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ArribaAbajoRicardo Gullón and the novels of Galdós

Geoffrey Ribbans

The effort made by Ricardo Gullón to evaluate Galdós's achievement as a novelist for twentieth-century readers243 is one which deserves commendation; moreover, the novel which he initially chose to edit and to which the first version of his general study was somewhat bulkily attached244 is one of the most significant and one which stands in greatest need of detailed examination. In my view, however, señor Gullón has seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task he has so bravely undertaken. Until much more spade work has been done on individual novels (and Anales galdosianos is already contributing powerfully in this direction) general studies of Galdós will almost inevitably be at best cautious and groping and at worst woolly and misleading. At this stage anyone embarking on an overall study of Galdós would be well advised to start off with a close analysis of carefully selected specific examples before venturing any firm conclusions. Instead, Gullón plunges into general reassessment with no sense of restraint, and all his good judgment and wide, perceptive reading cannot save him from floundering. My first criticism of his study, then, is that at no point does he attempt to come to grips with any single novel (other than Miau) in a systematic or coherent way. The very structure he has adopted precludes any detailed analysis. After a shortish account of Galdós's life comes a section on the 'Situación de Galdós' which attempts to 'place' Galdós first in the contemporary Spanish context, then in comparison with Balzac, Dickens and Dostoyevski, and finally with Cervantes. The trouble here is that this type of judgment must depend ultimately on the exact degree of esteem in which specific works of each author are held. Blanket statements to the effect that Balzac 'acusa una cargante propensión a lo sublime' (p. 41) or that: in Dickens 'hay una tendencia a lo neurótico, a truculencias poco convincentes' (p. 46), etc. whereas Galdós's 'imaginación es más cautelosa [than Balzac's], más capaz de refrenarse, de eliminar incidentes superficiales y desplegar armónicamente los utilizados' (p. 44) are hollow -however true they might be- when divorced from specific examples. Galdós is thus neatly pigeon-holed in his appropriate place in the European hierarchy -the appropriate place being rightly much higher than the one he is usually accorded- but little more is revealed as to why he deserves this honour.

After the 'Situación de Galdós' chapter follow some sixty pages of breathless summaries interspersed with short comments on the whole range of Galdós's novels ('El mundo novelesco'). Then we have consideration of various aspects of the art of Galdós under the headings 'Los supuestos de la creación', 'Los Ámbitos oscuros', 'Personajes anormales', 'Lenguaje y técnica' and, finally, a section on Miau, 'La burocracia, mundo absurdo'. By this method little opportunity is afforded of a meaningful examination of how theme, background, language and plot are creatively interwoven or how certain abnormal states of mind are fitted into the structure of the novels -to take two examples with which Gullón makes great play. Nor is Galdós's masterly use of language integrated into a vision of the individual novels. As a consequence, Gullón remains content with opaque generalisations, often puffed up into somewhat meaningless   —164→   metaphysical questions: «en esta novela [La desheredada] se plantea una cuestión trascendental: ¿quién hace la vida? La respuesta podría ser: el destino, o, menos enfáticamente, las circunstancias, la circunstancia, la situación», etc. (p. 69). This is the greater pity since there are scattered throughout the book numerous excellent aperçus, all the more tantalising because, in the urge to get on with the comprehensive coverage, they are dropped as hastily as they are broached. This said, it must be admitted that the three versions of the study in question represent a successive advance in interpretation and analysis; there are welcome additions to the sections 'Los supuestos de la creación' and 'Lenguaje y técnica' in the Taurus volume, and this second section is again considerably improved in the Gredos edition.

