Monday, 23 December 2013

Eça de Queiroz: The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes

In August 1900 when death took Eça de Queiroz away, he was residing in Paris, preparing the publication of three novels: The Illustrious House of Ramires, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes and The City and the Mountains. The first two still came out that year, the third in the following one. Of this trio of posthumous novels, I have no reservations in expressing my preference for the narrative of Fradique Mendes. For me this short novel went against the visible decline that characterises the author’s work after 1888. This was the year of The Maias, his magnum opus, and he also received orders of transference to the Portuguese consulate in Paris, a change of airs that pleased this cosmopolitan writer very much, particularly because he counted many French writers – Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo in his youth, and later Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, whom he met – as his masters, and because Portugal’s provincialism at the time exasperated him, a reason why he had turned to this culture to help him rejuvenate stuffy Portuguese letters and bring them closer to modern European literature. The convergence of events seemed to augur a brilliant new age for him. Let’s not forget Eça died rather young, at the age of 54, so still in his prime when he relocated to the French capital. But in the twelve years that separate the publication of The Maias and his death, he directed his efforts to other endeavours and produced mostly minor works: in several newspapers and magazines he published many of his short-stories, which Luís de Magalhães collected in the 1902 Contos; in 1890 he published Uma Campanha Alegre, a collection of articles he wrote for Ramalho Ortigão’s satirical newspaper As Farpas; he also wrote prefaces and pieces for friends’ books (including a text for Antero de Quental - In Memoriam, a collective homage to the great poet), newspaper articles, and even directed a magazine called Revista de Portugal. Now during this period he also started new novels, particularly The Illustrious House of Ramires, which began serialization in the aforementioned magazine in 1897. But by then, I fear, the rot had already set in his work: The Illustrious House of Ramires posited the aristocracy, tradition and the empire as the nation’s only salvation, and enforced a nationalistic rejection of the socialist, Europeanist values of his youth; The City and the Mountains, by its turn, served as Eça’s mouthpiece for a series of attacks on urban civilization, with its unauthentic way of living and reliance on the illusions of science and progress, exalting instead nature and a healthy, genuine countryside life. As a thesis it’s feeble and clichéd, and it didn’t convince this blogger who’s lived most of his life in a big city, and I can’t help seeing both novels as symptomatic of the instinctive reflex for isolationism and rural idolatry that afflicts Portuguese writers whenever life runs contrary to their plans.

The man who wrote these novels had little to do with the young flaneur who roamed the streets of Lisbon with his knockabout friends well into the night, drinking, eating and partying until their money ran out, and then went to bang on friends’ doors asking for more money, which he probably had no intention of repaying; the oriental traveller who brought hashish from Egypt to his friends; the young Satanist who revered Baudelaire, Goethe and Poe; the socialist who believed in Proudhon; the prankster who shocked Lisbon with a literary hoax called The Mystery of the Sintra Road, and then with Ramalho Ortigão shocked it again with the corrosively satirical newspaper As Farpas. Young Eça had no scruples about shocking people. In 1871 he gave a conference at the famous Casino Conferences, a socio-politico-literary event that served as an outlet for the ideas discussed by the members of Cenacle, an informal group that met in Jaime Batalha Reis’ room. These conferences introduced literary Realism in Portugal, advocated the separation of church and state and outlined an educational reform, and had the authorities not stopped them would also have discussed socialism, the republic and positivism. In spite of the clash with the authorities, the conferences, and the Cenacle before it, consolidated and gave a purpose to the Generation of ’70, whose members – Oliveira Martins, Antero de Quental, Ramalho Ortigão, Eça – endeavoured to usher Portugal into the modern age. Young Eça’s irreverence knew no bounds, often he played the Young Turk, lambasting writers like Alexandre Herculano and Camilo Castelo Branco, perhaps he even suffered from a megalomaniac conviction in his ability to revolutionize Portuguese letters – but he believed in it so convincingly that he did just that, and novels like The Crime of Father Amaro and The Relic had no precedents in the country, not only in their sustained attack on one of the vested pillars of society, religion, not only in their absolute rejection of lyrical sentimentalism, but also in their commitment to the Flaubertian maxim of le bon mote. Eça didn’t just introduce new ideas, but also a new form of writing about them.

