In the United States, only the most diligent readers of Spanish literature or scholars of nineteenth-century literary realism have ever heard of Benito Pérez Galdós. Yet these same readers and academics usually refer to him as “the Spanish Dickens,” partly because he translated The Pickwick Papers into Spanish, or “the Spanish Balzac” for his overlapping cycles of novels and the overall scope of his oeuvre, or “the greatest Spanish novelist since Cervantes.” This last bit of praise has a strangely hollow ring to it, as if there wasn’t much competition in the two and a half centuries separating the two novelists, but perhaps there’s some truth to it. Indeed, Galdós’s contemporary, the literary critic Leopoldo Alas, said: “the present Spanish novel has no yesterday, but only a day before yesterday.”
The imbalance of Galdós’s reputation and his readership is even more enigmatic because his name pops up in the most incongruous and unlikely places. The surrealist director Luis Buñuel, for example, made two films adapted from Galdós’s novels—Tristana and Nazarin—and also Viridiana, which was loosely based on Galdós’s novel Halma. And in chapter thirty-four of Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar satirically transposed the opening of Galdós’s novel Lo Prohibido, in alternating lines, with the narrator Oliveira’s criticism of Spanish realism: “I can see how after you swallow four or five pages you get in the groove and can’t stop reading, a little like the way you can’t help sleeping or pissing.” Javier Marias, too, uses a reference to Galdós in his novel The Dark Back of Time, in which the Bulletin of the International Association of Benito Pérez Galdós Scholars is referenced as some sort of inside joke. Galdós almost seems more plausible as a fictionalized character in Marias’s pseudo-fictional work than an actual nineteenth-century writer.
Why is Galdós considered a very important nineteenth-century novelist if no one reads him anymore? He is only rarely summoned from the purgatorial holding cell of dead and forgotten authors, and never definitively. His name doesn’t come up very often in conversation these days, or at least none of the conversations that I overhear. He doesn’t seem to have any literary apostles or outspoken fans, and no one gushes over his work, at least not in the same way that critics and readers occasionally gush over the work of the other European novelists of his generation who already belong in the paradise of literary canonization, those writers who were born in the 1840’s and wrote through the end of the century. Émile Zola, for example, is still read because he perfectly captured scenes from the epoch with a naturalistic approach that aspired to new levels of scientific precision. Thomas Hardy lives on, if for nothing else, because of his devotees, which included Ezra Pound’s fawning endorsement: “Nobody has taught me anything about writing since Thomas Hardy died.” Bored or misanthropic intellectuals will continue reading and loving Joris-Karl Huysmans until the end of time; and Henry James’s legacy is so vast that it would be hard to imagine contemporary realism without him. But what is Galdós’s hook? How do you read (and think about) a so-called major writer whose literary reputation in the English-speaking world is either nonexistent, buried within academia, or the confusing punch line of a complicated joke?
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NYRB Classics recently published Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of Galdós’s novel Tristana, the novel’s first appearance in English. These are two signposts that passionate readers would immediately notice: first, a translator known for lively, absolutely essential renditions of—among many others—Javier Marías, José Saramago, and Eça de Queiroz, and very recently, Diogo Mainardi’s The Fall; and second, a publisher that is, if not one of the main gatekeepers of literary paradise for dead authors, then at least some sly and wise sentry with access to the side door. What perfect circumstances for the rediscovery of an all but forgotten Spanish novelist! Expectations—and particularly these confused expectations—distort how a book is experienced: so before beginning to read Tristana, I started wondering, with a slight sense of embarrassment, firstly, why I had never heard much about Galdós, but also why Tristana was being translated and published now? I came to the book not with scholarly erudition, but with a mixture of curiosity and ignorance—an idiosyncratic but perhaps apposite literary context.
An internet search helped sketch the outline of Galdós’s life, along with a basic context of Tristana: Benito Pérez Galdós was born in 1843 and he spent most of his life in Madrid, where he wrote an alarming seventy-seven novels, dozens of plays, and hundreds of stories and pieces of journalism. Tristana was first published in 1892 and belongs in the group of novels from his mature period that were classified as “Novelas Españolas Contemporáneas,” all of which were set in present-day Spain and follow the basic conventions and aesthetics of European realism in the wake of Flaubert, Balzac, and the recently translated Russians. In Galdós’s words: “This is the system I have always adopted, to create a complex, heterogeneous, and extremely varied world, providing a broadly-based picture of society at a particular moment of history.” Only a few books from Galdós’s “Novelas Españolas Contemporáneas” are readily available in English—his whopping four-part novel Fortunata and Jacinta is somehow still in print with Penguin Classics, but the most of the rest of his novels have dropped into oblivion or were never translated in the first place.
The second most obvious place to unearth more information about Galdós’s Tristana is with the Luis Buñuel film of the same title. Buñuel had been looking for a new project after finishing The Exterminating Angel in 1962, and settled on trying to adapt Tristana—rather than Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband, another book he was considering. But soon after finishing the script of Tristana, the project was halted due to complications with the Spanish censorship. Finally, eight years later, he was able to make the film—his relationship with the Spanish censors had mellowed in the meantime—though he decided to move the production from the novel’s original locus in Madrid to the tamer, more provincial Toledo. Buñuel’s decision to make a film based on Galdós’s novel remains a little unclear, the only logical justification being that he often favored minor or unpopular works, so he would have more freedom with the material. Oddly, in an interview recorded many years later, he cryptically explained: “Tristana is among Galdós’s worst novels, of the ‘I love you, my little pigeon’ genre, very kitsch. The only thing that interested me was the detail of the amputated leg.”