My second main criticism of Gullón's interpretation is that his vision is dominated by an outdated concept of 'real characters'. Of El amigo Manso, for example, he affirms that 'el personaje interesa por su humanidad entrañable, por ser un hombre semejante al lector auténtico y vivo' (p. 70). Similarly, in describing Mauricia la dura, he comments: «Tal vez ésta fue feliz en otro tiempo; tal vez vivió algún momento apacible, pero no es verosímil: es la violencia, la locura crepitante, esporádica», etc. (p. 233). When Gullón claims the counterpart to Mauricia is not doña Guillermina but the bureaucrat Pantoia in Miau, he is treating the character as an absolute creation who enjoys an independent existence outside the novel of which she forms part. Within the context of Fortunata y Jacinta, Mauricia is in direct structural relationship with both Fortunata and doña Guillermina in a way which it is impossible with a character from another novel. Again, by considering Mauricia a generalised symbol of violence and revolt, Gullón obscures her essential functional rôle within the novel's structure; and it is important to bear in mind that she is the foil to Fortunata, the temptation towards cynical rebellion (hence the attraction Mauricia exercises upon her), just as Guillermina holds up to her the aspiration of redemption and respectability.

It is, of course, true that Galdós constantly reintroduces characters from other novels -though, significantly enough, he does not reintroduce Mauricia to any important extent- and this may be thought to imply that they are autonomous. We should always remember, however, that this procedure invariably implies a change in their function. Whenever Galdós wished to use again characters he has created he expanded, emphasised or modified their characteristics to conform with their new rôle. José Ido del Sagrario's function as the imaginary deceived husband is accentuated in Fortunata y Jacinta as a foil to the real cuckold, Maxi. The shabby two-dimensional moneylender of the same novel is developed in plausible but hitherto unsuspected directions in the Torquemada series. The Pharaoh-like cesante is revivified in a new guise as a wornout tiger in the feline household of the Miaus.

When this realist criterion is extended to apply to the characters as a whole, a social view of the novel emerges which in its claims to completeness and accuracy as a social document again blurs the value of the individual novel. However wide and however credible a picture of society as a whole Galdós depicts -and his desire to present coherent and consistent replica is not in doubt- it is not ultimately the social scene which is vital but the portrayal of coherent individual characters acting within the co-ordinated scheme which is the plot. Because of his overriding concern of the social phenomena which form the background -'Manso es... el hombre frente a la sociedad' (p. 75) is a typical statement- Gullón pays little attention to the structural mechanics of the novels. The salient feature of El amigo Manso and Lo prohibido, for example,   —165→   is the autobiographical form Galdós has adopted. In the first case Gullón is aware of the implications of this to some extent: «un espejo algo deformante, pues devuelve las imágenes con un halo de simpatía o antipatía correspondiente a la impresión producida por ellas sobre Manso. Los actos y gestos de los otros aparecen a través de una interpretación, cuando menos de una visión: la del personaje narrador» (p. 74). Excellent, as far as it goes, but the exact use of the narrator's viewpoint is never discussed.

When we turn to the more complex case of Lo prohibido, we find little awareness of the subtlety of construction of the novel. Lo prohibido is, it is true, referred to with considerable frequency in the course of Gullón's study, but because of the defects of organisation I have already discussed, there is no consecutive or thorough treatment. The initial comments in the section 'El mundo novelesco' are extremely short. Gullón writes that Galdós «quizá nunca estuvo tan cerca de las teorías de naturalismo, pero aún en este caso superó la dogmática de escuela» (p. 87) without further explanation. When he speaks of «la progresión hacia la autonomía del mundo novelesco» (p. 88) and later, on p. 155, of «el microcosmos en donde se reflejan pasiones vivas de seres humanos, en cuya conducta lo imponderable, lo imprevisto, pesa más que los datos de antemano sumados en el cálculo», he is falling into the trap of endowing Galdós with a spurious modernity which I shall speak of in a moment. The essential point of the extremely subtle unfolding of character as José María Bueno de Guzmán gradually reveals himself in his memoirs is not analysed. The neurosis, hallucinations of the protagonist all form fully integrated facets of his character and of the development; to separate them up and deal with them under the headings of lo fantástico, alucinaciones, neuróticos, etc. is to lose sight of their function within the novel. Sporadically, Gullón shows himself aware that the autobiographical technique has a specific purpose and that the narrator is not to be equated with the novelist: «La presentación lenta de la persona permite constantes retoques y rectificaciones; mantiene una interrogante abierta por la ambigüedad propiamente humana de la conducta y, aun después de conclusa la novela, deja indeciso el perfil de quien, por parecerse mejor a los seres vivos, los recuerda también en la aptitud para destruir en un instante por un acto, omisión, decisión inesperada, la idea que habíamos formado de él» (p. 276). This is true, but it is much more than this; in common with many other novels, Lo prohibido has in its presentation something of a very clever confidence trick about it. The situation we are presented with at the beginning of the narration is very nearly the reverse of what is gradually unfolded before us as the story progresses. José María's uncle speaks of his three sons-in-law «con muy poco miramiento» and has a sincere respect for his nephew; the nephew clearly and unmistakably demonstrates his inferiority to each of them in the course of the novel. He asserts that his youngest daughter Camila «es la menos favorecida en dotes morales»; the novel demonstrates her evident moral superiority over her sisters. Camila at the outset is «muy antipática» for José María; later she becomes his obsession. Eloisa is identified with the dead Kitty, but is cut off from him by her marriage: «Antes te lo vedó la muerte; ahora la ley». When she is freed by the death of her husband, it becomes clear that the attraction for José María was not Eloisa but lo prohibido. Of hirnself José María declares «era yo, pues, intachable en cuanto a principios. Los ejemplos que había visto en Inglaterra, aquella rigidez sajona que se traduce en los escrúpulos de la conciencia...» The irony of this assertion becomes increasingly apparent in the course of the narration. The whole novel, in short, depends on continued rectifications of assumptions previously   —166→   instilled in us by the narrator-hero, and we must be constantly on our guard against accepting as valid the outlook presented to us by him.

