Monday, April 2, 2018

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“THE CITY AND THE MOUNTAINS” by Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (“A CIDADE E AS SERRAS” published posthumously 1901; first English language translation by Roy Campbell, published in 1955; second English language translation by Margaret Jull Costa 1998)

You may be wondering why, for the third time, I am dealing with the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900), comments upon whose novels Cousin Bazilio and The Relic have already appeared on this blog. The reason is quite simple. For years, six of Eca de Queiroz’s novels have sat unread on my bookshelves, so I have set myself the task of reading them all this year. And here come my comments on The City and the Mountains, which was first published in 1901, one year after Eca de Queiroz’s death. Unlike the two novels upon which I have already commented, The City and the Mountains represents a gentler sort of satire. Apart from the odd jab, there is not the insistent anti-clericalism that is found in the other two novels; and while society is often shown to be pretentious and hypocritical, the novel’s real basis is an ancient fable.
Put simply, The City and the Mountains is a version of the ancient tale (going back at least as far as imperial Rome) of the town mouse and the country mouse. City life is contrasted with country life, the city being the one which bewitched Eca de Queiroz and his generation of Portuguese intellectuals – Paris.
Some time in the 1880s, the first-person narrator Jose Fernandes (known throughout the novel as Ze) comes back to Paris after seven years spent in rural happiness on his Portuguese estate. In Paris he links up with his old friend Jacinto, a minor aristocrat to whom Ze frequently refers as “my Prince”. Although the two of them are only in their mid-forties, they frequently converse like old buffers, and spend a great deal of time drinking wine and puffing on cigarettes or cigars.
Reacting against his anti-liberal forebears, the wealthy Jancinto is clearly a believer in “progress” and nineteenth century Positivism. The narrator says Jacinto is “…quite ready to believe that the happiness and success of individuals, or even of nations, could be obtained through the development of mechanics and erudition.” (Chapter 1). Jacinto has  devised the formula “Absolute Knowledge multiplied by Absolute Power equals Absolute Happiness”. Jacinto is completely urbanised, hating raw nature (he gets uncomfortable even going for walks in the open air) and living in a large mansion on the Champs Elysees surrounded by thousands of books and every possible labour-saving device that has yet been invented – electric lights, dictaphones, typewriters, telephones, “theatrephones”, the telegraph, phonographs, automatic slicing machines for the chef, an elevator, a dumb waiter; indeed all the things that in the 1890s would have been regarded as cutting-edge technology.
Yet it is clear that Jacinto is becoming profoundly bored with his super-civilised life. He finds it hard to take pleasure in his rides through the Bois de Boulogne, recognising the superficiality of the flaneurs and upper classes who control “civilisation”. Also, in some low comedy episodes, we are shown that the latest technology doesn’t always function. A pipe bursts, splattering Jacinto’s mansion with hot water and ruining much of his library. This circumstance becomes the subject of a gossip column in Figaro. The electric lights go spluttering out at one crucial moment. The dumb waiter jams, stranding the chief dish of a society banquet midway between floors.
Of course the narrator isn’t impressed by this advanced technology even when it is working as it should. He dreams always of the simpler country life. While others are oohing and aahing over a “theatrephone” (apparently a telephone hooked up to a theatrical performance), Ze says “I seemed to be going down a lane with my cudgel over my shoulder. And then I thought I smelt, between the silk of the curtains, the fragrance of the pine-cones cracking on the farm house hearth: felt the warmth of the cattle-corrals brought by the breeze over the high fences: and heard the sound of the murmuring, lazy watercourses.”(Chapter 4).
