Monday, December 10, 2012

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas: she felt a fondness for her husband akin to the affection felt by the Roman emperor for the horse he made a senator

Often dismissed as Leopoldo Alas’ only other finished novel after La Regenta, His Only Son (1890) stands on its own and is a delight to read. Much less sweeping in scope than La Regenta, Alas remains the critic in His Only Son, targeting many of the same topics for judgment and satire as in the earlier novel. Part of the problem with the second novel is that it is harder to classify. If pressed, an easy description would be “It’s very similar to La Regenta…just different.” There’s humor, just not the same type of humor. There’s more romanticism in His Only Son because Alas wants to mock it. And yet…Alas also seems to sympathize with the need to romanticize.

I’m going to spend a couple of posts going through this novel since it isn’t as well-known as his first, then another post or two looking into the characters and the satire of the novel. I will be quoting from the 1981 LSU press edition, with translation and introduction by Julie Jones. I want to thank Dr. Jones for her patience in answering my questions and taking the time to go into detail on this book and her recommendations for additional topics to explore.

Bonifacio Reyes (Bonis), the protagonist of His Only Son, turns out to be an inept hero on the level of Don Quixote. On the day he is dismissed from his clerical job in a “third-rate capital”, the headstrong boss’ daughter follows through on her desire to elope with him. The couple is stopped before they get too far and Emma is sent to a convent, Bonis shipped off to Mexico. After her father dies, Emma, now rich and as headstrong as ever, chooses a wealthy older man to marry. He lasts a year as her husband before he dies. Convinced that her love from the age of fifteen was still true, she has Bonis tracked down and returned to Spain. They marry but the week after the wedding “Emma realized that this was not the man of her dreams.”

Emma targets her hatred directly at her husband, becoming a literary shrew of epic proportions. The contempt in which she holds him becomes palpable whenever he is around. It doesn’t help that she suffers a miscarriage which damages internal organs—she holds Bonis responsible for everything. Emma’s uncle, keeper of the books for her estate, is ignored while Emma spends well beyond the family’s means, depleting her inheritance while satisfying every luxurious whim. As heir to her father’s estate, Emma enjoys the obsequious attention she receives from the rest of her family and regrets she did not follow up on her cousin’s amorous advances. And Bonis…poor Bonis…all he wants is to be left alone and follow his interests. In the meantime, he tries to inconvenience everyone around him as little as possible while their contempt rains down on him:
The courtiers [family members] of that violent and temperamental princess made up for the inevitable humiliation [of their obsequiousness] by openly mocking Reyes. Emma came to experience a fondness for her husband analogous in certain respects to the affection felt by the Roman emperor for the horse he made a senator. Another family dogma, a tacit one, was this: the dear child had wrought her own unhappiness by attaching herself to that man. Cousin Sebastian confessed between sighs that the only act in his life of which he repented (and, after all, he was a man who had lost his mother’s entire estate on the turn of a single card) sprang from the time when his mad passion for Emma had driven him to agree to undertake all the necessary steps for hunting, finding, employing and marrying off Don Diego’s stupid clerk [Bonis]. He could never forgive his weakness, his passionate blindness. And Sebastian would sigh, and the other relatives would sigh, and Emma, too, would sigh occasionally, taking a melancholy pleasure in playing the role of a resigned victim who must suffer the disastrous consequences of a childhood folly for the rest of her life.

Bonis bears all of this stoically but suffers from his own sorrows, especially knowing he would not have a son after Emma’s miscarriage. Valuing peace above everything else, Bonifacio feels more alive when outside of the house away from his wife’s harangues. His favorite stop is a tertulia that wistfully reminisces about times gone by in the third-rate capital. The “moribund romanticism” proves silly, although it does promote a love for the sincere lyricism of times long gone (highlighting some of the ambivalence on such romanticism).

Things change in the little town after an opera company appears. Bonis finds himself dreaming of the soprano Serafina. Most of all, though, he becomes enamored with the ideal of the company, focusing on the romantic idea he has associated with their life and elevated in his mind. Mochi, the leader of the troupe, recognizes an easy mark and encourages Bonis to “lend” the opera company money. Reyes, who has never spent more than his allotted allowance, begins to borrow money in order to finance the troupe. Mochi treats him as the opera company’s savior while Serafina eventually becomes his lover despite his clumsy and reticent behavior (he swoons after their first kiss). Bonis "ideal" of her provides him with superhuman strength and patience in dealing with his wife, something that irritates Emma even more:

Her growing exactions served to multiply Reyes’ duties, responsibilities and patience. The husband’s air of resignation became so extreme that it finally struck Emma as being almost supernatural, and it annoyed her immensely. She could not say why absolute submission created suspicions. A short time ago, when subjected to any dreadful humiliations, he had protested timidly, but now—now even that! He only held his tongue and rubbed. He responded to insult, to all provocation, with the kind of charity that immortalizes saints. In certain cases not only was sacrifice of the heart necessary, but also sacrifice of the stomach; well, now he sacrificed everything. With his new attitude, Bonis was neither proud nor easily nauseated; his sense of smell seemed to have disappeared with this self-esteem. What was this? What before had been for the autocratic wife her husband’s only virtue suddenly became a source of suspicions and nagging doubts. Why is he so quiet? Why does he obey so blindly? Does he despise me? Is he finding compensation elsewhere for these miseries?

And then things get weird. I’ll finish up the story in the next post.

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