CAMILO JOSE CELA has long been a larger-than-life figure here in Spain, maybe too large. Famous for his forthright manner and acerbic remarks, Cela's comments at a press conference after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year didn't seem to surprise many: "Spain is a wonderful country. It's a shame it has some politicians and some journalists it doesn't deserve." Most Spaniards have come to expect just about anything from Cela, who grew up in a small village in northern Spain, and who once, during Franco's regime, worked as a government censor of small independent magazines. (This didn't seem to help him later when one of his books published in Argentina was banned in his own country.)

Yet despite the author's political activities, which have been contrary to those of many Spanish writers and intellectuals (in his youth he fought on Franco's side), his books have always been popular. Not only has he had numerous bestsellers in Spain, but he is also the most translated Spanish author since Cervantes.

Recognized as one of Spain's most important writers, Cela was a prominent figure in the resurgence of the novel after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). La Familia de Pascual Duarte ("The Family of Pascual Duarte"), published in 1942, was one of the first significant books to come out after the war. The novel, a brutal portrayal of a peasant murderer awaiting execution, presented a frightening, violent reflection of postwar Spain. Pascual Duarte was important because it opened doors with a new style of writing, originated by Cela, called "Tremendismo," a distorted, almost grotesque realism created by an amplification of violent images.

Regarded as a true experimentalist and innovator of language, Cela has written in almost every genre -- novels, nonfiction books and essays, poetry, children's books, travel books, even a two-volume dictionary of Spanish slang, Diccionario Secreto. In his most recent book, Christo Versus Arizona, Cela creates a savage and primitive portrait of Arizona at the turn of the century. In one long, continuous, first-person monologue, the novel relates a succession of mishaps that befall a young man in a world ruled by base instincts.

These days, however, the author is more often seen on television selling road maps for a gas company, or recently as a regular guest on a popular national talk show. And not long ago Cela was the host of a special television series on travel in which he was chauffeur-driven around Spain in a Rolls Royce. And while Camilo Jose Cela has been entertaining television audiences, his son, Camilo Jose Cela Conde, has written a bestselling biography of him. Cela, Mi Padre is an affectionate memoir in which the son takes a personal look at the Nobel laureate who once accepted money from a Venezuelan dictator to write a novel set in that country.

After Franco

WHILE CELA's popularity remains strong, a number of young authors are also very prominent. "There is a group of writers now who are beginning to change things," said Rosa Mora, editor of the book review section of El Pais, Spain's most respected national daily. "Writers like Manuel Montalban, or Jose Millas . . . young authors with a great interest in what's happening in the rest of Europe."

According to Eugenil Saurez, writer, publisher and professor of contemporary Spanish literature at the Instituto Internacional in Madrid, now that Spain has overcome the repression of the Franco years, writing has moved in a new direction. "During the Franco regime, much of the writing dealt with the problems the country was having under the regime. Today, the Spanish narrative is becoming more like the European narrative, thematically and stylistically. Literature today is more concerned with the individual and the individual within a democratic society, and the search for self-identity in the modern world."

This year Juan Jose Millas won the Premio Nadal, an award given by the publishing house Destino for the best book of the year. La Soledad Era Esto ("The Solitude Was This") opens with a third-person narrator, but as the novel progresses the narrator disappears. The protagonist takes control of her own story, and the book becomes her first-person narrative as she develops her own identity and independence.

Julio Llamazares, a well-known novelist, recently published El Rio del Olvido ("The River of Forgetfulness"). Part travelogue, part autobiography, the book recounts the author's return to the river Curueno where he summered as a child. In addition to describing the culture and landscape, Llamazares examines the sensation of being a foreigner in a land that was once so familiar.

Another young author enjoying success now is Rosa Montero. Montero, who is also a journalist, has had a number of bestsellers. Her recent book, Temblor ("Tremble"), is, like Juan Jose Millas's book, about a young woman's search. Aguafria ("Coldwater") is looking for The Truth. The narrative follows her through a series of adventures, including the time she spends living with a primitive tribe in an attempt to understand the meaning of life.

Continental Inspirations

SURPRISINGLY, despite the common language, Latin American authors have not had a strong influence in Spain. Although Jorge Luis Borges was important during the 1930s, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been very significant, few other Latin American writers have had much impact on Spanish literature. "Garcia Marquez had a lot of influence during the 1960s and 1970s," said Mora. "And he still does, but his influence has been diffuse, more general. There has never been a concrete, specific philosophy that was adopted by everyone. Instead different writers have taken different things from his work." Mora notes that a new work by Garcia Marquez or Carlos Fuentes is always immediately popular, but apart from such very big names, many Latin American authors who are popular in their own countries are not well-known in Spain.

