A Better novel than Anna Karenina

From LI, 2004

We would never have read La Regenta or heard of it if we didn’t have a habit of trolling the aisles of libraries, our shoulders hunched up like that of an old crow, dreamily pulling tomes off the shelf and looking at first paragraphs, blurbs, pictures of authors, etc. etc. Years ago, when we came upon La Regenta, we were in the mood for a long 19th century novel. At that time, believe it or not, we were living in utter poverty (gasp!), renting a room for a pittance from our friend H. That La Regenta was a long novel was all the reason we needed to check it out and take it home. We have a lovely memory of reading the book in great big gulps: a reel of reading, a continuum, a glide down a slide. We immediately grouped the heroine, Ana Ozores, with Nana in terms of overpowering sexiness. But Clarin, unlike Zola, was not in the habit of drooling over his heroine. In fact, Anna is quite intelligent; Nana merely has the intelligence God would have given to any more than usually shrewd member of the 19th century demi-monde. Purge the odor of sex around Nana, and you have an operator, a nineteenth century capitalist of her own extraordinary pussy, whose vital instincts have merged with the utilitarian calculus preferred by the laissez faire economists of the time in much the way any captain of industry’s did. Her industry was orgasm, Carnegie’s was steel. Same diff.

We recently decided to treat ourselves to the novel once again.

The edition we are reading was put out by University of Georgia Press. Warning: it carries a completely bogus introduction by the translator, John Rutherford. The innocent reader, stumbling into the intro, might flee from the book entirely to escape the babbitry in which Rutherford so abounds. After congratulating Leopoldo Alas, aka Clarin, for having anticipated Freud (it was the fashion, back in the sixties and seventies, to take anything anyone said about sex before Freud to be valuable insofar as it anticipated Freud, or quaint insofar as it disagreed with him – Freud being to sex what Edison was to illumination), Rutherford reaches the very zenith of platitudes with the following sentence: ‘But thanks to its universal themes, psychological insight and technical boldness, it [the novel] has proved itself to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women.’

Oh, what bliss, to be worthy of the attention of modern men and women! The heart sings like a robin… A poisoned robin.

Too much of that kind of thing makes one wonder if the translation is going to be any good. Ignorant of Spanish, we can’t vouch for its accuracy – but it achieves a consistent tone well above the introduction’s heady sampling of Rutherfordism. And there aren’t big mistakes in the English – a state of affairs that is rare, nowadays. It is amazing, the carelessness of publishers who publish translations. This is a subject we have had plenty of reviewing experience of. Ça suffit…

We are happy to note that we still hold to our original judgment, when we finished the novel way back in the dreamtime: La Regenta kicks Anna Karenina’s ass.

The only way to justify this would be to go through the novel at much greater length than we have time for. Instead, let’s excerpt a paragraph.

Here’s the context. Ana Ozores is the daughter of an Italian dressmaker and a petty liberal aristocrat. The seamstress dies, the petty liberal aristocrat gives himself over to the struggle to remake Spain, and then retires in disgust in a small bungalow, having shot his inherited wad. On his death, Ana, who is a scrawny teen in the throes of her first menses, is taken in by her two spinster aunts in Vetusta, a backwards cathedral town. Her aunts intentionally “plump” Anna up – and she cooperates, realizing that her aunts want to make her “eligible.” Since she doesn’t have money, her ‘eligibility’ will have to consist of her blue blood – mention of the dressmaker is under strict rature – and her beauty, which in due time blossoms. Anna is one of those 19th century beauties – poitrine a la Nana, haunches like J-Lo. That Ana has a knack for writing is discovered by the aunts, and firmly suppressed as a vice. And so the aunts put her on the market, so to speak. They catch a millionaire, an ‘American’ who has returned to Vetusta and wants to buy the biggest house and the town beauty. Ana refuses. She is being courted, at this time, by an older man, Don Victor Quintanas. This is the description of her aunt Anuncia’s receiving Ana’s refusal of the millionaire. The scene is set in the dining room. There’s a fire in the fire place – otherwise, the room, one presumes, is not illuminated. The aunts have their little ways to save money:

“But Dona Anuncia needed no more to let loose the basilisk of fury which she carried in her bowels. Her shadow, amidst all the other shadows on the wall, at times resembled that of a gigantic witch; at other times, multiplied by the flickering flames and the old woman’s jerks and contortions, it represented all hell let loose. There were moments when Dona Anuncia’s shadow had three heads on the wall and three or four others on the ceiling, and it seemed that screams and shrieks were coming from all of them, so strident were her vociferations.”

Obviously, Alas is fusing, here, a memory of Goya’s Caprichios and a motif out of European folklore to create this scene – but how brilliantly it succeeds! LI has found that arguments are extremely hard to depict in fiction. As any rookie knows, modifications of “said’ are always rather iffy – yelled, vociferated, sarcastically observed, shrieked, cried – the lexicon is there, but the effects fall short of the intensity one wishes to convey, as though one were playing the keys of a piano in which the wires had been cut. The shadow play, here, supplies a context that does everything: merges the economics of marriage to a primal scene of cannibalism; caps the whole extended metaphor of plumping Ana up – a metaphor that creates, on one end, sympathy for a woman who is, after all, simply eating, and on the other end, transforms the cooks into monsters; and finally, it gives us a sense of just how close Anna is to that soap bubble film separating perception from hallucination. This quality is at the heart of her poetic talent. It is also at the heart of her downfall.

We could go on…

Just one other thing. We’ve mentioned this before – in fact, one of our first posts, back in 01, was about this. The relation between time and suspense in novels has never really been spelled out to our satisfaction. A novel in which a man is depicted borrowing money has installed a timer in its code – the timer is the debt. Time will be measured by the debt coming due. Time spatializes itself in the actions of the indebted man – the axe he finds to get rid of the pawnbroker from whom he has borrowed sums, the marriage he intends with the rich merchant’s daughter, etc., etc. There are all sorts of timers in the novel’s code. Here we see metaphor acting as a timer – the plumping out process has to end, for one thing – Anna can’t become too fat. She has to achieve a healthy avoidupois. For another, since this is a plumping up, the timer is running on the aunts. Eventually, they have to make good on their side of the metaphor – they have to become the monsters that plump up humans, that feed on human flesh. It is an agricultural metaphor, indicating an agricultural original sin – the slaughtering of the fed beast. Since feeding is, after all, a gift, one of the great founding gifts of society, to feed and then to slaughter is a contradiction that sets in motion a whole exculpatory ethic.

We could go on…