“Tormento” by Benito Pérez Galdós

This post is intended as part of the celebration of Spanish Literature organised by the book blogs Caravana de Recuerdos, and Winstonsdad’s Blog. If you haven’t yet visited these two blogs, may I warmly recommend them both.


I’m not sure why translator Abigail Lee Six translates Tormento, the original Spanish title of the novel, as Inferno: there is no explanation given in the introduction, and there are no explanatory notes at the end. Even though I don’t speak Spanish, Torment would surely, it seems to me, have been a closer translation, and would have suited the content admirably.

However, I was not going to allow what I trust is a minor quibble to put me off this book. From what I have read so far, Benito Pérez Galdós is among the finest of 19th century European novelists, and his relative neglect outside the Spanish-speaking world seems to me inexplicable. Translations of his novels are hard to come by: even Fortunata and Jacinta, generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, seems to go in and out of print. There have been translations also of a handful of his other novels, but they are not always very easy to get hold of, and so, whenever I find any translation in some second-hand shop, I tend to pick it up immediately without further thought. This one has been on my shelf for about a year or so now, and when Richard from Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog suggested a Spanish literature month, it seemed an admirable opportunity to catch up on it.

055The novel Tormento (I might as well use the original title) was published in 1884, shortly before Fortunata and Jacinta. The scope is considerably narrower, but the social context is familiar – not merely from the other novels by Pérez Galdós, but from the works of virtually any 19th century European novelist you may care to mention.

The novel starts in the form of a play: two people bump into each other in the streets of Madrid, discover that they know each other, go together to a nearby café, and have a conversation about various other people. It’s these various other people the novel then focuses on, consigning the two people we meet in the opening chapter to the periphery of the action. I don’t think I have come across an opening gambit quite like this, and I must admit I am not sure of Pérez Galdós’ purpose in doing this.

Perhaps the intent was merely to provide a contrast to what follows – of leading us to expect a certain kind of novel and then confounding those expectations. For in that conversation in the opening chapter, we find that one of these two characters writes a popular serial in a journal: from what he says of it, what he writes is very sentimental and melodramatic. But, after that first scene, Pérez Galdós takes us into a very realistic milieu, far removed from any hint of melodrama or sentimentality. We are presented with a picture that we may expect perhaps from a Balzac novel: there’s a middle class family, shamelessly buttering up a wealthy cousin and happy to accept whatever droppings they can from his table; there’s that wealthy cousin himself, a businessman who has made his fortune abroad and who, despite his wealth, knows nothing of the niceties of Madrid society; and there are two other cousins, sisters, from a good family but now fallen on bad times; one of these sisters is obviously turning to prostitution, while the other, Amparo, is horribly exploited by her middle-class cousins, who treat her with a sort of baronial condescension.

All this is very well done, and presented with wonderful irony and psychological insight, and with a Balzacian awareness of how society is structured. However, I must confess that I, as a reader, found myself feeling somewhat detached from it all. Truth is, after a certain stage of novel-reading, one can easily get a sense of déjà vu with this sort of thing. Horrible, selfish and exploitative social climber; nouveau riche unaccustomed to the niceties of high society; people from good families down on their luck and struggling to keep their heads above the water … we’ve frankly seen them all before, And I suppose, speaking subjectively, I no longer find such things of any great overwhelming interest: all those things I know I should admire – awareness of the social and financial structures, detailed observation, social criticism – increasingly seem to me relatively minor matters, at least as far as the art of the novel is concerned. Perhaps I have just become blasé about these matters, but depiction merely of the surface of things, no matter how detailed in its observation and understanding, I nowadays find, frankly, a bit boring.

