Some weeks ago —how many I cannot tell because I have an awful memory and a peculiar sense of time— I was reading two books, one of them in Spanish, the other one in English. The first was a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós whose title is “Miau” and yes, that’s the onomatopoeic Spanish word for “meow”, and, in the story, it’s the nickname given to a whole family because of the resemblance it’s women bear to cats. The other book was George Eliot’s seventh novel. I would often begin my bedtime reading with Miau, then leave it on the night stand and pick up Midlemarch. Miau is much shorter, so I read for a little while before going for a longer dive into Middlemarch —the fictional work and the fictional world—.
Well, these two works have some things in common and, of course, they display many striking differences. Both of them are classified under the label Realistic Literature, emerge from the general mainframe of European culture and were written in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, they sprout from very different countries and the social grounds and problems they tackle are also quite different.
George Eliot, that is, Mary Anne Evans, lived from 1819 to 1880. Benito Pérez Galdós was born in the Canary Islands in 1843 and died in Madrid in 1920. For 37 years they were contemporaries. Middlemarch was published in 1871. Miau appeared in 1888. So George Eliot was 52 when she gave Middlemarch to the press. On May of that year Galdós turned 28. He wrote Miau when he was 45. Around those days, Mary Anne Evans was a woman of 69.
During the XIXth Century, French was generally studied in Spain as a second language. Pérez Galdós not only learned French, but English too, for it was taught at the school he attended as a young boy. It was only natural for him to keep many English books when he was an adult and a writer. He called Dickens his “dear teacher”, because he loved his works and reading them was crucial for his own development as a novelist. Galdós has more frequently been compared to the French masters of the realistic period, but he was especially fond of British and American authors. He owned 21 books by Charles Dickens. Seven of them were French translations. All other 14 he read in English. But he had only one title by George Eliot, and this was Scenes of Clerical Life.
The chances of a noticeable influence drawn from this eventual reading are very small. But of course there are qualities in both authors that spread from the common root of European XIXth century culture. Every night, as I travelled from Galdós’ fictional Madrid to Evans’ Midlemarch I was aware both of the distance between them and the resemblances that crossed the gap (though they didn’t close it).
And one common thing which is most evident, noticeable and relevant is a literary technique: the famous OMNISCIENT NARRATOR.
Whenever we open a novel of the realistic period, chances are we’ll find that voice coming to meet us, a voice that tells the story from the third person but knows everything about the characters, everything about the story itself. What, who is this narrator? It’s a device, a technique, an ingredient of the narration, but it speaks to us, it knows, it has opinions and feelings which correspond, more or less, to those of the author. How can we possibly not envisage this thing as a sort of character itself? Not only a mere point of view, a grammatical person, a constituent of the narration, but an invisible someone that talks to us from an invisible place.
Both narrators in the novels we’re dealing with are omniscient: they know the past, they see the present, they feel the future. Actions, emotions, thoughts, all the inner and outer world of the characters is available to their gaze. But they are also disparate, just like characters are different from one another. Galdós’ narrator is warm, sympathetic, plain, and though he can see even the visions of little Luisito Cadalso and the creepy intentions of the child’s mad aunt sometimes he gets almost diluted in a sort of free indirect speech. There’s a magic going on that allows us to see the world from the eyes of the characters, from the words they say to themselves and the passions that throb in their hearts. Surrounded by the prose of life, Luisito Cadalso allows us to peep into a world of wonders, sometimes sinister and fearful, sometimes luminous and allaying.
Eliot’s narrator is more intellectual, takes an eminently moral point of view and oh God, isn’t it intrusive! It’s heavy like the warm atmosphere before a summer storm. You never forget it’s there. Never the story or it’s protagonists weight more than the voice that reveals their lives, feelings and conflicts. The book is great, it delivers to its readers a fully significant microcosm, but, not being a fan of the omniscient narrator, I’ve had to pay with a little suffering for it’s pleasures and beauties.
I can remember right now another omniscient narrator, the one you can find in Dickens’ Bleak House, where we meet so many memorable characters, whose lives, fears and desires, weaknesses and virtues the narrator reveals to us while he slides through cottages and manors, country roads and city streets. This voice comes from a point of view that finds its way into the private chambers of the wealthy and the dilapidated houses of the destitute, moving along all sorts of intermediate stages. At the beginning of the novel it seems to float over London like the mist itself, rising to get an overall view and descending to watch more closely. Along it’s chapters it sweeps across the walls of the buildings, the alleys, the paths where poor Jo rambles and the windows that hide the doings of death. Like a ghost.
A ghost. Indeed that’s what the omniscient narrator is: a ghost.
A disembodied mind that reaches the whole world of it’s characters and speaks to us with a disembodied voice.