PRINT December 2016

Books: Best of 2016

Manuel Borja-Villel


Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio is one of the greatest Spanish prose stylists of the twentieth century. A mordant but reflective writer, he greeted the immense success of one of his first novels, El Jarama (The River, 1955), with skepticism. Unwilling to be turned into the standard-bearer for his generation, he abandoned fiction for many years and devoted himself first to the study of language and later to cultural and political analysis.

A well-known consumer of amphetamines, in the 1960s Ferlosio would shut himself away for days on end in his Madrid flat and write profound and erudite texts on Castilian grammar. In the late ’70s, he left this academic work behind and entered the terrain of critique, bringing a surgeon’s precision to bear on the dissection of some of the major problems of Spanish society, such as the new populisms, the obsessions surrounding identity, the false and superfluous celebrations of the centenary of the conquest of America, the hypocrisy of the political class, and terrorism. Ferlosio has been an awkward figure for Spain’s various governments, and never, from the years of incipient democracy to the present, has he pulled any punches.

Although he has been an acute reader of newspapers, whose content has fed his essays, Ferlosio has also been critical of the media with which he has collaborated. He knows their language and tendency toward cliché, and believes not only that they fail to inform but that they often contribute to the banalization of knowledge. His prose is therefore irreducible to sound bites, rejoicing as it does in long, rhapsodic sentences that stretch over countless subordinate clauses—a style only within reach of a master of hypotaxis like himself.

Nearly a year after the publication of a compilation of Ferlosio’s linguistic studies, an exhaustive selection of his articles has recently appeared. (Both editions were compiled under the excellent direction of Ignacio Echevarría for the Spanish imprint Debate.) The newest volume, Gastos, disgustos y tiempo perdido (Expense, Displeasure, and Wasted Time), demonstrates that Ferlosio is among the finest essayists of his generation. Heir to a tradition that goes back to Montaigne, his work has many points in common with that of Karl Kraus. Like him, Ferlosio, indignant at his times, uses irony and perspicacity to examine the miseries of an age and a country that are his own.

Manuel Borja-Villel is Director of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid.