Juan Valera Essay - Critical Essays


Juan Valera’s constant preoccupation with language and form (not merely in a restricted but also in a spiritual sense); his knowledge of and deep respect for the classics, which he doubted modern authors could surpass; his demand for balance and moderation; his belief in absolute ideals; his rejection of Romantic excesses and imperfections—all bespeak a latter-day classicist. Where he diverges somewhat from classicism is in what could be called the pleasure principle. The aim of art is to please; it has no intrinsic end, moral or instructive. Its goal is beauty alone. Valera derided the ancient Roman Horace’s famous precept that art should be at once useful and delightful. Valera’s demand, so often heard from nineteenth century writers, was “art for art’s sake,” a phrase capable of various interpretations and inevitably given them, as often occurs with aesthetic theories.

Valera’s most famous pronouncement on his concept of the ideal novel is to be found in the preface to Pepita Ximenez: A pretty novel cannot be a servile, prosaic, common representation of life; a pretty novel should be poetry, not history; it should depict things, not as they are, but more beautiful than they are, casting upon them a light with a certain magical charm.

He disliked the prevailing doctrine of naturalism, enunciated byÉmile Zola in France and taken up in Spain by Pardo Bazán and Clarín, which to Valera justified wallowing in things filthy and unpleasant, sexually degraded, morbid, and diseased, in an attempt to show what life was really like, especially for the great masses of the poor.

Valera’s word bonita (pretty), as opposed to the naturalists’ seeming preference for the ugly, must not, however, be understood to justify insipidity or smothering the reader in sweetness and light. Even the rather idyllic Pepita Ximenez hints strongly at seduction and presents a sixteen-year-old heroine forced to marry an unlovable old man in his eighties, as well as a bastard hero who breaks his religious vows to marry her. Furthermore, Valera confessed that this early novel echoed his benevolent view of life at the time. His later novels often describe more unpleasant events, tragic failures, broken loves—one novel even features a prostitute asprotagonist. Valera knew the seamier side of life and could on occasion depict it. Some of his uncharacteristic short stories (in the 1898 collection Cuentos y chascarrillos andaluces) are actually pornographic, but normally, with good classicist reticence, he chose to select aspects of life refined through the sieve of artistry. If the expression “pretty novel” must be taken with a grain of salt, Valera still remains far from Zolaesque naturalism.

Finally, Valera’s psychological acumen warrants mention. More than his rather conventional, occasionally clumsy plots and as much as his fine eye for the accurate physical detail, it is his knowledge of the human psyche that lends depth and credibility to his fiction. His characters convince because their creator accurately sounds the wellsprings of their actions. His long life and his experiences around the world served him well.

What term, then, best fits his literary theory and practice? “Neoclassicism” as well as any, yet his predilection for heroes that mirror, if imperfectly, his own character and events from his own life, heroines who embody his ideals of womanhood, his love of outer nature, his sensuous side—all indicate Romanticist. His mocking, detached, worldly, rational attitude toward life suggests eighteenth century rationalism. He can reflect paganism and Christianity in turn. He really is not like any other Spanish writer of his day: a genius unto himself. Many critics have foundered trying to categorize the elusive quality of his literary production.

Valera, who was seemingly born to write, who took up the career of diplomacy as a livelihood rather than as a vocation, who published a volume of poetry at age twenty, who, in high school, read extensively from such literary masters as Voltaire, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott, still failed to compose anything in the field of the novel—his one real claim to greatness—until well into maturity. He had written criticism since 1853 and a second volume of poetry in 1858, helped found two literary reviews, and edited a newspaper between 1859 and 1863, but his first novel began to appear in 1861 in the literary section of his own newspaper. Even then, he abandoned it in midstream. Its main importance lies in its foreshadowing of many of the characteristics of his later fiction, from 1874 on.

