Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Cousin Bazilio: Critical Reception

When Cousin Bazilio came out, the same indifference surrounded it. Once again Eça had to write to Ramalho Ortigão, still penning As Farpas, requesting that he write a few words on it. In its essence, this episode repeated the one when he asked his longtime friend to review The Crime of Father Amaro. In his letter he asked, “be severe; if you see in it any grave detail of form, or style, or moral, or conception… let me know so I can avoid repeating it.”

From what we can surmise from his letters and articles, Eça coped well with criticism. In fact he constantly invited it, and always asked his friends to point out flaws in his novels that could help him overcome weaknesses and grow into a better writer. Sometimes this position came across in book introductions. “The Romantics (as Saint-Beueve confesses) hated criticism, and with reason, for the same motive absolutist monarchs detested opinion. For the Romantics, poetry or prose descended directly from God. The critic, a mere reasoner, had no right to find flaws or even to examine up close what inspiration, the muse, sent from on high to a Musset or a George Sand. Poetry was a divine gift.” Eça, on the contrary, said he could “accept the most valuable indication from any man, the most obscure alive, even if he had never written a line.” He also stated: “For my part, I love criticism: I read it with gusto, jot down its remarks, correct myself when its indications seem fair to me, I wish to make mine its experience of human things.” We can always doubt the honesty of these remarks; the letters show a write quite aware of his extraordinary talent but also a very self-deprecating. How much of this self-deprecation stemmed from a genuine insecurity, and how much it grew out of a persona he put on to entertain his friends, is something we can’t know. Be that as it may, the silence over his novels upset him tremendously.

Ramalho’s review, if it can be called that, was mostly a pretext to talk about the condition of the Portuguese woman in 1878. It’s an interesting sociological document about habits, customs and mentalities, but it says very little about craft and style. Another problem is that the novel was seen, not in its own terms, but as an illustration of Realist tenets. “Cousin Bazilio is a Realist novel because it’s the representation of a social fact seen through a scientific conviction. Luísa, cousin Bazilio’s lover, is the tremendous personification of the morbid tendency of an epoch.” For Ramalho the novel mattered more for putting into practice these tenets, and its merits and demerits stemmed from whether it adhered or not to this notion of the writer as scientist observing, jotting down and transcribing into literature the social Truth. Still, he found room amidst his lucubrations to call it a “perfect work.” Still that review didn’t reveal everything Ramalho thought about the book; privately he considered it a bit obscene. A point Eça belabors in a hilarious letter: “Alberto tells me that you blushed. Did you really blush, you innocent? And don't you blush when you are enjoying L'Assommoir and La Curée, and didn't you blush before when you read Raphael by Lamartine, that vile obscenity (two lovers who could not make love in case, at the moment of climax, the lady's aneurism might burst), and don't you blush when you read Shakespeare? And don't you blush when you read Garrett's D. Branca, that book we had at school? Ah! Of course you blush. Look, I even know that when you read a medical book you have to have some cold-cream next to you cool your burning cheek." Eça’s father, who stood by his son’s decision to pursue a literary career, on reading the novel enjoyed it but gave him the following advice: “I only advise you to avoid, in everything you write, descriptions that ladies can’t read without blushing.” But as he wrote this to Eça, the novelist was sending to his editor, Chardron, plans for a bombastic novel about incest that would later become The Maias. Obscenity was a complaint many times leveled at the novel. A priest, Sena de Freitas, “spoke about Cousin Bazilio, saying that no one should such an immoral narrative about modern habits.” But Eça had no reason to bemoan the scandal: the book was selling in the thousands.

Other reviews, not many, existed; some whose texts I couldn’t find, which I only from Eça thanking the authors via letters. Eça always seemed to have a couple of friendly words to whoever noticed his books. He thanked a reviewer “for the kindness with which you judged my work.” Other reviews appeared later, or in personal correspondence. For instance, Camilo Castelo Branco, the leading novelist at the time, in a letter to a friend, argued that Cousin Bazilio would be almost perfect if Eça knew the somewhat tedious and oily language of Luiz de Sousa,” a 16th century writer. Camilo was especially known for the antiquated flavor of his prose and his vast lexicon. But in another letter, Camilo wrote: “This school started by E. de Queiroz will last a dozen years. They’re smashed feces, but the form he gives them is attractive. It’s the same whether the materia prima is alabaster or guano; the statue is pretty.” Camilo was becoming aware that his style was going out of date; in his final years he’d try to emulate the Realist school, with comical results; although seen as extravagant parodies of the school, they’re masterpieces.

In the 1880s, with the rise of a new generation of journalists reared on Eça’s novels, we got more reviews. Fialho de Almeida praised it and remembers the disturbance it caused among the remaining bulwarks of Romantic literature who were not prepared to appreciate its innovations. He’s also one of the first, to my knowledge, to point out how Eça revolutionized the language. “Surely you understand that a language refined by the classics, made rigid out of correctness, appropriate for academics due to its emphatic long periods, and capable only of expressing general ideas and vague figures in an artificial ambience, is no good to translate complicated modern life, incrusted with other sensations and other unrests, where at every hour good and bad tendencies are shot down, in the immense conflict between reason and flesh.” Eça made the language more agile, more flexible, lighter, less formal and more spontaneous.

