Tuesday, March 20, 2012

It was a very cordial moment of warm sympathy - why I never wanted to slap the protagonist of this Eça de Queirós novel

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.

*  SlapStrangleShake, strangle, and hug.  Some of the violence is in the comments, not the body of the post.


  1. Your first and last paragraphs tonight are delightful, and the ones in between aren't too shabby either. Could I mail you a check--a small one, of course, so you wouldn't waste the money like Artur--to just keep churning out Eça posts? While I await your answer, I have to pass on an anecdote tangentially related to the wish to slap, strangle or shake a fictional character. During a Kristin Lavransdatter group read a few years ago, many of the participants were actively rooting for Kristin to hurry up and die from the plague because they were tired of the character's pious but repetitively soap opera-ish antics. I understood the sentiment, I really did, but perhaps because I'm more closely attuned to the boundaries between reality and fiction, I wanted to slap, strangle, or shake the author instead.

  2. Why thanks. At least one more Eça novel is on the horizon. New translation, etc. This one.

    I could have told that old joke about winning the lottery, blowing half the money on booze and women, and wasting the rest. To the Capital is a novel-length exploration of that joke.

    Yes, mangle the author. I am all for violence against deceased authors.

    The funniest thing about taking characters as "real" and then wanting to slap them is that it implies the repressed (I charitably assume) desire to slap real real people who behave in similarly frustrating ways.

  3. I think my long-standing desire to slap some sense into Romeo and Juliet is a very reasonable and compassionate one (she said, reasonably and compassionately). In the grand scheme of reading, engaging with characters as if they were real -- as if we are slipping into their skin, as if we could really know them -- is one valid way to go about it. One possible corollary of this method is of course that one thinks of other ways the story could end, other choices the characters could make.

    I will say that the longer I read, the less I do this (think of alternate endings or choices.) I become more of an observer, both of character and of technique and structure. But I still can't stand Romeo and Juliet. Bad manners, that's what it is, to kill yourself before you've even attended your lover's funeral.

    I hasten to mention have never felt the slightest desire to maul Shakespeare about. This is not to say that I have never had violent desires against any author.

  4. How relevant to this novel. Artur's great mistake is exactly that of Romeo and Juliet: haste.

    I am not convinced that slapping as such is a great creator of sense. But it may well delay a hasty suicide.

    The "as if they were real" part is what makes it the slapping so funny. If I knew a real Fanny Price, and witnessed her taking passive-aggressive verbal abuse from her horrible aunt, I do not think it would ever occur to me to want to slap Fanny or strangle Mrs. Norris. I hope the same is true of the Austen readers! The "as if" frees the reader to indulge their slappy side.

    The side of this that may make for bad, solipsistic reading is when the only relevant alternative choice is the one I would have made. You must run into this in the classroom - "Why did Juliet do that? I would never have done that."

  5. "it may well delay a hasty suicide" -- exactly! If ever you find yourself in those shoes (perish forfend), I suggest you attend the funeral, write your condolence notes, write the thank-you notes for the condolences you yourself receive, and *then* commit suicide. I have never wanted to slap Fanny Price, but isn't slapping what one traditionally does to hysterics? Or is that seltzer water, I can never remember.

    Now, what you say about bad reading is precisely on point. I read to find out what others do, not to determine that others should have done as I would do. I am less limited because I read, but I am still circumscripted by my own little life. (But bad manners! Ugh. Slap.)

  6. How I envy you, reading this novel! It's one of my favourite novels and I can never have the pleasure of reading it again for the first time, during train rides, laughing out loud amidst strangers, and feeling sorry for the protagonist's cluelessness.

    Artur reminded me a lot of Carlos da Maia, in that both are young, megalomaniac dreamers who won't lift a finger to do anything. The fact that Artur has literary pretensions makes it even funnier for book lovers, of course.

    And next you're going to write about The Relic? That's easily Eça's funniest novel. Can't wait for your thoughts on it.

  7. The slap phenomenon is right up your sympathy alley, is it not? A complete breakdown of sympathy, because the character is acting so incomprehensibly all we can resort to is violence. I prefer slapping authors, but it can happen to the best of us...

  8. The reader who is slipping into the skin of Mansfield Park, not to mention Fanny Price, would not be tempted to slap anybody, but would patiently suffer. Fanny Price, a hysteric! If anything she is all too even-tempered, and thus, for some reason, especially slappable. No one wants to slap sharp-tongued Elizabeth Bennet - she might slap back.

    I'm going to try out the new version of The Relic whenever someone from the post office is kind enough to bring it to me. Very much looking forward to it.

    The link between Artur and Carlos da Maia occurred to me several times. Artur lack Maia's intelligence and talent, but even worse, his grace (both are similarly lazy). It is easy to imagine a sequel to To the Capital where Artur returns to Lisbon, wiser in some ways, but not in others. It is easy to imagine him meeting Carlos at some awful party.

    1. I'm just slipping into the skin of Mansfield Park! :)

  9. No, sorry, I did imply that Fanny Price was a hysteric. I meant that Romeo and Juliet were. Slap them! Slap them both! Fanny Price needs, I don't know, amphetamines.

  10. Fanny prefers booze. My favorite line from Mansfield Park, chapter 46:

    "Never had Fanny more wanted a cordial."

  11. Jillian, I hope you are able to restrain your violent urges! Fanny has been slapped around enough.

    A crazy suggestion regarding Mansfield Park is to spend some time thinking about not just the ethics and decisions of the characters (who needs to be slapped), but about how the book is written, the artistic decisions of the author. Maybe some of that frustrating behavior is purposeful. Maybe the book is written in interesting ways.