Seduce her for me: Ana’s fate sealed in ‘La Regenta’

Alas, La Regenta – final post

Ana’s plight has often been likened to Mme Bovary’s. It’s not hard to find striking similarities; here she remembers feeling angrily frustrated by her incarceration as a child by her carers:

‘What a stupid life!’ thought Ana…she believed that she had sacrificed herself to self-imposed duties…’The monotony and dullness of this existence…this sacrifice, this struggle, is greater than any adventure in the world.’…It was as if there were thistles in her soul. [p. 71, ch. 3]

The part inside quotation marks exemplifies Alas’ technique of ‘estilo latente’ or free indirect style; not exactly Ana’s thoughts, but very close.

Immediately after these rebellious, troubled thoughts she visualises her tempter, Alvaro Mesía, ‘the President of the Gentlemen’s Club, wrapped in a high-collared scarlet cape, singing under Rosina’s balcony’. Clothes and accessories play a major symbolic role in the novel; here it’s the romantic garb of the hero as player in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, then ‘in a close-fitting white top-coat, greeting her as King Amadeus used to greet people’. Fermín, Mesía’s rival for Ana’s affections, is always described as clothed in his clerical ‘mozetta’ and ‘rochet’ or long soutane – but he longs to stride out in secular trousers like…a real man, not an asexual priest.

Such erotic fantasies vie in Ana’s mind with conflicting mystical-religious images and thoughts. She’s also dreaming here of having a baby – which will not be provided by Víctor, her husband, the ex-judge, as they have no sexual relations. She’ll need someone virile like Mesía (or Fermín, the canon theologian, secretly in love with her – and whom she sees – mostly – as a spiritual father, not potential lover) to provide her with a child. But she also longs for sex in its own right: this scene is erotically charged with descriptions of her semi-naked state in bed:

…her form, of a modern Venus, provocative and voluptuous, was both revealed and exaggerated by the coloured blanket of fine-spun wool, drawn close about her. [p. 70]

 As her spirits flag, Ana feels ‘the aridity and tension which were tormenting her’ turn into ‘disconsolate grief’. She stops feeling ‘wicked’ and returns to thoughts of sacrifice and sublimity. Mesía’s alluring, romantic image fades and is replaced by that of her elderly, foolish husband, pictured in her imagination as the antithesis of the dashing, handsome Mesía, signified again by apparel and appearance:

a tartan dressing-gown, a green smoking-cap of velvet with gold braid and a tassel, a white moustache and a white goatee, two bushy grizzled eyebrows…[pp. 71-72]

 This ‘respectable and familiar figure’ was ‘the burthen of her sacrifice’; he clearly doesn’t stand a chance against Mesía’s campaign to storm Ana’s sexual defences – especially as he goes on to make Mesía his bosom buddy, encourages him to entertain his wife.

Víctor’s ill-judged patronage of his rival reaches a climax in ch. 26 when Ana, recalling a woman she’d seen in Saragossa ‘dressed as a penitent, walking barefoot’ behind the image of ‘the dead Christ’ in a Holy Week procession, emulates this act of ‘spiritual fidelity’, dressed ‘in purple’, a ‘spectacle’ which she knows will scandalise the narrow-minded Vetustans. Would it be ‘brazen’, she wonders, or the act of a ‘bluestocking George Sand’ – yet another dramatic metafictional image.

Obdulia, whose overt sensuality truly is brazen, looks on ‘pale with emotion and dying of envy.’ This was, she thinks, characteristically, ‘the perfect ideal of coquetry.’ Her appearance once again reveals her character:

Her own naked shoulders, her ivory arms acting as a background for clinging embroidered lace, her back with its vertiginous curves, her bosom, high and strong, exuberant and tempting, had never attracted in this way or in anything like this way the attention and admiration of an entire town, however much she displayed them in ballrooms, theatres, promenades – and processions. [p. 590]

Ana’s ‘two bare feet’ cause more of an erotic sensation in the town than all of Obdulia’s flaunted flesh. She knows she can’t match this ‘cachet’, possessed by ‘admiring envy’ and a kind of ‘crazy, brutal lust’ – in a charge of eroticism she felt ‘a vague desire – to – to – to be a man’. Ana’s sexual appeal transcends gender. And her naked feet ‘were the nakedness of her whole body and soul’ – a kind of sexual synecdoche.

This scene fills several astonishing pages. Mesía, when the statue of the Virgin passes him,  is afraid: that image of ‘infinite pain’ contrasts tellingly with his own thoughts, ‘all profanation and lust’: even he is frightened. He realises Ana is performing a great ‘act of madness’ for Fermín, his currently triumphant spiritual rival, dressed in his habitual ‘rochet, a mote and a cope’, but ‘was going to perform other greater ones for her lover, for Mesía.’

