• Monument with bust of Leopoldo Alas "Clarín"

    San Francisco Park

    Leopoldo Alas Clarín

    Gregorio Torres Nebrera

    Professor of Spanish Literature at the University of Extremadura

    Born in Zamora (1852-1901), though an "adopted son" of Oviedo, Leopoldo Alas unfortunately did not live past fifty years of age. Those fifty years, however, were particularly prolific in terms of splendid intellectual work, from his university chair, in the press, in narrative creativity, until producing, in the opinion of a qualified majority, the second best novel of our literary canon, La Regenta.

    After brief childhood stays in the lands of León and Galicia, the son of a conservative civil governor who became mayor of Oviedo, Don Genaro García Alas, ended up in the capital of the Principality of Asturias, where he pursued Baccalaureate studies (which he probably completed in La Alcarria due to his family moving there) and a Degree in Law. As a university student he

  • already began to show signs of interest in literary criticism through his hand-written reviews in the satirical newspaper Juan Ruiz. This was the year of "La Gloriosa" (Revolution of 1868) and an adolescent Leopoldo viewed political events with enthusiasm and anticipation. In 1871, right in the middle of the Republican period, he transferred his academic record to Madrid Central University to subsequently graduate in Literature and pursue a PhD. One of his teachers there was Francisco Giner de los Ríos, who supervised his PhD thesis "Law and Morality". Giner de los Ríos was a key figure in the Krausian movement with which Clarín identified so strongly (and through him, a commendable character [in Clarin's novel], namely "Frígilis"). The year of the Restoration was to see the first collaborations of the young Alas in the Madrid press, and in one of these headlines –El Solfeo– he was to first use the penname with which he has gone down in literary history, "Clarín". If the publication of his magnum opus La Regenta caused discomfort and scandal in Oviedo society, our writer had already begun to earn himself that disfavour some five years before, when he published the article "La verdad suficiente" [Sufficient Truth] in an Asturian magazine, the young intellectual's first scandal among his countrymen.

    Don Leopoldo Alas' academic career suffered its first (bitter)episode in 1878 when he was denied a Chair in "Political Economy" at the University of Salamanca, a position he more than deserved. His acknowledged Republican sympathies and

    the label of "freethinker" (he was in fact an active member of the Possibilist Party in Castelar) possibly influenced this decision. From 1880 on his signature often appeared in the humorous weekly, Madrid Cómico, at the foot of his well-known "Paliques" [Natterings], articles of some length in which Clarín used to address several issues usually linked to one another. In his "natterings", Alas gave vent to his satiric vein and flash of wit which counterbalanced much of the seriousness that would have been inconsistent with the spirit of the magazine they were published in. Clarín maintained this journalistic formula in the prestigious articles he wrote for Lunes del Imparcial, which he eventually brought together in 1894 in a single volume entitled Palique.

    He assiduously cultivated the genre of the literary/critical pamphlet, to the point of calling his first personal magazine Folletos literarios, created in 1886. Some of these were brought together in his first book Solos, published in 1881. The following year he was to obtain his –unjustly overdue– Chair, though in the Law Faculty at the University of Zaragoza. After spending an academic year in Aragon, he obtained a transfer to the University of Oviedo, while also starting to write his long and important list of short stories. However, the book that was to preferentially occupy his time during these years of peaceful stability in his beloved Oviedo was La Regenta, published in 1885 and accompanied by major controversy that upset the young

    professor and writer. The following year he resumed his cultural activities in the Ateneo in Madrid with a series of lectures on Alcalá Galiano and the Liberal triennium 1820-1823 (which he was to publish shortly thereafter) at the same time as having his first collection of stories printed. Entitled Pipá, the collection contained short stories written between 1879 and 1884, although some of these early stories had already been included both in Solos (1881) and in Sermón perdido [The Lost Sermon] (1885).

    With ups and downs in health and spirits, Alas continued his life as a professor, politician and writer in Oviedo in the final stretch of the 1880s.However, the setbacks caused by his own writings abounded. In 1888, the journalist Luis Bonafoux published a pamphlet in which he accused the novelist of "plagiarising" various authors of different standing (the French writers Zola and Flaubert and the fifth-rate Spanish writer Isidoro Fernández Flores). This accusation resulted in a literary controversy (which dug deep into personal issues) to which Clarín responded in his own defence in another of his usual pamphlets, the one called Mis plagios [My Plagiarisms] (1888), while taking up the Chair in Natural Law that he was to subsequently hold until his death and which was one of his favourite occupations.

    His friendship with –and even his weakness for– Galdós intensified over the years, on the subject of whom he drew up an interesting monograph published in the same year (1889) as the

  • Atrium of the University of Oviedo’s Historic Building, with the central seated statue of its founder, Fernando Valdés Salas

    View from the Ramón y Cajal Street entrance

  • novella Superchería [Trickery].His interest as a critic likewise encompassed the theatre; not only dramatic literature, but also various aspects of stage performance, including acting, to the point of devoting one of those "pamphlets" to actor Rafael Calvo and the Spanish theatre of the time. This highly interesting booklet was published in 1900, the year in which he had to defend several hostile fronts, such as that launched by Presbyter Don Angelón, who smeared the writer's reputation in numerous "sueltos" [short articles], and he brought an end to his collaborations in La España Moderna, antagonizing editor-inchief Lázaro Galdiano.

