A phrase in V.S. Pritchett’s “Kipling’s Short Stories” is useful in describing my pre-critical reaction to writers whose work I admire and enjoy even before I’m able to articulate why. Kipling, he says, “had the gaiety of the word in his veins.” We recognize this quality immediately – Kipling surely has it, as does Pritchett in the best of his stories and essays. The prose is sprightly, not leadenly literal. It doesn’t parade a sense of whimsy, self-importance or uncertainty. The fat in the words and thought have been jettisoned. The cord connecting language and life strangles neither.
Remarkably, this unmediated sense of pleasure can survive even the wringing-out process of translation. I see it everywhere in the novels of José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845-1900), whose work was judged superior to Flaubert’s by Zola. I’m reading the latest to be translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, The City and the Mountains, in which a quality identified by Pritchett in his essay on Eça de Queirós, “A Portuguese Diplomat,” is everywhere evident:
“Under the irony and the grace, there are precision and sudden outbursts of ecstasy and of flamboyant pride in a prose that coils along and then suddenly vibrates furiously when emotion breaks through, or breaks into unashamed burlesque.”
The City and the Mountains (1895) is gentle, nuanced satire – not what one expects of a novelist usually pigeonholed as a Naturalist (Pritchett notes Eça de Queirós’ mixture of “poetry, sharp realism and wit”) – narrated by, Ze Fernandes, the main character’s best friend. Jacinto, a Portuguese born in Paris, is wealthy and idealistic – a seeker after truth. The narrator loves his friend but is amused by his naiveté and zeal for self-improvement and doing good. The late-19th-century world Eça de Queirós chronicles resembles our own in its infatuation with money, conspicuous consumption and technology. Here a sample from early in the novel of the affectionate fun Eça de Queirós has at Jacinto’s expense:
“…I escaped, breathless, into the Library [of Jacinto’s house in Paris]. What a storehouse of the products of Reason and the Imagination! There lay more than thirty thousand volumes, all doubtless essential to anyone wishing to be considered a cultivated human being. At the entrance I noticed, in gold on a green spine, the name of Adam Smith. This, then, was clearly the Economists’ section. I ventured further in and walked, wondering, past more than twenty-six feet of Political Economy. Then I spotted the Philosophers and their commentators, who filled a whole wall, from the pre-Socratics to the Neo-Pessimists. These shelves were piled high with over two thousand systems of thought, all contradicting each other. You could guess the doctrines from the binding: Hobbes, near the bottom, was heavy in black leather; Plato, up above, glowed in soft white calf.”
On it goes on for another three serpentine sentences until we arrive at the start of the next paragraph:
“Beyond, though, in pale morocco leather, glowed friendlier shelves devoted to the Poets. Like a respite for the spirit grown weary of all that positive knowledge, Jacinto had created a cosy corner, with a divan and a lemonwood tables as glossy as the finest enamel and covered with cigars, oriental cigarettes and eighteenth-century snuff-boxes.”
I’m reminded of the book dealer I interviewed in upstate New York who sold volumes by the yard to wealthy customers who wanted classy-looking shelves. Eça de Queirós reminds us that no species of human vanity is novel, and he does so with a writerly smile.
ADDENDUM: Dave Lull refers us to Books By the Foot.