Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: The King Amaz'd


Diego Velásquez, "El Venus del espejo," National Gallery, London


At about 150 pages, The King Amaz’d: A Chronicle (Crónica del rey pasmado,1989) - the only one of the late Spanish writer Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s novels currently in English translation - is something of an amuse-bouche given that the writer’s better known works stretch to several times that length. It certainly whet my appetite, however, for a good-hearted translator to come along to serve the main courses. Miguel of the St. Oberose blog has written about some of those, and I’m indebted to him for this welcome introduction to an author about whom I knew next to nothing.

In The King Amaz’d, Torrente Ballester offers up a kind of political fairy tale, employing an ironic tone and wry humor to give a cross-sectional glimpse of 17th century Spain and in particular the machinery of power. He dispenses with the sumptuous detail of many historical novels, instead choosing to push the furniture against the walls to let a few key events and ideas have plenty of room, and giving just enough specifics to pinpoint the story in Madrid during the early years of Philip IV’s reign. Neither the king’s name nor that of the capital is ever mentioned, however, and this detached distance lends the book its fairy tale atmosphere. Nevertheless, the narrator occasionally provides evocative period details, such as when a character riding in a coach complains, “I need to pee” and is told: “Just pick up that cushion where your bottom is. I’m sure you’ll find a hole underneath.”

The novel’s imaginative opening is written so assuredly that one can’t help but sit up and take notice: the capital has been plunged into a sudden chaos of supernatural events: witches seen flying across the night sky; a sulfurous crater opening in a street; rumored sightings of an immense serpent said to have wrapped itself around the palace. These prove a kind of mass hysteria (“everybody was talking about the events, but nobody had seen them”) that occurs coincidental with the novel’s main event: the 21-year-old king, following an initiatory experience with a well-known prostitute, has asked to see the queen naked, rather than (another amusing period detail) clothed on every part of her body but where necessary to ensure continuation of the royal line. This innocent request produces a disruption of state that sends clerics and bishops scurrying to heated conference talks that devolve hilariously into behind the scenes scheming, echoed by the network of hidden passageways and secret doors of the palace and capital. Popular opinion runs amok. Machinations are put into motion in the palace – where “decency doesn’t exact thrive in [the] corridors” - to optimize certain outcomes and careers. The novel uses this precipitating event to explore the relationship between sex and state and religion, rulers and ruled, and political power versus personal will. It shares with Leopoldo Alas’ 19th century La Regenta a focus on the thorny zone where human sexuality and Spain’s Catholic clergy intersect, a dynamic apparently little changed in two hundred years.

Framed within this diverting story, the inner workings of government, the variety of political motives, and the many facets of power are on display. These include the division of society into one morality for rulers and another for subjects; the uses of superstition, gossip, propaganda and violence to prop up authority; the hidden politics that lie behind the political theater performed to a susceptible and apathetic public; and the questionable relationship between the personal peccadillos of rulers and the maintenance of state order. This last notion is pointedly satirized when a Duchess in the palace is told,

“For the fleet to reach Cadiz safely, and for us to win or lose in Flanders, it all depends on the King’s sins.”

The Duchess gave a great laugh: “I can never reason out why the country is so full of idiots who believe in such things.”

“It’s what the theologians think.”

“I’d say it again even if the Queen of the Fairies thinks the same.”

In another scene in which a minister describes to the King the rumors swirling around the city, the gullibility of the public as well as the manipulation of public opinion are laid bare:

“…what appears to have frightened [the people] is the presence of a huge serpent many claim to have seen. Some think it’s going to push the city walls down. Others think it’s going for the royal palace, but most think it’ll attack their own homes. They all know they’re sinners.”
           
“That’s the way it goes with public opinion, Your Excellency. There’s always someone who creates and manages it, but then each one starts thinking on his own account.”

