December 14, 2014

Celedonio: A Nineteenth-Century Negative Depiction of Homosexuality

On Leopoldo Alas’s La Regenta (“The Regent’s Wife”)

WHAT THE HELL!!?? This unquestioned classic work, which may be unanimously considered the best Spanish novel of the 19th century…, discussed in a blog dealing with an apparently minor issue such as homosexuality in fiction?

If any Spaniard who had to read this novel in the young days of secondary education finds this, then might be possibly wondering: ‘Mmm… What did I skip the time I read it?’

Well, we must take into account that La Regenta (the last volume first published in 1885) is really a long novel. Students have to read loads of books in a year and do not have, or cannot find (for whatever reason, not strictly academic…Yes, I am winking) time to read all of them, so--God bless short cuts in the shape of synopses and summaries!

Thus, the readers get to know just the main plot: An unsatisfied young woman, Ana Ozores, married to an old (impotent) man, finds herself on the horns of a dilemma: whether to follow a path to moral perfection under the guidelines of her soul brother, a perturbing master priest, or let herself be carried away by the persistent wooing of the town’s finest Don Juan. If you have not read this book yet and do not know the ending, I will not spoil it all here. I just invite you to read this keen, witty, ironic, humorous, extremely entertaining comedy of manners, more suitable (and enjoyable) for grown-up readers than confused, bewildered teenagers eager to look at the bright side of life (whistle if you wish.)

Leopoldo Alas, Clarín
Don Leopoldo Alas, commonly known in Spain as Clarín (this is the pen name he used to sign his celebrated journal articles), made up his social satire with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in mind. As the French author did, he scathingly depicts a petit bourgeois universe. Nevertheless, Alas does not focus on the heroine mainly, but he portrays an unforgettable gallery of characters, of which Celedonio stands out as quite a remarkable case…

Celedonio is a teen acolyte in the cathedral of Vetusta.[1] Alas describes him as a crude, filthy, shabby, dishonest, effeminate boy (regarding this last point, he even compares Celedonio with a streetwalker--)The time Celedonio finds Doña Ana Ozores totally passed out, lying on the floor of the cathedral, the author says he steals a kiss from her just to find out whether it pleases him… When Ana finally bounces back, she feels a disgusting taste of a cold, sticky toad on her lips.

It is clear Alas has poured all his causticity on Celedonio.[2] But do not think of Celedonio as the only target of the author’s moralistic darts. Each and every single resident in Vetusta, no matter what social status they enjoy, receives any kind of punishment. Alas, due to his liberal ideology, is particularly biting the Church members, and his depiction of Celedonio is a good example of this.

Most of his criticism is based on lewdness. Men or women, aristocrats or servants, workmen or clergymen… In Vetusta, everybody is willing to find a sexual opportunity anywhere, anyhow.[3] Obulia, the most popular easy lady among the gentlemen, gets so mesmerized the very moment she stares at beautiful Ana as a barefoot penitent in Holy Week processions that she greedily wishes she were a man--her sole but vivid inclination towards lesbianism throughout the novel--On the opposite side, Frígilis, the best friend of the old Regent’s, totally lacks of any sexual impulse. This way, he is presented as a somehow ridiculous outdoor enthusiast, avoiding the author’s bitterest criticism. However, the same cannot be said in Obdulia’s case… And, of course, Celedonio, as a homosexual boy related to the Church, is (in Alas’s viewpoint) the height of perversion.

Considering the fact that La Regenta is a 130-year-old piece of literature, the current reader cannot expect to find a kind of manifesto for gay rights in it. Anyway, despite all the negative features Leopoldo Alas sprays on him, Celedonio is an exceptional figure in Spanish literary tradition as an early portrait of homosexuality in modern novel.

The curtain had just started to rise.