    In 1891 the Fernando Fe publishing house in Madrid published his second novel, Su hijo único [Their Only Child] (nine years later, the same publishing house was to publish the second and final volume of La Regenta), while subsequent attacks against his work continued. This proceeded with the singlevolume publication in 1892of three excellent novellas, Doña Berta, Cuervo and Superchería. He even had to fight a duel against Friar Candil, motivated by another bitter controversy. His social unease led him to seek spiritual peace in the Asturian countryside. One of his most famous stories, ¡Adios, Cordera! [Farewell, Lamb!], which Clarín published in an issue of El liberal in July 1892, may have been the fruit of those experiences. This short story was to lead immediately to the next collection, El Señor y lo demás son cuentos [The Lord and the Rest are Tales], published in 1893.

    Gargoyle on the current tower of the Cathedral

    Plaza de Alfonso II El Casto

    His interest in theatre, and opera, too, which can be glimpsed in his short stories, novels and pamphlets, eventually led our author to write for the stage, creating a short dramatic piece entitled Teresa in tribute to the actress María Guerrero, who played the lead role in the play that he managed to premiere in 1895.However, once again this new contribution was poorly received, although Clarín could not resist entering into dispute with those who had criticized the text. Our author spent half his life struggling, either with his digestive system or with "slanderers" who, from the outside, must have triggered the production of an insufferable amount of bile in his body. He

    debated on matters concerning literature, politics (a third of his extensive list of articles were political), society and even on the validity or not of Catalonian nationalism and of the Catalan language as opposed to the sound state of Spanish. He even dared –from the standpoint of his long-standing convictions as a Republican– to defend the anarchist Angiolillo, who had assassinated President Cánovas, which earned him serious legal problems as he was subsequently prosecuted by the Supreme Court. Politically-speaking, Clarín was decidedly in favour of ending petty despotism, of denouncing parliamentary duplicity, of cleaning up public life via truly exercised suffrage, of respect for civil rights and the radical separation of church and state. In social matters, he attacked accounts of miracle-workings and superstition of all kinds and was a resolute advocate of the independence of women, liberating them from the pernicious influences of confessors and worthless teachers. He was also sensitive to what was then called "the social question", in reference to the situation of an incipient proletariat and its relations with anarchism and socialism, supporting better education of the people as a way to improve their social position.

    The best of his collections of stories, Cuentos morales [Moral Tales] was published in 1896 amid controversy,excursions, heartburn and family duels. The following year Clarin's star continued to shine brightly in Madrid's cultural circles thanks to a

  • series of lectures on a matter in which Alas was an expert and with which he sympathized ("subject matter that is quite to my taste and about which I have read a great deal, and thought and felt very much"): religious theories in the new philosophy (the religious/spiritualist aspects of his "moral tales" are of major importance; the fact being that religious sentiment, though without any shadow of fanaticism, coupled with a marked spiritualist liberalism, intensified in the writer's last years).It may be said, however, that controversy and debate went hand-in-hand with Clarín, as, in the midst of those months of success, there occurred his unpleasant quarrel on the steps of the Ateneo with the Ultramontane thinker Navarro Ledesma, in which they even came to blows.

    During the last years of the 19th century and first months of the 20th century, Clarín worked on two new books, a collection of short stories, El gallo de Socrates [Socrates' Cockerel], and a selection of essays, Siglo pasado [The Last Century], as well as a new and definitive edition of La Regenta) at the same time as translating Zola's His Masterpiece. He still had the strength to deliver the eulogy in honour of Campoamor and to resist moving house to just outside Oviedo, a novelty that he was to enjoy only briefly, as the intestinal tuberculosis he had suffered for years led to his death in June 1901. Thus died one of the greatest vocational writers in Spanish literary history, who left quite a number of unfinished texts which, had he lived longer,

    would have eventually made up one of the most valuable literary bodies of work of the century, one in which Clarin was primus inter pares alongside Galdós, Valera, Pereda and Pardo Bazán, among others. "In the circle of his intimates at the University, in his conversations," wrote Adolfo Buylla, in a cameo of Clarín inserted in the University of Oviedo's Annals a few months after his funeral, "in those conversations in which, with his prodigious talent and perennial sincerity, he reviewed the major events and gave his opinion on the most difficult issues of the times in which we live, he always taught, never dogmatizing despite the acknowledged authority he possessed, but rather convincing, persuading with full knowledge of the issue in hand, with powerful reasoning and full-blown experience of the world and of men". His funeral, attended by a multitude, took place under heavy rain that marred nothing, as in the novel, when Don Santos Barinaga is buried. Oviedo's press at the time marked the moment as follows: "The gathering of people was truly impressive and, despite the torrential rain, the crowd arrived as one at San Roque". Among those attending the funeral were "many workers who had requested permission to leave the workshops and pay their respects".

    (Text originally published in Leopoldo Alas Clarín, La Regenta, ed. de Gregorio Torres Nebrera, Madrid / Barcelona, Ollero y Ramos / DeBolsillo, 2006, pp. 16-22.)

    Rear view of the City Hall clock tower

    Cimadevilla Street