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