Some of you have asked me which my favorite books originally written in Spanish are, thus this post.
Here I’ll only include books you can find translated in English, and I’ll tell you how, when, and why I came to love them, and maybe a bit about the author. As you can guess, literature in Spanish composes a huge range of years and continents. But my list will be a small personal slice of just Spanish from Spain authors. (Maybe later I write another list with books written in Spanish).
I was born in Madrid in the seventies. Until the age of 24, I read only in Spanish. I read books for school, for pleasure, and in translation. In my teen years and in my twenties, I read mostly Spanish writers, European writers, and some English authors in translation. In Spain, I believe that European non Anglo authors are more popular than here, in the States.
From 27 to 33, I had a period of not reading a lot. I was working, and I stupidly thought I had no time for books apart from a few novels in a year. I became a christian and I also started to read the Bible, -most specially in the Reina Valera 1960, and the New King James-, which is something that has done great things for my spiritual life and that made me as an English reader.
The last two years of teaching in public schools, though, I started to slowly transition into a diet of more consistent reading, -some books on education, and some popular novels-. At this point, my ability to read English took off, and I read in this language almost exclusively. At 33, I was expecting my first baby, and I read many books on pregnancy, motherhood, and homeschooling, plus the occasional novel recommended by another new mom in the circle I frequented. From that time, I’d never forget Bel Canto by Ann Patchet.
While my first born and 2 and a half years later, her sister, were little, I found this amazing educator, Charlotte Mason, who wrote 6 volumes on education plus numerous articles, and I also became part of a forum where a curriculum and method of teaching was discussed. Part of that education was devoted to reading what Miss Mason called living books, and the first years of my daughters’s education saw me reading a wealth of titles aloud to them, from literature children classics, to history books, poetry, mythology, science and nature, biographies, geography, etc. This amazing list was my source.
To stay ahead of the girls, and because I was once more bitten by the learning bug, I went on to read many wonderful books, discovered new genres, and attempted some books that were milestones to me, -mainly in English, or Spanish translations of English classics-.
Every three years, we would all go to visit my family and my husband’s family in Europe. Every time I was in Madrid, where I was born, I felt for reading in Spanish.
In December 2011, I remember distinctively that I was in my old room in Madrid, browsing the books I had left there from my youth, and I remembered this loooong classic by Galdós, Fortunata and Jacinta, and thought to myself, “is it really that long and boring?” I knew what it was about, -I had seen a TV miniseries a long time ago-, but I had never felt how it was in print. I downloaded it for free in my Kindle to be able to read it anywhere and in the night without disturbing my husband.
That was the beginning of my come back to reading books by writers in Spanish. And yes and no. Yes, it was super long, about 800 pages, distributed in four almost equal parts in extension, written in a two years span, from June 1885, to June 1887, that were also published as they were finished, what begs the question of its length. We must remember that today, we have all this serialized literature from the XIX century in full tomes, and we lose a bit of what it would have been to read it as it was available. No, it wasn’t boring at all.
My re-encounter with authors who wrote in Spanish didn’t stop with me reading Fortunata and Jacinta. I also found the rare -and not so rare- blogger who had read one of those Spanish classics I was enjoying. For example, my friend Travis, from church, told me he loved Don Quixote. I found Lotz, from New York who teaches now in Madrid, who reads and reviews Spanish classics and authors like Ortega y Gasset, -and more- at Goodreads, I met Maximilian, who happens to have read some of those writers, and whose reading path runs close to mine. He has also taken some of my recommendations for books, and has liked them, -sigh of relief! :)-. Many of my friends have read Galdós following my recommendation, and Ortega too.
I specially recommend his Meditations on Quixote. And contrary to what it may seem, you don’t really need to have read Don Quixote to enjoy this short essay by Ortega.
We come to the purpose of this post, to leave you with an ever growing list of my favorite titles in my mother tongue. First I have to say that something happens after forty, but no matter what classic I try in Spanish, it’s always an excellent book. And let’s not forget poetry, which I’m also reading now almost daily in both the only languages I can read.
Which other books written in Spanish do I love?
Another book we read for that literature class which proved to be a fun read, exponent of the picaresque genre that Cervantes employed in his Exemplary Novels, which I also recommend. They are even free for your Kindle, or any other electronic reader.
I found them in these two volumes in Spanish here, in the States, in Texas, at our local used book store. I couldn’t believe my luck!
In my twenties, I also got to read less renown Spanish authors such as Camilo José Cela. The Hive is the only title by him I’ve read, and which I do like and admire. I’ve read some of his short stories as well. He’s known as one of the famous authors from the Generation of ’36, called like that because of the significance of that year. Our one and only civil war happened from 1936 to 1939, right before WWII. It’s known by all Spaniards, (or used to!), that Spain couldn’t join in WWII officially because we were just out of our own devastating conflict. Franco was a Hitler’s sympathizer, there’s some evidence and lots of speculation about meetings between the two.
The Hive was also made into a movie. Here’s a short clip that features some scenes, the first has the author wearing a gray jacket, he plays Matías Martín, and some of the best actors of our fecund 1960’s and 1970’s, when a lot of XIX and early XX century books were brought to the TV or theater screens.
Another favorite author, -a poet-, from this group is Miguel Hernández. As you may be able to infer, the authors you find from this time will be after war writers, with common points on their worldwide counterparts, and also, with a distinctive Spanish flair.
A few years ago, I discovered Sánchez Ferlosio, who wrote two fiction books, very different in setting and style, and both pregnant with Spanish culture. Both written so well that they transcend borders and luckily for us, provoked translation.
- EL JARAMA, (The River in English)
El Jarama, (The River in English), it’s a story close home. It happens in the Madrid of my parents, even the Madrid of my childhood, when we used to take weekend trips to nearby chalets with restaurants nearby, and close to the river. My uncle Manuel, -who went by ‘Manolo’-, had such a chalet/restaurant, and a river common food restaurant.
After many years, he closed the restaurant in his chalet, and kept it for family and friends. It still had the setting described in the book. Metal chairs and tables, an open barbecue grill, outdoors bathrooms, a pool, a mini soccer table, swings. He had the most gorgeous German shepherd dogs to guard the chalet, and for his own pleasure. A big cage with birds too. He was a wonderful host, kind man, hunter and cultivator of his 2 acre garden. I tasted home grown tomatoes in his property, and cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, onion. It was a joy to the senses to visit his place.
The river is where I learned to swim. The river, the other neighbors, and the nearby small town, provided us with additional varied produce, meat and fish, that he would buy at good prices. The melons and watermelons of his neighbors were divine. The sardines from the town were fished that same day. He loved fish. I do too. I remember being introduced to fish jerky, -or dried up fish-, and to many summer outdoor meals, and winter indoor meals. There was some roasting in his chimney, and much cooking at my auntie’s kitchen.
Interminable games of cards and dominoes, and indefatigable mosquitoes. This is the setting of my childhood and The River, a novel packed with nostalgia. Quite an accomplishment of style. There’s no main character, just vignettes and dialogues, a slice of life captured in such a vivid way, with an existential undertone.
In elementary school at the nuns (and at every school), they made us read Platero and I by Juan Ramón Jiménez. I read from it to my girls when I homeschooled, in the mornings. Even though it’s written in prose, it consists of poetic vignettes regarding the life of Platero, a donkey, and his master, the poet himself who is writing. Some of those pages are sad, in whole, it’s a book I go to always in my old years.
After writing this, I went to get the link to the book, and I read this prologue to the English translation:
Here you can look inside and read a few pages. It’s one of the best books you can read, specially if you have not been reading poetry lately or ever. I believe poetry is closer to philosophy than to literature. I’m sorry I forgot what author said that. May have been Borges or Italo Calvino.
Despite of what Juan Ramón Jiménez says about children able to read what grownups read, I’m going to add that his Platero and I made much more sense to my older self, it moved me.
Apart from Platero, any and all books of poems by him you can find. Jiménez is a tender poet who loves to use color and texture words in his poems.
I also can’t leave without recommending Antonio Machado’s poetry to you. There’s much of him in English. In truth, I must say I have not seen his poetry in English as to ascertain if it’s as good as it comes across in Spanish. Roy was talking about how Keats in the Spanish translation lacked the impact and beauty of his original poems.
I recently reviewed Los Pazos de Ulloa, by Emilia Pardo Bazán. I believe that literature in Spanish from the peninsula from the XIX century is all worth trying if you happen to find any newly published edition, or an older copy at a library or store sale. Many of my Spanish books I’ve found for next to nothing at amazon and any of the online book stores, even at my local book store.
Many books and authors I read in my years in Madrid I’m a bit at loss. I have not revisited many of those books, others seem a bit out of place in this type of list I’m trying to formulate. I read A Heart so White by Javier Marías. I liked it alright, but in all honesty, I can’t place him on level with the titans of literature I have showcased here.
However, I admit that having lived in Houston for 22+ years, I’m not connected to Spanish literature, or to the European good books that are read in translation in my country. I believe Ruthiella was accurate when she said that we, Americans, don’t read as much in translation as in other parts of the world.
I see me making new additions to the post as my memory rescues other titles, or as I encounter new favorites. And please, if you read in Spanish and have any Spanish author you like and that has been translated into English, share with me, I beg of you.