Carlos Rojas's Los Borbones destronados:
Toward a Theory and Praxis of Biography in Contemporary Spain


Jeffrey Bruner

West Virginia University


Biography has at times been an immensely popular genre, and given the numerous biographical volumes currently in print, it appears that its popularity has risen during the last quarter of the twentieth century to the point of rivaling fiction in sales.(1) During a symposium at the Library of Congress in 1986, Kenneth Lynn and W. Jackson Bate suggested that the present interest in biography is attributable to movement within the academy away from traditional scholarship as well as to a more general distaste for the contemporary novel ("What is Biography?" 40-41). From this point of view, biography serves as a kind of "conservative" corrective to the abuses of "liberal" academics and "postmodern" writers; this attitude is evident in Bate's assertion that "biography has replaced the Victorian novel" ("What is Biography?" 41). To be fair, the apparent antipathy of biographers toward academics is itself attributable to the latter's indifference to this genre. Indeed, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its popularity, biography has never quite achieved a high level of acceptance within the academic world. For example, it has frequently been dismissed by historians for not being historical enough, since biographers tend to focus too much on private matters and rely too heavily on conjecture and/or fabulation instead of sticking to the facts of historical record. In addition, biographers (especially political biographers) are often viewed as falling into the trap of "present[ing] their subjects as extraordinary and omnipotent, or alternatively, as predictable individuals..." (O'Brien 50) whose lives serve either as examples to be admired or as mere templates of their times. In short, as Patrick K. O'Brien states, in spite of their "otherwise laudable concerns to instruct and to entertain their readers, [biographies] tell historians all too little about the core aspirations of their discipline..." (51).

Biographies have not fared much better among academics dedicated to literature. According to Paul Murray Kendall, "Biography is a genuine province of literature-the notion is accepted by default rather than by debate-but a province which that kingdom has generally tended to ignore" (4). There is little doubt that biographical texts are often overlooked in literature courses, except when they are treated sociocultural texts which serve a secondary role to literary work. It can be argued that such an assertion more applicable to departments of foreign languages than to departments of English, but even there the interest in biography is still less keen than that shown in autobiography. And so, biography remains in a kind of academic no-man's-land, part history and part literature but not quite enough of either to gain wide-spread acceptance into the canon.

One reason for this ambivalence is due to a general uncertainty as to what a biography should do in the first place. Here again, there are extreme positions. At the one end is Sir Harold Nicolson, advocate for the "pure biography" which "is written with no other purpose than that of conveying to the reader an authentic portrait of the individual whose life is being narrated" (153). For Nicolson, this desired authenticity is characterized by a seriousness of purpose (and therefore relatively free of irony or satire) and respect for the biographee (155-56). On the other end of the spectrum is Patrick K. O'Brien, who states unequivocally that "to convince historians at large that the biographical approach is something more than media driven and market led, biographies must begin to utilize large areas of modern historical scholarship that are often conspicuously missing, and not only in the writings of amateurs on the borders of professional history" (56). O'Brien is reacting, in part, to Nicolson's notion of biography as encomium, just as Nicolson himself was reacting against the iconoclastic approach taken by Lytton Strachey (of Eminent Victorians fame) and his followers.

Both Nicolson and O'Brien unabashedly proclaim their definition as the right and good one to which a biography should conform to the exclusion of the other, but I would propose that neither of their positions is tenable in and of itself. It appears that biography must necessarily exist along the continuum between O'Brien and Nicolson by assimilating elements from both definitions. On this point I agree with Robert Blake, who has argued that "biography is doing or should be doing at least two things"; the first is to be accurate, that is, "to get the facts right in so far as this is possible and not to make them up when this is impossible" (76). The second thing is to provide an interpretation of those facts, for as Blake comments: "A biographer who tries to avoid interpreting [the facts] is abdicating from his central task. It may be difficult to make such an interpretation. It may be the case the two (or even more) interpretations are possible. What is sure to kill a biography is to make no interpretation at all" (77). For Blake, the need for interpretation gives rise to yet a third element, presentation; in Blake's words, "How does one put across the picture which ... one has decided to be the correct one?" (85). The answer to this question can only be found, I believe, in literature, more specifically, in narrative. Indeed, Nicolson's definition above explicitly mentions the narrative nature of biography, and O'Brien, in spite of himself, acknowledges that narrative is an inescapable aspect of all biographies. Moreover, Paul Honan has maintained that "good biographies ... usually make so much more of the narrator than do good realist novels: the biographer as narrator-commenter becomes a chief means by which the cold retrospective factuality in a Life is relieved" (118).

