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.
Galdos’s twin heroines are the victims of a shared sexual obsession. Both are in love with the same worthless man, Don Juanito Santa Cruz, who fathers Fortunata’s children and is married to Jacinta. Sexual passion in this novel is an irresistible, anarchic and perpetually renewable natural force; once in thrall to the ‘little Don Juan’ with his rather seedy line in casual endearments, neither woman ever seems likely to escape. In a remarkably female-centred novel, Galdos traces the struggles of these two women, and the ramifications of their interconnected social worlds, with great compassion and still greater curiosity. The relationship between Fortunata, the mistress, and Jacinta, the legitimate but infertile wife, is always mediated by family and class. Fortunata, turbulent and emotional, is not exactly a scarlet woman, nor do her peasant origins quite give her the transcendent beauty of a Tess of the d’Urbervilles: but Juanito’s fickle love for her combines the self-indulgence of a spoilt young man with a trace of the intellectual delusions of an Angel Clare. In making love to Fortunata he thinks he is making contact with the spirit of the pueblo, that raw, unpolished stone-quarry from which the marble of civilisation is hewn. Devoted to Juanito, but repeatedly deserted by him, Fortunata finds herself pitted against the Santa Cruz family, a middle-class dynasty as rapacious and self-protective as Galsworthy’s Forsytes, not to mention more recent examples. As in every dynasty, the real conflict is over the succession. The long-delayed arrival of a grandchild (however doubtful its provenance) is an event of major proportions, which may be felt to symbolise the birth of an heir to the soul of middle-class Spain.
As the portrayal of a bourgeois society at its height, Fortunata and Jacinta sometimes brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades’ study, which traces the interconnections of the manifold social and cultural innovations of Second Empire Paris. Both Galdos and Benjamin produce a composite portrait of the experience of a society reconstituting itself in the image of the middle-class consumer. Galdos’s characters tend to be consumers and the facilitators of consumption: moneylenders, speculators, shopkeepers, department-store magnates, dressmakers, market-stall holders, placemen in the Church and the civil service, stewards, slum-visitors, men-about-town and the frequenters of cafés where the ‘countless products of the human mind are bought and sold.’ Everything in Madrid is for sale, and Galdos is irresistibly fascinated by how it is bought and sold, by the interminable haggling over the price of a shawl, the price of a new orphanage, or the price of a child. There is a splendid scene in which Don Baldomero, head of the Santa Cruz household, wins the grand prize in the state lottery (itself an institution that Benjamin would have loved to analyse) and distributes this superfluous money among his vast hierarchy of family and business retainers. No sooner has he done so than Doña Guillermina, a selfless fund-raiser and philanthropist, demands 25 per cent of everyone’s hand-out to support her pet orphanage. Money and materialism permeate the official morality of Galdos’s middle classes, and also their moments of poetic exaltation. For Doña Jacinta, touring the slum neighbourhoods of the city on Christmas Eve, the creak of the scales and thud of the cleavers in butchers’ shops ‘somehow sounded like happiness’.
The novelist’s own standpoint, as we should expect, is that of a more exacting morality: he knows the difference between true and false happiness. The middle-class world, however successful in spreading the gospel of consumerism, is beset by sterility. Jacinta’s mother, ‘authoress of seventeen Spaniards’, has few successors in the current generation. Fortunata and Jacinta bristles with infertile women and with male characters mysteriously lacking in masculine potency. Juanito has the field to himself among a cast disqualified by general brutishness, by age and ill-health, by too much time spent in the coffee-house and tertulia, by membership of the clergy, by feeblemindedness, lack of cojones or full-blown insanity. It is tempting, though doubtless impertinent, to try to explain this psychoanalytically. Galdos, a proverbially inactive and sedentary figure, was also an astonishingly prolific novelist. Fortunata and Jacinta has no masterful male character to challenge his own creative authority, an authority which is exercised in predominantly female territory. What other male novelist of his time (or later) has given a detailed and convincing portrayal of convent life, as Galdos does when he sends Fortunata to the Micaelas to be re-educated? Who else could have broken the taboo on intimate physical descriptions by introducing a mastectomy? (Much could be written on the symbolism of breasts in this novel.) Perhaps the boldest connection he makes, in this area, is between his characters’ infertility and their habit of consuming and recycling fictions.
In the first of his four volumes the author permits Fortunata only a single appearance. She appears, still a virgin, sucking all too suggestively on a raw egg. For the rest of Volume One Galdos, a master of narrative rhythm, shows Jacinta’s marriage and the slow, relentless awakening of her jealousy. The pattern of the marriage is set by her itch to find out her husband’s secrets and by the fact that the nursery in the Santa Cruz home stays obstinately empty. Eventually Jacinta determines to find and adopt the child that her husband has had by Fortunata. She goes slum-visiting and a plausible enough little boy is immediately brought to her notice. Hard-nosed financial negotiations follow with Fortunata’s uncle, the boy’s guardian. The boy, however, is not Fortunata’s child after all. Jacinta’s overheated imagination and her habit of reading novels in which long-lost sons turn up have made her the victim of a cruel deception: but it is her husband, the novel’s biggest liar, who is the character chosen to disillusion her. The reader, a self-conscious fictional consumer at this point, does not know quite what to believe until much later.
