Friday, July 29, 2016

’I require gossip worthy of me’ - some last La Regenta notes, symbolic in some mysterious way, voluptuous even

Another readalong post, by Simon Lavery, on La Regenta covering one of the main characters, the bad priest, in particular how he is introduced in the first couple of pages of the novel.  Lavery covers almost every major technique Leopoldo Alas uses, just by looking at a couple of pages: the limited third person interplay of the narrator and the characters, the humor, the sharp metaphors, the too-muchness, and most importantly the character himself, “the duplicitous, manipulative ambition of this muscular priest, oozing barely repressed sexuality and male energy.”  It is a good trick the way Alas creates some sympathy for this fellow, even if some of it is sympathy for the man he could have been if he had not been pushed into the priesthood by his wonderfully awful, greedy, narrow-minded mother.

Poor guy, 35 years old, full of energy, the strongest man in town, and he lives with his mother over the Catholic supply store, which she secretly owns.  Here we have one more curious link to the 19th century French novelistic tradition – the priest joins, as a Spanish adjunct, the long list of fictional strongmen: Balzac’s super-criminal Vautrin, the Count of Monte Cristo, numerous Hugo characters, the Conan-like protagonist of Salammbô.  I don’t get it.

A much later example of the priest’s male energy:

The canon picked a rose-bud, with some fear that he might be seen.  The cool touch of the dew covering this little egg gave him a childish pleasure; it smelt of youth and freshness, but this did not satisfy his desires, his longing to bite it and enjoy its taste and contemplate the mysteries of nature hidden under the layers of satin.  (Ch. 21, 478-9)

Then a couple of lines later, the priest takes a big bite out of the rosebud – there is a lot of sexual sublimation in this novel – just before walking into cathedral, and one of the lushest scenes in the book.

The organs above him stretched forth their pipes in dazzling vertical and horizontal lines, like two suns, face to face.  Golden angels played violins under the vault, to which the organs’ plateresque reliefs climbed, and through the pointed windows and the rose windows behind the choir and high in the aisles light flowed into the cathedral, separating into tones of red, blue, green and yellow.  (479)

Everything in the cathedral becomes sensuous – “the smell of damp mingling with the smell of wax seemed delicate, symbolic in some mysterious way, voluptuous even.”  The scene gets weirder, more sexual, perhaps blasphemous, as everything in the cathedral contributes to his ardor.  That’s one side of La Regenta, of this kind of writing, the merging of the sensory world with the psychology of the characters.

The other is the big social world.  “They were burning in the holy enthusiasm of slander” (Ch. 22, 502).  These are priests, too, the canon’s enemies.  “’I require gossip worthy of me,’” one declares.  At one point in the novel, an actress “achieved a poetic realism whose full worth neither [her fellow actor] nor the greater part of the audience was capable of appreciating” (Ch. 16, 376) – a statement of purpose by the author.

Thanks to everybody who joined in on the readalong, however far you got.  The posts and comments along the way have been very helpful.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

seemly abbreviations and a gongoresque style - some bits of La Regenta

The sarcasm of Leopoldo Alas can be a thing of beauty:

They were going to inspect the hunting dogs and a St Bernard which Paco had bought a few days before.  They were his pride and joy.  After prostitutes, the Young Marquis’s greatest admiration was for tame animals, in particular dogs and horses.  (Ch. 13, p. 284)

You may note that this is not elaborate or poetic prose.  Lively, but not fancy, and not afraid of clichés, which can generally be assigned to the characters, as here, not the narrator, although who knows – the usual slippery result of limited third person.  There is a hilarious example earlier:

The chef almost fell flat on his back from pure delight when, in order to ascertain the amount of boiling required by the peach preserve, Obdulia came up to him and, with a smile, slipped into his mouth the same spoon which had just been caressed by her ruby lips (the ‘ruby’ is the chef’s).  (Ch. 8, 173)

The narrator is so offended by the cliché that he has to protest that it is not his responsibility.

