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Back catalogue #11 – Emilia Pardo Bazán, “The House of Ulloa” (1886)

Back catalogueOn top of being the smartest woman writer of her time, a resourceful columnist, a scholar of Christian mysticism, and a self-proclaimed authority on Galician traditional recipes, lady Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921) just so happens to be the prime mover of Spanish naturalismo and one of its finest theorists to date. At a time when B-tier Zola clones had scarcely begun to pop up in Madrid, her essay collection La cuestión palpitante and her feuilletons from Paris provided a balanced and passionate if quite idiosyncratic reckoning with the problems of the “experimental novel”. Her distinguished contemporary and critic, Leopoldo Alas aka “Clarín”, was possibly a more accomplished master of form and plot development, as forever established by his 1885 masterpiece, La regenta, but in the long run, despite her occasional changes of heart, the ever buoyant and uncannily productive Pardo Bazán had more to show for her lifetime work than any of her Castilian rivals.

Whether Los pazos de Ulloa [The House of Ulloa, 1886] is her best or most representative book can be debated, but it is arguably her best known and most beloved (unless one has had to study it in school, which still happens in Spain). Additionally, it is an excellent example of Spanish “naturalism” at its most peculiar and idiomatic. It is a crying shame that no modern edition this side of the recent and expensive Obras completas reproduces the Autobiographical notes that served as a preface to the original print run of the Pazos, because those 30-40 pages make for a pleasurable reading and are a priceless historical document. Without a clear understanding of the spiritual and strategic significance of the French novel for the post-1868 generation of Spanish intellectuals (to which doña Emilia rightfully belongs), it can be hard to establish what the aspiring writers of the mid-1880s were really trying to accomplish.

With the possible exception of epigones like Sawa or López Bago, none of these authors ever went in for the sordid big city imagery that is commonly associated with post-Assommoir “real life” literature in Europe. Like early Zola in his Plassans novels, Castilian naturalism was always most comfortable with the low-key picturesque of provincial life. Even in her ruthless epic of female factory workers, La tribuna (1883), Pardo Bazán managed to strike a humane, sympathetic, and ultimately cordial tone. Her “naturalism”, like Clarín’s, was more about abrasive social description and frankness in matters of morals and sexuality than brutal anti-idealism or would-be scientific theories. She unapologetically wrote about problems that few had addressed before, but her gaze was an anthropologist’s, not an entomologist’s. When she pushed the boundaries of the novel’s subject matter to include such themes as concubinage, pre-nuptial pregnancy, rape, and illness, this did not happen out of a morbid fascination for the lower aspects of the animal condition, but followed from a quasi-Terentian commitment to all that was human or could be.

Like many a social novel from the late nineteenth century, Los pazos de Ulloa is a requiem for the disintegrating landed aristocracy. A “pazo”, vernacular corruption of “palacio” (a nobleman’s country residence), was a quintessentially Galician form of agrarian feudal property. When the indecisive and chicken-hearted don Julián, a priest, is hired as a private secretary by the last of the Ulloa family, however, this archaic remnant of Spain’s pre-modern history has all but reverted to nature. The buildings are dilapidated, the bloodline is sterile, the archive is infested with vermin, and the social hierarchy is strangely subverted. As don Julián and the reader gradually come to realize, power is not wielded by the master, the weak-willed marquis of Ulloa, but has been usurped and is secretly exercised by his cunning, brutal, and tyrannical plenipotentiary. An elderly peasant whose name – of all names – is Primitivo (primeval), the hunter and brigand makes an unforgettable villain and is by far the most fascinating character in the book. Fear, usury, and sex are the strings this cunning manipulator pulls to assert his undisputed influence, under a mask of subservience and obtuseness. Through the graces of his foxy daughter Sabel, the house’s seductive maidservant, Primitivo has even gained control of the ancestral Ulloa bloodline, in the person of the marquis’s natural child, Perucho – half pagan god, half little savage.

[I servizi di Sul Romanzo Agenzia Letteraria: Editoriali, Web ed Eventi.

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Emilia Pardo Bazán, Los pazos de UlloaWhen the marquis decides to shake off his apathy and marry a cousin from the city, he is quickly made to understand – to don Julián’s horror – that the power of nature over civilization is not at all easy to break. The innocent bride will have to learn how hard the iron grip of this nameless domination can turn out to be. In the cruel and archaic Galician countryside, even a quintessentially modern historical event like the 1868 Spanish revolution (a regular background fixture in Pardo Bazán’s narratives) is warped into a conspiracy of local hoodlums. Retribution will strike in the end, but not as a prelude to redemption. There is scarcely any light at the end of this tunnel. Characteristically, the one figure that provides integrity and moral perspective, the naive and powerless priest who serves as point of view, is at the same time the most passive, weak, and helpless. Doña Emilia was a devout Catholic, but there are times when the hulking stone cross that towers above the crossroads to Ulloa resembles a hostile prehistoric cromlech.

There is something irresistible about stories of old dilapidated mansions in which strange and dark things happen. They abound in British fiction, but have some interesting counterparts in southern and eastern European literature as well (think Fogazzaro’s Malombra). This particular sub-genre of the nineteenth-century novel reflects the objective social and economic decline of the European landed aristocracy and the dissolution of feudal power-structures in the burgeoning bourgeois age. How many novels about impoverished noblemen and rapidly disintegrating properties have been published between 1830 and the 1930sIn the specific cultural atmosphere of the mid-1880s, dominated by French literary models, Pardo Bazán’s spin on the subject provided plenty of opportunities to explore the “human beast” and the dialectic of history and nature from a quintessentially Spanish point of view, doing what she did best: combine a convincing narrative with vivid observations, life-like characters, unforgettable genre sketches, and generous helpings of costumbrismo (including a few hilarious jabs at the rural clergy of Galicia).

For all her devotion to Edmond de Goncourt, Pardo Bazán was no master stylist: she just wrote very well. So naturally and adeptly, in fact, that one tends to forget how good she really was and how fresh her prose still feels to this day. Her sentences are rich, spontaneous, and flowing, but always to the point. Her scenes are poignant and full of colorful details. She had no use for the theatricals of le roman romanesque, and was all too glad to sacrifice cheap dramatic effects and artificial closure to the more elliptic horizontal composition by “tableaux” that Flaubert had brought into fashion in the late 1850s. Uninterested in copy-pasting from French archetypes, however, she never ceased to experiment with varying combinations of technical possibilities. If her “naturalism” was in fact realism with an extra punch, her later “decadent” novels were naturalism taken to the next level. Pardo Bazán always knew what was new (it was her job as a journalist and critic), but she was never interested in cultural trends per se.

Over decades of subdued but enduring success, Los pazos de Ulloa was translated into most European languages and has been more or less in print ever since. No less than a Penguin edition is available to English readers at the moment. In France and Germany, the novel is packaged as a minor classic for discerning readers, the kind that goes in obscure collections of “world literature”. To no one’s surprise, the funnily mistitled Italian translation (Petty squires of Galicia, if you please!) has not been reprinted in half a century. If at all possible, however, the thing ought to be read in the original Spanish. Part of the local color is conveyed through the colloquialisms, galicianisms, solecisms, and assorted linguistic quirks that jazz up the characters’ speech. The heavily annotated Cátedra edition does a good job of helping the non-initiated negotiate this particular regional hurdle.

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