This is very much a personal anthology, a reflection of the books on my shelves, my work and the recommendations of friends and colleagues, not necessarily of Spanish classics. There are no stories, for example, by Leopoldo Alas (Clarín), Carmen Laforet, Enrique Vila-Matas or Manuel Rivas, because, much though I love their novels, I have not read any of their short fiction. Revisiting these stories has been hugely enjoyable – like retracing the Spanish strand of my career, from school to the present day.
My book Don Quixote’s Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spain (Phoenix), was partly dedicated to exploring the revolutionary effect of Don Quixote (1605), especially on writers and thinkers, including Nabokov, Woolf and Freud. Often described as the world’s first modern novel, Don Quixote is the first to feature a fully rounded psychological character who can doubt his own motives. If you haven’t got the time or the inclination to peruse its one thousand pages, though, you can find quicker evidence of the author’s genius in the Exemplary Novels, a collection of twelve short stories that appeared in 1613, midway between the publications of Volumes One and Two of Don Quixote.
In ‘The Glass Lawyer’ a prodigiously clever graduate of Salamanca University is given a love potion by his spurned admirer and becomes convinced that he is made of glass. So terrified is Tomás of his own fragility that he begs curious onlookers not to approach him and insists on being transported in a box lined with straw. While in the grip of this delusion, he starts spouting aphorisms about society, Forrest Gump-style, and becomes a cause célèbre. As soon as he recovers his sanity – and now mortified by his previous indiscretion – he is no longer of interest to anyone. Here, in microcosm, Cervantes explores some of the ideas about mental instability, character and truth-telling that shaped el Quijote. The story has spawned numerous literary and psychological studies and inspired Deborah Levy to write her own take on it, ‘The Glass Woman’, published in Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare (And Other Stories, 2016)
First published as ‘El licenciado Vidriera’ in Novelas Ejemplares, Juan de la Cuesta 1613, translation in The Exemplary Novels, Yale University Press 2016
Matute’s Primera Memoria was the first novel I ever read in Spanish, aged sixteen, and I was affected by it in the way perhaps only a teenager can be. The thrill of gaining access to another world, one not available to your monolingual friends, not even to your parents, rewarded the effort of learning to read in a foreign language. It’s hugely regrettable that books have largely been stripped out of the A-Level foreign languages syllabuses now.
Matute is a quintessentially Spanish writer, one was strongly affected by the war-torn rural landscape in which she had had grown up. ‘The Foolish Children’, first published in 1956, is a sequence of very short stories – micro-fictions before the invention of that term – encapsulating a disturbing vision of childhood, and one that reminds me of the paintings made by Paula Rego, inspired by nursery rhymes. The children in the stories are often troubled, or mistreated, grotesque and reviled. Insects and animals, trees and plant life are sometimes comforting but at other times a menacing presence. Matute claimed to relate better to eleven-year-olds than anyone else and was, herself, one of a group of writers dubbed “the frightened children”, because of the effect of Spain’s civil war on their childhood and fiction.
First published as ‘Los niños tontos’ by Ediciones Arión, 1956, translation in Small Stations Press, bilingual edition, 2016
In 1898, Spain lost its last colonies in the Spanish-American war and suffered a national identity crisis that might not seem entirely unfamiliar to people in Britain today. The generation of 1898 writers, of whom Unamuno is the towering figure, probed the reasons for that catastrophic loss, proposing a radical reinterpretation of Spanish values. A longtime rector of Salamanca University (although forced into exile during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera), Unamuno is Spain’s most famous philosopher. On his return to teaching, after six years in exile, he famously began his lecture, “As we were saying yesterday.”
‘Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr’, is a short novella, the story of an exemplary priest, a man of Christlike kindness, revered by his parishioners as a living saint. But when a nonbeliever tries to find God by emulating Manuel, he discovers that the priest’s faith is a travesty, because he does not believe in the resurrection. Manuel simply sees religion as the best route to a good and contented life and so strives to make it available to others. Should he be deplored for acting in bad faith, then, or admired, for helping others to believe? The idea that someone might espouse religion while not believing in God is not altogether original, but it appealed to me in my heated early twenties, perhaps because my own father was a philosopher-priest who was often preoccupied by doubt. I lived in Salamanca for six months before going to university, and used to sit in the room where Unamuno once delivered his lectures.
