Thursday, August 23, 2012

La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas: introduction

Statue of Ana Ozores, (La Regenta)
Located in the plaza of the Cathedral of San Salvador, Oviedo, Spain
Picture source

This post will be a scattershot introduction to La Regenta, one of the best 19th-century novels I’ve read. Since its release, La Regenta has had its share of misrepresentation. Alas was initially accused of plagiarizing Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Back covers on current versions breathlessly promise a book “smoldering with sensuality” (well...yes and no). Fortunately the back cover of the version I have has the most accurate short summary I’ve seen to date:

Its subject is a shabby provincial Spanish town and, in particular, an intelligent and sensitive woman’s unsuccessful—and eventually disastrous—quest for fulfilment through marriage, adultery and religion. By dint of a remarkably complete and skilful use of realism, Alas combines a lively and satirical portrait of the society as a whole with an incisive exploration of the inner life of its principal characters.

A few of the basics: The title La Regenta is often translated as “The Judge’s Wife,” but as you’ll see in a later quote there are additional connotations. Volume One of La Regenta was published in 1884, Volume Two followed a year later. The setting of Vetusta in the novel was modeled on Oviedo where Alas taught Roman law at the local university. Volume One takes place October 2-4, 1877 (the days are exact, the year approximate). The action in Volume Two occurs over the next three years. While the exact time isn’t important, the general setting in the early years of Restoration Spain highlight that

La Regenta is about conservative times and a conservative society—the wealthy classes of a proud, ancient, backward-looking provincial town (the Spanish adjective vetusto—feminine vetusta—means ‘ancient’, and is itself an archaic word).
(page 15 in the Introduction)

Rutherford’s introduction is outstanding in its inclusion of information helpful in understanding the novel, such as its historical setting and for his ability to concisely summarize many aspects of the story. He goes into detail about the novelistic approaches of the day, the history surrounding the time it was written, and some of the techniques used in the book. Here’s part of the introduction:

The subject-matter of La Regenta, the life of a shabby Spanish provincial town in the late nineteenth century, might make it seem dated and parochial. But thanks to its universal themes, psychological insight and technical boldness it has proved itself to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women. La Regenta is ambitions—astonishingly so for a man of thirty-two writing his first novel. It is a big, rich novel in the nineteenth-century tradition—not just a long novel but an all-embracing one of many styles and moods, from broad humour to the most intense feeling, kept from degenerating into sentimentalism by Alas’s controlling irony. … But most of the time Alas shows in vivid and telling detail the absurd, unchanging world of mediocrity, pretence , hypocrisy, boredom and quirkiness of decadent provincial society. Against such a backcloth Fermín De Pas and Ana Ozores stand out as powerful protagonists. The canon theologian [Fermín ] and the judge’s wife [Ana] are, in Spanish, el magistral and la regent, words with incidental yet inescapable suggestions, impossible to recapture in translation, of “the man who is the master’ and ‘the woman who rules’.
(pages 13-14, 16 in the Introduction)

Rutherford focuses on the narrative style of La Regenta in his introduction since it is important in understanding the novel. One of Alas’ critical reviews of a Benito Pérez Galdós novel describes the technique he would use throughout La Regenta:

”Another procedure employed by Galdós,” wrote Alas, “and now with more insistence and success than ever, is one also used by Flaubert and Zola with very impressive results: replacing the observations which the author often makes in his own voice about a character’s situation by the character’s own observations, using the latter’s style—not, however, in the manner of a monologue, but as if the author were inside the character, and the novel were being created inside the character’s brain.”

Later called style indirect libre, this indirect discourse frees itself from introducing its use. Alas often takes the technique a step further and encloses these observations in quotation marks. The result is that the novel makes use of direct and indirect narration along with the quoted thoughts, scrambling these approaches over a page, a paragraph, and sometimes within a sentence. The difficulty, at times, is deciding who is making the observation. Sometimes the observation isn’t from a particular person but reflects general opinion in Vetusta. La Regenta is often described as having an unreliable narrator, but that doesn’t completely capture the subtleties of this technique and the full range of ambiguities.

I just discovered that my edition of La Regenta comes with a serious defect—none of the original illustrations from the original edition are included. I don’t know if subsequent translated editions have included these or not but, if such a version is available, the following article by Dr. Gareth Wood makes it sound like it would be worthwhile to use. The article’s abstract:

This article examines the illustrations by Joan Llimona and Francisco Gómez Soler that featured in the original edition of La Regenta (1884-85) by Lepoldo Alas. The inclusion of those images in the recently published edition of the novel in the Ediciones Nobel Obras completas has given fresh impetus to an assessment of their contribution to the reading experience they help to create.

The first section of this article describes the reception of Llimona's work until now, as well as the difficulties of determining how much input Alas had in recommending scenes for illustration and/or editing the final images. In that first section comparisons are also made with other Restoration novelists - notably Emilia Pardo Bazán - and their attitudes to illustrated editions. The second section conducts a detailed analysis of how the illustrations might be read alongside the text. That analysis serves to show what an attentive reader of the text Llimona, in particular, was and how much the illustrations reinforce and heighten moments of pathos, irony or humour in the novel.

There are plenty of articles, guides, and studies available on La Regenta but I want to note two that I found extremely useful (even if just skimming through them). I’ll note whenever I’m using these books. They are

Brent, Albert. 1951. Leopoldo Alas and La Regenta: A Study in Nineteenth Century Spanish Prose Fiction. Columbia: Curators of the University of Missouri.

Rutherford, John. 1974. Leopoldo Alas: La Regenta (Critical Guides to Spanish Texts). London: Grant & Cutler Ltd in association with Tamesis Books Ltd.

The next post will rely on Albert Brent’s study and his comments on Alas the critic.

All quotes from the novel and introduction are taken from the Penguin Classics edition shown below, translated with an introduction by John Rutherford. At the time of publication Rutherford was a Fellow of The Queen's College, Oxford. I've tried to maintain the spelling provided in the book, but automated spellchecking may change words to an Americanized spelling.


Richard said...

Looking forward to this series of posts, Dwight. Funny to hear about that "judge's wife" translation--it's not like we don't have the word "regent" in English, and a judge's wife it is not!

seraillon said...

Oh good heavens, I've barely cracked open Fortunata and Jacinto and now Alas? Kidding - what a succinct and tempting introduction to the novel. I look forward to reading more - and to reading this once I'm done with the other 10 pound book on the nightstand.