José Lezama Lima

1910 –

José Lezama Lima, a Cuban poet, essayist, and novelist, was born in Havana on December 19, 1910, to an upper-class family. His father, a military officer, died in 1919. After his death, he and his mother moved into his grandmother’s house. Lezama Lima was often ill during his childhood, particularly from asthma, and took solace in reading. His mother strongly influenced his cultural development. The pair remained close throughout Lezama Lima’s life and lived together until her death in 1964. Lezama Lima studied law in Havana in the early 1930s. He seldom left Cuba during his lifetime, making only brief trips to Mexico in 1949 and Jamaica the following year.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Lezama Lima founded three short-lived literary journals. He then founded the arts journal Orígenes (1944–56) with the Cuban editor and literary critic José Rodríguez Feo. In 1937, Lezama Lima released his first poetry collection, Muerte de Narciso, or Death of Narcissus (Ucar, García y Cía). Over the next few decades, Lezama Lima published numerous works of poetry and prose, including Paradiso (UNEAC, 1966), regarded as one of the most important Spanish-language novels of the twentieth century, for which Lezama Lima also began but never completed a sequel titled Oppiano Licario, after the name of a character in the first book and initially published in Mexico in 1977. Other works of poetry include Dador, or Giver (Impresores Úcar, García, S.A., 1960); La Fijeza, or Fixity (Ediciones Origenes, 1949); Aventuras sigilosas, or Surreptitious Adventures (Ediciones Origenes, 1945); and Enemigo rumor, or Hostile Murmurs (Ucar, García y Cía, 1941).

In 1957, Lezama Lima read a five-part lecture series later published as La expresión americana, one of his best-known works, at the Centro de Altos Estudios in Havana, in which he expressed his views about Latin American culture. Lezama Lima initially welcomed the Communist revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. That same year, Castro named him director of the Department of Literature and Publications at the National Council of Culture. By the 1970s, however, Lezama Lima had fallen into disfavor with the Castro regime due to the writer’s supposed support for the dissident writer Heberto Padilla in what came to be known as the “Padilla affair.” Lezama Lima’s books were removed from bookstores and libraries as a result, and he ended up both housebound and socially ostracized. Despite identifying as homosexual, Lezama Lima married his former secretary, María Luísa Bautista, his only source of company at the time and his caretaker. 

José Lezama Lima died in Havana on August 9, 1976. By 1989, Lezama Lima’s status as a national treasure was restored. His apartment was converted into a museum, and his work became a subject of study in academia.