Latin American Studies

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The Poetic and Real Worlds of César Vallejo (1892–1938)

A Struggle between Art and Politics

R. K. Britton is an honorary research fellow in the Department of Hispanic Studies, Sheffield University, where he is also a part-time tutor in Spanish in The Institute of Lifelong Learning. His research interests are modern Latin American literature, the literature and culture of Golden Age Spain and literary translation.

The world-renowned Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892–1938) was also a journalist, essayist, novelist and would-be dramatist. The study of his life and work has encountered problems since the 1950s, stemming from the fact that half of his writing was published posthumously under editorship of doubtful accuracy. The matter is further complicated in that his non-poetic work has been neglected in favour of his verse. A Struggle between Art and Politics reviews the evidence – literary and historical – now reliably to hand, and assesses the often conflicting body of opinion his work has generated. Three essential questions are pertinent: Where should Vallejo be placed in the canon of twentieth-century modernism? What effect did his mid-life conversion to Communism have on his writing? How should his prose fiction, journalism and essays be assessed in relation to his poetry?

There are few writers whose literary output follows the twists and turns of their lives more closely than César Vallejo’s. This new, comparative study maps his career onto the cultural, social, political and historical backdrop to his life in Peru, France, Spain and Russia, and analyses his writings in the light of his life circumstances. Vallejo’s journey from Peru, the cultural “periphery”, to the “centre” of interwar Paris, his experience of European capitalism during the Depression, and the confrontation of Communism and Fascism, ultimately played out in the Spanish Civil War, forced him to wage a personal struggle to reconcile art with life and politics. This challenge is fought out in different ways in his various writings, but nowhere more movingly, passionately and humanely than in his posthumous poetry.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-742-1
Hardback Price: £65.00 / $74.95
Release Date: December 2015
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-786-5
Paperback Price: £27.50 / $39.95
Release Date: February 2017
Page Extent / Format: 300 pp. / 234 x 156 mm
Illustrated: No


Preface and Acknowledgements

1. An Approach to Vallejo. Beating the Undergrowth,
Charting a Course

2. From Childhood to Maturity. Change and Reaction in Peru

3. Breaking with the Past. Los heraldos negros.

4. Trilce. Revolt Fully Fledged

5. Experimenting with Prose Fiction

6. The Poet in Exile I (1923–27). Paris, Journalism and Georgette

7. The Poet in Exile II (1928–1932). The Artist, the Soviet Revolution and a Spanish Interlude

8. Paris in the Depression (1932–1936). The Would-be Playwright and a Series of Failed Attempts

9. Crescendo. The Spanish Civil War and España aparta de mí este cáliz

10. The Posthumous Poems: A Vision of Humanity

Epilogue and Conclusions



R.K. Britton writes that, where César Vallejo is concerned, ‘a good deal of “critical space” remains to be filled’. This book is a serious attempt to fill that space. One of its strengths is to pay duly critical attention to those aspects of Vallejo’s production – essentially, the non-poetic works–traditionally left in the shadows, while remaining sensitive to the special qualities of Vallejo the poet. The book is supremely balanced in its account of Vallejo’s life and times. The sections on the writer’s early life, on post-War of the Pacific Peru, on post-World War I France, and on the run-up to the Spanish Civil War share an easy, informative manner. Britton’s preference is for a form of biographical criticism, but at no point does this biographical bent obstruct him from insightful close analysis of the fabric of the Peruvian’s writing. There are good, critical commentaries on the less well visited byways of Vallejo’s output: the awkward short stories, the prose fiction, and the plays. The book’s principal achievement, however, is its absolutely clear-sighted organisation of difficult material – the material of a complex life and no less complex oeuvre. Britton cuts through the confusion surrounding the posthumously published poetry, and one is left with the impression of having received wise counsel. Complete with its own excellent translations of all material quoted from Vallejo (an achievement which deserves recognition in its own right: his translation of Trilce I is better than most), plus a judicious, non-partisan survey of scholarship on Vallejo, the book will stand as a fine, accessible guide to one of the twentieth century’s great poets.
Adam Sharman, University of Nottingham

Bob Britton’s book brings César Vallejo fascinatingly to life – illuminating both the key moments and the more intimate details. Britton interweaves the life and the creative drive of this extraordinary poet with such fresh insights that you return to Vallejo’s work with a renewed thirst.
Adam Feinstein, Biographer and Translator of Pablo Neruda

For Britton, Trilce takes up where the previous poetry stopped, intensifying to almost unbearable levels (equally linguistic, formal and emotional) Vallejo’s “permanent [….] preoccupation with suffering as a precondition of individual human existence in a random world ruled by arbitrary forces” (76). In other words, Vallejo may over time have become an atheist, but he would remain an anguish-ridden Catholic atheist. As Britton journeys towards his conclusion the Trilce is “one of the most demanding, rich and eventually rewarding books of poetry produced anywhere in the Western world during the last century,” (99) he makes a full and appreciative analysis of its renowned, challenging language and literary forms and is faultlessly scrupulous, as he is throughout the book, in his acknowledgement of the many who have already trodden this difficult path. Britton is especially convincing on the degree to which Vallejo may have found in the Soviet Union and its social and cultural engineering only what he needed to see rather than recording what really lay in front of him (156–163), an approach perhaps also responsible for the weaknesses of the proletarian realism in the novel El Tungsteno, published in 1931.

As Britton claims, “What places Vallejo among the seminal figure of modernism – certainly a characteristic he shared with Pound, Apollinaire, Cavafy [sic] and Pasternak – is his passionate belief for the need for a new poetic language, which could adequately reflect the condition of modern man, and his unstinting efforts to create one.”

Reviewed by Stephen Gregory in the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research, Vol. 22 (2016)

Together with this fascinationg biography, Britton presents a balanced analysis of selected poems from the different stages of Vallejo's poetry. Reviewed in Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 36, No. 4 (October 2017) by Victor Wahlström, Lund University

Author R.K. Britton presents readers with an in-depth examination of the life, the work, and the politics informing the publication of Peruvian poet César Vellejo. The author examines the literary and historical evidence surrounding the poet’s conversion to Communism, his place in the canon of modernism, and the assessment of his prose in relation to his poetry. He covers the poet’s childhood, his breaking with the past through Los Heraldos Negros, his early experiments with prose fiction, his exile to Paris, and a great many other related subjects. The author is a honorary research fellow at Sheffield University in the UK.

Ever since the completion of his doctoral thesis on “The Influence on the Work of César Vallejo of his Conversion to Communism” (1975) and his two MLR articles – the first on “The Political Dimensions of César Vallejo’s Poemas Humanos” (MLR 70:3 [1975], 539–49; and the second on “Love, Alienation and the Absurd: Three Themes in César Vallejo’s Trilce” (MLR, 87: 3 [1992], 603–15) – Britton has been an important voice in Vallejo Studies. Britton is particularly good at sketching out the historical backdrop which silhouetted Vallejo’s life. . . . [He] is also good, when discussing the history of Vallejo’s manuscripts, at picking his way between the Scylla of Juan Larrea and the Charybdis of Georgette de Vallejo (212–16). He makes some excellent points about Vallejo’s poetic language . . . . [which] indicates an “increasing reliance upon familiar words to which the poetry gives an artibrary but undisclosed special significance to which their commonly understood meaning gives no clue” (203).
Reviewed by Stephen M. Hart in Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, XCV (2018), pp. 1095–6

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