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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

His Only Son

by
Leopoldo Alas


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase His Only Son



Title: His Only Son
Author: Leopoldo Alas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1890 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 258 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: in His Only Son - US
Su unico hijo - US
in His Only Son - UK
in His Only Son - Canada
Son fils unique - France
Sein einziger Sohn - Deutschland
Il suo unico figlio - Italia
Su unico hijo - España
  • Spanish title: Su unico hijo
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Margaret Jull Costa
  • Published in one volume together with Doña Berta
  • Previously translated by Julie Jones (1981)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sharp provincial tale

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A+ 20/4/2002 .
Publishers Weekly . 29/8/2016 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "Von der älteren Literatur des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts hat Clarín die Instanz des allwissenden Erzählers übernommen, aber er meidet dessen Betulichkeit und Benevolenz. Sein bohrend genauer Stil erinnert an medizinische Diagnostik, so wie Röntgenaufnahmen nicht an das Mitleid des Arztes appellieren, sondern nur an dessen Bereitschaft zu exakter Lektüre. Darin ist Clarín ein Vorläufer Prousts. Kaum jemand - und mit Sicherheit kein Spanier - hatte diesen Blick für verstohlene, beredte oder sublimierte Sexualität, überhaupt für das, was neuerdings als "politics of the body" bezeichnet wird. (...) (E)inen Virtuosenstreich an der Schwelle zur literarischen Moderne" - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "For all its superb period trappings, there is something bitterly current about this tale of debt and midlife crises." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       His Only Son centers on the hapless Bonifacio Reyes. When she was fifteen the spoiled Emma Valcárel fell for him, a third-rate clerk working for her father -- but her father saw to it that nothing came of that, making sure Bonifacio was far out of reach. She eventually married someone else -- a sickly fellow who conveniently died after a year -- and with both him and her father out of the way, Emma sought out her one-time love again, having him brought back from Mexico, and soon marrying him. The found-again Bonifacio was a disappointment, but served his purposes:

"Her" Bonifacio was merely an adornment, entirely hollow and empty inside, but useful as a way of provoking the envy of many of the town's society ladies.
       A kept man -- and kept on a very short leash -- Bonifacio does his sickly and demanding wife's bidding, accepting his submissive role (and terrified of upsetting her). With little spending money -- his wife has the wealth, her uncle the purse-strings (and a very free hand, since Emma can't be bothered trying to figure out her own accounts) -- he idles away his free time, guided at best by the prevailing notions of 'provincial romanticism'. Indeed, even when his situation improves somewhat:
Bonifacio's ideal was to dream a lot and to enjoy grand passions, but without this in any way disturbing good domestic customs.
       Emma and Bonifacio live in a "dull, melancholy, third-rate provincial capital", and there's hardly any diversion -- even intellectual (which would be rather too much for either of them, in any case) or artistic beyond perhaps some escapist novel-reading. Utterly self-absorbed Emma and dull Bonifacio hardly show any sort of ambition, about anything, and even if they did, the town offers almost no possibilities -- as Alas beautifully cruelly captures in small side-scenes of Bonifacio, such as:
"I should just throw myself in the river," he thought, then remembered that there was no river and that, besides, he really wasn't the suicidal type.
       Yet an opportunity to live out novel-fantasies arises when a group of opera singers come to town, and Bonifacio finds himself smitten by Serafina Gorgheggi. And while he's terrified of his wife finding out that he's showing outside interests, attending rehearsals and performances of this group, it turns out to be freeing for everyone involved. While the artists' friendliness towards Bonifacio seems at first entirely due to his willingness to help them out financially (which he is, despite the difficult situation that places him in), it all works out surprisingly well -- for a while. Bonifacio falls for Serafina -- and even as he is suddenly (very cautiously) torn between two women surprisingly soon finds Emma newly invigorated as well, and no longer nearly as whinily demanding.
       Bonifacio finds:
Now, though, while he still might not know how to write novels, he could live them, and his life was as novelesque as the finest novel. And very hard work it was, because there were times when his precarious financial situation, his feelings of remorse, and especially his fears kept him teetering on the brink of what he judged to be madness. Not that it mattered; most of the time he felt very pleased with himself. His inability to express himself, which was, according to him, all that he lacked in order to become an artist, was compensated for now by reality; he felt like the hero of a novel
       Readers, of course, know exactly what kind of hero of this novel he is .....
       (Alas repeatedly draws the comparison between reality and fiction, and cruelly shows how inadequate Bonifacio is, denying him even the ability to spell out his thoughts as the writer of a novel could:
     He resumed his weeping after thinking these thoughts, although he thought them in other words, or in part without any words at all because he would not even have known some of the words he needed to use.
       This Bonifacio -- "even less educated than his chronicler" -- can neither express nor understand himself as the novelist can.)
       A reinvigorated Emma becomes more wife -- and society lady -- when Bonifacio has his mistress. Emma, too, seems to like to play games -- including, dangerously, regarding her fortune (which wasn't all that impressive to start with, given her father's costly secret lifestyle), as she is well aware her uncle is robbing her blind yet: "she seemed to luxuriate in that fact [...] preferring not to worry her little head about it, blithely conscious of the high price involved".
       Matters escalate with the arrival of others to the town, the engineer Körner and his twenty-eight year old daughter Marta, who had come to this Spanish town to make their fortune. With Emma forming a close friendship with Marta -- and Emma's uncle and the young woman becoming an item -- the already precarious Valcárel-Reyes fortune melts away even more easily .....
       Neither Emma nor Bonifacio seem capable of taking their situation seriously, living in fantasy-worlds of their own creation. Bonifacio does overhear the truth spelled out for him:
     "So they're on the road to ruin then ?"
     "Yes, there's nothing to be done."
     "And it's her fault ?"
     "Yes, but he started it, and she followed, and soon everyone was at it."
       But before he can wrap his brain completely around that another dramatic change distracts him, as Emma suddenly finds herself unwelcomely pregnant.
       The novel is titled His Only Son, but it's well into the story that even just the possibility arises. But, while Emma is anything but thrilled, Bonifacio embraces it as, finally, something giving his life meaning, something that he realizes: "he had always wanted". And, of course:
     A daughter would not be a true continuation of himself; he could not imagine that being who would inherit his blood, his spirit, as feminine. The child had to be a boy, and an only child, because the love he would lavish on his son would be absolute, unrivaled.
       Of course, things don't work out as Bonifacio imagines them -- even his wish regarding the child's name is easily ignored -- but he holds onto his beliefs and hopes, even when his former mistress tells him the truth, self-evident and clear to everyone else, about the boy. His refusal to accept the obvious is an ultimate act of self-delusion -- and all that Bonifacio has left to cling to.
       A sharp provincial satire, His Only Son offers two great character-portraits in Emma and Bonifacio, and considerable amusement in how those around them deal with and take advantage of them. It does feel a bit oddly paced, with especially the son-issue a non-issue -- invisible, in essentially every respect -- for some two-thirds of the novel, and occasionally it seems in too much of a rush (even as Alas does rush very well, cutting to the quick with a few sharp strokes). Still, it's a fine and often very funny work, a nice rediscovery.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 November 2016

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Links:

His Only Son: Reviews: Other books by Leopoldo Alas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Leopoldo Alas (pen name: Clarín) lived 1852 to 1901.

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© 2016 the complete review

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