Fermín experiences a similar epiphany to Mesía’s: ‘what little of the clergyman he had left in his soul was disappearing…He was the shell of a priest.’

Here’s the climax of the scene:

‘She’s looking most extraordinarily beautiful!’ the ladies in the balconies of the court-house were saying.

‘Extraordinarily beautiful!’

‘It takes some courage, though.’

‘But then she’s a regular saint.’

‘I think she’s dying the death,’ said Obdulia…She looks like plaster.’

‘I think she’s dying of shame,’ said Visita…

‘Going barefoot was an atrocious thing to do. She’ll be a week in bed with her feet torn to tatters’ [said Doña Rufina].

We see the whole spectrum of town also voicing or showing their cynical, lascivious responses to Ana’s egregious display, until:

The religious masses admired the lady’s humility, without any objections or reservations. ‘That really was what you’d call imitating Christ. Walking along, just like any ordinary person…going barefoot all around the town! She was a saint!’

 The working classes of Vetusta bewilder and appal the bourgeoisie and aristocracy of the city, and serve, as here, with their vulgar but honest vitality and comparative integrity, to show up the hypocrisy of their social betters.

Víctor, Ana’s husband, is horrified by her gesture, and says to Mesía, not knowing about his supposed friend’s intended treachery:

‘Sooner than this, I would prefer to see her in the arms of a lover! Yes, a thousand times yes,’ he continued, ‘find me a lover for her, seduce her for me, anything rather than seeing her in the arms of fanaticism!’…’You can count upon my firm friendship, Don Víctor – a friend in need…[says Mesía, p. 597]

This is one of the most remarkable set pieces in the novel. From this point Ana’s fate is sealed, Víctor’s cuckolding unwittingly given his own blessing, and Mesía can’t believe his luck. By prostrating herself symbolically before the town in an act of fanatical religiosity, Ana has inadvertently confirmed the gossip and opinion, as far as the upper classes are cynically concerned, that she is just as sexually available as the rest of their scheming womenfolk.

Her attempt to find religion and resist venality, as Tom has shown in his posts at Wuthering Expectations blog, is doomed in this toxic city.

 

 

 

A cold and calculating egotism: La Regenta, by Leopoldo Alas

Leopoldo Alas, La Regenta

La Regenta cover

The cover painting on my Penguin edition is an early Picasso: rather striking

 In his first posts on this huge novel, first published in Spain in 1885, and which I read in the John Rutherford translation in Penguin Classics, Tom at Wuthering Heights summarised the plot and began some thoughts about its structure, theme and merits (it was his ‘readalong’ for July). In the second of his posts he linked to a highly perceptive piece by Scott Bailey, which suggests that the adultery theme, influenced by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is not, as most commentators suggest, the primary one. It’s Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, he argues, that’s the important plot template, as seen in Ana’s struggle with her conflicting impulses towards mystical saintliness and spirituality, on the one hand, and venality and sexuality on the other.

I find this a compelling argument, and will not try to add to it here – except to make a case for parallels with another great 19C novel of spiritually stifling and hypocritically amoral provincial life: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I haven’t thought this through yet, but Scott’s discussion of the significance of St Teresa in La Regenta stirred up memories of the portrayal of Dorothea Brooke as a Midland St Teresa. There are congruent themes, too, of the hypocrisy and corruption of business and of scabrous bourgeois society (and, to a lesser extent, the Church – more critically exposed in the character of the spiritually arid but outrageously vain, pedantic clergyman, Casaubon. Ana’s elderly husband Víctor is less obnoxious, but equally asexual, foolish in his own way, but less forbiddingly unpleasant than Casaubon). I wouldn’t want to push the analogies too far, but my memory of this novel raises several other similarities with the Alas: struggles of faith with Mammon in particular, of the (usually doomed) quest for personal fulfilment in a ‘toxic’, vulgar, secular world that’s ostensibly religious (though Dorothea’s fate is less gruesome than Ana’s).

I don’t know if Alas had read Eliot…

So I’ll leave that thought for now. Instead I’ll look at some representative passages from the text to explore Alas’ style and manner of conveying character, themes and subject matter.

Let’s start with character. Here’s one of the first of many (MANY!) set-piece portraits of one of the huge cast, in this case one of the three major players: Don Fermín De Pas, vicar-general and canon theologian of the cathedral church of Vetusta (an archaic Spanish word for ‘antiquated’ – an unsubtle sign for the conservative, backward-looking provinciality of the city), which is clearly based on the Oviedo in Asturias in which Alas spent much of his adult life (as an academic lawyer and journalist-critic; La Regenta was his first novel, written at the age of 37).

