Monday, November 5, 2012

Sulfur people, lizard-belly green, and yellow that mixes poetry and consumption - beginning a week of Fortunata and Jacinta

Fortunata and Jacinta, the gigantic 1886 novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, is one of the two greatest Spanish novels of the nineteenth century, or so I am told.  A number of book bloggists have been reading it along with Dwight at A Common Reader, who just put up his twenty-first post about the novel.  The book can handle the attention.

The novel is long and quite complex; some of the complexity is of a nature I do not understand well.  Perhaps this week will be a series of admissions of failure and lists of subjects for future research.  Dwight has read it twice so I will pillage some of his stuff for assistance.

A plot summary does not make the book sound so complicated.  The two women in the title are in love with the same lazy, no good, rich, charming dog of a man.  The richer woman marries him; the poorer one steals him once in a while.  The wife cannot have children, the mistress can (or perhaps the problem is the husband’s).  Although the women are competitors, even enemies, the main ethical argument of the novel will likely create a deep sympathy for both, whatever mistakes they might have made.  The case for the poorer woman, the impulsive, vulgar, uneducated Fortunata, is harder to make so she gets most of the pages.  The case for sympathy would have been easy if Galdós made Fortunata more of a victim, but he takes the hard road.

The creation and peopling of Madrid fills out the novel.  Galdós reminded me of Balzac more than anyone else.  Not only does Galdós have a system of recurring characters much like Balzac’s, but his Madrid is as lifelike and interesting as Balzac’s Paris – I can say that with confidence on the basis of just one big book.  He suggests a world behind and beyond the story he happens to be telling.

Galdós is not always such an exciting stylist, but then again sometimes he is.   Here Jacinta, the wife, is walking through a market in a Madrid slum:

Jacinta ran into various ceremonial individuals.  They were mannequins dressed up as ladies in huge bustles, or gentlemen in flannel outfits.  Then caps, scads of caps placed high on racks and aligned with a stick; sheepskin jackets and other garments that looked rather – yes, indeed – rather like legless and headless human beings.  Eventually Jacinta didn’t look at any one thing.  All she noticed were some yellow men hanging from pitchforks, swaying in the breeze.  They were matching shirts and trousers sewn together that all of a sudden looked like sulfur people.  (I. ix.1, 133)

The novel is packed with clothes, a veritable steamer trunk, but those sulfur people are especially good.  More from the same scene:  “pieces of nougatlike stone cut out of a quarry; olives oozing out of barrels.”  One more example, as Jacinta becomes synesthetic looking at bolts of cloth:

Orange blazed out in some areas, screeching like an ungreased axle; native  vermilion, scratching one’s eyes; carmine, as bitter as vinegar; the cobalt blue, vaguely suggesting poison; lizard-belly green; and linden yellow, which mixed poetry and consumption, as in La Traviata.

I wish had been able to write eight hundred more pages like this, but he was actually writing a quite different book, so that is the one I will write about for the rest of the week.

I read and will always quote from the Agnes Moncy Gullón translation.


  1. Pillage away. I’m not going to pretend I understand more than a fraction of it, though. You raise two points I didn’t address in all the posts. The first is the question of Juan’s/Jacinta’s sterility, which I question as well but didn't want to post on it. I’m not sure Galdós meant there to be a definitive answer, but I think the fact that you (and I, and others) raise the question highlights the ambiguity. There’s the point that only when Juan escapes his house (and his mother) does he conceive. And..but I’ll stop there…I view this topic as a minefield I'd rather avoid.

    The other point is the mention of fabrics and clothes, which becomes part of an extended metaphor throughout the novel.

    I'll stop now so I don't step on upcoming posts. Looking forward them!

  2. All the stuff about clothing and fabrics is great, and the in-depth discussion of the tertulia is fabulous, too. A whole lot of the set-dressing and fleshing-out of Madrid and Spain is just wonderful reading, and I get the feeling that Galdos enjoyed the heck out of writing those parts. Sadly, the main story is less successful for me. Like a lot of Dickens novels, Fortunata and Jacinta suffers along under main characters who, for all the space given them on the page, are pretty much empty shells or just plain flat. Fortunata, Jacinta and Juanito are the least interesting people in Galdos' Madrid. All that having been said, I'm still reading and plan to finish sometime in the next week or so. There's much to enjoy here, but it's not the central storyline.

  3. I think I am done with the sterility issue myself. Unless I want to use it in a discussion of the novel's so-called "realism." For those who don't know what we are talking about, the lead male may at times be sterile for psychological reasons. Freud woulda dug this novel.

    Depending on where you are, Scott, Fortunata still has some plumping ahead of her. I think she's an achievement, and will probably try to make that case later. Not that there aren't plenty of dull stretches with Fortunata. Those sulfur men are uncommon.

    I agree about Jacinta and Juanito. Given how the structure of the novel works out, I think Galdós agreed too!