To understand what precipitated Eça’s change from an iconoclastic writer to an apostate of his earlier principles, we would need to understand the social and historical context of fin-de-siècle Portugal, a task for which I’m hardly prepared, but I’ll sketch a few ideas. First of all, by 1888 the Generation of ’70 had come to realize that their aspirations had found no fertile ground to produce the radical, profound changes they desired in society, culture and politics. Frustrated and defeated, Oliveira Martins gave a name to their dissatisfaction when he created the group Os Vencidos da Vida (roughly translated as Beaten by Life), whose ranks filled with the men from the Cenacle and the Casino Conferences. In 1889 Eça joined the group, which regularly met for informal discussions at hotels and restaurants. Their sense of failure gained a new dimension with the British Ultimatum of 1890: to make a long story short, Portugal had occupied the African territories between Angola and Mozambique, and the UK wanted them cleared to make way for a railway that would connect Cairo and Cape Town; so the British ordered the Portugal to retreat, and the government acquiesced. This political incident sent the nation into a crisis of sovereignty and existence, for many this was a sign that Portugal was finished: people wrapped themselves in the flag and immolated themselves, and the monarchy came under heavy criticism for its weakness; the poet (or pamphleteer) Guerra Junqueiro, one of those Beaten by Life, wrote the crepuscular Finis Patriae, Latin for end of the nation. The Portuguese Republican Party, which until then had believed in a peaceful compromise with the monarchy and in structural reforms to solve the political instability that afflicted the nation, radicalised its positions and openly advocated the violent overthrow of the monarchy, paving the way for the 1908 Regicide and the republican revolution in 1911. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, positions were no less extreme: nationalism, tradition and the revaluation of the figure of the King were the cure for Portugal’s ills, this said argued. Eça was one of those who praised the King as the only man who could save Portugal. The men Beaten by Life believed saw themselves as royal advisers, hoping to steer the monarch towards effective political reforms that would restore Portugal’s glory. Alas, that did not happen. Another factor, small compared to the crisis I’ve sketched, but which I think should not be neglected, is the fact that in 1886 Eça had married, which also helps explain the domesticity and complacency of his final decade, in which he settled down as a respectable husband and father of four. Long gone was the mischievous, disreputable moocher who scribbled epic poems on the walls of filthy patios while waiting for friends to run home to fetch money to pay his restaurant bills.

Not everyone will agree with my judgements on Eça’s final novels. Tom, at Wuthering Heights, possibly thinks differently, and has written about both novels in more laudatory tones. As we can attest from the excellent passages he quotes, it just so happens that even Eça’s lesser efforts come peppered with powerful hilarious bits. For me, though, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes raises above their complacency because its eponymous hero was born under very different circumstances than The Illustrious House of Ramires (a reaction to the British Ultimatum) and The City and the Mountains (an attack on the same French culture which showed him the way to revolutionize Portuguese letters, and panegyric to the authentic Portuguese personality, which, of course, is indissociable from the country’s rural reality).

Fradique Mendes, poet, traveller, explorer, aesthete, a vanguardist, scientific connoisseur, always up to date on the current trends, intelligent, talented, sophisticated, who nevertheless does nothing with his life, comes not from the circumstances of Eça’s final decade but from his reckless youth. As we all now know thanks to the previous post, circa 1869 he and other members of the Cenacle invented a Satanic poet called Fradique Mendes, wrote poems in his name (he’s the author of a book called Poemas Macadam Poems), and, in a hoax predating The Mystery of the Sintra Road (where he makes a cameo) convinced some people that he was a real person. Mendes was a collective endeavour, with bits from Eça, Jaime Batalha Reis and Antero de Quental (who wrote the preface for Macadam Poems). We know that in 1870 he reappears in Eça and Ortigão’s The Mystery of the Sintra Road. After this supporting role, Eça started planning an entire novel about Fradique Mendes. He explains its genesis in a 1885 letter sent from Bristol to Oliveira Martins:

   I’ve been having such a period of stupidity that not only was I not able to send you a bit of well-manufactured prose – but I lacked even the courage to announce to you a working plan I thought of for Província. One can’t make literary promises when one is feeling so singularly stupid. What I thought of was – a series of letters about all sorts of topics, from the immortality of the soul to the price of coal, written by a certain great man who lived here sometime ago after the siege of Troy, and before the one of Paris, and whose name was Fradique Mendes! Don’t you remember him? Ask Antero. He knew him. Distinguished man, poet, traveller, philosopher in his spare time, dilettante and sensualist, this gentleman, our friend, has died. And I, who enjoyed him and attended him in life, and who was privy to his spirit’s picturesque originality, had the idea of collecting his correspondence – as it has been done for Balzac, M. de Sévigne, Proudhon, Abélard, Voltaire and other immortals – and I’m publishing, or with to publish, it in Província. Fradique Mendes corresponded with all sort of different people, all sorts of men as we say in the official Bible of this land. He writes to poets like Baudelaire, to statesmen like Beaconsfield, to philosophers like Mr. Antero, and to elegant people like (I can’t think of any elegant person right now save Barata Loura) and to characters who are none of this, such as Fontes. Besides that he has lovers, and discusses the metaphysics of desire with them. And in the letters to his tailor one finds the most profound rules for the art of enchanting. When he’s travelling, in Japan or in Central Asia, he paints landscapes and habits. And when he comes to Portugal, he paints for his friends in London and Berlin the things and ideas of Chiado, S. Bento, of the tobacco shops and the saloons.
   Immense was the task of collecting these letters, but the Província looks at no expense, etc, etc.
   Hm! what a topic! and with this modest title – The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes. Preceded, of course, by a study about the life and opinions of that mourned gentleman. These letters must be published without order, except of dates – and therefore one here another there. That’s what I thought of for Província.

In 1888 Eça published, in a newspaper ran by Oliveira Martins, the first Fradique Mendes letters. Things get trickier after that. We know that in 1900 The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes came out, although this edition included only the ‘remembrance and notes’ section, the frame narrative of the actual letters. These weren’t published until 1929 under the title of Cartas inéditas de Fradique Mendes. My edition is deficient in that it’s a reproduction of the 1900 edition. English-speaking readers should rejoice over the fact that Gregory Rabassa’s translation (Tagus Press, 2011) comes complete. These letters, as Eça explains above, are addressed to real and imaginary people, a narrative trick that heightens the sense of veracity, making it a variation of previous hoaxes involving this character. It seems whenever Eça wanted to push the boundaries of how far authenticity could go, he turned to Fradique Mendes.

For me what makes this book different, and better, than his other late novels, is that it’s a study of personality. I think the others are more concerned with propaganda. Now, Eça always explored ideas in his novels, but he refrained from a moralising tone. One of the remarkable things about his novels is that they abound in evil, cruelty, pettiness, laziness, hypocrisy, and yet seldom, if ever, do they judge these things as sins or faults. Of course this may also have to do with the fact that many of them live under self-deception, in their own minds they’re perfect, or their narrators (I’m thinking of O Conde de Abranhos) provide eulogies for their masters. The novels’ refusal to judge is a reflection of the characters’ own inability for self-criticism. This novel, much like O Conde de Abranhos, is hagiography. The unnamed narrator repeatedly insists that Fradique Mendes is an exceptional individual, when he’s nothing of the sort.

The narrator explains how his relationship with Fradique Mendes started in 1867, when he read his poems in A Revolução de Setembro (in real life this magazine published them in 1869). The narrator belonged to the Cenacle and defines the year of 1867 as a transitional year, where their idols changed from Victor Hugo to the new poetry of Baudelaire, of which Fradique Mendes was a follower. With his friend J. Teixeira de Azevedo (Jaime Batalha Reis), they meet the poet in Lisbon, but he’s on the eve of going abroad. In 1871, during a trip to Egypt (Eça undertook one between 1869 and 1870), the narrator reencounters Fradique Mendes in Cairo. The poet is involved with Bábism, a Persian religion (I thought it was made up until I looked it up) named after the Farsi word bab, or door. After hanging around for a while, they go separate ways and don’t meet again until 1880. During the intervening years he receives news of him from friends who’ve met him, and their words already attest to the creation of a modern mythology. In 1877 Oliveira Martins writes to him, saying that he considers Fradique Mendes “the most interesting Portuguese man of the 19th century. He has curious resemblances to Descartes!” Ramalho Ortigão goes further: “Fradique Mendes is the most complete, the most finished product of civilization which I’ve drenched my eyes in. No is more superiorly gifted to triumph in Art and in Life.” Ironically, only J. Teixeira de Azevedo (Batalha Reis was one of the three creators of the satanic poet) feels an “insuperable antipathy” for him. Was Eça killing his parents to make himself his sole creator? Antero had already disowned him in 1872.

