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

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


A couple of months ago, El Confidencial published an interview with former film director and screenwriter Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2018-06-15/manuel-gutierrez-aragon-ojo-cielo-libro_1577791/). The occasion was the publication of his new novel El ojo del cielo, which focuses on four women in his native Cantabria’s Valle del Pas. I saw the interview by mid-July before taking my summer break but some pressing matter prevented me from reading it. Its title, however, “La cultura ya sólo interesa a las mujeres”, has kept nagging me these past weeks.

I got the impression from that title that Gutiérrez Aragón was showing his bitterness about how his very manly work is only appreciated by us women, those inferior creatures. It turns out, reading the interview as I should have done, that he’s expressing the opposite belief: regrettably, men are no longer interested in culture and, so, it’s thanks to women’s generous dedication that culture survives. Blame the journalist (Marta Medina) for distorting the interviewee’s words, hoping to catch more clicks on the link.

Gutiérrez Aragón (Torrelavega, 1942) has an illustrious career as film director and screenwriter, spanning the four decades between 1969 and 2007. He announced his retirement from cinema in 2008, winning the following year the prestigious Premio Herralde with his novel La vida antes de marzo. The new one, El ojo del cielo, is his fourth title. As an artist devoted to cinema, Gutiérrez Aragón has been the winner of an impressive list of major awards, among them a Festival of Berlin’s Silver Bear for Camada negra (1977), two Festival of San Sebastián’s Conchas de Oro for Demonios en el jardín (1982) and La mitad del cielo (1986), and a Goya to the Best Adapted Screenplay for Jarrapellejos (1988). He has a Medalla de Oro de la Academia de las Artes y las Ciencias Cinematográficas de España and the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes (both 2012). Why is all this information worth transmitting? A simple reason: if he feels pessimistic about the present and the future of culture because of its low allure for men, we need to listen, for he is a man of culture, and no doubt about it.

In the interview, Gutiérrez Aragón acknowledges that the great dreams of the Transition generation are gone, and that the youngest generation (the ones we call Millennials) must feel very frustrated. He’s very critical of directors like J.A. Bayona and Alejandro Amenábar and of their anglophone fantasy films, and quite bitter with a film business environment that would deny the likes of Ingmar Bergman any chance to direct. Even if winning the lottery allowed Gutiérrez Aragon to make a new film, this would mean nothing, he says, as nobody really cares for culture. Except women. “Right now,” he explains, “theatre, cinema and the novel are dominated by feminine consumption. I don’t think women have a particularly feminine and exclusive outlook; rather, they are keeping the flame of culture alive, women care about reading and going to the cinema. They are the ones in the book clubs, the ones you see on the seats”. Well, thanks for noticing!!

Another article in El Confidencial, “Todos los museos vacíos de España” (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2018-08-05/museos-vacios-espana-plan-desarrollo-publicos_1601237/) presents the average visitor as a woman in her forties. She alone is maintaining most Spanish museums open while, above all, male teenagers, families with young children and senior citizens above 65 (unless they visit as part of a group) stay away from them. I recently saw the excellent exhibition on Auschwitz in Madrid (open until 7 October) and I did notice that there were some pairs of teen girl friends visiting but not of teen boys. Of course, this was no place to see families with young children and, so, there were few but I would say that there was a majority of women, many on their own. Most men were accompanied by a woman friend or partner.

This is a common pattern whenever I attend any cultural activity: all are full of ageing ladies like yours truly, and conspicuously empty of young men. I will also stress that whenever I see two or three men together you can bet they are gay, which shows that the ones fast losing interest in culture are not all men but, specifically, heterosexual men. If you push me a little, it will come out: the individuals with little interest in culture are the patriarchal men who, realising that they cannot control it and that their opinions are not revered, reject culture as the territory of women and gay men. Hardly a new idea, but there it is.

In contrast, back in the 1980s when I was a young girl, I doubt that any secondary school lacked a pair of male heterosexual friends who knew everything about culture, and often used a snobbish approach to flirting with the less enlightened pretty girls. You could see that these guys were not really interested in culture since they would not discuss it with the better learned girls, pretty or otherwise. It seems that as more and more girls started exploring culture on their own, the patriarchal male snobs stopped seeing the point of erudition. There is, by the way, a delicious mockery of the type in this wonderful film, Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017). Interestingly, odious Kyle is played by Timothée Chalamet, who did a great job of playing the only truly cultured teen boy of recent fiction (novel and cinema): Elio in Call Me by Your Name. His story with Oliver, a young learned scholar in his twenties, is set in the 1980s. You can tell that today Elio would face a very hard time in high school, not so much for his sexual choices as for his truly amazing thirst for knowledge.

Culture, of course, comes in many manifestations and teen boys play a major role in many of its aspects, such as sports (including e-sports), music, comic and illustration, videogames, design, and so on. I assume that some teen boys still feel the urge to write Literature in any of its levels and genres, paint and sculpt, play classical music, sing opera, dance ballet… and all the many aspects of fine culture. I will also assume that increasing homophobia and misogyny are making it harder than ever for heterosexual teen boys to pursue careers which require great erudition in one aspect of high culture, unless their families, of course, are equally erudite. Despite Billy Eliot (2000), every time I attend my nieces’ dance festivals I see two boys for every forty girls, and you can tell which one asked his parents to register him for ballet school and which one did not (and was possibly forced by his mum).

I think I’ll blame in particular the obtuse masculinist sub-culture we import from the United States for the current terrifying transformation of European young men into active snubbers of culture, which is worse than being ignorant for no fault of your own. Constant bullying into patriarchal illiteracy is fast undermining young men’s contact with ambitious creativity and fast spreading the idea that learning can only appeal to women and gay men–never mind that some gays are also patriarchal and that not at all are highly sensitive, as the stereotype goes. The same applies to women: not all are eager to visit museums or jump at the chance of going to the theatre. I would say that the ones more interested in culture are a sub-set in each social class, with, perhaps, the main group in the upper working-class and the middle-class but not really in the upper classes. Just an educated guess.

A reader reacted to Gutiérrez Aragón’s comments complaining against political correctness and its imposition of a general mediocrity; despite the neutral nick, you can easily see that this is a man complaining against the production of culture by women, which is telling because Aragón refers specifically to women’s consumption, not production, of culture. Women have always been, one way or another, great consumers of culture, even when they were allowed to approach it only in small numbers. What is happening, then, is not really that women are flooding the territory of culture but that men are withdrawing at a ridiculous fast pace that will leave them stranded in the tiniest possible corner.

The Japanese universities that have fraudulently limited female students’ presence in their Schools of Medicine, with a 20-30% cap, (https://www.ft.com/content/54e98c1e-9c54-11e8-9702-5946bae86e6d) have been protecting, obviously, men’s entitlement to this area of knowledge. In the School of Humanities where I work, in contrast, young men have withdrawn willingly, leaving culture in the hands of their female peers in an 80%-20% proportion, or worse (for them, not for the young women). Funnily, many universities are running campaigns to increase the presence of female graduates above 20% in degrees like Engineering but nobody is telling young men that they should be interested in culture and in the Humanities. And they should, if only because a truly thriving culture must integrate a diversity of voices, and the male ones are also needed–without the patriarchal discourse. This is not mere political correctness but an active anti-patriarchal stance and plain logic: diversity cannot be built on a hierarchical basis, and this is what patriarchy is about, maintaining power-hungry hierarchy and privileging just a few.

The problem is that we are importing, also from the United States, a paralyzing model of male behaviour. Gutiérrez Aragón himself declares that, although he has written about women in some of his screenplays, he would not have focused on us if he had started his new novel after the #metoo campaign. The point of the campaign, however, is to out the harassers secretly dominating all areas of public life, including culture, not to gag all men into silence. You might like to see John Oliver’s interview with Professor Anita Hill (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHiAls8loz4), the woman who was so appallingly ill-treated back in 1991, when she outed U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas as a sexual predator. When Oliver tells her that many men are positively afraid of making a mistake which women might use against them, she coolly replies that only harassers should be afraid. The #metoo campaign has its dangers but the men who feel harassed by it should start considering how harassment has curtailed women’s lives, also in the domain of culture.

I bring this topic here up because there are many U.S. men claiming that the only solution for the #metoo ‘problem’ is a total separation of the gender spheres, not at all what is needed. This sounds, rather, like a poor excuse to retrench into ultra-patriarchal circles and end up creating new mutually exclusive cultures. They already exist, of course. As I have already written here, you don’t see middle-aged women queuing to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster or yelling with excitement at gamers’ conventions. But we all know this is not a problem because we are not wanted there anyway. The problem is the opposite: the increasing absence of (young) men in the kind of culture appealing to values which are not male-centred and patriarchal.

The article about the empty Spanish museums mentions a programme by the Museo Nacional de Escultura in Valladolid to attract male visitors: children visiting with their schools are given free tickets to visit the museum again with their father (not their mother!). I know what you are all thinking: most little girls will propose the plan to their fathers and charm them into accepting it; fewer little boys will try and even fewer will succeed. You can imagine their fathers. The day this Valladolid museum is crowded with father-son pairs will bring a victory for culture and a loss for patriarchy. This may sound odd, but, then, these are odd days in the anti-patriarchal frontline.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/