Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

From the Inside Out: The Poetics of Lazarillo De Tormes

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

From the Inside Out: The Poetics of Lazarillo De Tormes

Article excerpt

The most celebrated of poetics, that of Aristotle, established a protocol for tragic drama based in great part on Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, a source of inspiration and exemplarity. For one in search of a model for the novel--a form that has lent itself to a multitude of theoretical commentaries yet remains, understandably, rather resistant to a definition that would satisfy all critics--it would seem reasonable to start, if not at the (always problematic) beginning, early on. Here, I would like to look at Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) as a narrative vehicle and, more specifically, as a paradigm of the novel. My approach is predicated on the assumption that the anonymous author, who most recently has been identified by Mercedes Agullo Cobo as Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, (1) had a marvelous sense of narrative, substantial artistic sensibility, and a degree of sophistication that many scholars have chosen to underestimate, because of the early publication date and the relative brevity of the document. I would like to analyze the text from the inside out, by describing how Lazaro's narrative initiates and displays its conventions, and how the author anticipates the future course of the novel. Lazarillo de Tormes opens with a prologue that is essential to its structural design and to its particular rhetoric, and the story proper consists of seven chapters, or tractados (tratados), which begin with allusions to the protagonist's birth and lineage and end with references to his marriage and his mature years. This early modern Spanish narrative has been associated with a break from literary idealism and with a movement toward realism, as well as with the origins of the picaresque tradition. It is, at once, a work that continually indicates its precedents and deviates from them. To the extent possible, in determining a poetics of Lazarillo de Tormes, I would like to proceed from the descriptive to the prescriptive.

As a work of art, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades [The life of Lazarillo de Tormes, and his fortunes and misfortunes] links "life" and creativity (and good fortune and adversity) in a brief but brilliant prologue, which serves as a type of theory in practice, and which sets the frame, the tone, and the parameters of the text that follows. (2) Lazaro de Tormes introduces a motif of doubling that marks the entire manuscript and its conceptual base. The author--or the figure of the author--has in his hands what will become a published book. He addresses the product and the potential audience of readers with a combined sense of pride and humility. This is a modest offering, but, as Pliny the Younger points out, there is no book so bad as to offer nothing of value to the reader. The allusion to modesty is ironic, given that the conventional recourse to "false modesty" implies that the author is feigning humility, whereas Lazaro has every reason to act humbly and to perceive himself in humble terms. He "confesses" to being no more holy than his neighbors. In the first half of the prologue, Lazaro presents himself and his book to readers, and, citing Cicero, he notes that honor sustains the arts. The quotation amplifies the elevation-by-association theme and anticipates the crucial role that honor will play in the development of the narrative. Everyone goes in search of praise, and most people are willing to take risks, Lazaro asserts, with specific examples, and he asks to be heard, to be read. We all want to be praised, whether we deserve the endorsement of not, he maintains. If one has gone to the trouble to write a book, that book merits attention, unless it is totally offensive. Lazaro obviously is conscious of the readership and of the need to cater to the public. At the same time, the "authorial" contact with the reader by the narrator/protagonist blurs the distinction between the historical author and his alter ego, and thus between the real text and its fictional pretext. Correspondingly, Lazaro directs his words to two groups of readers, one external and the other internal, but the prologue, through its narrative persona, does not differentiate between them. …

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