To understand what Valera was offering his public, it is necessary to say a word about the status of the nineteenth century Spanish novel. In the 1830’s and 1840’s, Spain was copying the Romantic novel of the school of Scott, but not the social novels of Charles Dickens or William Makepeace Thackeray. Eighteenth century Spanish literature had not enjoyed the richness of French and English literature of the period, particularly in the field of the novel. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), often termed the first modern novel and a unique masterpiece, had had no worthy offspring. Hence, Spain’s reentry into the mainstream of the European novel came about by a different route.

In the 1830’s, a popular literary form was a little local-color sketch describing regional customs—a country fair, peasant dances, a religious holiday, and the like—which in Spain is called costumbrismo (costumbres meaning “customs” in Spanish). The costumbrista format permitted realism but downplayed reality’s drab side. In 1849, the writer Fernán Caballero was the first to combine a group of related costumbrista sketches with a story line into a novel, La gaviota (1856; The Seagull, 1864). From this badly flawed effort, the Spanish regional novel of the second half of the nineteenth century was born, destined to produce a distinguished group of practitioners: Pereda, Pérez Galdós, Pedro Antonio, and Valera himself, among others.

Mariquita y Antonio

Mariquita y Antonio is such a regional novel, a genre to which Valera was to turn again and again. The beautiful, capable heroine Mariquita is the niece of the keeper of the pension (depicted realistically, even humorously) where the law student, Antonio, is staying. The latter is hardly the serious type. He gambles, indulges in love affairs, composes poetry. He is, in short, the amorous Valera as young law student (1840-1844), in the same city (autobiographical elements do not prove uncommon in Valera’s later work). Improbably, Mariquita is kidnapped, and the story breaks off before one learns whether Antonio, for all of his taking her disappearances to heart, really loved her. Originally, his aim simply had been to seduce this woman whom he considered beneath him socially.

Valera lost interest in or could not find time to continue the work. The reader cannot feel any deep sense of loss: The novel, at least in the chapters at hand, is not well developed; the heroine, who is, as usual with Valera, the principal character, is not clearly defined; there is on the face of it no good reason for the melodramatic kidnapping. It would not have been easy to rectify these flaws in the unfinished section, as perhaps Valera realized in abandoning his project.

Pepita Ximenez

Valera’s next attempt at full-length fiction, Pepita Ximenez, almost certainly his finest work, became an immediate success and has remained a staple of Spanish literature ever since. The author was almost fifty; he had spent more than thirty years polishing his craft when he sent his first completed novel to press. He had lived in Madrid, Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Dresden, St. Petersburg, and Frankfurt; he was an experienced diplomat; he had had several love affairs and had already been married for six years. This novel was hardly the first fruit of an apprentice in literature or in the business of life itself.

The setting is once again Andalusia. The structure is classically tight, almost too intricate. Section 1 is titled “Letters from My Nephew,” given the reader by the dean of a religious seminary, the uncle of the protagonist, Luis. Section 2, “Paralipómenos” (“Supplementary Revelations”), is followed by the coda “Letters from My Brother.” The Greek title for section 2, many occasional phrases in the text itself, references in the preface and elsewhere in his writings approving of an idealized depiction of reality, and his meticulous attention to form and style all hint at Valera’s leanings toward classicism. He shows an equal love and appreciation for and knowledge of the sixteenth century Spanish mystics, such as Saint Teresa de Ávila and Saint John of the Cross. Robert Lott, in his Language and Psychology in “Pepita Jiménez” (1970), has revealed the extent of Valera’s debt to both of these mystics, from whom he borrowed many ideas and much religious terminology (here sometimes used profanely). Lott has also analyzed Valera’s style, a carefully balanced mixture of Spanish Golden Age turns of phrase, archaisms, and grammar with nineteenth century refinements.

Luis de Vargas, twenty-two years of age, reared by his uncle in the relative seclusion of a religious seminary, returns to visit his worldly-wise father, a local political power and small-town leader, before taking his final vows as a priest. He happens to be illegitimate and as a result experiences a sense of guilt mixed with pride in the brilliant future he envisages for himself, converting heathens in faraway lands. Valera suggests that Luis is only falsely devout; he intends to achieve union with God through effecting salvation for others, not by mortifying himself before Him. In short, he is a dubious candidate for the rigors of missionary life.

This proud, naïve young man meets the irresistible Pepita Ximenez, one in a long line of Valera’s vivacious Andalusian heroines, beautiful, charming, clever, an idealized version of most men’s concept of the perfect wife. The formula may vary on occasion: mistress, not wife, her perfection perhaps flawed, not merely clever but scheming. Rarely, however, are these women actually antipathetic, Pepita least of all. She had already been married at the age of sixteen to a very elderly, unprepossessing moneylender and is now a widow of only twenty. Luis, as is clearly shown in letters to his uncle, gradually becomes infatuated with her. The uncle warns him to break short his visit. Obviously, Luis will not. His attempts to explain away his newfound attraction for Pepita are scarcely convincing (nor are they meant to be), and his naïveté in failing to diagnose his love borders on the incredible, but he is such a likable chap, she so desirable, that from the very start the reader wants him to abandon his priestly vocation and opt for marriage. Thus, his growing worldliness, his pleasure in the sensual beauty of the Andalusian countryside, his pride in finding that he can ride a horse well, his gradual if reluctant feeling of congeniality with his father, and his final spiritual downfall (which outraged certain Spanish religious conservatives) are all quite palatable.

This downfall, fittingly occurring on Saint John’s Eve—that is, Midsummer’s Eve, from time immemorial devoted to merrymaking and amorous escapades the world over—is spectacular. Luis announces to Pepita his decision to give her up and return to the seminary. There is a tearful scene in her parlor; she runs into her bedroom; he follows her; and when he emerges some time later, he has obviously succumbed. The language—Valera is rarely crude, and certainly not in this novel—is oblique but realistic, the whole scene effective, even somewhat humorous. Neither author nor reader thinks Heaven has lost a sinner. Rather, an innocent young man has grown up. Now considering himself in a position to retaliate more properly, he returns to the casino where he had earlier been forced to endure insults to Pepita’s morals uttered by a rejected suitor, challenges him to a duel, and nearly kills him. The former seminarian’s transformation is now complete. He becomes his father’s son and marries Pepita. The obligatory costumbrista village wedding scene concludes the novel.

This bare outline cannot do more than hint at the felicities of style, the charm of the local color (if not as pronounced here as in some of Valera’s later novels, still quite in evidence), the author’s psychological perspicacity, and his feeling for the beauty of outer nature used to symbolize Luis’s increasingly secular love. There may be countless novels more powerful than this one, but few more captivating or better crafted. The reader’s joy echoes the writer’s own; as Valera said, it came when he felt most healthy, optimistic, and warm toward the whole world. He added, “Unfortunately, it will not happen again.”

Las ilusiones del doctor Faustino

No sooner had Valera published Pepita Ximenez serially in the distinguished Revista de España than the first installments of his next novel, Las ilusiones del doctor Faustino, started to appear in the same magazine, in October, 1874. Much longer than any of his other novels, it is at the same time philosophically his most ambitious. Valera fully intended the allusive name he bestowed on his protagonist. “Although,” he wrote, I am not very fond of symbols or allegoriesDr. Faustino has something of the symbolic or allegorical about hima man for a whole contemporary generationDr. Faust in miniature, without magic, without a devila composite of the vices, ambitions, dreams, scepticism, disbelief, and longings that afflicted the youth of my day.

In a word, Faustino is a Romantic, one of those who embodies “useless knowledge, political ambitions, aristocratic prejudices,” according to Valera, who considered his creation his most real literary achievement. It is nevertheless debatable whether this petty Faust is strong enough to support so lofty a philosophical superstructure, even if Christopher Marlowe’s original was equally lightweight. It is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s later incarnation that possesses the grandeur more naturally inviting comparison.

Clarín, Valera’s fellow novelist and a percipient critic as well, considering the novel one of the most important in...

(The entire section is 5961 words.)