Are Spanish novels long? The 19th century ones, I mean. The Spanish novel seems to face the “Russian novel” problem: the standard “great Spanish novels” are a behemoth, Fortunata and Jacinta (1887) by Benito Pérez Galdós (850 pages in the Penguin Classics translation, although I have seen a 1,000 page Spanish) and La Regenta (1884-5) by Clarín (a slender 750 pages). And since neither novel has the prestige of War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov they mostly go unread, as does 19th century Spanish literature. I haven’t read them either!
In fact, I discover as I poke around, Spanish books are short. Clarín mostly wrote short stories, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón is best known for a novella, Emilia Pardo Bazán’s The Manor of Ulloa (1886) is short, Juan Valera’s Pepita Jimenez (1874) is short. The intimidating figure is Galdós, not just because his great masterpiece is so long but because his body of work is gargantuan, 77 novels including a stunning 46 volume series of historical novels. Over twenty of his novels are available in English, so you cannot say people have not tried to find English-language readers for Galdós. A couple of years ago, studying the shelves of a good university library, I was pleased to discover that his novels were mostly quite short.
Galdós, following Balzac, used recurring characters, the best known of whom is probably the Madrid money-lender Torquemada who graduated from a small part in Fortunata and Jacinta to a series of his own novels. Dwight, The Common Reader, has read the Torquemada novels (1889+) and made them sound most appealing. I just tried them out myself, via “Torquemada in the Flames” (found in Great Spanish Stories, tr. Willard Trask), which I believe is a shortened version of the already short novella that begins the series.
Oh, it is a horrifying tale. Torquemada is cunning and venal, a mean-spirited materialist. When his son is afflicted with meningitis, though, he tries to reform. He has picked up the idea that he will be rewarded by God – that he can save his son – by good works, but he is not in the habit. Thus, when he gives coins to mendicant he cannot help telling them how virtuous he is, “’because I am poor too, and more unfortunate than you are – if only you knew it.’” When he meets a freezing beggar, he cannot sacrifice his cape – “’If only I had on my old cape instead of this new one’” – but he does go home, retrieve the old one and give it away, which should count as a good deed, yes?
Much of the pleasure of this savagely ironic story comes from Torquemada and his ferociously perverse behavior, and also from his speech. Here he is how the new, merciful Torquemada responds to a plea for clemency from one of his tenants:
‘And who told you, you foulmouthed so-and-so, that I have come to squeeze you? I’d like to see any of you ill-conditioned hags maintain that I have no humanity. Just any of you dare to say it to my face…’
And here is the lesson he has learned at the end of the story:
‘And I answer you that I tried my best and what I got for it was a kick in the jaw. All the mercy I have, they are welcome to bash in my skull with!’
Dwight suggests (see the end of the above link) a Fortunata and Jacinta readalong for October. This October, the one coming up. I’ll do it, although I will likely need an October-and-a-half to finish the book.