Blasco Ibáñez and Zola
University of Kansas
No man in the field of contemporary Spanish literature has come before the American public with greater prominence than Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. Our leading magazines have published reviews of his work and in many such articles Blasco Ibáñez has been arbitrarily identified as the «Spanish Zola». This has arisen, no doubt, from a certain frankness in Blasco's manner of giving unpleasant details; but a comparative study of the two reveals fundamental differences in their artistic conceptions as well as in their naturalistic technique.
As disciples of naturalism, Zola and Blasco both devote themselves to portraying society and the controlling forces of the social organism -tradition, prejudice, capitalistic oppression, etc. Thus, we have La Terre and La barraca presenting a parallel picture of the peasant class. L'Assommoir depicts the seething life of the substrata of Paris; La horda reveals the condition of the submerged classes of Madrid. La bodega also has one point in common with L'Assommoir, which is the thesis against alcoholism. In El Intruso there is one chapter which contains in a condensed form an account of the miners' life which Germinal describes at length. The battle of the Marne in Los cuatro jinetes del apocalipsis corresponds in many ways to the battle of Sedan in La Débâcle. In the production of both there is subordination of plot to the description of the milieu. This likeness of subject matter must naturally give rise to many similarities, but it is interesting to notice the difference in the manner of description.
Zola filled many pages of his novels with detailed description. The physical characteristics of each person mentioned must be definitely stated -hair, eyes, complexion, stature, clothing, etc. The appearance and arrangement of furniture in a room, the number of rooms in a lodging -all had to be set down. Nor did technical processes escape him; he gloried in describing them in minuetest detail. Furthermore, since Zola's idiosyncracy was his determination to make his novels scientific, he borrowed not only the method of the medical profession but also the subject matter, his avowed purpose in the Rougon Macquart series being to show all the maladies and abnormalities resulting from an inherited neurosis. Consequently, his books are filled with descriptions of physical processes, normal and abnormal, which had never before appeared in a novel. Sixteen pages of L'Assommoir are devoted to the horrors of Coupeau's death by delirium tremens. In La Débâcle Zola dwells upon the operations of the army surgeon. La Terre leaves nothing in the whole category of animal processes to the imagination; nor is there a scene sufficiently vile or disgusting to escape his pen. Even in commonplace matters, he is unnecessarily exact, as, for example, in describing the life of the Maheu family in Germinal he tells about the process each goes through during his bath. To most people the procedure of a bath is sufficiently familiar to allow such particulars to be omitted without injuring the realism of the story.
Zola adds to his effect by writing in the language of the people. He does not insert it in the conversation of his characters to add local color, but uses it consistently throughout. The language of the lower classes is no doubt filled with obscenities and Zola omits none. The choice of words is effective in never allowing the reader to forget in what atmosphere the action develops but the very insistence is tedious.
Blasco's manner of description differs from the French novelist's in that it is more impressionistic. Although he gives details, he does not stop with every person or thing mentioned to tell all of its specific qualities. The introduction of each character is accompanied by a word, a phrase, or a sentence to give an idea of his physical appearance as well as his relation to the action. Often he presents features which are significant because they are indicative of the inner man as well as of his external appearance. It is not that Blasco has not many pages of description -often of extraneous matter, such as the gypsies in La horda, whose life and customs have no relation to the story- but he does not dwell with such minuteness upon a single object. This difference is easily explicable by Blasco's method of production. In contrast to Zola's great mass of preliminary notes, Blasco had no record whatever. His keen power of observation was accompanied by a memory which always retained the salient features. But since no memory could hold as many specific details as could a notebook, there is a greater tendency to record the sensation produced, rather than the mere outward aspect of an object. This strengthens, rather than weakens, the power of his description, for the subjective element helps the reader to visualize the scene more completely.
Blasco does not attempt to use the exact language of the people. When the terminology of a certain region is individual, he is naturalistic to the extent of employing these specific terms as far as possible, but the coarse colloquialisms, never.
