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.


  1. I enjoyed the scene with the swing when De Pas humiliated Alvaro by freeing the trapped Obdulia (who relishes the opportunity it gives to flash her legs and underwear - her brazenness is often used to counterpoint Ana's demureness (is there such a word?); Alvaro wasn't strong enough, and hated being shown up by DP's superior strength. Interesting point about his physical strength: it's part of his unclerical masculinity, isn't it - there are lots of passages where DP longs to rid himself of his cassock or clerical robes (about which a great deal of descriptive detail is given and repeated: 'a lordly mozetta and under it a crimped white rochet which followed the lines of his strong yet graceful body...' p. 30, a picture of DP preaching in the pulpit.

  2. Yes, the sumptuousness of the priestly clothes, one more indictment of the Church by Alas.

    A TV version of this story could easily look like The Thornbirds if the director were not careful.

  3. There have been TV and film versions and, weirdly, a musical. Just posted my final piece. At first I didn't thank you for this choice, but I've come to admire La Regenta - mostly. But it does go on a bit...Some judicious editing would have surely improved it.

  4. Now there is a definition of the classic: a book for which "it could use some editing" is a moot point. Or: a book where the reader has to do his own editing.

    Have you read Fortunata and Jacinta, by any chance, also a monster? My guess is you would feel the same way. What were the Spanish writers trying to do with these gigantic comedies of manner?

  5. No, I haven't read F & J. I've neglected Spanish lit. Did do my own translation of Pepita Jiménez in my gap year to pass the time - another portrait of a cleric struggling with carnal urges. I don't mind long novels if they're not prolix. Some parts of La R I had to skim. Shocking confession.

  6. I haven't read La Regenta, but what you say about the priest reminds me of Obadiah Slope, the oily chaplain and power broker in Trollope's Barchester Towers.

    Also, War and Peace is the classic example of the Great Novel that sure could use some editing. (I am thinking in particular of the dreaded Second Epilogue.)

  7. Translating Pepita Jiménez is a long way from neglecting Spanish literature!

    I must prefer that long novels be prolix, if you are using that word the way I think you are. Take two novels of the same length - meaning the same number of words. The non-prolix one is the chronicle - this happened, then this, then this, then this, on and on forever. In the prolix novel, the thing that happens is that the author does some writing. Twenty pages in which a boy can't fall asleep.

    The priest in La Regenta is quite a bit like Slope - the priest is like what Slope would have become if his plans had succeeded.

    The Second Epilogue must be the most skippable part of any major novel. "Cetology" and the relevant parts of Victor Hugo novels would follow, distantly.

    This topic could make an amusing, and also irritating, list.

  8. The TV series I saw was quite good, avoiding much of the possible path you mention it easily could have taken. I don't know if it is still available online (without subtitles), but if so it's definitely worth spending a few minutes with to get a feel for it.

  9. Probably worth looking at the TV version just to see the clothes.