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.