Thursday, March 15, 2012

Then come and admire the sheer beauty of simplicity, you barbarian! - Eça de Queirós in the countryside

I am looking back at the St. Orberose overview of the novels of Eça de Queirós, where he describes The City and the Mountains as “a simplistic demonization of urban life and glorification of the countryside.”  The second half of his phrase is true.  Wealthy and jaded Jacinto, surrounded by gadgets and luxury, is unable to find anything meaningful in his life in Paris, but in the Portuguese mountains gradually discovers how to live a useful, fulfilled life.

Whether Jacinto’s restlessness has anything to do with Paris or his salvation with the Portuguese countryside is the question, though.   I am not convinced.  He is a spiritual seeker, who succumbs to every passing intellectual fashion:  Nietzscheism, Ruskinism, Ibsenism (“a real plague!”):

“Then Tolstoyism took over, and neo-cenobitic renunciation was all the rage.  I can still remember a dinner were a great monster of a Slav appeared, hair all dirty and disheveled, and when he wasn’t casting lewd glances at the poor Countess d’Arche’s décolletage, he was wagging his finger and growling: ‘We seek the light deep down, in the very dust of the earth!’”  (100)

Jacinto finally succumbs to Schopenhauer and Pessimism, allowing him to blame Life for his ills, rather than himself, and obsessively reading Ecclesiastes while unknowingly reinforcing its message.  Perhaps all is not vanity, but this is:

At other times, I would find him early in the morning lying on the sofa in a silk dressing gown and imbibing Schopenhauer, while the pedicurist knelt before him on the carpet, respectfully and expertly buffing his toenails.  Beside him lay a Saxe porcelain tea cup, full of that Mocha coffee sent by the emirs of the desert and which he never found strong enough or sufficiently aromatic.  (113)

So the move to the mountains in the center of the novel is just a device to separate Jacinto from all of his shiny stuff and his thirty thousand volume library and allow him to embrace a new enthusiasm, authentic country living.  It is Jacinto who glorifies the countryside more than the novel’s author, who takes it up as a new ideology (see p. 173, the home of my title).  He overflows with schemes of improvement, like a pointlessly elaborate English dairy.  He wants to plant trees, but:

“An oak tree takes thirty years before it reaches its full beauty!  It’s so discouraging!  It’s fine for God, who can afford to wait”…

He folded his hands on his knees and muttered again:

“Everything takes such a long time.”  (192-3)

Jacinto has another eighty pages in which to learn that he, too, can afford to wait.  Perhaps it is not so surprising that, in the end, a woman is involved, one who emerges from the most fairy tale-like chapter in this fairy take-like novel.  As wisdom goes, it is all pretty commonsensical.

I see that I have not gotten to the first part of Miguel’s description.  I would like to modify it – “an ambiguous demonization of urban life.”  “Demonization” is exactly right, and I know just which part of the book he means, a sour pickle of a chapter.  I believe I will save it for tomorrow, which means To the Capital gets bumped to next week.  Even these minor Eça novels are plump and rich.


  1. Man, I've got to read me another Eça soon! Killer comedy stylist. Can't Jacinto enjoy the country living with his 30,000 volume library in tow, though? That's what I'd want to do if I ever had to live off the grid.

  2. Jacinto's library seems to fuel his ADD; the more -isms he consumes, the worse he gets. His impatient personality is actually interesting, but Eça's execution left me disappointed.

  3. The library does not quite make it to the countryside. Because of a series of Comic Mishaps, the characters arrive in Portugal with nothing but an old copy of The Journal of Commerce, "the nearest thing I have to clean white underwear" (147).

    The Comic Mishaps are a significant part of the different kind of execution Miguel mentions. The City and the Mountains is happily wacky.

  4. Another hero ruined by reading! (Though, come to think, it's usually heroines.) I should make me a list.

  5. Ruined by reading, yes. And I provide another example of the phenomenon in that thing I write last night about To the Capital. Eça de Queirós is writing in the mainstream of French novelistic thought, isn't he?