Galdos and the Art of the European Novel: 1867-1887

Galdos and the Art of the European Novel: 1867-1887

by Stephen Gilman


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Benito Perez Galdos (1843-1920) was one of Spain's outstanding novelists and the author of two vast cycles of novels and a number of plays. In this critical study of Galdos in English, Stephen Gilman relates the writer and his work to the nineteenth century novel as a genre and traces his artistic growth during a twenty-year period, from his initial historical fable, La Fontana de Oro, to his masterpiece, Fortunata y Jacinta.

Originally published in 1981.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691614885
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #686
Pages: 426
Product dimensions: 10.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Galdós and the Art of the European Novel: 1867-1887

By Stephen Gilman


Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06456-7


Galdós: "Life and Times"

1. Novel and Prophecy

In the "Preambulo" to his first novel, La Fontana de Oro, Galdós comments: "Long after this book was written (since only its last pages are posterior to the September revolution) it has seemed to me to have a certain relevance to the period we are now experiencing. Probably this is the result of a relationship that may be detected between many events referred to therein and what is now going on, a relationship that undoubtedly corresponds to the similarity of the present crisis to that of the memorable years from 1820 to 1823." (10) In so saying, the novelist defines both his overt intentions and his underlying preoccupations as political and historical. The decade of the 1860s was indeed a time of "crisis," a critical time experienced with anguished intensity by Galdós and his Madrid contemporaries. Particularly after the student riot later known as the "Noche de San Daniel" (April 1865), which was described facetiously by the novice reporter and participant, as a "descomunal batalla" (1508) (as readers of Fortunata y facinta may remember, there is an echo of the same tone in the first paragraph when Juanito Santa Cruz's "heroism" is recalled), it became increasingly apparent that the precarious balance of forces that had propped up the regime of "la reina castiza," Isabel II, could not last for long. Ministries were increasingly short-lived; violence begot violence; the economy withered; and intimations of radical change forced all concerned to choose sides. As Galdós remarked long afterwards, "In the days just prior to the revolution of '68, our disputes were passionate and formidable, since the aim was to change radically the whole of the political organism. And in effect it was changed, after being wounded in the foot [like Achilles?] and after having so opened a passage for the new ideas of our time."

It was natural under these circumstances that the events of the so-called "trienio liberal" and its bloody aftermath should have been called to mind. Fear of future repression was expressed in Emilio Castelar's journal, La Democracia (18 April 1865), in precisely such terms:

Reaction — yes! horrible Reaction — threatens us with its systematic violence and its entourage of evil. Auguries foretell that the tragic days of 1823, which obliged the most noble, intelligent, and high-minded Spaniards to abandon the soil of their fatherland in search of that superior fatherland called Liberty, may now be repeated.

In the face of such a grave menace, the editorial continues, prudence and circumspection rather than militance were to be strongly urged.

Castelar's analysis of the earlier historical tragedy is simple. The forces of liberty had failed during those three years of constitutional government because leftist extremists (presumably incited by royalist agents provocateurs) had stirred the masses to violence. This had now at all costs to be avoided; public order had to be maintained for the purpose of soothing the uncommitted and reassuring the powerful. It was a need so generally felt that, six days before, the liberal journals of Madrid (some eighteen in all!) had issued a joint proclamation to their readers:

So, be vigilant, Liberals; do not give our present enemies — our eternal enemies! — any pretext that they might use to their advantage. Order in the streets! Order everywhere! For Liberty does not need inopportune self-display in order to triumph. Nor should it react to mad provocations, if such should occur.

For the time being, at least, the appeal was heeded, and a week later La Democracia praised popular behavior as characterized by "la serenidad y calma de los pueblos que desean ser libres."