When he wants to, though, Alas can turn on the tap, so to speak:

Dull grey clouds, as broad as the steppes, drove up from the west and were ripped open on the peaks of Mount Corfín.  The rains poured from them on to Vetusta, sometimes cutting down aslant like furious whiplashes, like a biblical punishment, sometimes falling in a calm leisurely flow, in fine vertical threads.  These clouds passed over, and others came, and others – the first clouds back again, it seemed, after going around the world, to be torn open on Corfín once more.  The spongy earth was eaten away like the flesh on Job’s bones; a sluggish grey plume of mist was wafted over the sierra by the languid wind; the country extended, naked and frozen, into the distance, motionless like the corpse of a castaway shedding the water which has flung it ashore.  (Ch. 18, 401)

Five more sentences like this before Alas turns to a character and some stuff about hunting that is part of the plot.  The heroine, Ana, has something like Seasonal Affective Disorder, so the rains will affect her, too – the next chapter, about her illness, is one of the best.  Here is Ana’s husband, helping out:

Every day her abdomen had to be felt and questions asked about the lowest animal functions.  Don Víctor did not trust his memory and, watch in hand, he kept a record in a notebook where, using seemly abbreviations and a gongoresque style, he set down everything the doctor needed to know about these details.  (Ch. 19, 426-7)

When a new, younger doctor arrives, Don Víctor is thrilled, because he and the doctor can argue about politics and “the plurality of inhabited worlds.”  The husband is a marvelous fool.  I am leafing through the chapter – so much happens in it.  Ana is ill, and recovers, entering a new phase in her sainthood.  Meanwhile, the Don Juan character infiltrates her home by flattering her husband, although he “drew the line” at “the examination of the collections of plants and insects,” aside from a stuffed peacock.  “He would stroke its breast while Quintanar discoursed.   A great chapter, full of fine, strange things.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

as if to make amends, and to deceive himself - La Regenta is a religious novel

Oh thank goodness someone has already written a better readalong piece about La RegentaIt is by Scott Bailey.  He goes straight for the argument of the novel, which is about saintliness, or maybe just true religious feeling, and its place in the world.  His one-line summary of the book: “a devout woman whose world is controlled by selfish men is slowly poisoned by the toxic city in which she lives.”  The Catholic Church, the legitimate outlet for Ana’s mysticism, is completely corrupt; her confessor, the priest Fermín de Pas, the most toxic of all men.

Bailey compares Ana to the holy fool Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.  The major difference is that where Dostoevsky in some important way, however much he argues with himself, is committed to the positive example of the Russian Orthodox church, Leopoldo Alas, a secularist and cynic, does not have much to offer as an alternative.  He suspects that Ana’s enthusiasms are more psychological than spiritual, but he allows the possibility of a genuine mysticism.  Ana has plenty of doubts herself.

Each year, as soon as March began, Don Robustiano Somoza diagnosed all his patients’ illnesses as spring fever, although he had only the haziest notion of what he meant by this; but since the handsome doctor’s principal mission was to console the afflicted, and sense the climatological explanation usually satisfied them, he did not bother to search for another.  Spring fever it was (according to Don Robustiano) which prostrated the judge’s wife [Ana], who went to bed one night at the end of March uncontrollably clenching her teeth, and feeling as if her head were full of fireworks.  As she awoke the next morning and emerged from dreams of ghosts, she realized that she was feverish.  (Ch. 19, p. 420)

This is what I mean – Alas may not be a religious believer himself, but unlike the idiots who populate his novel – “spring fever”! – he takes Ana’s experiences as meaningful.

Despite almost every character’s preoccupation with adultery, La Regenta is only nominally an adultery novel.  Ana’s story is about her spiritual struggles, the priest’s is about his struggles with his vocation and, hilariously, his mother, and even the Don Juan figure’s story is less about sex than mortality.  All variations on the search for a meaningful life.

I found this very hard to see at first because of the imbalanced, show-off structure of the novel.  The huge first half covers three days and is almost all setup, one enormous scene that is largely dramatized exposition and barely goes anywhere but rather is.  The second half of the novel covers several years and is more conventionally structured – scenes, a story, character development, etc.  The usual stuff.  Lots of great individual scenes: a big theater scene, a Holy Week procession, an acidic inset story about the life and death of the – yes, “the” – town atheist.