It is my contention that biography must be considered as a symbiotic form, for it necessarily relies on historical investigation for its source and accuracy and on narrative for its presentation. It can be argued that the degree to which these different elements are foregrounded will affect the nature of the biography; in other words, an emphasis on facts will make it more "historical" or an emphasis on interpretation may make it more "literary." However, this apparent binary opposition itself can be interpreted as a false dichotomy, and both Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur have written about the essential similarities between historical and narrative discourses. Concerning the latter's theory, which have profoundly influenced his own, White writes:

Ricoeur's insistance that history and literature share a common "ultimate referent" represents a considerable advancement over previous discussions of the relations between history and literature based on the supposed opposition of "factual" to "fictional" discourse. Just by virtue of its narrative form, historical discourse resembles such literary fictions as epics, novels, short stories, and so on.... But instead of regarding this as a sign of history's weakness, Ricoeur interprets it as a strength. If histories resemble novels, he points out, this may be because both are speaking indirectly, figuratively, or what amounts to the same thing, "symbolically," about the same "ultimate referent." (175)

For this reason I would argue that biography is an almost emblematic form for the theories of White and Ricoeur, for it embodies the discursive continuum that unites, rather than separates, history and literature.

To what degree then can biography be considered an art form? Is it enough to look and sound like a novel or short story to be "art"? But cannot historical narrative also be considered artistic? (This seems to be a logical extension of the theories of White and Ricoeur.) Here again, I would argue that biography is a combination of two different but complementary kinds of art. The first I shall call "techne" (after the Greek work for art, craft, and skill) to refer to the necessary attention to scholarship and accuracy discussed above by O'Brien and Blake. This aspect is related to what Paul Honan (d'après Susanne Langer) has termed the "hypostatic" function in biography, that is, the need for specificity by naming personages and events (116). I shall call the second kind "ars" (after the Latin for method, way, means, and device) to refer to the very construction of the biography, including the need for interpretation through narrativization. This is in turn related to Honan's (and Langer's) "abstractive plane" by which the personages and events named are talked about and which permits the assimilation of other elements into the biography "so long as they are brought interestingly and realistically to bear on the illumination of the biographee" (116).

This last statement is particularly important, for a biography must incorporate elements other than names, places, and dates within its narrative in order to give a "fully contextualized" (O'Brien 56) version of the subject's life. Indeed, Edmund Morris has advocated for the use by biographer's of "more fully developed" arts such as "fiction...painting and photography and drama and the cinema" (30).(2) Although Morris asserts that biography is "closely allied to portrait photography, in that its basic composition is determined by reality"(30), I maintain that there is an important affiliation with painting, especially with respect to the work of Carlos Rojas, as we shall see. Indeed, many of the writers who discuss "the art of biography" make use of painterly metaphors, not the least of whom is Nicolson who frequently refers to biographies as sketches or portraits and indirectly scolds the followers of Strachey for not knowing how to use a "sable brush" in their application of irony (156).

The role of the biographer, then, is equated to that of researcher, novelist, photographer, and painter, but how is this role to be represented within the biography itself? Morris argues for a heterodiegetic role, which he refers to as "orchestration" (31). In other words, "The ideal biographer should be godlike in the Flaubertian sense-apparent everywhere, visible nowhere. Or to compare him once again to the photographer, let him arrange every frame to his satisfaction; once he has done so, let him step out of the picture, taking his shadow with him" (Morris 33). O'Brien would no doubt approve of this. Of course, such an ideal biographer is not only a practical impossibility, the very notion runs contrary to Blake's insistence on the need for interpretation of the facts. This interpretive role requires that the biographer have some kind of contact with the subject, and this requires a kind of "psychic immersion" (Kendall 16) in the material. As Ortega y Gasset wrote in Goethe desde dentro (1932), the biographer must view his subject from inside, with this admonition: "No se trata de ver la vida de Goethe como Goethe la veía, con su visión subjetiva, sino entrando como biógrafo en el círculo mágico de esa existencia para asistir al tremendo acontecimiento objetivo que fue esa vida y del cual Goethe no era sino un ingrediente" (401; Ortega's emphasis). With this in mind, I propose that the role of the biographer is analogous to that of Goya in La familia de Carlos IV: present and detached, observing and observed, interpreter and interpreted.

