Modern Spanish Fiction

THE battle between the old and the new, between the conservative spirit and the spirit of progress, is being fought out still to-day in Spain as perhaps nowhere else in Europe. This fact gives a special interest to the Spanish fiction of the last half-century. This fiction is almost unknown in the United States. Save in our universities and colleges, it is not known that Spain possesses a modern fiction of great wealth and interest. Yet a score of novelists of the first order have combined to give such a picture of the social, political, and religious condition of their picturesque land as charms the student and piques the curiosity of even the casual browser in the field of foreign literature. Sufficient attention is now devoted to the Spanish language in our country, and sufficient translations are easily accessible, to warrant some account of the development of Spanish fiction since 1850.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw in Spain, as elsewhere, the regrettable triumph of the pseudo-historical novel. Absence of style, prodigality of imagination, with unreliability and lack of inspiration, are the marks of the genre in Spain. Seldom was a literary reform more urgently needed. Seldom has a clearer call been uttered than that of Fernán Caballero, whose La Gaviota appeared in 1848. After all the false coloring and fulsome nonsense of the romantic novels came the healthy dictum of Fernán Caballero: “A novel is not the product of invention, but of observation.” In a letter to a friend she developed this thesis by declaring that it was her only desire to write “ in smooth Castilian prose of what really happens in our towns, of what our people think and do in the different classes of our society.”

Such statements are forcible as the platform of a new school of realism just coming into prominence. They are truly remarkable when we know that they were made by a woman (Cecilia Böhl de Faber), born in Switzerland in 1796, the daughter of a Hamburg merchant with literary tastes, and of a Spanish mother. Of her biography there need only be added the diversified details that she outlived three husbands, that she was an ardent Catholic, and that she was devoted to her adopted province of Andalusia, living in the neighborhood of Seville until 1877.

It is clear from the preface of La Gaviota that this woman had a distinct purpose upon entering the ranks as a historian of Spanish society. This purpose was — while cherishing the glorious national tradition and while looking to a new Spain which should rise upon its own wings to happier things — to set her adopted country before the eyes of Europe in its true colors. Fernán Caballero did well to decry that servile foreign imitation which has always wrought havoc with the Spanish national genius. But she contributed nothing toward that political and social regeneration of Spain for which others have more effectively yearned. Hopelessly optimistic, she dwells fondly upon just those peninsular qualities of mediæval Catholicism, narrow provincialism, and local prejudice, which have enhanced the fiction of Spain while they have impeded national progress; which, in short, make some of us love Spain while we pity her.

Eschewing all foreign influence, Fernán Caballero succeeded in the task she set herself. She has presented the Andalusian peasant in all the high lights and shades of his peculiar character. One who would know this southern province — where passions run high, where the luxury of ease and diversion is allowed to replace the necessities of life, where the people are morally aristocrats while remaining material paupers — should read La Gaviota, Clemencia, La familia de Alvareda, and Elia. Fernán Caballero has the faults of a foreigner and of an innovator: she is discursive, almost incorrect as a stylist, over-sentimental in her moral teachings and in her enthusiasm for the humble life which she shared. But her importance is that of the painter of the Spanish life and character. Her most solid qualities are her knowledge of popular tradition and her sympathy with its spirit.

It is by these latter qualities that this foreigner was destined to inaugurate a new genre in Spanish literature, — the regional novel. She lived to see grow up to the point of production a school of young writers who devoted themselves to the social history of a restricted province. Estébanez Calderón, Juan Valera, and Alarcón carried on the regional novel in Andalusia. Then there is Pereda, with his many novels dealing with the fishing villages around Santander in the northwest; Señora Pardo Bazán, the Galician novelist; Alas, and his favorite province of Asturias; Valdés, who presents the mining populations of this same province.