Regardless of Buñuel’s distaste for the novel, Tristana was released in 1970. Falling chronologically between The Milky Way (1969) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Tristana is an oddly controlled film, and not nearly as playful, surrealistic, or Buñuelesque as his other work from this period. Following the basic outline and structure of Galdós’s novel, Bunuel shows, almost claustrophobically, the unraveling relationship of the recently orphaned young Tristana and her much older guardian Don Lope. They inhabit a cramped, staunchly bourgeois apartment, and the tension in the film draws from small acts and gestures, in Tristana’s subtly unfolding desire for freedom and her crushed ambitions as she becomes more and more aware of her doomed situation, along with Don Lope’s exaggerated acts of chivalry, erotic passes, and psychological aggression as he tries to trap her in his web. Buñuel beautifully exposes the tug of war between desire and its obstacles, between idealism and realism, transgression and restraint, and freedom and dependency, all within a tightly bound narrative. And, of course, Tristana loses her leg during the course of the film.
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Galdós’s novel tells the same story as Buñuel’s film, yet the novel’s themes are more firmly rooted in his own era: one of the main focuses is Tristana’s yearning for love, happiness, and above everything else, freedom—but freedom is especially difficult to acquire as a female living in nineteenth-century Spain who lacks financial independence to begin with. The maid, Saturna, who serves as a sort of Sancho Panza to Tristana’s quixotic quest for liberty, proverbially says: “There are only three categories open to those who wear skirts: marriage, which is a career of sorts; the theater … working as an actress, which isn’t a bad way of earning your living; and … well, I’d rather not mention the third option.” Tristana halfheartedly tries marriage and acting, but is unhappy with the former and bad at the latter—and prostitution is out of the question—so she laments her role in life and continues, futilely, to desire everything that is beyond her grasp. To make matters worse, Don Lope, an extremely possessive and aging playboy (“like a figure in a Velázquez painting”) wants Tristana to become his final and permanent conquest, his wife and his daughter, and essentially his slave. He holds her psychologically and financially captive, and makes outrageous threats like: “If I ever find out you’ve been deceiving me, I’ll kill you, believe me, I’ll kill you. I would prefer to end my life tragically than be a decrepit old cuckold.”
Nevertheless, within a few chapters, it comes as no surprise that Don Lope is quickly cuckolded. Horacio Díaz arrives on the scene, an artist who becomes Tristana’s lover and the receptacle for all her illusions. Unable to obtain freedom, Tristana invests all of her energy in love, or what she thinks might resemble love. Much like Don Quixote’s appropriation of chivalric codes or Emma Bovary’s reading of romance novels, Tristana exaggerates and idealizes her affair with Horacio, equating herself to history’s famed heroines—on different occasions she is Beatrice, Francesca di Rimini, Lady Macbeth, and Isolde. Their relationship develops and unfolds at a giddy, breakneck speed, fueled by the mushy vernacular of soap operas: “The day I found you was the last day of a long exile,” or “Kill me a thousand times over rather than stop loving me.” However, even though she loves Horacio—almost blindly at times—she’s still reluctant to marry him: the illusion of freedom remains to be an even stronger vice than love.
Illusions sharpen the knife-edge of realism. Throughout the novel, Tristana learns the cruelty of consciousness, its setbacks and disappointments, and what it really means to live in a miserable world with a lecherous, selfish guardian, with no hope of escape, and finally, with bad health and bad luck. In a letter to Horacio, after a few punctures in their relationship—those initial authorial knife jabs—she quotes from Leopardi’s poem “Canto Nottorno,” wondering, “Since I have the dreadful habit of looking for il perche delle cose, I wonder if God has made a mistake, goodness, what blasphemy.” Leopardi, too, had the bad habit—in tenfold—of looking for the why of things, and a few lines earlier in the same poem, he asked, “If life is misery, why do we bear it?” Galdós seems to be posing the same question in Tristana, and answering: hope and illusions, and when that fails, stoic resignation and perhaps conditioned denial.
Tristana falls firmly into the tradition of realism, but more specifically into the literature of illusions and disillusionments, which began with Don Quixote and continued through Stendhal and Flaubert, and all their hopeless heroes and heroines with big dreams and sorrowful endings. The critic and novelist Miguel de Unamuno commented, in an essay about Don Quixote—who, despite his skinny frame, cast the greatest shadow over Spanish literature: “The greatest height of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make oneself ridiculous and not to fear the consequent ridicule.” Tristana struggles to articulate what this type of heroism might look like in domestic nineteenth-century Madrid.
Without having read anything else by Galdós, it’s difficult to know what exactly to make of Tristana: whether it’s an enjoyable but minor work by a largely unknown author, or something more than that. The characters are well developed and full of pathos, the writing itself is lively, and nearly every page is filled with poignant observations such as “Happiness makes me afraid, because when I feel happy, I can feel evil watching me. Instead of draining our happiness to the dregs, what we need now is some difficulty, some tiny crumb of misfortune.” Yet nothing in the novel seems absolutely singular, exceptional, or brilliant. A reader who is only partially invested in nineteenth-century realism and looking for this type of story would be better off reading or rereading Madame Bovary and The Portrait of a Lady. Flaubert is an incomparably better craftsman and James is a much more subtle psychologist. Tristana might be the perfect treat for some readers, especially since the novel doesn’t lack any charm or substance to interpret, but for those who desire more, there is always Buñuel.
Tynan Kogane is an Associate Editor at New Directions. He was raised in Seattle and graduated from the New School.