Despite Gullón's adhesion to a nineteenth-century view of character and society, he is also at pains, as his title makes clear, to relate Galdós with specifically modern attitudes and techniques. His concern with dreams, with madness, the subconscious and hallucinations -with what Carlos Clavería has called his veta fantástica- seems to correspond to this urge to prove that Galdós is distinctively «modern». Though these sections partake of the fragmentation I have commented on earlier, they seem to me, with the stylistic chapter which follows, the best in the book. The fantastic and abnormal side of Galdós is undoubtedly an essential feature and one which enriches beyond measure his creative world, though I do not see a shred of evidence to support Gullón's suggestion of a possible homosexual relationship between Orozco and Viera.

In expression, too, Gullón feels the need to link Galdós with twentieth-century techniques. He praises, rightly, stylistic features in which Galdós anticipates modern taste, conversational style, dynamic description, increasing use of dialogue, etc., though in others, such as his no less effective descriptive imagery, he is, in my view, more a man of his time than a precursor of a more modern style. Gullón pushes his thesis too far when he relates Galdós's use of inner meditation with the far more sophisticated, intensive and deliberate technique of interior monologues in James Joyce, and ends by voicing a preference for Galdós. Certainly Galdós stands in no need of apology or condescension, but he is working within a very different tradition from the stream of consciousness technique which required the rapid succession of uncoordinated fragmentary thoughts. It is not, therefore, a question of Galdós's having «idea más exacta de la novela y del modo cómo debía ordenar los componentes de ella» nor of Galdós's monologues being aesthetically preferable, but of a different method embodying different but equally justifiable aims. As regards character, however, this propensity to project the twentieth-century ideology into the nineteenth is far more serious and brings me to my final and severest criticism, concerning the treatment of Miau, the novel most thoroughly discussed in the book.