This list of authors may be said to include, with one notable exception, the most distinguished Spanish novelists of the last half-century. They represent a formidable production, of which little idea can be given in a brief survey. They all deserve to be known outside of Spain by any one who wishes to form at first hand an accurate conception of the Spanish people. Further, they are all in some degree exponents of the regional novel. They have followed Fernán Caballero in utilizing for their local color the social, political, and religious atmosphere of some obscure provincial community with which they are intimately familiar. Therein lies their appeal as novelists and their value as historians of a still existent mediæval society which may soon disappear.

Our own American public has shown such favor toward regional novels that we may pause a moment to learn what the Spaniards mean by a novela regional, and what their method of procedure in its production may be.

To begin with, it must be understood that Spain is essentially provincial: that is, though a political entity, the provinces are socially distinct. The Andalusian has little in common with the Galician; Catalonia has totally different traditions and ideals from those of Don Quixote’s La Mancha. No one writer can hope to have a thorough conception of the character of more than one of these isolated provinces. To write a faithful regional novel he must restrict himself to one province, preferably his native province, whose local spirit he has absorbed with his very life blood. A Galdós may discuss broad national questions in a problem novel. But a national novel, in the sense of the term as employed in America, is inconceiviable as a literary possibility. Provincialism is imposed upon the Spanish novelist of manners. The varying mixture of Keltic, Roman, Moorish, Gothic, and Gypsy blood prevents any literary merger which shall express the traditions and ideals of the entire nation. In Madrid and in Barcelona alone is there a faint suspicion of cosmopolitanism. Spanish novelists, then, have played their strongest card in adhering closely to the life which they know best, instead of falling in with the long line of French chroniclers of Cosmopolis.

Pereda, who was the most consistent of the regional novelists, may speak first for the school of writers to which he belonged. He defines the regional novel as one “the subject of which is developed in a district or town which has a life, character, and color of its own, which enter into the work as its principal feature.” Upon this platform Pereda stood so firmly that only the human interest of the drama he unfolds can save his masterpiece (Sotileza) from the charge of being narrow. Needless to say, Pereda does escape this charge unscathed. Early in his career, in Escenas montañesas (1864), this same eulogist of the good old times thus put his own sentiments in the mouth of one of his characters: —

“I cannot help remembering with enthusiasm those antique customs which are nowadays so ridiculed by modern reformers. They nourished me, among them I grew up, and to them I owe the establishment of this family which today surrounds me, and which, though brought up in modern fashion, still respects my ‘hobbies,’ as you gentlemen call them, and permits me to live fifty years behind the times.”

Hatred of exterior forces in literature and politics, a passionate sympathy with the drama of life in the humble fishing towns of the Biscayan coast, — such are the salient traits of the marked personality who was until last year the doyen of Spanish fiction. His novels, with all their localism and difficult dialect, head the list in the genre we are discussing.

In so far as Pereda’s theory of the regional novel stands for observation, realism, and provincialism, it has been echoed by others of his generation. Estébanez Calderón thus prefaces his fragrant short stories, Escenas andaluzas: “Their principal object is to relate and reveal Span ish manners and customs in such fashion as shall be as peculiarly local as possible. ”

Valdés thus explains his reasons for placing his story El cuarto poder in an obscure locality: “In the small towns and villages, on account of the long, intimate and constant association of the characters, it is possible to penetrate much deeper into the soul of each individual than it is possible to do in the large cities.”

The lamented Juan Valera, a man of the world, and, by his training in diplomacy, rather cosmopolitan than provincial, still acknowledged the demands of the national taste in the preface of Juanita la Larga (1896): “This kind of novels is now greatly in vogue, an exact copy of reality and not a creation of the poetic spirit.” At the same time he further proclaims himself to be “rather a faithful and veracious historian than a novelist of rich imagination and invention.”

These declarations indicate in what channel the current of fiction has run in Spain since the impulse was given by Fernán Caballero. The work of almost all the writers who have been mentioned is essentially regional and realistic. Some drama of human passion is set forth with characters and scenery that are new to us.

The appeal to the foreign reader made by these writers is like the appeal to the foreign traveler made by a walking tour through the Spanish provinces. In a regional novel we are not concerned with the right and wrong of political and social institutions. Like the writer in this respect, we accept conditions as they are. We are simply fascinated by the objective presentation of these tableaux of a civilization unknown to us. As I write these words a score of memories crowd in: of bull-fights, street-fights, village dances, rustic wooings, provincial elections, petty ecclesiastical jealousies, noisy discussions in the cafés and the casinos, convent scandals, and the idle gossip of the tertulias.

The Spanish novel, however, has of late had a more serious function than the artistic presentation of genre pictures which should interpret provincial life. It is in the novel and in the drama that the intellectual emancipation of Spain is working itself out. In the toils of mediæval superstition until the nineteenth century, Spain has joined in the march of European intellectual progress only within the last half-dozen decades. Her intellectual life is still comparatively stagnant; her social life is provincial; her religious life is saturated with superstition and unproductive mysticism; her political life is unstable and puerile. If we think as we read, all this sad state ot affairs is evident from an acquaintance with the regional novel. But, beside the self-satisfied partisans of the mediæval régime of intolerance, superstition, and intense insularity, we have a group of novelists whose point of view is altogether different. To be sure, controversy has from time to time been introduced into the novels of such facile writers as Valera, Valdés, Alas, and the Jesuit Father Coloma. But with them the dose of criticism is comparatively mild.

We come now to the recognized leader of another school, — a man who is a thorough iconoclast, the apostle of free thought, a renovator who would put out all the drones from the hive of politics and religion, and hand it over to young workers who are trained in the generous spirit of modern science. Turning our back upon the regional novel and its pictures of the conservative past, we must fix our attention upon the liberal aspirations of young Spain. They are expressed preeminently in the novels and dramas of Don Benito Pérez Galdós.

That acute and caustic critic, the late Professor Alas, had a profound admiration for Galdós and for the work he is doing for the intellectual emancipation of Spain. Speaking of Galdós in 1881, he hails him as “the most appropriate writer to dare to tell the Spanish public, so recently emerged from fanaticism and intolerance, that above the artificial distinctions which create diversity of creeds and parties, there exist the natural laws of human society, — love of family, love in marriage, love of country, love of truth, and love for one’s neighbor.”

These words indicate that a campaign of education needed to be undertaken in Spain. Such is the case, and no one is doing more than Galdós to carry it on in his novels and dramas.

The life of Señor Galdós has been very retired. He has said nothing about himself in his novels. We may here direct our attention exclusively to his profession of faith, and to his method of combating the retrogressive tendencies which we have already remarked in Spanish fiction. Of quiet and amiable conversation, a listener rather than a talker, this man for over quarter of a century has been mercilessly showing up in his work one after another of Spain’s sore spots. His popularity, in spite of this antagonistic attitude, is extraordinary. Let us quote once more his best informed critic by way of explanation.

The novels of Galdós “do not attack the foundations of Catholic dogma, they attack only the customs and ideas which are held with the sanction of the Church by popular fanaticism. Only with this proviso could the novels of Galdós penetrate to the very bosom of families in every corner of Spain. This guarded attitude, this prudence is not calculated on the part of Galdós. It is natural for him to write this way. But the result is the same as if Galdós proposed to prepare the ground to preach the most open rationalism. There is, perhaps, in no literature a case similar to that offered by the influence of Galdós upon the public, and by the popularity of his essentially anti-Catholic novels in this Spain of ours, so Catholic, so prejudiced, and, until recently, so intolerant. It should be remembered that there is no civilized country where fanaticism has such deep roots; and let it be borne in mind, too, that Galdós’s novels have not only influenced free-thinking students and members of the athenæums and clubs, but that they have also penetrated the sanctuary of those homes where formerly the spirit was nourished by books of devotion and profane works filled with hypocrisy or stupid domestic morality, lacking in all dignity and beauty.”