Sick of being smothered by books and gadgets in Jacinto’s house, Ze moves out and briefly finds solace in a love affair, which leaves him drained and empty. He goes back to Jacinto, and finds the self-declared positivist suffering from sheer anomie [in the Webster’s dictionary sense of “personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals”].:
Nothing could be more sadly instructive than the sight of this supremely gifted man of the nineteenth century in the midst of all the instruments that strengthened his organs, sharpened his perceptions, and reinforced his senses, all these wires which disciplined the Universal Forces to his service, and the fifty thousand volumes filled with the knowledge of centuries – standing there defeated, with his hands in his pockets, and reflecting visibly in his facial expression and the flabby indecision of his yawns, the boredom and trouble he experienced in merely keeping alive.” (Chapter 5). Serving Jacinto’s needs is a black servant nicknamed Cricket, who often correctly diagnoses Jacinto as suffering from “surfeit”. Too damned much of everything kills all the joys of life.
To buck Jacinto up, Ze takes him to the (still uncompleted) basilica of Sacre Coeur in Montmartre where, surveying the panoramic view of the whole city, he gives Jacinto a scornful lecture on how cities confine and corrupt people. Jacinto seems (ruefully) to agree when the two of them are joined by one Maurice de Mayolle, a social dandy who lists all the intellectual fads he has been through “Wagnerian mythology… Nietszchism… Tolstoyism… Emersonism… Diabolism… Ruskinism.” He is now seeking ultimate truth in eastern mysticism. Disgusted by this, as any sane person would be, Ze and Jacinto beat a retreat back to the city for a slap-up meal.
But Jacinto’s anomie persists. He breaks with his (married) mistress Madame Oriel and attempts to divert and revivify himself with a European tour. It doesn’t work. He comes back more pessimistic than ever, spouting the dark, despairing philosophy of Schopenhauer and desperately quoting Ecclesiastes (“vanitas vanitatum” etc.). He still goes through the motions of polite (and limited) humanitarianism and hosting lavish society dinners, but his heart is no longer in it. Increasingly he harks back to fond images of rural Portugal where (in a semi-feudal society, please note) people seem to care sincerely for one another. His books no longer solace him. Says Ze:
Sometimes in search of a single book he would demolish a whole tower of doctrine. He leaped over problems. He trampled religions. Glancing at a line in one book, scratching at an index in another, he seemed to question all books, to find interest in none, rolling about as if completely adrift in the vast wave of books that washed around him, and whelmed in the despair of ever fuinding a single book that could interest him.” (Chapter 7).
Jacinto’s salvation begins when a letter tells him that a decaying chapel in Portugal, dedicated to his ancestors, is being restored and he must travel back to supervise it. So off he sets for Portugal with Ze. Jacinto still regards Portugal as uncivilised, undeveloped and not really part of Europe.  It’s a very grave thing to be leaving Europe”, he says (Chapter 8) as he farewells Paris. There is much humble farce as the journey is undertaken – missed railway connections and the loss of nearly all Jacinto’s luggage, including the hundreds of books he has packed. But this has the effect of stripping him of much of his “civilisation” and making him react more spontaneously to the things around him. When they lodge in their first Portuguese country home, Jacinto is appalled by its squalid state and primitve sleeping conditions. But he rapidly acquires a taste for wholesome peasant food and soon becomes enamoured of nature.
Let me no longer keep you in killing suspense. The countryside is the moral and physical salvation of this effete city-dweller. As Ze comments: “Amidst all that ideological verbiage one truth shone forth visibly – the reconciliation of my Prince to life. His resurrection was so certain after so many years lying in a soft grave, like a mummy wrapped round and round in the endless bandages of pessimism.” (Chapter 9).  Jacinto discovers there is real poverty among the tenants of his rundown family estate and, in the Tolstoyan manner, he becomes an “improver”, setting about doing good works and thus providing a real purpose in his life. But ironically, the country mouse Ze becomes bored with country life and decides to become a town mouse. Ze returns to Paris… except that he finds the city’s superficiality, vulgarity and obscenity are simply too much for him, and goes joyfully back to rural Portugal.
Gentle reader, I will not spell out in detail how this novel’s “happy ending” is contrived (marriage, children etc.) except to note that it is not as simple as it seems. Eca de Queiroz has correctly diagnosed the world-weariness that often infects the sybaritic city-dweller, but he is no Blut und Boden propagandist. Some critics (and blurb-writers) have interpreted The City and the Mountains as a simple tale of the joys of country life. But they ignore that careful irony of the same sort that prevents The Relic from becoming a simple anti-religious satire.
