I have now completed the project of reading Benito Pérez Galdós’ five series of novels generically known as the Episodios nacionales (1872-1912), which I started back in January 2017. I could have finished earlier but I have delayed reading the last series about half a year because I wanted to keep attached to Galdós’ lucid view of 19th century Spanish History for as long as possible. It has been an immense pleasure, though also a disheartening lesson about who we are here in this corner of Southern Europe.
To my surprise, when I told a colleague in the Spanish Department that I was about to finish the Episodios–a big smile on my face, hoping the revelation would bring a torrent of positive comment–he asked me with total puzzlement ‘but why? You’re a specialist in English Studies!’. I must have looked so confused that he added ‘I mean, few researchers in Spanish Literature have read the Episodios, so why have you put yourself through the task?’ This left me utterly flabbergasted. If a colleague in the Spanish Department announced to me that s/he had read the complete works of Charles Dickens, I would offer congratulations, not commiseration. Poor don Benito, everyone still believes he is a ‘garbancero’–a chickpea merchant!–as Valle Inclán maliciously called him. Or perhaps with a little bit of envy, who knows?
I have read the Episodios using my Kindle (the 46 novels are available from dominiopublico.com in a rather nice edition) and, so, I cannot tell how thick each paper volume is. The 2005 Alianza paperback edition is about 200 pages per book. Considering that I read fast, each episode has taken me between 3 and 4 hours, a bit longer in some cases. To round numbers, that’s 184 hours or, if you want to stretch it a bit more, let’s say 200 hours. That would be the equivalent of about 100 films or 267 TV series episodes (45 minutes each, American style). This is like watching all of The X-Files (150 episodes) and Lost (118), which I have done, to my immense regret in the case of Lost (because of its moronic ending). I’m offering this information, silly as it may sound, in case you might consider joining the club of the Episodios’ admirers, whether you’re a specialist in Spanish Literature, in Quantum Physics, or a plain reader.
Galdós’ Episodios are a series, and although they were published along four decades (which means that original readers in their twenties finished them in their sixties!) they can be read as a single story, as I have done, in the same spirit we watch series on the screen. Reading, of course, is more demanding than watching, no matter how easily Galdós’ prose can be followed (which does not mean it is simple), but, on the whole, I get the impression that writers like Dickens and Galdós prefigure somehow current TV series. Today perhaps they would have been series’ screenwriters, something quite easy to imagine because both loved the theatre and were proficient at writing dialogue, on which all screen writing logically depends.
Reading the Episodios is a double experience in readerly endurance (and satisfaction) and in historical awareness. Galdós had an obvious didactic intention, expressed on these two fronts: he combines the specific lives of his attractive characters (I mean as rounded creations, not as physically beautiful persons, though they often are) with his cleverly managed History lessons. Instead of directly placing well-known historical figures at the centre of each episode, his protagonists are fictional characters in touch with their real-life counterparts one way or another. This creates a wonderful effect, for the Episodios deal both with the History shaped by the great figures and with the history of the more ordinary people around them–the novels are not a dry lesson enlivened by using historical characters in a puppet-like fashion but a slice of life. At the same time, Galdós’ technique incites you to consider what it would be like to turn current political life into fiction in this way, with the likes of King Felipe VI, Carles Puigdemont or Pablo Iglesias in the pages of a novel focused on someone very much like any of us, working as our delegate in the texts.
Most likely, the Episodios are best appreciated in a second reading, for the cast of characters is simply impressive and I suspect that many connections between them are missed in the process of simply getting on with the long reading. Many things have surprised me, above all that Galdós’ is far more open about sexuality than one may imagine for a late 19th/early 20th century Spanish writer, not only regarding his male characters but also the women. Another strong point is his ability to connect high and low, so that as readers we get to meet monarchs but also many marginal characters, with some even rising from rags to riches along several episodes.
The historical span is, of course, also enormous, for the series opens with Trafalgar (the battle took place in 1805) and closes with Cánovas (Antonio Cánovas del Castillo was the Spanish ‘Presidente del Consejo de Ministros’ several times between 1875 and 1897). This also means that whereas in the case of the first novel Galdós was writing about events happened 65 years before, the time lag had been reduced to 15 years when he wrote the last one. Incidentally, it must be noted that the fifth series is incomplete, running only to six rather than ten volumes, though I have been unable to find an explanation for why Galdós abandoned the Episodios. His last decade (he died in 1920) was particularly intense, specially after being elected an MP for his native Gran Canaria in 1914 (as a republican) when he was an ill, blind man past 70. That might be explanation enough.
The main doubt I felt before embarking on my reading of the Episodios was whether they demand from the reader a sound knowledge of Spanish History. I have not done any systematic study of this area since my years in secondary school and I’m far more confident naming the periods and monarchs of British History than of Spanish History. Our 19th century is, besides, an unbelievable chaos, with constant changes in the Government and administration, the series of civil wars provoked by the absolutist ultra-Catholic Carlists, and the love-hate relationship with the reigning Borbón dynasty. This resulted in the exile of Isabel II, the crowning of Italian Amadeo de Saboya as her unlikely replacement, and the disastrous first Republic–a complete shambles. Galdós, as I soon saw, has a transparent informative style and, so, I needed no textbook on the basics of 19th century Spanish History. I have used Wikipedia often, sometimes to check that specific events happened as Galdós narrates them (they did), other times to take a look at portraits of real-life characters. A scant knowledge of the 19th century complex political background is, then, no excuse but perhaps even an advantage to follow Galdós’ excellent History lessons.
As I have noted, the Episodios cover basically the whole 19th century. Read at the beginning of the 21st, with the memory of the calamitous 20th century still recent and with Pedro Sánchez’ Government struggling to bury Francisco Franco’s remains elsewhere (an anonymous ditch on any lonely road seems ideal), Galdós’ voice sounds poignant and ominous. The mere presentation of the pathetic, backward Spain he describes is depressing enough but the occasional authorial comments about, for instance, the absurdity of the carnage caused by the Carlist wars, highlight how we are collectively condemned to repeating the same mistakes. You see the Civil War (1936-39) coming already in the first Carlist War (1833-40), and I marvel that the Borbón monarchs have managed to stay on the throne in view of how their ancestors misbehaved.
Although the fifth series was never finished, as I have noted, the last novel, Cánovas, contains an often quoted pseudo-conclusion. Once Parliamentary monarchy had been installed under Alfonso XII and a democratic two-party system set, with Cánovas on the conservative side and Práxedes Mateo Sagasta on the liberal one, Galdós concludes: “Los dos partidos que se han concordado para turnar pacíficamente en el poder, son dos manadas de hombres que no aspiran más que a pastar en el presupuesto. Carecen de ideales, ningún fin elevado les mueve, no mejorarán en lo más mínimo las condiciones de vida de esta infeliz raza pobrísima y analfabeta. Pasarán unos tras otros dejando todo como hoy se halla, y llevarán a España a un estado de consunción que de fijo ha de acabar en muerte. No acometerán ni el problema religioso, ni el económico, ni el educativo; no harán más que burocracia pura, caciquismo, estéril trabajo de recomendaciones, favores a los amigotes, legislar sin ninguna eficacia práctica, y adelante con los farolitos…” (original ellipsis)
The death foreseen in this passage, caused by the inaction of the two parties which these men headed, gave me a terrible chill, for, of course, this is the Civil War with its million dead, still 25 years ahead on the horizon when Galdós wrote these words. At the same time, the same ills still abound in current politics, though Spain is today richer and less illiterate. For all these reasons, I certainly would make the Episodios compulsory reading at least for aspiring politicians and then for the rest of us. As historian George Santayana once stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. It is less than one year ago that I read the words ‘Civil War’ in relation to current Spain in the pages of The Guardian. An exaggeration, hopefully, but also a reminder that we are locked in the same conflicts that Galdós narrates and that brought so much misery 80 years ago.
Among recent academic work on the Episodios I’d like to mention Mary A. Kempen’s PhD dissertation Concepts of the Nation and Nationalism in Benito Pérez Galdós’s Episodios Nacionales (2007, U. Wisconsin). The same American university awarded a PhD to Glenn Ross Barr back in 1937 for his pioneering dissertation A Census of the Characters of the Episodios Nacionales of Benito Pérez Galdós (618 pages!). Checking Worldcat and other sources, it is easy to see that a great deal of the academic analysis of the Episodios has been produced in English by Hispanists in the United States. I’ll add, for good measure, Mary Louise Coffey’s The Episodios Nacionales: A Sociological Study of the Historical Novels of Benito Pérez Galdós (1997, Northwestern University).
In contrast, TESEO only offers three titles of dissertations on the Episodios written in Spain, all on partial aspects such as the press, communications and the most recent one, youth and childhood (2017). Happily, there is at least one notable collective volume, La historia de España en Galdós: Análisis y procesos de elaboración de los Episodios nacionales (U Vigo, 2012), edited by M. Dolores Troncoso Durán, Salvador García Castañeda and Carmen Luna Sellés. It seems, however, very little homage, on the whole, to Galdós’ magnificent achievement from his fellow Spaniards. Perhaps he makes us feel uncomfortable with our shortcomings and he is easier to approach from other cultures, such as the United States.
Trust me: if you’re minimally interested in understanding Spain, the Episodios nacionales are what you need. They’re not a dried-up mummy but a living body, worth the effort of reading them–if that is an effort at all. Stay away from Netflix and use the 200 hours you were going to waste on all those series going nowhere to read Galdós’ own unique series. Or bully Netflix into adapting the Episodios…
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