José Maria Eça de Queirós - His excellent prose glides through real experience and private dream in a manner that is leading on toward the achievements of Proust

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Eça de Queirós, The Illustrious House of Ramires. Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, 2017.

The Illustrious House of Ramires, presented here in a sparkling new translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is the favorite novel of many Eça de Queirós aficionados. This late masterpiece, wickedly funny and yet profoundly tender, centers on Gonçalo Ramires, heir to a family so aristocratic that it predates even the kings of Portugal. Gonçalo―charming but disastrously effete, idealistic but hopelessly weak―muddles through his pampered life, burdened by a grand ambition. He is determined to write a great historical novel based on the heroic deeds of his fierce medieval ancestors.  But “the record of their valor,” as The London Spectator remarked, “is ironically counterpointed by his own chicanery. A combination of Don Quixote and Walter Mitty, Ramires is continually humiliated but at the same time kindhearted. Ironic comedy is the keynote of the novel. Eça de Queirós has justly been compared with Flaubert and Stendhal."

“Eça de Queirós ought to be up there with Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy as one of the talismanic names of the nineteenth century.”- London Observer

“A writer of mesmerizing literary power. We should be grateful for such blessings.”- Michael Dirda,

“A writer of genius.”- Harold Bloom

“Eça de Queirós was a god, and this is a translation by another deity (Margaret Jull Costa), so make sure to take a look.”- Scott Esposito

“His excellent prose glides through real experience and private dream in a manner that is leading on toward the achievements of Proust.”- V. S. Pritchett

Slyly funny and richly detailed, this reissue of Quieros's long out-of-print book makes for a delicious introduction to Portugal's greatest novelist. First published in 1900, the year of Quieros's death, it portrays Goncalo Mendes Ramires, the latest in an aristocratic family that predates even the kings of Portugal. In the isolation of the gloomy ancient tower of Santa Ireneia, Goncalo rehearses the feats of derring-do of an uninterrupted line of ancestors whose most recent contribution is himself, ``a graduate who had failed his third year examinations at university.'' Hoping to win some small scholarly reputation and thus secure a political future in the capital, Goncalo sets out to portray (a la Walter Scott), the adventures of one such ancestor. Installments recording the haughty courage and cruelty of his medieval forefather, Tructesindo Ramires, contrast with Goncalo's rather banausic existence, his cowardice, his small acts of noblesse oblige and his questionable apotheosis. Quieros's luxurious prose lends itself well to both the subtle irony of his morality play and the beauty of a decrepit Portuguese estate with its autumn sun, wilting flowers, faded portraits and other reminders of a bloody and powerful past. - Publishers Weekly

Late, reflective work by de Queirós (1845-1900), widely considered Portugal’s greatest novelist.
Writing at the height of Portugal’s overseas empire, de Queirós traces the life of a man who is a touch too proud of his ancestors, so much so that he reminds an emissary of the king himself, “My ancestors had a house in Treixedo long before there were any kings of Portugal, long before there was a Portugal.” By the end of the book, we are given to understand that Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, who quixotically likes to call himself the Nobleman of the Tower, is himself a metonym for the Portuguese nation in all its bumbling glory: “His generosity, his thoughtlessness, his chaotic business dealings, his truly honorable feelings, his scruples, which can seem almost childish”—and that’s to say nothing of a certain shlemielishness that doesn’t quite hold up well by comparison to the illustrious ancestors he reminds himself of daily, enshrined in the portraits and books with which Gonçalo surrounds himself in his teetering family home. He’s a bit more self-aware than Cervantes’ great hero, but we are assured that Gonçalo, however much he might like to have fought along his ancestor Tructesindo, would not have fit in well. Still, Gonçalo manages to make something of himself as the story spins out, having gone from callous reactionary to somewhat technocratic African colonialist and having finally finished the long book about his noble house that occupies much of his waking time. This is very much a 19th-century novel, unhurried and richly observed; while it can be a little fusty, de Queirós, who has been likened to Flaubert, turns in elegantly poetic prose: “When I was fighting the Moors, a physician once told me that a woman is like a soothing, scented breeze, but one that leaves everything tangled and confused.”
A touch long but with never a wasted word. Fans of Vargas Llosa and Saramago will find a kindred spirit in these pages. - Kirkus

The Portuguese novel The Maias appeared in 1888, when its author, José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845-1900), was forty-three years old. Eça had spent close to a decade working on the book—which he initially planned as the first entry in a series called “Scenes from Portuguese Life”—during his diplomatic service in England. The novel’s story involves three generations of an illustrious noble family, which by the 1870s has been reduced to the white-haired Afonso da Maia (“a man from another era, austere and pure”) and his singularly charmed and charming grandson Carlos. A Lisbon doctor with intellectual ambitions, Carlos is also adept with a sword and possesses “precisely the correct number of enemies required to confirm his superiority.”
The plot of The Maias turns on a forbidden love affair of Carlos’s and its consequences. But outlining these does little to account for the book’s exalted status among its admirers—why José Saramago called it “the greatest book by Portugal’s greatest novelist,” for example, or why V.S. Pritchett, writing in The New York Review in 1970, wrote that Eça’s novels pointed “toward the achievements of Proust.” It’s tempting to single out its fine quality of description, brilliant dialogue, rich cast of secondary characters, and unusual irony, which combines biting misanthropy with a broad and flexible attention to human pain. For my part—and I am, admittedly, reading in translation—another aspect of Eça’s writing has to be mentioned: how time unfolds in the book, with a sublime, almost arboreal leisure.
Eça’s numerous fictions have a central place in Portuguese and Brazilian literature, but they don’t seem much read elsewhere—at least not these days. Abroad, he is often cast as an overlooked equal to the great nineteenth-century European realists. That comparison is not illogical: his sexually provocative and socially scathing early novels, which dealt with love affairs and scandals among the clergy and the well-off middle class, were heralded for introducing realism to Portugal. These works not only mention certain of their inspirations, such as Balzac, but pay clear tribute to them—Flaubert above all—in the details of their plots. (Luísa, for instance, the stifled and daydreaming wife in Eça’s 1878 Cousin Bazilio, can’t help but evoke Emma Bovary.) At the same time, critics have often been at odds in characterizing Eça: asking if he is patriotic or subversive, or whether the answer to that question changed over the course of his career; how much of the Romantic colors his sense of “reality”; and whether he wouldn’t more profitably be understood as a kind of camouflaged avant-garde writer. What all these conflicting accounts confirm is the beguiling elusiveness of the Lusitanian’s work.
Eça established his reputation with his tense and claustrophobic first novel, The Crime of Father Amaro. It is a debut that’s also not one: it was twice seriously revised after publication. (Among other changes, the third edition is almost five times as long as the first.) The novel was initially released in 1875 without Eça’s knowledge or approval after he had given it to an editor friend with the understanding that it was still at an early stage; he made substantial changes to the next published text. The second revision, in 1880, was to improve on aspects of the book with the novelistic maturity five more years had lent. This is the edition that’s commonly read now.
It tells a story of country-town scandal about a sensitive local beauty (Amélia) and the new priest of the title, initially a boarder at her seamstress mother’s house. The romance is beset with difficulties: as well as the mother, there’s a domestic staff and a legitimate young suitor for Amélia to mind, and the town’s other priests are often around, arguing, plotting, gossiping, and, wherever possible, eating and drinking. Chief among the book’s quirks is Eça’s oddly malleable sense of character; the novel seems to stand at a strange juncture between realism, fantasy, and the philosophical conte. Amaro’s backstory is cursory and not quite convincing enough to explain the extreme change he undergoes over the course of the novel; Amelia, for her part, suffers a fever that seems something other than medical. Yet reservations like these fall away in light of Eça’s acute and uncannily limber sense of his characters’ psychology from moment to moment, and his genius for surfaces and physical detail. Meeting at one point, the pent-up lovers rush to clasp hands “from the wrists to the elbow.” Throughout his work, Eça’s rapid and clear descriptions make fleeting characters lodge in the mind: it might be someone whose jacket is held together with a pin, a mother nursing a coughing baby, a farmer with hands that look like roots, or an irritable hunchback who “deliberately kept his nicotine-stained fingernails long” so as better to play the guitar.
Although sometimes discounted for its comparatively lower stakes, his second novel, Cousin Bazilio, a flirtation with Madame Bovary that simultaneously reproduces much of the layout from Father Amaro, offers a new and entertaining brio. (It’s the first nineteenth-century novel this reader has encountered in which two female friends roll around laughing after one has fended off a man by striking him with his own walking stick.) It did well for its sensational subject—adulterous bourgeois seduction—but was criticized, along with Father Amaro, by a promising young Brazilian critic: in two articles, Machado de Assis acknowledged the author’s gifts but objected to the books’ explicit sensuality and a few other strange things, including a “photographic” brand of prolix realism that arguably applied little to these works.
Eça de Queirós was an illegitimate child brought up by his paternal grandparents, who lived in a small coastal town called Verdemilho and sent him to school in Oporto. His parents finally married, but even then he didn’t join them. He studied law but never practiced—his novels, it’s hard not to notice, are full of people not following through. Since literary careers at any level were precarious, at his father’s urging Eça eventually joined the consular service. His posts included Havana, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol, where he stayed for nine years, and finally a short stint in Paris, where the former Francophile had surprisingly little contact with other writers. Retrospectively included as part of Portugal’s reform-minded “Generation of the Seventies”—with friends such as the influential historian Oliveira Martins and the poet Antero de Quental—Eça appears not to have minded irritating a host nation when he saw the need. In Cuba, he continued advocacy efforts for exploited Chinese plantation workers; from England he wrote articles for a paper back home (a few samples appear in the out-of-print Letters from England), some of them lengthily dissecting British misjudgment and aggression in Ireland and the Middle East.
Eça’s books are quite specifically about Portugal, and at a particular moment. The country in which he came of age didn’t have much in common with France or England, nor did it much resemble the maritime and trade power Portugal itself had been three centuries before. A character returning from abroad in The Maias observes how “the same guard patrolled sleepily round and round the sad statue of Camões,” embodying this changed fortune. At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugal’s system of agriculture was still close to feudal. The population—Roman Catholic, widely illiterate, and ruled by an inert constitutional monarchy—had been depleted by emigration to Brazil, a former colony that had been independent since 1822. At the same time, Lisbon housed a sophisticated elite, and university life at Coimbra was notably fermented in Eça’s generation by an influx of European texts, culture, and liberal social ideas. This curious entanglement of classes and values strongly informed Eça’s novels, although the Portugal of his imagination could lag behind reality. (The books depict a place only lightly grazed by the Industrial Revolution, perhaps never to meet the twentieth century, while the actual nation had begun a major public works program, including extensive road and railway systems, while Eça was still a child, and machine production was to pick up significantly in the following decades.)
A number of Eça’s opinionated talkers are acidly critical of the country as a whole, while also a bit melancholy about the contrast between its current situation and the old Portugal of seafaring discovery and glory. A dandy in Cousin Bazilio, talking of his homeland, asks God for a cleansing earthquake, “vaguely grateful to a nation whose defects supplied him with so much material for his jibes.” That Lisbon had lost tens of thousands in the great earthquake of 1755 lends the glib cynicism here an added hint of cruelty.    
José Maria de Eça de Queirós reading with his children, circa 1893
What does Eça’s Portugal feel like? It is dominated by hot sunny days, white trousers, dust, theater tickets and evening strolls in Sintra, roses in buttonholes and glimpses of gowned women getting in and out of coaches, gorgeous landscapes and trees and flowers, hale farmers and country maids, long conversations, cats and singing birds and orchards, pumpkins drying on a station roof, baked sweet rice, and cheese pastries. Furthermore plenty of cognac, white wine, iced champagne, rolled cigarettes, and good cigars. Late in The Maias, a dish of cold pineapple served with madeira and orange juice gets sustained attention. In another novel, someone says, “It’s an absolute disgrace, you know. I’ve never once eaten a decent melon here.”
The upper-class men in these novels occasionally challenge each other to duels, and talk with conspicuous frequency of wanting to “thrash” one another. Those, at least, are the words they use in the English of Margaret Jull Costa, Eça’s frequent, highly regarded current translator. “The animal ought to be put down. It’s a moral duty, a question of public hygiene and good taste, to do away with that ball of human slime,” says Carlos da Maia’s best friend about an absurd and conniving flatterer in their circle. (As is often the case in Eça, there are nonetheless times where you can feel this man’s self-inflicted suffering.)
The poor in his books can be poor indeed, without even the illusion of upward mobility, given to illness, and encouraged by the church to accept their lot as a sign of Christian virtue. Conversation can be blatantly sexist (as, very occasionally, can be the narrative voice itself) and harsh nicknames are normal. Women risk disaster if they get involved with men; at the very least, as the seducer Bazilio says in the novel that bears his name, “A woman who runs away ceases to be Senhora Dona So-and-so and becomes plain So-and-so, that woman who ran away, that hussy, someone or other’s mistress!”
For a range of reasons, there are several posthumous Eça books. The brisk and charming novella The Yellow Sofa—reissued by New Directions last year in a translation by John Vetch—was one of three manuscripts discovered in a box by the author’s son, without accompanying information. According to Maria Filomena Mónica, Eça’s thorough biographer, the text, quite possibly unrevised, was edited by the writer’s eldest son more freely than he acknowledged—even so, it’s a good introduction to Eça’s sensibility, naturally fusing as it does two of the main tones between which he moved: one more realist in style, the other more wholly comic.
The Yellow Sofa begins on the day of the forgotten fourth wedding anniversary of a somewhat dull Lisbon importer named Godofredo Alves, who comes home to find his wife with a man: his elegant and younger business partner, Machado, who has also been a longtime family friend. Both his wife and Machado claim it was the first time, inexplicably laughing off some found, beribboned correspondence between the pair as a joke. It’s characteristic of Eça’s humor that much of what follows is taken up by the anticipation of a duel that never occurs, and also revealing about his irreverence and irony that the kernel of the book should be an illicit affair: “He seemed to see throughout the city a sarabande of lovers and husbands, some of them escaping, husbands pursuing them, a hide-and-seek of men chasing each other around women’s skirts!” In varying configurations and among all social classes, this game of hide-and-seek is played out across Eça’s work.
The final book Eça wrote, The Illustrious House of Ramires, has just come out in a much-needed new translation by Jull Costa. Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, the main character, is a familiar Eça type—a well-meaning yet weak-willed aristocrat, this time one whose family is so rarefied and woven into national lore that he is often referred to in the book simply as “The Nobleman.” (After his marriage to Emília de Castro Pamplona Resende in 1886, Eça had begun to encounter some of Portugal’s most prominent aristocratic families.) A bachelor with beautiful estates and a thousand-year-old tower, Gonçalo feels both proud of and unnerved by the Ramires legacy, the harsh shadow it casts over his cushioned and at times pusillanimous existence. To better earn the family name, he decides to dramatize some of the family heroics in a novel for a friend’s literary magazine, plundering an uncle’s battle-epic-style poem and some Walter Scott novels. Doubling and interlocking with this endeavor is a political end: when the influential position of deputy opens up in local government, Gonçalo makes up his mind to run, even though that entails partnering with Cavaleiro, a despised former friend and onetime suitor to his sister.
Ramires appeared in serial form, in Revista Moderna, starting in November 1897, but was interrupted when the publication went out of business. Eça completed the story but died before revising a final portion of the proofs, not that this is in any way obvious now. (In this case, the job of editing was handed to the writer Júlio Brandão.) As with his rambunctious fable The Relic (1887), the novel is structured around a bold narrative conceit. As the story proceeds, Gonçalo not only manages to convince himself that he is on a path that would impress his storied forebears, but, echoing Don Quixote, more or less dreams his way into their twelfth-century world—the novel includes colorful excerpts of his literary effort, a pastiche of Herculano, it turns out, full of chain-mail and dismounts from horses, and humorous cries of things like “Stand ready, crossbowmen, stand ready!” Ramires was well received, and even satisfied de Assis, who called it “a new blossoming for our Eça.” (Under Salazar, the book was popular with the right for its romantic depiction of the country: such readings must have included some pretty willful downplaying of its lampooning and quietly damning portrayal of nationalist mythologizing and self-justifying codes.)
Spending time with Eça’s novels, a reader becomes familiar with certain recurring themes and patterns. There’s a slightly whimsical predilection for associating certain types of characters with physical traits—good people will probably have beaming white teeth, and villains tend to be blessed with excellent penmanship. A person’s skin might bring to mind a type of stone, and that will be significant. Other examples are more general: Eça tends, for instance, to associate beauty and illness, romantic passion and woe. But if the narration and dialogue sometimes suggest a humane pessimism, sad and indignant over how cruelly humans can treat one another, the clear, spirited pleasure Eça takes in describing all that he enjoys gives his fiction an underlying buoyancy. Consider this, from Ramires:
After briefly smoking a cigar, Videirinha, took up his guitar again. On the far side of the garden, fragments of whitewashed wall, the occasional stretch of empty road, the water in the great fountain, all shone in the moonlight silvering the hills; and the stillness of the trees and of that luminous night seeped into the soul like a soothing caress. Titó and Gonçalo were enjoying the famous moscatel brandy, one of the Tower’s most precious antiquities, and listening, silent and rapt, to Videirinha, who had withdrawn to the shadows at the back of the balcony. Never had he played more tenderly, more sweetly. Even the fields, the vaulted sky and the moon above the hills were listening intently to the mournful fado. Below, in the darkness, they could hear Rosa clearing her throat, the servants’ muffled footsteps, a girl’s occasional suppressed laughter, a hunting dog flapping its ears, and all those sounds were like the presence of people subtly drawn to that lovely song.
Both The Yellow Sofa and The Illustrious House of Ramires were written during the decade in which Eça finished The Maias. Though similar in its style and preoccupations to his other work, The Maias is more elaborate in structure and ambitious in scope; it is a culmination of his vision and best tendencies. The book is full of memorable, patiently unfurling episodes, a flow of set pieces occurring indoors and out that are often quotidian on the surface, and yet so sensuously and precisely registered as to make the reader feel like a visiting, happily observing ghost. The novel’s central figure, Carlos, has two sides: although he’s published a book, aspires to start an intellectual review, and radiates a charisma that works magic on men and women alike, Carlos’s medical practice and state-of-the-art laboratory are little visited. He spends his time instead with friends, who tend to be wealthy, titled, cultivated, and absorbed in the same kind of distractions as he is. (Their lives, too, are a “sarabande of lovers and husbands.”) This pursuit of idle pleasure at the expense of more solid aims, especially for someone of such ancestry and promise, is unintelligible to Carlos’s grandfather and de-facto dad, Afonso, a stolid and mysterious relic of an older Portugal. Carlos’s actual father killed himself after his wife ran off with an Italian, one of a number of tragic episodes alluded to in the family’s history.
Much more can be singled out in The Maias: the complex function of houses and properties in the story, Carlos’s funny, often amiable assortment of friends (they include Ega, an extravagant, monocled stand-in for the author), the lovely woman with whom he has a relationship, and the treachery that puts his life in chaos. As Eça develops this material, the trajectory of the family and that of Portugal become increasingly alike.
For all the splendid dinners, witty rejoinders, lovely views and moods, it is painfully clear that the country is stagnant, caught between daunting, inapplicable old standards on one side and the pressure of keeping up with Paris on the other. (A giveaway of foolishness in the novel is to often say “Chic!”) At the center of The Maias are a political vacuum—pompous and know-nothing officials are one of Eça’s regular satirical targets—and an intoxicating societal inertia. “We may not be cretins, but we have become cretinised,” Ega, Carlos’s (non-producing) writer friend declares. Late in the book, characters talk of present turmoil in France; the mood is apprehensive, with nobody able to say what’s about to happen to their country: “planting vegetables is the only thing one can do in Portugal—until, that is, the revolution comes, and some of those strong, original, energetic elements currently buried down below finally come to the surface.” Receptive to but baffled by his grandson’s generation, Afonso asks: “Then why don’t you two do something to bring about that revolution? Why, for God’s sake, don’t you do something, anything?” - James Guida

