Spanish literature is extraordinarily rich and varied, and yet it is relatively unknown. Everyone has heard of Cervantes (or at least of his novel Don Quixote), but most would be unable to come up with another name. What we want to do in these pages is show what it is that makes Spanish literature exciting and original, and what contributions Spanish writers have made to world literature.
We should keep in mind, however, that when we speak of “Spanish” literature, we tend to think in terms of Castilian literature, of works written in the language that is spoken throughout Spain and most of Latin America.
But we can’t ignore the literatures written in those other regional languages that are now officially recognized as part of the Spanish community: Catalan, Galician and Basque.
Nationalists in each of these regions might object to their literature being included under “Spanish,” but Spain is a political entity and rather than get caught up in nationalist arguments, we are working on the premise outlined in the 1978 constitution that Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions in which Catalan, Galician and Basque (or Euskara) are co-official languages within their respective communities. So, we will try to convey the contributions of these regional languages as important components of the Spanish mosaic.
Historically, there are another two communities that must be included in the make up of Spanish literature: the Jews and above all the Muslims (or Moors as they are more commonly known in Spanish history), writing in Hebrew and Arabic respectively. Hebrew and Arabic take us back primarily to the Middle Ages when the Iberian Peninsula was made up of al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) and a jumble of emerging Christian kingdoms.
Owing to the gradual territorial expansion and domination of Castile, the contraction and final conquest of al-Andalus in 1492, and the conversion or exile of Jews and Muslims, the literatures written in the other languages in Spain had either ceased by the 17th century (Hebrew, Arabic) or been temporarily reduced to virtual obscurity (Catalan, Galician).
In looking at the literature of Spain, we will introduce you to what we think are truly outstanding works in the novel, drama and poetry. They are all products of their times, and we can’t ignore the political and social contexts in which they were written. Writers are influenced by what they see and hear around them, so we’ll try to show you what writers contributed and how they reflect their times.
The novel is the youngest of the genres and was born in Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain’s Golden Age of literature. Prose fiction already existed, but what happened to it in Spain during this period is truly remarkable. Critics do recognize the importance of Don Quixote in the histáory of the novel (as a kind of prelude to its birth in England or France!), but there are also many other stimulating and original works in the Golden Age that are a vital part of the historical development of prose fiction. For example, why so many novels –many of them called “picaresque novels” e. g. Guzmán de Alfarache— should appear on Spain is a fascinating question, and we’ll certainly look at possible reasons.
After its vibrant beginning, the novel went into a decline in the 18th century (at a time when it started to bloom in England and France), and only recovered its vitality in the 19th century. That’s when we will return to it.
Spanish drama started off with a bang in the 16th and 17th centuries, about the same time as the novel. Like the novel (and the poetry of the period), its extraordinary vigour and variety seemed to reflect the political importance of Spain during these centuries. There are significant works well worth reading to see what it was that interested or preoccupied both authors and audiences, e. g. the honour theme as seen in Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, seduction, honour and free will as in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Sevilla/ The Trickster of Seville, or free will and the art of governing as in Pedro Calderón’s La Vida es Sueño/ Life is a Dream, probably Spain’s most famous play. There was a marked decline in the 18th century and we’ll pick up the thread again in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Poetry isn’t everyone’s taste nowadays, if we think of it only in its written form. Poetry is meant to be spoken or sung and historically it was sung or narrated in ways that appealed to the audience (see for example Spanish Romances, i. e Ballads. (In the same way, the lyrics of popular music are a form of poetry today.)
Poetry is the oldest and most prestigious of the genres. Great poets have a way of uncovering new worlds for us, and in Arabic culture poets were venerated as “jewelers of words.” As we move from Medieval to modern times, we hope to uncover some of those jewels for you.