Over-Indulging

Patrick Parrinder

Like his elder contemporary Henry James, Eça de Queirós belongs to the small and distinguished group of 19th-century novelists who wrote in exile. He was born in 1845 in a remote town of northern Portugal, but spent most of his working life in England and France. He liked to maintain that his novels were fundamentally French, and that he himself was French in everything but his fondness for ballad-singers and cod with onions. Certainly he was no Englishman, nor likely to become one, despite 14 years spent in the consular service in Bristol and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His sparkling Letters from England, contributed to a Brazilian newspaper, contain resounding denunciations of English chauvinism and of British Imperial policy in Egypt, Ireland and India. These were presumably ignored at the time by the English, just as they have ignored Portugal’s greatest novelist ever since.

Eça’s great awakening came as a result of the opening of the railway line from Paris. He and his fellow students at the University of Coimbra devoured the packing-cases of books that arrived by every train, becoming instant converts to the movements and ideas enthusing Europe in the heyday of liberalism. They read Michelet, Heine, Hugo and Darwin, joined in the cult of Garibaldi, and supported Polish and Irish independence. Eça soon embraced the doctrine of literary realism – another liberal battle-cry – and became its Portuguese spokesman. He announced that the artist’s function was to portray his society objectively, in the hope that knowledge of the truth would lead to reform; but he did not stay to see the fulfilment (or otherwise) of his hopes, choosing to follow a diplomatic career which led eventually to the coveted post of Consul-General in Paris.

It was probably just as well that respectable Tynesiders were unaware of having a realistic novelist in their midst. His early novels The Sin of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio were both sexually scandalous books which, had they been translated, must have fallen foul of the obscenity laws. (They would eventually appear in English eighty years later.) Cousin Bazilio, a classic realist novel of adultery, traces the course of a torrid affair with greater frankness, and much more compassion, than even its model Madame Bovary had done. Like so many late 19th-century novels of passion, it sets out to show the woman as a helpless victim. The novel is her tragedy; the seducer Bazilio gets off scot-free – his decision to walk out on an awkward situation and leave Lisbon for Paris is scarcely a penance. In the case of Father Amaro’s transgression, too, it is the woman who pays.

The latest titles in Carcanet’s admirable series of reprints are Eça’s first and last novels respectively.[*] Separated by a quarter of a century, they reveal his evolution from angry young liberal and realist to witty, urbane conservative nationalist. The change had long been coming. The Sin of Father Amaro is relentlessly anti-clerical, a devastating exposure of provincial hypocrisy and what we must now call pastoral sleaze. Already in Letters from England, however, Eça was inclined to idealise the British aristocracy and, above all, Disraeli, the charismatic outsider. (It is Gladstone’s, not Disraeli’s, Imperial policy that he attacks so savagely.) He sympathises with the feudal and chivalric pretensions of Disraeli and Walter Scott, though he also sees their absurdity. Out of this mixture came late novels such as The City and the Mountains and The Illustrious House of Ramires, with their inimitable mixture of comedy, lyricism, cavalierish high spirits and Portuguese melancholy.

Each novel is set in a different region of Portugal. With The Sin of Father Amaro we are in Leiria, an airless, stuffy cathedral city full of valetudinarians obsessed with both physical and spiritual maladies. Young Amaro comes to the town to fill a vacancy caused by the death of a priest known variously as the Boa-Constrictor, Friar Hercules (Hercules on account of his strength, and Friar because of his greed), and the Prize Glutton. Friar Hercules, we are told, has quite simply burst; it happened in the early hours of the morning after a fish supper. Gluttony and lechery are widespread among the local clergy, and Amaro, who even as a seminarist used to burn ‘like a red hot iron’ with the desire for a woman, is destined to join them. ‘When a pig is killed,’ says his mentor Canon Dias with ‘slobbering satisfaction’, ‘the best parts are for the holy priest.’ Amaro, an orphan who was driven into the priesthood like an ox to the stable, will soon get his turn at the trough.

Food and drink and their lip-smacking satisfactions are as essential to Eça’s novels as they are to Rabelais or Dickens. In Letters from England he cites Disraeli, ‘that master of fine living’, as saying that the ortolan’s breast is more delightful than a woman’s: Eça apparently felt the same way about grouse, which must have lightened his Newcastle exile. As a follower of French realism and naturalism, he lost no opportunity of accentuating both the more bestial aspects of over-hearty eating and its unfortunate consequences – indigestion, apoplexy and bad teeth. When Amaro arrives in Leiria, he goes to stay in Senhora Joanneira’s lodging-house, where he soon falls for Amelia, his landlady’s ripe daughter. The Senhora runs a salon at which Amaro and Amelia’s passion for each other grows to the accompaniment of endless conversations about tuberculosis, catarrh, colic and chest-pains, to which the two lovers have no choice but to listen. Amelia’s teeth are a picture of shining enamel, but dental equipment – or the lack of it – among the salon’s older habitués is described in sometimes revolting detail. When Amelia and Amaro are at last joined in a deep kiss (also described in considerable detail), he cannot wait to get his teeth against hers. What Leiria plainly needs is not another sex-starved priest but a decent doctor and dentist.