It is fairly evident from this statement that Galdós holds the interference of the Church in society and politics to be responsible for Spain’s degeneration. His quarrel is not with personal religion, not even with the reasonable administration of public worship by the secular clergy. He is very clear upon that point. But his protest is against the shams, the delusions, the ignorance, which Spanish Catholicism has fostered for its own advantage; and in the second place, against the interference of ecclesiastical machinery with the life of the family and the policy of the nation. Galdós, then, is a polemical writer. We see at once his field of operations. Without any theory of the universe to hamper him, he strikes off red-hot his arraignments of national abuses.

Like his great countrymen, Velasquez and Lope de Vega, Galdós thinks and works simultaneously. The novel grows under his very pen. He works with prodigious rapidity: some years have seen as many as five of his novels come from the press. Such a man could hardly be a stylist, nor does Galdós covet the reputation of the dignified and elegant Valera. To Galdós the idea is the main thing. On turning to his own works, we are struck by the tremendous force of his revolutionary sentiments. His novels and plays ordinarily present a protagonist as the disputed prey of the darkness of the past, and the brightness of the future. The darkness of the past is made more visible by the paralyzing contact of Spanish Catholicism; the future is lighted by the rays of applied science and a personal philosophy. In this survey of Galdós’s work we pass over the twoscore volumes of the Episodios nacionales, an unparalleled series of historical novels, upon which their author has been engaged for thirty years. They are naturally objective, and hence fall without our sphere. But in the far greater Novelas contemporáneas, such as Gloria, Doña Perfecta, León Roch, and Angel Guerra, Galdós discusses matters of contemporary import. In one form or another he reverts to the vital question of ecclesiastical interference in mundane affairs, to the human wretchedness which has resulted because the Church has not restricted its interest to the care of the soul.

As early as 1877, in Gloria, one of his novels most admired in Spain, Galdós breaks out thus: “Religion! Still the same horrible goblin that continues to torment us! Terrible Shadow cast by our conscience, everywhere we meet it; it does not allow us one free idea, one sentiment, one step of our own volition. It is, in truth, a tremendous fact that what comes from God sometimes seems more like a curse.” At the end of the long novel, in commenting upon that dramatic strife between common sense and religious intolerance which had caused the death of the heroine, Galdós cries out, “The awful quarrel has endured, endures still, and will endure, and before it is settled many other Glorias will succumb, offering themselves as victims to satisfy the formidable monster which stands midway between History and Philosophy, — a monster which has no name, but which, if it had one, would take one by joining the most beautiful thing in the world, Religion, with the vilest thing, which is Discord. Yes, many Glorias will succumb, snatching themselves away from a world which they find hateful because of its conflicts, and hastening to present their cause before the absolute Judge.”

The vivid pictorial language just quoted is characteristic of Galdós when he launches into one of his impassioned arraignments of human folly. It must be remembered that his virulence is not without reason. Feeling runs high in Spain to-day upon the two great matters of common import, politics and religion. Not only in the pulpits and in the national assemblies, but in the clubs and in the tertulias, in private conversation everywhere, the attention is monopolized by enthusiasts upon one or the other of these disputed topics.

Is it not strange that the two subjects most commonly avoided in our American society should be those which are most continually discussed in Spain ? Discussion instead of action is the curse of the Spanish people. It is natural, then, that the serious and thoughtful Galdós, concerned for the intellectual emancipation of his nation, should frequently return to the charge in the hope of inciting his readers to action after all this futile discussion. In his usual pictorial style, he has recently said, “Spain is a bowl full of fishes whose water they have forgotten to change. So the poor little fishes are swimming about with their mouths open, eating each other’s food, breathing and maintaining life as best they may, with a thousand struggles, in their foul water.”

These words convey exactly the impression which any thoughtful observer must feel while conversing with young Spaniards in their own country. No people are more aware of the pitiful stagnation of national life, or more powerless to emerge from it. Galdós, as a practical and far-seeing man, believes that the welfare of the nation requires the religious and intellectual emancipation of the individual, the introduction of foreign ideas, and the development of the vast natural resources of the Peninsula.

Such a programme sounds simple enough to an American. But one must have lived in Spain to understand how difficult is its realization. We may be permitted to make one long quotation from Doña Perfecta to bring home the situation to foreign readers. The following conversation takes place between a young engineer, full of modern ideas, and a bigoted old priest in a provincial town. Though intentionally exaggerated for purposes of contrast, the dose of truth in the young reformer’s words is sufficiently strong to make the quotation bear upon our point. First, it is the canon who expresses himself thus: —

“Science as it is studied and taught by the moderns is the death of sentiment and of gentle illusions. With it the life of the spirit is straitened. Everything is reduced to fixed rules, and even the sublime beauties of Nature disappear. It is science that destroys the marvelous in the arts as well as faith in the soul. Science tells us that all is a lie, and seeks to express everything in ciphers and lines, not. only the sea and the land where we are, but also the highest Heaven where God is. The wonderful yearnings of the soul are only a kind of mystic ecstasy. The very inspiration of the poets is a delusion. The heart is a sponge, the brain only a nest of maggots.”

To which the young engineer makes reply: “It is all true that the canon has said in jest. But it is not our fault that science is breaking down day by day so many vain idols, such as superstitions, sophisms and the thousand impostures of the Past, some of them beautiful and others ridiculous, since there is a little of everything in the Lord’s vineyard. The world of illusions, which is a kind of secondary world, is falling down with a great noise. Mysticism in religion, routine in science, conventionality in the arts, are falling as the heathen gods fell, in the midst of jeering. Farewell, idle dreams! Mankind is waking up, and our eyes see clearly. Vain sentimentalism, mysticism, fever, hallucination, and delirium are disappearing, and the man who was once sick to-day is well, and revels with indescribable pleasure in the just appreciation of things. In whatever direction you turn your eyes, you will see the admirable system of reality which has taken the place of fable. . . . All fiction, whether it be called paganism or Christian idealism, no longer exists, and imagination is laid out in state. All possible miracles are reduced to those which I do when I please, in my laboratory, with a Bunsen pile, an inductive coil, and a magnetic needle. There are no more multiplications of loaves and fishes except those accomplished by industry with its moulds and machines, and those of the printingpress, which imitates Nature, reproducing from a single type millions of copies. In short, my dear sir, orders have been issued to put out of business all the absurdities, falsities, illusions, dreams, sentimentalities, and prejudices which cloud man’s understanding. Let us rejoice that it is so.”

To us, so far removed from mediævalism in this respect, such a difference of opinion as that herein indicated must seem preposterous. But in Spain it actually exists. Nay more, it exists in the bosom of families, tearing them apart and dividing them by a wide gulf of misunderstanding and lack of intellectual sympathy. The eighteenth-century feud between theology and science has not yet been patched up.

Such a review as this of recent Spanish fiction has not served, perhaps, to bring out the many lovable traits of the Spanish character. To know this character is to love it. Nor have the bright possibilities for the future development of national prosperity been more than hinted at. Signs are not lacking, however, that with a better system of education, the elimination of “graft” from government jobs, the exploitation of mining and agriculture, and, most important of all, an injection of energy and ambition into the rising generation, — a renaissance awaits Spain in the twentieth century.

This review will at least have served to indicate the two definite preoccupations of the modern Spanish novel: to give a clean and faithful picture of old Spain, which is still the Spain of the Present, and to present dramatically the momentous problems of Church and Society which are occupying the intelligent men of the nation.

The greatest claim of the Spanish novel is that it is of the soil and that it has something to say. For the American reader who has exhausted the repertoire of French, German, Italian, and Russian fiction, a rich field of information and delight is waiting in the Spanish novel.