When reading The Illustrious House of Ramires, it is difficult not to imagine the sound of pen scratching at paper. Barely a character appears who is not, in some way, engaged in the act of writing. From Father Soeiro’s history of the cathedral at Oliveira and Tonio’s compendium of scandals committed by Portugal’s oldest families to the novella whose composition sits at the novel’s center, its content largely drawn from an epic Romantic poem by the protagonist’s Uncle Duarte, The Illustrious House is crammed to bursting with aspiring writers. Aggrieved letters are sent to the newspapers, archives sifted through, periodicals founded, the full spectrum of literate and literary nineteenth-century life laid out before the reader.
That this vision of Portugal should be rendered by the act of writing is only appropriate. As a novelist far removed from the country of his birth, acting as Portuguese consul in Havana, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Bristol, Eça de Queirós occupied a space wherein Portugal was not so much a rocky, sloping strip along the Iberian peninsula as it was a whirlwind of inky words and paper documents. Born in 1845 in the northern Portugal town of Povoa de Varzim and educated in law at the prestigious University of Coimbra, he went on to immerse himself in the literary culture of his age, his country, and his continent. From his diplomatic position in the United Kingdom, he composed a series of missives for readers of a Brazilian periodical, in which he abstracted the oddities of British life into delightful anecdotes and observations. These letters, available in English translation courtesy of Alison Aiken and Ann Stevens in Carcanet’s Eça’s English Letters, reveal an author of unstinting curiosity, whose fingers could barely be prized away from his pen. Given that this period also marked the composition of his most famous novels, including his masterpiece, The Maias, published in 1888, we are left with the undeniable image of a man for whom writing was life.
But is life writing? How accurately can words, strung into sentences that themselves are then strung into novels and poems, represent life? As a reader of Balzac and Flaubert, Eça de Queirós was alive to the distance between art and life, words and acts, and it is this space that provides The Illustrious House of Ramires, Eça de Queirós’s final novel which was published posthumously in 1900 and now appears in Margaret Jull Costa’s lively translation, with its dramatic thrust and intellectual fizz. Set in late nineteenth century Portugal, the novel documents Gonçalo Ramires’s attempt to write a historical novella based upon the heroic exploits of his twelfth-century ancestors. As a descendant of a family older than the Kingdom of Portugal itself, Gonçalo bears the weight of a formidable family name. Eager to enhance his reputation in preparation for a planned entry into parliament, he sets out to win the prestige bestowed by the act of literary composition. It is to be an act of aggrandizement.
And yet, as Gonçalo’s novella evolves, it throws into relief both the inadequacies of its writer and the gap that exists between the romanticized past and the real present. Lacking imagination, Gonçalo is best described as a creative plagiarist, taking details from “Sir Walter Scott and various stories published in Panorama” and stitching them onto a poem composed by his Uncle Duarte. In the landscape of The Illustrious House of Ramires, glory is almost always borrowed and the perception of past triumphs looms large. With Gonçalo’s jejune straining for glory, de Queirós presents us with a protagonist and a nation attempting to live up to a supposedly heroic past that we come to suspect actually may never have been such. There is a sense, held by most of the novel’s characters, that Portugal’s greatest achievements lay in the distant past. The very distant past, actually: the exploits of the knight Martim Moniz (who died in 1147), the explorer Vasco de Gama (who died in 1524), and the poet Luís Vaz de Camões (who died in 1580) still cast a long shadow over nineteenth-century Portugal.
The resulting sense of inadequacy is further underlined in Margaret Jull Costa’s essential and informative afterword. We learn that it is during the period of the novel’s composition that, during a conflict with Britain, Portugal received a blow to its confidence. Having lost Brazil earlier in the century, Portugal was now forced to confront the failure of its Mapa Cor-de-Rosa project, an attempt to link the colonies of Mozambique and Angola, so as to create a swathe of Portuguese territory across Africa. Thwarted by the British, insecurity took root and bred bluster. And so this bluster, which was ultimately a desire to restore Portuguese glory, is endlessly parroted by the novel’s milieu.
And in The Illustrious House of Ramires, Portugal, like Gonçalo, is found wanting. The present is not the past and words cannot hide that. In Portugal at the end of the nineteenth century, sieges are conducted not by armies but by gossips. The Lousada sisters, “scrutineers of everyone’s life, the spreaders of all malicious gossip, the weavers of all intrigues,” lay siege to the Casa dos Cunhais, home to Gonçalo’s beloved sister and her husband. In response, our hero and his friends cower and peer “like soldiers at an arrow slit in a castle” through a gap in the curtain. It is from this mischievous puncturing of bravado and bluster that much of the pleasure of reading The Illustrious House of Ramires is gained. And, of all the characters the author skewers with relish, none are run through the wringer quite like Gonçalo.
Gonçalo is a man engaged in the act of writing himself. He uses words to self-dramatize and fabricate, to clothe his flaws. He is, above all, a coward. We read how he barricades himself in his room to avoid the drunken rampages of his gamekeeper Rolho and, after breaking a promise, runs from the wronged farmer, Casco. These act of cowardice are then refashioned in subsequent retellings. The sickle, for example, wielded by Casco, becomes a gun. Gonçalo wishes to be a hero, but character dictates otherwise: “cowed by fear, by the wretched shiver that always ran through him whenever he was confronted by any danger or threat, and which irresistibly forced him to retreat, to withdraw, to run away.”
He is also not a man of his word, his nobility undercut by broken promises and opportunistic maneuvers. To advance his political career, he is willing to switch political allegiance, to seek union with a former enemy and to expose his sister to infamy. And yet, it is this failure to live up to an ideal that makes Gonçalo so compelling. One of the most contradictory and complex characters in fiction, he is also one of the most loveable and democratic, prone to acts of charity. He rejects the title of “Dom” and speaks on terms of equality with his servants. His friends are drawn from less gilded background—Videirinha, for example, singer of the Ramires fado, is the son of a pharmacist.
Indeed, the process of democratization—which was well underway in Portugal at the time of the novel’s writing—is present throughout the novel. Occasionally, it is reacted to. Gonçalo laments that, “despite his native talent and his name, his extraordinary lineage and those ancestors who had built the Kingdom,” he lacks the authority of an elected official. The spell cast by his name is on the wane. The words that invoke the illustrious past of his house no longer have quite the same clout as they once did. That being said, democracy in the Portugal of the novel is severely limited. Gonçalo sits in a safe seat and his election is, in essence, fixed—“and that was the Election over and done with.” Eça de Queirós presents us with a society transitioning toward democracy, but still with some way to go.
This attention to the imperfect development of both individuals and the societies they form is central to de Queirós’s vision. He is both damning and empathetic, open to the possibility of change. His relation to his characters maintains a fascinating balance between acidic contempt and humane affection. These oscillations within his prose are present within his most famous novel, The Maias, another, more sensationalist account of a family in decline, and yet it is within The Illustrious House of Ramires that this contrast in tone becomes more striking. A tauter, funnier, more scathing novel than its predecessor, one is surprised to learn that the novel was published posthumously. It has the feel of a total work, of a vision distilled.
The novel’s structure, its central narrative periodically interrupted by excerpts from Gonçalo’s work in progress, lays bare the contrast between reality and the ideal, in a way that mirrors de Queirós’s shifting register. As Gonçalo discovers, even the novella has its rules. Form is not easy to escape. By presenting to his readers, a writer bumping up against the limitations of his talents and a man bumping up against the limits of his character, Eça de Queirós creates one of the greatest portraits of human fallibility, of the intermingling of good and bad, honesty and falsehood, that makes up the fabric of our humanity.
Above all, it brings us back to the mysterious relationship between literature and life. The act of composition allows Gonçalo to probe his personality, to cast an eye across the contemporary social scene. His novella facilitates a confrontation with the reality of himself and his society. Gonçalo’s shortcomings as a writer do not undermine the importance of the act of writing. As we bid farewell to Gonçalo at the novel’s end—and I do confess to an intense sadness at parting—we become aware that what we have read is not just a portrait of a man and the stories he tells about himself, but a stark rendering of a society and the narratives it recites about itself. With The Illustrious House of Ramires, Eça de Queirós gave Portugal a new voice with which to inscribe itself on the world. - Gary Michael Perry