La Fontana de Oro, the creation of a young and liberal newspaperman whose task it was to report on each day's new and — to him — intensely interesting and hopeful segment of national history, is the direct expression of these immediate concerns. As a political fable for its time, it recreates the events from 1820 to 1823 for the purpose of preaching an alertness identical to that called for in the joint proclamation. By negative example, its readers were instructed in the dangers to be avoided and the kind of public misbehavior to be shunned. Our grandfathers, Galdós suggests, had had a chance, however slim, to free Spain from slavery to the past, and they had failed. If the present generation was to succeed not only in preserving the liberties it now possessed (far more than it realized, as any 1973 reader learns after spending a morning in the Hemeroteca) but also in emerging victoriously from the imminent struggle, a clear understanding of the causes of the earlier failure was essential.

In political terms, Galdós' analysis of the events of "trienio liberal" is cogent and is supported by similar moments of historical crisis in his past and in his future. As far as the past is concerned, Galdós seems to have learned a good deal from Balzac's presentation of political repression in France after 1815 in Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes. One of the crucial milieux of that novel is the Café David, a rendezvous for rebellious young men presided over by a caricaturesque government informer known as "le pere Canquoelle." That this personage did indeed furnish a partial model for Coletilla, Galdós' aged representative of reaction (as well as for the nameless proprietor of La Fontana), becomes evident when we learn that under his real name of Peyrade he formerly held the ironical title of "Espion ordinaire de Sa Majesté" and that (as in the case of Coletilla and his ward Clara) he keeps his beloved daughter, Lydie, and a single maidservant secluded in a camouflaged "mansard" behind a prisonlike door. Turning to Galdós' future, a comparison even more apt than the similar use of provocation by our Federal Bureau of Investigation or by the Spanish police during the fifties and sixties is the strategy used to bring about the fall of Allende. In Chile, as we know now, secret agents of reaction (allegedly funded by the CIA) incited the extreme left to violence; and there, too, a past crisis, the collapse of the Balmaseda regime during the nineties, served as an explicit historical warning. This was expressed specifically in a cinema script (which was never filmed) and in a comic book (which I have not seen), which both resemble La Fontana in their guiding intention. In the case of the comic book, as we shall observe, there was also a strong formal resemblance to Galdós' novel.

To relate La Fontana de Oro to its immediate political context and to a possible source does not diminish its artistic originality. It is, indeed, an extraordinary accomplishment. And not because as a first novel it was daringly conceived, conscientiously achieved, and successfully received; Dickens, after all, began with Pickwick Papers. Rather, it is extraordinary because, in the course of its composition, its intended fable is converted into prophecy. The conclusion, as we read it in editions available today, is not unlike those of certain political novels written by members of the Generation of '98 (for example, Baroja's César o Nada): the disillusioned protagonist abandons his political ambitions; returns to the provinces; marries his sweetheart; and is content with a "vida oscura, pacífica, laboriosa y honrada." (186-187) An examination of the manuscript and of the early editions demonstrates, however, that this may be a happy ending substituted in a lost first edition for another as an afterthought (apparently in order to offer a small measure of hope to the partisans of liberalism). The happy ending was later abandoned by Galdós in a fit of political pessimism and finally restored by publishers more concerned with pleasing the public than with historical verisimilitude. The original, handwritten and far more significant conclusion is the hero's roadside murder by his uncle, the aforementioned Coletilla. Therein lies a prophecy, which was already partially fulfilled when Galdós returned to the original ending in the second edition (1871).

As has often been pointed out, Galdós presents his predestined victim not only as an individual liberal but also as an allegorical personification of liberalism as such: Lázaro or Spain recalled to life. Therefore, his assassination, which is the inevitable result of his grave errors of judgement, can only be interpreted as a prediction of an event that had not yet occurred at the time of the writing: the lamentable, however deserved, failure of the liberal revolution of 1868, usually referred to mournfully or sardonically as "la Gloriosa." The history retold by Galdós might well have persuaded certain exalted liberals to try to avoid the mistakes of the past, but the narrative logic of the tale leads us to wonder if such efforts at self-restraint could, under the prevailing circumstances, have been successful. The point is simple: insofar as Lázaro is a typically naive liberal of the 1820s, La Fontana is an historical fable with a didactic moral: "Don't behave rashly like your grandparents." But insofar as he represents allegorically a political force or position, it is a tragedy in which doom cannot be avoided. What had happened in the past, Galdós foresaw, must happen again and perhaps even again and again.

