Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ten Tales by Leopoldo Alas

Ten Tales by Leopoldo Alas (Clarín)
Translated from the Spanish by Robert M. Fedorchek
Introduction by John W. Kronik
Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2000
ISBN 0-8387-5436-8

Reading and posting had suffered of late, so I’ll try and get caught up with a couple of posts on this collection of short stories by Leopoldo Alas. Ten Tales includes stories
which are singled out by the above mentioned critics [who acclaimed his short stories], and others, as representative of Clarín’s best pieces of short fiction. They span a sixteen-year period, from 1883 to 1899, and explore themes—a frustrated artistic ideal, religious belief, spiritual love, loss, death, tenderness, social division—that reflect the “interior man, his thoughts, his feelings, his wishes” cited by the author in the preface to his Centos morales [Moral tales] (1896).

(From the preface by Robert M. Fedorcheck)

The stories in Ten Tales are listed below:

  • The Two Boxes
  • Doña Berta
  • The Lord
  • A Day Laborer
  • Change of Light
  • The Golden Rose
  • Queen Margaret
  • Torso
  • The Burial of the Sardine
  • Two Scholars

I’ll run through a few comments on each of these stories (excluding Doña Berta which will have a separate post). John W. Kronik provides an extremely good introduction to Alas and these stories. I’ll try to highlight aspects of these stories that are different from his introduction but there will be overlaps and quotes from his essay.

Underlying many of the themes in these stories listed by the translator (above) lurks a frustration…a disappointment…an inability of a character to accomplish something. Alas can be lighthearted about this tension or he can be serious. In the same manner his narrator can be ironic, providing a distance that allows the reader to laugh at failures, or let him sympathize with the character’s plight. Many of the stories provide characters or actions that call to mind La Regenta or His Only Son, whether through similarity or contrast.

“The Lord” (El Señor) describes a priest, Juan de Dios, who turns out to be the opposite of Fermín de Pas in La Regenta. Where Fermín gives in to his passions about Ana Ozores, directly and indirectly, Juan’s suppression and sublimation of his love creates a perverse martyrdom. It’s difficult to tell if Alas is criticizing the Catholic Church for the celibacy requirement of its priests or if he’s parodying romance stories by going over the top in the suffering. This ambiguity is common in many of these stories and provides much of their enjoyment in trying to figure out Alas’ intention.

Despite Alas’ anticlerical barbs an abiding religious faith comes through in his work. It’s when the church fails in its mission, whether through personal failings or through its politics, that Alas delivers his harshest criticism. “The Golden Rose” (La rosa de oro) provides an example of a leader of the church eschewing the expected politics of the day and helping those the church should serve. “The Golden Rose” also makes use of a folktale tradition while adding to its structure. As Kronik points out in the Introduction, “it is a story about storytelling” that
reveals the distance that Alas put between his stories and the narrative practices of his time. Even the descriptive details are at the service of an esthetic order different from that of the realistic novel. In this instance, Alas subordinates the psychological component to the creation of image and mood. That is achieve through the special manipulation of language, through the lavish use of metaphor, and through an associative process between writing and painting.

Another story addressing religion and faith, anticipating later writers (I’m looking at Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Martyr” in particular) is “Change of Light” (Cambio de luz). Jorge Arial wanders through different occupations but his crisis begins when he begins to doubt the existence of God. Or rather he contemplates there may not be a God. Even though he maintains a façade of belief for his family’s sake, matters worsen with the loss of his sight. Alas focuses not just on the capacity of human suffering but the sources of creativity within. Jorge’s faith strengthens from music (playing and listening), even when totally blind. “Queen Margaret” (La Reina Margarita) draws on the power of music, too, in this case through mediocre performers (both of Alas’ novels have plenty of those). Alas ruthlessly portrays a society unable to appreciate art, showing spectators more interested in money, appearance, and gossip at the theater than the compositions and performances they hear. His sympathy is clearly with the two performers who refuse to pretend to be more than their meager talent allows. Even so, they are able to find happiness with each other. Another story where the power of music can fail is in “The Two Boxes” (Las dos cajas), which follows the labors of the violinist Ventura as he tries to develop a natural, sincere music that captures the listener’s inner feelings as a poet would. His frustration in developing such a sound implodes when he sees his wife’s apparent unfaithfulness, followed by his son’s death.

