José Lezama Lima

Biography of José Lezama Lima

José Lezama Lima (December 19, 1910 – August 9, 1976) was a Cuban writer and poet who is considered one of the most influential figures in Latin American literature.

Born in the Columbia Military Encampment close to Havana in the city of Marianao where his father was a colonel, Lezama lived through some of the most turbulent times of Cuba's history, fighting against the Machado dictatorship. His literary output includes the semi-autobiographical, baroque novel Paradiso (1966), the story of a young man and his struggles with his mysterious illness, the death of his father, and his developing sensuality and poetic sensibilities. Lezama Lima also edited several anthologies of Cuban poetry and the magazines Verbum and Orígenes, presiding as the patriarch of Cuban letters for most of his later years.

Although he only left Cuba twice (trips to Mexico in 1949 and 1950), Lezama's poetry, essays and two novels draw images and ideas from nearly all of the world's cultures and from all historical time periods. The baroque style that he forged relied equally upon his Góngora-influenced syntax and stunning constellations of unlikely images. Lezama Lima's first published work, a long poem called "Muerte de Narciso," released when he was only twenty-seven, brought him national acclaim and established his well-wrought style and classical subject matter.

In addition to his poems and novels, Lezama wrote many essays on figures of world literature such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Valéry, Góngora and Rimbaud as well as on Latin American baroque aesthetics. Most notably the essays published as La Expresión Americana lay out his vision of the European baroque, its relation to the classical, and the American baroque.

Lezama Lima died in 1976 at age 65 and was buried in the Colon Cemetery, Havana. He was influential for Cuban and Puerto Rican writers of his generation and the next, such as Virgilio Piñera, Reinaldo Arenas, Fernando Velázquez Medina, René Marqués, and Giannina Braschi, who depict his life and works in their writing.

Twenty-three years after pinning him up the pillory for his "anti-revolutionary activities", the Cuban people pay homage to Lezama Lima through the release of a film, Strawberry and Chocolate (1994): Lezama is a model for Diego, a gay intellectual; and David, a member of the local Communist youths, discovers the author of Paradiso, and becomes a man after a grand supper "a la Lezama."

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