Thursday, August 21, 2014

To the Point of Bursting: Leopoldo Alas' La Regenta

Raphael: The Madonna of the Chair (source: Wikipedia)

Spanish Literature Month (Plus), hosted by Richard and Stu, is rapidly coming to a close, but having spent most of the month reading La Regenta, the massive 1886 realist novel by Leopoldo Alas (a.k.a. Clarin), I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to squeeze in a few comments on this extraordinarily rich book.

La Regenta’s first line - “The city was taking a nap” – hooked me. Alas follows this with an ingenious, almost cinematic device, as young canon-theologian Don Fermin de Pas mounts the church tower of the sleepy Asturian city of Vetusta and withdraws from his cassock a long object - given blatantly phallic suggestiveness enhanced already by the tower itself - that initially frightens one of the two boys hiding in the belfry. It’s merely a telescope, which Don Fermin trains onto the town below to spy upon its inhabitants. The scene serves as a fine example of Alas’ ability to compound humorous irony and sexual symbolism with both straightforward realist narrative and a more meta-fictional suggestion of the author’s role, his own intent to survey the goings-on of Vetusta. Over the next 700 pages, Alas picks apart this provincial city to reveal its upper class as semi-aware somnambulists, preoccupied with gossip and social machinations, pressed between civic and religious institutions, and largely at the mercy of an entrenched psychosexual dynamic that manifests itself in a Don Juan-style lecherousness or a paralytic state of wretched and crushing repression.

La Regenta may cover terrain similar to many 19th century realist novels – a broad scope married with a granular effort to capture the world as it is; a reflection of the day’s philosophical and political debates; a glimpse of encroaching mechanization and industrialization; a dissection of the interactions of people across social and economic strata; and a concern with the position of women – but its particulars mark Alas as an author of unusual psychological astuteness who digs deeply into the impact of the Catholic clergy on provincial life in Spain, offers a self-reflexive awareness of the enterprise of literature, and wields irony with an acidity that makes practitioners such as Flaubert and Eça de Queiroz seem almost timid. Hacking away at social and cultural institutions of Vetustan life, Alas excoriates small-mindedness and torpidity, referring to Vetusta (and this is but a small sample) as “a muck-heap,” “an inescapable eternal tedium,” “a quagmire of triviality,” “suicide by suffocation,” “the very worst town it was possible to imagine” and asserting that “no one ever thought in Vestusta, people merely vegetated.”

At the heart of La Regenta is the relationship between Don Fermin and Ana Ozores Quintanar, the “judge’s wife.” Like Fermin, the confessor in whom she quickly finds a sympathetic spirit, she is a member of the town’s gentry, a relative newcomer to Vetusta and a person with a past. But even at the novel’s beginning, Ana’s life holds out little promise for a future: “And now she was married…To imagine anything in excess of the five feet and various inches of the man by her side was a sin. It was all over – without ever having started.”

With concentrated intimacy, the narrative follows Ana and Fermin they navigate between their religious convictions and the pulsing insistence of their corporal selves, trying to escape the confines of Vetustan life as their penitent/confessor relationship edges towards something more prurient. Compounding the situation is the pursuit of Ana by the town’s Don Juan, Don Alvaro Mesia (whose refined seduction techniques are related so granularly as to comprise a “How to Pick Up Girls” manual), and by the rivalry of the two men as they jockey for Ana’s affections. Meanwhile, Ana’s husband, retired magistrate and former actor Don Victor Quintanar, supplies comic relief in his oafish obliviousness, hunting for game, bathetically re-enacting his greatest moments on the stage, and tinkering in his study with mechanical devices of his own invention (were this a contemporary novel, he’d be in his man-cave with power tools).

Further intimacy is supplied both by La Regenta’s compact temporal scope – much of the novel’s 350-page first volume unfolds over three days and the entire novel over three years – and by Alas’ concentrated focus on the psychology of his characters, keeping description to a minimum. Translator John Rutherford notes that Alas fails to give us a physical portrait even of Ana, other than repeated allusions to her resembling Rafael’s Madonna of the Chair (minus child). But when Alas does employ description, it’s almost invariably lyrical and edged with irony, for instance an observation of low clouds “like great bags of dirty clothes unravelling upon the hills in the distance,” or a description of “the moon standing over the horizon like a lantern on the battlefield of the clouds, which lay about the sky, torn to shreds.”

But the most arresting aspect of La Regenta is its intense focus on sexuality, which, as Rutherford points out in his introduction, would have generated a slew of critical works noting Alas’ debt to Freud, had not Alas preceded Freud. At every opportunity, Alas mines Vetustan society for the lifeblood pulsing beneath its listless exterior:

About the lady’s skirt, which was of black satin, there was nothing exceptional, so long as she remained motionless, What was really objectionable was something which looked like a doublet of scarlet silk- quite alarming, even. The doublet was stretched over some kind of breastplate (nothing less substantial could have stood the strain), which had the shape of a woman excessively endowed by nature with the tributes of her sex. What arms! What a bust! And it all looked as if it were on the point of bursting!

Like the clothing of the wanton Dona Obdulia described above, La Regenta possesses a sexual energy strained “to the point of bursting.” Men swoon over glimpses of ladies’ ankles, knees brush against knees at table, hands fumble for other hands, innocent games are played by persons who are “the very opposite of innocent,” and nights are spent in torturous fevers of repression (small wonder the city naps). The principal thrust of Alas’ examination of the church’s influence is its role in sublimating sexuality into an ersatz spirituality and transforming human desire into tortured religious mystical experience. He does this with a remarkable subtlety and modernity, even including a humorous description of a priest masturbating (veiled such that one could miss it if one blinked), and a suggested lesbian relationship. Alas is merciless with the repressiveness and hypocrisy of the randy Vetustans inside and outside the church and with the role that the church plays in tamping down sexuality. The brief background he supplies regarding Ana’s youth reveals her as the victim of a cruel society ready to read salaciousness into the most innocent of childhood relations between members of the opposite sex. Don Fermin likewise tries to stifle the stirrings of his body and bury them in high-minded religious rhetoric, his desire funneled into a pursuit of power. 

