Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Leonard Nimoy in "The Balcony"

The Collected Works posted a link earlier today to a YouTube video of Leonard Nimoy as Roger in the 1963 movie version of Jean Genet's The Balcony.  I have not watched the movie, but I was happy to watch these short clips. It highlights the absurdity of the play while providing Nimoy a great role. Here are three of the clips:

Yes, that's Peter Falk as the Police Chief and Shelley Winters as Madame Irma. See here for the movie's cast list. Almost as fun as the clips is their comments. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

King Lear: Stratford Festival movie

This was the first screening of the Stratford Festival HD: From Stage to Screen Series that is now underway. They intend to offer 38 of Shakespeare's plays...similar to that of the BBC's Shakespeare project from 1978-1985 plus Two Noble Kinsmen. If last night's show is any indication of the quality of the series, I am all for it.

The intent of the movie was to capture the stage experience, although I understand there were some re-shot scenes following the live performance. All in all, it provides a great cinematic experience of watching the play. The only problem I had with the movie version was the sound was...well, not lacking, since it was adequate. But it was simple stereo. I know it's a lot to ask for, but I'm hoping future screenings take better advantage of movie theater sound systems.

In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom starts his chapter on King Lear with "King Lear, together with Hamlet, ultimately baffles commentary." If that's the case, that should have been the end of the chapter. But everyone who experiences the play, reading or watching it, seems to feel the need to expound on it (and Bloom did for another 39 pages). I'll keep my comments on this production to a minimum.

Colm Feore was one of the best Lears I've seen. His lucid moments were perfect, and his madness wasn't an over-the-top production. It helps that he was supported with a solid cast. I enjoyed Stephen Ouimette’s Fool, who seemed righteously and rightly pissed. Steven Wentworth as Gloucester drew a nice parallel with Lear, although the rating on his dive from the "cliffs" would probably rate only a 6. The three sisters (Maev Beaty’s Goneril, Liisa Repo-Martell's Regan, and Sara Farb's Cordelia) make you wonder why Lear hadn't gone mad before the play even starts. Well, except for Cordelia, although it may have been Sara Farb I fell for...I can never tell in these matters. Brad Hodder as Edmund and Evan Buliung as Edgar played off each other quite nicely. The full cast list can be found here.

One of the outstanding things about the staging was how unremarkable it was. There seems to be a big debate on whether King Lear is better read than acted, but what I liked about the sparse sets (and the great camera work) was that it allowed the viewer to focus on the language. They seemed to take the attitude that there doesn't need to be a lot of showy acting or special effects to get the full impact of the play across to the audience, to which I thank them.

Next up in the Stratford Festival series is King John on April 8. I will be posting a reminder as the date gets closer.

Update (4 March 2015): There were several articles about the film and quotes from the festival's executive director. I'll just link to this one.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Too good not to share

Picture source

Looking forward to seeing King Lear in the Stratford Festival HD: From Stage to Screen Series tonight. I could do much worse for a cheat-sheet on the play than the above summary. It almost puts me in the mood to review the movie from the standpoint of a Joe Bob Briggs Drive-In Movie Report.

But the main reason for this post is to link to this wonderful recap of movie Gloucesters NOT taking a dive off a cliff. The author of the post isn't the only one that tends to inappropriately giggle at the flop. I love the disclaimer and reminder, too.


REMEMBER, KIDS… The Gloucesters you have seen here are trained professionals. Don’t try this at home.

Enjoy. Be sure and check out the rest of their site! (Goodticklebrain.com or Goodticklebrain on Tumblr)

An Interview with Translator Tim Wilkinson

The Asymptote Blog has an interview with translator Tim Wilkinson. I've read his translations of Imre Kertész's Facelessness and Fiasco, Miklós Szentkuthy's Marginalia on Casanova and Towards the One and Only Metaphor (along with excerpts from other of his books, and I have Prae on deck), and Death of an Athlete by Miklós Mészöly. I have him to thank for many extraordinary books I wouldn't have had access to without his translations.

From the end of the interview, with a couple of my notes:
Q: Which of the translations that you’ve worked on was the most challenging? Why?

A: I suppose the Szentkuthy ones, not least because he was writing on a formidable range of subjects, from what most people think of as fairly abstruse mathematical theory, physics, botany, music, literary theory, painting, and so on.
[It was overwhelming to read. I can't imagine what it was like to translate.]

Q: Which one author do you think most deserves wider recognition worldwide?

A: I could easily add a couple of dozen other living Hungarian authors, but let me content myself with just mentioning György Spiró.
[Yes! I've made the wish that more of his work available in translation.]

Be sure and check it out.

Monday, February 23, 2015

King Lear this Wednesday—Stratford Festival HD: From Stage to Screen Series

Well, despite the press release over two months ago this was news to me:
Three of Shakespeare’s great dramas about the burdens, madness and romance of ruling, all performed by one of the world’s premier repertory theater companies – The Stratford Festival in Ontario Canada – come to select U.S. cinemas courtesy of Fathom Events and By Experience. Presented under the banner of Stratford Festival HD, the series begins with the tragic tale of King Lear on Wednesday, Feb. 25, continues with King John on Thursday, April 8 and finishes with Antony and Cleopatra on Thursday, May 21. Each production features top-notch casts that breathe fresh life into these timeless dramas.

I see that these were three of last year's performances at The Stratford Festival filmed in high definition. Colm Feore will be in the title role of King Lear. There are approximately 320 U.S. theaters currently listed on the location finder. More information for non-U.S. locations can be found here.

Here's the detail page on Wednesday's one-night event of King Lear. I'm planning on going (wishing I had more information on it and that I had found out about it before today).

Stratford Festival: King Lear: Colm Feore (Credit: David Hou)
Picture source

"The Balcony" by Jean Genet by The Collected Works

Saturday evening my wife and I went to see The Collected Works present "The Balcony" by Jean Genet. I've never completely connected with the play, although I do enjoy certain parts of it. I think my hesitancy with the play is in the randomness (for lack of a better word) in parts of it, a trait highlighted in some of Genet's notes on "How to Play the Balcony", such as this one: "Between Irma and the Chief of Police, their brief moments alone should reveal an old tenderness. I don't know why." (translaion by Jason Araujo)

A synopsis of the play:
Most of the play takes place in a brothel called The Balcony. The time and place are not clear, but Genet said he had the Spanish Civil War in mind when writing it. In the brothel run by Madame Irma, clients allow their fantasies to run rampant, satisfying more than just their sexual appetites. The fun with smoke and mirrors is kept alive until a rebellion cuts the house off from the rest of the city while everyone in the brothel await the arrival of George, the Chief of Police. It doesn't help Irma's business when a former employee, Chantal, runs away with a plumber and ends up becoming the face of the rebellion. When the rebellion fails, the Court Envoy, wishing to maintain consistency, 'coronates' Irma as queen and employs certain of her clients to carry out their fantasy roles in real life. The public buys it with help of a fawning media, but conflict arises between the clients and Irma & George regarding the use and sources of their new-found power.

A few notes on this production:

The play was held at The Old Mint in San Francisco, and the building (completed in 1874) was part of the presentation. The first four scenes were held simultaneously in different parts of the basement, allowing us to wander in and out of different clients' fantasies. In the meantime sounds of the rebellion and screams filter in to the different rooms. Or are some of the screams coming from other rooms? I loved this part of the play and thought it a brilliant use of the building. The feel of the old rooms and vaults added to the fantasy feeling of the play. The emphasis on security (such as the "Bishop" wanting to make sure the doors were locked, sealed, shut, etc.) becomes magnified when scenes are taking place in former bank vaults.

The audience followed the action through the building, allowing us to feel like we were visiting different parts of the brothel. Instead of waiting through a scene change, you just walked down the hall to the next scene. But at just over two-and-a-half hours running time, I needed a break. The continuity, though, did allow for the tension and power of the play to build nicely. I was exhausted when the play finished.

This production included the scene from Genet's second version of the play, which provides more insight into the revolutionaries. This insight works both for and against those in the rebellion, showing both personal worries alongside blind cant and desire for personal gain.

Ryan Tacata almost stole the show as Carmen, the former prostitute turned accountant for Irma. His take on the role brought out (and added to) the humor in the play. And I'm not in love with his performance just because he put his arm around me while cooing some of his lines. No, not at all. Val Sinckler hit the right notes as Madame Irma, especially in her transformation from madame to queen. Scott Baker as the Police Chief played the role to its cock-sure hilt, fully showing his awareness of the role in the game that he and the rebels played.

The scene where media photographers take pictures of the false Bishop, Judge, and General (helping the old order to be restored after the rebellion failed) was played in a large hall where the audience had to look up to the balcony at the characters. It was a simple touch but very effective in a powerful scene. The Court Envoy responds to the photographers actions, "A true image born of a false spectacle." In such a setting we were part of that spectacle.

As with The Collected Works' previous play "Princess Ivona", the inventiveness of their productions shines through. I look forward to their future productions. I highly recommend keeping up with and attending any upcoming planned productions of The Collected Works if you're in the San Francisco Bay area.

In my previous post on "The Balcony" there are additional links to The Collected Works' site. It's well worth your time to explore their site.

My used copy (as purchased) of "The Balcony"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Books you love, have reviewed, and recommend (but don't see anyone else reading)

It made me happy to see Richard's post on Andrei Bely's Petersburg because it was a book I loved and I don't see a lot of comments on it (my apologies to those of you have posted on it). It's weird. It's sprawling. And it's wonderful. As Amateur Reader expressed in the comments, "It has a ticking time bomb plot!" What's not to love about that?

Which got me to thinking (always a dangerous act), there have been many books I've recommended that I see very few others writing about. Some of that happens because of my book choices—many are out of print or difficult for some people to obtain. But many are available and I feel I have failed them somehow in not getting readers more excited about them.

To some extent I jest. If someone isn't interested in Thucydides or Fortunata and Jacinta, it doesn't matter how many posts I make. They aren't going to read it. And the last thing a book lover usually wants is someone grabbing them by the arm, shoving a book in their face, and saying "You HAVE to read this." That's when I start looking for the nearest exit and ineptly making an excuse to slip away.

I'm going to put aside that hesitancy and talk about three books I loved, reviewed, and recommend, but I don't see anyone else posting on them. Again, apologies to those who have. Sometimes I overstretch. I also want to hear from others on books they've read that they just KNOW readers would enjoy IF only they would give them a chance. Comment here or on your blog, but let me know and I'll be happy to append this post with your recommendations.

I'm not including works like José Maria Eça de Queirós' The Maias and Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate since I have seen a few posts by others (by Amateur Reader and Richard, respectively, now that I think about it). I wish would read them, though. And I won't include books such as Vladislav Vančura's The End of the Old Times, Zsigmond Móricz's Relations, or Pío Baroja's The Struggle for Life trilogy, even though I think they are remarkable, because they might be difficult for the average reader to obtain a copy. And there are some books, like Andrei Platonov's Chevengur, that I can't recommend enough but want to wait until new translations are available to trumpet them again. So given those constraints, here are three books I would really love to see book lovers read.

