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.