Monday, March 19, 2012

His eyes were feasting greedily on the details. - another good Eça de Queirós novel

To the Capital, another posthumous Eça de Queirós novel, this one published in 1925, a quarter century after Eça’s death, that’s the book I want to write about.  It is a fine novel, comparable in style to Eça’s best books, although narrower in conception.  We always stay as close as possible to Artur, a young poet and dreamer, who has the good luck to escape the torpor of the Portuguese countryside for Lisbon, thrilling Lisbon, the capital of everything:  fame, literature, sex, politics, society, fashion, and everything else worth knowing about.  The fact that much of this is imitative of French society, fashion, etc. is part of Eça’s ongoing satire about Portuguese culture.

One piece of the satire is that To the Capital, like The Maias and Cousin Basilio, is partly a parody of a French novel, not of Flaubert this time but Balzac.  Artur arrives in Portugal with two manuscripts, his tickets to literary fame and its traditional perquisites (money, women), a book of poems (Enamels and Jewels, copying Gautier) and a play.  Lucien de Rubempré, the hero of Lost Illusions (1837-43) arrives in Paris from his French village with nothing but a book of his poems and part of a historical novel.  Artur, unlike Lucien, has some money, although it sure goes fast; Lucien has his enormous personal beauty which eventually leads Balzac in a direction the less Romantic Eça would never follow; please see A Harlot High and Low (1838-47) for the crazed details.

Artur agrees with me:

Lisbon! – he visualized the life that filled it, violent and grandiose, like the world of Balzac’s Comédie Humaine; it was from French novels that he reconstructed Lisbon society… he pictured himself sitting in the cafés, between the gilt mirrors, weighing up the buzz of literary discussions; at theatre entrances, he saw a multitude, crowding together, eager for art…  mingled with the mystery of the vast city, he imagined the existence of tormented personalities of romance or of the theatre – Rastignacs tortured by ambition, Vautrins fearlessly hunting lions… (53)

A couple more characters I had to look up because they are not from Balzac follow.  Rastignac and Vautrin actually appear in Lost Illusions, but Artur does not seem to have read it (he presumable knows them from Père Goriot), which makes for a fine joke, that he misses the one novel that could almost be about himself.

I am only going on about Balzac because it is amusing to see what Eça is doing.  Any reader who cares can just look up Rastignac and Artur’s first opera (Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, about Vasco da Gama!) and just get on with the story, or not with the story, exactly, but the scene, like the scene at the opera:

Intimidated by the murmur of voice rising in the auditorium, Artur did not stir.  His eyes were feasting greedily on the details.  And from the lofty position of the boxes, with their rich and shaded hues, from the chandelier with tits ornamental prisms projecting into shaded areas, its varnished contrasts of white and gold, the regal dignity of the tribunal, enclosing with a cherry-coloured velvet curtain between the herculean caryatids of the kings, the style of men’s coats, it all spread like evidence of the grandeur of the capital and the magnificence of the monarchy. (109-10)

And on and on and on like that, wonderfully thick.  Eça is suggesting, perhaps, that I must read his novel like Artur attacks Lisbon, with an appetite for the details.

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