In the first place, the man who is telling the story (like the first-person narrator of The Relic) is deeply flawed and not always to be trusted in his judgments. At one point in the novel, he is revealed to be a fairly selfish sensualist who exploits women. Bored with Jacinto in Paris, Ze picks up a demi-mondaine and describes their relationship thus: “I loved that creature. I loved her with Love, with every kind of Love that is composed in the word Love, divine Love, human Love, bestial Love. I loved her as Saint Anthony loved the Virgin, as Romeo loved Juliet , and as the billy-goat loves the she-goat. She was stupid, she was unhappy. Deliciously I quenched my gaiety in the ashes of her sorrow: with ineffable delight I sunk my intellect into the density of her stupidness.” (Chapter 5). Easier to make use of a woman who is “stupid” and “sad”, and not surprising that the relationship doesn’t last.
In the second place – and this is the novel’s greatest irony – once Jacinto comes to love the countryside he immediately wants to “improve” it, especially after he has seen Ze’s well-maintained estate. And this of course means modernising it. In one of the novel’s punchlines, he even has a telephone installed in his country residence. For those with eyes to see, it is clear that Eca de Queiroz is implying the rural idyll will itself be taken over by modernity in due course, and is therefore something of an ephemeral daydream.
Interestingly, the sophisticated, cosmopolitan anti-clerical Eca de Queiroz holds back on his anti-church sentiments. Of course in Paris there is the spectacle of the upper classes reducing religious observance to a fashion statement. Madame Oriel, Jacinto’s sometime mistress, celebrates Lent in style by wearing an elaborate head-dress and gown. Ze describes “this supreme creation of the luxuries of Lent. It was truly marvellous. Over the velvet, in the shades of the curly feathers, in the priceless lace fixed with a gold pin, and made of the finest jet, nestled a perfect little crown of thorns!.... Madame Oriel, with a movement and a smile that seemed to spread more aroma and light about her, set off for the Madeleine.” (Chapter 3). Thus does the churchgoer mortify her flesh. Yet when it comes to the Portuguese peasants, the author might see their religion as retrograde, but he does not mock it. Indeed in this novel he spends more time ridiculing the various intellectual substitutes for religion pursued by the urban elite. None of them, of course, are designed to challenge their own privileged position.
Mind you, within the leisured classes there is a little flirting with what would later become known as “radical chic”. At a fashionable dinner party in Paris, there is an upper-crust anarchist who says he wishes a bishop or a general were at the party so that he could throw a bomb at them. Ze comments: “And while I considered him in shocked surprise, he, drinking huge gulps of Chateau-Yquem, declared that nowadays the only sensation left which was really a fine one, would be to annihilate Civilization. Neither science nor art, nor money, nor love could any longer give real and intensive pleasure to our satiated souls. All the pleasure to be got out of creating was already outworn. The only pleasure left was the divine pleasure of destruction.” (Chapter 4).
Ah me! This was less than two decades before the First World War gave the anarchist his dearest wish.

Very sad footnote: In Chapter 9 of The City and the Mountains, the narrator advises Jacinto on how to run his estate and what trees he should plant. He says “The tree that grows fastest is the Eucalyptus, the ridiculous and ugly Eucalyptus. In six years you could have the whole of Tormes hidden in Eucalyptus.” Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Portugal planted whole forests of the exotic Australian Eucalyptus, because the trees not only grew quickly but were an excellent cash crop in the making of paper and pulp. Also they burnt well and were used for kindling by generations of peasants. Alas, the Eucalyptus became a monster, being so easily combustible. In 2017, Portugal was swept by huge forest fires which wiped out about a third of the country’s foliage. Portuguese blamed the Eucalyptus and lamented its displacement of the indigenous oak. In the long run, Ze’s advice was bad advice.

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