I don't remember now who introduced me to Benito Pérez Galdós, but it was enough for me to add his Fortunata and Jacinta to my classics shelves. Galdós is a Spanish author who has been compared with Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. I've read (and liked to differing degrees) all of the latter three so it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading their Spanish compatriot. In terms of classic Spanish literature I think Galdós is right up there with Cervantes, and had Fortunata and Jacinta been a bit shorter (it is a hefty 800+ pages) I might have read it by now. How serendipitous then that NYRB Classics decided to reissue his shorter work, Tristana, and send it as the last book of the year as part of my subscription. I even managed to read it before the end of 2014.
NYRB has yet to steer me wrong. While I have liked some books better than others and some have been quite challenging, most of the time I love whatever they send me as part of their subscription (am now just in to my third delightful year) and time and again I discover a new-to-me and very memorable author or book (which often ends up on my best of the year list). I can formally add Galdós to the list. He writes about the Spanish bourgeoisie with just the same insight and panache as the writers he was so fittingly compared with.
Tristana. Oh my, what a story. You should see my copy of the book. Dog eared, underlined, starred, exclamation marks and even a few remarks in response to the characters and situations left in the margins. You know it's a good book when you begin not just having mental coversations with the characters but feel the need to write them down, too. In a way this is a simple story, one told over and over really in literature, yet it's still a little on the quirky side (or how I think of the characters perhaps) and I have yet to decide what I think of how things turned out. It's the sort of story that continues to niggle even after you have turned that last page.
It's Don Lope who is causing the problem for me. What a paradoxical and maddening yet still garnering the tiniest bit of sympathy character I've come across in a long time. To say Don Lope is a Don Juan is putting it mildly. One reviewer called him "dubiously gallant" and what a perfect description. What do you make of an older, distinguished gentleman who is known for his endless conquests, seducing his young charge. Smarmy, right? The thing is, he is not in the least diabolical or machiavellian (or not too much anyway) in his actions. He is a gallant and I think he thinks he really does love each and every woman he charms. Yet you still want to throttle him for the things he says and does, but he's wholly convinced in his actions, which he thinks are morally upstanding (just as the rest of us are shaking our heads thinking the man hasn't an ounce of morality in him). Be careful, the reader is warned, not to judge Don Lope to be either better or worse than he actually was.
Tristana is little more than a naive young woman (barely out of the classroom--keeping in mind the book was written in 1892) when she comes to Don Lope, an orphan after having lost both her parents. Don Lope showed her family the greatest of kindnesses and courtesies when they had financial difficulities. He gave of himself so much even that he lost part of his own fortune. And not with his eyes on the prize at the end. But in the end Tristana is alone and friendless in the world. What does she know. It's only natural then that her guardian would be more than a guardian?
"Tristana was neither daughter, niece, or wife, in fact, she was no relation of the great Done Lope's at all; she was nothing, and that was all there was to it, for she belonged to him as if she were a tobacco pouch, an item of furniture, or an article of clothing with no one to dispute his ownership; and she seemed perfectly resigned to being nothing but a tobacco pouch!"
Yes, I know, ouch. Completely maddening. But, of course, there is much more to the story than that.
"She was twenty-one when, along with doubts filling her mind about her very strange social situation, there awoke in her a desire for independence."
And this is when the story begins getting really good as you might imagine. She decides she wants to live and be free and falls in love. She senses "her potential". The man she falls in love with is a painter, an artist with an artist's sensibilities. And their love affair is passionate and fulfilling. It's filled with poetry and literature. Had I had the time and energy I would have read Dante alongside this book, so often does their romance parallel and riff off of Dante's creations. You do know, though, happiness and romantic fulfillment, at least not in the conventional way, are not to be had by our heroine?
Galdós doesn't make it easy for the reader. The story doesn't end in a 'happily ever after' manner and I am still not sure what to make of how the story ended. How do I feel about it? Galdós doesn't tell us what to think, and he doesn't even judge his own characters. This is a short novel and a thoughtful one, like all the best books are. It's one that beckons for a second (or third or . . ) read. And now I do want to go pull Fortunata and Jacinta from my bookshelves. If only to look . . . And then there is the January selection just arrived this week to turn my attention to as well: The Door by Magda Szabo. I don't know if I will be able to keep up with my subscription books, but if I can, I know I will be in for lots of treats if Galdós is anything to go by.