The reference to Goya in this instance is not unmotivated, for the Aragonese painter has had a profound and lasting influence upon the works of Carlos Rojas, as is evidenced by the several incarnations in such works as Diálogos para otra España (1966), Aquelarre (1970), El Valle de los Caídos (1978), "Goya como protagonista" (1984), and Yo, Goya (1990). Likewise, Rojas has consistently pointed to Goya as an important interpreter of Spanish history; for example, in 1993 he remarked to Cecilia Lee that " verdadera crónica escénica [for the present case, biography] de los reinados de Carlos IV y de Fernando VII no reside en la primera serie de los Episodios nacionales ... sino en La Familia de Carlos IV" (366). In Los Borbones destronados (1997), Rojas not only returns to utilize the works of Goya as pictorial commentaries on Spanish history but seems to adopt a position similar to that of Goya in his famous group portrait: standing behind his subjects and set somewhat off to one side, yet wholly present and in control of the scene. In this manner he follows Ortega's exhortation to see his subjects desde dentro and thereby to paint, as it were, their objective existence without denying the subjectivity of his interpretive role.(3)

In Los Borbones destronados Rojas carefully combines the techne and the ars of biography into a seamless and cogent whole. This study of the lives of the four dethroned monarchs is based on extensive and meticulous scholarship; indeed, the biography contains over 200 references, ranging for example from Manuel Godoy's Memorias críticas y apologéticas del reinado del señor don Carlos IV de Borbón to Pedro Voltes's recent studies of the monarchy and passing through sources as diverse as Aldous Huxley, Benjamín Jarnés, and Talleyrand. All these sources are well documented throughout the text, yet they do not become intrusive to the reader, for Rojas does not depend on extensive quotations to support or illustrate his comment but rather carefully incorporates his sources into the narrative.(4) And there can be little doubt about Rojas's abilities as a writer, that is, if having received the Premios Nacional (1968), Planeta (1973), Ateneo de Sevilla (1977), Nadal (1980), and Espejo de España (1984) are any indication.

The depictions of Carlos IV, Fernando VII, Isabel II, and Alfonso XIII go well beyond providing superficial information concerning the personal and political lives of these monarchs, for Rojas seeks to elucidate the extent to which each has been faithful to what Ortega called the "vocación vital," a relation which "nos permite determinar la dosis de autencidad de su vida efectiva" (401-02). Given the fact that we are talking about monarchs here, this vocación can be defined as the call to reign effectively. In order to determine the authenticity of these four royal lives Rojas seeks to identify the "ambiciones" (to borrow a term from Gregorio Marañón [Pinillos 26]) or the "springs of action" (Blake 81) that directed each toward, rather in these four cases, away from his or her vocación vital. Thus, like Goya in La Familia de Carlos IV, Rojas creates an image of the monarchs, and "detallando sus lacras físicas" he reveals to us a "mundo interior" characterized by "la estupidez, la ambición y la taimada artería" (Valle 11).

