cover image His Only Son

His Only Son

Leopoldo Alas, trans. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. New York Review Books, $17.95 trade paper (344p) ISBN 978-1-68137-018-7

Alas’s classic 19th-century Spanish comic novel makes its English-language debut; it’s a wry reckoning with the “social novels” of Balzac, but written with the sardonic cheek of Cervantes. The hero is Bonifacio Reyes, a hapless ex-clerk and amateur flutist who sponges off his capricious wife, Emma Valcarcel, from a once-illustrious family known for their “love of the cape,” and her Mephistophelian uncle and financial adviser, Don Juan Nepomuceno. But Bonifacio, like a male version of Flaubert’s Bovary, is determined to live as though he’s the protagonist of a romantic novel and takes up a disastrous affair with a second-rate opera singer named Serafina, who thinks she has found in Bonifacio a wealthy patron. As Bonifacio transforms himself into the benefactor of Serafina’s salon of bohemians, his tyrannical wife undergoes a transformation of her own (or believes she does), which culminates in an “intimate polka” with the baritone Minghetti and a pregnancy that Bonifacio insists on regarding, despite all evidence to the contrary, as a miracle. For all its superb period trappings, there is something bitterly current about this tale of debt and midlife crises. Included in this volume is the novella “Doña Berta,” about a spinster who forsakes her one love (her cat) for a painting of the beloved captain who long ago failed to return. Like His Only Son, it is a send-up of engagement with the arts, making for a book of wonderful, essential tragicomedy. (Oct.)