Wednesday, August 29, 2012

La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas: The critic, part two

The Madonna of the Chair by Raphael
Ana's resemblance to this depiction of Mary is noted several times
Picture source

Befitting the work of a literary critic, La Regenta contains many references and allusions to artistic works, quotes, and characters. In the dissertation I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Albert Brent adds an appendix listing each artistic reference—the list is five large pages in length (Brent, Albert. 1951. Leopoldo Alas and La Regenta: A Study in Nineteenth Century Spanish Prose Fiction. Columbia: Curators of the University of Missouri.) In this post I want to take a look at the use of these references, focusing on the four main characters but also containing a glimpse at some of the secondary characters. I haven’t gone into much detail on the central storyline so I’ll include some background for each character.

Ana Ozores
After Ana’s mother dies, she is raised by a governess who hoped to marry her father. Ana’s father dies, forcing her to live with two spinsterish aunts in Vetusta. Even though Ana is beautiful and innocent she is raised without any affection. This lack of love continues after she marries Victor Quintanar—their relationship is described more as a father-daughter relationship than husband-wife. After years of immersing herself in mythology and fairy tales she discovers St. Augustine’s Confessions in her father’s library. She follows that up with religious and mystical works which mirror and expand the spiritual side of her nature. Books fill the void left by her lack of relationships and she begins to write poetry. After Ana marries Victor, her writing makes her the target of jokes in Vetusta. Ana’s life and temperament follows wild swings, and after she exhausts the religious side of her nature she returns to mythology. Brent points out an important point on the impact of books for her: “Like Don Quixote and Madame Bovary, Ana is a dreamer who lives wrapped in fantasies, but, unlike them, her dreams arise not out of books principally but from her own situation and circumstances in life.” (page 32) Literature plays an important role in her life, mostly as a symbol of what she is experiencing at the moment.

Victor Quintanar
An actor in his youth, the judge still loves the theater. In his bed at night he recites from his favorite plays and brandishes his sword in time with the lines. He infuses his conversations, especially when attempting to romance Ana, with theatrical gestures. Don Victor embodies the plays of Calderón, declaring the defense of his honor while at the same time he befriending Álvaro, the man who will betray his trust. Brent’s comments sum up this wonderful character:

Viewing life through the ideas and actions of the seventeenth century, he declares that if ever faced with the situation of his wife’s infidelity, he would unhesitatingly deal with it in the Calderonian manner. But this man, who on his wedding trip finds the reading of El mayor monstruo los celos more engrossing than his lovely bride, who when his wife needs him most at a crucial moment in her life is found sitting up in bed brandishing a sword and declaiming verses, is one day horrified to discover that, while living in an imaginative world of intrigue and honor and vengeance, he has been a principal all along in a real life drama of marital infidelity and finds himself impotent to meet the situation in the dramatic fashion he had envisioned. (page 31)

Fermín de Pas
The canon theologian seeks a spiritual friendship with Ana, calling her his (mystical) sister. The main attraction to having such a relationship, in addition to the religious aspect, lies in helping amass more power and influence in Vetusta—having such a high-profile convert and ally adds to his stature. Books were important to Don Fermín’s youth and helped insure his escape from a small village—as much as he recognizes the importance of his mother for his rise in power, his eloquence and well-read background help him, too. He had tinkered with the idea of writing a novel but he enjoys living a novel-like existence instead of writing one. He does occasionally work on a theological treatise that he hopes will promote him to a more prestigious position and location.

Álvaro Mesía
Mesía doesn’t have many ties to literature, he is a literary character. He out-Don Juans Don Juan Tenorio. Mesía’s reputation rests on his conquests, his former lovers recalling their liaisons as the happiest times in their life. The marquis’ son hangs around Mesía, hoping to catch his cast-offs. He has transformed the seducer’s art to a science, supremely confident in his abilities. His seduction of Ana drives the novel’s plot as he befriends Victor in order to study his target and pounce when he detects weakness on her part. Mesía recognizes his role and revels in it, although he knows his advancing age will eventually diminish his effectiveness. Unlike Tenorio, though, there is no redemption, only cowardice.

