Thursday, July 26, 2012

I tried my best and what I got for it was a kick in the jaw - Benito Pérez Galdós and Torquemada

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.


  1. I have a volume containing all four novels of the Torquemada series, translated by Frances Lopez-Morillas, published by Andre Deutsch, and running to 569 pages (large and closely typed pages, but these are 4 novels). This volume is well worth seeking out: all 4 of them are superb.

    Fortunata & Jacinta is rightly famous, but I particularly liked a couple of short late novels written in the 1890s - Misericordia and Nazarin. The latter was memorably filmed by Luis Bunuel, who was a huge admirer of Perez Galdoz, and compared his work to Dostoyevsky's.

  2. I believe that is the same Torquemada that Dwight read. I am counting it as 4 novels, yes, and am sold on it, although I do not want to say when I will get to it.

    The usual comparison is with Balzac, or Dickens, so how interesting to bring up Dostoevsky. But as we were discussing in regard to Our Mutual Friend, Dickens has his Dostoevskian side. I have at least looked at Nazarin - picked it up at the library. Thanks for recommending both of them.

  3. AOG's version is the one I read...and obviously I think they are superb, too.

    I thought I found an online copy of Torquemada in Flames (or Torquemada at the Stake) at the Galdos Project I linked but can't seem to find it now. It's been a long day. And it's the shortest of the four, if I remember correctly (although none of them are extremely long, as you mention).

    I haven't had much time to read lately, so I'm only about 200 pages into La Regenta but I'm impressed. Very impressed. Very, very...OK, you get the idea.

    Thanks for the mention on the readalong--I'll try and provide some links and tools for making the book easier to read.

  4. Ah, nevermind...the online version of this novel I was thinking of was in Spanish.

  5. La Regenta sounds like it is maybe more carefully put together that Fortunate y Jacinta and the latter is larger in scope - one is more Flaubert, the other more Balzac. I should read them and see how wrong my impression is. Plus the Torquemada books. Plus etc. etc.

  6. Oh're going to read Prus! I have my glasses...

    This has been the year of the doorstop for me, and it ain't over yet. La Regenta feels every bit as large in scope as Fortuanta, although the setting is provincial instead of Madrid. And definitely less saccharine. There's no way I can compare to the French since I'm woefully under-read there.

    One of the keys, or so it seems to me at this point, is that Alas is writing a novel with his critic's eye firmly in focus. And as well-formed as characters are in Galdos, they are even more so in La Regenta. And being a's as much a novel about literature as anything else. And frustration. And...well, it will take a while to pull all this together. Needless to say, I'm enjoying it. You should see my paperback version that is falling apart, held together with a rubber band.

  7. Prus sounds good too. A Polish project, someday, yes.

  8. I intend, humbly, to join, the Fortunata and Jacinto read-along in October. I read maybe 20 pages of it one night a couple of months ago, and it went right to my head. I feel better now, perhaps even well enough to go another 830 pages.

  9. Good, super. It ought to be a lot of fun, this book. I'm getting to the end of an 800 page Trollope novel right now. 800 pages is not such a big deal. Just requires a little planning and patience.