Late to the party, as ever. La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas, a massive novel written in the 1880s (i.e. slap bang in the middle of what is possibly my favourite era for literature – at least as far as novels are concerned), translated from the Spanish by John Rutherford (whose wonderful translation of Don Quixote I recently commented on), was nominated as a “group read” amongst various book bloggers. Now I know why I am so reluctant to take part in these group-reads: I am invariably way behind everyone else. However, undaunted by the 700 and more pages of sight-destroying print, I did dive in, and I am glad I did so. It proved an exhausting read, but sometimes, exhaustion can be a price worth paying.
Before I go on to put together my personal impressions – for that’s all these blog posts of mine are – I should direct the reader’s attention to some other very perceptive posts on this novel in other blogs. In no particular order:
A Commonplace Reader
Six Words for a Hat
(Please do let me know of any others I have inadvertently omitted, and I shall add them.)
I have gained much understanding from these blogs, and, in what follows, will be plagiarising without acknowledgement many of these bloggers’ ideas and insights.
Now that these preliminaries are over, let me dive in again – this time, to try to make some sense, hopefully, of this massive work. And I suppose I should add here what is known as a “spoiler alert”:
*** SPOILER ALERT: The following inevitably reveals some aspects of the plot of La Regenta ***
I once formulated a theory that characters in Russian novels have souls, but characters in French novels don’t. It seemed quite neat to me at the time, even with the modification I had almost immediately to make, to the effect that when Russian novelists do create characters without souls, they are shocked by their soullessness – in Gogol’s case, sufficiently so to draw attention to the fact in the title.
But a little more thought convinced me that I had best shelve my theory – at least, before someone brought up Andre Gide’s La Porte Étroite, or François Mauriac’s Thérèse. The problem is, I think, that I tend see Flaubert as an exemplar when it comes to French novelists, and easily forget that not all French novelists were so uncompromisingly cynical. But, for better or worse, when I think of the French novel, it’s Flaubert who comes first to mind. And although La Regenta is a Spanish rather than a French novel, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary seems to me to be stamped all over it.
This is not a very original observation. Indeed, it often seems that Alas had deliberately set out to invite comparisons with Madame Bovary. Once again, we have the central character, a woman, married to a ninny and suffocating in a provincial town; we have the townspeople – empty, vapid, pompous, shallow, trivial, self-regarding, venal, tedious, dull, corrupt – all depicted with great cynicism, and, frequently, a quite savage irony; and once again, we have a central plot involving adultery – adultery as a much sought-for release from all the frustrations of daily tedium, but which, inevitably, ends badly. The presence of Madame Bovary in the background can hardly be ignored, and Alas must, indeed, have been aware of it.
But of course, this is no mere re-run of Madame Bovary: that would have been pointless. For all the apparent similarities, there are significant differences – in the narrative technique, in the characters’ psychologies, and also, I think, thematically.
For one thing, this is a much longer novel: it is more than 700 pages in John Rutherford’s translation, and, if the print had been of a somewhat more reasonable size, I suspect it would have been nearer a thousand. This is the sort of length one would expect of epic novels – Les Misérables, say, or War and Peace; that so many pages are taken to narrate what is, in essence, a provincial and domestic story, the outline of which may easily be summarised in a few sentences, imparts to the reader – to this reader, at least – a sense almost of suffocation. We too seem, like Ana, the regenta (judge’s wife) of the novel’s title, to be inhabiting this endlessly tedious, soulless waste.
But one person, at least, does have a soul, and that is Ana. She is the only character in the entire novel whose soul is specifically referred to. In this, the novel is very different from Madame Bovary: there, Emma was as empty and as vapid as all the others, and the terrible irony was that her rebellion was every bit as shallow and stupid as that she was rebelling against. Here, in contrast, Ana really does have a soul, albeit a soul that is parched and empty; and she is in search of something – she barely knows what – that would provide her soul with sustenance.
But there seems to me to be an uncertainty here – an uncertainty that Alas carefully leaves unresolved. What really is the nature of Ana’s religious yearnings? Is it a mystical longing, or mere hysterical religiosity? Is it a search for spiritual grace? Or could it be that it is but a sublimated form merely of sexual desire? Could the cynicism of the narrator (whose voice may or may not be the voice of Alas himself – we can never be quite sure) extend so far as to see Ana’s spiritual yearning, and, by implication, all spiritual yearning, as no more than a craving for sex – an essentially animal craving that we dress up in fancy clothes to convince ourselves of our essential seriousness?
