Category Archives: Galdós, Benito Pérez

Trafalgar: Read from June 12 to June 14, 2016

A writer has to have a certain confidence to be able to tell a story about how everything was lost: a love, a friend, a life, and a battle. Yet in losing we get a glimpse at how Galdos perceived the Spanish character in all its forms. We have characters who are tremendous braggarts, old men still filled with the passions of youth, society women so wrapped up in fashion and gossip as to be beyond clowns. Galdos paints with a broad brush and though we never dig very deep into these characters, he, unlike any other writer I can think of, is both satirical and empathetic at the same time to everyone on the page.

The story is straightforward: our young hero is plucked from the streets and made a servant in a good home, falls in love with the lady of the hours, goes off with the master of the house to a glorious yet disastrous naval battle, comes home and decides to leave his adopted family and live a life of adventure at sea. The writing too is straightforward, Galdos had been a journalist and uses simple language to tell his story and sticks to the facts but never leaves out the appropriate time to add some color.

This is an adventure tale, the first of many in a series of “National Episodes” (a serial) and it sets the stage for what Spain had become. No longer was she the glory of Europe, she had become a relic, her court was not to be taken serious, her Navy lumbering and ill managed, her men full of false ideas of glory too late in life, and her women fed up with the men. A strange setting then to set an adventure story of a young man to learn about life, yet what Galdos does so well is to show us how people behave, for good or for bad. He wants the reader to take his Spain seriously, though he’s just as able to laugh at his country too.

At the heart of the tale is a caution against allowing someone else to rule over us. Here the French tell the Spanish how to fight the battle, and lose (Napoleon says “I can’t be everywhere”), and our narrator too walks away from a life of service even though that means leaving the woman he loves and can never, ever have. He has to find his own way, a new way, even if that leads to disaster, as it did for his master.

And deeper still is Galdos showing us how important it is to know whom to believe about anything. On every page there are people telling him this or that, some of it true, some not, and it’s up to him (and us, ultimately) to learn to be discerning. Because to just rush off and act on emotion can lead to ruin just as bad information can ruin us, but there is also truth to be found between lies and being able to see that is a life-long lesson.

I believe Galdos was fascinated by what contradicts people. In one breath a character can be a buffoon and also wise. And as he ends the novel on a clear winter’s day, our narrator instead of seeing the world as it is, sees it as a summer day with the warm breezes, the orange trees, the roses in bloom: he sees the potential but also the contradictions between winter and summer, the contradictions that live inside each of us.

57% done with Trafalgar

For years I’ve been wanting to read a good book about Age of Sail naval battles. I tried Master and Commander, but found it over written, and other books here and there just didn’t do it for me. This, however! This is a sea story like you dream of! he battle scene of Chapter XI is fantastic, edge of your seat action. I love this book!

54% done with Trafalgar

Each set of characters we meet is more eccentric than the previous. I think what Glados is doing here is showing us how unfit and outclassed the Spanish were against Nelson and the English. We see what Spain became by the end of their power.

The descriptions of the city and especially of them sailing out of Port is beautiful! Very romantic but it’s in keeping with the narrator who is only 14-15.

Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women: Read from April 08 to May 18, 2016

“There is no human being, no matter how despicable he may seem, who cannot stand out in something.”

This line from early in the novel is spoken in relation to the character Izquierdo, a useless man (up to that point), who is a braggart but also surrogate father to a little boy, the near feral Pitsuo. The line is interesting because while at first glance it might seem a positive statement – it could be an internet platitude – Galdós does not actually say that the something anyone can stand out in would be a good something. There is no judgment made here at all, in fact. And it is this lack of judgment which raises this novel from mere ordinary masterpiece to one of the 10 greatest novels ever written.

For a novel this long and with so many characters, summing it up is a challenge, however I think it would be fair to compare it to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. In Tolstoy’s novel Anna is a woman who wants to live life the way she chooses but continually is pushed back down by a society that refuses to accept her ideas. She is judged by society and family, and her fate is unfortunate. The same is true with Fortunata. Though unlike Anna she is not of the upper-class (in fact she is from the lowest class), her pride and stubbornness cause her an endless series of trials and devastations. She is a woman who wants to live how she sees fit to do so, but cannot and she pays dearly.