1. La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas
Too often compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (inaccurately, too). I'll lift the description from the back of my copy once again since it's a good summary:
Its subject is a shabby provincial Spanish town and, in particular, an intelligent and sensitive woman’s unsuccessful—and eventually disastrous—quest for fulfilment through marriage, adultery and religion. By dint of a remarkably complete and skilful use of realism, Alas combines a lively and satirical portrait of the society as a whole with an incisive exploration of the inner life of its principal characters.
Alas’ most famous role was probably that of literary critic “Clarín” (bugle), but the two novels he finished and his short stories stand up as great writing. La Regenta provides wonderful observations of what Alas believed to be major reasons for Spain's decline, presented with plenty of rich irony and ambiguity. When you address (and skewer) mediocrity, pretense, and hypocrisy, you're book is going to remain timely. You HAVE to read this book.

2. Bolesław Prus' The Doll
Everything I've read from the Central European University Press has been a winner, and I was happy to see this picked up by NYRB for publication. From the NYRB site:
Prus’s work centers around the stories of three men from three different generations: Wokulski, the fatally flawed and hopelessly love-struck hero; Rzecki, the methodical and romantic old clerk; and Ochocki, a bright young scientist who hopes for universal progress in the midst of a darkening political climate. As the stories of the three men intertwine, Prus’s novel spins a web of encounters with an embattled aristocracy, the new men of finance, and the urban poor. Written with a quasi-prophetic sensibility, The Doll looks ahead to the social forces of imperialism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism that would soon hound the entire continent.
Prus intended this book "to present our Polish idealists against the background of society’s decay." Czesław Miłosz called Prus the most important novelist of his day and that The Doll demonstrated "nineteenth-century realism at its best." I found it a little heavy-handed at times with Prus reiterating his points, but the serialization of the novel may have been one reason he did so. The central female character may be the weakest part, and some of the scientific discussion isn't believable. Regardless, it's a rich introduction into some of Poland's history, showing there are no easy answers to the problems encountered. You HAVE to read this book.

3. I was going to mention Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford here (oops, I guess I just did), but instead I'll go with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's In the First Circle. Be sure to get the uncensored version, recently translated by Harry T. Willetts. Solzhenitsyn looks at what it takes to defy the evil of the Soviet regime and what is the cost of such defiance. He doesn't let the West off the hook either, highlighting the willful blindness of many who didn't wish to see the evil. Striving to live in Limbo, Dante's first circle of hell, means you're still in hell, and the book's prisoners echo those in Dante's Limbo: “We have no hope and yet we live in longing.” What struck me most about the book was the compassion Solzhenitsyn had with his characters, as well as the humor and irony he included. Plus it has a variation on the "ticking time bomb" plot! You HAVE to read this book.

Your turn, either in the comments or on your blogs—what books would you love to see more readers read?

Other readers' recommendations. Be sure to check out the comments to see why they chose what they did.

From seraillon:
Count Miklós Bánffy's Transylvanian trilogy
Bomarzo by Manuel Mujica Láinez
Vincent McHugh's I Am Thinking of My Darling
Terry Andrews' The Story of Harold
More by Isak Dinesen, especially Seven Gothic Tales

From Amateur Reader:
The Entail by John Galt

From Fred:
Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time
Three novels by Walter van Tilburg Clark
       The Ox-Bow Incident
       The Track of the Cat
       The City of Trembling Leaves

From Richard:
Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities
Augusto Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo/I the Supreme
Three short works:
        Aurélia by Gérard de Nerval
       Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont
       Los siete locos/The Seven Madmen by Roberto Arlt

From Umbagollah:
Christina Stead's House of All Nations
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young

From Anthony:
Atiq Rahimi's Curse on Dostoevsky
Grace Dane Mazur's Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination
Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn by Nick Hunt

From obooki:
The later work of William Faulkner
Ermanno Cavazzoni's The Voice of the Moon
Emmanuel Bove's My Friends
Another recommendation for Isak Dinesen

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

William Marshal: an introduction (of sorts)

Judging by recent publications, there has been a resurgence in interest about William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke (c. 1146 – 1219). Marshal will be the focus of several posts, so I wanted to have something masquerading as an introduction before I cover books and a TV program about him. My planned posts will be on the following books and program:

Who was William Marshal? I’ll (unabashedly) appropriate a couple of paragraphs from the HarperCollins link about the book by Thomas Asbridge:

As a five-year-old boy, Marshal was sentenced to execution and led to the gallows, but this landless younger son survived his brush with death and went on to train as a knight. Against all odds, Marshal rose through the ranks—serving at the right hand of five English monarchs—to become a celebrated tournament champion, a baron and politician and, ultimately, a regent of the realm.

