“Nazarin” by Benito Pérez Galdós

I first heard of Benito Pérez Galdós many years ago when he was mentioned in an interview with the distinguished Spanish film director Luis Buñuel. Buñuel, who had thrice adapted Pérez Galdós’ work (Tristana and Nazarin, and Viridiana, which was based on the novel Halma), expressed surprise that his novels weren’t better known outside the Spanish speaking world, and claimed that at his best, he could be as intensely powerful as Dostoyevsky. Since then, I have become acquainted with some of Pérez Galdós’ novels in translation, and I, too, can but express my surprise that he is not better known. His novels are not easy to find in English: even his most famous, Fortunata and Jacinta, appears to go in and out of print. But they’re well worth hunting out. I have, so far, read Fortunata and Jacinta, Misericordia, the tetralogy of novels Torquemada, and, most recently, Nazarin; and they seem clearly to be the works of a master novelist. 

Nazarin, written in the mid 1890s, was one of Pérez Galdós’ later works, and, as with Misericordia, written shortly afterwards, the author seems fascinated by the idea of sainthood – of what it is that makes a human being a saint. In Misericordia, the character who eventually emerges as a saint may seem a most unlikely candidate for the part: she is an uneducated, superstitious, and very un-other-worldly serving woman, who had not been above nicking from her mistress in better times, but who, now that her mistress is impoverished, is prepared to go begging on the streets herself to protect her beloved mistress from the sort of life to which she has not been accustomed. It is a sort of secular sainthood in a sense, but, as the title implies, Pérez Galdós sees it in quasi-religious terms. Here, the religious aspect is more apparent: Nazarin is a priest, but he is a priest who is determined to take Christ’s gospel at his word. He abjures not merely wealth, but even possessions; he abjures pride, anger, hatred. He seeks out poverty, and keeps to the truth at all costs, regardless of consequence. He looks forward to a sort of paradise on this earth, in the here-and-now, that can be attained once humans have banished all material possessions and desires – once humans disdain to wield power over their fellow humans. And the best way to this spiritual, communist paradise is to lead through example. And so he leads through example: he lives the life preached by the gospels, the life of meekness, poverty and non-resistance to evil that Tolstoy was advocating at much the same time as this novel was written. (It is no surprise to find that Pérez Galdós had read Tolstoy’s polemical works with keen interest.) 

Such a man as Nazarin is, of course, an admirable man; but he is also a fool. As he sets out from Madrid to live out his unyielding principles, two parallels become obvious – one with Christ himself, and the other, somewhat disconcertingly, with Don Quixote. Like Cervantes’ hero, Nazarin is both remarkably sane – even remarkably intelligent – and yet, at the same time, a madman. Don Quixote had set out to seek the ideals of chivalry, and, leading by example, to practise these ideals himself, regardless of consequence; Nazarin, on the other hand, sets out to seek the ideals of Christianity, and, also regardless of consequence, leads by example. The results are doomed to failure from the very beginning, but, for Nazarin, even failure in pursuit of these ideals is preferable to any other course. The intense suffering that is entailed is accepted willingly. 

Pérez Galdós was himself not a religious man in any conventional sense: he was a modern liberal, and was strongly secular and anti-clerical. And yet, on the basis of this novel and of  Misericordia, his imagination was, in the widest sense of the word, religious. Like Cervantes, he is constantly aware of the sheer foolishness of his hero’s enterprise; and yet, he cannot help but admire, and even sympathise. As the novel approaches its end, some of the parallels to the story of Christ’s passion do seem a bit schematic at times, but nothing quite prepared me for the final pages. Here, Nazarin, feverish with typhoid, undergoes what can only be described as a religious vision. Now, Pérez Galdós knows well that this vision is no more than the product of a feverish mind; and he knows also that the fever is self-inflicted – that it has been brought on by Nazarin’s insistence on a life of poverty; yet I cannot think of anything I have read outside Dostoyevsky that conveys so powerful and so intense a sense of religious fervour. I can understand now why Buñuel had evoked Dostoyevsky in describing the work of Pérez Galdós. And yet, there is something very surprising about Peréz Galdós, a secularist and realist, writing something so imbued with what can only be described as religious mysticism; and it is perhaps, even more surprising that Buñuel, a militant atheist and surrealist, could respond to this so keenly. 

Translations of Pérez Galdós’ novels are hard to come by, so any copy of any out-of-print translation found in second-hand shops is to be snapped up immediately, and treasured. He is clearly one of the major European novelists of the 19th century, and every work of his I read but increases my admiration.

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17 responses to this post.

  1. Hello
    I had never heard of him, so thanks.

    His books aren’t easy to find in French either, except for Tristana, probably because of the film version.

    Reply

  2. I’m a bit surprised that Pérez Galdós’ novels are hard to get hold of in France, because, given what I have seen of French bookshops, French bookshops seem to have a wider range of translated titles than do British bookshops. (In the Toulouse brach of Fnac, I even saw once a French translation of the Bengali novel Pather Panchali – something I’ve never seen in any british bookshop!) But Peréz Galdós’ novels are well worth seeking out – especially Fortnuata and Jacinta, which is usually reckoned to be his masterpiece.

    Reply

    • Sorry for the slow answer, I was off-line.
      I was surprised not to find them, actually. After all, it’s Spanish literature and as you say, we have many books in translation. Reading in translation or not is not an issue in France. The writer isn’t francophone, you read him/her in translation and that’s it.

      Reply

  3. Just discovered this post. Just starting to watch the Buñuel movies based on/adapted from the novels. And picking up the English translations as I find them. Definitely worth the effort. My introduction on the novels was Fortunata and Jacinta, which I’ll share over the next couple of months. A great writer and fun movie adaptations to watch.

    Reply

    • I look forward to your posts on Fortunata & Jacinta: it seems to me one of the best kept secrets of 19th century European literature! Funnily enough, I haven’t yet seen Buñuel’s fim of Nazarin, and it’s quite hard to get hold of it on DVD. I’ll see if I can get hold of it, as I’d love to see how someoen like Buñuel depicts the final stages of the story: in the novel, what emerged was, in effect, a religious experience, though I doubt that’s how Buñuel would see it.

      Reply

  4. I just ordered a copy of Nazarin so I hope to watch it soon. Now I just need to find a copy of the novel. Hopefully not too hard. I’ve been slowly picking up more of his novels and I just found one in our library, so there will be more on Galdos. Added this post to the resources post on F&J. I guess I should have secured everything I wanted by Galdos before possibly interesting others in him!

    Reply

  5. Posted by booklovercapetown on October 2, 2012 at 6:53 am

    I first heard about Perez Galdos from a Spanish professor of literature who came to Cape Town, South Africa. Found an old English translation of of “MIAU” in an second hand bookshop and later discovered F&J on a table at a market.
    I’m halfway through F&J and there is no doubt that it is a work of a genius! Wish Perez Galdos was more well known.

    Reply

    • Hello, and thank you for that. I do keep a lookout for Perez Galdoz books, but aven’t yet found a copy of ” Miau”.

      “Fortunata and Jacinta” is really terrific, isn’t it? I don’t know if you know, but Dwight is currently organising a group read of F&J on his blog, here.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  6. Posted by Blanca on February 20, 2013 at 9:18 pm

    Hello, thank you for your opinion. You must to read “La Fontana de Oro”. It is very very good. You will like it. Time: 1820. Revolución de los ciudadanos. Sorry by my English.

    Reply

    • Hello Blanca, and welcome. Please do not apologise for your English: I can assure you it’s far better than my Spanish! 🙂

      I would love to read more novels by Perez Galdos, but there aren’t too many translations, and what there are aren’t easily available. Whenever i see second hand bookshops, I always look out for some out-of-print translation. I don’t know of “La Fontana de Oro” has been translated, but I shall certainly snap it up if I see it in English.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  7. FYI–Turns out I have a copy of “The Golden Fountain” which I’ll get to later this year. I don’t think it’s that easy to find, but I’ll definitely post my thoughts on it. Before that, though, I’m working on Galdos’ “The Unknown” and “Reality”, two books on the same story told from different viewpoints and in different styles.

    Reply

  8. Posted by theburningheart on October 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Fortunately I am Spanish speaking and posses is full works, I have read, and re-read him since I was 12 years of age, specially his Episodios Nacionales, all his works are almost impossible to get in English, and what you find it is so expensive, I have tried for some English speaking to get acquainted with him but always run in to the same problem books not easy to find, any input as how to get his books in English will be appreciated..

    Reply

    • Hello,
      I must admit it is a complete mystery to me why Pérez Galdós is so little known in the Anglophone world. (A great many writers who wrote or write in Indian languages are similarly unknown in the Western world, and that to me is equally mysterious – especially when so many Indian writers who write in ENglish are so highly regarded.)

      Fortunata and Jacinta is usually availablein the Penguin Classics catalogue. As for the rest, I have taken to hunting down any title by Pérez Galdós I see in second hand bookshops. And there are a surprising number available in translation. I currently have English versions of “La desheredada” and “Tormento” (the latter confusingly titled “Inferno” in the English version) sitting on my bookshelves. (“La desheredada”, translated as “The Disinherited”, was publiished by teh Folio Society.) And I do know “La de Bringas” has been translated as “That Bringas Woman”:: I’m on the look-out for that one.