However, Pérez Galdós pulls the rug from under our feet once again, and this one I hadn’t been expecting. For the rich, unsophisticated cousin, much to the chagrin of the horrible middle-class social climber, falls in love with and proposes to one of the impoverished cousins. And at this comparatively late stage of the novel, the narrative takes a somewhat strange turn: for this impoverished cousin, Amparo, has a secret. This secret does not amount to much in our own times, but in the conservative Madrid society of the 1860s, it most certainly did: for Amparo is no virgin: she has, in the past, had an affair, and her former lover, now ill and also fallen on hard times, harbours for her still a violent passion that verges on insanity.

I can’t think of any other novel that changes tack so radically at so late a stage. This former lover is introduced when we are already some one third of the way into the novel, and the effect is like stepping from a novel by Balzac straight into Wuthering Heights. What follows is startlingly intense: at one point, the paintings of El Greco and of Goya are evoked, and the evocation did not seem out of place. And the narrative is unashamedly theatrical: the climactic scenes where Amparo visits her lover, though written in the form of prose narrative, are theatrical in a way the opening scene, written like a playscript, certainly was not.

Her former lover had called her Inferno during the affair, and calls her still by this name (although this name too, like the title of the novel, may have been Tormento in the original Spanish). He had been a priest – a Man of God who, he knows, has damned his soul by his passion. Yet, startlingly vivid though this character is, it is not he, but Amparo, whom Pérez Galdós places at the centre of the canvas: the “tormento” of the original title, or the “inferno” of the translation, is located inside Amparo’s mind. Having depicted the surface of things with such detail, Pérez Galdós takes us deep inside the mind of a woman at the end of her tether, a woman suffering the torments of hell itself, right up to the very point of attempted suicide.

After a series of quite seismic climactic scenes, Pérez Galdós expertly winds the tension down for the final pages. And he finishes again with a scene written, as with the opening chapter, in the form of a playscript. But the real drama at the centre of it all, the real “theatricals” of the piece, is written in the form of prose narrative. It seems curious that at a time when Ibsen was claiming for drama material more usually associated with the novel, Pérez Galdós was claiming for the novel material that is in its very nature theatrical.

For all its considerable merits, Tormento (or Inferno, as you will) is perhaps among Pérez Galdós’ lesser works: it lacks either the panoramic scope of Fortunata and Jacinta, or the visionary quality of Nazarin or of Misericordia. There are elements of it that still leave me puzzled: I am still not sure why Pérez Galdós should present it as a certain kind of novel before transporting us so abruptly into so radically different a fictional world. But the achievement remains considerable. Pérez Galdós is often described as the Spanish Balzac, or the Spanish Dickens; but his works stand up well enough on their own merits, I think. And yes, he most certainly deserves to be better known.

15 responses to this post.

  1. Sounds like a classic it does seem to fit that realist style of fiction one for my list for next time .Balzac and Dicken’s were such an influence on their times thou I love the knock on effect in other countries


    • Posted by Carl McLuhan on July 13, 2014 at 9:49 pm

      I’m not familiar with the works of Galdos, but this novel I will look for the next time I’m in Victoria. Thanks, Himadri. Is this novel a realistic novel in the Zola sense?


      • Hello Carl, good to see you here.

        Zola enjoyed extremes: there’s little point complaining about Zola being “over the top”, as going over the top is very much Zola’s point. However, I do think that,despite his detailed depiction of the structures of society, Galdos was ultimately more interested not so much on the externals, but, rather, on what is going on inside the human mind.

        Tormento is a fine novel, but I don’t know that it’s among Galdos’ finest achievements. Fortunata and Jacinta is usually regarded as his masterpiece, and I won’t argue with that. But i have bene particularly impressed by two novels written in the 1890s – Misericordia, and Nazarin (I wrote about the latter here), in both of which he addresses the theme of sainthood in modern, secular world.

    • Hello Stu, and welcome. I can’t honestly see much of Dickens in what i have read of Galdos. There are certainly strong elements of Balzac, but beyond a point, Galdos was very much his own man, probing into certain areas that Balzac didn’t. Personally (and I can only emphasise this is a very subjective view) I find Galdos a more interesting writer than Balzac. “Tormento” is certainly a fine achievement, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily among Galdos’ finest work.


