Thursday, November 8, 2012

His thick lips shone with the goo - non-Victorian Galdós

I was surprised at the earthiness of Fortunata and Jacinta, at its vulgarity.  Victorian English (and American, and for that matter Russian) novels distort my view of the literary world.  The French, of course, are hopelessly smutty, we all know that,  but shouldn’t the literature of Catholic Spain, home of the Counter-Reformation, be as demure as the Victorians?  Well, it ain’t, not Galdós, at least, who is very much in the tradition of the uninhibited Cervantes and Lazarillo de Tormes.

I am thinking of scenes or elements like:

The sexual symbolism of the dreams I have been writing about, with what appear to be phallic symbols and descriptions of female orgasms.

Straightforward descriptions of the mechanics of breast-feeding and to a lesser degree childbirth.

A lack of judgment by the narrator about Fortunata’s occasional turn to prostitution.  Some of the characters judge her harshly enough, but the narrator is neutral.  I do not remember more than a couple of clear references.  This is plain, yes?:

Sra. Rubín let herself be led along and mechanically got into the cab.  She had done the same before with whomever she’d picked up in the street.  (III.iii.2, 483)

Here is a passage which does not seem to be daring:

The bedroom was still totally dark.  She heard her husband’s breathing – harsh, then wheezing, rising and falling in pitch, as if the air got blocked in that chest by gelatinous obstructions and metallic strips…  The nonsensical thought – for it was sheer nonsense – that occurred to her was that she should slip out of bed, grope for her clothes, put on her underwear, go to the clothes rack, put on her dress.  (, 576)

As innocuous as this is, it is unimaginable in a Victorian novel in 1886 – “put on her underwear”!

Finally, some digestive explicitness.  I do not remember anything scatological, but there is a magnificent scene with a priest who “positively could not sleep unless he had a lettuce or escarole (depending on the season) salad at eleven at night; well-dressed and tossed, with that indispensable touch of garlic rubbed into the salad bowl, and the special treat of celery too, when it was in season” (II.iv.3, 305).

Let’s watch the priest chew for a moment:  “His thick lips shone with the goo, and it trickled down the sides of his mouth in threads that would have run straight to his throat if the thick stubble of his badly shaved chin hadn’t stopped them.”

The inevitable result:

He didn’t finish the sentence, because from the pit of his stomach there emerged such a voluminous quantity of gas that the words had to scurry away to let it escape.  The burp was so loud that Doña Lupe had to turn away, even though Nicolás had put the palm of his hand in front of his mouth to act as a shield.  This was one of his relatively few polite habits.  (306)

Now imagine the scene as rewritten by Henry James or Anton Chekhov.

None of this has much to do with the art of the novel, this novel or any other.  Aside from that salad, I mean.  One of the great salads of 19th century fiction.


  1. Yeah, you also get a lot of intimacy in the bedroom scenes between Jacinta and Juanito that I don't think you'd see in, say, Dickens. A lot of it's implied, but a lot is implied.

  2. Yes, those honeymoon scenes which are credibly honeymoon scenes, not just the "tourists in Florence" thing I see in the contemporary English and American novels.

  3. And then they get home and sleep in separate beds. But we've agreed to skip that part.

    I'll meniton La Regenta by Alas at this point, which rivals an episode of This Old House for the amount of ... ummmm, I better stop there. All the scense are done as delicately as Galdós, but still I remember thinking it was pretty explicit for the times. And the judge's wife's dreams... another field day for Freud. n

  4. Mmm, I see. I should make room for La Regenta soon.

  5. Absolutely. I hope to post on "His Only Son" soon, another one that deserves to be read. (And it probably wouldn't hurt to read it before "La Regenta"...the smaller scale can seem deceptive after that behemoth.) Both books have my highest recommendation. And supposedly, if I remember correctly, seraillon said that Margaret Jull Costa was working on translations of some of Alas' short stories.

  6. Yes, I think that is right about Costa. She is in a privileged place for a translator where she can translate whatever the heck she wants, and she picked Alas. Muy bien.

  7. Leopoldo Alas' Adios Cordera is one of the most moving 19th. Century short stories I've had the pleasure of reading, right up there with Daudet's La chevre de monsieur Seguin. There is also the very funny El gallo de Socrates where Gorgias' rooster and Crito debate whether or not the rooster should be sacrificed to Aesculapius. I hope those are among the translated stories.

  8. A couple of Alas short story collections already exist, of what vintage, quality or contents I have no idea. I should find out.

    The Daudet might be available online somewhere. In the olden days he was frequently translated.

  9. The only collection of Alas' short stories that I have is titled "Ten Tales," translated by Robert M. Fedorchek. I hope to post on these before the end of the year. Not sure if any of them fit those descriptions (I don't think so, but only at a glance). I'm hoping more of his stories are provided soon, though. Reading through the descriptions on the jacket, they cover much of the same area as his two finished novels.

  10. The other one is Moral Tales, George Mason University Press, 1988. No idea what is in it.