Instead Spain has turned closer to home for inspiration. French and Italian and particularly German and English literature have been important. "Today's Spanish writers know what is happening outside of the country," said Alejandro Gandara, novelist and director of Escuela De Letras, a school in Madrid devoted exclusively to the study of literature. "They are incorporating this knowledge into their own literary tradition. Influences have come from outside. German and British writers have been very important -- Graham Greene, Peter Handke and Botho Strauss for example. Americans have also had significant influence on the Spanish narrative. Faulkner, above all, but also Salinger, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff."

Just about every bookstore in Madrid has works in translation by these authors. Crisol, for example, devotes a substantial amount of display space to English-language books in translation: John Kennedy Toole, Stephen King, Anne Tyler, John Irving, Mary Higgins Clark, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff are all prominently placed. In addition there is a large selection of original titles in English that includes John le Carre's The Russia House and Larry Collins's The Labyrinth, both of which were on El Pais's bestseller list in May. Also included in this section are books by Anne Rice, Robertson Davies, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Margaret Atwood. American writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner have traditionally been popular here and even the smallest bookstores and newstands often have works in translation by these authors.

And last spring Barcelonians had the opportunity to attend a special series of readings and lectures that featured contemporary American writers. Richard Ford, Amy Tan, Paul Auster and Tama Janowitz were among those who came to Barcelona to participate in "Narrativa Norteamericano, Encuentras Actuales" ("North American Narrative, Actual Encounters"). Developed by the Institute of North American Studies, the programs were so successful that according to Katherine Slusher, assistant director of the institute, it is hoped the series will continue next year. All of the 10 authors who took part in the program have had books translated into Spanish.

Regional Rivalry

SPAIN has four languages -- Castellano (Spanish) and three regional languages, Gallego, spoken in the providence of Galicia, Euskedi, spoken in the Basque region, and Catalan in Catalonia. Although many authors publish in one of the other languages, nearly everything is eventually translated into Spanish. The Catalan language in particular has a long narrative tradition, and in Barcelona, Catalan literature is considered as important as Spanish literature.

As with everything between Barcelona and Madrid, there is tremendous competition among publishers. And although Barcelona continues to maintain its financial strength, both cities have significant and influential publishing houses. (In 1987 Barcelona's houses published 16,098 titles and Madrid's 15,370.) Many houses have imprints in both cities. Planeta, one of the largest publishing companies in Spain, is based in Barcelona, yet its nonfiction imprint Temas De Hoy ("Themes of Today") is in Madrid. Temas De Hoy, which does many biographies, has also been immensely successful with its practice of choosing a subject (such as euthanasia or health and nutrition) and then hiring an author to write about it. The imprint had four books on the bestseller list in May.

Like everything in Spain now, the publishing world is changing rapidly. Spanish houses are being challenged by multinational corporations that have recently arrived in the country and begun taking over national houses. In an effort to defend themselves, many smaller Spanish houses have joined larger Spanish corporations. Grupo Anaya, a Spanish-owned communications giant, recently acquired the prestigious Alianza. Anaya also owns four other houses, including Catedra, which specializes in literature and social sciences, Piramide for economics and science, Barcanova, which does children's books, and Versal for general trade. And Timon, another large Spanish group owns other important imprints -- Aguilar, Taurus, Alfaguara and Altea.

"Before, Spain was composed of many small houses," said Gandara, "and that's a landscape that's changing. The foreign publishers are going to have some influence on what's put out, but the national houses are unifying and it's hoped that they can maintain their autonomy from the foreign publishers."

Although Spain has been undergoing many changes since Franco's death in 1975, contemporary literature has not been reflecting these changes. "Spain doesn't have the political problems it did under Franco and is therefore less of a concern now," said Mora. "As a result literature has begun to examine other issues. There is a lot of interest in things outside of Spain, particularly things that are happening in the rest of Europe."

A lot of attention will be focused on Spain in the coming years: Spain will play host to the world's fair (Expo '92) in Seville, and the summer Olympics in Barcelona. And next year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Spanish publishers will have an opportunity to show their books in all their glory at a special exhibition devoted to Spanish literature.

Katie Gardner is a writer living in Madrid.