Friday, 27 February 2015

Book Review: Autumn and Winter Sonatas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s review is the last of My WINTER Books Special since the cold season is finally drawing towards its close. There were thirteen books on my short list and I read all of them. Some were a mere pleasure from the start, while it took me a while to get into others and to see their much praised literary qualities as was the case with the book that I’m reviewing today. Actually Autumn and Winter Sonatas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán is a volume of two novellas of a tetralogy often published together. The popular Spanish author wrote a sonata for each season of the year and brought them out separately in reverse order (starting with autumn) between 1902 and 1905, but combined in one volume they are The Memoirs of the Marquis of Bradomin describing the protagonist’s amorous adventures in the four seasons of life following the example of Giacomo Casanova.

Ramón or Ramón María del Valle-Inclán was born Ramón José Simón Valle y Peña in Villanueva de Arosa, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain, in October 1866. Following his father’s wish he studied law at the University of Santiago de Compostela, but he preferred to pass his time in cafés and writing for different periodicals, especially after his father’s death in 1890. His breakthrough as an author he made with works in the modernist tradition like Spring and Summer Sonatas (Sonata de primavera: 1904; Sonata de estío: 1903) and Autumn and Winter Sonatas (Sonata de otoño: 1902; Sonata de invierno: 1905) which were later published in one volume as The Memoirs of the Marquis of Bradomin (Memorias del Marqués de Bradomín or simply Sonatas). With time his style became more sober, critical, even grotesque. Today the prolific author is most famous for his innovative theatre plays like Divine Words (Divinas palabras: 1919), Bohemian Lights (Luces de Bohemia: 1920) or The Grotesque Farce of Mr.Punch the Cuckold (Los Cuernos De Don Friolera: 1921), but he also produced numerous novels – the internationally best known among them Tyrant Banderas (Tirano Banderas. Novela de tierra caliente: 1926) –, poetry and essays. In addition he made translations from Portuguese, French and Italian. Ramón del Valle-Inclán died in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, in January 1936.

In the Autumn and Winter Sonatas the Marquis of Bradomin evokes two episodes of his life which are linked to women and love as befits a man who pleases himself in the role of a Don Juan. The scene of the first sonata is autumnal Galicia in northwestern Spain where the family mansion of the Bradomin is located. He makes his appearance as a middle-aged man receiving a letter from his cousin Concha in which she asks him to come to see her quickly because she is mortally ill and wishes to see him one last time. As teenagers they were in love, but her mother was against their union and married her off to a nobleman who was a better match. Even years later Concha still is torn between her love to the Marquis of Bradomin and the faithfulness to her husband which is her duty as a good Roman Catholic. And being the man he is, the Marquis, who still loves her dearly too, seduces her even now that she is expecting death. Also in the last sonata, which is set in the mountains of Navarre in northern Spain during a gloomy winter of the Carlist Wars, love keeps its central role in the Marquis’ life. Several years have passed and he is now an old fighter in the ranks of Don Carlos VII. In Estella he meets a former lover, one of very few still alive, who tells him that she bore him a daughter almost fifteen years earlier and that she gave her into the care of a convent. She again succumbs to his charms, but he is aware that his seducing powers are declining. The following day the troops of Don Carlos VII leave Estella and soon the Marquis is sent on a mission to negotiate the release of two Russian travellers in the hands of the opponents. On his way he suffers an injury from a bullet and is taken to a convent transformed into a hospital where the doctor amputates his arm. During his recovery a girl of fourteen attends to him and although he senses that she must be his daughter, he can’t help flirting with her because it’s his nature.

Being memoirs, although only fictional and fragmentary ones, the Autumn and Winter Sonatas are a first-person narrative, of course. Their writer appears as a confirmed old bachelor who all his life preferred passion and adventure to a settled life, but looking back on his past makes him sentimental and melancholic, even cynical. The good days of youth are irremediably over and most of the women whom he once loved are dead as are many of the men he once knew and called friends. What is left, is nostalgia. Despite the fact that the memoirs are fiction, much in them mirrors the true life and character of Ramón del Valle-Inclán himself which becomes most obvious regarding the amputation of the arm following an injury (the author suffered a broken wrist in a quarrel with a poet friend, not a bullet wound in a war, though). At the same time the memoirs are critical of social conventions of the time and religious rules which were often interpreted at pleasure. Neither religion nor respect for the dead stand in the way of the Marquis of Bradomin or his lovers! Both short novels are written in a highly sensuous and precise language full of powerful images which makes them a typical work of Spanish modernism. As Jeffrey Tayler’s review of the Autumn and Winter Sonatas points out, the beauty of the original Spanish text is difficult, almost impossible to translate into English. Not having at hand an English edition (I read the book in Spanish) I can’t judge the translation, though.

All things considered the Autumn and Winter Sonatas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán have been a fascinating and enjoyable read although in general I’m not particularly interested in the amorous adventures of a nineteenth-century Don Juan (or any other). Without doubt it’s a work of literature which would deserve more attention than it gets outside Spain these days. Therefore I willingly recommend the novel(s).

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This review is a contribution to the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015, namely to the category Forgotten Classic.

»»» see also my sign-up post with my complete reading list for the challenge.

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