Spanish Authors and Literature in Spain

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Spanish literature can simply be understood as the body of literary works created in Spain. These works are categorized into three main language divisions. These are Galician, Catalan, and Castilian.

History of Spanish literature

The history of Spanish literature can be tracked back many centuries ago. Over this period, Spanish literature has been influenced a lot by events taking place in Spain and in the world and it has also influenced the world to some extent. The literature began in the 12th century with “El Cantar Del Mio Cid”, a narrative that was conveyed verbally via storytellers. The first form of written Spanish literature, however, began in the 13th century during the middle ages and this introduced all the genres of theatre, poetry, and prose. This was followed by the Baroque period or the Golden Age which witnessed numerous literary productions from a number of authors such as Miguel de Cervantes through his masterpiece, the adventures of the mad knight “Don Quixote.” Other important authors of this era were Lope de Vega, the play writer, and Quevedo the poet.

In the enlightenment period, poetry was not very strong and in prose, didactic texts and essays gained popularity. Romanticism began in the 19th century with figures such as Manuel José Quintana and José de Espronceda among others. This was followed by realism and the main genres were poetry with poets such as Ramón de Campoamor among others, theatre with Manuel Tamayo Baus, and novel with Leopoldo Alas, Emilia Pardo Bazán among others. The 20th century brought about a lot of change in Spanish literature. Most authors developed their own personal style and novels became the most common genre.

Spain´s earliest literature consisted of poems, plays, and essays written by the Romans in Latin. Later, when the Moors ruled Spain, they encouraged writers to produce works in Arabic, particularly poetry. Jews who lived in Spain during this time wrote poems and books in Hebrew.

El Cid Campeador

Almost 900 years ago, Spanish entertainers wrote and sang long poems, called epics, about Christian heroes. Many of these singers, or troubadours, traveled around Spain entertaining pilgrims on the road, as well as people in villages and towns. One of the first epics sung in Spanish was written around 1140 by an unknown author. It is called El Cantar de Mío Cid, or the Poem of the Cid, and it is 4,000 verses long. It tells the story of a Spanish hero, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043-1099), who fought with the Christians against the Moors, and with the Moors against the Christians. His title, El Cid Campeador, means The Lord Champion.

The Golden Age of Literature in Spain

Spaniards produced so many great works of literature and art in the 1500s and 1600s that this period became known as the Golden Age. Two of the most famous playwrights from this time are Felix Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Felix Lope de Vega (1562-1635) wrote almost 2,000 plays. Some people boasted that he could write a play in a single day. Many of his plays were about honor and love; others were historical plays about Spanish heroes. After Lope de Vega died, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) became the favorite playwright of the time. He wrote plays about love and jealousy, but is best known for his religious dramas about Catholic beliefs.

Don Quixote

The most famous Spanish novel is El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, or The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of la Mancha, commonly called Don Quixote (pronounced don kee ho tay). Its author, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), published the humorous novel in two parts, between 1605 and 1615. It tells the story of a nobleman who, after reading too many stories about knights, believes he is a knight himself. He sets out to do good deeds and fight evil, accompanied by his faithful servant, Sancho Panza. Unfortunately, Don Quixote fights battles against giants who are really only windmills and attacks armies that are really flocks of sheep. Sancho Panza is always at his master´s side to help him out of trouble.

Modern Writers

By the 1800s, Spaniards began to write about the problems of people in Spain. Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) is one of Spain´s most famous poets and playwrights. His books of poems, which include El Romancero Gitano, or The Gypsy Ballads, described the lives of Gypsies with kindness and compassion at a time when many people in southern Spain were unkind to them. The Spanish author Camilo José Cela (1916-) writes about conditions in Spain in the 1940s and 1950s. His novel Viaje a la Alcarria, or Journey to the Alcarria, describes the difficult lives of people in the countryside. Cela won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1989.

After the Spanish Civil War, many writers in Spain focused on depressing and violent themes. Female writers began to publish stories that described the terrible effects war had on people, especially women. By the 1980s and 1990s, some of the best-known writers in Spain were women, such as Ana María Moix and Carme Riera.

Spanish writers

Spain has produced many amazing writers in all genres and most of them have played a role in the growth and expansion of a number of the biggest library movements. A number of iconic Spanish writers from the past include the aformentioned Miguel de Cervantes known for his work Don Quixote; Federico García Lorca a playwright and poet who wrote about rural life, gypsies and flamenco; Arturo Pérez-Reverte a journalist-cum-author known for his sequence of novels following the adventures of Captain Alatriste; Rafael Alberti a poet known for his compilation of poems, Marinero en tierra (Sailor on land); Rosalía de Castro the first female author to gain state recognition for writing in the Galician language; and Pío Baroja a novelist known for his trilogy called La Lucha Por la Vida (The Struggles of Life) which portrayed the life of the working class in the slums of Madrid.

