Gómez de la Serna, Ramón

Ramón Gómez de la Serna (Madrid, 1888 - Buenos Aires, 1963), who begins modern Spanish prose in the midst of the symbolist values’ crisis, cannot be reduced to a ‘greguería’, and yet, throughout the 20th century, the art of the greguería he discovered around 1910 has fascinated and brought us all together, especially poets and painters.

The art of the greguería fascinates us all… those of us who love brief forms. The greguería is the sister of aphorism in the style of Lichtenberg or José Bergamín (El cohete y la estrella; The Rocket and the Star), of sayings in the style of Chamfort, of the briefest prose poems by Aloysus Bertrand or Baudelaire, of epigrams or popular proverbs. Also, of Japanese haikus ‘sólo rocío de greguerías’ (‘I only dew in greguerías’), according to Ramón, who has tempted many Western poets. (Try to write a haiku yourself. A few years back, my eldest son and I wrote one together about his younger brother: ‘A door that creaks. / No, / it’s my brother’.)

The greguería: an instant, a spark of humour, a fragment, a micro-story. A wisp of post-symbolic poetry when required. This essential, definitive gem, for example: ‘El musgo está hecho de silencio’ (‘Moss is made of silence’).

Greguerías have existed before and after Ramón. In his prologue of Total de greguerías (Sum of Greguerías; 1955), a tome (1,594 pages!) by the publishing house Aguilar, thanks to which we know a submarine is a large submerged shoe, or that waiters are spies without a target. Without a slogan in that prologue, the inventor of the genre, besides trying out his impossible theory, makes an anthology of ‘found’ greguerías, that is, other fragments by diverse authors that taken out of context could pass for greguerías. They are even easier to detect by those who have tried their luck with minimal maxims (Enrique Jardiel Poncela), ‘chilindrinas’ (Tomás Seral y Casas) or ‘aerolitos’ (the post-surrealist Carlos Edmundo de Ory).

Many painters, sculptors, and drawers were fascinated by Ramón —who sometimes illustrated his own books— during his golden age, the age of Saturday gatherings at Pombo Café, next to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. The gatherings began in 1915, and in 1917 they even held a banquet for Picasso himself. During that decade and the next, Ramón was accompanied by, among other plastic artists, José Gutiérrez Solana, painter of ‘Dark Spain’, who portrayed him presiding over the ‘pombians’, Julio Antonio, Miguel Viladrich, Salvador Bartolozzi, Rafael Romero Calvet, Gustavo de Maeztu, María Blanchard, and the Mexican Diego Rivera, who in 1915 drew an extraordinary cubist portrait of him, the Lithuanian Jacques Lipchitz, who taught him how to love black African sculpture, the Uruguayan Rafael Barradas, who saw Pombo as a jalopy, the Argentinian Norah Borges, who showed him the way of the New World, Ramón Acín, Bon, Tono, Isaías Díaz, Gecé of the Literary Posters and the film Esencia de verbena, Maruja Mallo, Ángeles Santos…

In 1931, Ramón published through Biblioteca Nueva a personal assessment of the Isms, of the avant-garde movements that followed one another and overlapped on the period’s horizon, and to which he had paid so much attention from the day in 1909 when he had decided to translate Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism into Spanish for his magazine Prometeo. In 1931, however, Ramón found himself no longer at the centre of the debates. His definite departure for Buenos Aires in 1936 made him close himself more and more into his nostalgia for Madrid. From his years next to La Plata dates what is probably his masterpiece: Automoribundia (1948), a memoir as unique as its title. In the book, as well as in his ‘contemporary portraits’, he summarised part of everything he knew about the period in which he had been one of the protagonists, something that Ortega y Gasset had sensed, and who had placed him alongside James Joyce and Marcel Proust in La deshumanización del arte (The Dehumanisation of Art; 1925). On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, many creators continued to claim the example of those who increasingly absorbed themselves in their solitude. I am thinking, without difficulty, of the Saura brothers. Antonio, the painter, discovered his artistic vocation by reading the Argentinian reprint of Isms, and wishing to be like the surrealist son of the Klotz family. Carlos, the filmmaker, illustrated with wonderful black-and-white photographs a reprint of i, an exceptional book in which the Madrid-lover Ramón, who frequented the place joined by his close friends, had managed to articulate, as early as 1915, his fascination with used objects, anticipating the fascination André Breton and surrealists would feel during the following decade.

Today, thirty-six years after his death, Ramón once again finds a place in shelves and displays, he has new readers here and in other countries, and interests those who are struggling to find their way as artists, as free creators. More than one poet, more than one narrator, and what is even more significant, more than one painter —I am thinking for example of Ángel Mateo Charris— who are self-proclaimed Ramonians. In 1989, Círculos de Lectores published Flor nueva de greguerías (New Bloom of Greguerías), chosen and illustrated by Antonio Saura, for whom ‘greguerías are sometimes like shooting stars, like a caress from the zephyr or the feather of a peacock, and others like the sting of a wasp or epidermal lifts that reveal unsuspected truths’. In the same publishing house, under the care of the diligent Ioana Zlotescu, the volumes Obras Completas (Complete Works) follow one another. And now these Valencian Illustrated Greguerías see the light. Also in Valencia, where, let’s not forget, throughout the 1910s and 1920s the first volume of Greguerías (1917) and many of his novels appeared, the IVAM announced an exhibition on Isms. One, who has been linked to these institutions, cannot help but remember how few we were in 1980, when the Museum of History of Madrid staged the display Ramón. Since then, of course, the Ramonian cause has gained supporters.

A parenthesis on the Museum of History, located in Fuencarral Street. There, curious readers can admire the wonderful study of the writer’s house in Buenos Aires, in Hipólito Yrigoyen Street, reconstructed behind a glass window. This study, as well as his previous ones in Madrid, and particularly the one in Torreón de Velázquez, opposite the Retiro Park, must be understood as an extension of his work: as a cave built from objects, many of then extremely corny, that Ramón found in the Rastro and similar places.

Juan Manuel Bonet

Portrait of the author by César Fernández Arias