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.


  1. I wanted to write about the novel without interpreting it, but that Kempis just kept gnawing at me. Future La Regenta posts will merely reflect my tastes and egg on those readers who gave up before Book II begins.

  2. A worthy goal.

    And anyway, you're right, I have to work around the adultery plot to get to what the novel is really about. It turns out to be much more unusual than it first seems.

  3. Thanks for these first two posts, Tom. At your suggestion I read La Regenta this month, and first reactions were mixed. Now I've read Scott B's post via your link, and your own preliminary thoughts, I feel more disposed to try to put a few of my own together. Maybe not an 'interpretation', as you guys have done a pretty sound job there - more what you indicate you intend to do: look at some interesting passages for the light they throw on the themes, subject matter, characterisation, style, etc.

  4. I was thinking more of looking at passages for how awesome they are, which is a simpler exercise. I should get moving on that.