BLOOD, SAND, BLUSTER, BRAVADO AND BRILLIANCE
VICENTE BLASCO IBAÑEZ
Novelist, journalist, politician, war correspondent, founder of Utopian communes, publisher of books and newspapers, voluntary exile, tireless traveller, political prisoner, anti-cleric, duellist and womaniser; Vicente Blasco Ibañez was born in Valencia in 1867. His novels have made him one of Valencia’s most celebrated literary sons but just like caravan-towing Valencia Football Club star Alvaro Negredo, he always considered himself to be a man of action rather than words.
Blasco Ibañez is, after Cervantes, the most translated Spanish writer of all time and 17 of his books have been made into films. He wrote more than twenty novels but internationally his best known works are “Blood and Sand” from 1908, which was later brought to the cinema in a Hollywood blockbuster starring Rudolf Valentino, and “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” from 1916 for which he was awarded membership of the French Légion d’honneur. These two novels in particular brought him great wealth. “Horsemen” spent twelve months at the top of the US Best Selllers’ list in 1916 and 1917 and to Blasco Ibañez’s great personal delight, outsold even the Bible in the middle of the Great War. The novel has had four separate screen adaptations, the most famous was directed by Orson Welles.
In Spain he is better known for his earlier period of regional novels, which many critics claim to be vastly superior to his international best sellers. Titles like “Cañas y Barro”, “La Barraca”, “Entre Naranjos”and “Arroz y Tartana”, which were all written between 1894 and 1902, reflected the harsh life of the rural lower classes in the Valencian region at the beginning of the Industrial revolution. Progressive and Social-realist, they were highly critical of both the ruling classes and the closed minded and (literally) stuck-in-the-mud attitude of the Valencian peasants themselves.
The money he made from the regional books gave him the freedom to spend the next two years writing his three darkest almost Kafkian attacks on social injustice and the power of the church “The Cathedral”(1903), “The Intruder”(1904) and “The Hoard”(1905). As the archetypal Champagne Socialist, the stark social criticism of the novels contrasted sharply with his playboy lifestyle with a harem of lovers in his luxury homes on the beach at Malvarrosa and at Menton on the French Riviera (both of which have been made into museums dedicated to his life*). This was far and away his least commercial but probably most personal period and you’d be hard pushed to find any copies of his books from this period in Fnac or El Corte Inglés (and most critics would say “quite rightly so”). But there was no putting the man down and he, then, of course followed it up with eleven consecutive international Best sellers including “Blood and Sand”, “Four Horsemen” and “Mare Nostrum”.
Throughout his life he was largely rejected by his literary peers and in particular the renowned group of intellectual writers of the time collectively known as “La Generación del 98” who considered him to be too commercial. Not that he was too bothered with his palatial homes in the South of France, New York and Valencia, and to some extent he openly enjoyed the ostracism. When asked why he was never accepted as part of the “Generación” his laconic reply was “because people actually buy my books”.
As a politician Blasco Ibañez was what you might call a utopian and what you’d almost certainly call a maverick. He founded his own Valencian political party, the Republican separatist ‘Partido Federal’ in 1891, only to be expelled by his own former supporters five years later. He then joined the ‘Partido Republicano Federal’ and served as an MP from 1898 to 1907. After falling out for the umpteenth time with his colleagues in 1909 he decided to create another party more in his own image, the ‘Partido Republicano’ known in the press as the “Blasquistas”. The party was based on three principles close to Blasco Ibañez’s idealistic heart. “We are Valencian, utopian and staunchly anti-cleric”. He financed the party throughout with grand and somewhat eccentric gestures, such as the time he paid for a plane to drop leaflets all over Spanish territory carrying his speech entitled “Por España y contra el Rey”. As you can imagine King Alfonso XIII wasn’t best pleased and called for his arrest. This type of thing was nothing new to Blasco Ibañez who throughout his life was arrested more than 30 times both for political reasons and, more often than not, as a result of his womanising. He was well acquainted with local judges and never imprisoned for too long. He was never slow to say his piece and actively sought political controversy, which along with an ever-growing queue of offended husbands meant that he was involved in more than twenty non-fatal first blood duels (life was too much fun to risk actually being killed). Amazingly, the Blasquistas outlasted even the man himself until the party was finally disbanded after a disastrous result in the 1936 election with Spain on the verge of civil war.
Blasco Ibañez was fiercely Valencian but also a citizen of the world. He always kept his home on Malvarrosa beach (where his dutiful, long-suffering wife waited for him) but he lived at different times in his life in Mexico, Argentina, France, New York, Rome and Florence and travelled to Mongolia and China always surrounded by the trappings of his millionaire lifestyle. In 1909 he went to Patagonia in the south of Argentina where he set up two utopian communes called “Ciudad Cervantes” and “Nueva Valencia” the societies were to be cooperative and self-sufficient and incorporated Valencian farming methods supervised by dozens of Valencian farmers Blasco Ibañez had brought along with him. The experiment was a financial disaster but the towns he founded still exist and he came back to Spain having lost a lot of money but happy. We’re not sure what happened to the Valencian farmers. In 1916 he worked as a war correspondent all over Europe reporting on the Great War for various international newspapers. It was a labour of love as he didn’t exactly need the money. In 1920 he spent a year on a lecture tour of the United States hosting conferences on ‘El Quijote’ for which he earned a thousand dollars a time, a veritable fortune in those days, but then, you have to pay the rent somehow.
Blasco Ibañez died in Menton in France in 1928 having made many friends and enemies, made and lost a few fortunes and having lived a full and eventful life. His body was brought back to Valencia in 1933. His grave was neglected during the dictatorship (Franco wasn’t really a fan of his work) but since 1976 he has been given full honours and has a big brash noisy Avenue named after him.
David Rhead and José Marin
*Casa Museo Blasco Ibañez,
C/ Isabela de Vilena,159 (overlooking Malvarossa beach)
Open 9.30 – 19.00 (closed Mondays and half-day Sunday)