Thursday, 25 June 2015

Fradique Mendes Revisited

In October 1900, two months after Eça de Queiroz passed away in Paris, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes came out. One of his strangest books, given its unusual structure, it is compose of an Introduction where a narrator reminisces, in fact gushes about Fradique Mendes, a sort of icon and hero for his generation; and a series of letters. Eça published his first one in 1888 and continued to write them willy-nilly until his death. Eça began planning their publication in life, but the volume that came out in 1900 didn’t include all of them. It took decades, and interest, to put together his sprawling oeuvre, and the remaining letters came out in separate volumes collected with journalistic texts. Only in 2014 did a critical edition come out that bound everything together.

I’ve written about Fradique Mendes here and here. I shouldn’t need to write more except until quite recently I had never read the letters. When I wrote about the book in 2013, I ignored the fact I had read a truncated edition that sold the Introduction separately. It took me a while to realize there should be correspondence too. Fortunately a few days ago I stopped by the Lisbon Book Fair and bought the 1900 edition.

The letters change the Introduction; I hardly recognize the Fradique Mendes the narrator aggrandizes; the larger-than-life traveler bored with contemporaneity who collects experiences and sensations across the globe. Instead we have a rather sedentary: he writes from Paris and London, and his topics seldom comfortably come from gossip with friends and news he reads on the papers. What makes Fradique Mendes interesting is the intelligence Eça appends to his perspective. Fradique discusses everything that fascinated Eça (and some scholars insist in seeing him as the author’s alter ego, which I think is limited): politics, the press, religion, love, fashion, bourgeois arrivisme.

In the first letter, Fradique replies to the Viscount of A-T., who has asked him advice on London’s best tailor. After merely suggesting that he go to the one closest to his hotel if he “merely wants a man who’ll cover his nudity with economy and comfort,” he launches into the importance of social appearances: “If however you, my dear countryman, desire a tailor who’ll give you consideration and worth in your world; whom you can quote with pride at the Havanesa [a popular Lisbon café during Eça’s time], turning slowly to show the waist’s wavy and fine cut; who’ll enable you to mention the Lords you found there, picking with their cane tips cheviot wool for their hunting clothes; and who’ll serve, in old age, with rheumatism upon you, as a consoling remembrance of your youthful elegance – then with ardent insistence I recommend Cook (Thomas Cook), who is extremely fashionable, absolutely expensive, and ruins everything.”  

To heighten his verisimilitude, Eça also put Fradique corresponding with his friends: in the third letter he writes to the historian Oliveira Martins to discuss Gaston Maspero’s discovery of Ramses II’s tomb, leading him to compare the rulers of yore with those of Eça’s time. “In the past a simple man, a mere bundle of muscles on a bundle of bones, could rise and behave like a natural element. He needed only have the unlimited will – to extract from it unlimited power.” Not so with modern fellows like Bismarck. “A wretch like that is not above anything and depends on everything. Each impulse of his will collides against the opposition of an obstacle. His actions in the world is a perpetual hitting of the skull against well-defended thick doors. A whole sort of conventions, of traditions, of rights, of precepts, of interests, of principles, rises before his steps like sacred shrines at every moment. A newspaper article make him stop, hesitating. A legislator’s chicanery makes him pull back in a hurry the claw he was stretching out. Ten foolish bourgeois and ten hairy teachers, voting inside a room, raze to the ground the high scaffold of his plans. A few florins inside a bag become the torment of his nights.  It’s as impossible to abuse a citizen as it is a star. He can never rush, erect and assertive: he must be wavy and slithery. Surrounding vigilance imposes on him the vile necessity of whispering in corners. Instead of ‘collecting the things of the earth, with a free hand’ – he prowls them crumb by crumb, after dark intrigues. The irresistible currents of ideas, of feelings, of interests work under him, around him: and although he seems to direct them, from all his waving and snorting from on high, in fact he’s dragged by them. Thus an omnipotent like Bismarck in appearance sometimes moves atop big things – but like the loose buoy that floats above the current.”