Alas’ caustic assessment of Vetusta, though, is but one pole of a substantive, if often scathingly funny, dialectic he uses to explore the many facets of this carnal/spiritual divide and of the role of religion in furthering it. Some of his barbs hurled at institutionalized religion are brutally sharp, both in rhetoric – referring to the religious as “millions of blind, indolent spirits” – and in description, as during a religious procession in which a hideous Christ sculpture is seen “lying on a bed of cambric…sweating drops of varnish [and looking] as if He had died of consumption.” But Alas also weaves into his portrait of religious oppression and sexual torpor a high level philosophical examination conveyed via debates among the characters as well as their genuine struggles of conscience and, occasionally, a more removed authorial intrusion. Referencing philosophical and theological works, Alas examines the role of religion in public and private life, delving even into the question of God’s existence. His cast of characters displays degrees of religious commitment, including a disgraced alcoholic priest and the town’s only atheist. The latter is employed amusingly in trying to leverage public opinion against Don Fermin, who represents the access of power against which Alas launches his sharpest attacks, underscoring a distinction between an edifying spirituality that serves the social welfare versus the institutional church that primarily serves the wealthy and its own ends, and which, from sheer inanition, even abandons any effort to convince peasants and miners of lofty notions such as redemption. I should note that the poor do exist in and around Vetusta, but they appear only on the periphery, just as they do to the novel’s self-absorbed bourgeois principals. Yet the few scenes in which they appear are memorable; in fact, it’s a servant who’s responsible for the unraveling of the delicate house of cards built by elite Vetustans trying to have their cake and make love to it too. Some of these injections of class awareness – such as when Ana accidentally gets swept up in an evening passeggiata in a popular quarter – suddenly intrude with the force of Daumier drawings, but with the natural energy and openness of the lower classes leveraged against the frivolous and tortured pursuits of the upper class.  

I’ve scarcely begun to touch on the many marvelous elements of La Regenta. Among these are individual portraits, delivered with an irony reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis, of clergymen, businesspeople, and even the incompetent town doctor (clearly inspired by Flaubert’s depiction of Charles Bovary). The realism of the novel occasionally spins energetically out into an almost Disney-esque magical realism, as when Ana’s delight in the countryside is accompanied by a choir of frogs and birds, trees happily waving their branches, and even a loathsome toad she fears can read her thoughts. Rutherford’s introduction devotes much of its attention to the unusual narrative style of La Regenta, which frequently pivots point of view even within a single sentence, employs quotation marks to set off interior thought, and makes frequent temporal shifts via flashback and recollection. La Regenta’s abundant and occasionally meta-fictional references to literature, with Alas exploring literature even as he’s writing it, make for one of the novel’s most engaging elements. In addition to characters who display a fondness for poetry, there’s a town poet who interjects lines that include words he himself doesn’t understand. The wealthy Vetustans spend their evenings at the theater much as they spend their Sundays at mass. Works by Spain’s great playwrights - Calderón de la Barca, José Zorilla y Moral, Tirso de Molina - figure prominently (those who participated in Spanish Literature Month’s offshoot Tirso group read will almost certainly find much to appreciate in La Regenta). A performance of Zorilla’s play Don Juan Tenorio in Vetusta’s opera house provides one of the novel’s great set pieces (as well as one of the translator’s most entertaining footnotes regarding this completely nutty piece), with as much sexual subterfuge going on in the opera boxes as on the stage. Ana, a refined Emma Bovary, prefers novels “with everything depicted in a lifelike manner and as it really is,” though her intellectualism is repeatedly snuffed out by those around her, who view writing by women as  “an unpardonable sin,” give her the nickname “George Sand,” and leave her with few intellectual outlets other than “a communion across three centuries” with mystical martyr Saint Teresa of Avila. Alas sensitively portrays Ana’s entrapment, the chief option for elevation of her soul and for self-examination in this most Catholic of worlds being the compartmentalized and close institutions of the church, especially the confession box, a perfect symbol for the claustrophobia and frustrated intimacy that characterize Vetustan life.

Despite Vetusta’s suffocating influence, though, both Ana and Don Fermin achieve occasional heroic moments of edging up above Vetusta’s mire, only to be sucked into it again. Ana especially, between her ecstatic religious transports and sexual pining, has flashes of acute self-awareness delivered with a strikingly modern, almost existentialist spirit:

Suddenly an idea came into her head as if it were a bitter taste in her brain: ‘I am alone in the world.” And the world was lead-coloured, or dirty yellow, or black, according to the time and the day. The world was a remote, muffled, mournful murmur - senseless, monotonous children’s songs, and wheels clattering over cobble-stones, making windows rattle and then fading into the distance like the grumbling of rancorous waves. Life was a country dance performed by the sun revolving at speed around the earth, and this was what each day was: nothing else.

But these moments of awareness have nowhere to go in torpid Vetusta. Alas’ depiction, at once caustic and sensitive, of the crushing influence of religion and provincialism and of the way they can dehumanize delicate souls and enervate energetic bodies, seems, despite its 19th century provincial setting, far ahead of its time. Once almost consigned to obscurity, La Regenta belongs with the greatest of psychological novels. And thanks to Spanish Literature Month, it certainly counts among the best books I’ve read all year.