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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Celestina

by
Fernando de Rojas


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

To purchase Celestina



Title: Celestina
Author: Fernando de Rojas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1499 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 266 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Celestina - US
La Celestina - US (Spanish)
Celestina - UK
Celestina - Canada
La Célestine - France
La Celestina - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: La Celestina
  • Translated and with a Translator's Note by Margaret Sayers Peden
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Roberto González Echevarría
  • Previously translated by James Mabbe (1631), Lesley Byrd Simpson (1955), Mack Hendricks Singleton (1958), Phyllis Hartnoll (1959), J.M.Cohen (1964), and Peter Bush (2009)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dark and powerful, though the balance between modernizing the language and remaining true to the text proves hard to maintain here

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 10/7/1955 Ramon Sender
TLS* . 7/2/1924 Harold Child
TLS* . 19/6/1959 J.M.Cohen
TLS* . 25/2/1965 Terence E. May


* Indicates earlier translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is not a moral work, for all the tragic fate of the lovers. It is a work of fiction, very artfully conceived and executed, considering its date." - Harold Child, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A)t once one of the simplest and one of the most complicated of the world's masterpieces. (...) It is a work of great humanity, which does not spring to full life until its social background and the circumstances of its writing are as plain to its present-day reader as they were to its original audience." - J.M.Cohen, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Celestina -- arguably the first European novel -- is, in fact, presented entirely in dialogue. Divided into acts (twenty-one in this translation) and subdivided into scenes, it reads like a play (and there have been numerous theatrical adaptations of it).
       It is a surprisingly dark story, though with a good deal of humor to it as well. In summary it is fairly simple: Calisto meets Melibea and falls head-over-heels in love -- "In this, Melibea, I see the greatness of God" is the first line of the novel -- but she spurns him. Calisto enlists Celestina, an old woman who has seen and done it all, to help him win over the fair young maiden. Celestina is successful, but the costs are high: by the end there has been a murder, a suicide, a more or less accidental death (one of the principals topples off a ladder), and two characters have been beheaded for their actions. There is no happy ending
       Calisto and Melibea are your typical star-crossed lovers. Calisto is completely infatuated and willing to try and do anything to win the heart of Melibea. His over-the-top enthusiasm is quite winning:

