“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.