Monday, July 14, 2014

flesh and blood in excess - The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán

I’ve got one last entry for Spanish Literature Month, the 1886 novel The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán.  My understanding is that in Spain this is and has always been a much-read book, of similar stature as Clarín’s La Regenta (1884-5) and Benito Pérez Galdós’s Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-7).  In the edition I read, translated by Roser Caminals-Heath, the novel is 260 pages long, compared to the 800 plus pages of each of those other two novels, so the Pardo Bazán is the easiest one to deal with is what I am suggesting.

Look at those dates.  What a burst of books.

In The House of Ulloa a young nitwit priest joins a noble household in the Galician countryside where he is shocked by the young Marquis’s mistress and illegitimate son, as well as by the decay of the chapel, house, and entire way of life. He makes attempts at improvement; some succeed, some fail.   The priest has “an aversion to purely material things” (Ch. 6), a handicap in a Naturalist novel.

Pardo Bazán had absorbed her French neighbors pretty well, Zola and Flaubert and Balzac, so the novel is written with their bundle of tricks – a lot of good descriptive writing, a mostly limited point of view that freely moves among the characters, and a strong sense of how ordinary life functions underneath whatever excitement might be occurring in the plot.

Something like this, the description of an enormous uncle:

Constricted to a sedentary life, he clearly had flesh and blood in excess and did not know what to do with them.  Without being exactly obesity, his corpulence spread in all directions: each foot was like a boat, each hand like a carpenter’s hammer.  He suffocated in formal dress, did not fit in small rooms, panted loudly in a theater seat, and at mass elbowed his neighbors  to conquer more space.  A magnificent specimen suited for mountain life and the warfare of feudal days, he wasted away pathetically in the vile idleness of the city, where he who produces nothing, teaches nothing, and learns nothing is good for nothing and does nothing.  (Ch.9)

Nothing here would have seemed too out of place in the Zola novels I have read.

One reason to read a novel like this, even one less well written than Ulloa, is that it has an interesting, unusual setting.  The Galician mountains, Santiago de Compostela – where else can I read about these people, and these places?  Every place and every time should have its own Balzac, its own Trollope, its own novel of The Way We Live Now.

The House of Ulloa frequently reminded me of several different Eça de Queirós novels, the ones set in the countryside of northern Portugal, like The Sin of Father Amaro (1875) which also stars a young priest, or The Noble House of Ramires (1900), with another old aristocratic house in decay.  But Galicia borders Portugal; Pardo Bazán’s characters are practically neighbors with Eça’s.  This was not much of an insight.  Yet here I am, typing it out.

While I am wandering, readers of Tirso de Molina’s The Trickster of Seville may remember that one of the noblemen in that 17th century play was from the Ulloa family.  The name could hardly have a better literary pedigree.

I guess I’ll save the baby for tomorrow.


  1. I nearly picked this one for Spanish Literature Month, but read or am reading thinner and fatter things instead.

    Every place and every time should have its own Balzac, its own Trollope, its own novel of The Way We Live Now.

    Every time I read one of the big 19th century realist or naturalist novels, I have the same thought, and wish there were more writers today less focused on pyrotechnical displays and more focused on documenting what's around them. Maybe that's what mysteries do today? I don't read enough of them really to know, but their writers seem fond of picking particular locales and social niches.

  2. Yes, mysteries definitely do that, but what I really mean is a writer of the quality of Balzac or Trollope. And Trollope is, I think second-tier. Actually, most of the time so is Balzac.

    Now, if every even reasonably large region and reasonably lengthy time were chronicled by a writer as good as Balzac or Trollope, the number of great books would be ludicrous.

  3. There's something very grotesque about that uncle, which also links the author to Dickens in my mind. I'm so woefully under-read in 19th century Spanish writers...

  4. Under-read - I think that is a common condition. All that Pérez Galdós, how do you deal with that problem? Pardo Bazán has a couple dozen books herself. I'll probably never go past this one.

    That Alarcón book you read, as another example - that was a surprise.

  5. "Look at those dates. What a burst of books."

    Indeed. One of the three you mention I've read, but the other two are still unread on my shelves. I'd better do something about it, hadn't I?

  6. Maybe I can read La Regenta next year. Then I will have read all three. Three books, what an accomplishment.

  7. I love the quote you've included here, and it piques my interest in this book. Funnily enough, I bought a copy last year off the back of a Nicholas Lezard review in The Guardian. I doubt I'll get to it before the end of Richard and Stu's Spanish Lit Month, but your review has it bumping up the unread pile.

  8. House of Ulloa should be a novel with some appeal in English. It is accessible, lively, reasonably fast moving; there is romance and violence. A novel, right? A good book to have on the unread pile.

  9. Belated thanks for this particularly high-energy Spanish Lit Month post on an almost totally unknown book to me. That enormous uncle description isn't bad at all, of course, but for you to be reminded of "several different Eça de Queirós novels"? Now you're speaking my language!*

    *Granted, I've only read 1.5 Eças but found them worth at least two or three other novels each in verve.

  10. To be clear, the resemblance to Eça is in 1. setting and subject and 2. reliance on French fictional models.

  11. That fat uncle description was one of a couple where I really relished Pardo Bazán letting her descriptive hair down so to speak. Was also amused by the humorous tenor of the novel even though things don't exactly go well for all concerned in the end. Were you at all surprised by Ulloa's mix of comedy and tragedy or, as somebody with much more hard-earned knowledge of 19th century literary trends and such, was that not all that surprising to you?

  12. The mix of comedy and tragedy was very French. It's the Human Comedy! Which sometimes is admittedly not so funny.