William Marshal befriended the great figures of his day, from Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the infamous King John, and helped to negotiate the terms of Magna Carta—the first "bill of rights." By the age of seventy, the once-forsaken child had been transformed into the most powerful man in England, yet he was forced to fight in the front line of one final battle, striving to save the kingdom from a French invasion in 1217.

The five ‘monarchs’ Marshal served (in different capacities) were Henry II, Henry The Younger, Richard I (the Lionheart), John, and Henry III. So much about Marshal’s life has come down to us because of the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, written in 1226 by a scribe named John at the behest of Marshal’s eldest son. The poem was intended to be read on family occasions to commemorate the older William. Given the poem's history and intent, it's clear the poem would be biased. A paper by David Crouch on the Histoire uses the term ‘propaganda’ in the title for the Historie.

It is estimated that there were twenty copies of the Histoire but only one has survived, and that one is probably a copy of an original drafts. I found the story of the survival and discovery of the Histoire to be captivating. Here is a chronological summary adapted from the Preface in Asbridge’s The Greatest Knight:

  • 1219: William Marshall dies
  • 1226: John, an Anglo-French scribe working in England, is contracted by the Marshal family to compose a poem based on William Marshal’s life.
  • Soon after 1226: John presents the family with Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, a 19,214 (or 19,215) line poem extolling the life of William Marshal. From The Greatest Knight:
    The History was a celebration of William Marshal’s astounding achievements. As such, it offers an unashamedly biased account, presenting its hero as the perfect knight. In its pages William almost became the living embodiment of the mythical Arthurian knight, Lancelot—one of the central heroes of the popular literature written in Marshal’s own day. Many of the History’s claims can be corroborated in other sources, but there were times when the biographer omitted uncomfortable details related to Marshal’s rise to prominence, from his involvement in rebellions against the crown to his dealings with King John, England’s infamous monarch. (xix)
  • 1861: Paul Meyer, a French scholar sees a copy of the History at an auction at Sotheby in London. In describing his hasty examination of Lot 51, an unassuming work in worn brown leather that dated from the 16th century listed as a “Norman-French chronicle on English Affairs (in Verse),” Meyer noted, “Contains an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” (xv) Sir Thomas Phillipps bought the lot.
  • 1863-65: Phillips moved his entire library from his Middle Hill estate in Worcesterhire to a his mansion in Cheltenham
  • 1872: Sir Thomas Phillips dies
  • 1880: After repeated requests, the Phillipps’ family allows Meyer access to Sir Thomas’ collection
  • 1881: Meyer finds Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal in the Phillipps’ collection and is finally able to read it. While at least four other copies appear to have been made, the original and those copies seem to have been lost over the years.
  • 1891-1901: Meyer produces a full printed edition of the book in three volumes.

I think a little more on the source document would be helpful (at the risk of some repetition), so from the Foreword of the first volume of the Anglo-Norman Text Society’s translation (page v):

It is based largely on the personal recollections of the Marshal’s entourage, and notably of John of Earley, his squire from 1188 and subsequently his devoted companion and executor of his will, but it also draws on written records. As such, it is an invaluable primary source for the period in question and provides much material not recorded elsewhere. However, its accuracy regarding specific events is subject to caution, and its assertions cannot be accepted uncritically, as has hitherto usually been the case. It can be demonstrated that the poet not infrequently adapts his record of events in order to present the hero’s action in the most favorable light, or that he resorts to invention when his source fails to provide the details he requires. The purpose of the poem is not only to recount the hero’s exploits, but also to celebrate them, and the narrative is further bound by the conventions of contemporary literary fiction; the laudatory purpose takes precedence over the pursuit of what we now term historical accuracy.

