Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Eça de Queiroz

Sometimes a language can act as a barrier to recognition, especially in the  case of literatures existing on the fringes of the English-reading world. If Eça de Queiroz hadn’t written his novels in Portuguese, readers and critics would utter his name in a tone of reverence only reserved for the likes of Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky. The comparison seems bold, I know, but Eça – as he’s known – is the greatest 19th century Portuguese writer. A great realist with a satirist's heart, his fiction rendered his time perfectly while capturing the soul of the Portuguese people.

I wish I could, by some supernatural occurrence, find the mythical Lethe to forget the hours I spent reading his finely-constructed sentences, just to have the pleasure of relishing them again for the first time. Thinking about them is almost as good. Even without Lethe, my memory is a bit hazy since I read him years ago, so this short introduction doesn’t presume to be deep and scholarly; I merely hope to stimulate the reader’s curiosity.

Eça de Queiroz wrote mostly between 1870 and 1900, the year he passed away. Although most of his work was published in his lifetime, death didn’t stop him. Posthumous books – mostly non-fiction, essays, articles, crónicas, letters and travelogues, but also fiction – kept appearing well into the 1920s, and as recently as 1980 a new novel was discovered and published.

Eça was born in 1845, son of a magistrate from Rio de Janeiro. A close friend of his family was the other great 19th century novelist, Camilo Castelo Branco, whose name has recently received a boost thanks to Raoul Ruiz’ 2010 film adaptation of his novel Mysteries of Lisbon. A baptized Catholic who never reneged on his faith, in spite of his frequent attacks on organised religion in his novels, Eça studied Law at the University of Coimbra, where his father had also been a student. It’s the oldest university in Portugal and by far the most prestigious. There he befriended the poet Antero de Quental, whose name and poetry are associated with the Republican movement that changed Portugal from a monarchy to a democracy. Coimbra was then a point of intellectual convergence for several revolutionary and reformist ideas that were sweeping across the rest of Europe, like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s anarchism and Hippolyte Taine’s triad of factors for understanding Man (environment, race and historical moment), ideas later taken up by the Realists and Eça in theirs novels. This friendship with Quental resulted, in 1871, in a series of conferences where part of the country’s intelligentsia discussed changes in politics and society; Eça gave a lecture defending Realism as the form of literature better suited to express Portugal's status quo, using Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as an example of the new novel. Eça, infatuated with revolutionary ideals, actually interpreted Madame Bovary as a political novel! In spite of a youthful ideological blindness, his lecture did lead to a rupture with the Romanticism then reigning in Portuguese literature; Eça, it goes without saying, considered the Romantics utterly passé (Portugal is, by the way, the country that invented Ultra-Romanticism, but I'll spare you from learning what that is).

After finishing his studies in 1866, he failed as a lawyer and succeed as a journalist. In 1969 he received an assignment to cover the opening of the Suez Canal. His dispatches from Egypt were later published in book form in 1926; this trip also provided him with material to write one of his best novels, The Relic. Upon on his return to Portugal, he collaborated with his friend Ramalho Ortigão on a satirical newspaper called As Farpas, (The Splinters). With Ramalho Eça also co-wrote his first novel, an ‘execrable novel,’ according to their preface for the 1884 edition: The Mystery of the Sintra Road. It's a detective novel, the first in Portuguese literature. The years was 1870.

However, Eça wrote the bulk of his work during his diplomatic career. In 1873 he was nominated consul to Havana. Between 1874 and 1878 he was stationed in England. And later in 1888 he became consul in Paris, where he resided until his death in 1900. Throughout his diplomatic career he continued to write for newspapers, especially articles about England and France that retain historical importance and curiosity for Eça's unusual insights about their arts, economy and politics. Letters from England and Ecos de Paris were published posthumously. These two countries have often been poles between which Portuguese writers wrestle in their search for influences and role-models (Portugal has been predominantly Francophile in its literature since the 18th century, all the way down to the Existentialism taken up by Vergílio Ferreira in the 1950s; Fernando Pessoa, unusually, was an Anglophile, but then again he was brought up in South Africa).

Letters from England, available in English, contains fascinating observations, from the political to the mundane. Eça wrote about everything, sometimes making chilling prophecies: he predicted the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and the expansion of Jihadists in the Middle East; he foretold England would be caught in an unwinnable war with Afghanistan in the future; and he even guessed travel guides would outsell literature (and they’re everywhere nowadays, aren’t they, the bastards, staring at you with their colorful, tropical-exotic covers). In other articles, Eça compared Christmas traditions between Portugal and England, extolled its Children’s literature, lamenting that Portugal did not practice the genre, and even mentioned the Harcourt interpolation, a scandal involving a person who inserted the work fucking in the middle of a political speech, in The Times newspaper, in 1882. Although no one probably remembers it anymore, it must have caused a huge sensation back then, for Eça to devote an entire article to it.

But as interesting as his journalism was, it’s his literature he’s chiefly remembered for. In 1874 he published his first mature novel, The Crime of Father Amaro. The novel concerns the arrival of a young and handsome priest to Leiria, a provincial town in Portugal, where he quickly conquers the attention and devotion of a group of pious ladies, who slavishly dote on him. However his attention is focused on a young woman, Amélia, daughter of the innkeeper where he takes lodgings. With the complicity of an older priest, who’s having his own affair with the mother, he seduces Amélia and destroys the reputation of her pretender. Things escalate until Amélia becomes pregnant, at which point Amaro, who has greater ambitions than spending the rest of his life in a countryside cul-de-sac, finds a way to get rid of the baby and end the relationship without harming his immaculate image. This novel was revised in 1876 and again in 1880, each time Eça stripping away all the idealism and romantic sentimentality of the first version (a “sketch,” he called it) in order to depict Amaro as a cold, manipulative upstart without scruples or remorse. It was a fierce critique of the clergy, but also of the undeveloped countryside, where the church still held most of its power.