Volume Two belongs to Fortunata, who of course has never read a book, though she fell for ‘every phony line’ of Juanito’s in what appears, if its perpetrator is to be believed, to have been a textbook seduction. Faced with the very real possibility of having to go on the streets, Fortunata manages to rehabilitate herself by agreeing to marry the unmanly and potentially schizophrenic Maximiliano Rubin. Maxi, a student, is the nephew of Galdos’s finest comic creation, the mastectomised widow Doña Lupe. The two sides to her personality are expressed, in authentic Dickensian style, by the two halves of her majestic bosom – the true breast and the falsie. She is a miser and moneylender, the sort of person who always wipes her feet on the neighbours’ mat, but also a sentimental materfamilias to her adopted family. In time, Fortunata learns how to make Doña Lupe accept her as Maxi’s wife, and even to forgive her flagrant infidelities. In the end, there are just two things about Fortunata that Doña Lupe cannot stomach. The first is her refusal to take any money from Juanito: ‘You’re so naive, you don’t even know how to be a fallen woman,’ Doña Lupe accuses her. The second is her capacity for getting pregnant. A real child would scarcely fit in the Rubin household, with its childless matriarch and with Maxi, the grown-up infant who requires two women (his wife and his aunt) to mother him.
Doña Lupe is a ‘clock endowed with a soul’: in other words, she is monstrous because she has no imagination. Poor Maxi has too much, and is eventually carted off to an asylum. When Fortunata deserts him he buries himself in books of philosophy, and eventually blossoms out into religious mania. Later he renounces his religious delusions and regains a kind of ‘sanity’ which is still more sinister. Maxi’s morbid inner life, in which sexual impotence gives rise to the most alarming forms of imaginative hyperactivity, is something which deeply fascinates Galdos. Another character, the ex-prostitute Mauricia, extends these studies of morbid psychology. Without them, the knowledge of the ‘bottomless pit of the human mind’ which the novel offers would be seriously incomplete. Fortunata and Jacinta is a celebration of the infinite resources of the mind, and of the ‘admirable works that human passions are’, which shows how bourgeois society seeks to reduce mind and passions to clockwork mechanisms: but it also examines the limitations of the passions, and to what extent they can or should be brought under religious discipline and rational control.
The last two volumes of the novel show the failure of Fortunata’s repeated attempts at self-rehabilitation. Though she is nothing if not well-intentioned, she is also an embodiment of the naturalism of the passions who, when her blood is up, is compared to an anarchist bomber. She has much of the lurking violence of her friend Mauricia, and Galdos does not disguise the brutal and vindictive sides of her character. With her mentally-disturbed husband she plays the loving and caring wife for long periods, until her contempt and repugnance suddenly break out. As a child of the pueblo, Galdos hints, she represents the split personality of the Spanish people, who combine long periods of quiescence under dictatorial rule with brief, savage outbursts of insurrection and liberalism. With her passionate authenticity Fortunata is capable of calling the bluff of the various religious authorities who try to confront her, and even Guillermina, the saint-like philanthropist, reveals herself as being less disinterested in her dealings with Jacinta’s rival than she ought to be: Jacinta, after all, is a family friend. The novel ends with the death of its plebeian heroine, surrounded by the trappings of religious repentance. Fortunata has long pictured herself as a wicked woman and a slave to her love for Juanito, but does she in fact renounce the life she has led? Her last words, ‘I’m an angel,’ echo Juanito’s endearments and are defiantly and daringly ambivalent.
Throughout the novel we are aware of a sort of spiritual kinship between the two wronged women, but they knowingly meet only twice, and each time the outcome is disastrous. For Jacinta, Fortunata is not just the Other Woman but ‘one of those people’, a dirty, foul-mouthed, evil-smelling siren bred in the slums. Fortunata, on her side, envies Jacinta and both hates and idealises her more than she deserves. If we ask where the novelist’s sympathies lie, the answer is that it is Fortunata, for all her faults, who finally reaches out across the gulf between the classes. Galdos has created in these two heroines a composite image of the ‘woman who pays’, the female victim of what are seen as immovable social and natural forces who is found everywhere in the realistic fiction of the late 19th century. But Fortunata and Jacinta lacks the bleak reductiveness of some of the most characteristic late 19th-century novels. Instead, it combines what Sartre once described as the ‘feminisation of experience’ in fiction with a rich amplitude, a wealth of contrasts presented through characterisation and social description, through the representation of psychic states and through the astonishing variety of linguistic registers in which the story is told. From the offhand, almost anecdotal opening paragraph to the closing words (which are the words of a madman) this is a highly polyphonic novel, over-whelming us with its colloquial idioms and lacking the preaching inflections of most of our own Victorian writers. All of which poses great problems for the translator. What this one has done (in a version originally commissioned by the University of Georgia Press) is to render Galdos into modern American English of a sort that inspires respect, but also some faint irritation in the British reader. One had better get used to the accenting of ‘mamá’ and ‘papá’, to colloquialisms such as ‘daffy’ and ‘faze’ (‘To heck with God,’ Guillermina expostulates), and to lovers who invariably address one another as ‘baby’. For, in its sustained vivacity, readability, and fidelity to the original, this handsomely-produced edition is a monumental achievement.