- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Spanish writer Leopoldo Alas was teaching Roman law at the University of Orviedo in Spain when he published the first volume of his first novel, “La Regenta,” in 1884. The second and final volume appeared the next year.

Alas was already famous in his native country when the novel came out. Under the name Clarin, “bugle,” he had earned the fear and loathing of Spain’s contemporary writers, whose hopeless mediocrity (in his view) he denounced with considerable wit, to the public’s delight, in reviews in newspapers and literary journals.

But “La Regenta” sank quickly into oblivion. A few critics attacked the novel as obscene and sacrilegious. Even these often titillating charges failed to excite much interest among the reading public.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that “La Regenta” gained the name it deserves, at least in Spain, where it’s now regarded as a classic. In America, it remains hardly known, even though the novel enjoyed its first, and very readable, English translation a quarter century ago by Oxford don John Rutherford.

“La Regenta” is set in the late 1870s, following the Bourbon restoration in Spain, after a brief flirtation with republicanism. Its locale is the northern province of Asturias and its capital city, Orviedo, which Alas calls in the novel Vetusta. The times are conservative, and no one rocks the boat.

On its surface, the story the novel tells is familiar. Like “Madam Bovary” and “Anna Karenina,” “La Regenta” has at its center a troubled woman and adultery. But there the similarity with these other 19th-century classics ends.

Alas’ book could have been set nowhere but in Spain, and much of its richness comes from the lushly detailed portrait it provides of a particular time and location.

The novel’s protagonist, Dona Ana Ozores, is the beautiful daughter of a Spanish free-thinking father and an Italian dancer, an exotic set of parents (especially the foreign-born mother) for provincial Spain.

Ana is passionately religious and much given to prayer and the writing of devotional poetry. She marries a very respectable man much older than herself, Don Victor Quintanar, a judge, who is fond of pompously quoting lines from Spain’s greatest dramatists and is happiest when off hunting with a friend.

At first Dona Ana attempts to lead the life of a good Catholic wife, loyal to her husband. But at the same time she’s powerfully attracted to two other men in her life, the aristocratic Don Alvaro Mesia, and Don Fermin De Pas, the canon theologian and a priest at the local cathedral.

Will it be Mesia or the priest who lures Dona Ana away from her husband? On this contest (for both men see it as such)hangs much of the novel’s tension.

The handsome, stylish Mesia is, in Alas’ words, “profoundly materialistic,” but at the same time a man who would never admit to the world at large his lack of faith because “he considered it to be vulgar to contradict bona fide Catholics.” Mesia wants to conquer Ana because she’s the one beautiful woman in town who hasn’t succumbed to his charms.

He’s a vain, selfish man. But then so is Don Fermin, the priest, who sees this image of himself in the mirror one day as he washed himself and combed his hair: “His arms, like his broad, powerful chest, were covered with fine black curly hair; they were the arms of an athlete. The canon looked sadly at his muscles of steel, charged with useless power.”

Fermin uses his position as priest to become Dona Ana’s spiritual advisor and wields enormous religious power over her, all the while wanting her as a woman, too, and his alone.

These four, the husband and wife, and the Don Juan aristocrat and worldly priest are the novel’s main players. But surrounding them is the large circle of friends (and bitter enemies) they see almost every day, all of them finely drawn.

Landscape, which Alas draws with a subtle eye, plays a central role in “La Regenta,” as does climate. And he provides a look at people from all of the region’s class, not just the rich and well-placed.

“La Regenta” is surprisingly modern. Though written 120 years ago the novel’s revealing, well-rendered interior monologues, carried on in the minds of Dona Ana, Don Fermin and Don Alvaro, lift this book out of the late Victorian era when made its appearance, and make it feel truly at home today.

But what is most pleasing about “La Regenta,” at least to this reviewer, is that this long novel has a unity of purpose and vision that’s apparent from the book’s first sentence, “The city of heroes was having a nap,” down to its last, when we leave Dona Ana, who survives, very alone and distraught in church where she finds no comfort.

Alas knew his world completely, and with wit and humor and with pathos he told its story with a thoroughness that is breathtaking. The people of Vetusta were “scandalized, horrified,” by the goings-on of three of its leading citizens, Dona Ana, Mesia and the canon theologian, Alas writes near the end of “La Regenta.”

Horrified, yes, but they couldn’t stop talking about those goings on, he continues, and they managed to conceal “from each other the intimate pleasure which that great scandal, just like a novel, gave them, something to interrupt the eternal monotony of the sad city.”

Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.

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