I am a Melibean, and I worship Melibea and I put my faith in Melibea and I adore Melibea.
       Melibea starts out determined not to be won over by his words, suspicious that he's just like every other man and eager to remain virtuous. It doesn't last. Soon enough, after Celestina has stirred things up, she's completely caught up in passion, spurring Celestina on:
O I am dying with your delay ! Say, for God's sake, what you want; do what you know to do, for your remedy cannot be so harsh that it can equal my pain and torment. Taint my honor, damage my reputation, punish my body !
       If the transformation is rather sudden -- "My señora has lost her wits", Melibea's maid cannot help but think, and soon later another character notes that: "The hasty surrender of mistress Melibea makes me very suspicious" -- the depths of the passion are impressively conveyed; "Taint my honor, damage my reputation, punish my body !" is a hell of a line.
       But is such love -- and passion -- meant to be ? Rojas barely gives it a chance. Soon enough Melibea is wailing:
O the saddest of all the sad ! Pleasure so late achieved, pain so quickly come.
       While this may be the story of these two young lovers, the novel is appropriately titled Celestina, and the old woman is very much a central figure. Calisto's servant, Pármeno, knows Celestina and tries to warn his master about her before he gets involved with her. Celestina's reputation certainly precedes her, as she proudly acknowledges exactly what she is. As Pármeno puts it:
If she is walking among a hundred women and someone calls out, "Auld hoor !" without a flicker of embarrassment she turns her head and responds with a happy face.
       Indeed, he suggests that it goes so far that:
Why, when one rock touches another, the sound will be, "Old whore !"
       But she's much more than a whore (and madam) -- and she's also usefully worldly-wise. That makes her rather cynical, but she's an astonishingly fully-developed complex figure. She's also happy enough at this stage in life, despite old age, a scar across her face, and all that she's been through: when Melibea asks whether she wouldn't like to start all over if she could Celestina answers:
No, Daughter; demented is the traveler who annoyed by the day's fatigues wants to go back to the beginning of the journey and travel again to the same place; for all those unpleasant things in life are far better possessed than anticipated, because the farther one is from the beginning the nearer one is to the end. There is nothing sweeter or more welcome to the weary traveler than an inn. So it is that, although youth is a happy time, the wisely old man does not desire it, because he who lacks reason and good sense loves almost nothing but what he has lost.
       Of course, she is also a manipulative old shrew who looks to take advantage of every situation she finds herself in, and to profit greatly from Calisto's love-blindness. But Calisto is a satisfied customer:
I truly believe that if that Aeneas and Dido had lived in our age, Venus would not have worked so hard to bring Dido's love to her son, making Cupid take on the form of Ascanius to deceive her, but would have hastened things by using you as an intermediary.
       And, of course, Celestina's greed and manipulations -- and then the fact that she enlists help to help things along, others who also expect to profit mightily -- lead to her predictable (but rather sudden) end.
       The dialogue-form in which the novel is presented has its limitations, though Rojas mostly deals with these quite well. There are rather many asides -- a character uttering (or muttering) something to himself in order to convey additional information to the reader -- and these can feel awkward, a stage-device that works better on the stage than page. When there is real action center stage this proves more difficult to convey, and can sound downright silly:
Constable ! Constable, neighbors ! Constable ! These ruffians are killing me in my own house !
       Followed by:
Ay, he has killed me ! Ay ! Ay ! Confession ! Confession !
       (They all long for confession in their dying moments ("O help me, blessed Mary ! I am dead ! Confession!" are another character's last words); but few get the opportunity to do it properly.)
       The efforts to describe what happened don't always meet with success either, as in the case of servant who relays the information that his master:
fell from the ladder and is dead. His head is split into three pieces. He perished without confession.
       And in the final dramatic scene Melibea even gives stage-directions to her father:
If you listen to me without tears, you will hear the desperate reason for my imperative and happy departure. Do not interrupt with weeping or words, for if you do you will more regret not knowing why I am killing myself than you are sorrowful to see me dead. Do not ask me or offer as response more than what I want to tell you willingly, because when the heart is laden with torment the ears are closed to counsel, and in such a time fruitful words, instead of calming, inflame ferment.
       (The logic here is a bit dubious: she's about to fling herself to her death, so surely even if ferment is inflamed the worst that could happen couldn't be any worse than what she's threatening to do anyway.)
       This is an old text -- first published in 1499 -- and poses obvious translation difficulties. In her Translator's Note Margaret Sayers Peden begins by admitting that this classic text is: "For me the ultimate challenge". She admits that some of her choices, such as the series of laments, may sound annoying to contemporary readers (though oddly she allows her own annoyance to influence at least one choice, refusing to literally translate laughs ("Ha ! Ha ! Ha !"), admitting: "those are sounds I dislike and so substituted 'He laughs.'"). Overall, she has captured the work well, and the irritating word- and expression-choices ("caballero" !) are kept to a minimum.
       This is a full translation -- Lesley Byrd Simpson's (also very readable) version admits to only sixteen acts and is at least a third shorter -- so the story does not always move along at highest speed; still, even in this version, it has few longueurs.
       This edition also includes a brief (one-paragraph) plot-summary of the action to come in each act; these are unnecessary and occasionally irritating (insofar as they reveal plot-points -- including deaths -- before the reader can get to them). The action is straightforward enough that readers do not need a gloss -- much less a preview -- of it.
       A solid edition and translation of a classic work that has held up quite well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 January 2010

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Links:

Celestina: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Fernando de Rojas lived ca. 1470 to 1541.

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© 2010 the complete review

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