Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio and His Precise Prose [Month of a Thousand Forests]

The first author in today’s Month of a Thousand Forests entry is Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, who has a couple books available already in English, both translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa.

What’s most interesting about his work—at least to me—is his obsession with words, grammar, precise writing. Valerie explains this a bit in his bio, then touches on it in the interview. He seems like the sort of author that a lot of professors could use in an advanced Spanish class . . .

And remember, if you order A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from the Open Letter site and use the code FORESTS, you’ll get it for only $15.

Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio (Spain, 1927)

Of course, after his incursion into the world of fiction writing, [Ferlosio] rejected “the grotesque imposture of the literati,” and dedicated the years that followed to the study of grammar. Seized by this passion, Sánchez Ferlosio would spend those years in a “graphomaniacal furor” in absolute silence in terms of publishing. As he once said, “I don’t write with the immediate need to publish. I always say that I know how to knit, but I don’t know how to make a sweater.”

For reasons of mental health (grammar is tremendously obsessive), he returned to the publishing world (that doesn’t publish) in 1974 with Las semanas del jardín (a title inspired by the novel that Cervantes never managed to write). The years that followed, he dedicated to his work as an essayist and in 1986 he returned to writing fiction with El testimonio de Yarfoz.

The largest part of his most recent work has centered around essays with titles like Vendrán más años malos y nos harán más ciegos, a collection of reflections and aphorisms that won him Premio Nacional de Ensayo and Premio Ciudad de Barcelona. Like a dyed-in-the-wool bellicose intellectual, he has freely proclaimed a total lack of influence from contemporary literature, similarly his complete repudiation of television, sports, and publicity. His darts have struck such figures as Ortega y Gasset, Julián Marías, Karl Popper, and García Lorca.

His agent, Carmen Balcells, once said of him that he has written two or three hundred times as many pages as he has published. Though the number is, perhaps, exaggerated, there is no doubt that Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio is an author as irrepressible as he is indispensable. With your permission . . .


Critics have said that you are “the twentieth century author with the greatest lexical richness and that you use the language with the greatest precision and meticulousness. That the breadth of your narrative register does not cease to amaze, from fantasy to the objectivity of El Jarama.” All told, this precision has an impressionistic poetic and a symbolic strength. The fantastical world of prince Nébride comes to seem even more real than reality itself. In the beginning was the word. Could Yarfoz and prince Nébride be a sort of fantastical Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Prince Nébride seems to be a character of uncertain destiny.

The greatest lexical richness is false because what I have are prohibitions—self-prohibitions—and not a very broad vocabulary. For example, I can’t say “efectuar.” I never use the verb efectuar or the verb realizar. I always say “hacer” and I was greatly annoyed when I discovered that the verb efectuar was already in use in the sixteenth century. I am precise and meticulous in terms of description, but it’s not richness of vocabulary. Sometimes I have a predilection for antiquated words—some—very few, but that’s another story.

I don’t now how to apply personality and fate to these characters, but they aren’t characters of personality. They are characters of fate because they are part of a plot; here, for example, they are going into exile. They have personalities like everyone, but the manifestation of their personalities is not part of the plot. They have almost no personality, but they do have fate; things happen to them, they do things. So the previous comparison of Yarfoz and prince Nébride, because they are on horseback, is absolutely ridiculous, in the first place because Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are definitely characters of personality and all of Quixote is the manifestation of their personalities. Besides, mounts—the donkey and the horse—are subject to sumptuary norms of the time in which Quixote was written, perhaps they were in decline, but up until then the mount you rode was symbolic of your social status. It was prohibited for a peasant like Sancho Panza to ride a horse. Maybe already in the seventeenth century some peasants did because there were so many bandits who rode horses around the end of the sixteenth century and at the beginning of the seventeenth, but before then horses were status symbols, and the “nobleman” Alonso Quijano the Good had to ride a horse, as the word caballero (horseman) indicates. This is emphasized by, although I do not know until when, the fact that the mule was the mount of the clergy. The clerics rode mules, the caballeros rode horses, and peasants rode donkeys.


from El testimonio de Yarfoz

(The Testimony of Yarfoz)

[A Novel]