Scenes like this clearly apply almost globally to contemporary politics (one only need think of the persecution of Bill Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal as regards the first example or of how distant threats of terrorism or Ebola can evoke panic close to home as regards the second), and as a political parable The King Amaz’d has rather universal relevance. But The King Amaz’d belongs to that genre of novels that address themselves to a nation (the book sold 150,000 copies upon publication in Spain and has gone through multiple printings). It takes specific aim at certain proclivities and dynamics in Spanish culture, sardonically milking sacred Spanish cows such as national pride in the glories of the Siglo de Oro and the continuing prominent place of the Catholic church in Spanish society. The introduction by translator Colin Smith makes clear that some resonances might be lost on readers (present!) not well-versed in Spanish history and culture. Torrente Ballester inserts cleverly disguised appearances by Siglo de Oro poets Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo, and also uses period paintings – especially the Rokeby Venus (La Venus del espejo) by Diego Velázquez – as inspiration for some of his scenes. In this portrait of 17th century Spain, Torrente Ballester also alludes obliquely to the country’s more recent history under Franco. The arbitrary exercise of power is seen in the ease with which the kingdom’s Chief Minister accedes to the sex-phobic, sadistic religious fervor of one friar, Father Villescusa, who dreams of a mass auto-da-fé which would simultaneously placate an angry God and conveniently rid the country of his political enemies. Just beneath the abundant humor of The King Amaz’d runs a frisson of abhorrence and contempt at the wanton abuse of political power that manifests itself in the malleability of the young King by those truly holding the reins, in politically expedient detentions and the threat of torture and execution capable of being dispensed at whim by authority, and through religious superstition that infects a credulous people and incites violence in the worst of those who rule them. Still, it’s the withering comedy of the barbs Torrente Ballester hurls at Spain’s self-image that have the most tenacity, as when one character demands of another, rhetorically,

“In what part of the world has it ever been the case that, for a husband to be with his wife in private, the protocols and even the clergy have to come into it?”

“In this part of the world where we are, such things and even greater miracles are ten-a-penny. Don’t lose your sense of reality.”

Friday, September 5, 2014

Vitaliano Brancati: The Beautiful Antonio



Still from the 1960 film version of Il Bell’Antonio, starring Marcello Mastroianni 
and Claudia Cardinale, directed by Mauro Bolognini, written by Pier Paolo Pasolini.


It’s relatively rare to find a literary work centered on a rare subject, but Sicilian writer Vitaliano Brancati’s Beautiful Antonio (Il Bell’Antonio,1949), may be the first novel I’ve read concerning male impotence. It will probably long endure as the most impressive.

The beautiful Antonio Magnano possesses a killing handsomeness. Wherever he goes in his Sicilian hometown of Catania – even to mass – women turn their heads. The frustrated priest even suggests the boy would be better off dead, but reacting to Antonio’s mother’s tears, modulates his careless remark into a hope that “God…in his infinite wisdom…will find ways to mitigate your son’s satanic beauty without reducing him to dust and ashes!” Like many other youth during Mussolini’s rise, Antonio ardently supports Fascism. In order to angle for an elite position in the party and, presumably, to sow some wild oats, he moves from Catania to Rome. Rumors of his sexual conquests, including of a high-ranking official’s wife, drift to Sicily. A few years of this libertinism, though, seem sufficient to his parents, and they recall Antonio home to marry the young bride they’ve picked out for him. The strikingly beautiful but naïve Barbara Puglisi, daughter of the city’s esteemed, conservative notary, hails from a family so proud of its normalcy - counting but three black sheep in the past century - that it watches zealously for any sign of deviance. Though not fully on board with the arranged marriage, Antonio spies Barbara in the street one day and is immediately smitten. The marriage ceremony is a joyous one. The young couple moves into the Puglisi palazzo. Three ostensibly happy years pass. One day, an explosive truth suddenly emerges: Barbara is still a virgin. Having learned at last that it takes more than mere “fraternal embraces in the night” to consummate a marriage and produce an heir, Barbara feels cheated. Her scandalized parents demand an annulment. News of Antonio’s impotence is “heard all over Catania like an eruption of Mount Etna.”