Margaret Jull Costa’s new translation from the Portuguese of Eça De Queiros’ The Illustrious House of Ramires, first published in 1900, is a delicate and humorous translation which holds the power to make even the cynical twenty-first century reader chuckle. Its anti-hero protagonist, Gonçalo Mendas Ramires, also referred to throughout as “The Nobleman of the Tower,” holds his familial lineage, talents, and self-worth, in the highest regards. His lack of self-awareness and assurance of his own nobility, combined with his natural inability to accomplish almost nothing, provide for a delectable read. Costa’s re-translation highlights her translating powers to both preserve and portray a world that has been left behind by the end of the nineteenth century, whilst highlighting a kind of humor and irony that some might claim to be the definite marker of the cynical twenty-first century.
“Few lineages, even those dating from the same period, could trace their ancestry by the purest of male lines” (4) The Nobleman declares early in the novel. Finding such great pride in his own bloodline, the Nobleman has decided to dedicate his life, i.e. the two hour period between lunch and pre-dinner drinks, to the task of crafting a novella about his own family linage, dating to the time when nobleman defended their castles against menacing “large companies of soldiers” (115), engaged in writing poems to their beloveds, and died glorified death in the name of their family’s honor. Although the Nobleman insists on reminding all who cross his path of his family’s glorious lineage, his nineteenth century life is anything but heroic. Instead, he spends his time roaming the gardens, attending luncheons and galas, and contributing the local gossip. Not to mention, writing his novella, (“Ah, but the sheer effort of writing that dense, difficult chapter” (51)) when the illusive inspiration compels him to do so. “As he walked along that silent, still damp path, Goncalo was thinking of his ancestors. They were reemerging in his novella as such solid, resonate figures! And his confident understanding of those Afonsine souls was proof his own soul was made of the same mettle, and had been carved from the same fine block of gold” (119).
The stark difference between The Nobleman of the Tower’s inner monologue and the life the readers get to witness and relish in, courtesy of the narrator, is what kept me turning the pages. The disconnect between these two voices equates to constant winks exchanged between the narrator and the readers. “Work as a lawyer in Oliveira or eve in Lisbon itself? No, he couldn’t, not with his innate, almost psychological horror of legal proceedings and paperwork” (25).  Costa’s translation is a fresh reading of a novel written for a time and century long forgotten. Her translation built an approachable bridge for the modern reader.
I couldn’t help but liken the reading of Costa’s retranslation of The Illustrious House of Ramires to a book form of reality TV. That is, a highly sophisticated and worthwhile reading experience in which readers gleefully snicker at the main character’s overly inflated sense of self-worth and tantrums brought on by his natural born entitlements, Big Brother style. “Not a single tenant or laborer had answered his despairing cries! Out of his five servants, none had rushed to his aid” (123). As if The Nobleman was a contender in one of those shows where the characters are so overly concerned of their own position of the social totem-poll, that the viewers/reader leave gaining an enormous sense of relief, feeling better about their own uneventful life just for witnessing such egocentric characters. It’s other similarity to the reality TV show genre is that the camera in the Nobleman’s life is always running. Thus, viewers possess the power to tune in for the sensational primetime edited scenes, or waste their time at their corporate nooks and desks, watching the uneventful livestream. Like any good reality TV show, it’s the Nobleman’s self-assurance, self-importance, and general feelings of entitlement the drive the reader to turn the pages. And like any other good reality TV series, the pleasure for the readers of Des Queirós’ novel immerges from combining the protagonist’s pretentiousness, highlighted by his lack of actual talent, and the narrator’s brilliant work of juxtaposition between the two.
Perhaps equating a late nineteenth century book to such an infamous genre of mindless TV watching is a bit misleading, for reading The Illustrious House of Ramires is neither infamous nor mindless. Yet the novel is slow moving. If you are a reader that enjoys lengthy ruminations and extravagant sword fights of courageous ancestors who recite poetry before they draw their swords, if you cherish a world that relied less on quick come-backs and the constant need for instant gratification, this is the book for you.
When first published, Des Queirós received praise for the construction of this novel: for the readers are firsthand witnesses to The Nobleman’s novella writing; they join him at his desk as his forefathers come to life. For this, Des Queirós still deserves full glory. For it is in those moments where The Nobleman sits at his desk, that his characters take hold. These are some of the most action filled moments of the novel.
“’Forward men!’”
“’To the death!’”
“’Hold hard for Baiáo!’”
“’Victory for the Ramires!’” (117).
The Nobleman’s one talent comes to life at these sittings. The olden worlds he creates on the page portray his true flair and stronghold. It is only fitting, that the worlds The Nobleman conjures in his imagination are the most entertaining.  Nonetheless, most of the novel is dedicated to portraying the somewhat dull, yet pompous life The Nobleman leads. Readers learn about The Nobleman’s rich, and at times, tedious lineage, his cordial and unaffectionate relationship to his only sister, his mundane routines of attending galas, luncheons, and contributing to local gossip, and his disdain of most humans, particularly women.
It is the humor that carries the weight of this novel. And it’s to Costa’s translation handiwork that readers owe their thanks to. For translated humor is hardly an easy feat. Yet Costa makes it look effortless and natural, just like any good translator should. - Mor Sheinbein

José Maria de Eça de Queirós, where have you been all my life? Dead, obviously—the man died in 1900 at the age of fifty-five—but his novels are acknowledged as classics in his native Portugal, and by well-educated people the world over. As readers of the Daily may remember, I tore through my first Eça book a few months ago. And now Margaret Jull Costa has translated The Illustrious House of Ramires, his last novel, about a provincial aristocrat—a dreamer and amateur historian—who tries to write a novella based on the exploits of his Crusader ancestors. Comedy and mayhem ensue. As in The Crime of Father Amaro, Eça’s tone shifts from light to dark, from tender irony to horror, then back again, in a single page, almost in a sentence, as Ramires—like a fin de siècle, Portuguese Quixote—tries to re-create the chivalry of his forbears. The plot is full of surprises, but even when our hero is just sitting at his desk, dreaming up deeds of valor, Eça takes us inside the fantasy, until we start to wonder whether Ramires has crossed the fine line between idiocy and genius. It’s rare to find such a thrilling portrait of the writer at work. —Lorin Stein

José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Maias: Episodes from Romantic Life, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions; Reprint ed., 2007.

Set in Lisbon at the close of the nineteenth century, The Maias is both a coming-of-age novel and a passionate romance.
Our hero Carlos Maia, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Portugal, is rich, handsome, generous and intelligent: he means to do something for his country, something useful, something that will make his beloved grandfather proud. However, Carlos is also a bit of a dilettante. He drifts along, becoming a doctor and pottering about in his laboratory, but spends more and more time riding his splendid horses or visiting the theater, having affairs or reading novels. His best friend and chief partner in crime, Ega, is likewise engaged in a long summertime of witticisms and pleasure. Carlos however is set on a dead reckoning course with fate―with the love of his life and with a terrible, terrible secret...

A veteran translator of Saramago and Pessoa, Jull Costa delivers Quierós's 1888 masterpiece in a beautiful English version that will become the standard. Rich scion Carlos de Maia—like his best friend, writer João da Ega—is an incorrigible dabbler caught in the enervated Lisbon of the 1870s. His parentage is checkered: Carlos's mother runs off with an Italian, taking his sister, Maria, but leaving Carlos with his father, Pedro, who soon shoots himself. Raised by Pedro's father, Afonso, the adult Carlos returns with a medical degree to live with Afonso in the family's cursed Lisbon compound. His very romantic, very doomed affair with Madame Maria Eduarda Gomes sets in motion a train of coincidences, deftly prefigured, that resonantly entwines Carlos's fate with that of his father and spreads all of Portuguese society before the reader. Quierós has a magisterial sense of social stratification, family and the way eros can make an opera of private life. The novel crystallizes the larger unreality of an incestuous society, one that drifts, even the elite heatedly acknowledge, into decline. The neglect of the big Iberian 19th-century novelists—Galdós, Clarín and Quierós—remains a puzzle. This novel stands with the great achievements of fiction. - Publishers Weekly