This was not, I think, among Flaubert’s concerns in Madame Bovary, but it seems to me here a major theme. This entire novel is drenched with a sense of often quite raw sensuality, which is all the more potent for being repressed: a glimpse of an ankle, the outline of a female form apparent behind a dress – the slightest thing, indeed – is enough to set off the good people of Vetusta into the most febrile imaginings, the most prurient fantasies. Don Alvaro Mesia, the local Don Juan, is celebrated and looked up to for his many conquests. In one particularly distasteful scene, Don Alvaro tells admiring members of the town’s gentlemen’s club of one of his many “seductions” – in reality, nothing short of rape. And how the assembled gentlemen of the club all lap it up! Physical sex, sensuality, is the focal point of all their aspirations, all their yearnings.
Amidst all this prurience, all this salaciousness, Ana’s spiritual yearnings and passions – generally regarded as a bit unseemly, as “overdoing it”, and, despite the example of St Teresa, as something not really appropriate for a lady, and a judge’s wife at that – may well be a yearning for something more beautiful, more uplifting. But the nagging suspicion persists that, at bottom, it may be nothing more than the same desire for physical sex that everyone else in the town seems to feel. Married to a man much older than himself, who does not sleep with her, and who treats her as a daughter rather than as a wife, Ana is, sexually, deeply frustrated; and, during that brief period when her sexual desires are satisfied, her spiritual yearnings seem altogether to disappear. But Alas – or his narrator, should the two be different – refuses to commit himself on this point. Perhaps because there can be no definite answer to this: the wellsprings of human motivation are, after all, obscure.
If it is at least possible that Ana mistakes her physical desires for spiritual yearnings, there is no doubt that Don Fermin, the canon theologian, makes the same mistake. He is introduced as proud and ambitious, strong, powerful, and virile. But he takes his calling seriously enough not to break his chastity. (At least, not with Ana: women from the lower orders- maidservants and the like – are fair game.) When he becomes Ana’s confessor, he falls head over heels in love with her: indeed, he becomes quite besotted. But he convinces himself, and convinces Ana, that theirs is a “spiritual” union. He is grossly mistaken. When Ana betrays him to form a less-than-spiritual union with Don Alvaro, the canon theologian’s reaction, too,is less than spiritual: it is, indeed, quite volcanic. Here, again, Alas’ fictional world diverges from Flaubert’s: the eruptive force of Don Fermin’s fierce passions has no place in the world of Madame Bovary.
The third member of the triangle here is, of course, the lover, in this case, the experienced “seducer” – and, indeed, rapist, as rape counted as “seduction” in this proper and moral society – Don Alvaro. He is a “man of the world”, as they say; Ana, on the other hand, has led a very sheltered life, both before and after her marriage. Once Don Alvaro gets the opportunity, he knows precisely what to do to get her into bed, to convince her that in him she would find the true object of her aspirations, her desires. She is putty in his hands. It is an expert seduction, to be sure, and how ironic it is that so high-minded a lady as Ana, so demure, so far above the salacious gossipmongering and sexual flaunting of the other ladies, should fall for someone such as Don Alvaro. But fall she does, and to Don Fermin, the sense of betrayal is earth-shattering: his entire being, which he had invested in Ana, collapses; his belief that he had with her a “spiritual union”, disintegrates. He could not have reacted more violently had he been her husband.
It is unusual to have a love triangle from which the husband is excluded, but the husband here, an elderly retired judge, seems almost completely sexless. Even when presented with evidence of his wife’s infidelity, he seems almost incapable of summoning up the passion that he knows he should, under the circumstances, feel. His interests lie elsewhere – in hunting, and in classical drama, from which he would delightedly recite the most passionate of lines, without being able to feel any of that passion himself in his real life. It would have been easy to have turned him into a mere comic figure, but, despite the unremitting cynicism of the narrative, he emerges – to me, at least – as curiously sympathetic: he is a man so immersed in his own little world, and so unthinkingly happy in it, and so utterly blind to anything outside it, that when that outside world intrudes into his own, he is lost. A nincompoop he may be, but this judge, so helpless because he is so incapable of judgement, does, I think, arouse more pity than disdain.
So this, then, is the story, and a fairly simple story it is too. And yet, it is of epic length. Indeed, I can think of many a novel whose content may be described as “epic” that are, nonetheless, much shorter than this.