“No, God doesn’t exist,” he was thinking, “but if he did, I’d be in a pretty pickle.”  (Ch. 22, 528)

The chapter that begins with the “spring fever” line, which works through Ana’s illness, is especially good.  It has, among other treasures, one of the narrator’s greatest cynical asides:

And as if to make amends, and to deceive himself, he heaved a large sigh and exclaimed: “My poor, beloved Anita!”

And, satisfied, he slept.  (424)

Bailey says he will post favorite excerpts next.  Good idea; me too.

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.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sweet taste of being alive - some clearer Antonio Machado

Antonio Machado became a schoolteacher in 1907 – French, and later Spanish.  He taught in schools all over Spain, and in each case wrote poems about the landscape, or about himself in the landscape.

    Yes, I have brought you along, landscapes of Soria,
still evenings, lavender hills,
poplar lanes by the river, green dreaming
of gray soil and drab-brown earth,
aching melancholy of a town’s decay,
you have found your way to my heart –
or were you already there?  (from “The Soria Country,” ll. 129-35, p. 121)

Do these poems ever feel Spanish.  Maybe too much so, as if they were written for the tourism board.  But they make it easy to understand how Machado became a beloved poet.

At the end of his life, he was involved in the awful politics of the 1930s, and Trueblood only includes three poems from the period, all clear and lovely, including a heartbreaking tribute to Federico García Lorca (“The Crime Was in Granada”) and a return to the landscape seen above, “The Poet Remembers the Soria Country,” but this time he asks an “avión marcial,” a “warplane,” if the river “recalls its poet still / amid red ballad sagas reenacted.”

I wanted to counter my trouble understanding Machado’s philosophical or mystical side with some poems with a clearer surface.  Whatever else the poems might mean, the political poems have a public purpose, and the landscape poems have something specific to evoke.

I am tempted by a perfect sonnet Machado wrote about his father, and his childhood:

    My father, young still.  He reads and writes,
leafs through his books and muses.  He gets up,
goes toward the garden door and walks about.
Sometimes he talks out loud, sometimes he sings.
  And then his large eyes with the restless look
seem to be wandering in a void,
unable to settle anywhere.  (Sonnet IV, ll. 5-11, p. 217)

A portrait as self-portrait.  And I am tempted by another kind of self-portrait, “Gloss,” meaning notate, interpret, a poem that begins with a Heraclitean quotation from the Coplas of Jorge Manrique, another tribute to a father:

    Our lives are rivers
flowing in to the sea,
the sea of dying.  Matchless lines!
    Among all my poets
I worship Manrique most.
    Sweet taste of being alive,
hard learning how things pass,
blind rushing to the sea.
    After the fright of dying,
the joy of having arrived.
    Boundless joy!
But – that dread of a return?
Endless pain!

In the Spanish, most of the lines end with an infinitive verb as part of a prepositional phrase, a series of ongoing actions – living, passing, dying, returning – somehow all at once.  The lines do not exactly rhyme, but all end with -ar, -er, or -ir, and even the lines that do not end with verbs repeat these sounds, like “placer” (pleasure) and “la mar” (the sea).  A poem of great complexity constructed from the most basic materials.

I’ll be wandering about for a couple of weeks.  Writing resumes sometime during the last week of July.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Oh, deep wisdom of the cipher - some Antonio Machado

Spanish Literature Month!

My July vacation has gelled so that I will be away for most of the month and will thus not write about Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta until the last week, starting on July 26th if I have la fuerza.  I have finished the novel, but will leave it atop my Currently Reading list to encourage other readers.  When I return, I will have completely forgotten everything about the book, so it is essential that other readers do not wait for my return, but write long, detailed posts which I can use as refreshers.  ¡Muchas gracias por anticipado!

Before vacation, a couple of posts of poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939), as translated by Alan S. Trueblood in Selected Poems (1982, Harvard UP).

