Tuesday, July 26, 2016

the stupidity of people agreeing to get bored together for a day - general impressions of La Regenta

To remind myself how to write, I will gather some general notes about Leopoldo Alas’s gigantic 1885 novel La Regenta, perhaps still the focus of a readalong event.  Such a post is worth writing after my vacation, put perhaps not worth reading.  I will point the interested to this omnibus post by Dwight at A Common Reader and this post at seraillon.

The leading lady of Vestustan society, Ana, the judge’s wife, La Regenta, is changing confessors, upgrading to the powerful, corrupt vicar general, who quickly falls in love with her.  Meanwhile, the town Don Juan is in pursuit of her as well.  Ana’s husband, a fool who prefers hunting and abstract ideas of honor to the physical reality of his beautiful wife, is the fourth major character.  Dozens of minor characters populate the town, which is described thoroughly.  Alas makes Oviedo, in Asturias sound quite appealing to the tourist, but miserable to the Professor of Roman Law trapped among all of these vulgar rubes.  Alas is a recognizable type, the big city prof teaching at a cow college.  In Asturias, a fish college, I guess.

The novel is written in the great 19th century tradition of Iberian imitations of French fiction, payback for the great French looting of 17th century Spanish theater.  Flaubert, Flaubert, Flaubert.  La Regenta is in some deliberate ways an imitation of Madame Bovary, including its satire of provincial Philistinism, its fluidly shifting points of view, its emphasis on physical detail, and the basic setup of the restless wife, dope of a husband, and flashy pursuer.

Big differences:

1.  Bulk.  The novel is 700 pages in John Rutherford’s Penguin edition, but the type is so small, the pages so large; the book is 900 or 1,000 pages in Spanish editions.

2.  Depth and intelligence (of characters, not authors).  The portrayal or even discovery of the interiority of the shallow, a Flaubert specialty, is one of the great contributions of modern fiction.  Several characters in La Regenta continue this fine tradition, include the Don Juan figure and the husband, who is not a simpleton like Charles Bovary but is nevertheless as great a fool.

But the heroine, Ana, is no Emma Bovary.  She is intelligent, mystical, even a little weird, with a visionary imagination.  There is a hint that she is synesthetic.

3.  Satire.  I argue that Flaubert’s satire is incidental to his art, a vengeful bonus of writing about Normandy.  Alas is much more interested in blood.  “There’s almost too much satire” says Dwight,correctly.

They talked about the horse, the cemetery, the sadness of that afternoon, the stupidity of people agreeing to get bored together for a day, the uninhabitableness of Vetusta.  (Ch. 16, p. 361)

And those are the characters!  The narrator is crueler.  seraillon has some amusing examples of the narrator who is anything but invisible – “a quagmire of triviality” and so on.  I was thankful when he got tired of mocking characters for their bad Latin.  The Professor of Roman Law who wrote the book found that a lot funnier than I did.

4.  What is important for Flaubert is creating elaborate patterns underneath the surface of the novel, patterns likely to be invisible upon the first reading of a book, even more so in one as huge as La Regenta.  My first guess is that Alas was not working at that artistic level, that he was writing a more ordinary novel, but I have obviously written myself into a trap.  How would I know? But right now, I don’t see it.  Whatever I write about for the next few days, it won’t be that.  Maybe someone else will.

20 comments:

  1. Forgive me, Tom. I was bored, I loved it, I got bored again. I am 300 pages in, fascinated by Ana, the canon and even his mother, but I am unable to continue. Some personal woe in my family prevents me from concentrating as I should, but that is a poor excuse.

    I hope you know how I have enjoyed reading with you and plan to do so again as the next book we agree on arrives on the horizon.

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  2. Forgive! Perhaps that should go the other way. Long books make the worst readalong books. And this one is long and then some.

    Next time, a novella. A play. A prose poem.

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    1. I have no objection to long. How do you feel about something Russian in the winter? Seriously.

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  3. Wait, what free association game are we playing here? Russian books are short. We should read Yuri Olesha's Envy this winter.

    I have an objection to long books in the context of a readalong or book club. Fewer people are likely to finish them. It is just logistics. The nature of the passage of time.

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    1. Envy is an idea...

      Here's another which isn't even Russian as I first suggested, nor is it short. How do you feel about They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy? I have long wanted to read that.

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  4. Banffy is a good idea for someone else. It is a little far from my period. It is set at a good time.

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  5. Let's keep Envy in mind, then.

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  6. Or maybe Platonov's "Foundation Pit." Or Bely's "Petersburg." Or how about Babel's "Odessa Stories"?

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  7. The interior development of the characters is possibly the best thing about this novel. The secret lives even contradict the claims the narrator makes about some of these people, as if the narrator is a Vetustan who has swallowed the gossip whole and doesn't realize his own blinkered state. Fermin de Pas is wholly unwholesome, but completely sympathetic; that's some good writing. Victor is a fool, yes, but by the end we are no longer laughing at him. Etc. Really good work by Alas.

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  8. The apotheosis of the husband was a shock. His story has a curious resemblance to a great bit of Effi Briest - two duels, treated similarly.

    The priest is a bit like Tony Soprano. I worry that I am being too sympathetic towards this guy - but then I meet his mother!

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  9. Priest as Tony Soprano: great thought! I'm trying to put some thoughts of my own together, but am still woozy after dental surgery, so may be some time. I too have to admit I found long stretches of this novel boring, but as I return to it to examine passages that I underlined on first reading, i find subtleties and literary qualities that perhaps were obscured by the prolixity. Btw, I found The Pit pretty tedious, I'm afraid. Wouldn't mind a look at Petersburg, which I don't know much about, but have read some good reviews.

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  10. My position is that "boring" is just a rhetorical move for an artist, an aesthetic choice, and a completely legitimate one, especially beloved by writers of a more intellectual or conceptual bent, for example those who think it is a good idea to write a 500 page scene that includes the entire population of a good-sized city. See your local contemporary art museum for more examples.

    I spent three weeks writing about Adalbert Stifter's Indian Summer, for pity's sake. There is no way that Platonov is more tedious than Stifter.

    Petersburg has a ticking-time-bomb plot. If anything it is too tense.

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  11. I'm currently finding it hard to get through very short novellas so have abandoned long novels for a while. However I can get a sort of proxy education by following your posts.. Always good to be ready for that moment when someone brings up La Regenta.. or books at all... #quagmireoftriviality

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  12. Long novels are nuts. Why do people read them? Why do people write them?

    I am only half joking.

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    1. I've never tried writing a long - or even a short - novel, but it's very easy to get caught in them psychologically as a reader and hauled away. That's one reason I didn't join in here.
      All the same, Trollope doesn't seem to have bothered very much about whether he was writing a long novel or a short one or had much difficulty: he began at the beginning, 250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours every day, got to the end and didn't stop but started on the next one. I don't know if it's heroic or nightmarish!
      Could Claude Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris be one of the literary ancestors of the priest here? The depiction of a priest with all the unpriestly virtues and all the priestly vices sounds very similar.

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    2. Claude Frollo - yes! That is a promising idea. There are some parallels, yes.

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  13. Thanks for the mention...much appreciated. I'm glad so many people read it. The meanness at times can be a little much, but I guess since it was such a target-rich environment Alas couldn't help himself, telling us as much about him as the subjects.

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  14. Didn't want to help himself. Why give up the opportunity?

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  15. Reading your post always leads to a discovery.

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  16. I know so little about 19th century Spanish literature that it feels like nothing but discovery.

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