Antero’s absence from the book is quite conspicuous. Not one of the sixteen letters is addressed to him, although he’s mention here and there. However the great poet’s life permeates the entire book. In my previous post I wrote that Fradique Mendes had similar qualities to Antero de Quental: both are from a noble family of the Azores. Both had an unusual upbringing, although Fradique Mendes’ takes the prize. He’s reared by his maternal grandmother, D. Angelina, translator of Friedrich Klopstock. The topic of education was an obsession in Portuguese letters at the time, and it’s not uncommon too in Camilo or Eça a compact description of their protagonists’ schooling. “His first education was singularly entangled: D. Angelina’s chaplain, a former Benedictine priest, taught him Latin, the doctrine, horror of Masons, and other solid principles; then a French colonel, a tough Jacobin who fought in the 1830 siege of Saint-Merry, came to shake these spiritual foundations, making the body translate Voltaire’s Pucelle and the Declaration of the Rights of Man; and finally a German, who helped D. Angelina dress up Klopstock in Filinto Elísio’s vernacular [a neoclassical poet], and called himself a relative of Emanuel Kant, completed the confusion by initiating Carlos, even before his moustache grew, in the Critique of Pure Reason and the metaphysical heterodoxy of the professors of Tubingen. Fortunately by then Carlos was already spending long days riding in the fields, with his pack of hounds – and from the anemia that the abstractions of reason would have caused him, he was saved by the soft breath of the mountains and the natural purity of the streams from where he drank.” Later Carlos went to “Paris to study in the beer-halls [Antero also lived in Paris for a time] around the Sorbonne, waiting for the maturity that would bring him the accumulated inheritances of his father and grandmother.” We find another link with Antero when the the narrator alludes to Fradique Mendes’ frantic nature “Thus he made himself a babist, to penetrate and unveil babismo. Thus he affiliated himself in a Parisian revolutionary group, the Batignolles Panthers, and attended their meetings, wrapped in a tight sordid jacket fastened with pins, hoping to extract from them the ‘flower of some instructive extravagance.’ Thus in London he joined the rituals of the positivists, who, in the festive days of the Comtiste Calendar, burn incense and myrrh at the altar of Mankind and decorate the image of August Comte with roses.” And theosophy and nihilism. Prior to his death he was preparing a journey to India, to become a Buddhist. This evolution – religiosity, revolution, religiosity again, and nihilism faithfully follow the trajectory of Antero, who in his final became interested in Oriental concepts like Nirvana. Fradique Mendes also served under Garibaldi in the conquest of Sicily and even met Victor Hugo, which certainly makes him an interesting fellow to have at the table during meals, but hardly an extraordinary man or the most remarkable specimen of an entire generation.

When he take away the hollow hype, however, Fradique Mendes led a vapid life. According to essayist António Sérgio, “we read the letters of Fradique Mendes, certainly delightful and of a delicious style, but where one finds not the faintest trace of the letter writer’s philosophic profundity.” But that’s obviously the point. Fradique Mendes is portrayed by his clique as a superior man, but what transpires is a hedonist wastrel, a man full of potential but unwilling to apply himself to any great endeavour, dissipating his talent in reveries, idleness and philosophy de pacotille. He contributes with not a single book, discovery or profound idea. His literary output ended after 1867. I wonder if this novel wasn’t intended as the defining portrayal of the failure of his generation? All the men who praise him have, after all, been Beaten by Life. As much as this novel is a nostalgic look at Eça’s formative years, it also contains a subtle jab at his and his peers’ paltry achievements (when one thinks of the great demands they made for themselves; the books they left are more than enough for me).

Although Eça officially killed Carlos Fradique Mendes, that was not the end of him. In 1997 José Eduardo Agualusa used him as a character in the novel Creole. In 2002 Joaquim Francisco Coelho published A Morte de Fradique Mendes, and José Pedro Fernando gave us Autobiografia de Carlos Fradique Mendes. Save for Agualusa’s, it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever bother. This is not the first time Eça’s characters are reused: in the 1970s a writer brought the Count of Abranhos back, and was critically panned; and a newspaper is currently working with several writers to continue saga of the Maia family, God help us! That’s the price to pay for being one of the few Portuguese novelists with the gift to create unforgettable characters.

And since it’s impossible to end the year on a higher note than Eça de Queiroz, St. Orberose is taking a break until next January. I thank everyone who accompanied me during 2013. Merry Christmas and a Happy 2014!


  1. I, too, have been Beaten by Life and have a paltry number of achievements to my name. Does that make me a Fradique Mendes man? Love the afterlife of this character (for good or bad, it matters not a whit to me!) and the whiff of Huysmans' Des Esseintes that's come wafting my way. Plus, I think you deserve a long break after your recent furious blogging creativity. Thanks for another infotaining year, Miguel!

  2. Richard, Happy 2014!

    Thank you for your compliments, I will try to slow down a bit this year,