The Third Day of Nébride’s Journey into Exile

Apart from the escorts provided by the king, our expedition was made up of ten horses: Nébride rode one, his wife Táiz another, on another rode Sorfos, and on a horse he had just been given by Mirigalla, rode Sebsidio; Fosco, the carpenter, and Anarino, his wife, rode their own horses, each carrying one of their children; on another rode Chano, Táiz’s lady-in-waiting, on another Quiarces, the Atánida of Ebna, who had come along as the head of the household; on another was Nerigreo, the agronomist, and, finally, on the last horse, rode Vandren and myself; then came eight cargo mules and a mule driver, lent us by Mirigalla, who would return with the mule train. Only Fosco’s children and Vandren were without their own mount, and the horse the king had gifted Sebsidio was far and away the best.

XXIX. The “Path of the Iscobascos” is described in the Grágidos as a passageway carved out of living rock, but we would never have been able to imagine the monumental construction we would encounter that morning. We had only traveled a distance of eight hundred horses—not along the path leading to the cliffs, but on a path running perpendicular to that one, heading west, through the lush coolness of cedars and yews—when turning to the south we saw the path start gradually to drop underground, as if burrowing into the rock. We descended to a point where the walls of rock flanking the path closed in a vault over our heads, forming an underground tunnel. My sense of direction led me to believe that the mouth of the tunnel was perpendicular to the line of cliffs such that, if it continued in a straight line, inevitably there would be a light at the other end. But this was not the case; instead it continued to drop, maintaining the same angle, through the heart of the living rock, banking slowly to the right. It got so dark that our guide lit a torch, by which light I saw the great craftsmanship of the stone carvers, no hollows or protuberances, and I could see a channel, about a foot wide and a foot deep along the right hand wall, coursing with clear, fast-moving water. Soon, however, a light appeared and the tunnel opened into a room with a circumference of at least two-hundred-and-fifty horses, positioned parallel to the vertical face of the precipice that we had encountered days before. The tunnel was the entryway to a ramp cut into the stone wall of the Meseged, forming a sort of lateral groove, so that not only the floor was stone, but the right-hand wall and the ceiling were stone as well; on the left, it was open to the air, but a thick stone parapet came up to a safe height. It was a kind of overlook cut into the wall but always descending, almost rectilinear, with only a few protrusions and recessions in the hard stone wall. The channel of water still coursed rapidly to our right. Soon we saw that at a distance of approximately one-hundred-and-fifty horses the ramp seemed to dead-end against a wall, on a landing that was either wider than the path, or cut deeper into the rock; but when we came up to the wall, we saw that at the landing another tunnel opened into the rock; this second tunnel also curved, but not as sharply as the first one, delving into the rock, and always descending, inscribing first three quarters of a helicoid to a point where, turning back on itself, it rotated a final quarter of a circle, arriving parallel to the cliff face once again, giving way to another ramp, identical to the first, but the inverse of it because now the stone was on our left and the emptiness on our right. Seeing this, we understood, in essential terms, what the so-called “Path of Iscobascos” was: if we had been able to look down at it from the plain, we would have seen a succession of zigzagging ramps cut into the stone, mysteriously connected at the ends by tunnels that penetrated the heart of the rock, always descending, inverting and dropping to the next ramp, emerging parallel to the cliff face thanks to the doubling back or inverse curvature of the last quarter of a circle. In the end, the totality was not structurally different from a great spiral staircase, but one that had been pressed flat, except at its extremes, against a single plane. The guide told us that the landings at the ends of the ramps, along with the square recesses that appeared here and there, greater in number all the time approaching the center, were pullouts for carts that crossed paths while descending and ascending, for resting mules, fixing malfunctions, or any other eventuality. Before long we saw water tanks, troughs, and even small gardens, jutting out over the luminous abyss. In places where the rock seemed unstable, the parapet extended in columns to the bridge that formed the ceiling, all of it carved out of living rock, not a single fabricated feature. Our admiration for that prodigious construction increased at each new ramp: I even thought I saw the melancholy dissipate in Nébride’s eyes, replaced by a glow of joy for the past and excitement for great public works.

(Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

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