Some of the well-known writers of today include Javier Marías known for his works such as A Heart So White and Your Face Tomorrow; Rosa Montero a novelist and a journalist known for novels such as The Delta Function and The Lunatic of the House; Elvira Navarro author of The Happy City; Sónia Hernández poet and author of Los enfermos erróneos (The Wrong Patients); and Ildefonso Falcones a lawyer and writer known for books such as Cathedral of the Sea, The Hand of Fatima, and La Reina Descalza. The list of these amazing authors goes on and on, all to portray the greatness and prowess of Spanish literature.

Spain has a long history of churning out fabulous authors and poets, but to name them all within the confines of this article would be a gargantuan task. Instead we have focused on three of the most recognized names in Spanish literature: Miguel de Cervantes, Vicente Aleixandre, and Federico Garcia Lorca.

Miguel de Cervantes

One of the most recognized Spanish authors of all time, Miguel de Cervantes published the country’s most famous novel, Don Quijote de la Mancha, in 1580. The eternal success of this novel is well-known, but what many people may not know is that Cervantes led a very difficult life—fitting the mold of the starving artist stereotype of today. Nonetheless, his passion for theatre and literature drove the man to create a true artistic masterpiece that has certainly withstood the test of time.

Although there is no official birth date on record for Cervantes, the name Miguel (or Michael) suggests he was born on or around September 29th, 1547, the day on which the feast of St. Michael the Archangel is celebrated in Spain. It is noted, however, that Cervantes was christened on October 9th, 1547 and born in Alcala, a city near Madrid.

Miguel Cervantes had very little formal education—at least no coursework that was ever recorded. Records indicate that he was a young student of the Spanish humanist Juan Lopez de Hoyos in Madrid from 1568-1569, and went to Rome the following year under the tutelage of Guilio Acquavita, a Roman Catholic Cardinal who was ordained in 1570.

While staying in Rome, and as a way to fund his writing, Cervantes and other Spanish men joined the infantry in Naples. It should be noted that throughout his military experiences Cervantes enjoyed his time and was popular amongst the ranks.

In 1571, the headwaters of war met at Cyprus. In the Mediterranean, on the Gulf of Lepanto, the Ottoman Empire was moving to expand power and land control, and thus Cervantes and his Company was called to fight. According to many accounts, Cervantes fought honorably, ultimately sustaining a wound to the chest, and a debilitating wound to his left hand that earned him the nickname Manco de Lepanto (Maimed of Lepanto).

Shortly after the battle in the Gulf of Lepanto, Cervantes was on passage home when his vessel was captured by pirates. Cervantes was taken to Algiers in Africa and enslaved for 5 years, despite several failed escape attempts.

In 1580, with the help of his family and enormous sums of money gathered by the Trinitarian monastery, Cervantes was finally released by his captors. It is speculated that during the time of his captivity, Cervantes gathered material and inspiration for his first works and the now famous Don Quixote characters. His first play, Los Tratos de Argel (The Treatment of Algiers) was based on his time held captive in Africa.

In the year 1584, Miguel Cervantes married his wife Catalina de Salazary Palacios; the couple did not have any children, although it has been proven that Cervantes did have a daughter through an affair with a local actress in the region. Cervantes would ultimately leave his wife and face unrelated financial difficulties that landed him in jail several times—on one occasion he was even suspected of murder, although he was never tried.

In 1605, now back in Madrid, the first installment of Don Quijote was released and was met with immediate success. In 1615, the second and final installment was published and also found astonishing success; both pieces were later translated into English, French, and Italian. Unfortunately, Cervantes had earlier sold the rights to his work, and although some of his financial burdens were eased by this sale, he never managed his money well enough to become a wealthy man. The silver lining for Cervantes was the literary recognition he gained for his amazing literary talent, the majority of which came after his death.

In addition to Don Quixote, Cervantes also wrote dozens of plays and short stories, though none gained the same popularity of his famous novel. In his collection entitled Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses (Eight Comedies and Eight Interludes, published in1615) an ill Miguel Cervantes bids farewell to his readers in the prologue, knowing full well that his death was imminent. His final novel, Los Trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda (The Exploits of Persiles and Segismunda) was published at the end of his life in 1616.

Don Quijote de La Mancha (The book)

The Spanish author, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in his work Don Quijote de la Mancha (“The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha”), concocted a fantasy background and this background was largely influenced by a manuscript written by a fictional Moorish historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli.