The work was commissioned by the Marshal’s eldest son and successor, William Marshal II, shortly after his father’s death in 1219. It was composed by a poet who calls himself “Johans” (line 19195) and who has sometimes been erroneously identified with the John of Earley mentioned above.
There will be several posts on Marshal over the next couple of weeks.

Selected Links:
Wikipedia entry

Novelist Elizabeth Chadwick’s notes for her Cartmel Priory Founder's Day Lecture in 2011

William Marshal—Events in Life and Historical Context by Richard Abels at Medieval English Genealogy

Catherine Armstrong has several essays on William Marshal and his family, with helpful bibliographies

Update: An article by Thomas Asbridge in History Today: William Marshal—The Greatest Knight or a Failed Crusader?

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Collected Works Presents Jean Genet's "The Balcony"

I've mentioned the Collected Works theater company after going to see their production of Witold Gombrowicz’s Princess Ivona. Their current production is Jean Genet's play "The Balcony." They have some wonderful pictures available at their sneak peek page.

Making the production even more intriguing is its performance at The Old Mint in San Francisco. From the Collected Works' page about this location:
The Old Mint (affectionately referred to as “The Granite Lady”) was designed by Alfred B. Mullett and completed in 1874. The building sits on a concrete and granite foundation, designed to thwart tunneling into its vaults, which at the time of the 1906 earthquake and fire held $330 million, fully a third of the United States’ gold reserves. Heroic efforts by Treasury Department employees, using only a one-inch hose connected to wells in the interior courtyard (built just weeks earlier) saved the Mint from the fire that destroyed commercial San Francisco after the earthquake. With the downtown area and its banks destroyed, the San Francisco Mint was the only financial institution open for business in San Francisco, and became the depository and treasury for the city’s relief fund. The building continued operation as a U.S. Mint until 1937.

I plan on re-reading the play and posting on it soon, but for now I'll borrow their comments about it (again from their page on the play):

Genet’s play tells the story of a revolutionary uprising in the streets of an unnamed city. While armed rebels fight to take control of the city’s power structures, most of the action takes place in an elite brothel or “house of illusions,” where clients act out their fantasies of institutional power: they play judges, bishops, and generals as their counterparts in the “real” world struggle to maintain their authority. The Balcony is a landmark in modern theatre: the eminent American critic Edmund White noted that, with The Balcony’s foregrounding of the role of illusion and meta-theatricality in creating contemporary power and desire, Genet invented modern theatre.

I'm hoping I'll be able to attend a performance before the final performance on February 21. If you're in the area, I highly recommend you do the same!

Click here for more information on "The Balcony"

Many thanks to Cynthia Haven for alerting me about this production.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós at The Mookse and the Gripes

Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes was kind enough to post my comments on the recent translation of Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós, so please give him some click-love: the review

NYRB has provided a major service to readers by publishing Margaret Jull Costa's translation of Galdós' novel. While I really enjoyed the earlier English translation, it was expensive and mostly limited to university libraries. I'm a big fan of Galdós and I'm happy to see NYRB expanding his availability beyond scholars and weird unconventional readers.

As I mention in the post, if you haven’t read anything by Galdós, Tristana provides an interesting (and maybe problematic) introduction to the writer. It’s a book that the author seemed to dismiss before its release while many of his supporters and critics were left disappointed by the author’s unsatisfying (to them) ending. Check out the post to find out more about the book.

In the Introduction, writer and literary critic Jeremy Terglown analyzes the ambiguous wording at the end of the novel. We explore that detail in the comments. Hope to "see" you there!

And a minor point, but important for anyone wanting to read more Galdós...keep in mind he uses characters across multiple novels. From Tristana, remember the doctor Augusto (Alejandro) Miquis. The kind doctor makes appearances across many of Galdós' novels. I'll point to a previous note on him as well as the more detailed article "Manuel Tolosa Latour: prototype of Augusto Miquis" by Ruth Schmidt. Latour and Galdós were quite good friends and both men substituted the name of Miquis for Latour when writing each other.

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Introduction by Jeremy Terglown
(Review copy courtesy of NYRB)

Update (4 March 2015):
I wanted to wait a month before I posted the full review. There may be some differences from Trevor's post at The Mookse and the Gripes. My notes follow:

NYRB has done a wonderful service by publishing this short 1892 novel by Benito Pérez Galdós. I reviewed the only available English translation of the novel prior to the NYRB edition, Tristana: Buñuel’s Film and Galdós’ Novel: A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film by Colin Partridge (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995) and found it to be a wonderful book full of Galdosian ambiguity and irony. If you haven’t read anything by Galdós, Tristana provides an interesting (and maybe problematic) introduction to the writer. It’s a book that the author seemed to dismiss before its release while many of his supporters and critics were left disappointed by the author’s unsatisfying (to them) ending.

Tristana follows the trials and tribulations of the youthful, orphaned Tristana and the two lovers in her life. The first lover is her guardian, Don Lepe, an aging Don Juan who couldn’t resist one last conquest of the young girl. The second lover is Horacio, a painter with a similar background as Tristana. The more time Tristana spends with Horacio, the more she tends to rebel against Don Lepe. She seeks to educate herself and develop her nascent talents, dreaming of a life of independence on her own terms. An illness and infection causes her to lose a leg, dashing many of her hopes for the future.

Tristana is often at the center of events, but she rarely develops beyond superficial changes. Even though she tries to advance, personally and professionally, she is always at the mercy of circumstances. Galdós often uses names to highlight a point or provide irony, and Tristana follows that pattern. Triste means gloom or sadness, the station in life she is consigned to after her parents die and she becomes Don Lope’s ward and eventual lover. The name also alludes to the mythical Tristan and the doomed love affair with Isolde, providing a foreshadowing of Tristana’s relationship with Horacio. In one of her letters to Horacio, Tristana summarizes many beliefs she expresses over the course of the novel:
“I find the problem of my life more overwhelming the more I think about it. I want to be somebody in the world, to cultivate an art, to live by my own means. I’m so easily discouraged. Am I really attempting the impossible? I want to have a profession, and yet I’m useless, I know nothing about anything. It’s just awful.

“My ambition is to not have to depend on anyone, not even on the man I adore. I don’t want to be his mistress—so undignified—or a woman maintained by a few men purely for their amusement, like a hunting dog; nor do I want the man of my dreams to become a husband. I see no happiness in marriage. To put it in my own words, I want to be married to myself and to be my own head of the household. I wouldn’t know how to love out of obligation; I can only promise constancy and endless loyalty in a state of total freedom. I feel like protesting against men, who have appropriated the whole world for themselves and left us women only the narrowest of paths to take, the ones that were too narrow for them to walk along…” (95-6; ellipsis in original)

Tristana had met Horacio by accident, continuing to meet him in secret. Don Lope knows something is going on, but refuses to stop it, knowing that no possible lover can compare to him. On this point, he’s right, although there’s plenty of irony in it, too. Horacio’s life started similar to Tristana’s situation. He was orphaned and raised by a strict grandfather. But when his grandfather dies, Horacio achieves financial security from the inheritance, allowing him to pursue his love of painting. His bohemian life in a Madrid suburb, though, is only playacting. He’s easily distracted by Tristana. He acts like a rebel but it’s Tristana that’s the real non-conformist. Tristana is nothing like he imagined his future wife would be like. A section of the novel traces letters exchanged by the lovers during a separation, and while they are apart Tristana deifies Horacio in her mind. There’s no way Horacio can live up to Tristana’s elevation of him and he disappoints her time and again, especially during her time of illness and convalescence.