The series of deceptions which enable Amaro and Amelia to spend stolen afternoons together, and the coarsening of their love as romance gives way to appetite, guilt and recriminations, are skilfully and movingly told. Once Amelia becomes pregnant, it seems as if Amaro must inevitably be disgraced; but, luckily for him, he knows his master’s secret, having caught sight of the Canon in flagrante with Senhora Joanneira. As Amaro prepares to wriggle out of the mess that he has created, Eça exposes the ‘35 defects’ and the ‘seven half-defects’ which theologians attribute to the bad priest. It is a measure of how far his character has deteriorated. Nor is Amelia wholly guiltless. Not only has she turned away a much more eligible suitor, but she gets a special thrill from having a lover to whom she can go for confession, and whom she sees in the supremely sensual act of performing the mass. Such observations may bring Flaubertian cynicism to mind, but Eça’s characters, unlike Flaubert’s, taste the bitterness of genuine self-knowledge – though they soon forget the taste again.

In the agony of his eventual separation from Amelia, Amaro sets out to write her a poem in the lyrical form that he remembers from his student days, but all that he can manage is two stanzas: ‘It seemed as if his brain contained just these isolated drops of poetry and released them at the first pressure, nothing then remaining except the dry prose of his carnal temperament.’ Amaro is not redeemed by his ability to write two stanzas of verse, but neither is the sensibility that this suggests entirely annulled by the ‘dry prose of his carnal temperament’, despite the crushing Flaubertian phrase. He is a hateful yet human figure and we may even feel some sympathy for the Canon and the devout ladies of Leiria in their anxiety to cover up for him. The novel’s dénouement (the same is true of Cousin Bazilio) is brought about not by the self-destruction of one of the characters, but by the onset of illness. As we know from the English novels of the time, this could be either pestilential or providential, depending on the sort of ending the novelist wanted. It lacks the inevitability of naturalistic tragedy which, as in Madame Bovary or L’Assommoir, is precipitated by explicit or implicit suicide. But Eça would soon depart much further from a strictly realist aesthetic.

At the end of The Sin of Father Amaro, when the hero has learnt his lesson – ‘Now I only confess married women!’ he boasts to his obese mentor – news comes through of the defeat of the Paris Commune. It is perhaps the one breath of air that we get from outside Leiria in the novel. The news only deepens the complacency of the ‘decrepit world’ of provincial Portugal, which Eça surveys in a scathing final panorama. His immensely detailed, claustrophobic setting symbolises a place and a country which any self-respecting intellectual would be anxious to leave at the first opportunity. Eça’s later novels enact a spiritual return to the homeland, which now seems very different, though it remains poor, complacent and backward. In The Illustrious House of Ramires and The City and the Mountains, the erstwhile liberal puts his faith in the regeneration of a decadent aristocracy.

These two late novels have more than a tinge of romance, but they are as sophisticated and self-conscious as the fiction of other Fin-de-Siècle masters such as Huysmans and Wilde. The plot in each case is very straightforward – Eça had no taste for the mystifications so beloved of his English contemporaries – and the two novels are variants on the road-to-Damascus narrative. Gonçalo Ramires, a weak and ineffectual aristocrat and second-rate novelist, discovers his manhood when he beats up the village bully who is, literally, barring his road; Jacinto, the ‘Prince of Good Fortune’ in The City and the Mountains, has a similar experience after losing his valet and his 23 trunks of hand luggage while changing trains in the middle of the night at Medina del Campo, the Spanish Crewe. Returning from Paris to his neglected Portuguese estates, he and his companion Zé Fernandes eventually reach the ancestral manor-house on a mare and an ass, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. It becomes increasingly evident that Jacinto, the quintessential Parisian decadent, will never go back to his once-adored city.

‘The most genuine and ancient nobleman in Portugal’, Gonçalo Ramires fritters his time away eating and drinking with friends while trying to write a historical novel, The Tower of Don Ramires, about his more heroic forebears. He suffers from continual writer’s block, a form of literary indigestion caused by reading too much Walter Scott. The only way he can get his novel done is to crib it all from a (fortunately forgotten) blank-verse epic written by his uncle; but this will not prevent his masterpiece, once completed, from being compared to Flaubert’s Salammbô.

Gonçalo meets the local bully when he happens to be out riding armed with a hippopotamus-hide whip which belonged to one of his ancestors. There follows a ridiculous parody of knight-errantry, and Gonçalo’s transmogrification reminds us of the story of another of his legendary ancestors, a dead horseman who arose miraculously from the grave, dug up his dead horse, and galloped off on it to defeat the Moors. Behind the figure of Gonçalo is some such absurd fantasy, conscious of its absurdity, of a revived and revitalised Portugal. Eça’s narrative cuts between Gonçalo’s daily life and petty humiliations and the text of his increasingly bloodthirsty novel. In the end, Gonçalo’s friends suggest, his charm is his saving grace – and we are just about convinced. But it would be hard to improve on the wit and charm of The Illustrious House of Ramires, a novel which bubbles away as merrily as the champagne its characters so copiously drink.

