Spain’s comédie humaine

Are Spanish nineteenth- novelists inferior to those of France, Russia Britain, or are they just century of history? Two of them, at least, stand comparison with their European counterparts. One is Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901), also known as Clarín, the author of a single fine novel, La Regenta (1885), which describes the adulterous loves of one Ana Ozores in the stiflingly provincial town of Vetusta. The other is Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920). Unlike his friend Clarín, Galdós was prolific. He wrote seventy-seven novels, including forty-six historical fictions known as the Episodios Nacionales. He also wrote twenty-three plays and dozens of volumes of shorter fiction and journalism.

The quality of Galdós’s novels varies, and only a handful of them match La Regenta. But one, Fortunata y Jacinta (1887), surpasses it. It is as moving and memorable as the best European fiction of the time. And Galdós’s oeuvre in general, however excessive, conveys like no other flavor of a country marked by political turbulence, abrupt changes of fortune, horrendous injustice, prejudice and deep social transformations, despite the best efforts of conservatives to contain them.

For any reader of Galdós, Mario Vargas Llosa’s La mirada quieta (de Pérez Galdós) (“Pérez Galdós’s Calm Vision”) will be welcome. Novelists who write generously about each other can be revealing critics, and Vargas Llosa, throughout his career, has produced important books on Flaubert, Victor Hugo, García Márquez, Juan Carlos Onetti and José María Arguedas. But with Galdós that generosity is particularly in evidence: Vargas Llosa spent lockdown reading the entire corpus, and in La mirada quieta he relieves us of the same task by offering us fifty-two short summarizing chapters on fifty-two novels and plays, a long chapter on the Episodios Nacionales, and separate assessments of Galdós’s place in Spanish literature and in the history of the European novel. His summaries are always lively and thought-provoking. One does not have to have read Galdós to enjoy them.

Vargas Llosa often refers to the “mirada quieta” of the book’s title – the calm, tranquil vision he discerns in Galdós, whom he sees as a moderate, reasonable man able to keep his cool in the fractious world he describes. Rather than take definitive sides in the three Carlist wars (from 1833 to 1876), Vargas Llosa’s Galdós simply opts for peace: his view is that war is cruel, driven more by a lust for power than by conviction. Though critical of the Catholic bigots and hypocrites who abound in his novels, and of Catholic intolerance, Vargas Llosa’s Galdós remains a Catholic, convinced the church can become less rigid, less judgemental. Though by instinct a modernizer, aghast at the backwardness of Spain, which he attributes to its lazy resistance to innovation, he lovingly describes traditions, including religious feasts, that help unite families and communities. Galdós with his “calm vision” is in the end much like Vargas Llosa himself – a liberal in the classical sense, open to moderate change but never to fundamentalist violence.

Vargas Llosa has some incisive colleague-to-colleague strictures. His chapters on individual novels end with professorial summaries that acknowledge the book’s achievements while underlining its defects. He finds the novels often – though not always – wordy, full of pompous phrases. He dislikes Galdós’s way of making his less privileged characters speak in ungrammatical, sometimes incomprehensible dialect, a tendency he considers “unfair”, as though the narrator were flaunting his superiority over characters who are not in a position to answer back. Vargas Llosa also regrets that Galdós hasn’t learned from Flaubert how best to position his narrator. Here he advances the notion, which not everyone will agree with, that there is such a thing as progress in fictional technique.

Galdós often wrote at breakneck speed, rushing his manuscripts off to the publisher without corrections. Fortunately, there are some novels over which he clearly took more time; and still others in which the force of inspiration compensates for the lack of greater care. As a result perhaps half a dozen novels stand out.

One such is Misericordia (1897), a devastating depiction of urban poverty in the slums of southern Madrid. Galdós tells us in a 1911 prologue that he had to pretend to be a municipal doctor to be allowed to “penetrate the repulsive abodes in which decadent disciples of Venus and Bacchus indulged in their nauseating revels”. Zola was no doubt an influence here, except that, contrastingly, Galdós’s deprived characters – beggars, drunkards, convicts, prostitutes – are able, as Vargas Llosa puts it, to “have a good time, even [to] dance and sing in the middle of all the horror” thanks to their “Spanish character”.