Oh, deep wisdom of the cipher, savor
of ripe fruit for man alone to taste,
dream-water and dark wellsprings,
God-given shade cast by the mighty hand!  (from “The Death of Abel Martín,” ll. 21-4, p. 253)

I found Machado to be, in general, difficult, largely because he is a genuinely philosophical poet.  By “philosophical” I mean that he read Henri Bergson, Miguel de Unamuno, etc. – by the 1930s, of course, yikes, Martin Heidegger – for fun, like I read Trollope, and wrote poems that express specific moods or states drawn from his own experience but filtered through philosophy.  Here is an Idea approached analytically through philosophy; here is the same Idea approached through some kind of lived experience, perhaps something as simple as a walk by a river.

Abel Martín, the subject of the above poem, is a fictional philosopher and the “author” of some of Machado’s poems; the poems about his death is “by” one of his students.  Machado has got a little Fernando Pessoa action going.

Luckily for me, Machado’s favorite philosopher is Heraclitus, who is not so hard – water and fire.

The Waterwheel

    Evening was falling,
dusty and sad.
    The water sang
its workaday tune
in the brimming scoops
of the slow-turning wheel.
    The old mule was dreaming,
poor worn-out mule,
keeping time with the shadowy
sound of the water.
    Evening was falling,
dusty and sad.
    I can’t say what noble
and godlike poet
linked the soft accord
of the dreaming water
    to the bitter toil
of the endless round
and blindfolded you,
poor worn-out mule…
    But that poet, I know,
was noble and godlike,
a heart steeped in shadow
and ripe with knowing.  (pp. 85-7, ellipses in original)

The lovely match between subject and stanzaic form is visible in English, whatever other rhythmic pleasures have been lost.  Machado has a strong post-religious mystical side, which is visible here in this metaphor for the nature of existence – I am, we are, generally, the blindfolded mule, not the godlike poet who somehow is able to make a little more sense of the shadows and dream, of that inexplicable, endless sound of flowing water.

A reader with some Spanish might well notice that Machado’s vocabulary is mostly entry-level and his syntax untangled.  He was anti-Baroque, anti-gongorism.  He is a perfect poet for anyone working on his Spanish, with some level of meaning available to a basic level of the language.  Then there’s that next level, a whole other problem.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right. - now there's a Chekhovian line

Once I start looking for correspondences between Chekhov and Tolstoy, they become too easy to find.  Such rich writers give me a lot to mess with.  “’Anna on the Neck’” features a young woman named Anna who is married to a much older, ambitious civil servant.  The “Anna” of the odd title refers to a medal he wants to earn, if necessary by means of his lovely wife flattering a superior officer.  Is there some kind of parody of Anna Karenina here, the alternate timeline life of young Anna K.?  Probably not!  Anyway, this story has a happy ending for Anna.  Happiness turns out to be a nightmare, a destruction of principles, an effacement of the self.  Chekhov must have shaken off his Tolstoy anxiety by this point.

A minor, maybe, story of Chekhov’s called “Neighbours,” from earlier in his Tolstoyan phase (1892), is a nice example of his inability to be anyone but himself.  Constance Garnett’s version in in The Duel & Other Stories.  The story is about the impossibility of living a life based on abstractions.  Or perhaps it is about living with inevitably irreconcilable principles.

Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin was very much out of humour: his sister, a young girl, had gone away to live with Vlassitch, a married man.  To shake off the despondency and depression which pursued him at home and in the fields, he called to his aid his sense of justice, his genuine and noble ideas – he had always defended free love! – but this was of no avail, and he always came back to the same conclusion as their foolish old nurse, that his sister had acted wrongly and that Vlassitch had abducted his sister.  And that was distressing.

I wish every story summarized itself so cleanly in its opening paragraph.

After much dithering, he rides off to confront his neighbor – a duel, maybe, or a horsewhipping – but once at their home, setting aside his timidity, he is reminded that he likes Vlassitch, likes his sister, and sees them both as essentially human.  The couple can’t marry, for example, because Vlassitch is already married to a woman he was trying to save from a worse fate, “a strange marriage in the style of Dostoevsky,” regrettable, now, but an act of compassion.  His sister was hardly abducted, and has plunged into her freely chosen role as Vlassitch’s wife and homemaker.