A pair of bell-ringer street urchins had observed him in the street below from their church tower vantage-point. As the man passes by, they admire his legs:

This was real class! Not one stain! The feet were like a lady’s; the hose was purple, like a bishop’s; and each shoe was a work of painstaking craftsmanship in the finest leather, displaying a simple yet elegant silver buckle which looked very splendid against the colour of the stocking. (ch. 1, p. 26)

 Here, in this first character portrait of the novel, the narrative technique is apparent. The opening words, without quotation marks, are clearly the thoughts of the working-class boy – it’s what Rutherford in his introduction calls estilo latente, better known now as free indirect style, and usually associated with Flaubert. Elsewhere in the novel Alas has longer, more nuanced ‘sympathetic projection’ passages in which he does flag up the device with quotation marks. This makes for a disconcerting layer of complexity as the viewpoints shift back and forth frequently between characters and the ironical narrator, often many times within a short space (Rutherford gives examples and explores them). It serves to dramatise the layers of motive in these flawed, hypocritical characters.

There’s humour in this extract, too. The urchin is most impressed by the cleanness of the canon’s appearance; he would of course be mud-spattered or dusty and unwashed himself, and his naivety enables Alas to switch to a more knowing voice in the rest of the paragraph.

Although the comparison with a lady’s feet focalises largely on the boy’s viewpoint, the detail now starts to veer away from his to a voice more akin to that of the worldly, satirical-ironic narrator (more deeply cynical, I suspect, than Alas himself). That long third sentence has a more sophisticated vocabulary than the boy’s, and it introduces us to the more darkly critical, overtly critical portrait of de Pas that follows:

The post-boy was right, De Pas did not use cosmetics.

The denial is a comically transparent indication of the canon’s excessive attention to his appearance, his barely-concealed sensuality that we later learn culminates in his falling passionately in love with the eponymous judge’s wife, Ana. His hypocrisy is drawn, perhaps not always very subtly, but with great gusto, to our attention from the outset. It’s a fundamental factor in the two parallel plots mentioned above. De Pas fails Ana as a spiritual father and mentor, and precipitates her fall into the arms of the handsome Mesía – to whom I hope to turn in a later post.

Let’s complete this exploration of De Pas in this extract.

The most striking thing about the canon theologian’s eyes, which were green with speckles that looked like grains of snuff, was that they seemed as soft, smooth and clammy as lichen; but sometimes a piercing gleam would shoot out from them – an unpleasant surprise, like finding a needle in a feather pillow. Few people could bear that look.

This is fine character sketching, and the comparisons to snuff and lichen are suitably repellent. That De Pas has such a formidable gaze is intended to show how secular and unexpectedly masculine he is for a senior cleric: qualities that conflict with his desire to appear a loving spiritual pastor to his (largely female, adoring) flock.

My problem with Alas is that he doesn’t stop there; the narrative camera pans down his head to his nose, lips then chin, in a mammoth paragraph that almost fills the page of (tiny) print. In case we’ve missed the point – obvious enough, surely – the narrator concludes:

[he had] an expression of prudence verging on cowardly hypocrisy and revealing a cold and calculating egotism. It could be avowed with confidence that those lips guarded like a treasure the supreme word, that word which is never spoken. [We then get more description! His jowl, head, powerful neck…]

Rutherford’s introduction quite aptly compares the indirect style favoured by Alas with Jane Austen’s. But she would rarely ‘tell’ us (rather than show) a character’s nature with such prolix descriptive detail and narrative comment.

That mysterious bit about the ‘supreme word’, though, is terrific and sinister, summing up brilliantly the duplicitous, manipulative ambition of this muscular priest, oozing barely repressed sexuality and male energy.

The paragraph ends by saying that he is physically (and unclerically) ‘robust’ (he’s only 35, and later demonstrates his strength is superior to his rival for Ana’s affection in a way that humiliates Mesía and confirms him as a bitter enemy), comparable with ‘the sprucest gadabout in town’.

He has been set up for us, then, perhaps at too great length, but with flashes of fine writing, as a hypocritical representative of a corrupt church, who’s had sexual dalliances with married ladies in the past, and lusts after Ana in a most unspiritual way (which he disguises with decreasing efficacy as the novel progresses). De Pas is thus a fitting rival to the equally egotistical sexual predator, Mesía, who represents the secular world in his role as serially cynical ‘middle class seducer’ of the ladies of Vetusta.

They’re as odious as each other in their pursuit of sexual and social dominance.

More extracts for discussion next time, with perhaps a glance at another influential text (possibly): Dangerous Liaisons. Meanwhile I’d recommend you take a look at Tom’s three posts so far on La Regenta, and Scott Bailey’s. Links at the start of this post.