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1925: Ramón Gómez de la Serna

 

This week I'm thinking about Ramón Gómez de la Serna's 1925 novel La Quinta de Palmyra, which I read in fits and starts while on vacation in Guatemala and which became one of my aesthetic highlights of the year.

Cover to the first edition, which bears a copyright date of 1923, but was apparently not actually published until 1925.

Cover to the first edition, which bears a copyright date of 1923, but was apparently not actually published until 1925.

La Quinta de Palmyra (Palmyra's Country Manor would be one way to translate the title) was, according to the definitive study of Ramoniana, his ninth novel in less than four years (not to mention a host of short stories, literary criticism, and volumes of essays), a prodigious output which would only slow down slightly beginning in the early 1930s. Considered in standard bibliographies one of his "novelas de ambiente" (novels of atmosphere), it consists in large part of fancifully poetic descriptions of the house and grounds of the titular manor, the isolated estate of an ancient Portuguese family which looks out onto the Atlantic, the sole remaining mistress of which, Palmyra, broods in obscurity, rarely leaving her home but always hoping to find a lover who will stay with her in the Quinta.

She is continually disappointed in this hope. The plot of the novel, such as it is, revolves around the men who enter her life and leave it again in as regular and predictable a cycle as the changing of seasons: although the highly-ornamented, redolent-with-history atmosphere of the Quinta is pure fin-de-siècle Decadence in a Wildean mode, the action is satirical, prankish, and modernist, as one man after another (gambler, engineer, Jewish doctor, pianist, sailor) proves unable to deal with playing a secondary role in Palmyra's life, as her first love is the aesthetic beauty of her home.

My understanding is that Ramón wrote this novel during the period in which he was deeply involved in an intimate relationship with feminist writer and popular novelist Carmen de Burgos, who was some twenty years his senior and an invaluable entree into the literary worlds he was eager to conquer. Their travels together, and particularly their sojourns in Portugal, were clearly emotionally and aesthetically meaningful to him, with the result that La Quinta de Palmyra is one of the few of his novels to actually contain a happy ending: Palmyra finally finds the companion she's looking for in her lesbian friend Lucinda, who reads her Renée Vivien poems and enters fully into the aesthetic contemplation of sea, sky, and landscape which is Palmyra's primary occupation.

The introduction to the edition I read, a 1968 paperback also containing Ramón's 1922 novel El chalet de las rosas, cites this ending as an example of Ramón's "misogyny," a classic piece of Franco-era double-speak in which homosexuality can only be considered an abdication of sexual responsibility. Not that I'd claim that his work is totally free of misogyny or other invidious attitudes; as far as I can tell, Palmyra is the only of his novels with a female protagonist, and he typically follows the usual modernist pattern of using women as objects of aesthetic contemplation rather than as people; but (as with his treatment of the Jewish American, who the Iberian traditionalist Palmyra is so eager to prove she's not antisemitic toward that he loses interest) Ramón in this novel is surprisingly consonant with 21st-century attitudes, retrograde only in implicit postures (Palmyra, we learn incidentally, owns colonial estates in India) rather than in explicit statements.

My desire to translate, not just to read, Spanish modernist fiction of the 1920s came roaring back with this novel. There are so many jewels of sentences scattered throughout that I want to share as widely as I can; and though it would be difficult to capture the tone of insouciant reverie which pervades the book, it's a challenge that inspires rather than daunts me. Of course I would need to contract with a publisher to even begin to explore that possibility, and I don't exactly have a track record to point to that could encourage even the most noble, willing-to-take-a-bath publishers of my capacity to actually do it; but it's a nice dream to keep in my back pocket.

Anyway, my hypothesis that Ramón Gómez de la Serna resides at the nexus of the three major strains of literary modernism in 1920s Spain — the vanguardists, the humorists, and (much less written about) the eroticists — was confirmed with this book. Not that he's ever as unblushingly indelicate as, say, Álvaro Retana, but he's still a continental European and so more sexually frank than all but the most daring Anglophone writers of the period. Although there's more than eroticism to his work (just as there's more than humor, and more than avant-garde experimenting), it's undeniably a major component, even at the level of abstraction at which most Ramonian texts operate: his essential rhetorical strategy of fragmentism makes even his most unified novels (like this one) heterogenous almost despite themselves.

 
Jonathan BogartModernismos