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.
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.