      But why Pérez Galdós is not as well-known as, say, Balzac or Zola or Turgenev does remain a great mystery.

      All teh best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  9. Posted by theburningheart on October 29, 2013 at 4:43 am

    Well, there is many factors, and couldn’t mention them all but one of them it is the Spanish setting of the novels, just like the Indian setting it is a foreign setting, and not many a person its familiar with the historical background of this countries, sometimes a novel requires a deep knowledge from the reader about the mores, traditions and way of thinking of the people in question, the over 100 years since these novels were wrote it is also a factor that creates a gap, like reading Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is at least for me a challenge that I had failed, it is my understanding that at the time of Perez Galdos specially since he become well known, like some others, Palacio Valdes comes to my mind, their work was translated, or at least some of it, I remember reading the preface of one of such translations, some years ago from a book I checked out of a library to show a friend, book of Palacio Valdes, that unfortunately can’t remember specifically the title nor the name of the translator, published just after the Spanish-American war said something of these sorts if my memory doesn’t fail me:

    “If we think of the Spanish as a puny Nation, defeated easily by us, their writers are totally a different matter, they could easily defeat us when it come to writing..”

    The editorial business is another reason, if you travel through Latin America, and Spain, you can find people reading old authors, in new editions who never go out of fashion, or print in a way that would be unthinkable now days in the English speaking world, who beside a few great writers like Poe, Melville, Whitman,Twain, etc Or even those who have a small cult of followers does. Exceptions are many and do exist, but limited by the size of the printing, and lack of money to mount a publicity campaign. The editorial houses are more worried of publishing the next new star novelist that will bring them profit than in digging old skeletons of limited market possibilities.

    Yes thank you for your information,it’s appreciated, and useful. I have no need of buying translations except as gifts for English speaking friends who never heard of these Spanish writers, or many others like Indian, Brazilians, Argentinians, Chilean, etc. But as Mario Benedetti the Uruguayan novelist and poet who wrote a well known poem in Latin America: El Sur Tambien Existe (The South Also Exists)

    Thanks
    Brigido Anaya

    Reply

    • Hello Brigido,
      Yes, inevitably we are separated from foreign cultures, especially of teh past, by a number of things. However, this has not prevented us from loving their literature. What have we in common with serf-owning Russian aristocrats of 200 years ago? Or with Japanese culture of, say, about 100 years ago? Yet we regard War and Peace as amongst the greatest of novels, andwriters such as oseki or Akutagawa are easily and widely available, and much admired.

      On Indian literature, I have had enough rants on this blog. If I may quote from one of my previous rants on the matter:

      … imagine a publisher commissioning an anthology of Japanese literature, say, and commissioning as editors two people neither of whom knows Japanese. Absurd, isn’t it? And yet, the Vintage Book of Indian Writing is edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, neither of whom knows any Indian language. (Yet this lack of expertise didn’t prevent Rushdie claiming in the introduction that writing in Indian languages wasn’t very good: certainly, the editors didn’t bother picking any for their anthology.) Or imagine it being widely accepted that French literature, say, began with Michel Houellebecq. Absurd? Yes, certainly, but, to this day, editions of Midnight’s Children carries a quote from the New York Times reviewer to the effect that, at long last, Indian literature has found a voice. Or imagine a literary prize set up for, say, Spanish literature, that does not even consider books written in Spanish. What is absurd in the context of Spanish literature seems perfectly OK for Indian literature, it seems. It isn’t that writing in Indian languages has been examined, and found wanting: it hasn’t been examined at all. I have seen entire features in respectable papers and journals about the so-called “renaissance” in Indian literature that don’t even acknowledge the existence of writing in Indian languages. One can go into a reasonable sized bookshop, and find translations from Japanese, Turkish, Arabic, Yiddish, Serbo-Croat, etc. etc. But translations from Indian languages are invisible. The message given out seems to me perfectly clear: “You can’t expect us to take you seriously if you insist on writing in those funny little languages of yours.”

      As far as Spanish literature is concerned, as well as Pérez Galdós, there are a few other books I have in translation that are as yet unread: La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas, for instance, or The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán. There’s too much to read…

      Reply

      • La Regenta was is one of my top reads, ever. But then my recommendations tend to fall flat for some reason.

        For anyone looking for Galdós translations in English and your library uses the WorldCat service and interlibrary loans, that’s the affordable way to go.

      • Thanks, Dwight, for that tip. Ihade notthought of looking there before!

        I’ll probably read La Regenta some time next year – and I am very much looking forward to it. I love 19th century European novels, and given the reputation of this one, it’s really one I should have read a long time ago!

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