First published as ‘San Manuel Bueno, mártir’, 1931, translation published by Aris and Phillips Hispanic Classics 2009
In 1986 I was a student in Madrid, thrust into the tumult of the post-dictatorship social revolution known as La Movida. On my first morning at the Universidad Complutense, I fell down some stairs, had a nose bleed and got taken off to the women’s lavatories by some kind fellow students. On emerging I discovered that the novelist Carmen Martín Gaite was giving a talk in the lecture theatre. I still remember her distinctive look, bohemian in a felt hat and scarf – and her observation that when you have been restricted to the home, as Spanish women so often had been in the twentieth century, you learn observational skills that come in very useful for novelists. Writing about the home has so often been disparaged as a lesser art, but it is in homes and families that our most intense experiences take place.
The short story, Martín Gaite once observed, could sometimes slip past censors who paid closer attention to novels. In this 1956 story – deeply subversive in its way – a poor young woman from a shanty town on the edge of Madrid persuades a doctor to come and visit her sick child. He agrees to drive them both to hospital, but the child dies on the journey. The woman’s hopeless situation – she will probably resort to prostitution to raise money for medical bills – and the contrast between her desperation and the doctor’s sangfroid is beautifully evoked, and painful to observe.
First published as La conciencia tranquila, 1956. Translation in Madrid Tales, edited by Helen Constantine, Oxford University Press, 2012
In some parallel universe, Marías is the love child of Alfred Hitchcock and Jorge Luis Borges. Spain’s most successful contemporary writer, and a likely contender for the Nobel Prize, he is both highly intellectual and highly attuned to the tricks and thrills of popular fiction. His cerebral games recall Borges; his slow-building suspense is worthy of Hitchcock. In Spain Marías is almost as famous for his eccentricity as his writing. He owns two near identical flats in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, one in which all the furniture is dark and another in which everything is white. He is also the appointed king of a tiny island, Redonda, of which AS Byatt, Alice Munro and Umberto Eco have dukedoms. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Marías’s cleverness has prompted something of an Amis-style backlash in Spain; all the same, he is a dazzling writer.
‘While the Women Are Sleeping’, first published in 1990, contains, in miniature, Marias’s favourite themes: human obsession, voyeurism and abusive relationships. A couple on the beach notice that a man close by is compulsively filming his much younger girlfriend, amassing hours of microscopic footage of her, while she lies almost motionless. When the narrator meets him at their hotel one night, he quizzes the man about his obsession and discovers the chilling reason for it.
First published as ‘Mientras ellas duermen’ in Mientras ellas duermen, Anagrama 1990, translation in While the Women are Sleeping, Chatto and Windus, 2010
Rosa Montero is one of Spain’s best-known columnists. She started working at El País in 1976, the year after General Franco’s death, and her career has run in parallel with the development of Spain’s democracy. Montero’s writing often reflects the mores of post-Franco Spain, although she has turned her sights on Britain, too. Recently she wrote that “I have always been a great anglophile, but now I see the British turning against history and submerging themselves in a reactionary chaos.”
This story was commissioned for a Spanish anthology marking the turn of the millennium, and describes inter-generational friction, but not of the usual kind. Marina and Juan are children of the dictatorship and spent their youths on demonstrations or running away from police, young hippies in full rebellion against their parents and the establishment. Now neither of them can get work, while their son Carlos has become the reincarnation of his bourgeois grandfather, a “grey suit man with tame ideas”. He’s considerate, responsible and fluent in English to the standard obligatory now for anyone wanting a well-paid job in Spain. He supports both his parents, who find the role-reversal hard to take. They grew up fighting the system; their son has become a slave to it.
First published in Relatos para un fin de milenio, Plaza Janés, 1998
Bolaño, a Chilean, has been described by The New Yorker as the greatest Latin American writer of his generation, but he spent more than half of his life in Barcelona, having endured torture and imprisonment under the Pinochet regime. It was in Barcelona that he wrote his monumental novel 2666, while awaiting a liver transplant. Unfortunately he died before its publication – in 2003, at the age of fifty – and before an avalanche of acclaim and accolades came his way.