Another parallel between the novels is through the Tolstoy’s Levin and Galdós Guillermina. Both are held up as examples of the ideal life (as imagined by the author). Levin tries to be a peasant and Guillermina does the work of a saint through her orphanage. Both characters have their flaws (though Guillermina’s are more subtle and only once does she really stumble in the novel), and both characters act to balance the tide of the other major character (Levin : Anna, and Guillermina : Fortunata).

To continue the comparison, both novels invest the reader deeply into their respective cultures of the novelist. Tolstoy drops us headlong into upper-class Russian society of the mid to late 19th century, and Galdós recreates nearly every avenue, shop, and slum of Madrid around the same time period. We inhabit vibrant, breathing worlds full of color, noise, pettiness, sadness, and beauty as written only by authors intimately familiar with them in real life. Future archaeologists, armed with little more than these two novels could recreate a convincing simulation of Russia and Spain of the 19th century.

But we must leave Tolstoy and Anna at their train station in St Petersburg because while there are many parallels between the two novels, Galdós turns his attention not to how society affects the individual, but how individuals affect the society they live in. Galdós is interested in the worlds we create, either in our own minds (madness and fixation are key themes in this novel), but also in reality with the ever changing of the Spanish government of the time and the formation and dissolution of the various tertulia (gossip and discussion groups).

“Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women” has been called the second greatest Spanish novel – Don Quixote being the first. And both novels are interested in similar ideas: what is real? Don Quixote is, obviously, mistaken in his observations (we all know of his famous windmills), but Galdós is more realistic. He forces us to ask ourselves why Fortunata can’t, in fact, find happiness with Juanito. Yes, we know society would never permit such a thing since Juanito is married in the eyes of God and society to Jacinta, but that’s a much different construct than believing a windmill is really a monster. Galdós is asking us to question why we accept society as it is, he just does it more subtly than Miguel de Cervantes did. There no real reason why Juanito can’t just leave his wife for someone he might love more, it’s just a construct of society that prevent him (as well as the fact that he’s a “player” and doesn’t really love anyone anyway).

Guillermina, this novel’s Saint, is also asking these same questions, but in a much different way and does so much more proactively. Instead of sulking around wishing reality were better, she actually does something about it – she’s harasses anyone and everyone to give money, bricks, timber, fuel, even a hat or a pair of pants for her orphanage. Businessmen, clergy, the wealthy and even the poor with something to give are not safe from her alms requests, and if you don’t have something to give, she’ll put you to work. She shakes up the dusty, lazy masses and gets them onto something more productive.

And all the characters engage in their own world building, no matter how small (Dona Lupa’s fake, cotton breast), to Maximiliano’s lunacy, to Feijoo’s pragmatic (and very modern) world view and advice for Fortunata, and even poor Mauricia (who looks just like Napoleon) and her drunken delirium. One character, the above mentioned Izquierdo, finds work as an artist’s model posing as famous historical figures, and another, Ballester, sees himself as capable of truly loving Fortunata. Everyone here is possessed by their own demons and delusions, hopes and fears, and it all mixes up to create fabric of life where everyone is interconnected – a theme Tolstoy explores in War and Peace where every person contributes to and is affected by the tides of history.

As I read over my notes for this novel I realize I’m only touching the very surface here. This is a massive novel, not just in size (over 800 pages in my hardcover edition), but massive in its beauty, too. Though Galdós is not given to long, overly poetic descriptions of nature, there is still an enormous amount of beauty here, but it’s always countered by the reality of whatever given situation the characters find themselves. We may see a beautiful countryside one day, and over the next few weeks have that view blocked by a church being built. No image serves one purpose, everything here is working overtime to show us life in all its complexity and frustration.

On a personal note I was greatly moved by this novel. I feel as if I were to one day walk down to my mailbox only to discover the world’s largest and most perfectly cut diamond just laying right there on the sidewalk in broad daylight with everyone walking right past it and not seeing it. In fact I’m actually mad that this novel is not spoken in the same breath as Anna Karenina, or Don Quixote, or Ulysses, or Middlemarch, or Moby Dick. This is a novel of the same quality and greatness as the greatest of the masterpieces ever published, yet it is almost nearly forgotten – and is, currently as I write this, out of print in English. Madness.

And so now, like one of the characters in the novel, I feel as if I should become obsessed with the idea of telling the world about Galdós and his nearly forgotten masterpiece. I want to read everything the man ever wrote, then re-read it, and spend my life writing about what I’ve read, and go digging through academic journals for the handful of people who have written scholarly work on him so I can look them up, correspond with them, and start book groups devoted to nothing but Galdós! Perhaps this could be my new reality, like a character in the novel who chooses for whatever stubborn, mad, or illogical reason to do what he wants for reasons he’s not quite sure of.

