Monday, March 10, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“THE THREE-CORNERED HAT, and other stories” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcon (El Sombrero des tres picos and the others first published in Spanish 1870s-1880s; many English translations; Michael Alpert’s Penguin Classics translation 1975)
There are some stories which are known principally as names, or because somebody has adapted them into another medium. I first heard of The Three-Cornered Hat (El Sombrero des tres picos) the same way most people do – because I had listened to, and greatly enjoyed, Manuel de Falla’s ballet suite inspired by the story. For a while, its lively music vied in popularity in my household with Milhaud’s even bouncier Le boeuf sur le toit. Finally, on a visit to a second-hand bookstore, I bought a battered copy of Michael Alpert’s Penguin Classics translation of the story itself, printed together with other stories by Pedro Antonio de Alarcon (1833-91).
Coming in at a mere 80 Penguin Classics pages, The Three-Cornered Hat (published in 1874 when the author was forty) is Alarcon’s expansion of a popular Andalusian folk tale, which was generally known as “The Corrigedor and the Miller’s Wife”.
In Andalusia, sometime before the Napoleonic Wars, the miller Lucas Fernandez, ugly but ingenious, lives with his beautiful, resourceful and virtuous wife Frasquita. The lustful Corrigedor (provincial governor) Don Eugenio wants to seduce Frasquita and gets his henchmen to lure Lucas away from the mill so that he can have his way. But, falling into the mill-race and getting a soaking, Don Eugenio has to recuperate by stripping off his clothes and lying in the miller’s bed.
Returning home, Lucas thinks the worst has happened, so he steals the Corrigedor’s clothes and sets off in his turn to get his revenge by sleeping with the Corrigedor’s wife Mercedes.
All turns out happily, however, for both women preserve their virtue and Mercedes and Frasquita expose the Corrigedor’s hypocrisy when he attempts to prosecute Lucas for impersonating him.
The action of the story, and the author’s style, add up to playful farce. It plays out as if on a popular stage, which may be one reason why many composers (as well as de Falla) have composed music for stage or ballet adaptations. Of course, in the person of the lustful and inept Corrigedor, the absolutist regime of the old Bourbons is ridiculed a little. But the satire is affectionate and in his brief epilogue, Alarcon says that when Napoleon invaded Spain, not too many years after the story is set, the Corrigedor, to his credit, died rather than collaborating.
Among other things, this alludes to the awkward fact that on the whole, the people of Spain rallied to the defence of their conservative regime, even if Napoleon’s armies were promising greater freedom and something nearer resembling democracy. (It’s the old truth that people always prefer their own government to one imposed from outside.)
In short, this cheerful and silly tale seems to be the sort of satire that a man in his forties would write when he has become reconciled to many of the conservative things which he attacked vigorously in his youth (as Alarcon did).
As I read The Three-Cornered Hat, I couldn’t help thinking of other works that adopt
one of the main satirical techniques of Alarcon’s story. The Corrigedor’s clothes and immense tricorne (three-cornered hat) become a symbol of bumbling ancien regime officialdom. This is reminiscent of a drawing, which William Makepeace Thackeray did in his Paris Sketchbook, to ridicule the absolutist monarchy of old France. One is headed “Rex”, and shows a really imposing suit of royal clothes. The other is headed “Ludovicus”, and shows a weedy and nondescript little man. But put the two together and you have “Ludovicus Rex” – a portrait of Louis XIV. The implication is, of course, that (like Alarcon’s Corrigedor) the absolutist king is a mere nobody who is revered and honoured only because of all the pomp surrounding him and the clothes he wears. I noted some years back that the French film La Nuit de Varennes (1982) pulled off the same stunt. Set in the French Revolution, it has a scene in which a woman gets nostalgic for the days when she curtseyed before the king at Versailles. A suit of royal clothes is produced, and she gets just as much satisfaction curtseying before the empty suit.
Democracy was not exactly secure, and the monarchy is Spain still had great power, at the time Alarcon was writing. Even so, the fact that Alarcon was satirising the manners of “olden times” also put me in mind of Mark Twain writing about slavery and old Southern manners in Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson (look up comments on the latter via the index) long after the slavery and the old customs had gone with the wind.
Above all, though, The Three-Cornered Hat is a tale in which the common people (the miller and his wife) are more resourceful and ingenious than the aristocrat (the Corrigedor) – and the government official is ruled by his more intelligent wife. We are in the realm of Beaumarchais’ Figaro, Susanna and the Countess at odds with the Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
The view of the outmoded past is more gently amused than angry.
Captain Poison (El Capitan Veneno), the other substantial story in the Michael Alpert translation, weighs in at just over 60 pages and was first published in 1881. Though less well known, it is a more satisfying piece of fiction than The Three-Cornered Hat. I read it as a kind of cross between The Man Who Came to Dinner and the Beatrice and Benedick scenes of Much Ado About Nothing.
In the 1848 uprising in Madrid, a monarchist captain is wounded in the street-fighting with republicans. He is dragged to safety by a mother and daughter, who are impoverished aristocrats. He recuperates in their cramped city apartment. He is forty years old and nicknamed “Captain Poison” for his acerbic wit and quarrelsomeness. He is determined not to like his rescuers, especially the daughter who cares for him. But over the weeks, as they snap at each other (and she usually gets the better of him), he clearly falls in love with her. Oh Beatrice! Oh Benedick!
When the mother dies, he marries the daughter and – though he said he’d never have children – they raise a family.
In many respects, this is a more genuinely satirical story than The Three-Cornered Hat, because it is set in Alarcon’s own times. The mother in the story is the widow of a Carlist “general” from the Carlist Wars of the 1830s, and much of the story’s humour hinges on her pretensions to noble rank. She has been living by selling off family heirlooms while pretending to have great family wealth. She dies when her application to have her noble rank officially recognised is turned down. Snobbery really can kill. “Captain Poison” pays for her funeral, but attempts to disguise his own generosity from the daughter. While ridiculing snobbery, shabby gentility and rather pointless pretensions to rank, Alarcon is also dramatizing the truism that some of the most altruistic people in the world would prefer not to advertise their own goodness of heart. It is the exact opposite of the “Lady Bountiful” syndrome.
I should note that the Penguin Classics collection contains three other much shorter stories by Alarcon, more in the nature of anecdotes. In The Receipt Book, a peasant outwits a thief. In The Three-Key Cornet, a p.o.w. escapes death by learning to play music fast. In The Foreigner, a Spanish guerrilla murders a Polish prisoner who has been fighting for Napoleon. Fate later puts the guerrilla in the hands of the Poles.
They are brisk savage (or amusing) stories. A de Maupassant (or a Frank O’Connor) would not have been ashamed to write them. But it is The Three-Cornered Hat and Captain Poison that rightly dominate the volume.

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