Secondary characters
The richness of the secondary characters adds to La Regenta’s appeal, many of them receiving development and fullness matching that of the principals. Like the principal characters, literature factors in their lives, too. The Marquesa de Vegallana devours risqué books. Another priest adores poetry that idealizes women. The chapter that introduces the reader to the Gentlemen’s Club of Vetusta devotes a large, humorous section to the reading habits of the members. The archdeacon receives the nickname “Glouceter” because of his physical deformity. But my favorite secondary character is Saturnino Bermúdez, the city’s self-proclaimed historian. His love of local, mediocre artists becomes a running joke. The tour he leads of the art in the cathedral climaxes, almost literally for him, when “reading” an effaced engraving in the dark. He has written many volumes of history of the area, none of them read by anyone. What makes Don Saturnino so amusing (and there’s a lot to choose from) is that besides the obvious rebuff of the ignorant provincialism masquerading as culture is the less than flattering portrayal of a critic. Alas had to have his tongue firmly in cheek with this character.

There is some dissonance with the inclusion of so many literary references, particularly by the secondary characters. While a little bit would not feel forced, the amount of references by the very people Alas skewers for their provincialism rings false at times. I noticed it during my reading and Brent comments on it as well:

Alas is sometimes guilty of extravagance in the choice of figure to fit the situation. When the saintly Don Fortunato Camoirán, bishop of Vetusta, pleads to be allowed to go to the bedside of the impenitent Barinaga in a last-minute effort to convert him, he is accused by De Pas of trying to emulate Monseigneur Bienvenu and play the scene about the member of the Convention [Les Misérables]. Again, the case seems to be overdone when the officious and garrulous ex-mayor Foja, reporting to the crowd gathered outside Don Santos’ house, likens the dying man to King Lear in his resentment against his daughter, and when the Magistral, possessed of an insane desire to destroy his rival Mesía, remembers a certain murder in the tales of Edger Allan Poe. … Álvaro Mesía delights his adorers with certain mannerisms described by them as “Byronian,” and Ana is derisively called a “George Sand” by her acquaintances because of her literary aspirations. (page 39)

While not wholly excusing Alas, part of this problem can be explained by Alas’ outlook toward Vetustans—they try to imitate Madrid, Paris, and other centers of culture [more of the provincialism problem in a planned separate post] but they only copy superficial aspects. Their literary consumption is only for the story, and many times solely for the naughty bits, so they fail to take away anything deeper from their reading. Alas (as narrator) interjects when highlighting that the marquis’ son, Paco, would not have been taken in by Mesía’s false friendship (the dandy was using the young marquis to get close to Ana) if he had read wider and bothered to understand what he read. Another partially mitigating reason for the numerous inclusions by secondary characters is the popularity of the theater and performing artists in Vetusta. Since there isn’t much to do during the long rainy season, the theater becomes a popular place to go to see others and be seen. Like the lack of understanding with books, the upper classes in Vetusta don’t bother to pay attention to what happens on the stage. Alas’ narration on the frequent bankruptcy of touring theaters and the incorporation of former troupe members into the population provides a droll diversion.

The importance of the theater and theatricality proves to be a central topic in the novel. There are two performances that are central to the story. The first is the All Saints’ Day performance of Don Juan Tenorio, the first play Ana attends. The effect on Ana during the performance is profound. Her excitement lies (in addition to the story) with the comparison between the exciting action on the stage and the cheerlessness of her life. For someone that has been seeking love and acceptance all her life, the play resonates with her as she contemplates this comparison:

’Oh yes, that was love: a philter, fire, mystical madness. It was impossible to run away from it, impossible to enjoy greater fortune than to savour it, poisonous as it was. Ana compared herself with the novice. Ozores Mansion [where Ana lived] was her convent, her husband the rigid order of boredom and coldness in which she had professed a full eight years before; and Don Juan—Don Juan was Mesía, who also filtered through walls, made miraculous appearances and filled the air with his presence!’
(from Chapter XVI; note the use of quotation marks)

The second performance central to the story is the Good Friday procession, with Ana as one of penitents. Following the funeral cortege barefoot and in a purple robe, Ana was the center of attention. Women envied the attention she received, and “Not a single Vetustan was thinking about God” during the procession. Like the theater, only the superficial aspects of the performance are noted.

Alas integrates the arts, mostly literature and theater but also art and music, into the lives of his characters. What a person reads and whether they comprehend it plays a central role in Alas’ characterization of the Vetustans. But Alas was doing more than developing and criticizing his characters' literary foibles and eccentricities in La Regenta, a topic I hope to explore in the next post on Alas the critic.

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