In addition to the choice of vocabulary, the type of details described marks a striking difference. Many scenes in the Spanish novels are unpleasantly realistic -they make us shudder, but our sense of propriety is not outraged. Nothing, for example, could be more repulsive than the sight of the body of the new-born babe which Tonet had thrown into the lake in Cañas y barro, but it is not obscene. It is not that Blasco does not approach the sensual or the erotic. Entre naranjos and Mare nostrum furnish notable examples of this quality; but his descriptions have the thrill of passion, the carnal pleasure of mutual love. The love element is lacking in Zola, leaving the human being an animal whose instincts are aroused by the presence of an individual of the other sex. Blasco is more voluptuous -Zola more animalistic.
There are features of their description which are alike. One of these is the extensive use of simile and metaphor. Another, the appeal to the senses other than sight. We not only see an object -we feel it, hear it, smell it. Especially is this last sense prominent. Zola accompanies all of his darkest scenes with fitting odors -the dark, dank smell of an old tenement, the asphyxiating odor of decaying flesh in La Débâcle. Permeating the atmosphere of Cañas y barro is the viscous, fishy smell of the Albufera.
If we compare the manner in which each achieves the «illusion of reality» we see that Zola's method is photographic. His enumeration of minute details produces a very complete picture, the only danger being that it conveys a blurred impression. In life our perception of objects is in terms of general effect, hence, a writer of this type must arrange his material in such a way that we may visualize it. In Blasco's production there are admirable descriptions, but a certain looseness in organization diminishes the effect of a vivid representation of life. Sometimes it is propaganda which disturbs the impression, sometimes the presentation is not sufficiently distinct. In the case of Zola, the question is one of accumulative effect; in Blasco, of the intensity of the original impression.
Another phase upon which comparison may be based is the way in which their novels are constructed. Zola is primarily concerned with a social group which, considered as a whole, overshadows the importance of the individual. But since an impersonal multitude is too unwieldy, Zola's portrayal is from the personal point of view. Through the eyes and experience of a given number of the Rougon Macquart family, the milieu and characters involved in the book are introduced. Then he individualizes as many people as types are needed to give a clear idea of the community. Thus, around the Rougon Macquart under discussion, swarms the life of some social group, which is the real protagonist. This manner of description from the personal viewpoint has great power if a character has a real purpose in the story.
Since the desire of the naturalists is that their novels may have the semblance of bits of human history, one finds a series of related episodes rather than a complex plot. There need not be a climax or dénoument. The line fluctuates with alternate hope and despair, fortune and misfortune, and in Zola the general slope of every line seems to be downward, leaving at the end a feeling of the futility of human endeavor. A force often predominating over the course of events is an inanimate object personified, which is symbolic of the central thoughts. In L'Assommoir, for example, the distillery spreads the malicious influence of alcohol, insidiously leading those weak by nature or discouraged by misfortune to inevitable ruin. This symbolic element serves to unite the whole into a powerful ensemble.
Blasco begins with the presentation of three or four characters taken from the center of the action which is to follow. The scene is long enough to give the setting and the nature of the main characters. The events in this chapter are often episodic, having no place in the plot. After this, Blasco reverts, usually one or two generations, and begins the story. He individualizes fewer characters than Zola, so that the social group which constitutes the background, although a definite entity, is incomplete and therefore indistinct. This method has a double effect. It centers more attention upon the leading characters but the setting is more vague. He, too, has the episodic type of plot, but often introduces propaganda to such an extent that he seems to be carried away by the idea and to forget that he is writing a novel instead of a social thesis. There is often a lack of proportion and coordination due, without doubt, to his habit of writing rapidly.
The range of characters which Zola creates is not extended. A monotonous undercurrent of bestiality is ever present, tingeing the better characters with grossness and turning the worst ones into the most consummate of human brutes. They are uniformly simple in psychology, being motivated by a single idea, a single passion, and their aim in life is to satisfy this idea or passion. Since his thesis was physiological, the most common inciting agent is that of the two physical hungers, special emphasis being placed upon sexual desire. Thus, Zola's characters are individuals from whose natures have been taken psychological complexity and spirituality and who, handicapped by unconquerable hereditary weaknesses, struggle in a grim and dreary fight against the blind forces of their environment. There are no great contrasts of strength and weakness, but rather a monotony of little souls and torpid minds.