As I’ve highlighted in previous posts on the author, Alas is always the critic. Two of these stories specifically target scholarly activities and tendencies of his day, satirizing the vanity of the profession: “A Day Laborer” (Un jornalero) and “Two Scholars” (Dos sabios). Fernando Vidal in “A Day Laborer” has to defend what he does to an unruly mob, providing a hilarious send-up through his description of his sufferings in his work. The unjust resolution of his defense can't help but bring a smile to the reader, showing Alas' masterful use of irony. “Two Scholars” provides a good example of what Alas does in several of these stories, revealing bits of information as the story unfolds in order to continually add irony to the situation. The changing points of view in the narrative are, as Kronik points out in his introduction, a “clever exercise” “whose crossings allow the reader to see as the characters do, yet with knowledge superior to that of any given character.” The scholars end up being anything but wise men, instead providing perfect examples of Sayre’s law.

“Torso” (El Torso) and “The Burial of the Sardine” (El entierro de la sardine) are included in the English translation of Alas’ story collection titled Moral Tales (to be reviewed here soon) because of their parable-like nature. “Torso” looks at class relationships in the Spain of his time (a common theme, come to think of it, in Galdós). In La Regenta Alas skewered students leaving the village to study in Madrid, returning with superficial knowledge that they ignorantly and incorrectly applied. The same goes with the young duke of this story who goes to England for his education. He has failed to learn, though, the strength of human bonds, preferring social convention instead. The young duke learns all the politically correct things of the day but acts like less of a man than the peasants he derides. The elder duke resigns himself to what the education has created while the son notes the apparent hypocrisy of treating servants as equals (ellipsis and italics in original):

[T]his did not prevent him [Don Juan, the elder duke] from sighing when he noticed that Diego [the son] had adopted ideas, habits, and tendencies that were a far cry from the Castilian simplicity that for Don Juan constituted good manners and character. Their son looked more like the duchess than the duke, and the education that he called rigid, proper, and cold accentuated the differences between them, differences that Don Juan sincerely regretted. But the duke did not complain. To each his own, he believed. Neither Diego nor anyone else would change his ways now, but his successor, well…let him become what God had ordained. Don Juan had demanded freedom for himself, and he allowed others to live as they wished. One thing, however, was clear: while the old duke was alive, his house, no matter how annoyed the young master appeared to be, would bend to his will.

Diego, as a matter of fact, felt an insuperable repugnance for his father’s ways. He, who had had student servants, who from his time at the boarding school had learned to measure the distances that reality out of necessity establishes between different classes, even saw a kind of hypocrisy, or at least a ridiculous illusion, in bad taste, in this apparent equality of treatment which did not go beyond the surface, which could only be skin-deep. All of this, he thought, is a grotesque comedy that annoys the rest of us and would humiliate the poor peasants themselves if they were more sensitive.

The “poor peasants” understand much more of the world than Diego does, although he figures things out after his life falls apart. The other point to note in "Torso" is the abdication of responsibility by Diego and others of his generation toward the peasants. His concern for their well being was as skin-deep as his complaints about their humiliation. An evolving or modernizing society doesn't necessarily seem to bother Alas, it's the nature of certain aspects of this evolution (lost personal ties and responsibility, especially) that concern him.

It’s difficult to say which story is my favorite (after the novella “Doña Berta,” that is) but for some reason “The Burial of the Sardine” sticks with me. It’s also why I wanted to post on it on Ash Wednesday, even though this post isn’t ready for prime time. See here for a description of what the ceremony represents. While describing the ceremony in one village, Alas directs the focus toward the people participating in it, similar to the focus of Ana Ozores participating in the religious procession of La Regenta. There is another echo to that procession of the novel with the character of Celso Arteaga, the principal of the local secondary school. Celso provides the speech at the end of the ceremony , half-drunk, calling to mind the teacher in La Regenta that walks each year in the religious procession as a penitent. “The Burial of the Sardine” provides an implicit criticism of the clergy suppressing joy for 364 days of the year. The one day each year Celso is allowed to experience unbridled happiness isn’t enough to bring him together with the woman he believes may be intended for him. Even though Alas builds on powerful emotions he grounds the story in realistic characters and situations, balancing his technical skills with a rendering of personal stories at odds against a superficial, stifling society.

OK, more on this collection, especially “Doña Berta” in the (intended) next post.
Update: see this post for comments on “Doña Berta.”

Francisco de Goya's "El entierro de la sardina" (The Burial of the Sardine)
Picture source

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