CHARLES AND BENITO: A CELEBRATION OF INFLUENCE

My title throws a barb at Harold Bloom’s famous ‘anxiety of influence’ theory from his 1973 book. Bloom argued in it that poets are prompted to write in awe and admiration of particular predecessors. They, however, always struggle to find their own voice, fearing that they can only produce imitations of their chosen masters; hence, they labour under a constant ‘anxiety of influence’. In contrast, the attitude that Spanish novelist Benito PĂ©rez GaldĂłs (1843-1920), showed towards his much admired Charles Dickens (1812-1870) seems to have been always celebratory–perhaps because from the very beginning GaldĂłs had a clear voice of his own and also because there was no way 19th century Spain could be depicted exactly as Dickens depicts his native England.

I wrote a post back in 2012 (4th November) on the similarities between the young Charles Dickens and our own Romantic genius Mariano JosĂ© de Larra, based on their showing a similar ‘zest for city life’ as journalist flĂąneurs. I did not know then about the literary connections between GaldĂłs and Dickens, though having read half a dozen novels by GaldĂłs and almost the full dozen by Dickens this should have been obvious to me. Possibly, GaldĂłs’ ‘castizo’ characters threw me off the path.

What has brought me back to it is my very enjoyable reading of Galdós’ quirky first novel, La Fontana de Oro, published in 1870, the same year Dickens died–yes, a peculiar coincidence, or yet another proof of Spain’s cultural belatedness. It might well be that this is Galdós’ closest imitation of Dickens. Suddenly, it was crystal clear to me that the Spanish novelist was applying literary strategies learned from the English master to his first attempt at narrating chaotic Spain. The colourful character descriptions, the fine attention to the grotesqueries of life, the droll authorial stance, the intense hatred for those who live to oppress others
 all sounded familiar. Dickens would have loved it.

As it turns out, there is proof of Galdós’ admiration for Dickens: he translated into Spanish his first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (a.k.a. The Pickwick Papers, 1836). Galdós was just 24, he cheekily claimed to know English and found a gullible editor in a Spanish newspaper who believed him. As diverse academics have proved, though, he actually translated Dickens from the French (see for instance https://mdc.ulpgc.es/cdm/ref/collection/galdosianos/id/1210). The result, Ricardo Bada laments (https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/cultura/cuando-galdos-tradujo-dickens-articulo-324923), is appalling
: “es una catástrofe literariamente homologable con la marítima del infeliz Titanic”. Galdós never translated a work again, though he seems to have been able to read in English and was no doubt well-acquainted with the work of other English writers beyond Dickens.

In his Memorias de un desmemoriado (1915-6), GaldĂłs recalls his trip to England in 1889 to visit Shakespeare’s house. In an often quoted passage he recalls visiting as well Dickens’ grave in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey: “Consideraba yo a Carlos (sic) Dickens como mi maestro mĂĄs amado. En mi aprendizaje literario, cuando aĂșn no habĂ­a salido yo de mi mocedad petulante, apenas devorada La comedia humana, de Balzac, me apliquĂ© con loco afĂĄn a la copiosa obra de Dickens. Para un periĂłdico de Madrid traduje el Pickwick, donosa sĂĄtira, inspirada, sin duda, en la lectura de El Quijote. (
) Depositando la flor de mi adoraciĂłn sobre esta gloriosa tumba me retiro del panteĂłn de Westminster”. The literary loop is thus nicely closed: Dickens learned from Cervantes and GaldĂłs learned from him.

I have not read Pickwick Papers yet, which will complete my pet project of reading all the novels Dickens published–then, the short fiction. Reading GaldĂłs’ novel about the ‘trieno liberal’ of 1820-3 and the simply nauseating figure of King Fernando VII, I realized I know very little about the complicated Spanish 19th century. A perfect solution to this shameful blank is, of course, reading GaldĂłs’ series Episodios nacionales. Now, here’s the rub: the series, which famously begins with Trafalgar, runs to 46 novels, published between 1872 and 1912. Don Benito’s complete list of publications runs to more than 100 titles, not including a long list of essays, plays and short stories… Someone should do research on why and how certain writers are so prolific. Is it a mutation in the brain? I also wonder about the kind of readership and book market capable of absorbing so much from the same pen.

The acerbic Valle InclĂĄn dubbed GaldĂłs ‘Don Benito el Garbancero’ as I learned back in secondary school when my wonderful teacher Ana Oltra made us read GaldĂłs’ Tormento. I read Valle InclĂĄn’s play Luces de Bohemia the following year, 1984, and saw it in the theatre with some classmates–we were very different from today’s teens, I guess… this was no school outing but our own idea. ‘Garbancero’ has no apt English translation beyond ‘chickpea dealer’ though Valle InclĂĄn used its second sense: ‘vulgar’. Although my teacher was quite a Galdosian fan, and I loved Tormento much better than Luces de Bohemia, the prejudiced sobriquet somehow stayed with me. It was nevertheless dispelled by TVE’s excellent 1980 adaptation of GaldĂłs’ masterpiece Fortunata y Jacinta (see the series here https://www.rtve.es/television/fortunata-jacinta/), a product of a now defunct time when TV did offer highly cultured entertainment. This was our Brideshead Revisited (1981) and I count myself fortunate that these smashing series are part of my literary biography. I doubt even BBC would be up to the task of adapting the Episodios nacionales but I certainly do not see RTVE attempting even to adapt any other of GaldĂłs’ novels. Instead, we are being offered the crude period soap operas that dominate afternoon TV (Amar es para siempre, El secreto de Puente Viejo and so on…). That is ‘garbancero’.

Charles Dickens, by the way, was also labelled ‘garbancero’, though in this case by an illustrious academic. The Modernists regarded him mostly as an example of the ills that the commercialization of the novel inflicted on highbrow Literature throughout the 19th century. As the Modernist-inspired leading academic F.R. Leavis sentenced in The Great Tradition (1948), his reason “for not including Dickens in the line of great novelists” was that, though great, his was the genius “of a great entertainer, and he had for the most part no profounder responsibility as a creative artist than this description suggests” (1950: 18)–he was, in short, a ‘garbancero’. Leavis only concluded as late as 1970 that Dickens was also a great ‘creative artist’ in Dickens the Novelist. Luckily, the BBC never doubted that and has so done much to undo Prof. Leavis’ unfortunate early judgements.

So, back to the beginning, Galdós’ love for his master Dickens can be called a ‘celebration’ of influence, rather than anxiety. I am not denying the widespread existence of this ‘anxiety’–think of Martin Amis comparing himself to his novelist father Kingsley if you need an example. I am just claiming that literary anxiety has a potent counterpart in avowed, gleeful admiration–though I would grant that only a genius like Galdós can turn his awe for a master into unrestrained inspiration and, ultimately, an equally potent voice of his own.

When 2043 arrives and Spain gets the chance to celebrate GaldĂłs’ bicentenary as joyfully as the British celebrated Dickens’ own back in 2012, we can discuss how the two cultures compare when it comes to celebrating the literary best they have produced…

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