“It’s a charming house altogether,” she went on, sitting opposite her brother.  “There’s some pleasant memory in every room.  In my room, only fancy, Grigory’s grandfather shot himself.”

A passage worthy of Uncle Vanya, there.  The brother ends up in a state of “spiritual softening,” unwilling to do anything that will bring additional unhappiness to the couple – “he had a deep conviction that they were unhappy, and could not be happy, and their love seemed to him a melancholy, irreparable mistake” – although the truth is that he is the one who is unhappy, not the couple.

And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way.  And so the while of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle.  And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.

The End.  Poor sap.

“Neighbours” has a beautiful pair of pagan trees, so I will add them to my collection:  “Near the dam, two willows, one old and one young, drooped tenderly towards one another.”

I’ll be on vacation much of next week.  Back on Thursday, let’s say, for a couple of posts on Antonio Machado, let’s say.  Spanish Literature Month.

Friday, July 1, 2016

"Dear storm!" - the Chekhovian dialectic - "But what am I to do to make my character different?"

“Now that’s from Chekhov’s Tolstoyan period,” says Scott Bailey, again and again – he said it yesterday – and I used to think, “What is he talking about?  These are Chekhov stories, Chekhov, Chekhov!”  But that was based on reading them years ago.  Reading them now, the Tolstoyan anxiety is pretty obvious.  But by the early 1890s, Chekhov had developed a strong personal style, so whatever his intentions, his writing remains deeply his own, in style and ethics.  He has become such a great artist that he can’t write like anyone else.

My understanding is that the source of the anxiety was conversations with Tolstoy himself, who was brazenly projecting his own artistic conflicts onto poor, innocent Anton.  Write about big ethical problems; write to reform people.  Chekhov, who was moving fast, soon moved on to other problems, certainly by “Peasants” (1897).  Poor Tolstoy never got so far.

Chekhov’s Tolstoy appears to me to reduce to two stories, The Death of Ivan Ilych and the Levin half of Anna Karenina.  For several years he attacks them from various angles.  Chekhov had good taste.  What is a good life? What is the point of life given the certainty of death?  Big, big questions, the kind that reduce most writers to trivialities.

“The Duel” (1891) and “The Wife” (1892) show how Chekhovian impulses defeat Tolstoyan intentions.  The narrator of “The Wife” wants to do good, to fight famine and feed the poor, in between writing a “History of the Railway.”  He is hindered, though, by the fact that he is intensely annoying.  No one wants his help; they barely even want his money.  He is that much of a pest and egotist.

“Do you remember, Ivan Ivanitch, you told me I had a disagreeable character and that it was difficult to get on with me?  But what am I to do to make my character different?”  (Ch. 6)

His friend can only answer “I don’t know.”  The story ends with a kind of progress – the narrator becomes reconciled to his weakness.  “Now I feel no uneasiness.”  His wife feeds the peasants while he writes his history.  Described like this, the story almost sounds like a self-parody.  Maybe I have described it incorrectly.

“The Duel” features a self-created Superfluous Man, a hilarious character, a lazy, lazy man who blames his weaknesses on the tenor of the times, on Turgenev, basically.  If the men of his class are superfluous, nothing is his fault.  The fact that he is latching onto a thirty-year-old political argument to justify his behavior is part of the joke.

A duel with a rationalist leads him to reform his life.  He races through the stages of The Death of Ivan Ilych in an evening, although since Chekhov is a pagan, his religious turn looks like this:

“The storm!” whispered Laevsky; he had a longing to pray to some one or to something, if only to the lightning or the storm-clouds.  “Dear storm!”  (Ch. 17)

He changes his life.  “When he went out of the house and got into the carriage he wanted to return home alive.”

All of these stories are filled with debates and discussions, perhaps too much, but Chekhov’s method is a dialectical humanism.  Many sides of an argument are represented; many sides contain truths; many truths are irreconcilable.  The arguments often disintegrate.  The doctor in “Ward No. 6” spends many pages arguing about the meaning of life, but with a madman, the only person in town who will indulge such topics.  The madman is often in the right, but he is not exactly reliable.  Hey, maybe this story is also about Chekhov’s relations with Tolstoy.