Baudelaire pretended to be surprised that anyone could think of Balzac as a realist. It had always seemed to him, he said, that the novelist was ‘a passionate visionary’. The only perverse element in this claim is the suggestion that Balzac was not a realist as well as a visionary, and more broadly, that realism is not a vision. At one of the founding moments of European realism, in the early pages of Le Père Goriot, Balzac describes, or rather keeps saying he can’t describe, the miserable Paris boarding-house where much of the novel is set:
The first room exhales an odour for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the ‘odeur de pension’. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing … Yet, in spite of these stale horrors, the sitting-room is as charming and as delicately perfumed as a boudoir, when compared with the adjoining dining-room.
The panelled walls of that apartment were once painted some colour, now a matter of conjecture, for the surface is encrusted with accumulated layers of grimy deposit, which cover it with fantastic outlines.
Then the owner of the house, Mme Vauquer, appears.
She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes. Mme Vauquer alone can breathe that tainted air without being disheartened by it … Her whole person explains the boarding-house, just as the boarding-house implies her person [toute sa personne explique la pension, comme la pension implique sa personne].
Writing like this is not a refusal of symbolism, it is a form of it, a selection of details to show what lies beyond the details. Realism in this sense is devoted to a profusion of material signs but also, and more emphatically, to a theory of the readability of those signs. The odour that can’t be named is metonymically named at once; the original colour of the walls doesn’t matter, since the encrustations and fantastic outlines carry the full message of misfortune. In the great works of realism surfaces always speak, they communicate with the depths the way a trap-door communicates with a cellar or a space beneath a stage. And the attraction of the Balzac instance lies in the literary doctrines it skirts but doesn’t endorse. It does not say that Mme Vauquer is the product of her environment, although she might well be; it does not say her house is the result of her personality, although that might be true too. It asserts a correspondence between place and person and invites us to think of one in terms of the other. But there is none of the narrow determinism that is so often associated with realism and even more with naturalism; no actual suggestion of causality at all, since explanation and implication are rather different processes and in this context half-metaphorical anyway. The damp room and the sharp nose have equal rights, and both are very talkative.
I thought of this theory of readable surfaces because I was trying to understand my pleasure in the beautifully crafted descriptions in Eça de Queirós’s masterly novel The Maias, extremely well rendered in Margaret Jull Costa’s new translation. The novel is set in Lisbon in the 1870s: 1875 to 1878, to be precise, with a couple of flashbacks to establish the family history, and an epilogue placed in 1887, the year before the book was first published. It begins and ends with a house, as in Balzac, and the city – or more precisely, a certain style of life in that city – is in one sense its chief character. But the descriptions do more than create atmosphere or even give us this character. They hover on the edge of explanation, they promise to interpret a whole world for us; but tactfully never quite do this, thereby avoiding the determinism that I have just evoked and that critics regularly associate with Eça de Queirós. Everything is rich and charming here, even the weather and the light, as if the writer had managed to locate in reality the paradise of Baudelaire’s ‘Invitation au Voyage’, that place of ‘order and beauty/luxury, calm and pleasure’. Well, the same place tinged with a melancholy that arises from its very attractions, marked in the following quotations by the excess of velvet, the mildly threatening, over-modern steel, and the giveaway word ‘torpor’:
in the background, the broad blue Tejo river, as blue as the sky, gave off a glitter of finely powdered light
in the silence, the lovely afternoon seemed to spread out around them, softer and calmer. In the dustless air, without the shimmer created by the sun’s strongest rays, everything took on a delicate clarity
the curtain was slightly drawn back, and through the gap, he had a glimpse of one warm cosy corner of the room, its damask furnishings bathed in a tender rose-pink light: the cards lay waiting on the whist table; on the sofa embroidered in subtle silks, a languid, thoughtful Dom Diogo was gazing into the fire and stroking his moustaches
the afternoon was drawing to a close, in an Elysian peace, without a breath of wind, and with small, high, pink-tinged clouds motionless in the broad sky; the fields and distant hills on the other shore were already disappearing beneath a velvety, violet mist; the water lay smooth and polished as a perfect sheet of new steel
a soft light, slipping sweetly down from the dark blue sky, gilded the peeling façades, the bare tops of the municipal trees, and the people sitting idly about on benches; and the slow whisper of urban indolence, along with the soft air of a benevolent climate, seemed to seep gradually into that stuffy office, to slither over the heavy velvets, the varnished furniture, and to wrap Carlos in a quiescent torpor.
This place looks and feels wonderful, it seems to be where we’d like to live (where I’d like to live) and where Eça de Queirós himself, no doubt, wouldn’t have minded living – he wrote the novel while he was Portuguese consul in Bristol. Before that he had been consul in Havana and Newcastle. All five of the novels published in his life time – Cousin Bazílio, 1878, The Crime of Father Amaro, 1875, The Mandarin, 1880, The Relic, 1887, The Maias, 1888 – appeared while he was working in England. He was born in 1845 and died in 1900.
But this place also, we know as we think about the soft light and the silk-covered sofa, is likely to suffocate us, and perhaps Eça de Queirós could not have written his novels there. He suggests this discreetly by having a talented and witty man in the book fail to write anything at all in spite of his many projects, and by having his hero, the above-named Carlos, become a doctor who scarcely practises and a scientific experimenter who doesn’t experiment. But is the place to blame? Or is it an elegant and agreeable excuse for failure? Does it merely offer a temptation to fail? What is the relation between culture and climate, and between climate and human achievement? Is there a relation? These are the questions the descriptions implicitly ask and leave floating. Lisbon and Portugal imply or at least mirror the lives of (some of) their rich and self-indulgent citizens. Or is it the other way round? Either way a claim to explanation seems to be going too far, as it no doubt already was in Balzac.
Balzac is named several times in The Maias. Two characters are said to have a ‘Balzacian eye’, and Balzac is elsewhere called a ‘prodigy of observational powers’. A love nest is called the Villa Balzac, an intricate, critical irony because the owner of the house is a ‘great fantasist’ far from fully aware of what he is doing when he adopts the great realist as his ‘patron saint’. The book itself, I should say, is subtitled ‘Episodes from Romantic Life’, so these touches are important. ‘Romantic’ in this context has all kinds of associations, and its near-synonyms could include ‘poetic’, ‘stylish’, ‘idealistic’, ‘liberal’, ‘deluded’. As in ‘all English songs were alike, they always struck the same sorrowful romantic tone,’ or (spoken of a poem that has just been recited) ‘such romantic outpourings’. ‘Literature,’ we are told, ‘used to be all about the imagination, fantasy, ideas. Nowadays, it’s all about reality, experience, facts, documentation.’ And about money, which is this character’s main translation of ‘facts’. But then he calls it ‘marvellous money’, slipping unconsciously back into the romantic mode, in spite of his attempt at irony. Eça de Queirós’s chief question, perhaps, is whether realism is possible in Portugal, in literature or anything else, and his mischievous suggestion is that ‘Portugal’ may just mean ‘romantic’ – there couldn’t be episodes of any other sort of life there. He is doing this, however, with sly intelligence, in an undeniably realist Portuguese novel.
The writer’s master and companion in this venture, in spite of the frequent mentions of Balzac, is Flaubert, and especially the Flaubert of Sentimental Education. Carlos, when a student, tries his hand at a few ‘historical tales’ in the manner of Salammbô, and at one point Eça de Queirós borrows from Madame Bovary the idea of a travelling coach as a place for a lovers’ rendezvous. But then he quotes literally from Sentimental Education – ‘it was like an apparition,’ both writers say when the love of our hero’s life presents herself – and his book ends with a brilliant, affectionate parody of Flaubert’s bitter last joke. In Sentimental Education two old friends, having failed in everything, recall an episode from their schooldays: a visit to a brothel. Was that a success at least? It could have been, but one of the boys panicked in his embarrassment, and ran off to escape the laughter of the young women. Since he was the one who had the money, the other boy had to leave too. Now they tell each other the story once again, in great detail, ‘each one completing the memories of the other’. One of them says: ‘That’s the best thing we ever had’ – ‘C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur.’ The other says perhaps it was. ‘That’s the best thing we ever had.’ The double irony is devastating, a perfect instance of what Flaubert in a letter called ‘the comedy that doesn’t make us laugh’. The men are probably right, this was the best thing they ever had. And what they had was nothing.
At the end of The Maias, two old friends, agreeing that they have ‘failed in life’, become philosophical about this outcome. The moral is not that they could have done better, but that they shouldn’t have been trying – which is just as well, because they certainly weren’t. ‘The futility of all effort’ is what it all comes down to. ‘There was no point in trying to achieve anything on this Earth, because … everything ends in disillusion and dust.’ In fact, this character continues his argument, ‘If someone were to tell me that down there the fortune of a Rothschild or the imperial crown of Carlos V were just waiting for me, and that it could be mine if I ran to grab it, I wouldn’t so much as quicken my step.’ His companion agrees ‘with great conviction’.
And they slowed their step as they went down the Rampa de Santos, as if that really were the road of life, along which one should always walk slowly and scornfully, certain, as they were, of finding at the end only disillusion and dust.
But then they remember they are late for drinks before dinner with friends. There is no cab in sight, but they could possibly catch the tram that has stopped some little distance away from them, its red lantern stationary in the dark. If they run for it, that is. They are ‘filled by hope and by a need to make one last effort’, and the novel ends in this way:
‘We might still catch it!’
‘We might still catch it!’
Again the lantern slid away and fled. In order to catch the tram, the two friends started racing desperately down Rampa de Santos and along the Aterro beneath the initial glow of the rising moon.
The glance at Flaubert is clearly an act of homage and Eça de Queirós wants us to know that someone else has told this sad story before and told it incomparably. But because that earlier telling is incomparable, Eça de Queirós is not trying to repeat it. He is translating it to another country and shifting its mood. The failure is roughly the same in both cases. A whole privileged generation, represented by these two men and others, has missed its chance, whether in the 1840s or the 1870s; and the final conversation suggests in each case that the protagonists are a long way from understanding what has happened to them. But the thought of the two men literally running when they have just sworn never to quicken their metaphorical step is funny in a way in which Flaubert’s grim irony is not, and this perception has a lot to do with the whole tone of the book, briefly illustrated in the descriptions I quoted above. At the heart of Flaubert’s world is a void, a profound belief in the disillusion and dust that are just fancy words for the Portuguese characters. If the French boys had had a wonderful night at the brothel it would still have rotted in the memory, and left them with a later desolation, only in a different register. In Eça de Queirós’s world characters sacrifice their ideals and their energies to sheer self-pampering; they just cannot say no to a pleasure if it comes their way. In one sense this story is even sadder than Flaubert’s, precisely because it’s kinder and further removed from anything like purifying or levelling anger. But at least someone, somewhere, is having a good time.
At the beginning of the book the Maias, a very rich Lisbon family, have decided to move their principal residence from the country back to the city, and are renovating a house they own there. It has a light and sunny name, the House of the Bouquet of Flowers, or simply Ramalhete, but a rather depressing aspect, ‘the gloomy appearance of an ecclesiastical residence, and indeed, to complete its resemblance to a Jesuit college, it needed only a bell and a cross’. We might think that this house is a kind of family destiny, announcing on the first page a misery the characters can only postpone, not avoid. And indeed within a few pages of our learning that Carlos’s ‘moral life’ is ‘in ruins’, the house itself is to feel ‘like a ruin’. But it isn’t a ruin, it’s an enormously comfortable, richly furnished place of which we have already had a glimpse (‘the curtain was slightly drawn back’), and the double sign composed of the stern exterior and the floral name tells us the complex story in a compressed form: this is a place where life is and isn’t a bed of roses.
There are only two Maias left, Afonso and Carlos, grandfather and grandson. The missing generation is represented by Pedro, who married against Afonso’s wishes and was then abandoned by his wife, who ran off with an Italian. Pedro, already depressive in temperament, couldn’t bear the disgrace and shot himself in his room at Ramalhete. There were two children, Carlos and a sister whom the mother took away with her and who is said to have died in childhood. In fact, this was one of her mother’s fictions, and the sister’s reappearance in Lisbon as a stranger, apparently married to a Brazilian, not knowing herself to be a member of the Maia family – she is pretty much the last person to find out – moves much of the plot of the second half of the novel. The plot is not the novel’s main interest, but its switches are strong and interesting enough to be left for the reader to discover, and it will be enough to say that it is Afonso’s death, from a combination of ripe old age and sudden shock, that gives Ramalhete the feel of a ruin, and that Carlos, having lived the good and easy life of a playboy in Lisbon, takes off for long Flaubertian travels in America and Japan, and ends up living in Paris.
Afonso thinks, not long before he dies, that he is beset by an ‘implacable fate’ that robs him first of his son and then of his grandson but that ‘fate’ is really a combination of chance and luxury. ‘Fate’ is what will happen one way or another among the sheer opulence of a world that refuses itself nothing, whether mistresses, lovers, whist, wine or horses. There has to be a good likelihood of damage where the only real loyalty is to what one wants at the moment. But this is rather a moralising way of putting it, and Eça de Queirós is more delicate. At one point, Carlos, in the midst of a great love affair, is asked what he is going to do when his grandfather finds out about this relation with a woman in so many ways apparently unsuitable: a repetition, as far as Afonso is concerned, of Pedro’s behaviour, and therefore in this sense a form of fate, if only as a bad family habit. Carlos, a decent, endlessly likeable fellow, constricted only by the selfishness of extreme privilege, shrugs. ‘For me to be profoundly happy,’ he says, ‘my grandfather will have to suffer a little, just as I would have to be wretched for the rest of my life if I wanted to spare him this unhappiness. That’s how the world is.’ That’s how the world is, and that’s how, in the end, a likeable fellow can kill his beloved grandfather. Even so, Eça de Queirós is not suggesting Carlos is completely wrong. His error, if there is one, is not in choosing his happiness but in under-representing its cost – as if nothing, to a really rich man, could be too expensive. He doesn’t know what it means to pay for things. His good fortune is his misfortune, and his blame, while real enough, can’t really be measured, only evoked.
The same is true of his country at large, or at least of its moneyed class. They want to play at being French or English, but they want to play the game at home. Portugal in 1875 is pictured as the headquarters of cultural underdevelopment, and people there speak of the situation in much the way Latin American intellectuals now ironically speak of theirs: with a sophistication totally lacking in so-called developed countries, they magisterially go on about the lacks and failures of their own. This is one of the reasons, I think, that The Maias reads not only like a long, subtle riff on Sentimental Education but like a discreet forerunner of One Hundred Years of Solitude – the verve of the indictment unravels the very case being made. ‘Here we import everything,’ a character says. ‘Ideas, laws, philosophies, theories, plots, aesthetic, sciences, style, industries, fashions, manners, jokes, everything arrives in crates by steamship.’ A politician explains that Portugal’s problem is the absence of ‘personnel’: ‘Say you need a bishop. There are none. Or an economist. There are no economists either … Even in the lesser professions. Say you want a good upholsterer, for example. There are none to be found.’
The man speaking in the first case is a wit, and in the second an idiot, but the mentality is the same. Everyone in Portugal has an Achilles’ heel of some sort, another character says. ‘Portugal’s other name should be Achilles & Co.’ Portugal’s originality lies in its total lack of originality. The place can’t be blamed for not having what it couldn’t possibly have. Or can it? Portugal in this novel is like a rich man who is just too stylish to do great things – or to do anything much – just as the characters in García Márquez are too deeply in love with their own elegant and witty solitude to think of wanting to end it.
There is an earlier (1965) English translation of The Maias, by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens. It reads well, and it understands, as the new translation does not, that an abbé is not the same thing as an abbot. But its language is a little old-fashioned even for its time, and Margaret Jull Costa catches better the fluent intelligence of the Portuguese, especially the lyrical phrase-endings that often lead the way out of irony or melodrama, like slow fade-outs in the movies. An example would be the last sentence of the novel, where the two men race for the tram under what is literally ‘the first clarity of the moon that was rising’. Pinheiro and Stevens have ‘under the light of the rising moon’; Jull Costa has ‘beneath the initial glow of the rising moon’. The second seems a little wordy, the first a little too efficient. But the wordiness may be what is needed, since presumably Eça de Queirós wanted some sort of mildly over-ripe effect for his last unromantic episode from romantic life.
A longer example may help to show the differences – and also perhaps show that they are not large enough to quarrel over. This is, in any event, a fine instance of Eça de Queirós’s style, and a good indication of how a realist can become a (comic) visionary. The scene is the house of an aunt of one of Carlos’s mistresses, an Englishwoman, a place they have borrowed for their secret nights of love. (The first passage comes from the Pinheiro/Stevens translation, the second from Jull Costa.)
Carlos entered and tripped immediately over a mountain of bibles. The whole room was packed with them: they lay in piles on top of the furniture; they overflowed from old hat-boxes; they were mixed up with pairs of galoshes; they had wandered into the hip-bath. All of them were in the same format, wrapped in black binding like battle-armour, sullen and aggressive. The walls were resplendent, decked with cards printed in coloured lettering that irradiated harsh verses from Scripture, stern moral counsels, cries from the psalms, insolent threats of hell-fire. And in the midst of all that Anglican piety, on the night-table beside a small, hard, virginal iron bed, stood two bottles of cognac and gin that were almost empty. Carlos had drunk the saintly old maid’s gin; and her hard bed had become as disorderly as a battlefield.
When Carlos first went in, he had stumbled over a pile of Bibles. Indeed, the bedroom was a veritable nest of Bibles; there were small towers of them on various bits of furniture, others spilled out from old hat-boxes or were jumbled up with pairs of galoshes or had fallen into the hip bath, and all were of exactly the same format, bound in the same scowling, aggressive black leather as if buckled into armour for battle! The walls glowed, lined with cards printed in coloured lettering, radiating austere verses from the Bible, stern moral advice, cries from the psalms, and bold threats of hell-fire. And in the middle of all this Anglican religiosity, at the head of a small iron bedstead, stiff and virginal, stood two almost empty bottles of brandy and gin. Carlos finished off the lady’s gin, and her hard bed was left as turbulent and disorderly as a battlefield.
Each is more literal than the other at times. Pinheiro and Stevens keep the mountain (‘montão’) of bibles, and lose the nest (‘ninho’) of the same; generally stick with a word order that is a little awkward in English (‘wrapped in black binding like battle-armour, sullen and aggressive’, ‘entaladas numa encadernação negra como numa armadura de combate, carrancudas e agressivas’); and hang onto words like ‘resplendent’ and ‘irradiated’ that aren’t entirely convincing in their new home. But then they decide ‘piety’ is better than ‘religiosity’ as a translation of ‘religiosidade’. Jull Costa changes the tenses of the first sentence (literally ‘Carlos entered, stumbling immediately against a mountain of Bibles’, ‘Carlos entrou, tropeçando logo num montão de Bíblias’); adds words (‘indeed’, ‘veritable’), turns piles into towers, but then allows the Bibles simply to ‘fall’ into the hip-bath as they do in the Portuguese. The test perhaps is how we feel about two key moments at the end of the paragraph, the mention of the lady’s gin (‘o gin de santa’, literally ‘the saint’s gin’ or just ‘the gin of the pious lady’) and the verb indicating what the activities of Carlos and his mistress have done to the bed (‘ficou revolto’, literally, ‘remained turned over’). What to keep and what to let go? My sense here is that ‘saintly old maid’ is a little too much, broadens the irony an inch too far; and that ‘turbulent and disorderly’ does just the work it needs to. - Michael Wood

José Saramago, Portugal’s only Nobel literature laureate to date, describes “The Maias” as “the greatest book by Portugal’s greatest novelist.” Even so, its 19th-century author, José Maria Eça de Queirós, could use a bit more of an introduction. He may be Portugal’s Flaubert, but like the greatest novelists of many peripheral countries, he remains largely unknown to English-language readers. A new translation of “The Maias” offers an appealing chance to discover him.
Born in 1845, Eça de Queirós (pronounced EH-sah de kay-ROSH) was the illegitimate son of a magistrate, whose support enabled him to study at Coimbra’s elite university. Moving to Lisbon in 1866, he joined a group of writers committed to seeking social reform through literature. Then, from 1872, he lived abroad, serving successively as Portuguese consul in Havana, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol and, finally, Paris, where he died in 1900.
Portuguese society was the target of his 12 novels, only five of which were published in his lifetime, yet Eça de Queirós was very much a cosmopolitan writer. Influenced by both Naturalism and Romanticism, he fearlessly dissected the social decadence of his day. The tools he used were a rich style, passion-driven storytelling and satire. As he saw it, late-19th-century Portugal was a backwater — and he implicitly blamed this on the monarchy, the Roman Catholic Church and the aristocracy.
“Here we import everything,” João de Ega, one of the principal characters in “The Maias,” caustically proclaims. “Ideas, laws, philosophies, theories, plots, aesthetics, sciences, style, industries, fashions, manners, jokes, everything arrives in crates by steamship.”

