Idle Fictions: The Hispanic Vanguard Novel, 1926-1934, Expanded editionby Gustavo Pérez Firmat
The "idle fictions" of the vanguard novel of the 1920s and 1930s in Spain and Spanish America represented a kind of interlude of playfulness--a vacation or parenthetical insertion--in what was perceived as the established course of the modern Hispanic novel's development. Yet, as Pérez Firmat argues, though this genre saw itself as recreative and interstitial, it deliberately precipitated "a class war not between social classes but between literary classes." Concentrating on source material not widely available, Pérez Firmat reconstructs the reception these novels received at the time of their publication, then develops a reading of them based on the intellectual context of this reception. A new preface and an appendix on vanguard biographies have been added to this paperback edition.
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The Hispanic Vanguard Novel, 1926â"1934
By Gustavo Pérez Firmat
Duke University PressCopyright © 1982 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
The Vanguard Novel as a Discursive Category
i. A Critical Text
"La novela, con sus características actuales, es un género de ayer." ('The novel, with its present characteristics, is yesterday's genre.') Lifted from its immediate context, this observation, made by Jaime Torres Bodet in 1928, displays a puzzling inconsistency. To refer to the novel's present characteristics, while at the same time asserting its obsolescence, is to open a perplexing gap between the genre's viability and its survival, a gap made more visible by the causal force of the preposition con: one is tempted to read Torres Bodet as affirming that, precisely because of its present form, the novel is a thing of the past. One is thus confronted with a genre that is viable but has not survived; or, more simply, with a genre that is and is not viable, that has and has not survived. The problem stems from Torres Bodet's uncertainty in situating the novel temporally. Although the prepositional phrase, "con sus características actuales," lodges it in the present, with the predicate that follows, "un género de ayer," it recedes into the past. Where then does the novel belong? One cannot, it seems, have it both ways. Either the prepositional phrase, or the predicate, must be given precedence. Either the novel is "actual," or it is obsolete.
One could defend the coherence of the statement by arguing that it alludes to the fact that by 1928 the nineteenth-century form of the novel had become obsolete and a new fictional genre had taken its place. Torres Bodet would merely be echoing the commonplace that, in the Modern period, the novel changed. But this explanation leads back to the original inconsistency, for the passage, even as it concedes the obsolescence of the old genre, forecloses the possibility of its replacement. Although it leaves room—implicitly—for a "género de hoy," it does not allow for its instantiation in a set of norms. The "características actuales" remain those of the outmoded form. Indeed the paradox lies here: the traditional novel is dead but its structures are still in place; the edifice has been gutted but not demolished. It is as if two opposed constitutive forces met in the quotation: one which would end the viability of the traditional novel, thus freeing the way for a successor; another which would extend it, and thus suppress or protract the emergence of a new genre. The former generates the predicate; the latter generates the prepositional phrase. Their confluence obscures Torres Bodet's meaning. Tugged in contrary directions, the sentence becomes the site of a struggle where conflicting forces vie for precedence, a reflection of Jeffrey Mehlman's recent characterization of a text—"less a monument than a battlefield."
If one pursued this line of argument, one would argue that this sentence exhibits in a particularly lucid way the stresses that constitute critical discourse about the vanguard novel. Like Torres Bodet's sentence, the criticism of this time shelters antinomies. It splits its allegiance between the old and the new fiction, refusing to relinquish either one. The interpretive task would then be to account for the conflict by identifying the warring factions and documenting its dispersive effect.
The hitch is that the argument seems to crumble once the passage is reinserted into its context. The inconsistencies vanish, and a different, unambiguous sense materializes. "Un género de ayer," it turns out, does not mean a genre of the past, an obsolete genre, but rather "a recent genre." Torres Bodet is tracing the genealogy of the novel and pauses to remark on the recency of the form: "The novel already knows its masters; it has learned to love them and begins to feel the need to choose them. In the beginning—one must not forget that the novel, with its present characteristics, is yesterday's genre—to say 'novel' was, implicitly, to allude to Balzac" (p. 12). The battlefield, it appears, was really a monument after all—or was it? Interestingly, if one examines the rest of Torres Bodet's essay, one discovers that it too is beset by inconsistencies, for the same hesitation that we found in the quotation can be observed throughout his discussion. At times he speaks of the traditional novel as a dead genre that has been replaced by the contemporary or modern novel. At other times, however, the traditional novelistic canons are perceived as still in force, the contemporary novel figuring as an unrealized project. With respect to the traditional novel, his temporal register wavers uneasily between past and present; with respect to the contemporary novel, between present and future. He recognizes, for instance, that "the only thing that has entered, not a period of decadence but a period of clear neglect, is the naturalistic novel, the novel intended for the consumption of young ladies and shopgirls," adding that "it has fallen into disuse because, not being a pure literary form, it could not compete with the cinematographer" (p. 10). In these passages the nineteenth-century novel has been supplanted by a newer genre. It belongs to the past, as is indicated by the use of the past indefinite and the preterit ("has entered ... a period of clear neglect"; "has fallen into disuse"; "it could not compete"). The obsolescence of this kind of fiction is underscored by the contemporary novel's accomplishments, which have already become history: "This is what the contemporary novel has tried to do ..." (p. 10). But a few paragraphs later he remarks: "Will the novel change directions? We hope so. Why should change mean decadence? Is it that the novel had reached maturity? Did it have nothing left to do but die?" (p. 11). And again: "The best quality of the modern novelist will lie in his scrupulous fidelity to memory" (p. 14). In the interval between the first and second set of quotations the temporal register has modulated from past to present and from present to future. The traditional novel, formerly consigned to the past, is once again in the present. A change in generic orientation has not yet taken place ("Will the novel change directions?"). The contemporary novel, which had been firmly entrenched in the present, is now pushed forward into the future. It exists only as promise or expectation. Where then does the novel belong? One cannot, it seems, have it both ways. The contemporary novel is either a reality or a project. The traditional novel is either obsolete or it is "actual."