Blasco Ibáñez excels in the portrayal of virile manhood. It seems, indeed, that by a projection of his own dynamic personality he creates the characters of iron will, his fighters who struggle against great odds. That they must succumb in the end is a reflection of Blasco's own philosophy. Progress is slow and the efforts of one man are unavailing against age-old powers. Therefore the end of life should be action for its own sake and not for the work achieved. In contrast to these are weaklings such as Tonet (Cañas y barro), Juanito (Arroz y tartana) and the contrast and interplay of these two types heighten the effect of reality. Although Blasco, too, shows a simplicity in psychological motivation, he does not carry it to the point of making the physiological govern the psychological as Zola tried to do. There is great inequality in Blasco's character portrayal, but the characters of outstanding personality tend to overbalance the effect of the weak and colorless.
A charge which is commonly brought against the naturalists and against Zola, above all, is that their novels are immoral on account of the unconventional topics which are freely discussed. Emilia Pardo Bazán devotes a chapter of La cuestión palpitante to the discussion of this point and there makes a necessary distinction which the majority of readers are prone to overlook. The essentially immoral is only that which incites to vice, while that which offends us by lack of delicacy or non-conformity to social usage may be gross or revolting but not inconsistent with real morality. The immorality of the naturalist is not, therefore, the obvious excess of crude details, but the fatalism, the exaggerated determinism which permeates their production. The reader feels the emptiness of life when man is bereft of all superiority over nature and left to cynical and supine endurance and, instead of being spurred on to further effort, is lead to a pessimistic resignation. In Blasco, tragedy comes often from existing social conditions which the individual alone is powerless to change but which will yield to the attempts of the mass. The despotic force of heredity and the innate baseness of human beings which, work the tragedies of Zola are far more hopeless than the evils of society which may be ameliorated by general effort. It is to this effort that Blasco wished to stir the people. His regard for personal happiness is negligible, and for that reason, his books assume a fatalistic aspect. There is much insistence upon a need of exertion, which is deeply moral. To be sure, this is not always the case, for we have characters such as Batiste in La barraca who stands as a dark figure whom destiny pursues, regardless of his determination to succeed. The fatalistic element in Blasco is more varying than in Zola and his novels are consistently more hopeful only in his higher conception of human life. When the conquering forces have a recognizable cause, they may be opposed and ultimately overcome. But when they are within the man himself, there is no power which can change them; then is resignation the only open course.
This aspect of morality shows some difference, if not a great one, between Zola and Blasco; but in respect to the common interpretation of morality -grossness- the divergence is marked. Although it was in a spirit of scientific investigation that; Zola spread before the reader an array of pornographic details which purported to be entirely true to nature, the dirtiness and obscenity are unfit for artistic purposes. One may accuse Blasco of being plain spoken or indelicate in his novels, but rarely of being gross or vulgar. Certain books contain passages which are, in their sensual suggestiveness, worse, perhaps than Zola's open display of all which society ordinarily reserves for individual privacy, but he does not insist upon tainting every scene with coarseness. His books are rugged and the colors are strong, but indecency does not clog the vivid portrayal of life.
There is no doubt that Zola had a great influence upon Blasco Ibáñez, especially in his earlier works; but, having received suggestions, Blasco did not give them forth in the same form. Rather did he assimilate them, then express them, modified by his own personality, augmented by his individual concepts and experiences, and made thoroughly Spanish. The interpretation of human psychology, the type of characters selected and certain aesthetic touches could belong to no one but Blasco. The relation, therefore, of Blasco Ibáñez to Zola is not that of an imitator, but of one of a common school of literature and only in so far as he portrays sections of Spanish life which correspond to the French scenes presented by Zola, can he justly be called the «Spanish Zola».