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.