Obituary: Juan Benet
Friday 08 January 1993
EPIPHANY brings the sense of an ending after the Christmas and New Year celebrations in Spain. On the television channels, among the frenzied festive street scenes, the hysteria of national lottery winners and the clamorous audiences for Montserrat Caballe, Placido Domingo, Teresa Berganza and Luciano Pavarotti there flashed on the screen for a few seconds a man's grave, unsmiling features. The dark moustache and eyebrows, the thick grey hair and saturnine gaze of the luminous Spanish eyes recalled the ageing William Faulkner and poker- faced Buster Keaton. It was the face of one of the greatest contemporary Spanish writers, Juan Benet, who had died that afternoon, Epiphany Eve, at the age of 65.
The sense of this ending was hard to accept for those privileged initiates who knew his work. Even in his native land, Benet's superbly crafted and innovative novels and essays were for the happy few. Some intellectuals prided themselves on not having read him, but once embarked upon one of his books found he was an acquired taste that led to addiction.
It was France, the most European-minded country of Europe, that began publishing him in translation in 1987 with El aire de un crimen ('Air of a Crime', 1980). Benet was a late starter in literature: his first book was not published until he was 34, at his own expense, and met with little success. He was the son of a well-to-do Madrid family. His father was a lawyer who was shot during the Civil War. He spent his youth in San Sebastian during the war years, then returned to Madrid to take up studies at the Colegio del Pilar. In 1948 he entered the School of Engineering and made engineering his profession, directing public works on canals, tunnels and hydroelectric schemes, a career which made him familiar with various regions of north-west Spain, descriptions of which were often to appear in his stories. In 1955, he was imprisoned for a few days because of his anti-Franco activities. Then he resigned his post to take up literature.
The reason for this change can be found in an introduction Benet wrote for the French translation of an important autobiographical work, Otodo en Madrid en 1950, ('Autumn in Madrid in 1950', 1989). He wrote:
The faculty of invention in a writer - and in artists in general - can manifest itself at any moment in his life and can be precocious as well as senile, continuous as well as intermittent. But though the perfecting of his art depends upon his will power and his devotion to hard work, his power of invention is situated as it were beyond his immediate grasp, for it is often the consequence of mere chance, of some sudden discovery or encounter . . . A man in full possession of the most refined faculties of creation may never be able to put them to the test, never be able to prove what he is capable of achieving, simply because some wretched destiny - whatever form it may adopt to afflict him with blindness - refuses him that opportune discovery.
Benet was fortunate in discovering his talent through encounters with various artists and writers, particularly the old Basque novelist and political dissident Pio Baroja, and Luis Martin-Santos, who gave Spanish letters a masterpiece in his Tempo de silencio ('Time of Silence', 1960) before dying in a car crash in 1964. Benet was an intimate friend of Martin- Santos, and his autobiographical work sheds light on the dead man's creative process.
Benet achieved a measure of fame with his first novel, Volveras a Region ('You shall return to Region', 1967). Like Ernesto Sabado and Juan Carlos Onetti, and like his much-admired fellow author William Faulkner, Benet created his own imaginary province, a Spanish Yoknapatawpha in the little world of Region. It opens with an almost Hardy-like evocation of a vast and almost deserted landscape. Benet vividly evokes a primitive, rural part of the Spanish north-west he lived in for several years and knew intimately, a region almost forgotten, isolated behind its rugged mountains. The author uses his wealth of technical knowledge to describe its elephantine cliffs, its stagnant waters, its footpaths, its snow-stormed precipitous limestone peaks and its strange black, beautiful predatory birds. Nature here acquires a mythic dimension with its ungovernable forces that defy even the greatest engineering works. The passions of politics and the horrors of civil war with their blind violence reach Region at first in a muted fashion, then more and more tragically.
The sharply drawn characters, Col Gamallo and his daughter Marre, his mistress Maria, the local doctor Sebastian and his godson Luis embody unforgettably the tragedies of an abominable civil war that brings terrible suffering to the district. Underlying these events is a Faulknerian sense of malediction, decadence, degeneration and some mysterious original sin transmitted from generation to generation, finally overwhelming the inhabitants of Region who cannot control the destinies of history but are fated merely to suffer them.
This tragic existential vision is composed with fascinating beauty of language, with a brilliantly precise vocabulary and long, sinuous sentences and paragraphs whose mastery of style made Benet from then on one of the leading exponents of a new style of novel writing in Spain. His writing is taut and dense: there are pages and pages without paragraphs, but so swiftly flowing the reader is carried along irresistibly, enraptured by the elegance and force of this master of the Spanish language. At the same period, Benet had published his first book of essays, La inspiracion y el estilo ('Inspiration and Style', 1966), and this was followed by several other masterly collections of long and closely argued literary essays. He made some superb translations of Shakespeare, Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, Faulkner. His collected short stories were published in 1977, followed by some of his best later works, Saul ante Samuel, one of the early historical-Biblical novels in the style of Thomas Mann, Herrumbrosas lanzas ('Rusty Lances', 1983), La construccion de la torre de Babel (1991). Rusty Lances (1983) won the prestigious Premi de la Critica in 1984 and he won several other prizes, but Benet never obtained the supreme literary distinctions like the Letras Espanolas Prize, the Premio Cervantes or the Principe de Asturias award, to the great disgust of friends like Goytisolo and Torrente Ballester. Goytisolo suggested that it was because he was still too young, but his sarcastic, combative temperament and the difficulty and nobility of his work may have had something to do with such an unjust exclusion from great literary honours.
Also, unusual for a Spaniard, he disliked Spanish provincialism and the Mediterranean was not his favourite sea: he preferred the oceans of Conrad and Stevenson, and the Mississippi to the Manzanares. He antagonised influential critics with the lashing tongue of his invective, and was particularly scornful of those who accused him of cultivating an 'hermetic' style. His preposterous insults were legendary, and there are accounts of his small-hour attacks on petty moralists and literary lickspittles in obscure Madrid dives where he chain-smoked and drank gallons of gin. He was a total original, both as a writer and as a man, and made no bones about giving offence to those he felt deserved it, so that he got the reputation of being a monster of egotism and someone basically unpleasant to be with. Yet his friends all testify that he was the kindest of men, a good human being as well as a good fighter for the rights of others less fortunate than himself.
I recently finished reading his last novel, El caballero de Sajonia ('The Knight of Saxony', 1992), an extraordinary imaginative evocation of the life of Martin Luther. I never expected to be entertained by such a character. But in this unusual work, which shows Benet at the height of his powers; he abandons his Region to describe the four stages of a mysterious journey in the life of the Wittenberg theologian and reformer. In the first part, Luther is raped by a woman, in the second, he is visited by the Devil, in the third he pays a visit to a prisoner, and in the fourth he has an interview with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The most powerful part is the conversation with the Prince of Darkness, a kind of rustic demon who may have come from Region and who smokes like a chimney before tobacco has been brought to Europe: he is also a pacifist. It is one of the most enthralling dialogues in modern literature.
Benet's death has brought to the literary world of Spain the sense of an ending, of a period that has passed away with the writer. But his influence and memory will never pass away from the history of contemporary Spanish literature.
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