The City and the Mountains, published posthumously in 1901, doesn’t quite rise to these heights. We begin with the same rumblings of Portuguese indigestion that we found in The Sin of Father Amaro. Jacinto, the absentee landowner, grows up in the luxurious family home at No 202 Champs-Elysées, where his grandfather, known as ‘The Galleon’, has died after eating a pickled lamprey sent from home. The young Jacinto embraces the gospel of Progress, becoming known throughout the Latin Quarter for his ‘metaphysical equation’ which states that Absolute Knowledge times Absolute Power equals Absolute Happiness. He turns No 202 into a temple of civilisation’s highest refinements, hoping they will bring Absolute Happiness, but all that they bring him is surfeit.

Seen through the eyes of Zé Fernandes (a fellow nobleman, but also Jacinto’s Sancho Panza), life at No 202 is a cross between the ultimate self-indulgence of Des Esseintes, and something out of Jules Verne. The mood, as befits an epic – or rather mock-epic – of progress, is consistently hyperbolic. Returning from Portugal after a seven-year sojourn abroad, Zé Fernandes finds No 202 cluttered with the latest inventions – telephones, gramophones, teleprinters, ‘lecture-phones’, electric fountain-pens and electric lighting. An elevator has been installed for the seven-second journey from the ground to the first floor, and Jacinto has furnished it with a divan, bearskin rug, books and cigars. His daily buttonole, a synthetic composition made up by his florist from the petals of carnations, azaleas, orchids and tulips, would satisfy the most exacting aesthete. Like Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus, No 202 is, among other things, an intellectual power-house with a library of 60,000 volumes. It offers its simple pleasures, too. When the electric plate-elevator gets stuck on its way up from the kitchen during the grandest of Jacinto’s dinner-parties, the guests retrieve an embarrassing situation by constructing a rod and line, gathering round the lift-shaft and trying to hook the chef’s piéce de résistance, a magnificent fish. But none of this can alleviate the Prince of Good Fortune’s mental and moral torpor.

After running through a sequence of Fin-de-Siècle cults such as Nietzschianism, Tolstoyism, Emersonism, Ibsenism, Phallism and Ruskinism, Jacinto settles on Pessimism, which he finds mildly enjoyable at first. It is left to one of his guests at the great banquet to voice the fin du globe thought that ‘the only sensation left which was really a fine one, would be to annihilate Civilisation.’ Shortly after this, when even Pessimism has begun to pall, Jacinto at last decides to act to change his situation, preparing his exodus from Paris with military precision. We know he will find happiness on his estate at Tormes once he and Zé Fernandes sit down for the first meal prepared by their faithful peasants: a rustic feast of gizzard soup, broad beans, spit-roast chicken and a salad dressed with ‘oil of the mountain olives worthy of the palate of Plato’, washed down with the local wine ‘out of raised pitchers, and possessing more soul, and penetrating the soul more deeply, than many a poem or sacred book’. (There is no indigestion on this occasion, of course.) This scene with the country wine substituting for the ‘sacred book’ of the Decadents is consciously Virgilian – Jacinto is the Fortunate Jacinthe of Virgil’s Eclogues – but soon afterwards the novel begins to dissolve into imbecility. Within an hour of Jacinto’s arrival at Tormes, which he has never previously visited, the fierce dogs (like the local peasantry) have become docile, ‘instinctively scenting their master’. In return, he promises to build the peasants new cottages, but more significant for the narrator and the reader is the fact that this once-surfeited epicure now spends his leisure hours chuckling delightedly over Don Quixote.

If Jacinto ends up cultivating his estate, Gonçalo Ramires – whose reading is up-to-date enough to include King Solomon’s Mines – becomes an empire-builder and plants an estate in Africa. As always in Eça’s later novels, we get both sides of the picture: Gonçalo’s sceptical friend Gouveia observes in almost Conradian tones that the talk of glory in Africa is a lot of lies, since ‘all they had to do was disembark there on the sand, plant a few wooden crosses and aim a few blows at the Negroes.’ But this does little to dent the image of Gonçalo’s restored vitality. A generation ago, Eça’s admirer V.S. Pritchett saw his later fiction with its dream of aristocracy as preparing the way for Proust. Today, considering its elements of comic realism, romance, satire and magical whimsy, we are bound to think of the 20th-century Latin American novelists. Eça de Queirós is so evidently their forerunner that if at last he were to be saved from ill-deserved neglect, and to get some small share of their enormous popularity in the English-speaking world, it would be no more than just.

[*] The other titles, all in translations first published in the Fifties and Sixties, are as follows: Cousin Bazilio, translated by Roy Campbell (1992). The Maias, translated by Patricia McGowan and Anne Stevens (1993). The Yellow Sofa, translated by John Vetch (1993). The Illustrious House of Ramires, translated by Anne Stevens (1992). The price in each case is £14.95.