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.
The 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.