lived my dream: having, in my own way, emulated the Galician count and turned my life into a romántica peregrinación. During my first decade and a half abroad, I pursued women from summery Leningrad to autumnal Prague to wintry Tomsk and vernal Warsaw. Not satisfied, I trekked across Russia, pirogued down the Congo, wandered the Moroccan Sahara with Arab nomads, traversed the Sahel, bussed my way across China down Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway, forded a Siberian River to the Arctic Ocean, biked solo along India’s Grand Trunk Road, and, most recently, followed the life-route of my idol of late, the nineteenth-century freedom-fighter Simón Bolívar, from his birthplace in Caracas to Bolivia’s Cerro Rico to the quinta of his death on the Colombian Caribbean. I’ve earned my keep through writing, which was not exactly my goal, but, rather, an unexpected concomitant to a life on the move. Marriage in Moscow has given me a second, happier family life, for which I’m grateful.
Nevertheless I see that as the years pass, the mounting weight of the deaths we endure, the banal truths and rueful constants we perceive, and the willful ignorance and relentless stupidity of our fellows press us down, bend our spine and incline us toward the earth to which we are headed. I’m not at the point of combing through my gray hairs and pining after princesses, and I’m not alone, but a solitude is encroaching all the same, and heralds of my own departure are emerging on the horizon. Only a fierce determination to live as I have resolved to live — the Marqués would have called it orgullo — saves me from despair, empowers me to keep seeking my own mist-haunted redoubts, my own seas of burnished silver.
Encouraged by the Carlist queen, the Marqués de Bradomín leaves Spain to rusticate abroad and write his Memorias Amables, which end, much as life does, without really concluding as a narrative. Such was Valle-Inclán’s fate; he accepted, and then quit, positions at the Museo de Aranjuez, the Ateneo de Madrid, and the Escuela de Bellas Artes, unable to adjust to steady employment, and querulous with his superiors. He found his application for the Real Academia de la Lengua Española rejected; increasingly beset with financial troubles, he divorced, only to become embroiled in a struggle for custody over his children. At the age of 69, stricken with cancer, he refused communion, fell into a brief coma, and died.
His Memorias Amables leave me with a final thought. Perhaps the sole way of confronting our last years with dignity is to bolster our pride, as did the Marqués, and understand that which he declared in Sonata de Estío: “lo mismo da triunfar que hacer gloriosa la derrota” (“To make defeat glorious is the same as triumphing”).