In June 1952, Alberto Gil Novales was 22 years old, had finished his law degree and wanted to be a historian. I do not know how he learned the postal address of Alberto Jiménez Fraud in his exile in Oxford, but, on that date, he wrote a moving letter to the former director of the Student Residence that indicated a destination: “What can the spirit of of some Residents who lost, without having known it, the Residence? Wait, wait, but we have an acute pain before our future as Spaniards ”. A year earlier, reading the pages of the magazine Insula, the young man had learned of the death of the poet Pedro Salinas and concluded sadly: “We are almost an orphan generation …”.
Seven years later, Gil Novales had written his first book, Little Atlantis. Decline and intellectual regeneration of Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries (1959), which found two exceptional supporters. It was edited by Carlos Barral in the unforgettable Brief Library, where Alberto’s brother, the novelist and playwright Ramón, had already translated a book. And the title, The little Atlantis, was a suggestion from Salvador Espriu, an admired writer, neighbor and friend of the Gil Novales in Barcelona (Espriu must have read an article by Ortega y Gasset in his 1936 reprint, The Atlantis that spoke of the curiosity of that time for “submerged and evaporated cultures”, such as the Egyptian and the Assyrian. And he thought that Gil Novales’ Atlantis were more modest and closer but that they were equally forgotten).
Over time, Alberto Gil Novales became a professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and the Complutense University, wrote essential studies on the history of Spanish liberalism in the first half of the 19th century and, after presenting an early doctoral thesis on Joaquín Costa, published memorable works on his work. Friendly hands have now rescued this 1959 book whose prose has some trace of the more regenerationist Azorín, which is very well written and where it is spoken with a mixture of humor and noble vehemence of some forgotten things. But above all, it gives us the image of a time (not so remote …) in which writing about heterodox was not the best recommendation for a curriculum, in which a letter addressed to an exiled teacher could be a heroic profession of faith and in which the respect for the true intellectual hierarchy persisted. For this reason, without a doubt, the greatest Catalan poet of his time and the most future young editor contributed to the first book by an unknown person.
Sixty years later, another Aragonese historian, Carlos Forcadell, had the good idea of reissuing the volume, with no other additions than its opportune guiding prologue and the precise footnotes to locate those characters, to whom Gil Novales habitually yields the word, through generous quotes from their texts. There appear the precepts of the Laws of the Indies, promulgated by Carlos II but which nobody obeyed, and the book of a late arbitrator of that time (Miguel Caxa de Leruela), but also a memory of the acid political pamphlet of the poet Espronceda (The Mendizábal ministry). There are portraits of heroic characters, such as Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, clairvoyant informants on the state of the American colonies in the time of Carlos III, or such as the daring illustrated polemicist Francisco Cabarrús and the tireless anti-absolutist tribune Álvaro Flórez Estrada.
There is talk of those who were self-sacrificing officials, such as the Azara brothers: Felix, the great naturalist whom Darwin cited with admiration, and José Nicolás, a diplomat in the service of the Bourbons and author of the most suggestive epistolary of his time. And of others who left a more tenuous mark, such as the geographer Isidoro de Antillón and José Mor de Fuentes, polyglot, rather bad poet, Goethe’s first translator and author of memoirs that are worthwhile.
In 1959, the Frenchized 18th century did not have good press (Gil Novales knows and quotes the first great favorable synthesis: Illustrated Spain of the second half of the 18th century, by Jean Sarrailh, in the French edition of 1954) and almost nothing was known about the vital adventures of the exiles in the Fernandine years (in an appendix, the author admiringly reviews the monograph of another exiled … from 1939, Vicente Llorens, entitled Liberals and romantics. A Spanish emigration in England, which saw the light in Mexican presses in 1954).
The new edition of The little Atlantis It is part of the Larumbe collection. Aragonese texts, jointly edited by the most significant cultural entities in the region. With this installment he doubles the end of the 100 titles, which is not a small merit. It has also been honoring the memory of its author.