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|
Celedonio is a teen acolyte in the cathedral of Vetusta. 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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.