The novel pivots around Alonso Quixano, a man of the countryside, who after having gone through several novels on chivalry, starts believing that he is actually a knight errant. Thus “Don Quixote de la Mancha” , along with his simple squire, Sancho Panza, go on the lookout for any kind of exploration or other such exciting activity. Dulcinea del Toboso is the damsel whom Don Quixote wishes to protect from all harm- she is actually a fictional character carved from the image of a farm girl from the neighboring quarters whose actual name was Aldonza Lorenzo. According to Don Quixote, she is his lady love and he her knight in shining armor. However, “Dulcinea” does not make an appearance in the noel at all and of course she knows nothing about Don Quixote’s affection for her.

Don Quixote came out in a couple of volumes, separated by a decade. It is probably the most amazing and inspiring piece of work that rose from the Spanish Golden Age and maybe in the whole of Spanish literary history. The novel, generally, secures one of the top notches in catalogues of best fictions written- it is considered to be a pioneering work in modern Western literature. Don Quixote is also considered to be the best secular novel of all ages and also one that contains no political framework.

Don Quixote is an amusing and entertaining novel that unfolds in sequential episodes. It follows the picaresco form prevalent in the later half of the 16th century. The Spanish term ingenioso is defined as “to be quick with inventiveness” and thus the novel’s heading actually reveals its motive. The novel is actually a farce, however the second part deals with the art of trickery and games that deceive and also philosophizes about such issues. Paintings of Pablo Picasso and Richard Strauss have been influenced by Don Quixote- thus it has not only inspired literary work but also compositions in art and music. Quixote is lanky, tall, a romantic and believes in everything fanciful or fantastic; Sancho Panza , on the other hand, is short, plump, plain and simple- this difference in characterization between the knight and his squire has been an aspect of great critical analysis ever since the release of the book. Don Quixote is extremely innovative and he imagines it all- Cervantes mocks his fancy beliefs and also cracks awful, rude jokes, making fun of Quixote’s strong conviction in his knighthood and his imagined adventures. Quixote is also subject to Sancho Panza’s deception much though Sancho does it not intentionally. The novel is actually a spoof on the conservatism, authenticity, truth and also patriotism. Cervantes expanded the concept of chivalric romance; through his work he put forward ideas and stories of knights and court ladies, though it is actually a lampoon.

It is through puns and word-play that the farce is manifested. The names of the figures in the novel present the paradox, the reversal and the irony at work. Rocinante is a reversal where as Dulcinea is actually an insinuation to delusion. The very word quixoteis , in all probability, a jibe on quijada or jaw. Cuixot is definitely the Catalan term meaning thighs and also alludes to a horse’s rump.

Cervantes, in Don Quixote, presented us with a new and innovative sphere belonging to the shepherds and the people who own the taverns and the inns. Soon the term quixotic was calqued in the vocabulary and this was obviously derived from the protagonist Don Quixote who soon grew very famous. Sancho Panza and Rocinante, Don Quixote’s stallion are radical figures who now stand as motifs for Western literary culture. “Tilting at windmills” is a phrase that defines a vain action and this had been taken from another famous chapter of the book.

Don Quixote assisted in the upliftment of the modern Spanish language through its fame. The phrase de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, “whose name I do not want to remember”, which is the first line of the book, turned into a standard Spanish cliché.

Vicente Aleixandre

Vicente Aleixandre led an accomplished life as a Spanish poet, winning national Spanish and international recognition for his many works. The most notable and distinguished honor was his appointment to the ranks of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Aleixandre´s style typically included surreal images of solitude, time in transition, love and sex.

Vicente Aleixandre was born in Seville, Spain in 1898. His family later moved to Malaga, where Aleixandre internalized the breathtaking landscapes of the city for inspiration. Sun drenched countryside, typical of Malaga, often made its way to the pages of his beautiful works. Aleixandre´s family moved again in 1909, this time to Madrid, where Vicente Aleixandre attended both secondary school and university courses. Aleixandre received a Law Degree in 1920 from the University of Madrid.

After working for a time as an employee for Andalusian Railways, in 1922 Vicente Aleixandre fell very ill, with many reports describing him as “nearly invalid.” As a result, he decided to move to his father´s estate on the outskirts of Madrid as a way to guard against further health problems. His father’s country home turned out to be the perfect respite for Aleixandre, affording him the peaceful environment he needed to further develop his writing.

While in this environment, Aleixandre spent many of his waking hours in solitude, meditating, writing and reflecting on his inner voice. Many of the themes in the poems he later created at this stage of his life reflected the author’s reclusive state. In fact, at one point he was quoted as saying: “Solitude and meditation gave me awareness, a perspective which I have never lost: that of solidarity with the rest of mankind.”

