Some Penguin Classics are so big and so impressive that it’s astounding they’re not better known to the general English-reading public, and surely La Regenta, the massive 1885 Spanish novel by Leopoldo Alas – issued in this big 1984 Penguin trade paperback but still almost entirely unknown to the Republic of Letters. I recently found a copy (you’ll never guess where) and spent an evening re-reading it in this splendid, almost opulently confident John Rutherford translation, starting, of course, with the book’s peculiarly sun-struck opening lines:
The city of heroes was having a nap. The south wind, warm and languid, was coaxing grey-white clouds through the sky and breaking them up as they drifted along. The streets of the city were silent, except for the rasping whispers of whirls of dust, rags, straw and paper on their way from gutter to gutter, pavement to pavement, street corner to street corner, now hovering, now chasing after one another, like butterflies which the air envelops in its invisible folds, draws together, and pulls apart.
The book is the story of that “city of heroes” and its varied, somewhat disreputable inhabitants, including the main character, a frustrated woman whose search for fulfillment in love is what prompted the book’s original critics to compare it to Madame Bovary – and to condemn it accordingly. You’d think such condemnation would have guarantee the book a wider audience than it got, but as far as I can tell, Penguin Classics has only given it two printings – this one and one later one.
Of course, poor Ana isn’t the book’s only standout character, far from it – my own favorite is the hapless and openly Dickensian priest Fermin, who never fails to bring out our author’s best – and most playful – prose:
Don Fermin was not in the habit of contemplating the serene night, although he had been at one time, long ago, in the Jesuits’ College, in the seminary, and during the first years of his life as a priest, when his health had been delicate and he had been prey to that sadness and those scruples which used to eat away at his soul. Later, life made a man of him and he had followed in the footsteps of his mother, a peasant woman who could see in the countryside nothing but the exploitation of the land. That which in books was called poetry had died in him years ago – oh yes, many years ago! The stars? How seldom he contemplated them since he had become a canon!
“La Regenta, rich in wit and humour, is also a work of intense moral seriousness,” Rutherford writes in his Introduction, and it’s true: there are plenty of moods in this big, intensely readable book, and there’s a variety of tones sufficient to warrant the comparisons it’s always received with Don Quixote. But the real comparison to make here – when we’re not being geographically lazy, mind you – is with Anna Karenina.
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