Friday, September 07, 2012

La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas

Even with several long posts on La Regenta I've barely scratched the surface of this wonderful novel, but I want to wrap things up so I can get to other books. Here are the posts to date on the book:

Introduction: summary, introduction, technique, illustrations, references

Excerpts: extended quotes on Ana's boredom, attending Don Juan Tenorio, rivalry and hypocrisy in Vetusta, and Victor's rude realization

Alas the critic, part one: Alas' career as a critic and his literary theory, influence of Krausism, and possible benefits of literature

Alas the critic, part two: on Alas' use of literature and other arts in La Regenta

Alas the critic, part three: provincialism and moral corruption in Vetusta

1995 TV serives (Spain)

In the introductory post I mentioned two resources I found helpful in understanding La Regenta. I have used Albert Brent’s dissertation in several posts but haven’t talked about John Rutherford’s critical guide (Rutherford is also the translator of the novel edition I read). The guide (Rutherford, John. 1974. Leopoldo Alas: La Regenta, Critical Guides to Spanish Texts. London: Grant & Cutler Ltd in association with Tamesis Books Ltd.) focuses on a straightforward analysis (characterization, story, setting) in looking at the novel, but the key is that these elements are essential in understanding the story’s development. Rutherford’s introduction to each of these areas provides good overviews of his approach. Regarding his contention that characterization is a “permutation of themes” and how this approach applies to this novel:

A consensus of published opinion about the vision of life presented in La Regenta could be state in the following terms: Man seeks to direct his life towards spiritual fulfilment, but he is disastrously unsuccessful because he lives in a world of hypocrisy in which spiritual activities have been debased and converted into material and worldly activities. The themes involved here could be conveniently formulated as four pairs of opposite concepts: control/abandon, fulfilment/frustration, sincerity/hypocrisy, and spirit/matter. (page 12)

Rutherford looks at each of the pairs and how the many characters fit into the opposing groups. The last pair is further broken down to include religion/ritual, love/lust, and culture/snobbery. Going through these pairs help lay out the principal themes and shows how the characters (major and secondary) help advance them. One of the strengths of the novel lies in its complexity of its characters—there are no absurd caricatures (although Mesía, the Don Juan approaches one). Each character occupies a different position on the axes of these pairs of opposites.

The wide range of these themes and the complexity of their patterning are, arguably, characteristics of the realistic novel. Rather than representing single concepts, each character, even minor ones, assembles and interrelates many themes in a special permutation; caricature, in other words, is avoided (caricature could be tentatively defined, in the terms of this analysis, as the drastic reduction of the number of main themes and the total polarization of those pairs of opposite concepts involved, so that characters are simple magnifications of single concepts). The relationship between characters, too, are complex: they are so frequently marked by an ambivalent combination of attraction and repulsion, of admiration and envy, that some such pair of opposites could almost be postulated as a fifth major theme. (page 28

Even when little happens in the way of action or storyline, through character introduction for example, the characters embody and advance the themes of the novel through these opposing qualities. La Regenta is very much a novel of frustration—the four main characters (husband Victor Quintanar, wife Ana Ozores, canon Fermín de Pas, and Mesía) finds themselves in undesirable situations. How they deal with fulfilling their desires and where they can be plotted on the axes of opposites drive the story. There are so many touches, obvious and subtle, that focus on the choices the characters make and their outcome, whether intended or not. The duel provides examples on this on many levels, highlighting what the characters choose to do—especially before the duel. This includes not just in the actions that led to the duel but including whether or not a participant went to the bathroom before shots were fired.

La Regenta is a remarkable novel, one of the greatest 19th-century novels in any language. It has a few flaws, particularly around the loose ends from such an attempted all-inclusive novel about a provincial Spanish town in this timeframe. Alas' critical background can show a baser side, making him sound like a scold at times. Even so, this novel has been one of my biggest enjoyments in reading since I’ve started this blog. Highest recommendation.

All quotes from the referenced guide by Rutherford when he 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.

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