In the course of chapter 1 of La Fontana Galdós describes the conflicting "societies" of his as yet unwritten novel as if he were intending an antithetical conclusion: "A decrepit society, but one still possessing the tenacity that characterizes certain old men, was engaged in a deadly struggle with a young, healthy, and vigorous society, which was destined to control the future." (15) As we come to know the paladin of the latter society, Lázaro (the symbol of national resurrection), however, we realize that the adjectives "lozano" and "vigoroso" are unsuitable. "Impractical," "hyper-imaginative," "Quixotesque," "gullible," and "easily swayed" would have been more exact. These observations should not be understood as implying that Galdós at some point reversed his original intentions and turned against his young hero and alter ego. Rather his clear novelistic insight prohibited him from writing an historical romance in which the champion of light (having undergone the trials associated with inexperience) would inevitably bring the champion of darkness to his knees. For all its sincerity and good intentions, liberalism, honestly represented as it had been in the 1820s and as it was in Galdós' own time, did not have a chance. As an enthusiastic and optimistic young partisan, Galdós may have hoped that his fable might be beneficial, but, as a novelist whose future greatness was to emerge from an inherent historical intuition, he knew better.

We have, thus, detected in La Fontana de Oro the first signs of a gif t for prophecy, which was to grow and grace and sadden Galdós until the appropriately sightless end of his days. As we shall see, in the second series of "episodios," there are flashes of prescience that seem almost supernaturally inspired. And La desheredada, in particular, develops the potential for prophecy hesitantly exploited in the author's first experiment into an uncanny and systematic unfolding of future decades. Restated in a larger context: from the beginning Galdós shared that special keenness of historical vision that distinguishes a Stendhal, a Balzac, a Tolstoy, or a Dickens from their most eminent seventeenth and eighteenth century predecessors. Although at first a card-carrying liberal and later a moral radical, Galdós understood Spain (just as Balzac, an unrepentant monarchist, understood France), not ideologically but historically. Indeed, had he wished to encompass his works under a single title comparable to Balzac's Comédie humaine, none would have been better suited than that coined and abandoned by Americo Castro: España en su historia.

The truth that Galdós and his nineteenth-century European colleagues discovered in fieri and that certain past-oriented historians fail to perceive even today (as is demonstrated by their myopic attacks on Castro) is that a nation does not just have a history. It is a history. Like each one of us, it lives in time, and its collective present, emergent from the past, is headed for a future at best dimly discernible to its inhabitants. But born novelists, born into a century anxious to cater to their sensibilities and blessed or cursed with what Robert Petsch called the capability of visualizing time (presented as a "rühige Ueberschau" of what was, what is, and what will be), can on occasion delineate with fearful clarity the future paths of their respective nations. The prophets of the Old Testament often unwillingly saw the future through the eyes of God; the novelists of the century before ours often unwittingly saw it through the eyes of History. In an indispensable article the late Carlos Clavería cites Galdós' description of how he envisaged in biological terms "la concatenación de los hechos": "El continuo engendrar de unos hechos en el vientre de otros es la Historia, hija del Ayer, hermana del Hoy, madre del mañana." In this sense, one could apply to the young Galdós Merleau Ponty's definition of the central theme of Balzac: "le mystère de l'histoire comme apparition d'un sens clans le hasard des événements."

