Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This is true Civilization! - Eça de Queirós on information technology and molecular gastronomy

The City and the Mountains (1901) and To the Capital (1925) are a pair of posthumous Eça de Queirós novels that I was fortunate enough to read one after the other.  They set each other off nicely.  The titles tell part of the story:  To the Capital moves from the dismal countryside to the lively city; The City and the Mountains retreats from the decadent city to the healthful countryside.  That both books are by the same writer, written around the same time, might suggest that neither view of the city or mountains is meant to be definitive.

I could go on and on with a compare-and-contrast.  Wouldn’t that be fun?  Roughly, shortly: To the Capital is written in the thick, rich style of The Maias and Cousin Basilio, of Flaubert and Zola.  The City and the Mountains is lighter and sparser, more of a literary cartoon.  It reminds me of an entirely different sort of French artist:  René Clair or Jacques Tati.

The countrified narrator is visiting his friend Jacinto who, for the purposes of comedy, is the richest man in Paris.  Jacinto is a devotee of Progress, and a recognizable figure:

From the foot of [Jacinto’s] desk, soft, fat cable snaked over the carpet, scurrying into the shadows like startled cobras.  On a bench, and reflected in its varnished surface as if in the water of a well, stood a Writing Machine, and further off a vast Adding Machine, with rows of holes from which protruded stiff, metal numbers, patiently waiting.  (21)

Those cables lead not just to Jacinto’s telephone and telegraph, but to his Theaterphone (with enough headsets for twenty-four listeners) and a Conferencephone which connects directly to university lectures (“It’s frightfully convenient”).  The conveniences continue in the kitchen, as with “another prodigious tool, all silver and glass, for frenetically tossing salads, but the first time I tried it, all the vinegar spurted out, temporarily blinding my Prince, who retreated howling” (75).  Jacinto is also a devotee of molecular gastronomy:

All I could make of the next dish was that it contained chicken and truffles.  Afterwards, his gentlemen guests would be savoring a venison fillet marinated in sherry and served with walnut jelly.  And for dessert, iced oranges in ether.

“Why in ether, Jacinto?”

My friend hesitated and made a rippling gesture with his fingers as of an aroma being wafted away.

“It’s a new thing.  Apparently the ether develops and brings out the soul of the fruit.”

I bowed my head and murmured to myself:

“This is true Civilization!”  (28-9)

It is easy enough to guess that once the characters make it to the Portuguese mountains the food will be of an entirely different character, unpretentious, authentic, healthful, and so on.  My own experience with Portuguese food suggests that Eça is cheating, that to make a point about the ideological superiority of country cooking one should not stack the deck so badly, but serve his characters the downhome food of rural England, or rural Minnesota, something less obviously delicious than Portuguese country cooking.  Might as well tell me that the food is good in Sicily or Normandy.  That proves nothing!  But perhaps Eça had some other point.

Miguel launched his outstanding St. Orberose book blog with a survey of Eça’s novels.  He calls The City and the Mountains his “least favourite” for reasons that are clear enough.  I will try to defend the book a bit tomorrow.  Cartoons can be valuable works of art.  I would not claim that The City and the Mountains is as culturally significant as “What’s Opera, Doc,” but still.

Margaret Jull Costa translated The City and the Mountains.


  1. Two of the quotes I was going to use! I'll have to start writing.

  2. I picked up The City and the Mountains recently because it was just sitting there (really - just sitting there for the taking). Even given your and Miguel's suggestions that it doesn't live up to EdQ's best work, I'm now keen to read it if only for the Villa Arpel aspects like those you cite above. I'm also, for various unrelated reasons, very much looking forward to your forthcoming "cartoon" comments.

  3. Those quotes are still good. Barely used at all.

    The rippling fingers - that is good, good stuff.

    The techno-satire is excellent, and also includes a lot of marvelous nonsense about books, since Jacinto of course also has to have a gigantic au courant library. Everything culminates, as it so often does with Eça, in a party scene. At this one an expensive fish becomes stuck in a heated dumbwaiter.

    That kind of gag is one reason I think of Tati, but another reason I invoke light comedy or cartoons is that the characters are just not as "real" or plump or breathing or whatever the word is as they are in Cousin Basilio or The Maias. So one of the greatest pleasures of Eça's fiction is muted in this book.

    This novel is Le Million, not The Rules of the Game.

  4. Portuguese food is certainly not healthful, with all that greasy meat roasting slowly (hmmmm), but it's glorious! But perhaps Eça is being unfair: according to Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians, British artists fled to France because food was not only cheaper but better than the joyless, frugal dishes they ate at home. Also according to her, it was the importing of French cuisine that improved British food.

    What are your experiences with Portuguese food, Tom?

  5. I spent a week in the Algarve. We ate so well, so so well, at every meal. The seafood was spectacular, but the mountain cooking in Monchique was at least as good.

    Eça could have sent his over-refined characters to the stunning country food of the French countryside, to Normandy or Burgundy, just to mirror my own experiences, and made the exact same points. But I do not believe he could have sent them to rural Yorkshire. He would have had to modify his argument.