Autumn Sonata (Sonata de Otoño) by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, 1902

views updated

AUTUMN SONATA (Sonata de otoño)
by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, 1902

Sonata de otoño (1902; published as Autumn Sonata in The Pleasant Memoirs of the Marquis de Bradomín, 1924) is the first of four interrelated novelettes composed by Ramón del Valle-Inclán. It illustrates the modernist penchant for attempting to erase the boundaries between literature and other arts. In his series of four "sonatas" the author entitles each with the name of a season and carefully keys everything to the title concept and the stage in life of the central character who links the works. Autumn Sonata, for example, takes place in the autumn of the character's life (probably approaching the age of 50) and in the autumn of the year. Setting, mood, imagery, and the lady of the hour are likewise autumnal, melancholic, contemplative, and marked by approaching death. Thus there is an emphasis on falling leaves, wilting flowers, dried herbs, darkening skies, a chill in the air, and numerous omens of fatality.

One of the major influences in Autumn Sonata is decadentism, notable not only in the exquisite refinement of style, the emphasis on the artificial (the museumlike atmosphere of the palace and gardens) and abnormal (the narrator-protagonist is degenerate to a point approaching the pathological) but also on the decadent belief in the superior beauty of dead or dying things. Thus the heroine—who is dying of consumption—appears to the narrator as possessed of ethereal beauty with her wan pallor, which he irreverently likens to a Mater Dolorosa. Narrative content is subordinated to creation of an artistic whole through impressionistic techniques and musical, sensuous prose to evoke a strong response not so much intellectual as emotional or sensual.

The most characteristic creation of Valle-Inclán's early period (1895-1905) is his narrator-protagonist, the Marquis of Bradomín, an inveterate Don Juan, a Carlist (conservative monarchist), and a Catholic, whose religion serves most frequently to heighten his perverse pleasure as he reflects that the deadly sin then being committed may result in his (or her) eternal damnation. The Galician Marquis, the quintessential decadent hero, incorporates aspects of Baudelaire's dandy and Nietzsche's Overman while being vaguely satanic. Insofar as he resembles literary models, Bradomín is metaliterary and intertextual; some commentators, however, have identified him as an alter ego of Valle-Inclán, pointing to the author's amputated left arm and Bradomín's suffering a similar mutilation in the final sonata. Nevertheless certain passages leave little doubt as to Valle-Inclán's ironic distancing of himself from the character, his sly parodies of literary models, and burlesque attitude.

The atmosphere is thoroughly aristocratic with aesthetic values foregrounded and objects subtly calculated to underscore nobility and wealth. The elaborate, polished, highly lyrical style uses numerous modernist techniques and motifs, incorporating archaisms, alliteration, lyric cadence, and bits of Galician dialect. In impressionist fashion Valle-Inclán stresses light and dark, the play of sunlight on windows, moonlight on the floor, shadows in the garden, candlelight on a wall, and reflections of light on metals, water, and mirrors—all of which contributes to an air of unreality, a dreamlike ambient. The author emphasizes jewelry, tapestry, statuary, paintings, rich fabrics, antique furniture, heavy draperies and hangings, carved goblets, portraits of titled ancestors, marble staircases, patterned gardens, gushing fountains—all the trappings of affluence and power—and everywhere he places art objects, from illuminated medieval manuscripts to hand-carved chests and golden ornaments. In common with Spanish modernist writing, this is a mannered work, a period piece reminiscent of museum reproductions with deliberate exaggeration and stylization.

Valle-Inclán juxtaposes death and eroticism, piety and satanism, prurience and purity; the narrative consciousness frequently displays a sacrilegious bent. The action is largely confined to the Galician palace of Brandeso where Bradomín goes upon receipt of a letter from his cousin and former lover, Concha, informing him that she is dying of consumption; her last wish is to see him again. Her paleness and terror of dying in mortal sin paradoxically stimulate his desire. Bradomín persuades her to spend the night with him despite her wish to remain chaste in order to go to confession in the morning. His pleasure is enhanced by thoughts of her dying during their lovemaking, as indeed happens. Valle-Inclán employs auditory and visual impressions to evoke fear in his readers, an aspect of his skillful composition found in his stories of Galician ambient, mystery, superstition, witchcraft, and the supernatural.

When Bradomín goes to alert another cousin, Isabel, of Concha's death, Isabel misinterprets the motive of his visit. Rather than disillusion her he makes love to Isabel as well, then takes Concha's body back to her own bedroom. Feigning ignorance the following morning he sends Concha's young daughters to discover the body, and the work ends with their terrified shrieks and sobbing.

Like many writers from romanticism onward, Valle-Inclán professed a scorn of the bourgeoisie and shared the common artistic desire to shock or scandalize. Therefore Bradomín's actions are reinforced by his allusions to the Marquis de Sade and other well-known pornographers of the nineteenth century, as the narrator-protagonist parades his own sexual prowess and knowledge of erotica. That this was not Valle-Inclán's alter ego seems clear, however, from the unmistakable sociopolitical critiques of his mature works and his own contrasting personal life. Autumn Sonata is the best of the four seasonal novelettes, probably because it treats the region Valle-Inclán knew best, and it epitomizes the first stage of his evolution—one diametrically opposed to his later development.

—Janet Pérez