On Independence Day, Language Hat wrote:
Reading The Recognitions… involves encountering a whole lot of allusions, and one of them was to a Saint Olalla. Wanting to make sure I was pronouncing that right (/oˈlayə/, in Americanized form), I looked it up and discovered it was a by-form of Eulalia, which made sense. But then I noticed that the Galician form was Baia, which didn’t…
The Recognitions is a novel by William Gaddis, his first published one (1955). The Glosario da poesía medieval profana galego-portuguesa has this helpful entry:
Santa Vaia top. ‘prob. topónimo do norte portugués, derivado do lat. Sancta Eulalia, con resultados fonéticos variados (Santa Vaia, Santa Ovaia, Santalha…)
Going back to Gaddis’s novel, at first I thought that the “Saint Olalla” in The Recognitions was a reference to Robert Louis Stevenson’s long short story Olalla. A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions by Stephen Moore points out that the immediate reference is to St. Eulalia of Mérida:
…the Spanish form of Saint Eulalia of Mérida, one of the most celebrated virgin martyrs of Spain; she died ca. 304 at the age of thirteen…
However, my first thought was also to the point. Stevenson’s novella gets quoted at least twice in The Recognitions:
“What is mine […] quiet of the grave”: from Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “Olalla” (1885), concerning the deterioration of a Spanish Catholic family. At the end of the family line is a saintly girl named Olalla, who in the quoted passage (as well as in the quotation on p. 302 below) rejects the narrator’s marriage proposal in order to allow her ruined family to die out. The story is usually found in collections of Stevenson’s supernatural fiction (as is “Thrawn Janet,” which Gaddis alludes to elsewhere).
There’s the wonderfully creepy “Olalla”, for instance. It’s not a tale of the supernatural, but it should be: it certainly has the atmosphere of one. Its themes are surprisingly Poe-like – familial decline, hereditary madness, Gothic gloom – all familiar elements in, say, “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
I would add a more interesting theme – the mingling of the hereditary and the individual in the human psyche. In Olalla’s words:
The hands of the dead are in my bosom; they move me, they pluck me, they guide me; I am a puppet at their command…
Her family – her race as she calls it – has gradually declined in mental capacity, generation after generation:
…their minds fell on sleep, their passions awoke in gusts… beauty was still handed down, but no longer the guiding wit nor the human heart… the flesh covered the bones, but they were the bones and the flesh of brutes, and their mind was as the mind of flies.
As this descent cannot be stopped, although it can briefly reverse itself, Olalla resolves to become the last one in the family:
I stand, as it were, upon a little rising ground in this desperate descent, and see both before and behind, both what we have lost and to what we are condemned to go farther downward. And shall I—I that dwell apart in the house of the dead, my body, loathing its ways—shall I repeat the spell? …Shall I hand down this cursed vessel of humanity…?
Her definitive answer is no. She would be the last one in her blood line. But marrying an outsider, a foreigner would dramatically improve the chances of breeding out the hereditary malaise. Why wouldn’t Olalla think of that? Perhaps she has – that’s not the end of the story. In the final paragraphs, she reveals to the narrator a deeper motive for her renunciation. An incredible ending.