[1] Do not try to find it on a map: this is a fictional place. The term means ‘archaic,’ ‘ancient’. It is generally assumed that Alas took the town of Oviedo, in the north of Spain, as a model. If you visit Oviedo, you can come across a sculpture dedicated to the protagonist of La Regenta, significantly close to the cathedral. In this same town you can also meet Woody Allen in bronze--but that is another story.
[2] The point that Leopoldo Alas makes Celedonio show up meaningfully in the first and last chapters of the novel (that is to say, Celedonio opens and closes the story) can give a hint of the importance the author gives to this secondary character and its symbolism.
[3] This oversexualized atmosphere reminds me of Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story (1926)--on which director Stanley Kubrick based his controversial film Eyes Wide Shut (1999)--The Austrian author tells the story of Dr. Fridolin, a married young man who, after discovering his wife’s sexual fantasies for other man, takes disappointed a journey through the streets of Vienna, finding several chances for easy sex. Whether he seizes any opportunity... Well, I will not say a word: Just read this wonderful novella by one of the best fin de siècle European writers.

December 3, 2014

I Pronounce You Woman and Wife

On Paloma Pedrero’s Lauren’s Call… (“La llamada de Lauren…”)

It was 1985 when a young female playwright’s short piece opened on the Spanish stage, amazing the
audience with the scene in which a cross-dressed man fervently begs his wife to penetrate him with the help of an artificial penis--

Although Paloma Pedrero cannot exactly be called an author specialized in LGBT-themed fiction, you would point out the titles of Lauren’s Call… and The Color of August (“El color de agosto”) if you had to choose some of her most popular, celebrated plays. In these plays, Pedrero deals with issues such as cross-dressing, homosexuality, and transsexuality. We may discuss The Color of August in the future---Now bells are ringing: it is the time of Lauren’s Call…

This is the story of a young marriage, Rosa and Pedro, whose life is going to experiment a turnaround during the Carnival on their third anniversary.

The choice of Carnival as the time frame of the play seems to me very suitable. Masks are paradoxically useful to unmask the truth. Something similar to what Shakespeare did in As You Like It: Rosalind, in man’s clothes and under the name of Ganymede,[1] makes her beloved Orlando ignore her appearance and woo him as a woman--a courtship she fiercely wants and would have never ever dared to request in her true female appearance (that was a disgraceful behavior for a girl in farthingale times.)[2]

Then, Pedrero gets the man disguised as Lauren Bacall, and the wife disguised as Humphrey Bogart.[3] While Rosa does not feel too comfortably with her male role, Pedro accepts his female part easily. He even tries to role-play with his wife, a game that starts amusingly but ends up bitterly.

From this moment on, Pedro’s memories will emerge, memories of a past in which Family (Society) had aborted any possibility to fulfill himself (that is, herself), suppressing his female side and forcing Pedro to keep on a regular life everybody expected from a man. Traumatic experiences are released and words grow cold, but, when you guess Pedro is going to go back to his old ways, Rosa eventually acts as a friend, helping with the finishing touch of her husband’s costume.

However, this is a bittersweet ending. While Rosa has finally understood and respected Pedro’s necessities, then--what is the point of their marriage now? What is her place? Does she need to play the husband part from now on?

We must take into account that Paloma Pedrero is a feminist author. She especially focuses on female roles, so she clearly feels pity, sympathy, and solidarity for Rosa. Pedrero saves the last scene for her; there, we can see Rosa alone and crying in the dark. Nevertheless, the author has not skipped the dark, ultra-tense situations Pedro has undergone throughout his extremely gloomy life. Up to this point, let him have fun at the costume party.

[1] In Greek mythology, Ganymede is a hot Trojan prince abducted by Zeus, totally mad about the boy. When in Olympus, Ganymede does as the Olympians do, so he becomes immortal and gets a job as the cupbearer of the gods. This myth represents the model of pederasty (sexual relationship between a man and a boy), a social custom permitted in ancient times.
[2] Regarding the question that, in Elizabethan times, women could not be actresses and female roles should be performed by young boys (no need to remind the Academy Award-winning film Shakespeare in Love, I guess…), the ambiguity of this situation is really astounding: in the good old days of the Virgin Queen, the audience could see two men making love freely on stage.
[3] Bacall & Bogart: Paradigm of the Hollywood marriage model, as well as perfect examples of masculinity and femininity standards. Note this play opened in the 1980s, a time when 1940s films like Casablanca, The Big Sleep or To Have and Have Not were much more esteemed than today--