In his whole consideration of Miau Professor Gullón seems to be bedevilled by an approach more suitable for Kafka, Unamuno and the French existentialists. Bureaucracy in the novel constitutes for Gullón not just an absurd world which is futile, all-absorbing, self-perpetuating and ever expanding, a canker in Spain's natural life, but a sort of microcosm of a world which is itself absurd, arbitrary and hostile. In my view nothing could be further from Galdós's intention. Villaamil is thus raised to the rank of a tragic hero or the tortured protagonist of Kafka's Prozess: «la situación de Villaamil es la del agonista (según el acento unamuniano de la expresión) en lucha desesperada con lo invencible y tardo en reconocerse como tal agonista, en percatarse de que para él no hay esperanza y de que su estado natural es la desesperación» (p. 284). Moreover, to take this attitude to the novel is not only to ignore the strong comic vein running through the book but to accept Villaamil's own interpretation of his fate, to be deluded by Galdós's extraordinary skill in conveying events from the point of view of his protagonist (not only in the novels with autobiographical form, like Lo prohibido as we have seen, but in the deliberately restrained presentation of Juanito Santa Cruz's vices in the first book of Fortunata y Jacinta). The fact that Galdós is concerned with a serious social evil which causes hardship and deprivation to countless individuals should not blind us to the fact that the heart of Villaamil's tragedy lies in his chronic inability to see life as it is. In his concept the world of government service is the real   —167→   world. His failure in it is tragic and inexplicable; he is the victim of insidious forces conspiring against him, a martyr to his brilliant ideas of reform. What, by contrast, are the facts which emerge only too clearly through Galdós's veil of indulgent irony? Villaamil is a totally ineffectual old man who has given himself over body and soul to the false god of administration, so that he cannot conceive of any existence outside it. Despite his disagreements with the methodical Pantoja, he is as wedded to bureaucracy as the «prototipo del integrismo administrativo». Whatever the objective value of his schemes for reform may be at the outset (and I personally rate them as purely external and marginal) they are speedily burlesqued by their association with the initials M-I-A-U, which Villaamil accepts and justifies in increasing desperation, eventually identifying it with the INRI which Christ bore above the Cross. Unable to impose himself on his own household and curb their extravagance, incapable of following the example of Federico Ruiz who occupied himself during his cesantía in other ways, Villaamil cannot face life when confronted with the worthless Victor's promotion and the certainty that he will never be reappointed. In his final paragraphs Gullón draws attention to the moments of peace and wellbeing Villaamil enjoys on the outskirts of Madrid after he has decided to kill himself. The importance of this episode, however, is not to present his suicide as «un final lógico» in a society which has rejected him, but to display the wealth of the real world open and free to everyone which Villaamil has hitherto overlooked in his obsession with bureaucracy. For the first time he sees the beauties of nature, enjoys a good meal and even eyes the girls. He now roundly curses the State and his family to which he has devoted his life. As he watches the sparrows eating the breadcrumbs he has thrown them, he declares: «Coman, coman tranquilos... Si Pura hubiera seguido vuestro sistema, otro gallo cantara. Pero ella no entiende de acomodarse a la realidad. ¿Cabe algo más natural que encerrarse en los límites de lo posible?» Villaamil has not known either how to acomodarse a la realidad, encerrarse en los límites de lo posible, and he escapes only in a vain act of false martyrdom by killing himself.

By contrast, the only character in the book who shows a real sense of responsibility is the boy Luis Cadalso. Luisito bears the brunt of his grandfather's incessant begging letters, is underfed and generally neglected and is taunted at school with the opprobrious family nickname Miau. The visions he has in his periods of exhaustion are again misinterpreted by Gullón. The figure who appears to Luisito is emphatically not Galdós's «versión de Dios, porque él le imaginaba y quería soñarlo con un regusto de infantilismo» (p. 181), but an exceedingly realistically created vision of God which corresponds to a child's anxieties and difficulties. In his conversations with 'God' Luisito gives voice to the pressing problems of his life -the family worries and personal problem aroused by Posturitas' death- and produces answers which display a measure of responsibility and envolvement («¿Cómo quieres que Yo coloque a tu abuelo si tú no estudias?») absent in every other member of the household. The child, through his visions, takes on his feeble shoulders Abelarda's perplexities as well as Villaamil's. Moreover, it is he who reaches the conclusion that his grandfather's problem is insoluble -as indeed it is, in the terms in which it is posed- and who naïvely tells him that he should die as he will have no peace in this world.

Gullón is right in seeking universal aspects to Miau, but it does not proffer a more or less modern message of despair such as characterises Kafka or Unamuno. Rather it puts forward the view that individual human beings are essentially responsible for   —168→   their own fates, that they get out of touch with basic human realities at their peril and that self-delusion and self-imposed martyrdom are frequent and tragic in their consequences. «La máquina burocrática destroza al hombre» only when he allows it to enslave him.

University of Liverpool

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