Written between 1877 and 1878, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers was only published in 1980. A preliminary sketch of his masterpiece The Maias, this early novel concerns a young man who falls in love with an older foreign woman. Although a bit redundant, it’s still very well written and displays a strong satirical voice and a mind attuned to the grotesque. It also contains one of Eça's best characters, a painter with quasi-religious ideas about art, nostalgic for the bygone era of aristocratic patrons and enemy of vulgar commercialization.

Cousin Bazilio, from 1878, explored the incestuous relationship between Luiza, a married housewife, and her cad of a cousin, Bazilio, who returns from abroad to settle some businesses and, in want of a lover, starts an affair with her just to while away the time. Eça clearly used Madame Bovary as a template, especially in the almost sadistic way the book dismantles romantic clichés. However, Luiza is no Emma Bovary. The novel belongs to Bazilio, who’s one of the most revolting and unscrupulous bastards from literature, and Juliana, a maid who blackmails Luiza with a letter revealing her affair. Long after Bazilio is out of her life, Luiza continues to suffer the consequences when Juliana, with chilling class prejudice, rebels against her and turns mistress into slave.

Eça abandoned realism for his next work, a novella admired by, among others, Jorge Luis Borges, who included it in his collection Library of Babel. The Mandarin is a fantastic tale about Teodoro, a clerk who receives a visit from the Devil; he gives him a small bell ring, promising him that if he rings it, he’ll inherit the fortune of a Mandarin who dies at its touch. Tempted by dreams of fortune and luxury, imagining himself living an opulent life, he obviously rings the bell. Immediately he becomes the the dead mandarin's heir. Unfortunately he can’t enjoy the fortune because the dead man’s spirit haunts him: it doesn’t do him harm; it just stands in front of him, staring at him. Always. Teodoro travels to China in search of the dead man to give him a proper burial. Things don't pan out as he hopes. This was in 1880.

In 1887, The Relic comes out. Teodorico is a poor dilettante who must convince his pious but rich aunt to bequeath all her fortune to him. But his lack of religious convictions and bohemian lifestyle are against him. In order to ingratiate himself with her, he makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in search of a relic for her. In the journey he finds love (with a hooker) and starts a lucrative business importing relics en masse to sell to the deeply religious bourgeois class in Lisbon. Eça’s humor corrodes through everything: class, religion, love, politics; it’s his funniest novel. The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno admired it.

José Saramago called The Maias the greatest Portuguese novel ever written, and he may be right; Eça’s masterpiece came out in 1888. It’s a long, Byzantine tome, full of plot twists and hundreds of characters who come from several walks of life, making the novel one of those big 19th century panoramic frescoes of a society. The story follows the decadence of a family across three generations, each one symbolizing a different aesthetic school: Stoicism, Romanticism, and finally Decadentism embodied by Carlos da Maia, a bohemian ne’er-do-well who gets involved with a foreign woman haunted by a scandal.

This was his last great novel publishing in life. The Illustrious House of Ramires came out in the same year of his death. It may be his most impenetrable novel for readers unfamiliar with Portuguese history; it’s about history, politics, and writing: Gonçalo Ramires, the last descendant of one of the oldest families in Portugal, older than the Nation itself, starts writing a novel about one of his ancestors, a 13th century knight and faithful servant of King Afonso II. Gonçalo, an ambitious arriviste with political dreams, believes that the publication of a historical novel with a nationalistic tone will boost his name in the newspapers. This novel was written at a time when Portugal’s unstable monarchy was under threat from what an episode known as "the British Ultimatum:" in 1890 Portugal, which controlled the African territories between Angola (West African Coast) and Mozambique (East African Coast), was forced to pull out its troops from between these territories in order to allow the creation of a British-owned railway connecting Cairo to the Cape. Republicans used this incident to blame the monarchy for the ultimatum's humiliating outcome. This was not Eça’s best novel: its strong nationalism dilutes the humor and turns it into an apologia of the monarchy and Portugal’s colonial empire. Maybe it’s just my temperament, but I prefer Eça when he’s bleak and pessimistic; this was too celebratory and uplifting for my taste.

Equally disappointing was The City and the Mountains, published in 1901. It’s my least favourite novel by him; it’s a simplistic demonization of urban life and glorification of the countryside. It seemed Eça’s wit was finished. But then in 1925, three new works surfaced: To the Capital, a novel about a mediocre writer who moves from the countryside to Lisbon thinking he’ll become important - then his bohemian life and obvious lack of talent open his eyes to reality; Alves & C., a novella about a man who arrives home early one day and finds his wife in the arms of his business partner, leading to one of literature's most hilarious and clumsy attempts at setting a duel of honor; and O Conde de Abranhos (The Count of Abranhos; it needs to be translated), a searing indictment of Portuguese politics written in the form of a panegyric; it follows the machinations of a nobody in order to become a minister – along the way the novella exposes the network of connections and factions he must learn to navigate through in order to achieve his goal. For anyone who wants to understand Portuguese politics, it beats reading a shelf of treatises.

And that’s it for his major works. All in all, he’s well served by English translations. So there’s no reason not to read him.


  1. This is what I have been trying to say! But all in one place, and rather clearer than anything I wrote.

    Through the Portuguese Challenge, I have coerced or convinced at least 3 people, with a 4th on the way, to read Eça for the first time, which is not bad. But now i can send people here!

    Outstanding debut, by the way. Thanks for the useful comments at my place.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Your blog was sort of an inspiration, in fact.