In Misericordia Galdós also pulls off the novelistic feat of depicting a character, Benina, who is utterly good without ever being boring. Benina is one of many Galdós characters who act as a bridge between social classes. Raised in the slums, she is the servant of Doña Francisca, a middle-class woman who has run out of money and cannot even feed herself, let alone pay Benina a salary. Benina begs outside a church to help her, without ever disclosing the nature of her sacrifice. She is one of those uncommon characters, beloved of Galdós, for whom virtue is severed when it is advertised.

Galdós is always at war with hypocrisy. One of my own favorite novels in this respect is Dona Perfecta (1876), magnificently treated here. It tells the story of young Pepe Rey, an engineer and mathematician, who comes to the small provincial town of Orbajosa to woo his cousin, Rosario. For Galdós, Madrid is backward enough, but the provinces are beyond the pale. On arrival in Orbajosa Pepe makes the mistake of suggesting to the inhabitants that they update themselves and their surroundings. But they are wedded to rigid rules, and their adherence to them is mercilessly policed ​​by the local priests and by Rosario’s mother, Doña Perfecta. For her Catholic orthodoxy and unchanging tradition are a source of power – and no upstart from Madrid is going to put that power, let alone Pepe Rey, who has been criticized by Orbajosa’s cathedral and failed to make the sign of the cross on entering it. At Doña Perfecta’s instigation, therefore, Pepe is murdered by a local thug.

Some of the force of the novel’s social criticism comes from the fact that Pepe is so ordinary. He is not an atheist, let alone a revolutionary Jacobin. Like Galdós, he is a moderate, liberal Catholic. His normality helps Galdós emphasize how ruinous fundamentalist resistance to progress can be, especially when cloaked in religion.

There is no concern of the author’s that does not find its way into the magnificent Fortunata y Jacinta. Set mostly in Madrid, it contains the best of Galdós’s many fine descriptions of the city. He guides us through it street by street, alert always to the nuances of each neighborhood, its cafés and bars, mansions and hovels, churches and nightclubs.

Juan – Juanito – Santa Cruz is a spoilt Don Juan who marries his wealthy cousin Jacinta even as he seduces Fortunata, a beautiful girl from a humble family who returns his affections with a devastating passion. As so often in Galdós, passion and marriage (as well as love and class) are in conflict. The reader comes to love Fortunata, and Jacinta too, despite her more privileged background. Both are victims of the same philanderer, the infamous Juanito. Jacinta is ostensibly pure while Fortunata is guilty of copious sins of the flesh. But for the non-judgmental Galdós, with his mirada quietanatural goodness, with which both women are blessed, far outweighs any rigid adherence to religious doctrine.

A vast parade of secondary characters fleshes out the family history of the two heroines, and Galdós depicts a wide range of people across the social spectrum over several generations – relatives, family friends, servants, hangers-on. Plácido Estupiñá is a family retainer, but also a family friend: at home with every social class, he bridges the gap between the wealthy Santa Cruz clan and the streets of Madrid. Similarly, and rather like Benina in MisericordiaDoña Guillermina devotes herself to helping whomever she can, though unlike Benina her humility is an effect of downward mobility: she is an impoverished aristocrat.

The novel covers every angle of human experience. It is funny, romantic, sensual, sad. Its characters are immensely human and even when at fault loved and understood by the narrator. Vargas Llosa aptly compares its ambition and reach to that of Balzac’s Comédie humaine. But it has a compassionate dimension that makes one think, too, of Tolstoy.

Estupiñá is one of many characters who appear in other novels by Galdós. Possibilities in one work may be taken up in another. Vargas Llosa note on this resonance between books in a manner that recalls Borges’s infinite Library of Babel: “Every novelist has felt on writing a novel that the story he is telling could go on forever if he expanded on its loose ends: it would be the novel of novels, with all its stories interweaving to infinity.” Mario Vargas Llosa himself resists this “endless madness”; he is a Flaubert rather than a Balzac or a Galdós in his craftsmanship, though he shares the latter’s world-view. Perhaps it was for this unforced likemindedness that he chose Galdós as his lockdown companion, with such happy results.

David Gallagheris the author ofModern Latin American Literature1973,Improvisaciones,1991, andOtras Improvisaciones2005

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