“He was a great writer, but very irregular”

Mario Vargas Llosa took advantage of the pandemic to fulfill a task that had been pending for many years: reading the complete works of Benito Perez Galdos. she had read Fortunate and Jacinta in his student days, but he was unaware of the rest of his work. In 18 months he read all her plays, her novels and, of course, her national episodesleaving aside his enormous journalistic production, which “passed without pain or glory, as something transitory and superficial.”

All those hours of reading have not fallen on deaf ears nor have they been exclusively for the Hispano-Peruvian Nobel laureate’s own profit, but have borne fruit in the form of a literary essay in which Vargas Llosa has expressed his impressions of Galdosian literature, work by work. . Its titled The Still Gaze (by Pérez Galdós)It is published, like the rest of his books, by the Alfaguara label, and it was presented this Thursday at the Ateneo de Madrid, that temple of arts and letters that the Canarian writer frequented so much, who was his partner number 2,762 for 55 years .

This is the ninth book that Vargas Llosa dedicates to the study of other writers, after having done so with Rubén Darío (his doctoral thesis, published as a book in 2001), García Márquez, Victor Hugo, Borges, Onetti, Flaubert and José María Arguedas, as well as Joanot Martorell and his novel of chivalry Throwing the White.

The editorial director of Alfaguara, Pilar Reyes, has revealed the content of an email in which Andres Trapiello —who will present the book together with its author as the opening ceremony of the Night of the Books in Madrid, the next April 22—, qualifies Vargas Llosa’s book as “shrewd”, “unprejudiced”, “free” and “passionate”, since the author of conversation in the cathedral He has read Galdós like any other author, without any type of imposition for being someone so established in the canon of Spanish literature.

In four or five pages each, Vargas Llosa comments on all of Galdós’s novels, from the first, The shadow (1870), “a rather wild story, without power of persuasion” and in which everything that happens “is delirious”, until the last, the enchanted knight (1909), “a cute nonsense with which Pérez Galdós bids farewell to the fictional genre”. The Golden Fountain (1871), his second novel, is “longer and more complex than the first, though not much more successful.” The popular Marianela it is “a good novel” although “the prose falls into the goodness”. Tristana is “one of the best”, and Fortunate and Jacintathe novel that critics and the public consider the most important book by Benito Pérez Galdós, is also for Vargas Llosa “his best novel and one of the most important that have been written in Spain”, although “it is useless to compare it with the Quixote of Cervantes”.

Don Benito the chickpea

Vargas Llosa has once again recalled the little appreciation that so many contemporaries had for the work of Galdós. Famously called “chickpea” by Valle-Inclán, many considered his vulgar prose and the campaign that arose in his favor for the Swedish Academy to grant him the nobel prize for literature another objected against him which managed to gather more signatures than the first. That was probably the main reason why the author of Mercy he never won the highest award in universal literature, which he did, a century later, this new reader and commentator of his work.

Despite criticism from other writers, Pérez Galdós was an author enormously popularthanks especially to your national episodes. On the day of his burial, January 5, 1920, at least 30,000 people from Madrid accompanied his remains to the Almudena cemetery.

Vargas Llosa believes that Pérez Galdós was “a great writer”, even though he was “very irregular” and was not a stylist concerned with prose excellence. “He was not like Flaubertthat remade and remade each sentence. He had an idea for a novel, he transmuted it into words and he was happy with what came out of it”, he stated. “He wrote very uneven things, some masterpieces and others quite imperfect.”

However, “when he was right, he was right in a very remarkable way,” the writer stressed. “It is the case, of course, Fortunate and Jacintaperhaps the most important novel of the 19th century in Spain”. He has also highlighted Mercy as one of his best works, where he recorded the enormous difference between the privileged minority and the bulk of the population, who lived in poverty, in many cases extreme, in a city, Madrid, “which he got to know wonderfully well”. “The scenes of Mercy they are terrible and at the same time there is a humanity and a joy of living” that makes its way through the misery. In this sense, the novel reflects “characteristics that have to do fundamentally with the Spanish people.”

Strengths and weaknesses

Among the virtues of Galdós, Vargas Llosa extols his “great effort at objectivity”especially palpable in his national episodes. Galdós was a Republican and criticized the overwhelming presence of the Catholic Church in people’s private lives, but although it was to the detriment of his own political ideas, “he narrated the events as they occurred, with an extraordinary effort at impartiality.”

With the national episodesGaldós “wanted present in a comfortable, sympathetic and quite objective way the great events 19th century historical records in Spain, so that their compatriots would have access to them”. And he did it in “a way that is not exactly that of historians, but of a novelist who adds many episodes of his own and yet gives a fairly faithful panorama of what happened historically in those years.”

within the national episodesVargas Llosa highlights some of them “wonderfully” narrated, such as the Prime’s murder and the guerrilla training during the War of Independence.

The title of Vargas Llosa’s essay, the still gazerefers to a way of narrating that “freezes reality”. “Where it works, it is a virtue, although it does not always work”, admits the author of Pantaleon and the visitors. When it does, it is shown as an “effective” strategy in which “a single episode can make up an entire novel that is immobilized by prose.”

One of Galdós’s weakest points has to do with the figure of the storytellersays Vargas Llosa. “There is in Pérez Galdós a blindness regarding the great contribution of Flaubert, who invented an invisible narrator whom he compared to God because he must be everywhere and not be visible anywhere. It is something that Pérez Galdós did not understand or never practiced in his novels. in many of them the narrator was Galdós himselfwho presented himself as a character who told stories of the rest of the characters, but did not say how he had found out about their intimacies and how was it possible that he could relate the thoughts of others”, explains Vargas Llosa.

“Generally it happened as in the classics of the novel —continues the author—: he began narrating supposedly based on his own experience or based on information from third parties, but then he forgot himselfthe narrator character disappeared and continued narrating the story as if it were self-sufficient”.

Although Vargas Llosa acknowledges that Galdós narrated in a traditional way and was deaf to “the revolution that was taking place in those same days in the novel in other places”, “he had both an ease and a way of reaching different types of readers that few Spanish writers have had before him”.

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