The situation – a devastatingly handsome youth, two families full of expectations, and a revelation that upsets everything – supplies plenty of comedic potential, which Brancati exploits in spades. Beautiful Antonio features snappy dialogue, humorous character sketches, and deftly spun one-liners (such as a description of Hitler as having a “moustache like that of a hyena whose trainer has been trying in vain to teach it to laugh”). But Brancati goes well beyond this considerable comedy to demonstrate a fundamental compassion, conveyed through splendidly drawn characters, and to use Antonio’s sexual inadequacy metaphorically to target Italy’s disastrous experiment with Fascism. The novel evolves from light-hearted bedroom comedy, widens out to grander notions of love and relation, and reaches an apogee in portraying Italy’s potential as a sort of agape betrayed by the narrow and rigid funneling of the nation’s energies, sexual and otherwise, into blind devotion to Mussolini. Fascism appears as a compensatory politics arising from a lack of agency (or potency) rooted in an Italian gallisimo that places a social premium on male virility and public boasting of sexual exploits, and that leads to a gender dynamic in which many men fail to link the women they view as sexual objects in any way to their own “mothers and sisters.” Regarding these last, a character in one scene tries to interrupt the salacious boasting of a group of men by vainly asking, “But aren’t they women too?”

The degree to which such virility is given vital importance is best demonstrated by the most dramatic of Brancati’s terrific characters, Antonio’s father Alfio, proud of his own sexual conquests and of those he imagines for his son.  Alternating wildly between an obsequious desire to maintain a good reputation in Catania and a volatile anger and mistrust of those around him, Alfio prioritizes virility over his love for his son. Hearing of a problem in his Antonio's marriage, he axiomatically assumes it to be sexual insatiability, and is nearly driven mad by discovering that it's the opposite, seeing such inadequacy as a fate worse than death. In one of the novel’s more outlandish scenes, Alfio’s distraught shame over his son’s incapacity results in a demand that the Puglisi father accompany him and Antonio to a brothel to watch the son prove his ability to perform.

The bedroom comedy aspect of the novel turns to more serious subjects when an uncle, Ermenegildo, is invited to speak with Antonio and divine the truth behind the boy’s problem. Ermenegildo serves as a moral and philosophical lodestone in the novel, albeit a profoundly cynical one. Jaded by what he’s seen in the Spanish Civil War, with “both sides…quite ready and willing to butcher, burn and make mincemeat of Jesus Christ in person,” he has lost faith in humanity, viewing with knowing contempt the “black supervisor’s uniforms in which…so many bourgeois nonentities had been hiding for years.” When asked to which party he belongs, he replies: “I belong to the party of the worms who will shortly be eating the meat off of my bones; or, if you prefer, it’s my fleshless skull that thinks that way, and I’m certain it will stay intact until a time when Fascism and anti-Fascism no longer mean anything to anyone.” His cynicism extends even to sex: “…is it possible that I have to go on and on, mindlessly filling holes in flesh with other flesh? And, for crying out loud, it’s always the same thing!” His eyes opened to the horrors of dictatorship, he longs for a death that will deliver him from the scourge of his fellow human beings, speculating that even Jesus Christ himself may one day seem nothing more than a “barbaric moralist.” But his compassion for Antonio is genuine and generous, as he gains from the boy “what his nephew had shortly received from him: the powerful distraction of an anguish other than his own.”

Antonio’s crushing frustration is depicted with great sensitivity in a lengthy, tortured and moving monologue in which he gushes out everything to his uncle, including recounting a first failed attempt with Barbara:

My blood boiled and my head seethed with intense excitement, but this, at a certain point, leaked out through the pores of my skin and was lost in the air, leaving me with the sort of dispersed, ineffectual pleasure that children have in dreams, shortly before they lose their innocence.

His impotence has conferred upon him a kind of annihilation that evokes the rigidity and vitiated nature of Fascism. “There’s a dead man in the midst of your life, a corpse so placed that wherever you move you’re bound to brush up against it, against its cold, fetid skin.”

One of the few other persons to whom Antonio turns to relieve his anguish is his cousin Edoardo, another of Brancati’s memorable creations. Self-absorbed, shifting with any political wind, and anxious to exploit Antonio’s Fascist connections in order to become mayor of Catania, Edoardo nonetheless fervently admires the great historian Benedetto Croce, scribbling in the margins of Croce’s History of Europe things like “No!...The man’s mad!...No, no, and no again!” in case the book should fall into the hands of the Fascists. But Edoardo - displaying another kind of impotence - possesses neither political courage nor the capacity for true empathy, as demonstrated when the two cousins go out for a walk following the disclosure that has disrupted everything:

Lacking the courage to speak open-heartedly about the terrible thing that had happened to one of them, they spoke not at all. Any other subject would have aggravated the magnitude of the one they were avoiding. So that the immense events of that September, the order to black out the cities, Hitler’s bellowings filling the darkened streets from loudspeakers positioned in windows, the call-up of recruits, Munich – all failed to cohere into a single word on those two pairs of lips twisted with bitterness.

The beautiful Antonio represents a fantasy in the microcosm of Catania: the girls and women who feverishly dream about him, Antonio’s family members who exalt his virility, Barbara’s family who seek in the marriage increased social standing and a vigorous heir, and an entire community that sees Antonio as a paragon of the ideal Italian man. As with Italy’s experience of Mussolini - “that man [who] pocketed our youth” – the unmasking of a flaccid fantasy world also reveals its inherent violence, and the events at the end of the novel prove considerably darker - “The lights are out all over Europe” - than the book’s initial comic premise would suggest.  Brancati’s brilliant choice of metaphor for Italy’s destructive flirtation with Fascism – one that aims right at the libido - makes Beautiful Antonio an unusual, biting, and especially trenchant contribution to the genre of the Italian anti-Fascist novel. In combining such effervescent comedy with the gravity shown in so many of the genre’s other representatives, Beautiful Antonio is a rare thing indeed.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

To the Point of Bursting: Leopoldo Alas' La Regenta


Raphael: The Madonna of the Chair (source: Wikipedia)


Spanish Literature Month (Plus), hosted by Richard and Stu, is rapidly coming to a close, but having spent most of the month reading La Regenta, the massive 1886 realist novel by Leopoldo Alas (a.k.a. Clarin), I’d be remiss if I didn’t try to squeeze in a few comments on this extraordinarily rich book.

La Regenta’s first line - “The city was taking a nap” – hooked me. Alas follows this with an ingenious, almost cinematic device, as young canon-theologian Don Fermin de Pas mounts the church tower of the sleepy Asturian city of Vetusta and withdraws from his cassock a long object - given blatantly phallic suggestiveness enhanced already by the tower itself - that initially frightens one of the two boys hiding in the belfry. It’s merely a telescope, which Don Fermin trains onto the town below to spy upon its inhabitants. The scene serves as a fine example of Alas’ ability to compound humorous irony and sexual symbolism with both straightforward realist narrative and a more meta-fictional suggestion of the author’s role, his own intent to survey the goings-on of Vetusta. Over the next 700 pages, Alas picks apart this provincial city to reveal its upper class as semi-aware somnambulists, preoccupied with gossip and social machinations, pressed between civic and religious institutions, and largely at the mercy of an entrenched psychosexual dynamic that manifests itself in a Don Juan-style lecherousness or a paralytic state of wretched and crushing repression.

La Regenta may cover terrain similar to many 19th century realist novels – a broad scope married with a granular effort to capture the world as it is; a reflection of the day’s philosophical and political debates; a glimpse of encroaching mechanization and industrialization; a dissection of the interactions of people across social and economic strata; and a concern with the position of women – but its particulars mark Alas as an author of unusual psychological astuteness who digs deeply into the impact of the Catholic clergy on provincial life in Spain, offers a self-reflexive awareness of the enterprise of literature, and wields irony with an acidity that makes practitioners such as Flaubert and Eça de Queiroz seem almost timid. Hacking away at social and cultural institutions of Vetustan life, Alas excoriates small-mindedness and torpidity, referring to Vetusta (and this is but a small sample) as “a muck-heap,” “an inescapable eternal tedium,” “a quagmire of triviality,” “suicide by suffocation,” “the very worst town it was possible to imagine” and asserting that “no one ever thought in Vestusta, people merely vegetated.”

At the heart of La Regenta is the relationship between Don Fermin and Ana Ozores Quintanar, the “judge’s wife.” Like Fermin, the confessor in whom she quickly finds a sympathetic spirit, she is a member of the town’s gentry, a relative newcomer to Vetusta and a person with a past. But even at the novel’s beginning, Ana’s life holds out little promise for a future: “And now she was married…To imagine anything in excess of the five feet and various inches of the man by her side was a sin. It was all over – without ever having started.”

With concentrated intimacy, the narrative follows Ana and Fermin they navigate between their religious convictions and the pulsing insistence of their corporal selves, trying to escape the confines of Vetustan life as their penitent/confessor relationship edges towards something more prurient. Compounding the situation is the pursuit of Ana by the town’s Don Juan, Don Alvaro Mesia (whose refined seduction techniques are related so granularly as to comprise a “How to Pick Up Girls” manual), and by the rivalry of the two men as they jockey for Ana’s affections. Meanwhile, Ana’s husband, retired magistrate and former actor Don Victor Quintanar, supplies comic relief in his oafish obliviousness, hunting for game, bathetically re-enacting his greatest moments on the stage, and tinkering in his study with mechanical devices of his own invention (were this a contemporary novel, he’d be in his man-cave with power tools).

Further intimacy is supplied both by La Regenta’s compact temporal scope – much of the novel’s 350-page first volume unfolds over three days and the entire novel over three years – and by Alas’ concentrated focus on the psychology of his characters, keeping description to a minimum. Translator John Rutherford notes that Alas fails to give us a physical portrait even of Ana, other than repeated allusions to her resembling Rafael’s Madonna of the Chair (minus child). But when Alas does employ description, it’s almost invariably lyrical and edged with irony, for instance an observation of low clouds “like great bags of dirty clothes unravelling upon the hills in the distance,” or a description of “the moon standing over the horizon like a lantern on the battlefield of the clouds, which lay about the sky, torn to shreds.”

But the most arresting aspect of La Regenta is its intense focus on sexuality, which, as Rutherford points out in his introduction, would have generated a slew of critical works noting Alas’ debt to Freud, had not Alas preceded Freud. At every opportunity, Alas mines Vetustan society for the lifeblood pulsing beneath its listless exterior:

About the lady’s skirt, which was of black satin, there was nothing exceptional, so long as she remained motionless, What was really objectionable was something which looked like a doublet of scarlet silk- quite alarming, even. The doublet was stretched over some kind of breastplate (nothing less substantial could have stood the strain), which had the shape of a woman excessively endowed by nature with the tributes of her sex. What arms! What a bust! And it all looked as if it were on the point of bursting!

Like the clothing of the wanton Dona Obdulia described above, La Regenta possesses a sexual energy strained “to the point of bursting.” Men swoon over glimpses of ladies’ ankles, knees brush against knees at table, hands fumble for other hands, innocent games are played by persons who are “the very opposite of innocent,” and nights are spent in torturous fevers of repression (small wonder the city naps). The principal thrust of Alas’ examination of the church’s influence is its role in sublimating sexuality into an ersatz spirituality and transforming human desire into tortured religious mystical experience. He does this with a remarkable subtlety and modernity, even including a humorous description of a priest masturbating (veiled such that one could miss it if one blinked), and a suggested lesbian relationship. Alas is merciless with the repressiveness and hypocrisy of the randy Vetustans inside and outside the church and with the role that the church plays in tamping down sexuality. The brief background he supplies regarding Ana’s youth reveals her as the victim of a cruel society ready to read salaciousness into the most innocent of childhood relations between members of the opposite sex. Don Fermin likewise tries to stifle the stirrings of his body and bury them in high-minded religious rhetoric, his desire funneled into a pursuit of power. 

Alas’ caustic assessment of Vetusta, though, is but one pole of a substantive, if often scathingly funny, dialectic he uses to explore the many facets of this carnal/spiritual divide and of the role of religion in furthering it. Some of his barbs hurled at institutionalized religion are brutally sharp, both in rhetoric – referring to the religious as “millions of blind, indolent spirits” – and in description, as during a religious procession in which a hideous Christ sculpture is seen “lying on a bed of cambric…sweating drops of varnish [and looking] as if He had died of consumption.” But Alas also weaves into his portrait of religious oppression and sexual torpor a high level philosophical examination conveyed via debates among the characters as well as their genuine struggles of conscience and, occasionally, a more removed authorial intrusion. Referencing philosophical and theological works, Alas examines the role of religion in public and private life, delving even into the question of God’s existence. His cast of characters displays degrees of religious commitment, including a disgraced alcoholic priest and the town’s only atheist. The latter is employed amusingly in trying to leverage public opinion against Don Fermin, who represents the access of power against which Alas launches his sharpest attacks, underscoring a distinction between an edifying spirituality that serves the social welfare versus the institutional church that primarily serves the wealthy and its own ends, and which, from sheer inanition, even abandons any effort to convince peasants and miners of lofty notions such as redemption. I should note that the poor do exist in and around Vetusta, but they appear only on the periphery, just as they do to the novel’s self-absorbed bourgeois principals. Yet the few scenes in which they appear are memorable; in fact, it’s a servant who’s responsible for the unraveling of the delicate house of cards built by elite Vetustans trying to have their cake and make love to it too. Some of these injections of class awareness – such as when Ana accidentally gets swept up in an evening passeggiata in a popular quarter – suddenly intrude with the force of Daumier drawings, but with the natural energy and openness of the lower classes leveraged against the frivolous and tortured pursuits of the upper class.  

I’ve scarcely begun to touch on the many marvelous elements of La Regenta. Among these are individual portraits, delivered with an irony reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis, of clergymen, businesspeople, and even the incompetent town doctor (clearly inspired by Flaubert’s depiction of Charles Bovary). The realism of the novel occasionally spins energetically out into an almost Disney-esque magical realism, as when Ana’s delight in the countryside is accompanied by a choir of frogs and birds, trees happily waving their branches, and even a loathsome toad she fears can read her thoughts. Rutherford’s introduction devotes much of its attention to the unusual narrative style of La Regenta, which frequently pivots point of view even within a single sentence, employs quotation marks to set off interior thought, and makes frequent temporal shifts via flashback and recollection. La Regenta’s abundant and occasionally meta-fictional references to literature, with Alas exploring literature even as he’s writing it, make for one of the novel’s most engaging elements. In addition to characters who display a fondness for poetry, there’s a town poet who interjects lines that include words he himself doesn’t understand. The wealthy Vetustans spend their evenings at the theater much as they spend their Sundays at mass. Works by Spain’s great playwrights - Calderón de la Barca, José Zorilla y Moral, Tirso de Molina - figure prominently (those who participated in Spanish Literature Month’s offshoot Tirso group read will almost certainly find much to appreciate in La Regenta). A performance of Zorilla’s play Don Juan Tenorio in Vetusta’s opera house provides one of the novel’s great set pieces (as well as one of the translator’s most entertaining footnotes regarding this completely nutty piece), with as much sexual subterfuge going on in the opera boxes as on the stage. Ana, a refined Emma Bovary, prefers novels “with everything depicted in a lifelike manner and as it really is,” though her intellectualism is repeatedly snuffed out by those around her, who view writing by women as  “an unpardonable sin,” give her the nickname “George Sand,” and leave her with few intellectual outlets other than “a communion across three centuries” with mystical martyr Saint Teresa of Avila. Alas sensitively portrays Ana’s entrapment, the chief option for elevation of her soul and for self-examination in this most Catholic of worlds being the compartmentalized and close institutions of the church, especially the confession box, a perfect symbol for the claustrophobia and frustrated intimacy that characterize Vetustan life.

Despite Vetusta’s suffocating influence, though, both Ana and Don Fermin achieve occasional heroic moments of edging up above Vetusta’s mire, only to be sucked into it again. Ana especially, between her ecstatic religious transports and sexual pining, has flashes of acute self-awareness delivered with a strikingly modern, almost existentialist spirit:

Suddenly an idea came into her head as if it were a bitter taste in her brain: ‘I am alone in the world.” And the world was lead-coloured, or dirty yellow, or black, according to the time and the day. The world was a remote, muffled, mournful murmur - senseless, monotonous children’s songs, and wheels clattering over cobble-stones, making windows rattle and then fading into the distance like the grumbling of rancorous waves. Life was a country dance performed by the sun revolving at speed around the earth, and this was what each day was: nothing else.

But these moments of awareness have nowhere to go in torpid Vetusta. Alas’ depiction, at once caustic and sensitive, of the crushing influence of religion and provincialism and of the way they can dehumanize delicate souls and enervate energetic bodies, seems, despite its 19th century provincial setting, far ahead of its time. Once almost consigned to obscurity, La Regenta belongs with the greatest of psychological novels. And thanks to Spanish Literature Month, it certainly counts among the best books I’ve read all year.