“The Maias” must have seemed shockingly contemporary in its verismo: its narrative ends in 1887, just a year before the book was published. But it is not a revolutionary tract. Rather, in Margaret Jull Costa’s excellent translation, its appeal remains its strongly etched characters, not only the beloved and enlightened patriarch, Afonso da Maia, and his no-less-wealthy grandson, Carlos, but also assorted snobby aristocrats, drunken writers, greedy politicians, self-important businessmen, social climbers — and beautiful women.
Their principal stage is Lisbon, where at clubs, restaurants, parties, private dinners, even on the street, they argue about politics and literature, gossip poisonously and plan seductions. Indeed, the men devote enormous energy to bedding their associates’ wives. In Ega’s case, alas, the lovely Raquel Cohen’s husband finds out. Carlos, in contrast, soon tires of the Countess de Gouvarinho and “her tenacity, her ardor, her weight.”
The novel’s main plot gets going after Carlos falls for Maria Eduarda, the wife of a wealthy Brazilian, Castro Gomes, who is spending time in Lisbon. When Castro Gomes returns to Rio de Janeiro on business, Carlos makes his move, and Maria Eduarda, “divine in her nakedness,” responds with Flaubertian passion. “Her urgent kisses seemed to go beyond his flesh, to pierce him through, as if wanting to absorb both will and soul,” Eça de Queirós writes approvingly.
A frustrated suitor of Maria Eduarda strikes back, informing Castro Gomes in an anonymous letter of his wife’s betrayal. But when Castro Gomes returns to Lisbon, he has a surprise: he informs Carlos that Maria Eduarda is not his wife but his mistress, a woman with a steamy past whom he is quite glad to be rid of. Stunned, Carlos is also ready to dump her, but she wins him back, recounting the hardship of her life and persuading him of her undying love.
“Suddenly, all he saw, blotting out her every weakness, were her beauty, her pain, her sublimely loving soul. A generous delirium, a grandiose kindness mingled with his love. And bending down, his arms open to her, he said softly: ‘Maria, will you marry me?’ ”
Ah, those 19th-century Romantics.
Well, twists and turns lie ahead, but there is still ample time to dwell on the terminal ennui of these aristocratic Lisboners who seem to have no need to work. And it is their slow-moving world of vapid conversation and fear of change that Eça de Queirós most delightfully mocks. To Alencar’s revolutionary poetry, the Count de Gouvarinho can only tut-tut: “To speak of barricades and make extravagant promises to the working class at a society event, under the protection of the queen, and in the presence of a minister of the crown, is perfectly indecent!”
Gradually, then, while charting Carlos’s travails of the heart, Eça de Queirós paints a picture of a society trapped in a time warp, stubbornly refusing to follow the rest of Europe. And here, far more than Carlos, a sympathetic but spoiled rich boy, it is the unsuccessful writer Ega who seems to speak for the novelist. Ega loves Portugal, but is also unforgiving. “There’s nothing genuine in this wretched country now, not even the bread that we eat,” he laments in a form of conclusion.
Looking again at that remark, it is a bit surprising that Portugal still so loves Eça de Queirós. On the other hand, Portugal has changed: today, it really does belong to Europe. - Alan Riding


The Maias is regarded as the most important work of the late 19th-century Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eça de Queirós. For the most part, the book follows the life of Carlos de Maia and his grandfather, Afonso de Maia, the last remaining male survivors of an extremely wealthy Lisbon family.
Young Carlos is raised by his grandfather following the suicide of his father, who killed himself after being abandoned by his wife. Raised unaware of this tragedy, Carlos becomes a doctor and opens a medical practice and laboratory in Lisbon, where he plans to make significant medical discoveries.
However, it’s Carlos’s fate to spend a lot of time talking about success, but little time actually pursuing it. He meticulously and expensively decorates his medical office and his laboratory only to abandon them both. His real business, and the business of his social circle, is drinking, debating, gambling, and chasing after young, wealthy wives, that is, when they’re not on vacation and doing the same thing in Paris or Italy or some small Portuguese resort town.
Carlos’s best friend, Ega, is a dandy and a libertine whose outrageous toilette is equaled only by his wit and who functions as a sometime mouthpiece for the author. Ega is the first in Carlos’s circle to fall prey to the charms a woman; she is the wife of a minister, and she often distracts Ega from his groundbreaking novel, Memoirs of an Atom, which he is always on the verge of starting. Carlos follows his friend’s lead shortly thereafter, falling in with the Countess de Gouvarinho. Both relationships bring a halt to any real progress in the young men’s lives:
Ega had arrived from Celorico just six months ago, swathed in his vast fur coat, ready to dazzle Lisbon with his Memoirs of an Atom, to hold sway over it with the new magazine he was planning to set up; he was to be a beacon, a force to be reckoned with, and a thousand other things. And now, debt-ridden and an object of ridicule, he was scuttling back to Celorico, his tail between his legs. A bad beginning! He, for his part, had arrived in Lisbon full of ambitious plans for his work, armed as if for battle: there was his practice, his laboratory, his pioneering book, and a thousand other bold projects. And what had he achieved? Two articles for a journal, a dozen or so prescriptions, and that melancholy chapter on “Medicine Among the Greeks.” A bad beginning, indeed!
In the midst of his faltering relationship with the Countess, Carlos stumbles across a mysterious and beautiful woman whose husband, Castro Gomes, is a wealthy Brazilian. The woman, Maria Eduarda, is rarely seen in public, however, and Carlos struggles to get introduced to her husband. Eventually, he manages to set himself up as their doctor, and when Castro Gomes goes away on business, Carlos and Maria fall deeply in love. The couple’s bliss is short-lived, however, as a terrible discovery destroys their idyll and sends the novel toward its tragic conclusion.


It doesn’t appear that Eça de Queirós was particularly interested in crafting a complicated story. The Maias is told in a very straightforward narrative style and with a simple structure. None of the surprises are that surprising.1 The novel is a rather ordinary melodrama, with sexual dalliances, family drama, honor to defend (or offend), threatened duels, extravagant balls, and all the other ingredients we’ve come to expect from these big 19th-century whist-and-salon novels.
This isn’t to say that The Maias is without interest. Like many authors before and since, Eça de Queirós is utilizing the novel as a vehicle to comment on his social milieu. And, as is often the case, de Queirós’s time was one of degradation and moral decline. In The Maias de Queirós presents the agents of the current degradation—as well as the agents of the degradation to come, Carlos and Ega—in all of their glory.
These are people that are excessively interested in things. Carlos collects antiques, as do his friends, and de Queirós repeatedly enumerates the lists of things surrounding the characters and the amount of time they spend arranging, re-arranging, and purchasing the things that make up their lives:
She did not reply, smiling and wandering slowly among these things of the past, things possessed of a cold beauty, exhaling the vague sadness of a now defunct luxury: fine furniture from the Italian Renaissance, like marble palaces, inlaid with cornelian and agate, which lent a soft, jewel-like sheen to the black of ebony or to the satin of the pinker woods: wedding chests, as big as trunks, painted in purples and golds with the delicacy of miniatures, which once stored gifts from popes and princes; stately Spanish cabinets, adorned with burnished metal and red velvet, and with mysterious, chapel-like interiors, full of niches and tortoiseshell cloisters. Here and there, on the dark-green walls, there glowed a satin coverlet all embroidered with golden flowers and birds; elsewhere the severe tones of a fragment from an Oriental rug bearing verses from the Koran were juxtaposed with the gentle pastoral of a minuet danced in Cythera on the silk of an open fan.
They are also people of reason, and of classical education, although this education’s most proximate use is for seduction, conversation, making fine speeches at meetings, crafting flowery poetry, or, in Ega’s case, writing “a prose epic, using symbolic episodes to describe the great stages of the Universe and Humanity,” that never gets off the ground. (It’s nice to see that de Queirós numbers himself among the sinners.) Here, reason is little more than a tool for self-justification and is most often referred to when Carlos is explaining why his latest paramour will surely understand the latest bit of bad news he’s preparing to bring them: they’re reasonable women. The list of their faults goes on, and the examples of the futility of human action multiplies . . .
As a window into the Portuguese world of that time, The Maias has a lot to offer, and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is transparent, as all good translations are. The characters are sharply and believably drawn and the story moves along at a regular, if languorous, pace, allowing de Queirós to say what he’d like to say about the society without drawing the reader away from the story he’s telling or descending into a moral lecture. However, the reader is left feeling that de Queirós is more concerned with his message than with the characters themselves. Somehow, the balance is a little off. Perhaps it’s his repeated insistence on the Portuguese nature of his characters; something of the universal that you find in the truly great novels, the novels that manage to transcend their specificity, is missing here. And once the universality is gone—or when de Queirós has prevented us from seeing it—we begin to see these characters as other. The satire doesn’t bite as hard, and much of the original driving interest in the novel is lost. We’re left to view The Maias in a different way: not as a satire of ourselves, but as a satire of a people whose mores we regard as antiquated and, on some level, a little ridiculous. - E.J. Van Lanen

There are certain experiences that grow in stature, that become more significant, after, or outside of, the event; for example, imagine that you manage to bag a date with a movie star. This movie star might be insufferably boring, and so the date itself may be a let down, but before and after the date your perception of the event might be that it is/was a momentous occasion; it may even become more enjoyable as you think about it, or talk about it with friends. The thing is, you are able to appreciate some things differently in retrospect, or in anticipation. Certain novels are like that too. The Makioka Sisters is one of them. Cards on the table, reading Tanizaki’s novel was something of a chore. It almost completely lacks drama and the prose is utterly prosaic. However, after reading it, at some remove from my reading, my opinion of it is that it is beautiful and moving. It is very strange, but it is true that thinking about The Makioka Sisters moves and interests me far more than the experience of reading it ever did. The Maias by Eca de Queiros is similar in the sense that I feel an affection for it, and a growing appreciation, now that I have finished it, and yet for long stretches, particularly in the middle section, it struggled to keep my attention.
To be fair to The Maias there were significant sections of the novel that did fully engage me, by which I mean in the moment, not solely in retrospect. In fact, it bursts out of the blocks, telling the story of Afonso’s marriage, his emigration to England, his return to Portugal, his wife’s death, his son’s marriage, the birth of his grandchildren and his son’s death. The first 60 pages boast more action, drama and excitement than the following 600; in fact, they boast more of those things than most full novels. It is almost as though the author wanted to clear the decks, to get all the, uh, conventional plotting and stuff out of the way so that the book could settle into a comfortable, rocking-chair atmosphere. In a way it is a shame as I would have loved some of that stuff to be developed, lingered over; yet it clearly did not interest Eca de Queiros enough. The abrupt drop in pace, the almost complete absence of tension and action until close to the end, was all necessary for him to make the kind of points he wanted to make about Portuguese society.
Although the title of the book gives the impression that The Maias will be a multi-generational family chronicle similar to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks it is not at all. After those initial 60 pages the Maias, as a family, fade from view, and one man, Afonso’s grandson Carlos, comes to dominate the book. I do not think that Eca de Queiros was unaware that the title of his novel is misleading or gives a false impression; I think he knew exactly what he was doing, and that the name he chose is an ironic one, one that hints at an aspect of the book that provides its biggest shock. However, to explain what I mean by that, to discuss how one could understand the title differently, would involve serious spoilers.* In any case, once Carlos takes over the narrative The Maias essentially becomes a kind of buddy comedy, which in turn serves as a gentle satire of Portuguese life and culture.
Carlos is what we call idle rich; he is more than capable, but his tremendous wealth and, Eca de Queiros would argue, the laid-back Portuguese mindset, takes away all his drive and ambition. Initially he desires to be a doctor, but once he has lavishly furnished his practice he loses interest in it. Instead, he spends his time with his friends, laughing and joking and making plans that never come to fruition. The most notable of these friends is the Wildean and foppish Joao da Ega, a man who, like Carlos, has charm, ability and big ideas, but never actually achieves anything. Throughout the text he talks about founding an Arts publication and, most amusingly, actually reads passages from his forever unfinished novel, the ludicrously ambitious Memoirs of an Atom. I was also particularly fond of Alencar, an old poet who was also a friend of Carlos’ father. Alencar, a staunch romantic, spends almost of all his time reciting his own bad poetry and making wistful asides about his youthful conquests.
The point of all this is that Eca de Queiros wanted to show that [his] Portugal is populated by amiable but aimless, intelligent but indolent people. This, he seems to say, is what it means to be Portuguese. Indeed, the characters often criticise Portugal, and by extension themselves. The crux of the problem with the middle section of the novel is that following the non-adventures of a bunch of charming, but mostly lazy and disinterested young men who accomplish nothing, was never likely to result in a page-turner. This middle section, which spans 300-400 pages, is lovely and readable and occasionally very funny, but is, necessarily, terribly unexciting. In order to develop his themes, in order to show Portugal as a place where nothing of any note ever happens, Eca de Queiros had to suck all the drama out of his narrative. Ironically, one falls into the same kind of languid state as the characters, into a kind of happy but half-attentive frame of mind, as you read.
Furthermore, there is the suggestion that the real action, that real life in fact, is happening elsewhere and is being kept from you. The characters voice this idea in relation to their own lives, but the book itself reads that way. For example, Maria Eduarda’s story – which takes place in France mostly – would be very interesting, could [like the beginning of the novel] have been unfurled over 100’s of pages, and yet we only get it in truncated form during conversation; likewise Ega’s trips to Celorico, and Ega’s and Carlos’ trips abroad, Ega’s affair with Raquel Cohen and so on. There was so much scope for extending the range of the novel, for introducing more conventionally engaging plotlines, but, unfortunately, to do so would have diluted the impact of the author’s message. Even the action that does promise to take place during the narrative eventually comes to nothing, like, for example, the numerous duels that are called for and planned, and the various beatings that characters vow to administer to each other.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Maias, for a modern reader, or this modern reader anyway, is Eca de Queiros’ claim that Portuguese culture is stolen, or imported, from other countries. When a house is redecorated early in the novel it is done by an Englishman in a myriad of continental styles, a house in Olivais, which plays an important part in the later stages of the novel, features a kind of Japanese extension; throughout the book there are mentions of Japanese screens and vases; there are English horses; and in one of the most amusing scenes Ega turns up in sunny Portugal wearing a thick Russian coat. This importing or appropriating of culture from elsewhere doesn’t just involve art and décor and fashion, but also attitudes, behaviours and mannerisms. For example, Damaso, who is the closest the novel comes to having a villain, believes in the superiority of the French and attempts to live like a Frenchman. He is an entirely ridiculous figure [and therefore not particularly villainous], whose catchphrase is to label everything of which he approves ‘chic.’ My favourite Damaso moment is when he turns up at an important horse racing event [which itself is an import, the national sport being bullfighting] wearing a veil. When everyone wonders why on earth he is wearing such a thing Damaso lambasts the Portuguese for being philistines!
The reason that this stuff interests me so much is because I see it myself, in my time and in my country. I often lament the lack of genuine culture, not just English culture, which to my mind no longer exists, but world culture. I am not talking about immigration here, which I am in favour of, but, as Eca de Queiros does, the importing of ideas and behaviours etc from abroad, mostly from America. I dunno, maybe I need to lighten up, but it pains me to hear English people talking about going to Starbucks or eating bagels for breakfast or the horrific recent development of secondary school or college Proms. Don’t get me wrong, I think an understanding or appreciation of other cultures is a nice thing, but that is not the same thing as appropriating other cultures, or allowing them to dominate others so that what you end up with, what we have ended up with, is one homogenous culture. That I find depressing.
So far I have probably given the impression that The Maias is entirely about negation, but that is not strictly the case. In fact, the narrative pace picks up [relatively speaking, anyway] in the final 200 pages, when Eca de Queiros concentrates on the love affair between Carlos and Maria Eduarda. In a way, it was a strange decision on the author’s part, because it is the only time in the novel that he gives the reader full access to the dramatic events relative to a particular storyline. The Carlos and Maria affair feels, in this way, somewhat incongruous. If I had to guess as to why Eca de Queiros does give us full access to Carlos and Maria’s relationship I would argue that, as with the title of the work, it is an example of dramatic irony. Throughout the majority of the preceding 500 pages we are kept at arm’s length, and then suddenly, towards the end, we are let in; here, with Carlos and Maria’s intense love, is an example of the life that we have been repeatedly told only happens elsewhere. Yet the author cannot allow this lofty, beautiful love to flourish, to act as evidence against his themes; he, instead, brings it crashing down to earth with a sordid, shocking revelation. It is almost as though he set up Carlos and Maria purely to show just how ridiculous it is to expect anything genuinely noble to take place in Portugal. However, perhaps the joke is on Eca de Queiros, because the greatest irony is that for a novel so insistent on the cultural bankruptcy and idiocy of a particular country at a particular time, he makes it seem so thoroughly attractive.
*I think The Maias does not refer to Afonso, Carlos, Pedro etc, but to the two incestuous lovers, Carlos and Maria. -

