Book Notes: Nation-building and Novels
Benito Perez Galdos is a 19th-century Spanish novelist who’s like Dickens or Balzac but better. And the reason you’ve never heard of him is Spain’s peculiar position vis-a-vis the “real” Europe. But please, please believe me: he is out of this world good.
Galdos wrote a bunch of amazing (and very long) realist novels, and I read and loved them all. But aside from these novels, Galdos worked on an enormous life-long project of writing historical fiction. The project was called National Episodes, and it’s nation-building at its best. And to think that I had never had time to read any but the very first novel in the project.
There are 46 novels in the project, and the series begins with the battle of Trafalgar and then goes on to cover the entire 1st half of the 19th century, that is, precisely the time when nation-states were being consolidated.
History is the most ideological of human sciences, and history textbooks are as fictional as any novel. Which is why it makes more sense to use Galdos’s novels to learn about Spain’s history than actual textbooks.
The Court of Carlos IV is the second novel in the project. It’s not Galdos’s best writing but it’s still so good that I was reading maniacally, on every device in sight, unable to put the book down. The novel shows Spain on the eve of Napoleon’s invasion. It’s full of delightful 19th century gossip but the best part is watching the author manipulating history to suit his nation-building purposes.
2 novels down, 44 more to go. I’m in paradise.