Friday, July 5, 2019

Two Early Spanish Novels: Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler

I wrote this pair of essentially capsule reviews of two early short "novels" by Spanish writers a dozen or so years ago. I've exhumed it for today's "Friday's Forgotten Books" post.

Two Spanish Novellas from around 1600: Lazarillo de Tormes, attributed to Diego Hurtado de Mendoza; The Swindler, by Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas

a short review by Rich Horton

Kind of on impulse, I picked up a Penguin Classics edition of "Two Spanish Picaresque Novels", a 1969 translation by Michael Alpert. These are two early novels in the picaresque tradition: that is, novels about the experiences of roguish individuals, in this case in 16th Century (or early 17th C.) Spain.

I suspect in both cases my reaction to these works is affected by the translation -- particularly in that of The Swindler, which is highly regarded in the original Spanish for its wordplay and for Quevedo's ability to capture the different modes of speech of various classes in Spain. Both novels, of course, remain in the shadow of Don Quixote, which is almost an exact contemporary to The Swindler.

Lazarillo de Tormes was published anonymously in 1554, due to its anti-clerical and other controversial themes. The translator suggests that the author was most likely Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, though that attribution is not firmly established. The novella is considered a founding text of the long tradition of picaresque literature.The rather short (20,000 words) narrative concerns a young man born of a shiftless miller and a whore. His father died young and his mother took up with a black man, but their thieving ways led to trouble. Eventually young Lazaro is sold to another man to be a sort of apprentice thief, and learns various low tricks while at the same time tricking his master. Leaving him, he falls in with a priest, and then a down at heels aristocrat, then a seller of indulgences. In each case the object is satire of the social situation in Spain at the time, along with somewhat amusing accounts of dishonest folk bilking each other. Finally Lazaro stumbles into a goodish job and a marriage, marred only by his wife's loose morals. It's somewhat amusing on the whole, and worth reading over the length of 20,000 words, but the structure is very slack, the ending abrupt. (I should note that works in the picaresque genre are often structurally very loose.)  For me, much of the interest was historical rather than literary. I don't know what kind of literary reputation this maintains in Spain.

The Swindler (La Vida del Buscon in Spanish) is rather more substantial than Lazarillo de Tormes. For one thing, it's longer, at 45,000 words. The writer, Quevedo, is quite well known, and he had a rather adventurous life, especially politically, including a couple of stretches in prison. He published a number of books. This book was published in 1626 but apparently dates as early as 1604 (though it cannot have been finished before 1608, as one incident, a duel, is based in part on a duel that Quevedo himself fought), and was circulated in manuscript form before publication. It was the only novel by Quevedo.

The hero is the son of a thieving barber and a witch. He ends up going to school as the servant of a local aristocrat's son. The school turns out to be rather low rent, and the students all starve more or less. His career continues in travels about Spain, complete with the expected encounters with swindlers, swindles he performs himself, relationships with women, including an attempt to marry a rich girl foiled by mischance, satire of poets and actors, and an eventual love affair with a similarly disreputable woman leading, it appears, to a trip to the New World. As with Lazarillo de Tormes, the structure is slack and episodic, though tighter than in that novella. It is, again, worth reading, again for me a good part of the interest was historical.

No comments:

Post a Comment