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1921: Álvaro Retana

 

This week I'm thinking about Álvaro Retana's 1921 novella La señorita Perversidad, one of the hundred or so short novels or long short stories he published in stand-alone editions between 1913 and 1933 and which were classified as "novelas eróticas" in his day, but which later scholarship has considered foundational in Spanish modernist and gay literature.

You are probably unfamiliar with the name Álvaro Retana; his work has never been translated and has rarely even been written about in English. So it's worth taking a step back to place him in a context and era which has never gotten its proper attention outside of Hispanist circles.

Although a certain degree of sexual frankness has always been present in Spanish literature, from Cervantes' Novelas ejemplares to the very successful nineteenth-century fable Don Juan Tenorio, the turn of the twentieth century saw a movement (inspired in part by fin-de-siècle French precedent) given the pseudo-Greek name of "sicalipsis," possibly derived from an editor's malapropism for "sybaritic" but quickly adopted to describe a newly eroticized theater, magazines featuring erotic stories and nude photographs, and, starting in 1901 with Felipe Trigo's Las ingenuas, a boom in erotic novels. Although the "artes sicalípticos" would be under attack for decades from the highbrow snobs and self-appointed moral guardians present in every culture, it was not until the Franco years that the strong hand of censorship stamped them out entirely.

Álvaro Retana was the youngest of the popular sicaliptic novelists; after the 1911 death of Trigo, whose serious tone and medical background made his erotic fiction closer to Zola than to to Pierre Louÿs, the three major Spanish erotic novelists, publishing constantly from the early 1910s through the mid-1920s, were Antonio de Hoyos y Vinent, an openly gay aristocrat whose tales of decadence and deviance always ended in tragedy; Joaquín Belda, a hustling modern intent on sexual burlesque; and Retana, also gay, whose light, ironic, and intensely homoerotic fiction frequently ended happily for his characters, and whose figleaf of moralizing over their wickedness was neither meant to (nor did it) fool anyone.

It is quite difficult as a Chicagoan without access to Spanish libraries to get hold of the bulk of Retana's work; only fragments of it have been reprinted since it was originally published, and prices for first editions, when sold all, are correspondingly steep. (He was enviably long-lived, which means that under current Spanish law his work won't enter the public domain until 2040.) I paid three figures for La señorita Perversidad (tr. Miss Perversity), published in 1921 and never reprinted; it's not one of his more acclaimed or notable books, just the one I could afford when I went looking.

The story, characteristically for Retana, is slight: a medical student meets a young woman at a masquerade ball, is intoxicated by her charm and beauty; she repulses him, insisting she likes women rather than men; he presses his suit, fondling her stocking-clad legs and kissing her until he climaxes; she tells him about her first sexual experience with a girl, and finally invites him to her wealthy family's home for late-night tea and a surprise; he grows nervous thinking he'll be beat up by her brothers for touching her; but the surprise is that she's not a girl but a slender boy dressed as a girl for a lark. They end by vowing eternal friendship; but when the student goes home, he thinks about the girl and masturbates.

Of course none of the sexual elements of the story are recounted so plainly — Retana is too refined and careful a craftsman for that. Inference, delicate allusion, and ornate language are his tools, and although he isn't shy about describing sexual encounters, it is always as a stylish fantasist rather than as an anatomical realist. Also characteristically, he has his characters discuss his own earlier novels, adding a further level of frivolous metanarrative onto the already improbable events being described. It's impossible to take his work seriously as fiction, which seems to be exactly what he wanted: both under his own name and under the pseudonym Carlos Fortuny, he would go on to write histories of sicaliptic theater and literature, championing frivolity and style over substance.

Although this particular story may seem to end safely in heteronormativity — oh, whew, it's okay that Miss Perversity is attracted to girls, because she's a boy not a girl — Retana's strikingly modern conception of sexuality means that fluidity between the genders is not only possible but normal; a young man can be as beautiful and attractive as a girl to a (presumably) heterosexual man, and aesthetic self-description, not a medicalized determination of genitals, is what really matters in terms of identity and erotic appeal. Not that Miss Perversity is trans by any modern understanding; but she's also, given the fact that we spend the vast majority of the narrative with Ricarda rather than Ricardo, thoroughly readable via a trans lens.

Retana drew the cover of the book with typical androgyny: his delicate line drawings decorated many of his published works, and he was also active as a designer of theatrical costuming, as a popular songwriter, and as a collector of religious artifacts. During the Primo de Rivera dictatorship he was briefly jailed for obscenity, and under Franco he was sentenced to death for the crime of sacrilege; his sentence was only commuted at the intervention of Pope Pius XII. Like so many of his generation, he remained quietly in Spain, an internal exile, until his death in 1970.