NYRB Classics has done a wonderful service by publishing Tristana, a short 1892 novel by Benito Pérez Galdós and here translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. I reviewed the only available English translation of the novel prior to the NYRB edition (here), Tristana: Buñuel’s Film and Galdós’ Novel: A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film by Colin Partridge (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995) and found it to be a wonderful book full of Galdosian ambiguity and irony. If you haven’t read anything by Galdós, Tristana provides an interesting (and maybe problematic) introduction to the writer. It’s a book that the author seemed to dismiss before its release while many of his supporters and critics were left disappointed by the author’s unsatisfying (to them) ending.
Tristana follows the trials and tribulations of the youthful, orphaned Tristana and the two lovers in her life. The first lover is her guardian, Don Lepe, an aging Don Juan who couldn’t resist one last conquest of the young girl. The second lover is Horacio, a painter with a similar background as Tristana. The more time Tristana spends with Horacio, the more she tends to rebel against Don Lepe. She seeks to educate herself and develop her nascent talents, dreaming of a life of independence on her own terms. An illness and infection causes her to lose a leg, dashing many of her hopes for the future.
Tristana is often at the center of events, but she rarely develops beyond superficial changes. Even though she tries to advance, personally and professionally, she is always at the mercy of circumstances. Galdós often uses names to highlight a point or provide irony, and Tristana follows that pattern. Triste means gloom or sadness, the station in life she is consigned to after her parents die and she becomes Don Lope’s ward and eventual lover. The name also alludes to the mythical Tristan and the doomed love affair with Isolde, providing a foreshadowing of Tristana’s relationship with Horacio. In one of her letters to Horacio, Tristana summarizes many beliefs she expresses over the course of the novel:
I find the problem of my life more overwhelming the more I think about it. I want to be somebody in the world, to cultivate an art, to live by my own means. I’m so easily discouraged. Am I really attempting the impossible? I want to have a profession, and yet I’m useless, I know nothing about anything. It’s just awful.
My ambition is to not have to depend on anyone, not even on the man I adore. I don’t want to be his mistress — so undignified — or a woman maintained by a few men purely for their amusement, like a hunting dog; nor do I want the man of my dreams to become a husband. I see no happiness in marriage. To put it in my own words, I want to be married to myself and to be my own head of the household. I wouldn’t know how to love out of obligation; I can only promise constancy and endless loyalty in a state of total freedom. I feel like protesting against men, who have appropriated the whole world for themselves and left us women only the narrowest of paths to take, the ones that were too narrow for them to walk along . . .” (ellipsis in original)
Tristana had met Horacio by accident, continuing to meet him in secret. Don Lope knows something is going on, but refuses to stop it, knowing that no possible lover can compare to him. On this point, he’s right, although there’s plenty of irony in it, too. Horacio’s life started similar to Tristana’s situation. He was orphaned and raised by a strict grandfather. But when his grandfather dies, Horacio achieves financial security from the inheritance, allowing him to pursue his love of painting. His bohemian life in a Madrid suburb, though, is only playacting. He’s easily distracted by Tristana. He acts like a rebel but it’s Tristana that’s the real non-conformist. Tristana is nothing like he imagined his future wife would be like. A section of the novel traces letters exchanged by the lovers during a separation, and while they are apart Tristana deifies Horacio in her mind. There’s no way Horacio can live up to Tristana’s elevation of him and he disappoints her time and again, especially during her time of illness and convalescence.
In many ways, Don Lope (or more formally, Don Juan López Garrido), the aging Don Juan, steals the novel. He follows his own perverted chivalric code. His code has so many twists and turns he can’t always keep up with what he thinks he should believe, but he devoutly adheres to it just the same. He believes the younger generation vastly inferior to his own, yet he also acknowledges his declining health and virility. Tristana remarks on the dual consciences of Don Lope, who behaves like nobility or someone from the gutter depending on the situation. In a way, Don Lope drives Tristana into Horacio’s arms (and eventually his bed), but he knows she will return to him. He is able to triumph using his wiles and experience. Early on in the novel, the narrator (with a touch of Galdós’ irony) puts Don Lope in the dock and judges him:
If hell did not exist, it would be necessary to create one just for Don Lope, so that he could spend an eternity doing penance for his mockery of morality and thus serve as a perennial lesson for the many who, while without openly declaring themselves to be his supporters, are nonetheless to be found throughout this sinful world of ours.
Each of the three main characters claims to be a rebel in their own way. Don Lope holds himself outside of social institutions until poverty and old age change his ways. Tristana assets what she views as her rights — of education, of vocation, of shunning marriage — until she falls back on an offer of security. Horacio plays the bohemian until he discovers the joys of the landed gentry. Everyone relapses into the existing social power structures, but Tristana is the only one that doesn’t have a real choice in the matter.
In many of his novels Galdós was very critical of late 19th-century Spanish society, pointing out the limited roles available to women. Galdós’ former lover, novelist and activist Emilia Pardo Bazán, was vocal about her regret that Galdós failed to develop and focus on what she saw as the central concern of the novel — Tristana’s (and thus many Spanish women’s) loneliness and isolation due to the limited choices available to her. Bazán was especially disappointed in the heroine losing power while a traditional arrangement wins in the end. As Colin Partridge put it in his essay accompanying his translation, Galdós could have made Tristana a successful woman, like Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, a novel released at about the same time as Tristana, but the Madrid of the time didn’t afford the same opportunities as Chicago or New York. Galdós remains faithful to real life, avoiding an easy ideological resolution that would ring false.
As the Spanish critic and author Clarín (Leopoldo Alas) pointed out, Tristana’s immaturity and lack of development occurs because she is at the mercy of forces much more powerful than she could hope to overcome. She is doomed to non-fulfillment because of the imposed social conventions. In this way Tristana is very much like Alas’ heroine Ana Ozores in La Regenta, released just a few years later (and there are several more similarities in La Regenta found in Tristana, such as rapid aging in older men, seemingly caused by sexual conquests).
One of the quirks in the novel compared to Galdós’ other works (and Colin Partridge also points this out in his commentary), is that Tristana happens in Madrid’s sprawling suburb to the north—Chamberí. Instead of the usual crowded, bustling urban life in other of his novels Galdós’ isolates these characters outside of mainstream society. While the three main characters each stand in for something larger, the tie feels much looser than in Galdós’ other novels because of this isolation. In this sense I think Galdós achieved precisely what Bazán wanted to see. This is Tristana’s story, and it reflects exactly the same criticisms Bazán had. Does the ending satisfy? No, and that’s precisely the point. The characters don’t live happily ever after despite the ambiguous ending.
Galdós’ message is evasive, not because it is muddled but because his apparent points could be applied to more than his immediate topic. His commentary on the morality of the age shares the wish that people should be free to do as they please, but societal influences/power make people act counter to their interests. Yet all three characters are lacking something and fall back on societal norms, almost with relief and benefit. Tristana’s lot is the worst—she essentially says she is damaged goods, unfit for anything after Don Lope had his way with her. Yet she can never follow through on any attempt at independence, even with others trying to help her accomplish it. It’s a wonderful little novel because Galdós avoids an easy answer, not catering to ideological resolutions that would have felt false while still providing plenty of social commentary along the way. Very highly recommended.