  2. Balzac was a fan of the frame, too, so that may be another piece of Balzac-borrowing.


    • I think what threw me a bit was the extent to which the frame imposed itself on the novel. We move from the frame to the canvas, as it were, some one third of the way into the novel itself. For a full 70 or 80 of its 220 or so pages, we are led into thinking this to be the kind of novel that it turns out not to be. I’m not sure why Galdos does this, to be honest: it’s very odd!


  3. Sounds great. That opening sounds like something Henry James might have done, a couple sitting around talking about other people in their lives. I started Fortunata and Jacinta last year and loved it, but got interrupted. I’ll certainly take it up again. There’s a new Pérez Galdós translation coming out this fall from NYRB, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, so that’ll add to what’s available in English.


    • I hadn’t thought of the Jamesian aspect of the opening. Galdos is more direct than James, of course – but then again, everyone is more direct than James.

      Fortunata and Jacinta is a wonderful novel: this one , I suppose can be regarded as a minor work in comparison, but with a novelist of this stature, even minor works are worth reading. I see Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has been reading The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán, and points out this novel, Fortunata and Jacinta, and La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas were all written with a few years of each other. I’ve only read one of the three – the other two are on my shelves, though – but, going by reputation at least, that does seem quite a flowering.

      Galdos had a late flowering also: he was certainly at the top of his game for Misericordia and Nazarin, both written in the 1890s and both much shorter than Fortunata and Jacinta.


  4. Thanks for reading this for Spanish Lit Month, Himadri. I’ve read so little by Galdós that even this description of one of his lesser novels is interesting to me; curiously, the opening that seemed somewhat disconcerting to you sounds like almost a “modern” touch to me.

    By the way, I’m very glad that you mentioned the title change. That is a curious choice, isn’t it? On the one hand, “tormento” is more commonly translated as either “torture” or “torment” (as you point out). On the other, why would you want to pretend that Galdós borrowed the title from Dante? On that note–and hopefully not to be pedantic–I hope you don’t mind me mentioning that there’s a different word for “inferno” in Spanish and that “amparo” means “protection” or “refuge.” Not sure whether our novelist was a particularly big fan of the importance attached to names, but there you go. Cheers!


  5. Thanks for posting on this book and Galdos. He seems to have been constantly trying things. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t. Even his ‘failures’ can be fun to read since it can be still be quality stuff…they were a failure only in the sense of what he was attempting to do.


    • By the way, I recently found the website of Univ. of Alabama professor Michael Schenpf. I’ll have a post on it soon but one of the interesting things is his posts on the drawings Galdos did about his characters. If you go to http://bama.ua.edu/~galdos/ and click on Drawings / By Manuscripts you can see some sketches the author made on characters and scenes in Tormento.


      • Fascinating! Thanks for that. He does, now that i think about it, seem a very visual writer: he likes to establish the solidity of the world in which teh drama takes place.

    • Yes- with a novelist of this stature, even the lesser works are of interest. He was also very prolific, and I suspect it’s only to be expected that not all his works are products of the highest ambition. There are some writers who, when not at their best, are unreadable (a certain DH Lawrence comes to mind); and there are others who, even on auto-pilot, are never less than enjoyable. Galdos belongs, I think, to the latter set.


      • Regarding translations, my old copy, published by Farrar, Straus and Young as part of their “Illustrated Novel Library” and translated by J. M. Cohen, at least has the same number of chapters as the Spanish original. It may seem petty to say that, but I found the series’ translation of “The Spendthrifts” (La de Bringas) has fewer chapters than the Spanish original. Talk about making you question everything about the translation…

      • That really is very odd, isn’t it! I can’t really see which chapter of this novel could be omitted!

        I’m afraid people like me who are linguistically challenged have no choice but to trust the translator, and I suppose we’re lucky that there are so many very good translators out there. But missing bits out without even telling the reader does seem a bit off!

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