Towards the end of a long life more eventful, more itinerant, and more exquisitely narrated than most, María Teresa León reached a painful conclusion.
“Living,” wrote the Spanish author and anti-fascist activist, “is not as important as remembering. How horrible to have nothing to remember; leave nothing but blank tape. “
The lines are from León’s 1970 autobiography, Melancholy memory (Memory of melancholy), which has been republished to commemorate its 50th anniversary and to rekindle interest in a writer whose literary achievements have too often been overshadowed by those of her second husband, the poet Rafael Alberti.
Along with Federico García Lorca, Ernestina de Champourcín, Pedro Salinas, Rosa Chacel Y Vicente Aleixandre, León and Alberti belonged to the so-called Generation of 27, named for the year the avant-garde literary group met.
Lorca’s poems and plays, not to mention his martyrdom at the hands of a firing squad, earned him literary immortality. But León, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during his last two decades before dying in Madrid in December 1988, remains much less praised and remembered.
His life, however, was extraordinary. During the 430 pages of Memory of melancholyLeón travels to the Soviet Union, where he meets Joseph Stalin, “skinny and sad, worn out by something, perhaps by his destiny.”
After the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, León and his group of anti-fascist writers unite against Franco’s coup and, when bombs rained on Madrid, they were supervising the evacuation of the Prado’s works of art.
“The exodus began under our sadly frightened eyes,” he writes. “We saw these extraordinary images move into the light with a fear that was almost religious.”
That fear increases when they notice, to their horror, that Velázquez’s face The Pumpkin Jester It has disappeared behind a layer of gray mold. Fortunately, an expert is available: “We have a technical explanation: the box has a cold. Paintings cool when they move. Small mushrooms can cover the surface. A cleaning will do the job. I have never exhaled so deeply. “
Like so many Republicans, León and Alberti left Spain after Franco’s victory in 1939 and spent almost four decades in exile in France, Argentina, and Italy before finally returning home in 1977. But the return home was bittersweet. Alzheimer’s had already gotten to work on Leon’s brilliant mind, erasing most of the tapes from his memory.
Memory of melancholy, tormented as she is by issues of memory and loss – and memory loss – can be seen as an act of self-defense against the future and an effort by Leon to seize and fix the events of his life and the people who were in it. before they are taken away forever.
He remembers the love of the North American writer for danger, whether in a warlike city or in a bullring: “he carried inside an image of Spain where one died happy in the afternoon and his Spanish was peppered with bullfighting jargon.”
Albert camus He appears in Buenos Aires, where he shares his trick to project people’s characters: “If I want to meet someone, I ask him, ‘On which side were you during the war in Spain?’ If they say Franco, I will not greet them again ”.
The Spanish novelist Benjamin Prado, who has written the foreword to the new edition of Memory of melancholy, points out that it would have been difficult to invent León if he had not existed. “His own traveling life seems to belong more to an adventure novel than to reality,” he told the Observer.
“If you put María Teresa in a work of fiction, people would say: ‘Let’s go!’ Be serious!’ How can one person have such an extraordinarily interesting life and hang out with so many of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century? Pablo Neruda, Albert Camus, Maxim gorky, Paul Éluard? She is there, on the front lines of some of the essential events of the 20th century. “
Prado, who was a friend of Alberti, often visited León when he was a student, getting on his motorcycle to bring clothes and other things to his sanatorium at the request of her husband.
However, he does not claim to have met her. “The person I met was no longer Maria Teresa,” he said.
“She was like a girl. He switched, indistinctly, between Spanish, French and Italian. He talked about having tea with his mother, but he also said amazing things. I would say to her: ‘María Teresa, aren’t the flowers in the garden pretty?’ And she would answer me: ‘Yes. They were all black but I brought them a brush and painted some red and others blue. ‘
By the time he met her, the brand yelling at Republican troops trying to leave their positions had been replaced by a loving old woman who was holding his hand and stroking it.
He has never forgotten the time it took him a first edition of Memory of melancholy and asked him to sign it. “She signed for me with a red pen that I gave her. Then he started reading his own autobiography without acknowledging any of it. It was as if I was reading about someone else’s life, about whom I didn’t know a single word. “
Leon’s tomb is inscribed with a line from one of her husband’s poems: “This morning, love, we are twenty years old” – “This morning, my love, we are 20 years old.” Leon would surely not object to being bound to her husband in death as she was in life. But for Prado and many others, the time has come to gently lay aside their legacies. “In a way, I think we have to divorce her from Alberti,” he said. “We need to separate her from Alberti as a writer because it really isn’t fair.”
Memory of melancholy is the first in a series of Leon’s books that are being republished by Editorial Renaissance. Prado and the editors hope that when people read some of León’s short story collections, such as You will die far away (You will die away), and some of his novels – Fair play (Fair play), Against all odds (Against all odds) Y The great love of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (The great love of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer) – you will see it for who and what it really was.
“I don’t like putting writers on podiums,” Prado said. “But if you forced me, then I would say that María Teresa León was the best prose writer, male or female, of the Generation of 27. That is why the forgetfulness to which she has been sentenced is doubly unfair.”
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