And maybe I’ll wind up like Maximiliano who stands before his future where on one hand he’s entering a monastery because he’s seen the light or on the other he’s being committed to an insane asylum because the light he sees is only corrupting him.

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I like how so many of the characters in the novel are all now sitting on the steps outside Fortunata’s apartment waiting for her to return (from her drama with Aurora). They’re all lined up, one step above the next. And the baby inside, crying for its mother. Fortunata will have to climb those stairs, like a prison tower, past all who judge her, and take her place with an illigimate son of her only love.

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You could make a case for this being a novel about (in part) mental illness. Mauricia went mad, Maximiliano went mad, Ido slips back and forth (usually when eating meat), Jacinta even had a spell where she obsessed about that little boy. Everyone is fevered, passionate, stuck in some mode of thinking they can’t escape (like Olimpia’s “piece”).

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As he plans murdering Fortunata they attend to all those caged birds as if they were gods metering out favors to their prisoners. The image is complex because this must be how he sees his power over her (her being insignificant, though his tormentor) but it also shows him as weak because he’s tending motherly to these tiny birds.

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Interesting. Fortunata can’t forgive Jacinta if Jacinta had been unfaithful, but can’t stand her if she wasn’t unfaithfull. This pride of Jacinta is her curse. But this is an indictment of lower class lower educated people in general who struggle so much in life simply because they are too proud, and worry too much about being disrespected (because that’s all they have left).

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Fortunata being a tenant in an apartment owned by Guillermina has an almost religious undertone to it : the sinner seeking shelter within the jurisdiction of the saint. And the saint, too now has a responsibility to care for the sinner, a difficult task for her for once (remember she said all her charity work had been easy and she prayed for a challenge.)

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“Have you turned into a rocket or something?” An example of me being skeptical of the translation. I’m sure the original is some form of slang, and I bet Gullon (translator) wanted to preserve the feel of the language by using modern sounding language, but in a novel about 19th century life, 20th century vernacular seems out of place.

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“Now God had made them all equal, so He could forgive them all.” In this novel: the poor are uncultured and and ignorant of society, the middle class are crass and ape society without having class, the rich are corrupted and rotting from within. This is a massive satire, but it’s not mean or thin, it gets into the messiness of people.

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What has driven Maximiliano to this state? Probably jealousy and paranoia about his wife. He doesn’t deserve her, and he knows it. Strangely she married beneath herself, even if she married Juanito it would have been beneath her. The lower the social class the closer to truth? Not sure I buy it, but I get the hint (rich man, eye of needle, kingdom of heaven)

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A lot of death imagery now. And Galdos repeats the image of a rosary holding together trains of mules (stubborn) and carriages (freedom, wealth). Her dream is all confusion because she can’t express herself with language, only through feeling. This is why Guillermina failed because she wasn’t in command of her words or herself.

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The children all gathered in the doorway believing “the ceremony couldnt take place without them.” This quick POV shift is one of the many genius qualities of the novel. We know these children feel this way because of Guillermina. And it’s also a perceptive observation of human nature we can all relate to. Small moment; incredibly important.

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How to spot good writing: in this scene, which has been set up with a) how orderly Dona Lupe is and how that’s been upended a little from the move, and b) how she uses her time to think, we get her pondering morality by invoking a) Guillermina, and b) Feijoo. All these things are bound together and this is a master writer in full possession of the craft.

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Compare Feijoo to Guillermina. He has lived for himself his entire life but at the end is in a strong position to provide handsomely for his friends and family. She too provides but by scavenging everything now, even if it’s not the highest quality to get the good works done. His is a life enjoyed, her’s is more of a constant practical struggle. I like his way, to be honest.

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What’s interesting is that Feijoo is not a cynic. He’s quite happy with how the world works and just because he sees inconsistentes doesn’t mean he thinks the world is bad. He’s a very modern man. He believes in God, but not the way a devout would. He’s a humanist who understands how important tradition and appearances are. Remarkable character, really. Probably the best character in the novel.

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He’s teaching her how to navigate society. All people in the upper classes do what he’s telling her and this knowledge is really all that separates us from animals. And it’s a thin veneer. The illusion of society is just that, an illusion made to keep from hurting everyone’s feelings. Figuring out how to get what you want still is the trick.