The Spanish novelist Mateo Alemán (1547-c. 1615) wrote the first full-fledged picaresque novel, Guzmán de Alfarache. The book was widely read and translated and was imitated in Germany, France, and England.
Mateo Alemán was born in Seville and christened on Sept. 28, 1547. His parents were the physician Hernando Alemán, who practiced at the royal prison, and Juana de Enero, both descendants of converted Jews. By his own admission, Alemán received a very good education. He probably studied with the humanist Juan de Mal Lara. Alemán graduated from University of Seville (then called Colegio de Maese Rodrigo) in 1564. He studied medicine at the universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca and in 1568 was licensed to practice.
Alemaán returned to Seville, where he quickly ran into economic and romantic problems (they followed him all his life). He married Catalina de Espinosa, in a manner not unlike a shotgun wedding. By 1571 he had joined a branch of the Ministry of Finances as an auditor. He was imprisoned for debt in 1580. After serving as a judge in Usagre and another term in jail for debt, he rejoined the Ministry of Finances in 1586. Alemán was a judge again in 1593, this time in the quicksilver mines of Almadén. The work was performed by criminals, whom he got to know well and about whom he wrote an unpublished confidential report. The importance of this experience is evident in the genesis of his picaresque novel.
The prologue to Proverbios morales (Moral Proverbs) of Alonso de Barros was Alemán's first published work. The first part of Guzmán de Alfarache, which came out in 1599, was an immediate success, and 23 editions were published before 1605. It was probably during these years that he visited Italy. Literary success, however, did not imply financial success. Back in Seville, Alemán was again imprisoned and was released after pawning 500 copies of Guzmán. This period coincides with his very close friendship with the writers Lope de Vega and Vicente Espinel. In Valencia in 1602 there appeared a spurious second part of Guzmán, signed with the pseudonym Mateo Luján de Sayavedra, almost certainly the Valencian lawyer Juan Martí. Alemán, who had finished in manuscript his second part, decided to rewrite it entirely (he gave Luján a place among his new characters), and it appeared in 1604. That year also saw the publication of his hagiographical work, San Antonio de Padua, which by 1623 had four editions.
Not long after, Alemán fulfilled his youthful desire to go to the Indies; he sailed from Cadiz on June 12, 1608, in the same fleet with the playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcón and the new archbishop of Mexico, Alonso Garcia Guerra. Alemán apparently entered the service of the archbishop, and in Mexico in 1609 he published Ortografía castellana (Castilian Spelling), a book in which he propounded an unorthodox spelling, used in his Sucesos de Don Frai Garcia Gera (1613; The Life of Don Frai Garcia Gera), a biography of his master but mainly of autobiographical interest. Nothing is known of Alemán after that.
Guzmán de Alfarache was the work that gave final form to the picaresque, which had been developing since Lazarillo de Tormes was published in 1554. Alemán's novel profoundly influenced the German Simplicissimus, the English Moll Flanders, and the French Gil Blas, and many other works. Guzmán was translated into many languages, and the English version by James Mabbe, entitled The Rogue (1622), had five editions in 11 years.
Guzmán de Alfarache, the literary character, is born in Seville and is almost predestined, by family and surroundings, to be a delinquent. He tells the story of his life in the first person and with many digressive moralizations, which have been violently criticized. If the novel is interpreted, however, as a literary product of the Roman Catholic Reformation following the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and as a mirror of the moral and theological preoccupations of the age, then the meaning and structure of Guzmán emerge more clearly.
Donald McGrady, Mateo Alemán (1968), is the standard biography. An excellent study of Guzmán de Alfarachein its literary and historical perspectives is in Alexander A. Parker, Literature and the Delinquent: The Picaresque Novel in Spain and Europe, 1599-1753 (1967).