To Guerra Junqueiro, a real-life second-rate poet much in vogue at the time because he was the Voice of the Republican movement, Fradique dicusses his famous anti-religious poem, A Velhice do Padre Eterno. Junqueiro craved a religious way of being that was fully committed to virtue and expurgated of rituals; but Fradique, less inflexible in thought, suggests without ritual, the real center of religion, religion would disappear since no one goes to it for morality. “For men (with the exception of rare Metaphysicians, Moralists and Mystics) religions are but a bundle of Rites through which each people seeks to establish an intimate communication with their God and obtain favours from him. This, this alone, has been the purpose of every cult, from the most primitive one, the cult of Indra, to the recent cult of the Heart of Mary.” And he continues: “To serve God, which is the way of pleasing God, the main thing has always been listening to mass, moving the fingers along rosary beads, fasting, communing, making vows, give tunics to saints, etc.” Virtue has little to do with it. “There’s no Theology here, or Morality. There’s the act of the infinitely weak wanting to please the infinitely strong. And if you, in order to purify Catholicism, eliminated the Priest, the stole, the sacred vases and the holy water, the whole Rite and all the Lithurgy – the Catholic would immediately abandon a Religion that doesn’t have a visible Church, and that doesn’t offer him the simple and tangible means of communicating with God, of obtaining from him the transcendental gifts for the soul and the sensory gifts for the body.” And he predicts the rise of church spectacle in the 20th century: “A religion, the more material it becomes, the more popular it becomes – and thus the more divine it becomes.”

In another letter Fradique opposes building a railway network through Palestine, believing it’ll tarnish its identity as the Holy Land. For him technology is dangerously destroying the past. “A single place on Earth still retained the look, the habits known and shared by the man who gave the world one of its highest transformations – and that place was a piece of Judea, of Samaria, of Galilee. If it be grossly modernized, leveled down to the social prototype dear to this century, which is the Liverpool district or the Marseilles department, and if thus we lose forever the educational opportunity of seeing a great image of the Past, what a profanation, what a brutish and barbarian devastation! And by losing that surviving form of ancient civilizations, the treasure of our knowledge and our inspiration becomes irreparably diminished.”

Unlike the traditional epistolary novel, the letters follow no plot but jump around from receiver to received, and change from topic to topic. Writing to Madame S., Fradique exposes an interesting theory about the duty to speak foreign languages badly. “A man must only speak, with impeccable security and purity, the language of his birthplace – and all the others he must speak them badly, badly with pride, with that plain and fake accent that immediately gives the foreigner away. Nationality truly resides in the language – and whoever collects with growing perfection Europe’s idioms will gradually suffer a denationalization. He no longer knows the special and exclusive charm of the mother tongue with the affective influences that involve him, isolate him from other nations; and the cosmopolitanism of the Verb must eventually give way to the cosmopolitanism of character. So the polyglot is never a patriot. With each foreign idiom he assimilates, his moral organism absorbs foreign ways of thinking, foreign ways of feeling. His patriotism disappears, diluted in foreignness. Rue de Rivoli, Calle d'Alcalá, Regent Street, Wilhem Strasse ― what does it matter to him? They’re all streets, whether of stone or of macadam.” Eça lived half his life abroad and believed a nations could only improve themselves by comparing themselves. So this is one of the reasons why I think it’s restrictive to see Fradique as a mere mouthpiece for the author. Furthermore, this underlies the irony that Fradique is precisely famous for being a globe-trotting polyglot who collects foreign ways of thinking and being.

My current favourite letter is one he addresses to Bento de S., reproaching him. “Your idea of creating a newspaper is harmful and execrable.” And his reasons are surprisingly modern: “Instead consider how it was the Press, without a doubt, that with its superficial, trifling and crude way of judging everything, did more to instill in our time the hazardous habit of frivolous judgments.” And the Internet, he predicted its major flaw: “Especially in order to condemn, our frivolity is swift. The sovereign ease with which we state, ‘This one’s a moron! That one is a rascal!’ To stating, ‘This is one is a genius!’ or ‘This one is a saint!’ we offer a more considerate resistance.” It doesn’t end there. “But since reportage nowadays is practiced less about those who influence the affairs of the World or the directions of Thought, than, as the Bible says, about a whole ‘sort and condition of vain people,’ from jockeys to murderers, its indiscriminate publicity does little to document history, and a lot, prodigiously, scandalously, to propagate vanity!” He also considers the effect it has on journalists: “From the moment you enter the fray, you can never admit that Reason or Justice or Usefulness are on the side of those against whom you discharge, by the morning, your machine gun whizzing with adjectives and verbs – because then decency, if no longer consciousness, would force you to jump the wall and desert to those just ones. You have to maintain that they are evil, unreasonable, shifty, and vastly worthy of the lead you pump them with. From the soles of your feet to your lingering hair, my Bento, you quickly sink into Intolerance!” And there’s the power he’ll exert upon his followers. “And around you, those who buy and adopt it slowly and morally remake themselves after its image. Every newspaper distills intolerance, like an alembic distills alcohol, and each morning the crowd poisons itself with gulps of that captious poison. Through the newspaper’s actions all old conflicts in the world turn sour – and souls, de-evangelized, become more rebellious to indulgence.” This is such a precise dissection of how newspapers polarize opinions and create factions, manipulating opinion instead of giving facts. Eça was once again ahead of his time.

Note: These are my translations, and not to be confused with Gregory Rabassa’s no doubt superior one.

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