Ramón Gómez de la Serna
Ramón Gómez de la Serna Puig (July 3, 1888 in Madrid – January 13, 1963 in Buenos Aires) was a Spanish writer, dramatist and avant-garde agitator. He strongly influenced surrealist film maker Luis Buñuel.
Ramón Gómez de la Serna was especially known for "Greguerías" – a short form of poetry that roughly corresponds to the one-liner in comedy. The Gregueria is especially able to grant a new and often humorous perspective. Serna published over 90 works in all literary genres. In 1933, he was invited to Buenos Aires. He stayed there during the Spanish Civil War and the following Franco regime and died there.
Some sample Greguerias:
El par de huevos que nos tomamos parece que son gemelos, y no son ni primos terceros.
[The couple of eggs we eat look like identical twins, and they're not even third cousins.]
El pavo real es un mito jubilado.
[The peacock is a retired myth.]
Las puertas se enfadan con el viento.
[Doors get angry with the wind.]
Born into an upper-middle-class family, Gómez de la Serna refused to follow his father into law or politics and soon adopted the marginal lifestyle of a bohemian bourgeois artist, finding his literary feet in the journal Prometeo, which, funded by his indulgent father between 1908 and 1912, introduced into Spain a whiff of scandal from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Remy de Gourmont and Marinetti.
During the First World War Ramón, as he liked to be known, became neutral Spain's chief exponent of avant-garde writing, establishing a base in the literary tertulia he founded at the centre of Madrid in the old Café Pombo.
This was Spain's most famous contribution to what Roger Shattuck has called 'the banquet years'. But behind the self-publicizing avant-garde antics, Ramón developed not only an extravagant public persona (megalomaniac some would say), but also his own equivalent of what Shattuck defines as a 'reversal of consciousness', deliberately divesting himself of conventional ways of thinking and being in order to adopt a peculiarly innovative, almost phenomenological, way of looking at the world, one which influenced the younger 1927 Generation of poets (as Luis Cernuda has explained) and in Ramón's case produced some of the most original and brilliantly creative prose writing of the period.
The six or so remarkable books he published from 1914 to 1918 – El Rastro [The Flea-Market], El Doctor Inverosímil [The Improbable Doctor], Greguerías [Greguerias], Senos [Breasts], Pombo [Pombo], El circo [The Circus] – illustrate most of his main characteristics: his search for a new fragmentary genre of short prose poems (giving them the arbitrary name of greguerías), his exaltation of trivial everyday objects, his emphasis on eroticism, his exuberant self-projection and exclusive dedication to art, his playful humour, his contemplative secular mysticism, and above all his cult of the image, especially witty surprising images.
These abound in all his works, especially his many, utterly idiosyncratic and textually pleasurable novels, such as the first real one La viuda blanca y negra [The Black and White Widow] (1921), which was inspired by his relationship with the older, early feminist writer, Carmen de Burgos.
It was in fact the greguerías that first attracted the attention of Valery Larbaud, who in the 1920s soon had him translated and lionized in France.
Within Spain, though his work often provoked controversy and sometimes hostility, one of his most eminent defenders was José Ortega y Gasset, who perceptively described Pombo (in a banquet speech of 1921) as the last liberal barricade before the imminent rebellion of the masses from both left and right; and in his famous study on the dehumanization of art mentioned Ramón in the same breath as Proust and Joyce.
A subsequent, lazy consensus in mainstream Hispanism has deemed Ramón's reputation to have been overrated, but the comparison with Proust and Joyce seems justified, whilst recognizing that what differentiates him from their modernist cult of large-scale structures and formal perfection is precisely his avant-garde experimentation with a fragmentary, anarchic formlessness on the one hand, and on the other, his dedication to a kind of untranscendental meditation in a present usually severed from Joyce's classical archetypes and Proust's memories of the past.
Such was Ramón's insistence on constant novelty that when he published his own survey of the period's Ismos [Isms] in 1931, its prologue was one of the most notable defences of artistic autonomy and verbal freedom at a time when the avant-garde and surrealism were giving way to socio-political commitment.
Ramón's lack of commitment during the Republic, followed by his embarrassing declaration of support for Franco after self-exile to his younger, Jewish wife's flat in Buenos Aires at the outbreak of civil war, led to ostracism and neglect.
