Friday, March 16, 2012

This cost me fifteen francs. - Eça de Queirós in decadent Paris

Eça de Queirós often – always? – ends his novels with a coda, the ending after the ending.  In The City and the Mountains, someone needs to return to Paris.  The hero and fool of at the center of the novel has settled in the country, learned his lessons about living a useful life, and is now fixed in place, so Eça sends a different character, his narrator.  Come to think of it, given that the novel has a first-person narrator, who else could go?  The resulting chapter is a strange one.

The narrator discovers that Paris has gotten worse, that its pleasures have become bitter, that the city is not just decadent but corrupt.  In a foodie novel like this one, the food has to  be similarly ruined:

[A] fearful battle ensued between me and the flounder.  The wretch, which had clearly taken against me, would not allow me to detach from its spine so much as a tiny fragment of flesh,  It was as dry, burned, and impenetrable as shoe-leather, and my knife bent on it, impotent and tremulous.  I summoned the pallid waiter, who, equipped with a sturdier knife, and pressing down hard on the floor with the heels of his buckled shoes, finally managed to wrench from the stubborn creature two strips of flesh, as small and thin as toothpicks…  This cost me fifteen francs.  (264-5)

Later, the sauces all taste of hair oil.  Technically, I am bored by the conventional comparison with shoe leather, but am thrilled by the waiter and his shoes.  I imagine Buster Keaton in the role.  I included the last line, about the cost of the meal, to make sure that we all recognize the Paris of a century ago in the Paris of today, even if we have never had quite such bad luck with the food.  We have not, have we?  If you ate at Quick Burger or Flunch, that’s no one’s fault but your own.

The primary signs of the corruption of Paris are the usual, sex and money.  Virtually the first thing the narrator sees is “an enormous poster on which a naked woman, with bacchantic flowers in her hair, was disporting herself, holding in one hand a foaming bottle and brandishing in the other, as if to display it to the whole world, a brand-new type of corkscrew” (261).  The overwhelming irony is that the narrator quite openly visits the city for sexual adventures.  This time, though, the women, the buildings, the theater (“great streams of obscenities”), everything is spoiled.  The new-fangled bicycle craze makes the city uglier (“Old men with scarlet necks pedalled plumply by”).  Students openly jeer their professors just for kicks (this is a particularly odd episode).

Eça, and the narrator, lay it on awfully thick, much too thick for me to take the chapter too seriously as meaning much about Paris itself, or the city, or civilization, but instead as a comic twist:  the hero of the novel, in moving from urban decadence to rural idyll, has destroyed his friend’s pleasure in Paris.  The hero’s happiness has corrupted the narrator, spoiling him for sophistication.

Alternatively, the narrator is just a mouthpiece for Eça, the narrator’s rants are the author’s, and the last chapter of The City and the Mountains reveals a narrowing of Eça’s imaginative spirit near the end of his life.  I generously give the author credit for the former interpretation, but cannot dismiss the latter.


  1. A brand new type of corkscrew for "a foaming bottle"? Tati indeed. I am so going to read this.

  2. I like Eça's "bacchantic flowers in her hair" line, Tom, but shouldn't the title of your post really have been "a brand-new type of corkscrew"? Too Bukowskiesque for your readers after your Henry James series or what?!?

  3. Yeah, that poster is not so shabby, is it?

  4. Paris; fortun(e)ately not mov(e)able unfortun(e)ately not a feast.

  5. His codas are priceless, aren't they? I still get shivers whenever I think of Bazilio's final line; it left no doubts what a bastard he was.

    This novel was published posthumously and I believe Eça didn't have the chance to revise the text; I fear that's where its weaknesses come from it.

  6. Miguel, that's my theory about The Yellow Sofa, that it is unfinished not because its story is incomplete but because Eça had not completed all of the detail work.

    i suppose I ought to read that Hemingway book some time.