Good Country People : Benito Perez Galdos – “Dona Perfecta”

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ABOVE:  Portrait with Carcinogen

The second most famous Spanish author, after the progenitor of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, is Benito Perez Galdos, whose literary stature is generally acknowledged to be equal to that of Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, or Dostoevsky.  But Galdos is still a rare bird in English-language shelves. Those who know him probably get to him through Luis Bunuel’s idiosyncratic adaptations of “Nazarin,” Viridiana,” and “Tristana.” Galdos’ singular masterpiece, “Fortunata and Jacinta,” is Spain’s answer to “Anna Karenina,” and similarly lengthy, but didn’t even earn an English translation until the 1970s. To my knowledge, no translation exists of “Los Episodios Nacionales,” Galdos’ 40+ novels saga.  TRISTE!

“Dona Perfecta,” from 1876, is considered a fine but minor novel, “transitional” because it does not fully embrace the stark realism for which Galdos would soon be known.

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ABOVE: Dolores del Rio WAS pretty darn perfect.

The plot is simple: Don Jose de Rey is a young engineer returning to Orbajosa, the native country that his aunt, Perfecta, rules with a steely kindness. Jose has plans to marry his cousin Rosarito, the Dona’s daughter. (It’s not as cringy as it sounds! Different times! Times when girls like Rosarito fainted in the arms of their suitors as soon as the chaperones looked away!)

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ABOVE: Cousincest is the best incest

The young ones fall in unimpeded love for one brief afternoon, but nothing as it seems in Orbajosa, a dreary land known only for exporting garlic cloves. The name, a Galdosian invention, is a  joke: the villagers claim it derives from the Latin Urbs Augusta, “Great City”, but what it connotes to Spanish ears is more like “Weedy Patch.” The characters are symbols as much as they are characters, with names that drip unrealistic irony: who can be surprised when the titular Dona Perfecta, who everyone  acclaims as being perfect, turns out to be otherwise? Or when the village priest, Don Inocencio, turns out to be full of cunning malice?

Don Jose makes the almost immediate mistake of opening his big city mouth and riling up the the condescending priest with a failure to appreciate the irrefutable greatness of the local cathedral. Before the week is over, town gossip has pegged the young engineer as a Libtard-Atheist-Protestant-Socialist Fat Cat sent by the Government from Madrid to destroy the lives of good Catholic country people. Small disagreements with his family turn more and more turbulent, until Don Jose can barely open his mouth without deeply aggrieving some villager or other.

The villagers, of course, smile to the young man’s face while prepping the pitchforks.

The ending is both surprising and inevitable. Traveler, if on a winter’s night you should find yourself among good country people, GET OUT.

RATING: MASTERPIECE!

 

 

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Tulip Fever : Alexandre Dumas – “The Black Tulip”

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Above: Naturaleza Muerta

(Re-read) “The Black Tulip” is an odd, yet oddly successful, offspring from the Dumas / Maquet era. The action doesn’t take place in France, but in Holland, 1672, during the Tulip Craze that kinda parallels the Pokemon  “gotta catch’em all” mentality.  The rarest of Pokemon  Tulips was the Black Tulip. After a brutal 3-chapter intro that tells us how William of Orange participated in the graphic lynching and skinning of brothers Cornelius and Johann de Witt, who had been been accused of “collusion” with Louis XIV, we switch to the gentle tale of Cornelius de Baerle, a godson to the De Witts. Cornelius is a horticulturist, does not care about politics. The problem with politics is that they tend to screw up the lives of good people who don’t care about politics. (By contrast, no such blame can be placed on literature.) Cornelius has figured out how to get a Black Tulip. A jealous competitor snitches on Cornelius, accuses him of being related to the De Witts, and sends Corny to prison, where he meets the lovely Rosa, daughter to the abusive jailer Gryphus.

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ABOVE: Pass the Dutch, already!

What follows is pure romance. They really don’t write them like that anymore. Every time Cornelius and Rosa meet, a guilty, coy hour of daily sexual tension follows. Cornelius’ lips come closer and closer to grazing Rosa’s flushing cheeks, and you hold your breath waiting for the miracle, when she allows a kiss to happen. Then you think: “Today’s version would be “4:00 o’clock! It’s Fuck time at the Sex Flower Dungeon!”

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ABOVE: “Go into the Dungeon, Boy! You Gonna Be Spanked!”

RATING: MASTERPIECE! This really is just a beautifully perfect Dumas romance.


P. S.:

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ABOVE: I Never Promised You a Tulip Garden

Also of relevance: Justin Chatwick’s “Tulip Fever” “Tulip Fever,” or “when that movie you taught was fine has a shockingly low 9% on Rotten Tomatoes.” This is a lush romance set in 1600s Holland, with great production design; wonderful, subtle acting by Alicia Vikander; a less subtle but very funny Christophe Waltz; and a twisty, witty script by Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”). So why the negative reviews? Curious, I read a bunch of them. What I didn’t know is that this movie had been held from release for three years, that it was one of Harvey Weinstein’s last pet projects, and that in-the-know showbiz critics went to it KNOWING it had a negative pre-release buzz. Review after review was: “This is that HARVEY WEINSTEIN TULIP THING that was supposed to be terrible! It’s obviously not THAT terrible, but I heard it was supposed to be, so let me figure out why.” People weren’t reacting to the story IN the movie, but to the story AROUND the movie.

Criticism went from the fair (“too many soapy plot twists!” Well yeah, but some people like those) to the wildly subjective (“Alicia Vikander’s nude scenes weren’t sexy!” I sure beg to differ!) to the absurd: “There is nothing in the zeitgeist to peg this movie to” I guess “Tulip Fever” doesn’t sufficiently address #metoo or #blacklivesmatter BUT DOES IT HAVE TO? The idea that a movie’s existence is only justified when it is tagged to a trending hashtag should be repulsive. Sometimes the whole point of a movie is to help us ESCAPE from trending hasthags.

This isn’t a defense of TF, which won’t change your life but l do recommend to lovers of historical romances. Just a comment on how preconception alters perception. Had I KNOWN this movie had a bad contextual buzz, I might also have been looking for its flaws as desperately as any other critic. I didn’t know, and so I enjoyed it a lot.

 

No One Fights Like Gascons : Alexandre Dumas – “The 45 Guardsmen”

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ABOVE: The Three Musketeers have really let themselves go.

It’s easy to get attached to three or four musketeers; when we’re talking 45 of them, things get a little more challenging, which is why Alexandre Dumas’ “The 45” (often published in English as “The Forty-Five Guardsmen”) is by far the less popular entry in the Valois trilogy, even though it contains all the winning elements of the previous novels, ( “Queen Margot” and “La Dame de Monsoreau”.) Realistically, it’s a steep learning curve for the unconvinced or uninitiated: not counting all the returning royals and nobles from the saga (the Three Henrys, as well as Catherine de Medici and dear Queen Margot) we’re also introduced to over 20 principal characters in the first couple of chapters… and that’s before the 45 titular swashbucklers even show up! (Dumas himself points out that each of them have fascinating stories to tell, but ain’t nobody got time for THAT.)

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ABOVE: “FORTY-FIVE GUARDS?! In one night?! Well, I’m afraid the engagement is off, Monsieur.”

The 45 guardsmen were largely Gascons hired to protect Henry III, and so Dumas gets ample room to praise the bravado and braggadocio that he identifies as a trademarks of the natives of the Gascony, the French region that extends from below Bordeaux almost to Basque Country. It would almost be ethnic stereotyping, but he’s fond of Gascons, it’s clear, since he gave the place what’s easily its most famous fictional son: D’Artagnan.

Unfortunately, there’s no D’Artagnan here, since this all happens some 40 years before “Musketeer Times”, in the 1580s, toward the end of those Wars of Religion that saw the three Henrys, (Henry III, Henry of Lorraine, and Henry of Navarre) fight each other, presumably propelled by the creed that “there can be only one.” Meanwhile, in case one wasn’t confused enough, a FOURTH Henry, Henry de Joyeuse, starts stalking demonstrating his love for Diane de Meridor, the Lady of Monsoreau.

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ABOVE: Guess which of the Henrys this is!

 

Toward the second half of the narrative, both Diane and the returning Chicot the Jester try to elbow their way to the foreground of the narrative, but this is hard to do with so many other characters blocking their way.  The novel itself fails to push its way to the forefront of Dumas’ oeuvre. “The 45” is not recommendable as any kind of entry-point to the world of Dumas: it’s too busy with plot and intrigue (there’s at least four main storylines in here). It also feels unfinished; it’s reputed to be a bridge between “Monsoreau” and a never-written fourth book that would string together all the narrative strands of the Valois trilogy. For something like a satisfying wrap, you’ll have to follow Chicot to his cameo in Auguste Maquet’s “la Belle Gabrielle.”

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ABOVE: “Hmmm, I appreciate the rescue and all, but there’s no need to squeeze my boob that hard.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH forthe fans; a confused SHRUG for newcomers to the Valois books.

Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”

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“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.

RATNG: COOL!

 

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road? : L. Frank Baum – “The Emerald City of Oz” (Oz #6)

The Road to Oz is paved with L. Frank Baum’s cruel intentions. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could barely restrain his murderous tendencies toward Sherlock Holmes, Baum hates Oz, and his desperate need to  wipe out the land is manifest in “The Emerald City of Oz,” the sixth book in the series, published in 1910.

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ABOVE: Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

There’s two stories here.

On the one hand, you have the Nome King, Roquat the Red, who is recruiting an army of discontents to tunnel his way to Oz in order to destroy the city. (Roquat’s need to put an end to the land for no real reason other than “its presence bugs me” parallels Baum’s own urge.)

On the other hand, you have Dorothy’s symmetrically-opposed journey, one in which Baum displays one outburst of creativity, not unlike that of the supposed re-gathering of energy that precedes death. Wonder follows nonsensical wonder as we meet living paper dolls and pastries; kangaroos without mittens; zebras that argue geometry with crabs; Rigmaroles and Flutterbudgets; jigsaw puzzles that attempt to assemble themselves. One utters this admirable bit of wisdom:

“Madam, you have perhaps noticed that every person has some peculiarity. Mine is to scatter myself. What your own peculiarity is I will not venture to say; but I shall never find fault with you, whatever you do.”

ABOVE: She meant to say, “I’m the Kook.”

 

Baum unleashes a barrage of painful puns as we get to the land of Utensia, where kitchen utensils live as if in anticipation of future Pixar movies. Sample:

“Why is the colander the High Priest?”
“He’s the holiest thing we have in the kingdom.”

None of the encounters add anything to the plot; the author is simply unloading every half-formed, Oz-related ideas on the way to a conclusion of intense finality, one that shuts off all possibility for sequels:
“YOU WILL NEVER HEAR ANYTHING MORE ABOUT OZ, BECAUSE WE ARE NOW CUT OFF FOREVER FROM ALL THE REST OF THE WORLD. BUT TOTO AND I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU AND ALL THE OTHER CHILDREN WHO LOVE US.
DOROTHY GALE.”

Of course, after a three-year hiatus, L. Frank Baum said: “Screw it. Papa needs a brand new Ford Model T. Oz, here we go again!” 8 more books followed.

RATING: COOL!