Despite still producing some of the most original works in Spanish of the twentieth century – the existential-surrealist novel El hombre perdido [The Lost Man] (1947) and his extraordinary neo-baroque autobiography Automoribundia (Automoribund)  – his life in exile was one of pathetic isolation and increasing poverty, neither of which were helped by the knowledge that he had left behind (and in 1947 donated to the Spanish State) the celebrated painting of the Pombo Tertulia by Gutiérrez-Solana (now given pride of place in Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum) and the equally famous cubist portrait of him painted in 1915 by Diego Rivera (which was lost without trace during the civil war but has apparently resurfaced to become the 'property' of a Mexican millionaire). On January 13, 1963, Ramón died from natural causes. In a letter to one of his companions, he mentions acknowledging his imminent death and welcomed it.
Despite the decline in Ramón's reputation, two notable voices in particular declared their admiration. Firstly Octavio Paz, who wrote the following in a letter to Papeles de Son Armadans in 1967: 'Para mí es el gran escritor español: el Escritor o, mejor, la Escritura. Comparto la admiración, el fanatismo, de Larbaud: yo también habría aprendido el español sólo para leerlo’ [For me he is the great Spanish writer: the Writer, or rather, Writing. I share Larbaud’s admiration, his fanaticism: I also would have learned Spanish just to read him].
And secondly Pablo Neruda, who in his prologue to Ramón's Obras selectas [Selected Works] (1971) claimed that 'la gran figura del surrealismo, entre todos los países, ha sido Ramón' [the major figure of surrealism, in any country, has been Ramón].
Though still often regarded as a marginal figure, there has of late been a marked revival of interest, stimulated perhaps by the recent vogue for postmodernism, which Ramón's avant-garde art can be seen both to anticipate and, in many cases, surpass.
Fittingly, his complete works are now nearing completion, published in 20 volumes by Círculo de Lectores/Galaxia Gutenberg (Barcelona) in a splendid edition admirably edited by Ioana Zlotescu.
Translations into English:
- Aphorisms, trans. by Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth (Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1989)
- Dalí, trans. by Nicholas Fry (New York: Park Lane, )
- Eight Novellas, trans. by Herlinda Charpentier Saitz and Robert L. Saitz (New York: Lang, 2005)
- Greguerías: The Wit and Wisdom of Ramón Gómez de la Serna, trans. by Philip Ward (Cambridge: Oleander Press, 1982)
- Movieland, trans. by Angel Flores (New York: Macaulay, 1930)
- Some Greguerías, trans. by Helen Granville-Barker (New York: [n. pub.] printed by Rudge's Sons, 1944)
- Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years (The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France: 1885 to World War I), rev. edn (London: Cape,1969), p. 315.
- de la Serna, Ramón Gómez. "Ramón Gómez de la Serna's Papers" (PDF). Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved November 7, 2013.
- An earlier version of this article by Alan Hoyle first appeared in a special number ('Marginals and Megalomaniacs') of Aura: A Journal of the Avant-Garde, no. 3 (Summer 1995), 51–53, ed. by Jeremy Stubbs and Andrew Hussey, and published in the Department of French, University of Manchester.
- Cardona, Rodolfo, RAMÓN: A Study of Gómez de la Serna and his Works (New York: Torres, 1957)
- Dennis, Nigel, ed., Studies on Ramón Gómez de la Serna (Ottawa: Dovehouse, 1988)
- Gardiol, Rita (Mazzetti), Ramón Gómez de la Serna (New York: Twayne, 1974)
- Gonzalez-Gerth, Miguel, A Labyrinth of Imagery: Ramón Gómez de la Serna’s ‘novelas de la nebulosa’ (London: Tamesis, 1986)
- Hoyle, Alan, El desafío de la incongruencia: la literatura de Ramón Gómez de la Serna (Madrid: Ediciones Clásicas/del Orto, 2010)
- McCulloch, John, The Dilemma of Modernity: Ramón Gómez de la Serna and the Spanish Modernist Novel (New York: Lang, 2007)
- Thesis: Ramón Gómez de la Serna, by Ronald Daus, Professor at the Free University of Berlin 1970
- Ramón Gómez de la Serna Papers (Ramón Gómez de la Serna Papers, 1906–1967, SC.1967.04, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh)
- The Ramón Gómez de la Serna Papers collection at the University of Pittsburgh
- Ramón Gómez de la Serna, hosts the internet journal BoletínRAMÓN
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