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José Maria Eça de Queirós and Ramalho Ortigao, The Mystery of the Sintra Road, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa and Nick Phillips, Dedalus, 2014.

Two friends are kidnapped by several masked men, who, to judge by their manners and their accent are men of the best society. One of the friends is a doctor, and the masked men say that they need him to assist a noblewoman, who is about to give birth. When they reach the house, they find no such noblewoman, only a dead man. Another man, known only as A.M.C., bursts in at this point and declares that the man died of opium poisoning. The doctor writes a letter to a newspaper editor, setting out the facts as he knows them. These facts are rebutted first by a friend of A.M.C. and then by the first masked man, who explains the whole story... Eça de Queiroz wrote this spoof ‘mystery’ with his friend Ramalho Ortigão, publishing it in the form of a series of anonymous letters in the Diário de Notícias between 24 July and 27 September 1870. Many readers believed the letters to be genuine. As the book progresses, one sees Eça gradually getting into his stride as a novelist, equally at home with humour and with human drama. Recently turned into a major Portuguese feature film it will delight avid Eça fans and lovers of mysteries.
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José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes: A Novel, Trans. by Gregory Rabassa, Tagus, 2011. [1900.]

The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes—ostensibly letters, with an arch introduction—actually ranges widely and revels in many forms of discourse. In this singular work, originally published in 1900, one finds meditations, dialogues, observations, grand shifts in tone, occulted ironies, pastiches, lampoons, and an underlying hilarity throughout. Readers will be reminded of Ishmael’s lofty digressions, of Ivan Karamazov’s dialogues with his imaginary devil, of Flaubert’s stylistic virtuosity, of Gogol’s quiet comedy—and more. Fradique, at one point, disingenuously tells us he will never write a book because no language is capable of representing the real significance of anything. But Fradique’s letters go on to offer us nearly everything, and they presciently anticipate much of what is rightly celebrated in the best of postmodern writing. This magnificent novel now appears in a beautiful and deft translation that will entertain and delight with wit, intelligence and many surprises.

Fradique Mendes, originally conceived as a Pessoa-like heteronym, was created by the great Portuguese writer José Maria Eça de Queirós and two friends in 1869 as a way to poke fun at their fellow countrymen. The invented poet wrote in a kind of satanic Baudelaire manner, an affectation of many younger Portuguese poets that Eça felt needed to be satirized. The persona so engaged him, however, that he continued to write through the pseudonym from 1888 onward, revising the work into a comical biography and collection of letters published in 1900, the year of Eça's death.
In many respects this work cannot be separated from his great fiction, The City and the Mountains, published in 1901. Both works swing between two extremes, between a kind of dandyish figure living in the center of Portuguese culture and a more retiring version of the same figure, returning to the quiet isolation and nostalgic innocence of a previous time. In the later book, Jacinto begins as a believer in change, embracing the most progressive developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a man who, when that world falls apart, retreats to his home in the mountains, where he rediscovers the quietude and order of an agricultural tradition.
So too does Fradique Mendes begin by being a man of the world, living in France and traveling to exciting exotic locales such as Arab countries and Brazil. Yet, like Jacinto, Fradique Mendes, whose great love fails him, gradually reverts to more conservative-based realities, often scolding his correspondents for their desire to become involved in urban life and their lack of religious values. Fradique Mendes finally disappears while traveling “on a very long and distant journey”—which, he declares, is no longer out of curiosity, “for there are no longer curiosities left, but to put an end in a most worthy and beautiful way to a relationship like ours.”
The letters of this fiction are fascinating for their swings between worldly knowledge and peasant pleasures, between a cultivated artistic sensibility and a craving for the simplicities of the past. In the end, because of this oscillation of values, Fradique Mendes is a grand failure, a made-up man who fails in life primarily because of his vicissitudes. Yet in The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes, Eça forces us to compare this failed dreamer with an academic critic, so slavishly attracted to the “ecstasy” of Fradique Mendes' earlier poetic dabblings that he cannot see the failures of the man. Presenting his subject in metaphors even more Romantically inspired than the poet's later life, the critic of the fiction ridiculously drops names—from Ponce de León to Mozart and Beethoven, from Voltaire to Klopstock and Immanuel Kant—that reveal even-more confused notions of reality. Here's a sample:
Here I fell back, wide-eyed. Victor Hugo (everyone still remembers), exiled at the time on Guernsey, held for us idealists and democrats of 1867 the sublime and legendary proportions of a Saint John on Patmos. And I drew back in protest, eyes inflamed, so much it seemed to me beyond the realm of possibilities that a Portuguese, a Mendes, could have held in his the august hand that had written The Legend of the Centuries! Corresponding with Mazzini, camaraderie with Garibaldi, that was all very well! But a sojourn on the sacred isle, to the sound of the waves from the Channel, strolling, chatting, pondering with the sage of Les Misérables, looked to me like the impudent exaggerations of the Azorean islander who was trying to put one over on me . . .
If there were ever an example of literary hero-worship, this critic exemplifies it. Fradique Mendes is great because he associates with the great!
At times, this comic lavishing of metaphors and comparisons wears on the reader—as it is meant to. And The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes is, overall, not quite the masterwork that is The City and the Mountains. But the fiction remains a wonderful send-up of Portuguese cultural pretentions, and perhaps, to a certain degree, a revelation of the cultural tensions in Eça's own life. Given the depths of his literary contributions, it is well worth reading this satiric work. - Douglas Messerli
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José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, Dedalus, 2011.

The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers was discovered amongst the author's papers after his death, and was only published in Portugal in 1980. This is the first English translation, and its publication is timed to coincide with the centenary of Eca's death." "One night at the theatre, Vitor da Silva, a young law graduate, sees a strikingly beautiful woman: Genoveva de Molineux. She claims to have been born in Madeira and to have lived for many years in Paris. The truth about her past gradually begins to surface, as does the terrible secret that lies behind the overwhelming mutual attraction between her and Vitor. Eca brilliantly dissects a world in which only surface counts, providing the reader with a vivid and gripping portrayal of a society and class consumed by hypocrisy, greed and materialism."

Vítor loves Genoveva, professional mistress to another man, and although each is willing to give up everything for the other, it seems circumstance may keep them apart. A satirical portrait of 19th-century Lisbon society, this novel is cutting without being cruel. Readers will enjoy it for its tone and the strong cast of well-observed secondary characters more than for the saccharine love story, which suffers the melodramatic tendencies of its time (Vítor, especially, is a pill). If the book was never published during the author's life it is perhaps because the tragedy of the title is somewhat asthmatic, wheezing in late and immediately expiring, but even as a literary curiosity, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers is a fascinating visit to a period with a very different approach to morality, both more structured in its minutiae and more chaotic in its general form. The translation is extremely readable, neither annoyingly modern nor embarrassingly archaic, although readers are strongly advised to skip the translator's introduction, which gives away the story. - Tadzio Koelb
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José Maria Eça de Queirós, The City and the Mountains, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, 2008.

Eça de Queirós's novel is a hymn to country life: The City and The Mountains satirizes the emptiness of city life and of modernity itself. Wonderfully funny, it bubbles with joie de vivre.
Born in Paris, Jacinto is the heir to a vast estate in Portugal which he has never visited. He mixes with the creme de la creme of Paris society, but is monumentally bored. And then he receives a letter from his estate manager saying that they plan to move the bones of his ancestors to the newly renovated chapel―would he like to be there? With great trepidation, Jacinto sets off with his best friend, the narrator, on the mammoth train journey through France and Spain to Portugal. What they discover in the simple country life will upend their own lives deliciously....
Newly translated by the acclaimed translator Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions is proud to publish The City and The Mountains, and to once again bring Eça de Queirós' brilliant prose to life.
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José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, 2003.

An unflinching portrait of a priest who seduces his landlady's daughter, made into an acclaimed and controversial motion picture.
Eça de Queirós's novel The Crime of Father Amaro is a lurid satire of clerical corruption in a town in Portugal (Leira) during the period before and after the 1871 Paris Commune. At the start, a priest physically explodes after a fish supper while guests at a birthday celebration are "wildly dancing a polka." Young Father Amaro (whose name means "bitter" in Portuguese) arrives in Leira and soon lusts after―and is lusted after by―budding Amelia, dewy-lipped, devout daughter of Sao Joaneira who has taken in Father Amaro as a lodger. What ensues is a secret love affair amidst a host of compelling minor characters: Canon Dias, glutton and Sao Joaneira's lover; Dona Maria da Assuncao, a wealthy widow with a roomful of religious images, agog at any hint of sex; Joao Eduardo, repressed atheist, free-thinker and suitor to Amelia; Father Brito, "the strongest and most stupid priest in the diocese;" the administrator of the municipal council who spies at a neighbor's wife through binoculars for hours every day. Eça's incisive critique flies like a shattering mirror, jabbing everything from the hypocrisy of a rich and powerful Church, to the provincialism of men and women in Portuguese society of the time, to the ineptness of politics or science as antidotes to the town's ills. What lurks within Eça's narrative is a religion of tolerance, wisdom, and equality nearly forgotten. Margaret Jull Costa has rendered an exquisite translation and provides an informative introduction to a story that truly spans all ages.

"(A)n engrossing narrative, related with great control in a sequence of arresting situations involving characters who are often grotesque but unfailingly alive" - Francis Steegmuller

"His picture is inevitably now something of a period piece (...) and by modern standards some of the writing is rather long-winded. Yet even so it remians a memorable picture of a society that has gone soft." - Times Literary Supplement

"Although the cruel and pointless institution of celibacy is constantly in Eça's firing line, his major achievement resides in the wonderfully wrought depiction of 1870s Portuguese small-town life, a fragmented patchwork of shadowy whisperings, dubious goings-on and a claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and mistrust. (...) Margaret Jull Costa (....) provides a solid, clear and flowing translation, which ensures that Eça's drily understated satire, his harsh but lucid critique of human selfishness and inadequacy are telling; it also reflects his engaging sense of bathos and all that is amusingly grotesque." - Daniel Lukes

"This is a terrific novel, and I hardly go out on a limb in saying so. (...) The love story -- as classic as Heloise and Abelard -- provides the motor for Eça's novel, but its chief pleasure derives from its cynical humor, crisp narration and the social interactions of its slightly exaggerated characters, all of them observed by an author with a disdainful acceptance of both human frailty and divine indifference." - Michael Dirda

The Crime of Father Amaro is set largely in Leira, a town some sixty miles from Lisbon (where Eça de Queirós was, briefly, a municipal administrator). The novel centres around Amaro Vieira, a young priest who, after briefly being sent to a parish in the farthest reaches of the provinces, gets this far more desirable post. (He manages to get the far better position despite his youth and inexperience through the intervention of a minister, cajoled by a woman; the reluctant minister even complains that "this is an abuse of power" (meaning both his and the woman's), but it's exactly how things work in this only superficially principled society.)
       Amaro was an unexceptional lad -- "as the servants put it, a 'bit of a namby-pamby'", as well as "a tittletattler and a liar" -- and he doesn't mature into an exceptional man. His parents died when he was very young, and circumstances led him to the seminary -- more for want of any alternatives than anything else. The priesthood is certainly not his calling, and from the beginning he often feels great frustration and resentment at being forced into this position. But once a priest he also knows how to use his position to best advantage -- especially vis-à-vis the ladies, many of whom still have the highest (and an often very emotional) regard for the clergy in the Portugal of that time.
       It's this portrait of the mediocre but generally not unsympathetic -- i.e. just very human -- Amaro, straight-jacketed by his collar and the restrictions and expectations of his office that make much of The Crime of Father Amaro so compelling. More than simply this, however, Eça de Queirós shows an entire society constricted by unreasonable rules and expectations -- and, very entertainingly, he shows that much is done only for show, and that beneath the surface reality looks very different indeed.
       Sex is one of the central problems for Father Amaro. He lusts, but it is impermissible for him to give in to his desires. Already weak, this situation only exacerbates the worst in him:
     He detested the whole secular world for having stripped him for ever of all his privileges, and since the priesthood excluded him from participation in human and social pleasures, he took refuge, instead, in the idea of the spiritual superiority his status gave him over other men.
       Unfortunately, whatever spiritual superiority he may have is solely ascribable to his status: he is, in fact, morally (and otherwise) very weak.
       He can not control himself, and finds in Amélia Caminha -- the daughter of his sometime landlady (ostensibly deeply devout, she herself has secretly long been intimately involved with a cleric) -- a promising victim. He feels great passion for Amélia, but it never entirely convinces as love -- but Eça presents their affair (and Amaro's concerns -- which are sometimes greater regarding his career, sometimes regarding the girl) in a way that one does hope for the best for the lovers.
       Amélia has a suitor, making it difficult for Amaro and her to commence their affair, but some unwise actions by the suspicious João Eduardo leave him the one disgraced. He too isn't perfect, resorting to some petty and foolish actions, but ultimately he is a decent fellow, truly in love with Amélia. But the values of the times are different ones, as someone explains to him:
     'My dear boy, you might as well possess all the social virtues, but, according to the religion of our country, any values that are not Catholic values are by definition useless and pernicious. Being hard-working, chaste, honest, fair, truthful are great virtues, but to the priests and to the Church they don't count. You could be the very model of kindness, but if you didn't go to mass, didn't fast or go to confession, didn't doff your hat to the priest, you would be considered a rogue. 
       And, as Eça repeatedly points out, it's not merely that the Church sets the standards: the Church (and its servants) are often hypocrites, not living up to many of the most fundamental virtues.
       Amélia and Amaro have a rather heated affair. Since it is so difficult for them to get together alone without being observed their relationship is almost purely sexual; when they're together in company their true thoughts and feelings must, of course, remain unspoken. In one of the best touches in the novel, they find a safe trysting spot: a creaking bed above the room of a disturbed invalid teenage girl, horribly revealing their true characters in the way they treat her, while Eça brilliantly conveys the girl's torment and confusion.
       Again and again Amaro lies, a weak man acting only in self-interest. The situation comes to a predictable head when his affair with Amélia results in the not unexpected consequence of repeated intercourse. Astonishingly, they find that this too can be taken care of, as Amaro is willing to continue to deceive at all costs. Things do spin slightly out of control, but it is Amaro that emerges unscathed -- and Amaro who leaves a trail of ruined lives behind him.
        The Crime of Father Amaro is a novel of impressive sweep. Several of the central characters are clergymen, and obviously Eça's main target is the Church, but it is, in fact, a novel of society as a whole at that time, where the Church happens to play a very significant and influential role. Remarkably, there is very little description of actual religious observance -- only one of Father Amaro's masses is described in any detail, and he doesn't seem to do much ministering to his flock. Instead, the focus is on the interaction of the characters, mainly those that assemble in what might be considered São Joaneira's salon, but also a few others. There are perhaps more clergymen than in most society-novels describing that time, but since most of them are as socially (and sexually) active as everyone else (and quite a few characters are, of course, both socially and sexually not very active) one often hardly notices. Amaro is like most other cads -- except that he has an excuse that allows him to get away with his behaviour more easily, as long as he is discreet in his affairs. (The only lesson he's learned by the end ? "Now I only confess married ladies.")
       There's a wonderful cast of characters, very well-presented, including many of the secondary characters -- such as the anti-religious Morgado de Poiais and the one truly good priest, Father Ferrão (who both enjoy a good dispute). It is Ferrão who tries to put things right, exposing Amaro's manipulative ways to the weak Amélia while keeping alive the "idea of a legitimate love" in her ("he knew she was all flesh and desire").
       Eça constantly holds out the possibility of things being set right -- almost never succumbing to a completely bleak outlook or even description of events. Even Amaro, who does very many contemptible things, is a character that Eça has some sympathy for, and he refuses to portray him as simply evil. Amaro is, at best, a mediocre soul, but it is the circumstances that bring out the worst in him, and it is these circumstances -- especially the position of the Church in society -- that Eça decries. Typical of his outlook is a sentence near the very end: "And beneath the warm splendid sky, this whole decrepit world moved sluggishly along".
       Despite some horrible goings on, The Crime of Father Amaro is also full of cheer, with good doses of humour throughout. Thankfully, Eça isn't sour and bitter in his condemnation. He shows how both individuals and society as a whole muddle through this odd world they find themselves in, taking it pretty much as best they can. It makes for an entertaining and often riveting read. -

Cards on the table: I’m a bit of a hipster. Yeah, I know that’s hardly news; my picture in my about me feature speaks volumes. But it doesn’t end with my appearance, because I’m one of those really annoying people who will tell you Mullholland Drive and not Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s best movie; I will not listen to Otis Redding records, but instead prefer Jerry Butler; I follow German football; I date DJ’s and artists. And so on. See, I like obscure things, things a little off the beaten track, and that attitude extends to my reading. I love [at least the idea of] so-called neglected or forgotten books. Want a tip? Go find a copy of How to Quiet a Vampire by Borislav Pekic or The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson. Both are excellent and not often enough given their due.
So, anyway, I was speaking to someone the other day about why certain novels never capture public attention. Why is it, I asked, that some books continue to resonate with readers hundreds of years after their publication, despite describing ways of living and attitudes that are no longer applicable to our own, and some do not? Why is it, for example, that Anna Karenina is hugely popular, and well-known, and something like the book under review here, The Crime of Father Amaro, isn’t? Both are critically acclaimed [I’ve never seen a negative review of either], both are, we’re told in those reviews, well written, and yet Father Amaro has never been anything more than a footnote.
Perhaps the most persuasive, or certainly the most appealing, answer would be that books like Anna Karenina deal with universal ideas and themes and the other books, the forgotten or neglected books, books like Father Amaro, do not. While it is the case that certain attitudes present in Anna Karenina ,and certain kinds of behaviour, etc, seem outdated to us now, there is still plenty in the book that relates to our experience of the world, such as marriage and adultery and the treatment of women. Father Amaro, on the other hand, is about Catholic priests, and corruption within the church; the scope of the novel seems so small as to potentially alienate non-religious believers or people from countries that are not still under the influence of the church.
However, it is my opinion that all books house universal ideas and themes, because they are, as far as I am aware, all written by human beings. Father Amaro’s subject might appear to have narrow appeal, but, putting aside priests and Catholicism for a moment, the themes at the heart of the novel are hypocrisy, and abuse of power, and failure of duty; and these are things that we all understand and can relate to. The priests preach tolerance, forgiveness, moderation, etc, and yet they are shown to be gluttonous, lascivious liars. Indeed, it is amazing to me that the novel was not at the time of publication [and even now] more controversial. I might be wrong, but I would think that anything showing priests in such a relentlessly bad light would really get some knickers in a twist; these priests sleep around, they conspire against each other and the town’s inhabitants, they blaspheme [one speaks about the confessional as only being useful so as to find stuff out or direct people for your own benefit] and so on.
Of course, we are an increasingly secular world, and so perhaps any mention of religion is likely to put people off. That would certainly be the case for many British readers, because the irreligious British, generally speaking, don’t like to engage with any religious sentiment or discussion at all. However, I would say that the religion in Father Amaro is far more palatable to a modern, secular, audience than that in Anna Karenina, where a religious conversion takes place. Father Amaro is a satire, it is poking fun at the clergy, while Tolstoy was absolutely in earnest about the power of Christianity.
So, if it isn’t the case that Anna Karenina has more universal appeal, could its popularity, its status, be put down to timing and exposure? Tolstoy was, of course, Russian, and Russian literature, even at the time of publication, was held in high regard. Russia was a vanguard country, in terms of literature. Being a fine Russian author, then, will mean greater exposure, more interest in your work. Eca de Queiroz, however, was Portuguese, which, to this day, has no great literary heritage. Indeed, Eca de Queiroz himself wrote about what he saw as an artless society [Portugal’s] in his book The Maias; in fact, he describes the country as one that has no culture of its own, as one that imports everything. You could say then that Tolstoy rode the zeitgeist, was fortunate to have been Russian and writing at a point when people were more likely to be interested in his work, but I don’t buy that, I’m afraid. Certainly, being Portuguese didn’t stop Jose Saramago winning the Nobel Prize.
As a true hipster it pains me to say that the real reason that The Crime of Father Amaro isn’t more popular and more widely read is because the book aint actually that good. This is not to say that it is poor, that it isn’t readable, or even worth reading; there are, in fact, some lovely touches; the first 100 pages, in particular, which deal with Amaro’s upbringing and arrival in Leira were very enjoyable. My favourite part of the book is when it is explained how the sensitive Amaro comes to train as a priest, or why he is in favour of doing so, which is not out of religious feeling but from a desire to be close to women; young Amaro is a sensualist, rather than a ladies man, or sleaze; he is shown to enjoy female company, to like their attention and being fussed over by them. I thought that was great stuff. The central love story is refreshingly lacking in melodrama too.
So, I am by no means saying that Father Amaro is bad, merely that it is average. His characters are fine, without ever being particularly memorable; the book lacks any real psychological or philosophical weight; the prose is steady but never outstanding, although it is occasionally funny; the story is engaging enough and yet at no point are you compelled to switch your phone off, tell your girlfriend you’re ill and can’t accept visitors, and hunker down for a few days to whip through the book at a mad pace. -

The novelist José Maria Eça de Queiroz is often compared to Dickens, a Dickens refined, without sentimentalism. Born in a small Portuguese fishing town in 1845, the son of a retired judge and a nineteen-year-old unmarried girl, Eça de Queiroz went on to become a lawyer, a diplomat, and the founder of the Realist-Naturalist school in Portugal. The Crime of Father Amaro is only the first novel in a literary production that comprised short stories, chronicles, letters, essays, and literary criticism.
It is the unsparing portrait of a stagnant society, a novel filled with a host of fascinating secondary characters, unforgettably described. It is mordantly funny, tragic, and, above all, humane. It tells the destructive love story of Amaro Vieira, a Catholic priest and a “handsome, strapping lad,” and lovely Amelia. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of Leiria, a small Portuguese city, bursting with narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy. Eça spares no one; he rails against priests, who believe “the main cause of poverty…is immorality,” against superstition and provincialism. His eye for detail is striking, whether describing the physical beauty of the Portuguese countryside, the psychology of a character, or the distended bellies of poor children. It’s impossible not to wince when Amaro fumes, “Do they imagine that as soon as an old bishop says to a strong, young man ‘Thou shalt be chaste’ that his blood suddenly grows cold?” Jull Costa’s brilliant translation preserves Eça’s sharp, ironic prose and the elegant flavor of his humor. I hope Ms. Jull Costa will do the English-speaking world a tremendous favor and translate Eça’s other novels. His is a literary production not to be missed. -

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José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Yellow Sofa, Trans. by John Vetch, New Directions, 1996.

José Maria Eça de Queirós, the first great modern Portuguese novelist, wrote The Yellow Sofa with, as he said, "no digressions, no rhetoric," where "everything is interesting and dramatic and quickly narrated." The story, a terse and seamless spoof of Victorian bourgeois morals, concerns Godofredo Alves, a successful, buoyant businessman who returns home to find his wife "on the yellow damask sofa... leaning in abandon on the shoulder of a man..." The man is none other than Machado, his best friend and business partner. Godofredo struggles with the public need to defend his honor, and a stronger inner desire for forgiveness and domestic tranquillity. The Babel Guide to Portuguese Fiction notes, "The genius of this book is how Eça captures all the emotional fluctuations... and with such accuracy. The result is an enjoyable humorous novella that is simultaneously breathtakingly ironic." The Yellow Sofa firmly establishes Eça de Queirós in the literary pantheon that includes Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac and Tolstoy.

In a letter cited by the author's son in his introductory note, E a de Queiros (1846-1900) writes of a planned series of short novels "which would be a reflection of contemporary life in Portugal." He adds, "the attraction of these tales is that there are no digressions, no rhetoric, no philosophizing: everything is interesting and dramatic, and quickly narrated." Whether or not The Yellow Sofa was intended as one of these novels, the description fits. Godofredo da Concei ao Alves has a comfortable life: a beautiful wife, Lulu, and a good steady business in partnership with the handsome young gallant, Machado. Alves gets some vicarious pleasure from Machado's romantic escapades until he comes home to find his wife and partner entwined on his yellow sofa. Filled with what he supposes to be righteous outrage, he throws Lulu out and challenges Machado. But reality is an inconvenient intercessor. A duel seems honorable until one of his seconds urges him to make his will. He believes his wife's exile will redeem his home but now his morning shaving water is cold; his breakfast eggs are unpredictable; the cut-glass fruit bowl has a broken handle; and his linen is dirty. Alves is a romantic who likes his comforts and a man who is motivated by an almost interchangeable mix of generosity and cowardice. Most of all, in E a de Queiros's hands, he is a wonderful, gently mocking exemplar of bourgeois morality. - Publishers Weekly

"A typical case of faulty transmission is that of Alves & Ca., a novella probably written during the autumn of 1887 but not published until long after Eça's death in 1900. (...) Evidently it was not so much Eça's saturnine irony which displeased his son José Maria, who released Alves & Ca. in 1925, as the apparent stylistic imperfections of the autograph manuscript. Accordingly he set out not merely to correct, but to improve the text on almost every one of its 120 pages. Eça's semi-colons and dashes were either changed into commas or else silently removed, the syntax and grammatical structure of sentences were rearranged, and José Maria saw nothing wrong with interpolating additional adjectives in order to intensify the tone at certain points in the story." - Jonathan Keates

At the centre of The Yellow Sofa is Godfredo Alves. At the beginning he is happy enough with his life: "naturally indolent", his business is a success, his marriage to Lulu comfortable. He works together with an altogether different sort of fellow, Machado, who "provided the commercial shrewdness, energy, decisiveness, broad ideas, the business flair".
       The ladies like Machado, and he likes them: he's had three affairs Alves knows of since they became partners. Arriving at the office one day Alves finds Machado is out -- tending to an affair, rather than business, he knows. Deciding then to pay an unexpected visit to his own house -- it's his anniversary, which he and his wife seemed to have forgotten -- Alves of course stumbles onto Lulu in Machado's arms (on the yellow sofa).
       It's an unpleasant situation, and Alves isn't sure how -- beyond outrage -- to act. He confronts his wife and has his father-in-law take her in, to get her out of his sight. But he also feels the need to regain his honour, and contemplates duelling Machado.
       The story follows his half-hearted efforts, the advice of his friends, the semi-confrontations. Nobody really wants anyone to get shot over this, and everyone looks out for their own hide. Alves doesn't want to back down, but all of his ideas eventually strike even him as fairly preposterous.
       Deep down Alves just wants everything to return back to the comfortable, normal situation of before -- and that, eventually, is what he achieves. The fun is in the twists and squirming, and the way the characters act with one another -- each trying to make the most out of the situation and to smooth things over by turning a blind eye to the truth. It's an amusing tale of a weak-willed but sympathetic man trying to make the best of a situation that's beyond his capacity.
       A nice, small portrait of Portuguese bourgeois life, The Yellow Sofa is a fine little story, but it does feel very light -- a satire of the gentlest sort.
        Note that this work was first published posthumously, and that Eça's son, José Maria d'Eça de Queirós, apparently meddled extensively with the manuscript; see, for example, Jonathan Keates' comments above  -

In a letter cited by the author's son in his introductory note, E a de Queiros (1846-1900) writes of a planned series of short novels ""which would be a reflection of contemporary life in Portugal."" He adds, ""the attraction of these tales is that there are no digressions, no rhetoric, no philosophizing: everything is interesting and dramatic, and quickly narrated."" Whether or not The Yellow Sofa was intended as one of these novels, the description fits. Godofredo da Concei ao Alves has a comfortable life: a beautiful wife, Lulu, and a good steady business in partnership with the handsome young gallant, Machado. Alves gets some vicarious pleasure from Machado's romantic escapades until he comes home to find his wife and partner entwined on his yellow sofa. Filled with what he supposes to be righteous outrage, he throws Lulu out and challenges Machado. But reality is an inconvenient intercessor. A duel seems honorable until one of his seconds urges him to make his will. He believes his wife's exile will redeem his home but now his morning shaving water is cold; his breakfast eggs are unpredictable; the cut-glass fruit bowl has a broken handle; and his linen is dirty. Alves is a romantic who likes his comforts and a man who is motivated by an almost interchangeable mix of generosity and cowardice. Most of all, in E a de Queiros's hands, he is a wonderful, gently mocking exemplar of bourgeois morality. (Nov.) FYI: Last year New Directions published E a de Queiros's The Illustrious House of Ramires, which was one of PW's Best Books for 1995.