In the case of Carlos IV, Rojas presents an image rather different that the one traditionally held of the "royal cuckold" manipulated by the queen María Luisa and her lover Godoy. For Rojas, the king is a "cómico hipócrita , en el papel de sí mismo" (28), always aware of what takes place around him but content to play the fool. Indeed, Rojas frequently describes the reign of Carlos IV in theatrical terms (for example, commedia dell'arte, retablo, sainete), for the whole country, in particular the artistocracy, spends a great deal of play-acting. Here again, Rojas sees Goya as the major interpreter of this carnivalesque atmosphere: "Goya ... lega la mejor visión de la mascarada nacional en sus cartones para tapices. Acaso su ejemplo señero sea La gallina ciega (1791), donde todos los disfrazan de majas y manolos, aunque la delicadeza de sus gestos y ademanes delate, de juro y a punto fijo, su verdadero origen social"(49). The other side of this masquerade is represented by Goya's portrait of Godoy: "Ya no remeda la aristocracia al majerío. Por el contrario, el príncipe de la Paz, abotargado, revejecido, echando papada y caderas, con una sombra de enigmática tristeza en la mirada, parece un Choricero, como lo llamaban en Madrid, falsamente uniformado de capitán general" (50). The role of Godoy in the personal and political life of Carlos IV cannot, of course, be underestimated; as Rojas comments, "[El rey] no puede prescindir de Godoy" (51). In fact, it is Godoy who is largely responsible for governing the country, for Carlos IV could not have less interest in politics, prefering instead the hobby of making boots, hunting, and his apparent obsession with clocks. For these reasons, Carlos IV can be viewed as lacking in Ortegian autenticidad because of his tremendous indifference to his political role as king, a role which he played only because it was thrust upon him by virtue of his birth. Refering to the count of Floridablanca, Rojas comments that the king "respetaba al conde y también lo temía, advirtiendo en [él] unas ansias desmesuradas de poder, que en verdad Carlos IV no comprendía ni sintió nunca" (28).

Goya's work is likewise important in Rojas's interpretation of the reign of Fernando VII, yet whereas the image of his father is ultimately pathetic, that of Fernando is grotesque: "Mientras, Goya refleja al Rey en su retrato de cuerpo entero, sin ahorrarle los largos brazos de simio, la monstruosa nariz, la caída quijada, la indefinible sonrisa...y, desdiciendo de todo, también el brillo oscurísimo de unos ojos, siempre puestos en alerta e inteligentísimos, acaso cruzados por una sombra de indefinible tristeza" (109-10). In this passage Rojas alludes to a certain contradiction inherent to the grotesque, namely, the ability to inspire both attraction and repulsion. If Fernando VII is physically and psychologically incompatible-ugly, ape-like yet exceedingly intelligent-, his reign can be viewed in the same terms. He was proclaimed as el Deseado ("[V]alga el mal nombre por el cual lo invocan los españoles" [91]) during the Guerra de la Independencia but has come to be known as one of the cruelest and most totalitarian rulers in Spain (along with Franco).(5) Also, in spite of the repressive policies of his reign, symbolized by the reinstatement of the Inquisition, Fernando saved many afrancesados from almost certain death, most notably Moratín and Goya. For Rojas, the fundamental contraction in Fernando VII, and that which serves to divert him from his vocación vital, is that his extreme cruelty and absolutism does not represent a form of megalomania, which might be expected, but rather " igual que su padres y a diferencia del Infante don Carlos [who would later incite the Guerras Carlistas], nunca sintió Fernando especial atracción por el poder. Si lo acapara y abusa es para saberse a salvo de su desmedida cobardía" (105; emphasis added).

Rojas's treatment of Isabel II and of Alfonso XIII is qualitatively different from that of the Carlos IV and Fernando VII. Within the severely critical interpretations of the latter two, there appears to be a hint of compassion for Carlos and respect for Fernando (an element of the attraction-repulsion nature of the grotesque no doubt) on Rojas's part. Concerning Isabel and Alfonso, however, the author gives virtually no quarter. The queen and her grandson are treated with acerbic irony (and outright disdain at times) throughout. For Rojas's, Isabell II' reign is characterized on the one hand by the "indigencia intelectual y cultural" of the court, later termed by Valle-Inclán as la de los milagros (181), and on the other by the queen's voracious appetite (the pun is intended), which leads her not only to take lovers with alarming speed but also accounts for her physical enormity later in life. Similarly, Alfonso XIII is depicted as a near nullity whose primary passions are women and the tiro al pichón. Moreover, Rojas's comments that the king's "desapego intelectual y artístico resulta absoluto" (240). Like his grandmother, Alfonso did not become heir to the artistic sensibility of Carlos IV, although Rojas does call repeated attention to "la majeza que le vendrá de su bisabuelo Fernando VII" (237). Rojas also does not shy away from presenting a grotesque image of Alfonso XIII; consider the following:

Una anciana duquesa, quien exigió el anominato..., recordaba que el Rey hacía el amor al igual que devoraba la merienda: sin gusto ni gracia, talmente como un patán. Ninguna mujer sensata, añadió sonriendo, repetiría la experiencia, aunque todas gustaban de probarla una vez. Por pura curiosidad, bien entendido sea. Alfonso XIII padecía halitosis. Le apestaba el aliento. (245)

Both Isabel II and Alfonso XIII fail the test of autenticidad, for they fail to live up to their vocación vital as monarchs because of their radical indifference and incompetence with respect to politics and their profound moral inadequacy. Indeed, all the monarchs depicted in Los Borbones destronados appear to be "impulsados por un ciego y irrefrenable designio de suicidio moral" (72).

Again, like Goya standing in one corner of La familia de Carlos IV, Rojas's presence as observer is itself directly observable, not only through the ironic commentary and critical evaluation of the four monarchs under study but also in the very construction of the text. Let us consider briefly, for example, the use of foreshadowing. According to Blake, "hindsight" (his term for what I refer to as foreshadowing) is an essential element of biography, yet he adds a caveat: "[The biographer] must never forget that to his subject and his subject's contemporaries their future was as much a mystery and a blank as our future is to us. He must...never try to explain [the subject's] actions as if they were steps towards the fulfillment of a manifest destiny" (89). Rojas does make constant use of foreshadowing to connect specific events to their eventual outcome, an outcome known to Rojas and the readers, but without intruding upon the past or construing those events as inevitable. Concerning the role of Carlos IV in the genesis of the Guerras Carlistas, Rojas writes:

A petición del nuevo Rey, restauran la regla de las Partidas y anulan el Auto de Felipe V...que vedaba el Trono a las hembras. Con aquella Pragmática Sanción, refrendada pero nunca promulgada, pretendía revocar a Carlos IV la Ley Sálica del primer Borbón español. Pero absteniéndose de hacer pública la regla de las Partidas, abrió impensadamente las puertas del porvenir a las contiendas carlistas. (35; emphasis added)

At the same time, Rojas's role as author in the neatly circular, rather spiral form the text takes on. At the beginning of the text, Rojas describes La familia de Carlos IV, and at the end he describes Alfonso XIII contemplating this portrait of his ancestors (on display in Geneva after the Civil War). "Por el hilo del ovillo," writes the author, "al cabo volvemos al principio. La historia y la pintura, tradúzcase la guerra fratricida y Goya, regresan al último Borbón desposeído y desterrado a presencia del primero, que destronaron y proscribieron: Carlos IV" (307). This episode is perfectly adapted to Rojas's sense of irony, for it illustrates the writer's belief that between 1801 and 1939 the Bourbon monarchy had degenerated to such a point that Alfonso XIII hardly merited being considered a descendent of Carlos IV; he is more of a distorted mirror-image of his ancestor.

This scene described above is also emblematic of Rojas's view of history. The writer evidently believes, like Marañón, that "la historia se repite, pero no de forma rígida e irremediable. Más historia se parece, porque aunque lo reprimido siempre vuelva, lo hace informado por una historia que varía..." (Pinillos 30). It is this variation that makes history into a spiral rather than a circle, for " participar todos los hombres de una misma condición, los modos con que la humanidad reacciona ante situaciones que en la vida se repiten, inevitablemente acaban pareciéndose también" (Pinillos 30). Throughout Los Borbones destronados (as well as in many of his other works) Rojas calls attention to events which seem to repeat themselves, albeit with slight variations or distortions given their different contexts. Indeed, Rojas notes that not even the reigning monarch is untouched by these apparent coincidences: "El más cínico de los destinos hace que las declaraciones de Juan Carlos a Time y a Point de Vue, 'Nunca, nunca aceptaré la corona mientras viva mi padre', reiteren casi textualmente el aserto del Deseado en Aranjuez, cuando sabe de cierto que Carlos IV se apresta a entregarle Trono, Cetro y Manto" (319). Although the words may be almost identical, the contexts are happily not.

