One thing I love about book blogs, and about amateur readers, is that they sometimes want to slap fictional characters, or strangle them. Often Jane Austen characters for some reason. Fanny Price in particular, which is especially funny, because readers want to slap her because she is inoffensive. “Why don’t you sass back at your mean aunt?” Smack! That’ll teach Fanny.*
Ruth Franklin and John Banville never say they want to slap characters when they review books. I wish they would. It always makes me laugh, this readerly frustration at characters who are not behaving as they should, which I fear typically means not behaving as sensibly as I would. As if the story would be better if it were about me and my well-considered, commonsensical actions.
The fun of To the Capital, which spends nearly three hundred pages in the company of an eminently stranglable nitwit, is that the young, idealistic, shallow, weak-willed, talentless dreamer of a protagonist makes the wrong decision almost every time he is offered a choice. He wants everything, and he wants it in a hurry: literary fame, with the accompanying praise and money and women; access to aristocratic salons, but also a leading role in radical politics, including the overthrow of the monarchy; and all of this without much in the way of work. Artur’s fantasy sequences, his reveries about his rise to fame, are among the novel’s comic highlights. I suspect that Eça’s bedrock critique is that Artur wants to be an artist without working to be an artist.
Artur arrives in Lisbon with some money, a lot of money, actually, which makes him a mark for sharpers:
Artur leaned back in satisfaction, pleased to be one of the clique… Then Meirinho remembered that he ought to ‘stand a round’ with a bottle of champagne, but he quickly added, slapping his leg, that he was joking, it was a humorous remark. Artur, however, insisted – he wanted to stand a round – and Meirinho at once asked for a bottle of Cliquot. It was a very cordial moment of warm sympathy. (125)
The novel would, of course, be much improved if Artur saw through that sponge Meirinho, husbanded his money and got a job as a copyist rather than hanging around with these journalists and writers.
Artur self-publishes his derivative poems to no acclaim (“his book seemed to pass over the city like a drop of water over rubber,” 201), commits a number of absurd social faux pas, including the low comedy of letting a fat woman at a party sit on his top hat, and squanders his remaining money on a Spanish prostitute, a romance that ends in the only way it could. So naïve, so stupid. Yet I never wanted to slap him; I never urged him to make the right choice. I was enjoying his suffering too much, enjoying Eça’s tour of Lisbon in the company of this all-too-recognizable fool.
I have been using the John Vetch translation of To the Capital.
* Slap. Strangle. Shake, strangle, and hug. Some of the violence is in the comments, not the body of the post.