Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Novel on the Tram by Benito Pérez Galdós

Many thanks to Michael Wooff for translating this short story and making it available at Project Gutenberg. It's a wonderful piece that hints at what we will see in later works by Galdós. Published in 1871, "The Novel on the Tram" is close in tone and style to Galdós' first novel The Shadow. The story itself is sort of a historical document since the first tram lines began running in Madrid just a few months earlier in 1871. Galdós uses this novelty to wonder what would happen if we set Don Quixote on a tram? That's close to what we end up with in this short story.

The story is brief—the narrator gets on a tram to return some books to a friend. He bumps into a gossipy friend of his who begins to tell him about what may or may not be a true story. The friend, a doctor, tells about a beautiful countess who has an indiscreet admirer and a scheming butler. The narrator barely listens to the tale until the doctor tells about some mysterious hold the butler has over the countess. The narrator, his interest piqued, is left hanging as the doctor exits the tram and leaves the story unfinished. The narrator realizes the newspaper he has wrapped the books he's returning has a feuilleton printed in it that appears to pick up the doctor's story. He reads the continuation and, despite some differences with the doctor's story, begins to imagine characters from the story entering and exiting the tram. On his return tram ride he overhears snippets of stories and assumes they are part of the countess' story. The short story climaxes when he thinks he sees the offending butler from the story, assaults him and holds him for arrest. Finally he tells the reader that he has been institutionalized in an asylum for several months because of these actions, but he has returned to normal. Well, except for the part where he says he will devote the same consideration he spent on the countess' story to an amusing character seen on the tram.

The short story provides touches of humor and slyness that is more pronounced in later works by Galdós, with plenty of hints of ambiguity and irony. The narrator confesses early on that he can be self-centered: he muscles his way onto the tram "motivated by a self desire to sit down before others." His self-absorption lends itself to seeing everything unfolding around him as related to the story on which he becomes fixated. The narrator confesses the books he is returning to his friend are bad novels, apparently poisoning his mind so that he becomes preoccupied with searching for continuation of the feuilleton on the tram, drawing the parallel with Don Quixote's response to chivalric novels.

Galdós' first novel had been serialized and this short story appeared in two installments of La Ilustración de Madrid, providing some humorous comparisons of his own work to the installment in this story. There are some additional nice touches throughout the piece. The name of the scheming butler of the feuilleton is Mudarra. Mudar in Spanish means to change or move, possibly even shedding or molting. The story clearly changes the narrator's mind as he sheds reality with his flights of fancy, seeking to complete the fictional story from the newspaper in the real world. There's plenty of comic relief, too, with the repeated injuries our narrator causes to a humorously caricatured English lady and the reactions of passengers as the narrator inserts himself into their conversations. Dreams are often important parts of Galdós' later works, and one plays a central role here. Also, despite the action talking place on and around the tram, Galdós details the route and several of the surrounding landmarks so that it was easy for me to pull up an online map of Madrid today and follow where the action took place.

If you haven't read anything by Galdós, this short story is a good introduction. And if you have, you'll enjoy seeing some of his early developments toward his mastery of the novel. Highly recommended.


Mudpuddle said...

this sounds delightful and it's on Gutenberg! i'll download it.. tx a lot...

Dwight said...

I checked out Gutenberg to see if there were any "new" Galdos translations and there were a few that had been posted in the last couple of years, mostly some of his historical novels. This one stood out, though.

Interested to hear how you like it!

scott g.f.bailey said...

More Galdos! Excellent! He had a really wide range as a writer, from that immense social novel Fortunata and Jacinta to the surreal (My Friend Manso) to the religious (the Nazarin novels). A surprisingly wide range. I hope I find time to read more of him. Time is in really short supply this year.

Dwight said...

I fully understand the short supply of time. Yes, I was happy to find this available, and I'm hoping more of his works continue to turn up. Being an early work, this isn't quite as good as the works you mention, but it's still solid and you'll recognize many of his touches.

Good to see you here!