Monday, September 10, 2012

The Spendthrifts (La de Bringas) by Benito Pérez Galdós: a Spain that does not understand anything except eating and digesting

A stop at Powell’s Books is always in order when I’m in Portland. Last week I escaped (using restraint I didn’t know I had) spending less than $20 for a few books, one of which was The Spendthrifts by Benito Pérez Galdós, the second release in the 1950’s series The Illustrated Novel Library. There’s another Galdós novel in the series, Torment, which I'll get to later this year.

Set in 1868, the year of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, the novel takes place in the Royal Palace of Madrid among members of the court’s bureaucracy. Galdós’ title of the novel was La de Bringas, but the translated title reflects many residents of the Palace were ruining themselves through extravagance. Galdós uses these individuals as symbols for the decay that has progressed throughout the entire administration. From the introduction by Gerald Brenan:
The rottenness of the whole regime becomes apparent and when, at the close of the sweltering summer, the Army, the Navy and the entire country rise with one accord and the queen flees to France, the curtain falls on this phantasmagoric society, so brilliant when viewed from outside but built on poverty and debt and emptiness. Thus The Spendthrifts is both an allegory of the ruling classes of Spain and a sermon on the classic Spanish theme, made familiar to us in Don Quixote, of illusion and reality. It is also a very brilliant, well designed and amusing novel.

Yes it is, and Galdós provides more direct criticisms and snide remarks than I encountered in the few other works of his I’ve read. I’ll provide a couple of extended quotes that showcases these criticisms. The first quote looks at Doña Tula, considered the “person of highest rank who lived in the city” [the Palace] and highlights the rottenness surrounding the military and administration. While not attacking the royal family directly, the fact that such incompetence is held in high esteem and promoted does not speak kindly toward it. (More direct, but still shaded, is his portrayal of Rosalía Bringas which provides a thinly veiled attack on Queen Isabella II.) There seems little good to say about the past or the future from Doña Tula’s vantage point:

The two sisters were married on the same day; Milagros to the Marques de Tellería and Gertrudis [Doña Tula], the elder, to Colonel Minio, who rapidly rose to be a general by winning courtiers’ battles in the Palace antechamber. Not a Royal Birthday passed without his receiving a Cross or being advanced a grade in rank; and when he could rise no higher in his profession they made him the Conde de Santa Barbara, a title taken from a property he had in Navarre. And the name has a certain suggestion of gunpowder, which went well with his vocation, although it was said of him that he had never smelled any powder except what is wasted in salutes. The reputation for valour which he enjoyed was probably only founded on the fact that he was extremely stupid; for our ideas are in such a state of confusion that we find it easier to turn people into heroes if they can hardly write their names. … He will go down to posterity however as the author of those celebrated remarks about the Sword of Demosthenes and the Cloth of Pentecost and by his suggestion about ‘going to Havana by way of the Philippines’. These sayings of his were diligently collected by his subordinates and form a diverting collection of absurdities. The Queen knew them all by heart and used to tell them very amusingly. But let us not waste any more time in disturbing the ashes of this Nobody, of whom his widow used to say in the most secret depths of intimacy that he was an ox with decorations, and talk of her instead.

Doña Tula was so unlike the Marquesa de Tellería that it hardly seemed possible that they could be children of the same parents, and she was unequally unlike her brother. The rare gifts with which she was adorned came from quite another sort of human distinction—from misfortune, the privilege of those who are advancing towards perfection. Her two sons had inherited along with the general’s name his stupidity and crudeness, and were both complete ne’er-do-wells. It would be impossible to tell what their unfortunate mother suffered while she was trying to get them through their schooling and into the cavalry; she passed five or six years of continual struggle against the stupidity and laziness of the boys and their difficulties with their reluctant teachers. Thanks to the name they bore and to the letters which the Queen wrote whenever it became necessary, they were finally graduated, became officers and were gazette. And then a new series of difficulties began, to embitter Doña Tula’s existence. Quarrels, duels, drunken bouts, summonses, reckless gambling, unpaid debts were everyday occurrences. And their mother had to smooth everything over by using her influence or by paying out money. It came to such a point at last that when the elder, who was called Pedro Minio like his father, determined to go off to Cuba, she had no energy left to oppose him. The other son was set on marrying a woman of bad character, and this was another contest for the mother. It was after this that she made her famous remark. They were speaking of children, and of the mothers who want them, and the mothers who have to many.

“Oh, children—“ Doña Tula said, with the saddest of accents. “They are a nine months illness and a convalescence that lasts all your life.” (pages 37-38)

Another resident in the Royal Palace is Don Manuel Maria José del Pez (“fish”), a character Galdós’ describes, then uses as a symbol for much of what he sees wrong with Spain. It’s not an upbeat view—the corruption in which Pez excels is looked on favorably, even by his opponents:

A man tanned inside and out and quite incapable of enthusiasm, Pez’s face yet had in repose a look of peace which resembled that of the Saints who are enjoying Eternal happiness. In fact his face seemed to be saying: ‘I have attained my desire.’ It was the face of someone who does not mean to worry himself about anything or take anything seriously; and that after all is one way of resolving the great problem of life. For him the administration was simply a cloak of empty formulas created to cover up the working system of personal favours, the key to which lay in bribes and recommendations. No one could help his friends so effectively as Pez; it was this that gave him the reputation of being such a good fellow. And there was no one like him for getting on with everyone. Even among the revolutionaries he had his admirers. … His eyes were pure Spanish eyes, so serene and gentle that they suggested the eyes Murillo painted when he was portraying St. Joseph. … Those eyes said to everyone who looked at them:

“I am the expression of that Spain which is sleeping beatifically, taking pleasure in being the plaything of events and never interfering in anything so long as she is allowed to eat in peace: the Spain which is not going anywhere, and expects nothing, living in the illusion of the present with a flowering spray in her hand: the Spain which submits to everyone who cares to command her, while professing a tame socialism; which does not understand ideas, or actions, or indeed anything except eating and digesting.” (pages 65-66)

Next: vomiting in response to the farce in the palace.

The Spendthrifts by Benito Pérez Galdós; translation by Gamel Woolsey; illustrations by Charles Mozley. Farrar Straus & Young Inc.: New York, 1952.

No comments: