Friday, October 5, 2012

Juan springs from his sickbed: Fortunata y Jacinta

I've completed Volume One of Fortunata and Jacinta, Benito Pérez Galdós' 1887 novel about life and politics in Madrid. Since this 800-page novel is divided into four volumes of more or less equal length, it seems sensible to just treat it as a series of four novels and talk about each one as I finish it. So here I am, talking about the first one. I have no idea what I'm about to say. Since the book is 125 years old and the only English-language translation is now out of print (what the hell, Penguin?), this is not a review, because what's the point? Besides, I don't know how to write book reviews.

Fortunata and Jacinta, Volume One begins as the story of Juan(ito) Santa Cruz, his upbringing, his family and his social world. When he begins to drift into dissipation his mother arranges Juan's marriage to his cousin Jacinta. On the surface this is a lightweight domestic story, where Jacinta and Juan go off on an extended tour of Spain for their honeymoon, making kissy faces on the trains and dining in good restaurants. There's some distinctly Bronte-esque foreshadowing on the wedding day which I quite enjoyed. During the honeymoon, Jacinta begins wheedling the story of Juan's past affair with a lower-class woman named Fortunata out of him, and then Jacinta and Juan return to Madrid where they go on to have a happy enough domestic life. Jacinta settles into her position as a wealthy woman with few real worries. Nagging at her, however, is the suspicion that Juan has an illegitimate child by his former mistress. This suspicion and the heartbreak it causes Jacinta is fueled by her own lack of children (not for want of trying) and when Jacinta hears that Juan does indeed have an illegitimate son living in the slums of Madrid, Jacinta tracks the child (an unruly little boy) down and attempts to adopt him into the family. These manueverings do not involve a lot of conflict, and the reader is never placed on pins and needles.

I've done a bit of poking into Spanish history and the whole thing does seem to be an allegory for the Spanish revolutions and political tumult of the period in which the book is set. When the king abdicates, the wealthy bankers and merchants are less concerned about blood in the streets than they are about the value of their investments. We get regular reports on the prices of shares, but little discussion of the violence at the barricades takes place at the Santa Cruz dinner table. When the republic is declared, the focus of the novel shifts from playboy Juan to his saintly wife Jacinta, who steps out of the house and begins to interact with the working and poor classes. You see how this is an allegory of the republic, no? The wealthy and lazy and self-involved Juanito spends most of the republican years, apparently, in bed with a bad cold and he insists that the women of the family tend to his every whim. Is that representative of Isabella in exile, perhaps? Juan's nickname among his rich family, who have ties to the highest echelons of nobility, is the Dauphin. So perhaps he's a stand-in for the aristocracy in exile. When the revolution ends with a military coup in support of a constitutional monarch (if I've got the history right), Juan springs from his sickbed, takes charge of his wife's attempted adoption of the boy from the ghetto, and resumes his place strutting about town, the well-dressed and impressively well-spoken cavalier with nothing to do except pursue women.

So is the book any good? Yes, it is. It's a very relaxed narrative, I will tell you. It takes a long time for anything to actually happen, and what happens is not particularly exciting. What's good about the novel is the interplay between the characters and the classes, and the social commentary--despite Galdos' almost total disregard for the sweeping political changes going on in the background--is quite fine. The descriptions of people and places (and especially clothes) are all captivating and Galdos is just a funny guy. My only real quibble with this book might be with the translation. At times the prose seems a bit forced, especially when characters are speaking in lower-class dialect, which is here rendered in a clumsy manner too often. I don't speak Spanish so I can't argue with the decisions the translator made, but Agnes Gulon hasn't maintained a beautiful and flowing style throughout and I'm going to throw in with the author and blame Gulon for the rough spots. It's my way, and it's likely unfair and misguided. Anyway, things are going pretty well so far with me and Senor Galdos, and I look forward to whatever Volume Two holds. I assume Fortunata will make a grand entrance. We'll see.


  1. I know what you mean about a grand entrance but Fortunata, on the steps of the Cava sucking an egg, has one of my favorite introductions in any book.

    Volume One does feel like so much groundwork being laid, but even so it's a fun read--as you say, he is a funny guy.

  2. Yes, Fortunata has that lively scene on the stairs with Juan, who after three minutes stage time chases her into the background from where she haunts the remainder of Volume One.

    The feel of Volume Two is different from that of Volume One, right from the start. It's more immediate somehow, with the political violence a little closer to the surface of the action. And, of course, there's a whole new set of characters.

  3. Though one can't help but compare and contrast Max with Juan.

  4. And there will be more comparisons. Which, I think, is the point--that's the framework of the book. Volume 2 does completely shift gears, but it all becomes integrated soon enough. Not for the better, obviously.

  5. Dona Lupe has just heard the news. I see how the comparisons increase in scope and power. Poor Maxi, he's such a dope. What a delightful novel this is.

  6. Galdós said that Fortunata eating the egg gave way to the whole book. If Juan had not gone to see Escudriñá when he was sick, and met Fortunata, another book would have been written.

    In Spanish the low class talk sounds like Pickwick in Dickens, or My Fair Lady. I don't think it breaks the flow at all, but when I watched My Fair Lady dubbed in Spanish for the first time, it felt a bit off too. It's difficult to render dialect in translation, right?