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José Luis de Vilallonga: Le gentilhomme européen [The European Gentleman]

Though written in French and only later translated into Spanish, this is a very Spanish novel. It tells the story of the aristocratic Villahermosa family, rich, arrogant and out of touch with the changing realities of Spain in the 1920s-1930s. The story is told from the perspective of Juan, the eldest son of the family. The family lives in the immense Villahermosa palace near Barcelona with various relatives and, in particular, the matriarch of the family, the Marchioness. The Marchioness is determined to keep the old traditions of the family alive and keep the barbarians from the gate. Her son – Juan’s father (also called Juan) – is firmly under her thumb. Her daughter-in-law, Juan Jr’s mother and Juan Sr’s wife, who is from Madrid, barely tolerates her mother-in-law but her only rebellion is to occasionally flee to some watering hole such as Biarritz (she has her own money).

This novel is about two things. The first is growing up – Juan’s growing up in particular. There is, of course, sex – he is in love with his English nanny, Nanny Smith, and is heartbroken when she is killed in an accident with her lover. We follow, of course, his early sexual experiences (with a maid at the Jesuit school he attends). His gradual realisation that the world is not the ivory tower he has grown up in comes slowly but perceptibly but is hindered by his parents and his grandmother who dotes on him.

But, as much, it about the decline of the Spanish aristocracy and their refusal to face up to this decline. The Marchioness is a friend and former lover of Primo de Rivera. Juan’s mother is a friend and former (or, possibly, current lover) of King Alfonso XIII, so despised by the Spaniards that many of them tried to assassinate him and, even after the Civil War when Franco had won, he was not allowed to return to Spain. Primo de Rivera and Alfonso XIII, at least for the Spanish, symbolise this head in the sand attitude. The changes creep up to the Villahermosa Palace but, with the possible exception of Juan Jr, they ignore them till it is too late, assuming that the nasty rabble will go away or be repulsed by the army.

The Marchioness is a marvelous creation. She may be old-fashioned, with old-fashioned values, and prefer to spend her day reading Balzac, but, from her room, she rules everyone. Those on whom she looks favourably like Juan Jr and Primo de Rivera are fortunate. Those on whom she does not look favuorably, like her daughter-in-law, pay the price. She is not concerned with the feelings and concerns of others, only with her view of what is right. Despite all these faults, she remains an eminently attractive person, proud but friendly and, above all, intelligent. But her world is doomed and Vilallonga gives us a wonderful portrait of how and why it must fall.

Publishing history

First published in French 1992 by Fixot
No English translation
Published in Spanish in 1993 as El Gentilhombre europeo by :Tusquets
Translated by Juana Bignozzi