The year 1928 marked Aleixandre’s first major publication, entitled Ambito, a compilation of beautiful poems about nature and love. In 1933, the poet won the prestigious Premio Nacional de Literatura award, beating out other famous Spanish writers, including Federico Garcia Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Luis Cernuda, Pedro Salinas and Jorge Guillén.

Around the year 1935, Franco´s military suppression of Spain, along with the Spanish Civil War, commenced. As a result, Aleixandre was forced to stop publishing works because of his political opinions.

After Franco´s authority had waned and the ban on certain types of literature was lifted, Aleixandre published the works, Poemas Paradisiacos (1942) and Shadow of Paradise (1944). Almost certainly written during the restrictive Franco Era, these award-winning works, which promoted free thinking and other themes embraced by Aleixandre, were eventually sent to print in the 1950s and 1960s.

Other works by Aleixandre, including Mundo A Solas (1950) and Historia del Corazon (1954) focused on the idea of human solidarity, with themes that included death, hope, struggle and loneliness. For his new approach to literary themes, the writer, in 1950, was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) for literary excellence.

The greatest honor bestowed on Vicente Aleixandre came from the Nobel Literature Academy in 1977, an award recognizing his “creative poetic writing, which illuminated man’s condition in the cosmos and present-day society, and represented the great renewal of the traditions of Spanish poetry between the Wars.” Sadly, Aleixandre was too weak to receive the award himself, so a good friend of the author acted as his proxy during the Academy’s awards celebration. Mr. Aleixandre died in his home near Madrid on December 14th, 1984.

Federico Garcia Lorca

It is literally impossible to study Spanish literature without coming across the name Federico Garcia Lorca, arguably one of the most important characters to emerge in Spain’s cultural history. Lorca’s popularity is not solely due to the splendor of his famous surrealist masterpieces, such as Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), Yerma, and La Casa de Bernada Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba), but also due to the interesting period in which he wrote—a time when many important cultural figures also emerged in Spain, including Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, with whom Lorca was even rumored to be romantically involved.

This particular group of artists/novelists/poets came to be known as the Generation of ’27 (Generación del 27), a group made up of poets such as Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillén, Gerardo Diego and Luis Cernuda. This poetic period is marked by important Lorca publications, such as Romancero Gitano (The Gypsy Ballads) and the Poema del Cante Jondo (‘Poem of the Deep Song’), among many other well-known pieces.

Sadly, the Generación del 27 was somewhat crippled by the Spanish Civil War. In fact, Lorca himself was murdered by a group of people suspected to be Nationalists, and a general ban was placed on his collective works—a ban that remained in effect until 1953. His early and unexpected death is often cited as (at least) part of the reason for the popularity of his treasured works. The truth, however, is that his masterful writing style and unique take on the nation’s history would alone be enough to ensure his rightful place in Spanish literary history.

Born in Granada in 1898, Federico Garcia Lorca moved to Madrid in 1919, but it was not until 1927 that he started to become truly respected as a dramatist and poet. It was in that year that his play Mariana Pineda opened to great acclaim in Barcelona. In 1929, while feeling estranged in the land he called home, Lorca’s family arranged for him to go to New York, where he wrote the classic Poeta en Nueva York, a piece in which he used a variety of original poetic techniques to express his feelings of isolation in the city.

In 1930 Lorca returned to Spain, and in 1931 he became the director of a university theatre company. It was while touring with this company that he wrote his famous works Bodas de Sangre (‘Blood Weddings’), Yerma and La Casa de Bernada Alba.

Naturally, this brief article only scratches the surface of the many famous Spanish writers and poets, a list that could certainly include greats such as Miguel Delibes, Jorge Guillen, Rafael Alberti, Gerardo Diego, and Pedro Salinas, among many, many others.

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Modern influences in Spanish Literature

Nothing had a greater impact on Spanish literature other than the Spanish Civil War. Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator, had a vision of Spain’s second golden age which was reflected in was written at that time. Most emerging Spanish writers were children during the civil war. Well into the dictatorship Spanish authors evolved into a more restless style of writing. With the death of Franco in 1975, the emerging democracy had great influence over the new generation of Spanish writers. Some of this noted younger generation were: Juan José Millás, Rosa Montero, Javier Marías, Luis Mateo Díez, José María Merino, Félix de Azúa, Cristina Fernández Cubas, Enrique Vila-Matas, Carme Riera, and later Antonio Muñoz Molina and Almudena Grandes.

Popular themes in Spanish Literature

  • Some of the popular themes in Spanish writing included oneself. Who doesn’t enjoy writing about themselves?
  • Love and passion. This is a common theme in all writing and literature.
  • Legends and history.
  • Religious topics, including writing about God and Satan.
  • Social issues such as wealth and poverty.
  • Stories intertwined with nature such as storms.
  • Political Satire.