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1921: Ramón Gómez de la Serna

 

This week I'm thinking about El doctor Inverosímil by Ramón Gómez de la Serna, published in book form in 1921. I don't have time for a full explanation of Ramón's importance in Hispanic letters (not that I have the knowledge for a truly satisfying one), but a rough sketch could be approximated by saying that in the mid-1920s he was considered the Spanish equivalent of what Proust was in French literature and what Kafka was in German literature. If he hasn't maintained that stature in the century since, it may be due more to a general neglect of Hispanic literature (even in Spanish) than a reflection on his work specifically.

 The title page of a library copy digitized at  archive.org .

The title page of a library copy digitized at archive.org.

El doctor Inverosímil was his first novel, if it is a novel (almost all of his novels deserve that qualifier), first published in (much abbreviated) magazine form in 1914. It's a sort of dry run for the kind of material he would later develop into much more kaleidoscopic patterns in the 1920s. The premise is that the narrator, an unconventional doctor, discovers the causes of his patients' maladies not in innovative scientific breakthroughs or in traditional medicine whether Hippocratic or old wives', but in metaphor and Symbolism: a tarnished wristwatch gives its owner gangreen, a woman who carries a black umbrella is suffocating and revives when she changes it for a parasol, lovers who are skin and bones are unable to put on weight because they only eat love.

It's both a kind of preamble to Surrealism and a kind of lengthy, over-explained joke. (Much like Surrealism.) You can sort of feel Ramón struggling against his chosen thematic limitations, trying to invest the dry, this-or-that field of medicine with the magical overlapping visions a Cubist painter might endow a street scene, and he sometimes fails to walk the modernist "make it new" tightrope between scienticism and traditionalism, taking refuge in tired antisemitism, rote misogyny, or a quasi-Futurist worship of poorly-understood technology.

But there are enough arresting images and playful reanalyses of everyday objects that I'm glad to have read it. I don't think I would recommend it (it's rarely earned more than a passing sentence in critical evaluations of Ramón's work), particularly, but as a method of beginning from the beginning, it's difficult to improve.