For Rojas, the reasons behind this process of repetition with variation lie not solely in the Bourbon dynasty but in Spain itself. Indeed, upon her departure after La Gloriosa of 1868, Isabel II ordered that newspapers publish the following statement, which is strikingly relevant to Rojas's attitude: "La Monarquía de quince siglos de victorias, de patriotismo y de grandeza no ha de perderse en quince días de perjurios, de sobornos y de traiciones. Tengamos fe en lo porvenir: la gloria del pueblo español siempre fue la de sus Reyes. Las desdichas de los Reyes siempre se reflejan en el pueblo" (210; emphasis added). This statement leads us to the very origins of biography. As Alberto Momigliano has noted, during the Hellenistic age a work of biography was actually called "bios," a word which "was not ... reserved for the life of an individual man. It was also used for the life of a country" (12-13). In other words, the biographies of the dethroned Bourbons are inseparable from the collective history- "bios-graphy," if you will-of Spain, and vice versa. According to the author, this complementarity is one explanation of the nearly unthinkable, retrograde attitude of articles 490 and 491 of the Ley Orgánica del Código Penal of 1996 which impose imprisonment and or a fine "a quien calumniase o injuriase al Rey, o a cualquier de sus ascendientes o descendientes así como a la Reina, al Consorte de la Reina, al Regente, a algún miembro de la Regencia, o al Príncipe heredero" as well as "a quien incurriera en calumnia o injuria contra cualquier de las reales personas...inclusive fuera de los supuestos previstos"; similar penalties apply to those who "utilizaran la imagen del Rey y demás personas de su familia o Regencia 'de cualquier forma que pudiese dañar el prestigio de la Corona'" (13; Rojas's emphasis).

Rojas's interpretation of these statutes does not focus attention on the Bourbon monarchs but rather on a society which appears to suffer from a "un pánico, tan general como todavía inadvertido, de que en ausencia de los Borbones quede [el país] desarbolado y escoremos a la deriva de la historia, talmente como el buque fantasma en el Mar del Norte" (19). In the final analysis, this fear "de proceder alguna vez a derechas y a la hora" is "uno de los trasfondos, inconscientes y colectivos, más predominantes y enraizados en nuestra historia" (327-28). Yet in spite of his apparent pessimism, Rojas holds out the hope that eventually "pueda el pueblo plantearse la opción entre un poder ejectivo hereditario...," which he considers to be "fuera del tiempo y fuera del espacio geográfico europeos..." (qtd. in Vila-San-Juan 12), "...y otro libremente elegido por todos los ciudadanos" (328). The last comment can only be interpreted as a reference to the fact that the Spanish monarchy was reinstituted by Franco rather than by national desire. With this in mind, Rojas's preoccupation with the Spanish monarchy should be seen as an earnest desire on one writer's part to point toward this future option. Paraphrasing Ortega y Gasset, Rojas notes, not without hope, that "toda futura reforma [pasa] siempre por la enmienda obligatoria del pasado" (22). To my mind, Los Borbones destronados represents a powerful argument for such an amendment through Rojas's careful combination of techne and ars into an exceptional work of art.


1. There has long been a strong interest in biography in the United States and Great Britain, but the rise of its popularity is equally observable in contemporary Spain. I would argue that the growing promimence of biography in Spain is intrinsically related to the ongoing efforts to review, revise, or revindicate Spanish history. This is certainly the case with Rojas.

2. Morris's most recent book, Dutch: A Memoire of Ronald Reagan, has received much (although not necessarily positive) attention precisely because of his use of fictional techniques which for many historians almost invalidates his work. He has created a character named Edmund Morris who is present during events and speaks with then president Reagan, events to which "the real" Morris was not privy.

3. Victoria L. McCard has commented on the influence of Ortega's "Goethe desde dentro" on Rojas's approach to biography, specifically referring to El mundo mítico y mágico de Salvador Dalí; see, in particular, 333-37.

4. According to Blake, the use of assimilation lies as the heart of the work of that great English biographer, Boswell (86).

5. The connections between Fernando VII and Franco lie at the heart of El valle de los caídos.

Works Cited

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--. "Entrevista al escritor Carlos Rojas." With Cecilia Castro Lee. Anales de la Literatura Española Contemporánea 18 (1993): 365-74.

--. El valle de los caídos. Barcelona: Destino, 1978.

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