Monday, 1 October 2012

Eça the Barbarian

Eça de Queiroz, circa 1868

We’re always learning. Some weeks ago I posted Eça de Queiroz’ rubbishing of late Romantic poetry. But a few days ago I discovered that the father of the Portuguese realist novel had, in his wild and reckless youth, an infatuation with Romanticism. This discovery came from reading a collection of his early writings, fiction and non-fiction, named Prosas Bárbaras (Barbarian Writings). In 1866, Eça, fresh out of law school, was in his early twenties. Although like his father he was poised to become a lawyer, he was already discovering his vocation for literature. He got his first opportunity to demonstrate his skills when he was offered a job at newspaper Gazeta de Portugal, and his first attempt wasn’t wholly remarkable. These texts are of a diverse nature – art criticism, reminiscences, gothic and fantastic short-stories influenced by German folklore and Dark Romanticism, opinions on contemporary writers. An odd mixture of not always good or interesting short texts. Eça wrote them up until 1867. Perhaps the most remarkable one, which wasn’t part of these texts but is included in the book, is the novel he left incomplete after returning from his trip to the Middle East, in 1870. It’s a biblical novel called A Morte de Jesus (The Death of Jesus). Thirty or so pages exist. Much of this material was later reused for The Relic. The fiction, weird narratives that invariably end with someone dying, pales in comparison to the non-fiction.

The most interesting part of the book is in fact the introduction, written by Jaime Batalha Reis, editor and personal friend of Eça from their student years. He edited and published these juvenilia in 1903, with the consent of the author, who even suggested the book’s title. And Reis has many amusing anecdotes and episodes to relate about his friend Eça. For instance his habit to burst into his friends’ room and announce: “It’s me and my vultures; we’ve come for supper, devouring corpses!” And his dilettante love for wandering all around Lisbon’s neighbourhoods late at night, with his friends, eating and drinking. When money ran out, they knocked on friends’ doors and asked for more money. Once they had no money to pay a restaurant bill and a friend had to go acquire money; Reis recounts that Eça and him, while waiting, entertained themselves by scribbling an improvised epic poem on the walls of an inner patio.

Eça wasn’t a stranger to mind-altering substances either; on his trip to the Middle East, with his friend the Count of Resende, he experimented with hashish, and brought some for friends: “He told us stories from his trips, he described us persons, scenes in the bazaars of Cairo, in the Egyptian desert – the guides, the sheiks, and at night, around the fire, the camels, ‘of humorous look, grinning ironically,’ and stretching their necks as if to listen to the narrator, over the shoulders of the heedful Bedouins, grave and with their legs crossed. He analysed, minutely, the sensations he had in Cairo, and the use of hashish, and the fantastic visions he prepared for us – for he and the Count of Resende had brought us hashish mixed in jelly, cakes, and pastilles that you smoked in special pipes.”

Reis also reveals who some of the influences on Eça in those years were: “Thus the first influences that had a role on Eça de Queiroz – those who are more evidently recognisable in his first literary creations, the writers whose interests I can testify about – were mainly Heinrich Heine, Gerard de Nerval, Jules Michelet, Charles Baudelaire; more distantly, or in second hand, Shakespeare, Goethe, Hoffmann, Armin, Poe, and, powerfully involving everything, Victor Hugo.” That Hugo was an influence on young Eça is delightful; he’s the punch line of so many jokes in his novels. Shakespeare is another surprising name, mainly because of Eça’s evident Francophilia. “In those times Romanticism was in our souls,” Eça writes in a letter to a friend included in the book. “We devoutly prayed in front of Shakespeare’s bust.” Poe, Reis informs, was read in Baudelaire’s French translations, for Eça at the time wasn’t yet conversant with the English language.

These writings were produced before his conversion to realism in 1871, and looking back Eça has a gently contemptuous view of them. “On listening to his primitive work, Eça de Queiroz exploded with sarcastic laughter, shouts of indignation against the images, the topics, the style: he didn’t understand how he could have written like that, so personally, so passionately, so vaguely, with so much carelessness – he howled – in the creation of images, in the construction of sentences and the use of vocabulary.” Nevertheless he accepted to publish the book, “but under the critical and severe title” it has today.

Now some excerpts. I regret informing that I’m not reproducing any of his early fiction here. Like I wrote above, his non-fiction is the best of this thin volume.

On Lady Macbeth:

This Adam of evil has a monstrous Eve – Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is the serenity of evil. She, with her sovereign and barbarian attitude, has a vague similarity to a Homeric Juno. She has in herself all the great rigidities, all the cold austerities of Northern Nature.

She is the wild energy which from afar leads battles. She passes through the drama like a priestess of evil, predestined and serene: sometimes it even seems to float, in her cold gaze, something of a funereal resignation: wrath and punishment – they almost take pity on that tragic sterile woman. She doesn’t have love, she doesn’t have compassion, she doesn’t have consolation, she doesn’t have melancholy, she doesn’t have motherhood. Someone, ferocious and unknown, has taken that softness where tears exist, in order to keep her rigid and stiff attitude of evil.

On Edgar Allen Poe:

Poe doesn’t have Hoffman’s vague enlightenment, nor Darwin’s cold imagination. Poe speaks the reality of terrors and visions, reality. His book is the deranged epopee of the nervous system. (My italics)

On Charles Baudelaire:

(…) Baudelaire is the terrible traveller who journeys through the evil of flesh the way, with their due differences, Dante journeys through the evil of the soul. Baudelaire goes to the rivers and picks up the corpses of the drowned, bloated and pink, sleeping on a mattress of sand, covered with water’s livid rags (…)

On Portuguese painting:

When I think about the relationship Portugal’s visual arts have with the whole immense creation from the schools in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, I instinctively and strangely remember a wood sculptor in Gothic times. The artist sculpts the stick, creates a weaving of figures, of ascetic virgins, of satirical devils, of grotesque monks, of Catherine windows and foliage, and while the work acquires definition, shape, soul, all full of ideas, of feelings, of beliefs – almost a chant made of wood – the splinters and shavings fall on the ground, imperceptible, dull, despicable and useless. Works of art in Portugal are those splinters and shavings which remain after the construction of thought into art. (Again, my italics; severe, and I think a bit unjust)

On account of the USS Miantonomoh’s docking in the Tejo, he shares some strong opinions about the United States:

North America means work, faith, heroism, industry, capital, strength and matter.

He starts well. These are all good attributes, but wait for it:

This is how we see it: immense movements of capital; exclusive adoration of the only god Dollar; superabundance of life; exaggeration of means; violent predominance of individualism; great practical sense; an atmosphere heavy with sterile positivisms; an almost painful fever of the industrial movement; an avaricious use of almost all strengths; extreme contempt for territories; exclusive concern with the useful and the economic; doctrines of a selfish and mercantile philosophy and moral; all thought tainted by this influence; a cold freedom of habits; a brusque and artificial seriousness; the bourgeoisie’s terrible domination; movements, buildings, machinery, factories, colonialism, massive exports, extreme forces, immense accumulation of industries, terrible fleets, a strange diffusion of journals, pamphlets, periodicals, magazines, an excessive luxury; and finally a profound tedium over the emptiness that the worship of the god Dollar leaves in the soul: then the same climate and the same geology as Europe’s.


The nation that doesn’t have wise men, great critics, analysts, philosophers, rebuilders, abrasive searchers of the ideal can’t have a lot of weight on the political world, as it can not have a lot weight on the moral world.


The moment there isn’t in the economic order an exact balance of forces, of production, of salaries, of jobs, of benefits, of taxes, there will be a financial aristocracy which grows, shines, fattens, swells, and at the same time a democracy of producers that shrinks, decays and disappears into proletarians (…).

That line about ‘wise men’ was already nonsense when he wrote, if one only considers Poe, Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Thoureau, Henry and William James. But it’d be curious to know what Eça would think of the United States’ current global role, which far exceeds the low expectations he set for it.

Also, the last excerpt shows a facet of Eça as a socialist that I was completely unfamiliar with.

One article I liked very much, Eça on Portuguese traditional music Fado:

   Athens produced sculpture, Roman created the law, Paris invented the revolution, Germany found mysticism. What did Lisbon create?
   Fatum was a god in Olympus; in these neighbourhoods it’s a comedy. It has an orchestra of guitars, and is lighted by cigarettes. It’s furnished with a bunk bed. A final scene is in the hospital and the prison yard.
   Its background curtain is a shroud!

Fado is a national institution, the spirit of Portugal, and I loathe it. Sentimental, pessimistic, weepy, solemn. The right type of music for a nation that never knew how to laugh. It pleases me to know he had as much contempt for Fado as I do.

Eça was into grim writers like Poe and Baudelaire, and it shows. Some of his best writings here are about the Devil. He is in fact a preoccupation to the young writer, who constantly returns to him with respect and admiration. He shows a great interest, love and knowledge of the Devil, his history and legend. “Do you know the Devil?” he asks:

The Devil is the most dramatic figure in the History of the Soul. His life is the great adventure of Evil. He’s the one who invented the ornaments that turn the soul weaker, and the weapons that bloody the body. And yet, in certain moments of history, the Devil is the great representative of human right. He was freedom, fertility, strength, law. He’s then like a sinister Pan, where Nature’s deep rebellions howl. He fights priesthood and virginity, advises Christ to live, and the mystics to enter mankind.

Needless to say he’s watched Charles Gounod’s opera Faust:

In the opera, Faust is simply one of those ambitious grotesques, who made contracts by writing with the old Devil, in damned cloisters, and bought from him the granting of a wish, for a small negligible thing, less valuable than money and padding, a useless and sterile thing, which was thrown crudely at him – and which was simply the soul!

Legends are full of these dealings, he says.

Cornelius Agrippa sells his soul for the secrets of philosophy; the Abbot of Tritheim, for the secret of blood circulation; Falstaff sells his soul, on a Holy Friday, at night, when London’s taverns were closed, for a bottle of Spanish wine and a capon leg. Louis Gaufridi, for the power of nervously exalting women. One of Marais’ lackeys, for happiness at darts. Richard Dugdale, a man in love from the country of Lancashire, for a dancing lesson! All of them! Faust sells carelessly his soul for the vulgar love of a fair-skinned and blonde girl, who had a celestial way of spinning, by singing!

Before he was a great writer he was already a great humorist. That’s the most important lesson I derive from reading his juvenilia.


  1. Miguel - You keep digging up these gems. I find it depressing that the whole passage about North America up until the first ellipsis could be lifted almost verbatim, placed in 2012, and pass for something written this morning. I'm eagerly looking forward to returning to more Eça once I get what I'm currently reading out of the way.

    1. seraillon, thanks. With Eça, there is so much to read, it's hard not to find these gems. Also, I'm conscious it's very unlikely anyone will ever translate these writings, so that's an incentive to read them and write about them here.