The length is accounted for, I think, by the meticulousness of Alas’ approach. Not for him to give a rough impression of the town Vetusta (a fictionalised Orvieto), or to drop suggestions into the reader’s mind and leave it there: he has, meticulously, to bring the entire town to life, detailing its streets, its social institutions, its citizens, and give them all weight and solidity. And he delves into his characters’ minds – what they think, what they feel, how they view themselves and each other. Even minor characters do not escape his detailed scrutiny.
Of course, he knew that he was risking writing a very boring novel: it cannot be an easy thing, after all, to depict tedium without being tedious oneself. And in his constant use of irony – it is impossible to ignore the influence of Flaubert here – he further risks alienating the reader from the characters: irony, after all, invariably distances. But, although the novel is (or, at least, seemed to me) frequently suffocating, it was never dull. The sense of suffocation is, I think, deliberate: it is not enough to be told of the sense of suffocation felt by Ana – we have to experience it also. But tedium is kept at bay by the sheer polish of the writing, and by the vitality he manages to inject into even the most insignificant of the characters. Flaubert managed to make his readers interested in even someone such as Félicité (“Un Coeur Simple”), a character who, in real life, we’d probably find too dull to want to spend much time with; Alas has the same ability to arouse interest in characters who, in real life, are likely to arouse in us little but a sense of tedium. And, to be entirely honest, I’m not quite sure how either Flaubert or Alas pulls this off. But it is fascinating to see them do it.
The first of the two halves into which the novel is split is virtually all expository. The exposition is what we need to know for the story to make sense, and most writers try to get it out of the way as soon as possible, but not Alas: for him, the exposition is not merely there to make the story intelligible – it is for him as integral and as important a part of the novel as is the central drama. For his interest here is not merely in the principal figures of the drama, but also in the environment they live in, and in others who share that environment. These three hundred and fifty pages of the first part take us through only three days, but Alas has no interest here in giving an impression of time moving forward: what momentum there is comes from a sense of mass rather than of velocity. What matters here is not a sense of the story moving forward, but of the realisation of an entire town, of an entire body of people inhabiting that town. Even at the end of that first half, at a point where a great many novels would already have run its course and ended, we are given a detailed flashback telling us of Don Firmin’s mother, his birth, and his childhood: we are still, in other words, in the exposition.
As I finished the first part, I couldn’t help wondering how the novel would progress in the second. Tchaikovsky once said of Brahms’ violin concerto that Brahms had built a good, solid plinth, but, instead of placing a sculpture on it, he had merely gone on to create yet another plinth. Although I have the temerity to disagree with Tchaikovsky on this point, that does seem to me as striking image. In the first part of the novel, Alas had, indeed, created an immensely strong expository plinth; but what was he going to put on top of it? Would his focus still be on mass rather than on velocity?
The focus does indeed alter in the second part, but Alas was too fine a writer to change gears too suddenly. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, the central characters and their drama become increasingly prominent, increasingly take centre stage. We find, to start with, that each new chapter, though beginning with some other set of characters, inevitably gravitates by the end towards Don Firmin, Don Alvaro, or to Ana. After a while, chapters begin with these figures, and they begin to stand out more strongly in relief from the others. The pace gathers slowly, but the cumulative effect, though still carrying more mass than speed, is tremendous. And the climactic section, prepared for so meticulously and over so long a span, does not disappoint: all the passions that had been simmering so long under the surface seem suddenly to explode. The effect is tremendous.
La Regenta would not have been possible, I think, had Madame Bovary not been written, but, despite the many parallels, Alas’ concerns are different from Flaubert’s. Where Flaubert shook his head sadly at the sheer futility of all human activities, and at the humanity’s desire to transcend the limits imposed by human stupidity, but its inability, because of that very stupidity, to do so, Alas was more concerned with spiritual aspirations in a doggedly unspiritual world, and with sexual desires in a society that, though fascinated by sex, represses these desires, so that eroticism degrades into mere prurience. And he wonders to what extent the two are indeed one and the same thing – to what extent our spiritual yearnings are but sublimated forms of our animal appetites. He is interested also in human passions that, however we try to hide them under civic structures and civilised customs, refuse to remain hidden. The result is a novel that is not, perhaps, the easiest to read, but is worthy to take its place amongst the finest products of a most illustrious literary era.
[8th October,2016: edit made to correct a misleading passage regarding the plot.]