But no everyone praised Cousin Bazilio. From Brazil Eça received his worst criticism. Between the 16th and the 30th of April, 1878, a Brazilian newspaper called O Cruzeiro serialized a scathing review, penned by one Eleazar, of The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio, which were selling quite well there. They were merciless, but also the only text, to my knowledge, that truly engaged with the novel as such and not as a social pamphlet. “It was implacable, casuistic, logical realism, taken to puerility and obscenity,” the author said. “Such a thing was not known in our idiom in that photographic and servile reproduction of small and ignoble things. For the first time a book appeared where the superfluous and – let’s use the actual word, for we’re repelling the doctrine, not the talent, and certainly not the man – where the superfluous and the disgusting were treated with meticulous tenderness and interconnected with the precision of an inventory.” It’s like reading the negative reviews Madame Bovary received. “What else could the majority do but admire the fidelity of an author who forgets nothing and hides nothing? The new poetics is this, and it won’t reach perfection until it tells us the exact number of thread that compose a cambric scarf or a kitchen mop.”

About Luísa, Eleazar called her “a negative character, and in the center of the action conceived by the author she is above all a puppet, I don’t mean she doesn’t have nerves and muscles; actually she doesn’t have anything but, don’t ask her passions nor remorse; even less a conscience.” And he added that “Luísa slides into the mud, without will, without disgust, without conscience; Bazilio does nothing else but push her down, like the inert matter that she is.”

He also asked the reader to imagine what would happen if the incriminating letters hadn’t existed, arguing that without them there would be no plot, and thus accusing Eça of contrivances. Other jabs included calling him an imitator of Flaubert and Zola.

Behind the Eleazar pseudonym hid the celebrated novelist Machado de Assis. By June 4 Eça had already heard of the hubbub in Brazil over his novels, and by the 29th he knew Machado had composed the hatchet job. Eça even wrote, but did not send, a letter to him courteously thanking him for his review. At the end, though, he asked Machado to “offer, in my name, my gratitude to your literary and journalistic colleagues for the honorable reception they gave Cousin Bazilio. Such a reception from a literature as original and progressive as Brazil’s is a great honor to me – and for Realism, in the end, a splendid confirmation of its influence and vitality.” Eça probably did not consider Brazil to have an original and progressive literature, considering his snobbish views of South America as an intellectual cesspit. And nothing could shape that prejudice better than Machado de Assis, who at the time was not yet the author of inventive novels like Epitaph of a Small Winner or Philosopher or Dog?, but a Romantic novelist author of forgettable novels like Helena and Iaiá Garcia. After this review Machado experienced a stylistic change and veered closer to Realism, although he was never a fervent follower like Eça.

His jabs at Eça, then and now, were quite unfair and even depended on an inattentive reading of the novels. To complain that Luísa has no agency, that she’s just “inert matter,” is to ignore the point of the novel: Luísa’s upbringing and social circumstances did not allow her to have a free spirit. In terms of sexual emancipation, Brazil in 1878 was ahead of Portugal, and so Machado failed to realize this. Ramalho, in his review, understood this. “The moral of this novel is in that Bazilio’s cousin dies after the fall; it’s in that she couldn’t help falling.” Luísa had the imagination to fantasize about a romantic adventure, but she lacked the willpower to face the consequences. At every turn she hesitates when she should be decisive, and that is what leads to her doom.

However this review forced Eça to defend himself. In 1879, writing a preface for a new edition of The Crime of Father Amaro, the novelist compared Idealist and Realist art and, scolding the former for being false and the latter for being truthful. After several examples, he asks the reader: “Which of these pictures do you prefer, dear citizen? The first one, that invents facts, or the second one that paints them? The idealist gave you a forgery, the naturalist a demonstration. All the difference between idealism and naturalism lies in this. The former forges, the second demonstrates.” Even Eça realized this was quite a limited view of art. In spite of this apologia of Realism, the fact is that the books that followed Cousin Bazilio were more fantastic and farcical in nature. In his last decades he would oscillate between adhering to the principles of Realism and allowing his imagination to run wild and free.

Machado de Assis


  1. Fun piece, Miguel. I have to say that I admire the "scientific" approach Eça seemed to take regarding his writing at the time as evident in his receptiveness to criticism and in his interpretation of the difference between "idealist" and "realist" art. A man of reason for all his fancy and imagination!

    1. He was always more inclined to fantasy, actually; his adherence to Realism required self-control, policing himself not to fall into his old vices of extravagance and weirdness. After these reviews, though, he started relaxing - and we got that comical masterpiece The Relic.