CHARLES AND MARIANO JOSÉ: A ZEST FOR (CITY) LIFE

A ridiculous moment in Dickens’s ‘paper’ (as he calls them) on a charity dinner in his Sketches by Boz (1836-37) provokes a strong sense of dèja vú. Soon I identify it with a memory of reading Mariano José de Larra’s articles back when I was a secondary-school student and again as an undegrad. Suddenly, I feel very thankful towards those who decided that I was mature enough to read Larra at 15, for that is a fond memory. As fond as that of later enjoying at 19 the whole collection of his 200 articles (within that massive survey course I mentioned two posts ago).

When I google Dickens and Larra together, though, I come up with very little. There’s a trivial article on Christmas dinners –mentioning Dickens’s tale A Christmas Carol and Larra’s acerbic report on overeating and bad table manners, “El castellano viejo.” Google Scholar throws up a couple of references to Lluís-Albert Chillón’s Literatura i periodisme: Literatura periodística i periodisme literari en el temps de la post-ficció (UAB/UJI/URV, 1999). It looks very interesting. As MLA returns zilch when I check “Dickens and Larra”, my guess is that Chillón’s might be the only volume where both writers are mentioned, even together in the same line, as (outstanding) practitioners of literary journalism.

WordReference tells me, as I suspected, that there’s no English translation for ‘costumbrismo’ though, very clearly, from a Spanish perspective (like Chillón’s) it’s easy to see that this is what Dickens produced in the Sketches. I marvel at how many of the characters and observations that later appear in his Oliver Twist are to be found in the Sketches: from the pompous parish beadle to the brutal ruffian with a dog, passing through the nightmarish suffering of the condemned at Newgate (and I have just read the first third). It’s really fascinating to see how Dickens used similar material for literary journalism and for literary fiction within the short span of a couple of years.

Larra (1809-1837) wrote a mediocre historical novel, El doncel de don Enrique el Doliente, which follows from his play Macías. He was more in the line of Walter Scott (1771-1832) than of Dickens (1812-1870). The dates show how, although he was Dickens’s contemporary, Larra belongs somehow to a previous literary generation, that of the Romantics, at least as a fiction writer (that’s 19th century Spain for you…). As a journalist, he’s indeed Dickens’s peer, though, as you may notice, he died the very same year Dickens finished the Sketches.

I still remember my brilliant secondary-school Spanish Literature teacher telling us cooly, with that glint in her eye, that Larra (the idiot!) shot himself dead minutes after his lover demaned that he returned the letters written during their adulterous (on both sides) love affair. He was only 27. His 5-year-old daughter, by the way, was the first to see the body (so much for having guns around the house, and for Romantic suicide). The Museo Romántico of Madrid stil exhibits the very pistol Larra used –a shocking sight!

On a trip to lift up his recurrent depression, Larra visited London in 1835, yet he never met Dickens, as ‘Boz’ was still a nobody. A pity, they would have liked each other. And I realise that this is what the dèja vú elicited: the memory of feeling as a very young reader that I liked Larra, in the sense that I liked the brain (or mind?) producing that writing as much as I like today Dickens, and for similar reasons. Here are two young men –Boz, Figaro– both very clever observers of their reality, which they portray under a stark light with a mixture of wryness and compassion. They both transmit an immense zest for life and an immense keenness on their task as recorders of the urban landscape that they daily examined. They do care.

Now that I’m 30 years older I can understand that whereas Dickens could cope with marital unhappiness and the ugly underside of English Victorian reality to die a most famous author at 58, Larra could not. His despair at Spain’s backwardness –not just Dolores Armijo’s rejection– was too much. That he chose to die by destroying his own brain says it all. How very Dickensian, in an odd sense.

Maybe one day someone will write one of those now fashionable novels or plays in which famous figures of the past meet and we’ll have young Boz and Figaro be amazed at each other, as I am at both.

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