(1843-1920) novelist, playwright, historian
Benito Perez Galdos was born on Grand Canary Island. He was the youngest of 10 children, and his mother was determined that he would be a lawyer, thereby bringing middle-class respectability to the family. Though an intelligent child and very talented in both the literary and visual arts, he did not apply himself at school and had no interest in being a lawyer. Nevertheless, when he was 18, his mother sent him to the University of Madrid to study law. Madrid was a true awakening for the young writer. Though Perez Galdos had spent most of his youth in the Canary Islands, it was Madrid that became the focus of his novels, and he eventually became the quintessential writer of that city in the 19th century.
In 1865, he abandoned law school and became a journalist for the newspaper The Nation. His years reporting on the news of Madrid served as a literary apprenticeship in that the skills he acquired later helped him to develop his incredible realism. After Madrid, Perez Galdos spent some time in Paris, where he began his first novel, The Shadow (1871), an odd phantasmagoric novel of psychological investigation. Its use of fantasy was uncharacteristic for Perez Galdos and the realist style he would develop.
In 1873 Perez Galdos wrote the first of a series of five works entitled National Episodes, in which he dramatizes events from 19th-century Spanish history as a way to explore issues of morality. In his concern for the moral character and national identity of Spain, he can be seen as a precursor and influence on the writers of the generation of 1898.
Perez Galdos’s historical interest became the major direction of his later works. Almost all of this series 46 novels depict the reality of his time or the recent past while commenting on how the forces of history affect individual lives. The Disinherited Lady (1881) is a perfect example. On the surface it is a realistic account of a woman’s life in late 19th-century Spain; however, it is also a symbolic meditation on how the Spanish tendencies of self-deception and dreaming have led to certain political tragedies.
Later in his career, such novels as Compassion (translated 1962) would turn to examine more closely issues of the spirit and faith. Perez Galdos continued to write in the realist mode, of which he was an exceptional master, but now, instead of layering his realism with political and historical ideas, his books began to focus on the metaphysical forces behind life.
Perez Galdos wrote to illuminate the relationships between the individual and the forces of society. Those forces variously took the forms of history or metaphysical questions in his novels; however, they always represented the vast interconnected web of forces that make up reality. He could be compared to the French novelist balzac. The two authors were exacting realists who used realism in an attempt to communicate their visionary insights.
Other Works by Benito Perez Galdos
The Golden Fountain Cafe. Translated by Walter Rubin. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1989.
Our Friend Manso. Translated from the Spanish by Robert Russell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
A Work about Benito Perez Galdos
Ribbans, Geoffrey. History and Fiction in Galdos’s Narratives. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.