Sunday, June 13, 2010

El Senor de las Lettras

Today is the centenary of the birth of Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, an icon of Spanish literature but one whose novels have never been translated into English, and who is more or less unknown in the English-speaking world. Nevertheless, the University of Albany, New York, where Torrente taught for a few years in the 1960s having been ostracised by Franco’s regime, is planning to publish his diaries.

Torrente was born on 13 June 1910, in Ferrol, Galicia, and studied at the universities of Santiago de Compostela and Oviedo. After travelling in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including a sojourn in Paris, he aligned himself with Franco’s Falange party. In 1932, he married Josephine Malvido (with whom he had four children), and in 1939 he took up a university post in Santiago. His first novel, Javier Mariño, was published in 1943. A few novels - often steeped in the myths and witchcraft lore of his native Galicia - followed but it was his talent for theatrical criticism that brought more praise.

In time, Torrente distanced himself from the Falange, leaving the party in 1942, but not directly opposing it until 1962 (by which time he had married Guisande Caamaño Fernanda Sanchez with whom he had five children) when he was expelled from teaching for having sided with striking workers in the Asturias mines. As a consequence, in 1966, he moved to the US, with his large family, to accept a specially-created chair of literature at the University of Albany, New York. From 1970, he began to revisit Spain, and by 1975 (the year of Franco’s death), he had moved back permanently - to Salamanca where he remained until his death in 1997.

This last twenty years of Torrente’s life were the most fertile in terms of novels. His fame certainly increased in the 1980s when Spanish television serialised his trilogy Los Gozos y Las Sombras (The Delights and the Shadows) which had been written 20 years earlier. Thereafter, his fame increased to the point where he was considered an icon of Spanish literature, and was known as ‘El Senor de las Lettras’. In 1985, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the most important literary prize in Spain. None of his novels, it seems, have been translated into English, nor is there much biographical information about him in English on the internet. Spanish Wikipedia has a much longer article that English Wikipedia, and there are useful obituaries on The Independent and New York Times websites.

Earlier this year, the University of Albany, where Torrente had taught, announced that it would publish, later this year, the first of a series of Torrente’s diaries. The author, it said, had donated the diaries in 1967 but only under the condition that the writings would not be published or even consulted until 10 years after his death. That moment was reached in January last year. The documents held by the university were written between the late 1940s and 1950s and contain ‘reflections of a political character’. They also provide a view of Torrente that, according to his son Álvaro Torrente, is ‘little known and that, without doubt, will be revelatory for many people.’

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