The untitled manuscript which would become known as The Yellow Sofa was found in a trunk in 1924, a quarter of a century after the author's death. In his introduction to the work, José Maria d'Eça Queirós says this, "In the end, there are only two points in the confused history of the manuscript which can be asserted with safety and precision: that my father wrote it, and that I have brought it to the light of day."
And for these two points we can be grateful. Eça de Queirós is generally regarded as Portugal's greatest 19th century novelist, and the mighty Zola himself is quoted as saying, "He is far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert." So let's begin. Godofredo Alves comes home early from work one afternoon to surprise his wife—and surprise her he does, with his business partner Machado. Outraged, Alves is resolute about what steps must be taken: his wife, Lulu (Ludovina), is banished to her father's house, and clearly Machado must be challenged to a duel. Soon the crafty father-in-law arrives, and we meet Lulu's sister Teresa as well as the domineering young maid, Joanna (who may be something more than just the old man's housekeeper). By this time, The Yellow Sofa has begun to stride jauntily on legs of its own, and despite the seriousness of the subject—adultery, for god's sake—there's a lilting, easy-going rhythm in the prose that seems in stern contrast to the author's contemporaries in the rest of Europe. In truth, without being outright funny, there's an amusing undercurrent to the novella that roughly parallels Brazil's Machado de Assis and prefigures the wry masterworks of Jorge Amado, let alone Portugal's José Saramago. Alves calls on his friends, Carvalho and Medeiros, and while no one would describe them as happy-go-lucky, it transpires that they have had affairs and what of it? Before long, they conclude that what Alves is so upset over hardly qualifies as more than a flirtation. Their strategy is that Alves should save face and eventually forgive and forget. We must remember that Alves is indignant throughout most of this book; after all, his integrity and good name have been besmirched. It's not that Carvalho and Medeiros don't take him seriously, it's just that they don't live in an uptight country—like the present-day United States. The best part of The Yellow Sofa is in its turnaround. These pages are to be savored, it's like the sudden arrival of your favorite dessert, and it's only at the very end, when the book surges forward and quickly ties up all of its loose ends, that it seems forced and a bit rushed. No matter, we have been pleased and entertained, we have had a few laughs and perhaps a few tears, and I shall say only this, The Yellow Sofa is an engrossing delight.  - Bondo Wyszpolski
An Excerpt

José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Relic, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, Dedalus, 2003.

Teodorico Raposo, the novel's anti-hero, is a master of deceit; one minute feigning devotion in front of his rich, pious aunt, in order to inherit her money, the next indulging in debauchery. Spurred on by the desire to please his aunt, and in order to get away from his unfaithful mistress, he embarks on a journey to the Holy Land in search of a holy relic. The resulting fiasco is a masterpiece of comic irony as religious bigotry and personal greed are mercilessly ridiculed.

"Within a few pages he has us straining to keep up with the modernity of his thought, we are instantly impressed by the purity and imagery of his style, respectful before his restraint and economy of word and incident; above all fascinated by the rapier-like thrust of his satire. And -- yes -- convulsed by his hilarious comedy." - The New York Times Book Review

"The novel is brilliantly written; the translation by Aubrey F.G. Bell (...) is so lively and graceful that it almost suggests that the work had been originally composed in this racy English prose." - Richard Sullivan

The Relic is narrated by Teodorico Raposo. His mother died after giving birth to him, and when he was seven his father died too. He was then entrusted to the care of his aunt, Patrocínio -- a very wealthy woman, but not a very sympathetic one.
       Ultra-devout, Aunt Patrocínio's only concern is religion. She gives off "the bitterwsweet odour of snuff and formic acid" and has a "greenish, sunken-cheeked face". She runs a strict house, expecting everyone -- and especially Teodorico -- to live up to her high religious standards. Teodorico has other things in mind (like any normal young man), but realises that it's a good idea to stay in his aunt's good graces in order to eventually inherit her fortune.
       Teodorico soon becomes adept at leading a double life: appearing as obsessively devout as his aunt is to her, while leading a pleasantly debauched life when out of her purview. He has to be careful, but he manages quite well.
       Sex, of course, is the greatest of horrors for his aunt:
Incessant mutterings before the naked figure of Christ, prayers for indulgence said at the Hours of Piety, all the while aching with divine love, had gradually filled my aunt with a bitter, envious rancour regarding human love in all its forms.
       So it is his romantic encounters that he has to be especially careful to keep hidden.
       Knowing that he has to compete with the Church itself for his aunt's fortune he works doubly hard to appear as obsessively devout as her -- and thus a worthy successor to her. Still, he has other yearnings too -- such as a desire to travel abroad, to Paris, for example. Paris, of course, is out of the question -- a den of sin that's no place for Teodorico -- but the aunt does agree to send him to the Holy Land. All she asks is that he brings back a relic -- and he's sure if he accomplishes this then he'll be made her heir.
       Despite all the religious play-acting not all that much of it had actually gone into Teodorico's head:
     Jerusalem ! Where was Jerusalem ? I ran to the trunk containing my schoolbooks and my old clothes. I pulled out an atlas, and with it open on the desk, before the image of Our Lady of Grace and Favour, I started looking for Jerusalem (.....)
     I could already feel in my wandering finger the weariness of a long journey; I paused on the tortuous bank of a river which I supposed to be the holy Jordan. It was the Danube.

       Teodorico sets out on his adventure, finding a travel companion in the German academic Dr. Topsius -- and some oriental romance (with, of all things, a girl from Yorkshire) in Alexandria. Eventually Teodorico and Topsius get to the Holy Land -- which doesn't impress the young man all that much. But he has a relic to find !
       An unusual centrepiece to the novel -- a long chapter in the middle -- is a dream in which Teodorico is transported back to the time of Christ, and where he and Topsius become witnesses to history in the making. It's an odd tour de force, and a big chunk of the novel, a bit jarring because it doesn't entirely fit in with the rest of the story. But it's quite well done, a fun bit of time travel with the fairly hapless Teodorico in the middle.
       Teodorico also does find a relic -- or rather (not at all surprisingly) he fakes one. What he plans to offer his aunt is nothing less than the crown of thorns that Jesus wore -- something he's quite sure he can get away with.
       Possibly he could, but Teodorico finally falters a bit in his attempts at showing piety when he returns to Portugal and his aunt (a good dose of very bad luck complicating things for him). He misses his opportunity (and then doesn't make the most out of the alternative) and winds up on the street: all the years of faking it for naught.
       Teodorico eventually manages well enough, though he doesn't get any of his aunt's fortune upon her death (in a typical Eca touch the priest who does wind up with most of the money is the least deserving). He's disappointed that he didn't get all the riches, but also amused at his own downfall.
        Teodorico is an entertaining figure, a fairly simple bon vivant who, for much of the novel, hilariously tries to outdo his aunt in her own insane piety. The aunt is, of course, a caricature -- but not an entirely unbelievable one. It makes for a fun story, with some fine comic moments, though ultimately the whole is not quite substantial enough. -
Image result for José Maria Eça de Queirós, To the Capital
José Maria Eça de Queirós, To the Capital

To the Capital is the story of Artur Corvelo, a young man from the Portuguese provinces with literary ambitions. He is sent to the university in Coimbra, but spends most of his time in more literary circles, dreaming of becoming a poet (and failing badly in his first efforts). First his mother, then his father die, and after failing his detested courses he finally finds himself only "left with eight milreis and a venereal disease".
       He winds up even deeper in the provinces, with some aunts in Oliveira de Azemeis. It is here, at the local train station, the novel begins (looping back to fill in the background), with Artur waiting for his Godfather, whose train is on the way to Lisbon but will stop here briefly. The train comes, but the Godfather isn't on it. Artur dreams of Lisbon -- the intellectual capital where he is sure his gifts will be appreciated and will flourish -- but even the possibility of a brief brush with someone headed for Lisbon seems out of reach.
       Artur is, to put mildly, a fish out of water in Oliveira de Azemeis. He is doted on, and life made as easy as possible, but he wants to break free of this small town, dreaming only of literary fame (which he believes he can only achieve in Lisbon. He immerses himself in the occasional ambitious literary project, but every poetry submission meets with failure (and needless to say he doesn't take criticism well -- or constructively).
       Finally, opportunity arises: his Godfather dies, leaving him enough money to set out for Lisbon and try to establish himself. Artur's unrealistic expectations ("it was from French novels that he reconstructed Lisbon society") might lead one to expect quick disappointment, but he is largely blinded by ambition and stumbles bravely onwards for a while.
       Things don't go well, of course: there's well-meaning but misguided advice, and he's also taken adbvantage of. He makes a bit of a name for himself, but his expectations ride on a volume of poetry (Enamels and Jewels) and a play (with the unpromising title of Loves of a Poet). He publishes the poems, but the impact is less than resounding; the play ultimately goes unproduced. Eventually, of course, he must slink back to the provinces.
       To the Capital is an entertaining account of Artur's blind ambition, and of small-time literary life all over Portugal. Eça's approach is genial and warm. Almost all of his characters are misguided in their own (sometimes very peculiar) ways, but it makes for a nice mix of engaging characters. The canvas occasionally gets crowded, and the story advances somewhat fitfully -- presumably because the posthumously published book was cobbled together from Eça's notes and papers. Still, it's a decent novel, enjoyable if not truly gripping.
        Note that To the Capital was first published posthumously, in an edition cobbled together by Eça's son, José Maria d'Eça de Queirós. While Vetch's translation is based on that 1925 edition, it does incorporate some of the changes of the new scholarly edition published in the 1990s. (See, also, Jonathan Keates' comments above.)  -
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José Maria Eça de Queirós, Alves and Co: And Other Stories, Dedalus, 2012.

Eca de Queiroz began his career as a self-declared realist, but as his writing evolved, his novels and stories became a potent blend of realism and fantasy. In this volume, comprising one short novel and six short stories, the reader is introduced to a dazzling variety of worlds and characters - a deceived husband who finds that jealousy is not the answer, a lovelorn Greek poet-turned-waiter working in a Charing Cross hotel, a saintly young woman soured by love, a follower of St Francis who learns that an entire life of virtue can be besmirched by one cruel act, Adam in Paradise pondering the pros and cons of dominion over the earth, Jesus healing a child, and a loyal nursemaid forced to make a terrible choice.
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José Maria Eça de Queirós, The Mandarin and Other Stories, Dedalus, 2. ed., 2009.

Eca de Queiroz's sharply satirical work aimed to expose the hypocrisies of his age. In The Mandarin his lascivious anti-heroes Teodoro and Teodorico,are dragged from their narrow Lisbon lives into exotic encounters with Chinese mandarins, the Devil (in the guise of a dark-suited civil servant)and Jesus Christ Himself. This short novel is accompanied by the short stories Jose Matias, The Hanged Man and The Idiosyncrasies of a young blonde woman.

Each of the four masterly stories included in the latest Eca de Queiroz volume from Dedalus - with another fine translation by Margaret Jull Costa - contains an element of fantasy.In 'The Mandarin', a novella writen in 1880, Teodoro, an ageing and impoverished civil servant, fantasises about becoming rich. The Devil appears before him and offers to grant his wish if Teodoro will pray for the death of a Mandarin in distant China - the French excpression tuer le mandarin means 'to harm someone whom you know will never meet in order to gain some personal advantage and in the certain knowledge that you never will be punished'. Teodoro duly inherits a Mandarin's fortune and enters into a life of luxury, but remorse drives him to China in a futile search for the dead man's family. He returns to Lisbon haunted by the crime.
The last three short stories deal in turn with a man's obsessive love for a woman,'a theme that runs through much of Eca's work'. 'The idiosyncracies of a Young Blonde Woman' was written in 1873. Macario endures years of poverty and separation from the pretty but enigmatic Luisa, but as he is about to become engaged to her an unsettling incident crushes his romantic ideal. In 'The Hanged Man'(1885), set in Spain, Don Ruy de Cardenas falls in love with Don Alonso. In a jealous rage, Alonso forces her to write a letter that will lure Ruy to his death. On his way to the 'assignation', Ruy passes Hangman's Hill, where a supernatural event brings fateful consequences. The short story 'Jose Matias'(1897) chronicles the long years of Jose's passionate love for Elisa, during which he secretly watches her windows 'with extreme refinement of spirituality and devotion'. - Alan Biggins

A brilliant mischievous essay in fantasy chinoiserie, irreverently subverting the trope, created half a century earlier by Balzac in La Peau de chagrin, of the Oriental curse masquerading as a blessing. In the same Dedalus collection of Eca's short fiction lies a late gem,'Jose Matias', a love story told at a funeral by a Hegelian philosopher, in which the issue of the narrator's own relationship with reality adds a comically ambiguous layer to the tale. - Jonathan Keates


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