One might say that the true temporal register of the essay is the present progressive, the tense of crisis, the tense that subsists in the transformation of a future into a present and of a present into a past. Pertinently, Torres Bodet also places the modern novel in this time-frame: "The novelistic aptitudes that in Walter Scott, in Balzac, in Dickens, involved creation, imagination, are rapidly becoming an aptitude for definition, a subtlety of exegesis, a real analytical magic" (pp. 13-14; my italics). It is precisely this temporal flux, this rapid becoming, that Torres Bodet's own analysis evokes. Although the essay is framed as a rebuttal of Ortega's argument that the novel has entered a period of crisis, it only provides further corroboration of this view. To judge by Torres Bodet's vacillations, by his inability to place the alternative generic options, the novel is a vexed form indeed. Even if its author does not seem aware of it, what "Reflexiones" reflects is this same crisis translated into the language of commentary.
We are thus led back to the previous analysis, which no longer appears unmotivated. The essay does exhibit a peculiar inconsistency. It does adopt an equivocal stance toward the novel. It is in fact a battlefield, not a monument. And placed against the backdrop of the entire piece, the sentence with which I began admits the original reading. Its ambiguity is a symptom of the instability of the whole essay, which displays a certain determination not to make sense about the novel. As a general rule "Reflexiones" tends to undermine its own discussion, rendering it equivocal or incoherent. By repeatedly moving the temporal frame of reference, it turns back on itself, it evinces an unmistakeable tilt toward the ambiguous. How else to explain the fact that the quotation occurs in the second sentence of a section entitled "Realidad y memoria"? Like the quotation, this phrase has a different intended meaning, but the fit is too close to be overlooked. Realidad: "con sus características actuales." Memoria: "es un género de ayer." The novel is both present and past, reality and memory. The ambiguity persists.
It is important to realize that Torres Bodet's essay is not unusual in its contradictions. I should like to claim that it does nothing more than embody the essential structure of eclecticism, and that as such it is entirely typical of Hispanic discourse about the novel during this time. Consider, for example, the following assertion: "Carefully considered, the novel today possesses a breadth unmatched by any other literary genre; it is a total genre, with a place for the simple stringing together of events as well as for the most complicated analysis of ideas, for physical exaltation as well as for dramatic contrast." Or consider this definition of the novel: "A free genre, undisciplined and open to every adventure and adventurer ... This explains the actual coexistence of antagonic forms and the impossibility of tracing a straight and clear line of development." The first statement, like the quotation from "Reflexiones," counterpoises the traditional and the contemporary novel: the type of fiction built on plot and dramatic effects and the type that is morose and lyrical (Torres Bodet points out that the two strains in the contemporary novel are the "psychological" and the "lyrical" [p. 97]). The second statement, similarly, acknowledges the coexistence of "antagonic" forms but smooths over the intimation of strife with an appeal to the genre's unlimited capaciousness. The difficulty with these positions, however, is that the phrase "total genre" or "free genre" is a contradiction in terms. To conceive of the novel as a "total genre" is to posit the existence of a kind of all kinds—the kind of kind that is hardly a kind at all. A genre, by definition, must restrict admission; the moment the novel becomes "free" it stops being a genre. And from the practical standpoint the problem is that, as we shall see, the traditional and the modern novel are usually defined in such a way as to preempt their cohabitation under the same rubric, an incompatibility already insinuated in Guillermo de Torre's reference to "antagonic forms." Thus, the varying definitions of the novel that one finds scattered in the critical literature of this time cannot be brought together without contradiction under the banner of eclecticism. Placed in a narrow enough context, generic eclecticism is ultimately reducible to an antinomy like that embodied in Torres Bodet's observation. The only difference is that "Reflexiones," in attempting to compress a panorama of the current state of the novel into just a few pages, condenses contradictions that a broader perspective tends to dilute.
