Obituary: Rosa Chacel

Rosa Chacel, writer: born Valladolid 3 June 1898; married 1922 Timoteo Perez Rubio (one son); died Madrid 27 July 1994.

ROSA CHACEL is now considered the most important 20th-century Spanish novelist but was for many years almost completely unknown in her own country. Yet during the last years of her adventurous and productive life she was still among the avant-garde, and always in the news.

In her last 12 months she had been engaged in a bitter feud with the much younger writer Francisco Umbral because of his denunciations of some of Spain's most celebrated writers, including Chacel herself, whom he described as 'a cross between a witch and Mary Poppins'. Chacel unleashed the full fury of her invective, calling Umbral 'a cretin and a born imbecile' and - supreme affront - 'a grocer's assistant'. Other epithets were less printable. To the end of her life, there was no abatement of her sharp tongue, and she was writing a new novel, El pozo artesanio ('The Artesian Well'), using a dictaphone, between her repeated confinements to an intensive care unit for cardiac and respiratory deficiencies. The legend of her indomitable spirit made one believe she must be unsinkable.

Rosa Chacel was born in 1898in Valladolid, home of another fine novelist, Miguel Delibes. Though her family moved to Madrid when she was only 10, she never forgot her origins in the autonomous region of Castilla y Leon, which awarded her its Grand Prize for Literature in 1990. In Madrid, she studied at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios and the Escuela San Fernando. In 1922, she married the painter Timoteo Perez Rubio (famous as the saviour of the paintings in the Prado during the Spanish Civil War) and they travelled all over Europe. They returned in 1927, and Rosa began to contribute regularly to the Revista de Occidente; in 1930 she published her first novel, Estacion ida y vuelta ('Season of Departure and Return').

Chacel was really the only writer to put into practice the aesthetic theories of Ortega y Gasset in his 1925 works Ideas sobre la novela ('Ideas on the Novel') and La deshumanizacion del arte ('The Dehumanisation of Art'). She confronted human emotions with the clinical sharpness of a psychiatrist. In form she was an abstractionist using fresh, often surreal imagery and a startling outspokenness which shocked the prudish bourgeoisie, in works that are now regarded as forerunners of the French nouveau roman but which had retained their vivacity and readability much better than the monotonous lucubrations of the defunct French school.

The civil war led to the prohibition of subsequent works. One of her best sonnets in Poesia 1931- 1991, 'Censura', about church and state censorship of the arts, portrays her as an exotic bird whose wing-feathers have been plucked. She lost her growing public, and went into a 40-year-long exile in Rome, Paris, Athens, Geneva, Rio de Janeiro, New York and Buenos Aires. She was forgotten in Spain, like those other exiles Juan Gil-Albert, Francisco Ayala and Gonzalo Torrente Ballester.

This kind of literary purgatory is all too common nowadays, and not only in repressive dictatorial regimes. Fortunately, in 1971, Chacel received a grant from the Fundacion March that, together with a certain lightening of Franco's grip on freedom of expression, allowed her to return to Madrid, where her works published in exile began to be reprinted. These included Teresa (1941) and her most famous work, Memorias de Letitica Valle (1945), the thrilling story of an older man's exuberant seduction by an adolescent girl, a sort of pre-Lolita which could never have appeared in Spain's inquisitorial 1940s. These were followed by La sinrazon ('Injustice', 1960) and the poignantly nostalgic Barrio de maravillas ('Boulevard of Miracles', 1976), which won the Premio de la Critica; Acropolis (1984) and Ciencias naturales ('Natural Sciences', 1988): all works whose vigorous innovative style and frank expression of subversive opinions earned the author wide popularity in paperback editions.

In 1988 Rosa Chacel was awarded the Premio Nacional de las Letras Espanolas for her work as a whole. Last year she received a great honour for a writer of Castilian Spanish, the Premio Ciutat de Barcelona, on the occasion of the publication of Cartas a Rosa Chacel ('Letters to Rosa Chacel'), containing letters from all the great writers of the 'Generacion del 27'.

Rosa Chacel is virtually unknown outside Spain. She is not even included in the latest edition of the Spanish translation of The Oxford Dictionary of Spanish and Hispano-American Literature (1984). Right to the end, Chacel contended that her work had never been understood in her home country, although only this month she was presented with the Golden Medal for Fine Arts by King Juan Carlos. . She has never been translated into English. Perhaps it was the fact that she was a woman of tenacity and authority in a macho civilisation, as well as a strongly individualist character exacting in her work and in her human relationships; a genius who could not help being sometimes so brutally outspoken and almost terrifyingly frank that she was never awarded the supreme honour of the Premio Cervantes and was refused entry to the Real Academia Espanola. It was their loss. Her life's work will continue to grow in popularity with the readers of books - which is all that really matters.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions
Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions