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TRISTANA by Benito Pérez Galdós


by Benito Pérez Galdós ; translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59017-765-5
Publisher: New York Review Books

This love triangle presents a distinctive heroine but more archaic melodrama than those outside academia are likely to enjoy.

A major 19th-century (1843-1920) Spanish writer, Galdós (Misericordia, 2014, etc.) is often ranked second only to Cervantes. This 1892 novel may be familiar from the 1970 Luis Buñuel film of the same name. Set in Madrid, the story begins shortly after the title character is taken in as a teen orphan by an aging Don Lope as he is winding down from years of heedless seduction. She succumbs to his practiced charms and becomes his last great conquest but by age 21 recognizes the limitations of life as a mistress. A chance encounter leads her into a passionate and rather gawky affair with a young painter named Horacio. She refuses, though, to accept another set of fetters. She casts about for a way to keep her lover while becoming independent and productive, mulling at different times painting, music and acting. Galdós’ liberal leanings shape a female iconoclast in the land of machismo. He lays it on thick by making Don Lope an unlikely Lothario of taste, intelligence and Old World gallantry, if not chivalry—there is much of Don Quixote in him without the delusions and innocence. Horacio plays the perfect shallow romantic hero: a handsome artist with money, a house on the coast, a great tan and a bottomless patience for Tristana’s restless ambition. When the young lovers must endure a period of separation, the reader must endure many pages of letters filled with pet names, cute puns and painless torments. Galdós is most interesting and least predictable in the psychological shifts and byplay between Don Lope and Tristana, but the book would need a lot more of that to mute the emotional megaphone of the rest.

A strong entry for a college course on feminism and literature, this is too contrived and didactic to do well outside the world of required reading.