- Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women by Benito Perez Galdos, translated by Agnes Moncy Gullon
Viking, 818 pp, £17.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 670 81430 X
The 1912 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Gerhart Hauptmann. In that year two new names were added to the list of great non-winners of this prize, a list headed by Henrik Ibsen (d.1906) and Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910). August Strindberg died on 14 May; he at least had had the consolation of a ‘People’s Nobel Prize’, awarded at the climax of a public parade through the streets of Stockholm a couple of years earlier. The fate of Benito Perez Galdos was more poignant. Though nominated in 1912 as Spain’s official candidate, he was defeated thanks to a campaign got up by his Spanish political enemies. Galdos died in 1920, at the age of 77, with his dream of reaching a foreign readership largely unrealised. To be read in another language was, for Spain’s greatest novelist since Cervantes, the equivalent of Stendhal’s determination to be read by the ‘Happy Few’ who would discover him posthumously. It is only now, more than a hundred years after he began work on the Novelas Españolas Contemporaneas, that Galdos seems to be finding the ‘impartial’, non-Spanish-speaking audience of which he dreamed. Agnes Moncy Gullon’s lively translation of Fortunata y Jacinta (1887) is the second recent English version of a novel which is as representative of the mid-19th-century European imagination as are Middlemarch, L’Education Sentimentale, and War and Peace.
Whatever it was that condemned Galdos to international neglect, it was certainly not insularity of outlook. For British readers the case is particularly ironic. The author of Fortunata and Jacinta modelled himself on Balzac and Scott and on his maestro mas amado, Dickens. He made several literary pilgrimages to Dickens’s London. He is essentially a metropolitan novelist, and his Madrileños are – it goes without saying – as inseparable from their native city as are Dickens’s Cockneys and Balzac’s Parisians. Nevertheless, when they venture outside it, England is the country to which their imagination most often turns. In Fortunata and Jacinta we read of an ironmonger’s daughter who delights in her collection of ‘Made in Birmingham’ labels, and of Señor Moreno, a lovelorn Anglophile, who dies of a heart attack after a day spent shopping for fans and tambourines to take on a last visit to his English friends. The reason why our Victorian predecessors failed to covet Galdos’s novels along with the fans and tambourines may possibly lie in the Podsnappian doctrine that the novel should be incapable of bringing a blush to the cheek of the young person. Fortunata and Jacinta, Galdos’s masterpiece, was certainly blush-making. It is not just that Fortunata is, in the candid Continental tradition, an Immoral Woman. Galdos goes much further than the English ‘slum novelists’ were to do in showing his working-class characters fighting, slanging one another, breast-feeding their babies and (in one memorable instance) urinating on the living-room carpet. The translator’s use of the word ‘fuck’ and its derivatives is true to the spirit of the novel’s low-life dialogue. In addition, Galdos portrays female desire and the sexual foreplay and love-talk of married people in a way that, when attempted, by the leading Edwardian novelists, would lead to the banning of their works from provincial English public libraries.