Novel and Biography

Why was the nineteenth century so anxious to cater at first to historical novelists and later to novelist historians? This is a fundamental question, and it will not do to answer it with the mere assertion of Clavería that that was indeed the case: "To conclude, men of that period acquired a definitive awareness of their visceral connection with events, an awareness of being a part of the flow of historical time (which is to say, with the evolution of humanity in its contant progress), an awareness that history is the very essence of human life." Or as Geoffrey Barraclough puts it: "For a century and a half, from the time of the French revolution, historical principles and historical conceptions dominated, shaped and determined the character of European thought." These generalizations are true enough, but anyone who proposes to try to write about the "life and times" (meaning the historical times in which that life was lived) of a nineteenth-century novelist is duty bound to answer the question more explicitly. And if, in so doing, I seem to be heedless of the philosophical, historicistic, sociological, and ideological explanations that are most often adduced (Hegel and Kant, the Schlegels and Marx, Comte and Taine, Romanticism and Realism, etc.), it is simply because I have convinced myself that contemplation of the new novel as a fictional biography or autobiography (our own representative title is The Personal History and Experiences of David Copperfield the Younger) offers a more direct path.

The notion of biography as such (whether fictional or experienced, whether in the third or first person) depends, as Dickens's title indicates, on perception of the historicity of individual lives. This perception (implicit in Clavería's use of the word "conciencia") was alien to the confessionally or celebratively inclined inhabitants of earlier centuries. The acknowledgment of sins and temptations or the exemplary song of unique deeds presented as if they were unrelated to their immediate social context was replaced in the nineteenth century by a sense of self radically interpenetrated with the rest of history. The distinction between public and private, political and personal, which had provided a Cervantes or a Fielding with marvelous opportunities for comic juxtaposition, was erased in an epoch that saw personal growth as a constituent of social change. Thus, Maurice Bardèche defines Balzac's characters as "beings charged with history," and Wilhelm Dilthey sees each life as a "germinating cell of history" ("Urzelle") "receiving influences" from its milieu and reacting in order to change it. Erik Erikson's apparently paradoxical titles, e.g., Childhood and Society or Ego Development and Historical Change, are symptoms of the extent to which the nineteenth-century novelistic sense of biography has been adopted by psychologists and social scientists at their creative best.

At the beginning, however, and long, long before "I am a part of all that I have met" was rephrased as "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia," the biographical sense of life was still untried and unconceptualized historically. During the second half of the eighteenth century a handful of exceptional individuals, a Rousseau, a Goethe, and later a Scott, had begun to savor their own experience in a way that would have seemed almost indecent to a Rojas or a Pepys. They remembered their private past, in particular, the "far away and long ago" of their growing up, and so began to perceive themselves autobiographically. The next step was almost a matter of course: the projection of this strange, new self-consciousiness into fictional biographies, into histories of imagined selves — a Saint Preux, a Wilhelm Meister, or a Waverley, living in times and landscapes made of words. Then, after these first experiments in giving narrative shape to the newest avatar of human awareness (Lazarillo, for instance, has neither times nor landscape in this sense), the so-called rise of the novel was not just possible but inevitable. As Schelling first saw clearly (basing himself on Wilhelm Meister and a reevaluation of the Quijote), the epic itself, after thousands of years of abject critical veneration, was about to be replaced by this strange and not very respectable form of reading.


Excerpted from Galdós and the Art of the European Novel: 1867-1887 by Stephen Gilman. Copyright © 1981 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. v
  • Preface, pg. vii
  • Chapter I. Galdós: "Life and Times", pg. 3
  • Chapter II. La Fontana de Oro, pg. 29
  • Chapter III. From Trafalgar to Doña Perfecta, pg. 49
  • Chapter IV. La Desheredada, pg. 84
  • Chapter V. From La Desheredada to Lo Prohibido, pg. 133
  • Chapter VI. A Colloquium of Novelists, pg. 154
  • Chapter VII. The Novelist as Reader, pg. 187
  • Chapter VIII. The Challenge of Historical Time, pg. 229
  • Chapter IX. The Art of Listening, pg. 248
  • Chapter X. The Art of Genesis, pg. 291
  • Chapter XI. The Art of Consciousness, pg. 320
  • Chapter XII. Retrospect, pg. 356
  • Appendix. Classical References in Doña Perfecta, pg. 378
  • Index, pg. 395

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