In many ways, Don Lope (or more formally, Don Juan López Garrido), the aging Don Juan, steals the novel. He follows his own perverted chivalric code. His code has so many twists and turns he can’t always keep up with what he thinks he should believe, but he devoutly adheres to it just the same. He believes the younger generation vastly inferior to his own, yet he also acknowledges his declining health and virility. Tristana remarks on the dual consciences of Don Lope, who behaves like nobility or someone from the gutter depending on the situation. In a way, Don Lope drives Tristana into Horacio’s arms (and eventually his bed), but he knows she will return to him. He is able to triumph using his wiles and experience. Early on in the novel, the narrator (with a touch of Galdós’ irony) puts Don Lope in the dock and judges him:

If hell did not exist, it would be necessary to create one just for Don Lope, so that he could spend an eternity doing penance for his mockery of morality and thus serve as a perennial lesson for the many who, while without openly declaring themselves to be his supporters, are nonetheless to be found throughout this sinful world of ours. (18)

Each of the three main characters claims to be a rebel in their own way. Don Lope holds himself outside of social institutions until poverty and old age change his ways. Tristana assets what she views as her rights—of education, of vocation, of shunning marriage—until she falls back on an offer of security. Horacio plays the bohemian until he discovers the joys of the landed gentry. Everyone relapses into the existing social power structures, but Tristana is the only one that doesn’t have a real choice in the matter.

In many of his novels Galdós was very critical of late 19th-century Spanish society, pointing out the limited roles available to women. Galdós’ former lover, novelist and activist Emilia Pardo Bazán, was vocal about her regret that Galdós failed to develop and focus on what she saw as the central concern of the novel—Tristana’s (and thus many Spanish women’s) loneliness and isolation due to the limited choices available to her. Bazán was especially disappointed in the heroine losing power while a traditional arrangement wins in the end. As Colin Partridge put it in his essay accompanying his translation, Galdós could have made Tristana a successful woman, like Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, a novel released at about the same time as Tristana, but the Madrid of the time didn’t afford the same opportunities as Chicago or New York. Galdós remains faithful to real life, avoiding an easy ideological resolution that would ring false.

As the Spanish critic and author Clarín (Leopoldo Alas) pointed out, Tristana’s immaturity and lack of development occurs because she is at the mercy of forces much more powerful than she could hope to overcome. She is doomed to non-fulfillment because of the imposed social conventions. In this way Tristana is very much like Alas’ heroine Ana Ozores in La Regenta, released just a few years later (and there are several more similarities in La Regenta found in Tristana, such as rapid aging in older men, seemingly caused by sexual conquests).

One of the quirks in the novel compared to Galdós’ other works (and Colin Partridge also points this out in his commentary), is that Tristana happens in Madrid’s sprawling suburb to the north—Chamberí. Instead of the usual crowded, bustling urban life in other of his novels Galdós’ isolates these characters outside of mainstream society. While the three main characters each stand in for something larger, the tie feels much looser than in Galdós’ other novels because of this isolation. In this sense I think Galdós achieved precisely what Bazán wanted to see. This is Tristana’s story, and it reflects exactly the same criticisms Bazán had. Does the ending satisfy? No, and that’s precisely the point. The characters don’t live happily ever after despite the ambiguous ending.

Galdós’ message is evasive, not because it is muddled but because his apparent points could be applied to more than his immediate topic. His commentary on the morality of the age shares the wish that people should be free to do as they please, but societal influences/power make people act counter to their interests. Yet all three characters are lacking something and fall back on societal norms, almost with relief and benefit. Tristana’s lot is the worst—she essentially says she is damaged goods, unfit for anything after Don Lope had his way with her. Yet she can never follow through on any attempt at independence, even with others trying to help her accomplish it. It’s a wonderful little novel because Galdós avoids an easy answer, not catering to ideological resolutions that would have felt false while still providing plenty of social commentary along the way. Very highly recommended.