Bolaño, who once said, “I could live under a table reading Borges”, has elements in common with other Borges-inspired novelists such as Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías, except that there is also a sad awareness of the reality of life in Chile, of exile and violence, in his writing. In ‘A Literary Adventure’, a writer, B, is envious of A, his more successful contemporary: “he longs to plant his fist in A’s increasingly prudish face, oozing self-assurance and righteous anger, as if he thought he were the reincarnation of Unamuno or something.” Instead of violence, B takes a more cowardly, writerlyrevenge: he includes an unflattering portrait of A in his novel. To his consternation, though, A writes a flattering review of the novel. More and more fulsome praise from A follows, including of a book that is not yet officially available to reviewers. How did he get it, and what’s he playing at? B becomes obsessed with A, cancels all other plans in order to spend his days stalking A and ends up fearing for his sanity and even his life. A delicious tale of literary paranoia.
First published in Llamadas telefónicas, Anagrama, 1997, translation in Last Evenings on Earth, Harvill Secker, 2007
Another Latin American – from Argentina this time – and not even one who has lived in Spain, but Heker’s short story ‘Strategies Against Sleeping’ was inspired by a long car journey the author took from Segovia to Madrid, and since it was the first short story of hers I ever translated, it has a special place in my heart. The story starts with the narrator setting off on her journey and looking forward to nodding off on the back seat, but the driver – who is himself fighting an urge to sleep – keeps asking her to talk to him (“Please, Talk to Me” provides the title for this collection). The woman makes some half-hearted attempts at conversation but, as is often the case with Heker’s work, what seems like a fairly straightforward situation gradually reveals itself to be charged with unexpected menace, taking an extraordinary turn at the end. The Argentine writer and intellectual Alberto Manguel asked me to translate Heker’s stories with him for this collection and I was grateful to be introduced to a woman is unusual and engaging, both on the page and in person. Her writing, recalling both Saki and Roald Dahl, can be devilishly difficult to translate, though. Once when I asked her what she had meant by a particular phrase she said “I don’t really know, put whatever you think.
First published as ‘Maniobras contra el sueño’, in La crueldad de la vida, Alfaguara, 2001, translation in Please Talk to Me, Yale University Press, 2015
Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921) is an extraordinary figure in Spanish literature. Encouraged by her enlightened father to pursue her education and read whatever she wanted, she was an admirer of Zola and both praised and reviled for introducing Naturalism to Spain. Her ideas on feminism were extremely radical for the time (she judged Spain to be about two hundred years behind the rest of European in terms of sexual equality) and she spoke often about the need for women to receive the same access to education as men.
Pardo Bazán’s outspoken views on female emancipation were considered so scandalous that her husband finally demanded she end her career. She ended her marriage instead, and went on to become Spain’s first female university professor. Best known for her novels, Pardo Bazán also produced nearly six hundred short stories, many of which are very brief, little more than telling vignettes. In ‘Feminist’ – the title itself is a bold statement – we learn how a man has kept his doting wife in her place: on their wedding night he commanded her to put on his trousers, then told her that she would never “wear the trousers” in their relationship again. The tables are turned, though, when the man becomes an invalid, dependent on his wife’s care. Then she gets her own back by making him wear her petticoat every morning and leaving him in it while she goes about other duties, “Just so you know that now you must wear it for the rest of your life.”
First published as ‘Feminista’, translation in Torn Lace and Other Stories, The Modern Language Association of America, 1996
My Basque friend Jokim once made me wait at Bilbao bus station for a coach to the airport while he ran to the nearest bookshop to get me a copy of Obabakoak. The publication of this book in 1989 was hugely significant in the Basque Country and across Spain. There is very little literature published in Euskera (Basque), because the language is so hard to learn: a pre-Indo-European language, its origins are mysterious. Euskera was suppressed during the dictatorship (signs in telephone boxes would warn the public to “speak Christian”) and Jokim was among a generation who learned the language of their forebears in clandestine schools.
Obabakoak was not only a vibrant addition to the Basque canon, but the first Euskera novel to win Spain’s National Prize for literature, in a Spanish translation Atxaga produced himself. The title means “the people and events of Obaba”(a fictional village)and the book comprises a series of tales about different characters in a fictional Basque village, a place Atxaga has described an “an interior landscape.”
In this story, a young schoolmistress, far from home and feeling starved of affection, begins to lose her mind in the cold and forbidding landscape of her new posting. A serious soul whose penchant for maths means that she is always counting steps, or mountains or swallows (“one hundred and twenty swallows on one wire and one hundred and forty on the other, two hundred and sixty swallows in all”), she is finally driven by loneliness to seduce one of her young pupils, with disastrous results. Once more, this translation is by the peerless Margaret Jull Costa, who has played such an important part in making Spanish fiction available to a wider audience.
First published in Obabakoak, Erein, 1988 and in translation from Hutchinson, 1992
Although I have been aware of her for a few years, I hadn’t read any Fernández Cubas until staff in the cultural office of the Spanish Embassy in London recommended her to me. She is known as a writer of fantasy in Spain, but her stories might better be described as unsettling, taking place in realities that are other-worldly and may be permeated by unexplained influences. Her taste for mystery began in childhood, whenFernández Cubas’s brother would tell her stories from Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie.
In this story the narrator travels with her husband to Istanbul for a two-week stay at the Pera Palace, where Christie famously was a regular guest (always staying in room 411). That room is thought to hold answers to the author’s mysterious disappearance in 1926, after a clairvoyant guided investigators to the discovery of a key, under its floorboards, in 1979.
From the start, this story’s characters seem to have entered a parallel world. Istanbul itself, which is permanently shrouded in fog, seems barely to exist; they can’t pick out any of its famous sights. Moreover, the story’s narrator has just turned forty and is troubled by her own identity, just as Christie was at the time of her disappearance. When her husband keeps bumping into a beautiful acquaintance, she becomes increasingly uneasy, especially when a sprained ankle hobbles her and keeps her from joining them. This is not only a strange, compulsive read, but a strong argument for having more of Fernández Cubas available in English. At present one selection of her stories, Nona’s Room, is available, published by Peter Owen.
Published in Todos los Cuentos, Tusquets, 2009
Gladós is the Spanish Dickens, a nineteenth-century writer of substantial, satisfying realist novels,the most famous being Fortunata y Jacinta. As a student in Madrid, I devoured this novel, especially a passage which showed Fortunata, a poor woman who suffers at the hands of a series of exploitative men, walking back to her lodgings in Chueca, a rundown area of Madrid. The narrative followed her all the way to my barrio – we were living in the same street! More than a century later, Chueca was still a dodgy part of town and the centre of Madrid’s sex trade. These days it’s very fashionable. Although he was a nineteenth-century novelist, Galdós had distinctly modern traits, and three of his books were brought to the screen by the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. ‘The Novel on the Tram’ (1871) is, in its turn, inspired by Don Quixote. Its protagonist is travelling across Madrid by tram, carrying a parcel of books. He encounters a friend who passes on some gossip about a Countess whose unkind and jealous husband suspects her of having an affair, and whose butler is blackmailing her. After his friend has got off the tram, the narrator falls into a kind of delirium in which he imagines that different people getting on and off the tram are characters from involved in this scandal. Apart from being an entertaining story, ‘The Novel on the Tram’ is a kind of paean to public transport:
…a tram contains a miniature world of passions. We judge many of those we see there to be excellent people, we like their looks and are even saddened when they leave. Then there are those who, on the contrary, we loathe on sight: we hate them for ten minutes, rather rancorously examine their phrenological character, and feel real pleasure when they leave. And meanwhile, the tram, that imitation of human life, keeps moving, constantly receiving and letting go, uniform, tireless, majestic, indifferent to what is going on inside, entirely unstirred by the barely repressed emotions of that dumbshow, always travelling along those two endless parallel steel lines, as long and slippery as the centuries.
First published as La novela en el tranvía, translation in Madrid Tales, edited by Helen Constantine, Oxford University Press, 2012. Also available online, including in a translation by Michael Wooff at the Gutenberg Project)