At this point, in the midst of the problematic of obsolescence and substitution, the vanguard novel enters the argument. For in the ongoing discussion of the novel during the decade preceding the Spanish Civil War, the vanguard novel will figure prominently as the new, up-to-date genre to juxtapose against the canonic form. It will be the "género de hoy" out to replace the "género de ayer." If Hispanic discourse about the novel during the late twenties and early thirties is beset by inconsistency and dissension, a major cause is the advent of an experimental form of fiction at odds with the normative definitions of the genre. The appearance of the vanguard novel will precipitate a class struggle, not between social groups but between literary classes. The pun is relevant because the place of the vanguard novel in the critical discourse of the 1920s and 30s cannot be understood without taking into account the genre's incompatibility with the dominant novel-form and the struggle for precedence to which this incompatibility gave rise. By studying the critical reaction to the vanguard novel we will thus be laying the groundwork for further discussion of the problematic inherent in Torres Bodet's essay.
ii. The Reception of the Vanguard Novel
Four principal moments articulate the history of the vanguard novel between 1926 and 1934. Three of them arise from editorial ventures: the first moment corresponds to the founding of the series "Nova novorum" of the Revista de Occidente. Three of the titles published under this imprint were works of fiction—Víspera del gozo by Pedro Salinas, El profesor inútil by Benjamín Jarnés, and Pájaro pinto by Antonio Espina—and they provided the initial stimulus and occasion for a general awareness of the new fictional form. The second moment belongs to the "Contemporáneos," a group of young Mexican writers who collaborated in the magazine of the same name and who wrote several novels that were classed with those of the "Nova novorum" as manifestations of the same revisionary impulse. The third moment comprehends those works published by the Colección Valores Actuales of the Ediciones Ulises. This collection, which was established in 1930 and disappeared the following year, served as an outlet for a new installment of vanguard novels, some by already known figures (Benjamin Jarnés, Francisco Ayala) and others by lesser lights (Corpus Barga, Rosa Chacel, Felipe Ximénez de Sandoval, etc.). The fourth moment subsumes three works that came out in 1934 when the vanguard fashion had all but run its course: Antonio de Obregón's Hermes en la vía pública, Ricardo Gullón's Fin de semana (aptly titled), and the second edition of El profesor inútil by Jarnés. By studying their reception, we will be able to follow the falling fortunes and witness the rapid demise of the genre as the decade of the 1930s progressed. One of the ironies of this demise is that El profesor inútil, the same work that only a few years earlier had helped launch the genre, surfaces again in the waning moment. In vanguard fiction beginning and end, timeliness and belatedness, join to form a neat, self-contained circle, a closed world whose dimensions I will be tracing. The two editions of El profesor inútil—the first a prelude, the second a swan song—furnish only the first of several illustrations of this phenomenon.
There are, of course, some writers and works not adequately covered by this scheme, but I do not intend to record the critical reaction to all vanguard novels. I aim rather to document the existence of the genre, to reconstruct the process of inscription of a new and problematic class; and this aim can best be met by concentrating on the four moments when the genre achieved the highest visibility. Since I am interested not in a generation of authors but in a "generation" of books, my scheme privileges the class over the work, and the work over the author. For this reason also, I have made no attempt to do justice to the novelistic careers of writers like Max Aub or Francisco Ayala, in whose total output the vanguard moment represents but a brief flirtation. I have tried though, albeit briefly in some instances, to say something of those of their works that became part of the debate surrounding vanguard fiction.
In essence, this debate began in the summer of 1926 with the publication of Víspera del gozo, the inaugural work in the series "Nova novorum." Víspera del gozo was quickly and, for the most part, favorably reviewed by many of the important critics of the day—Azorin, Fernando Vela, Eugenio DOrs, Ernesto Giménez Caballero, Enrique Diez-Canedo, Corpus Barga, and others. Salinas, who had already published a book of poems, Presagios, a version of the Cantar de Mio Cid, and a translation of the first two volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu, was well-known to his reviewers and did not really fit the rubric under which his book appeared. Indeed, because his translation of Proust had recently been published (Por el camino de Swann, 1920; A la sombra de las muchachas en flor, 1922), one of the topics discussed by most reviewers was the possible (and plausible) influence of Proust on the stories that made up Víspera del gozo. According to some, the Proustian imprint was unmistakeable and even embarrassing. According to others, it did not exist. For Ernesto Giménez Caballero Salinas' stories amount to little more than pallid imitations of their French model. In order to expose Salinas' Gallic sensibility, Giménez translates into French a passage from Víspera del gozo, and asks: "Can it be said that the following paragraph embodies the genuine sensibility of our race?" (As we will soon see, this is only one of the first of many similar impeachments of the hispanidad of the genre, which was often criticized for being foreign-born and thus incompatible with the Hispanic temperament.) Similarly, Corpus Barga goes as far as likening Víspera del gozo to Salinas' version of the Cid, since both works should be considered translations, "remedos." Salinas is simply doing for the French prose of his day what he has already done for the medieval Spanish of the Cid. Barga differs from Giménez Caballero, however, in that for him the prevalent model is not Proust but Giraudoux—an epigonism that in his view aligns Salinas with Paul Morand, Pierre Girard, and Benjamín Jarnés.
Excerpted from Idle Fictions by Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Copyright © 1982 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Gustavo Pérez Firmat is Professor of Spanish in the Department of Romance Studies and Professor in the Program in Literature, Duke University. He is the author of numerous books.
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