Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: 1870-1876




In a way the year of 1870 marks the start of Eça de Queiroz’ literary career. However finding a stable job, since he wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer, continued to be his pressing matter. In May he had joined the staff of A República, a newspaper, but making a living from journalism was as herculean task in Portugal. Still it’s around this time that he started creating his philosophy that journalism “must have one single thought, the public interest, the social ideal, and it must keep only the rigidity of truth and justice, for its end is to make good triumph.” However idealism didn’t pay bills, and he need another source of income. Few options were open to him, though: he detested politicians, so a career as an MP was out; a diplomatic career suited him better. Unfortunately Eça could not be an ambassador since its corps was selected from the political class. That left him with pursuing a career as consul. But in order to do that he needed to have 2 years of experience as a civil servant. Failing to find a job in Lisbon, he managed to get appointed a place in Leiria, a small village. Eça’s father, some biographers believe, may have pulled some strings to get him appointed. His appointment took place on July 21, the day after France declared war to Prussia. Eça described his stay in Leiria as his “administrative exile,” although he tried to make the best of the situation. It is known that one day, during a ball held at the mansion of a local big shot, the Baron of Salgueiro, Eça, who showed up dressed in a Cupid suit, was caught in the arms of the Baroness of Salgueiro; he was violently expelled from the mansion. In September, at the age of 25, he travelled to Lisbon to take an exam for a consul vacancy. He managed to get 1st place; nevertheless the vacancy for Bahia, in Brazil, was given to the 2nd place. A year later, in a magazine called As Farpas, Eça complained about this decision, accusing the authorities of nepotism: not an unusual complaint in Portugal, but truth be said his rival had more consular experience and had resided in Bahia 14 years, weighty arguments to me. Still Eça wasn’t totally wrong to bemoan the generalized practice of corruption: “Dear reader: never think of serving your country with your intelligence, and to do that by studying, working, thinking! Don’t study, bribe! Don’t be worthy, be crafty! And above all never take a public exam: or when you do, instead of writing on the paper in front of you the result of a year of work, of study, simply write: I’m influential in so-and-so circle and don’t make me repeat it twice!” How perfectly modern this is! On the whole Eça suffered Leiria 10 months; but it was during this exile that he started writing his first major novel, The Crime of Father Amaro, although it didn’t see print until five years later.

However before that revolutionary novel, Eça and Ramalho Ortigão had a bit of fun co-writing a literary hoax in the guise of a detective novel. Between July 24 and September 27, the Diário de Notícias serialized The Mystery of the Sintra Road, a tremendous commercial success and an ingenious mystery novel that captivated its readers and even persuaded them that they were reading letters reporting a true crime. The authors used some clever techniques to heighten its verisimilitude: first of all they used famous locations, like the Sintra Road, a much travelled road for families making trips to the countryside. Secondly they didn’t report the facts from one single source; thirdly, they deliberately questioned the official version of the facts. Their best trick was inventing personas purporting to send letters to the newspaper, to contest the events, offer other versions, explain their own involvement in the affair. The best part, for me, is when a character just gives up discussing the matter and decides to travel abroad. All of this contributed to give the novel a touch of spontaneity, authenticity, and in my opinion it is a very unusual and clever detective novel. It was published in book form in the same year and by 1894 it was already on its third print run. In 1885 Eça singlehandedly revised it and gave it its definitive form. In 1915, with Eça dead for 15 years now, Ramalho tried to take sole credit for the book: by then Ramalho was a declining literary figure whose last important had been penned decades before. The essayist António Sérgio once even quipped that “after 1894 Ramalho outlived himself.” Nowadays it is widely accepted that the bulk of the novel belongs to Eça.

In 1871 two crucial events took place: first of all, on May 22, 1871, the groundbreaking Casino Conferences started. Baptized that way by the press for taking place inside an actual casino, it was organized by Antero de Quental and its main goal, permeated by a spirit of revolution, was to divulge and discuss modern ideas from abroad and – these were very idealistic young men – to guide society towards a political, moral and intellectual renewal. Antero gave the first two lectures, the second becoming a classic in the gloom and doom genre for the exhaustive autopsy he subjected Portuguese history to get to the root of national decadence and anemia; Augusto Soromenho used the third lecture to make mincemeat of Portuguese Literature; the fifth demanded the modernization of Portugal’s educational system. Eça, who gave the fourth lecture on the theme of Realist Literature, did not keep his text but we know from secondary sources that he dismissed Romanticism as exhausted, condemned art for art’s sake, rejected idealism in art, invoked Madame Bovary, and prescribed art at the service of the revolution, echoing Proudhon, one of his spiritual masters, and Antero from the Coimbra Issue. Later on he explained that he had “proposed the idea of a literary restoration, via moral art, via realism, via rational and experimental art.” [Experimental here means based on observation, study, empiricism.].

The second major event of the year was a monthly magazine created around the same time by Eça and Ramalho, called As Farpas (I’ll devote a full text to its genesis). Amongst other things, this periodical served as the Conferences’ official media outlet. In the first issue Eça wrote: “The conferences will meet resistance. First of all our intelligent and especially literary audience loves the bel-esprit: its taste tends towards the oratical and the sentence. The Peninsular fashion. Why, the conferences, due to their scientific, experimental nature – demand precisely the opposite of oratorical apparatuses. They’re demonstration, not apostrophe; they’re science, not eloquence. Declamations have removed from democracy its particular character of reality and science. We have heard democracy sung, metrified, hiccupped; it’s time to see it demonstrated: let us leave at the ticket booth our perpetual national inclination for listening to odes – let us go in with the human tendency to solve problems.” Eça was no strange to the fine art of eloquence himself. But more than problems with style and pomposity, the conferences would face problems with the Government. Antero and friends had chosen a bad moment: the day before the first conference, Parisians had barricaded themselves in a little thing called the Commune, and were terrifying European governments with the prospect of similar uprisings spreading everywhere. Seeing in the conferences the germ of the Commune, the prime-minister panicked. Of the 10 scheduled conferences, only five took place. Before Salomão Saragga could lecture on the critical historicism of Jesus Christ, on June 26 an official dispatch closed down the conferences. This measure fired up a constitutional crisis, since the constitution didn’t grant the prime-minister powers to suppress public meetings, and months later the government fell (more about this in a future post).

Considering the demolishing tone of the other lectures (“The nation is doomed!” “Portuguese Literature is lifeless!” “Teachers are incompetent!”), Eça’s standing up for Realism was probably the least shocking.  Even so it deserved a reprimand from Pinheiro Chagas, a Romantic, reactionary writer, enemy of Antero since the Coimbra Issue and an MP since May. According to him, “every feeling [Realism] expressed” were “absolutely false.” His election compelled him to stand up for his beloved inert establishment where servile writers like him could thrive. To prove that he was on the right side he called the lecturers “bandits,” accused them of “communism” and used his enviable rhetorical prowess in Parliament to justify closing down the conferences. Throughout the next decades Eça and Chagas would butt heads in the newspaper many more times. Nowadays he’s utterly forgotten, remembered only in connection to his nemesis’ name. The ultra-conservative newspaper A Nação also slurred the conferences. “What is its aim?” it asked. “To spread the doctrines that have produced in France the tragedies that horrify the world.” Eça would later joke that for the A Nação everything he did was on orders from the International.

On the day of the fifth lecture, Salomão Saragga, an expert on Hebrew Studies and collaborator of Renan, was prohibited from lecturing on Jesus Christ in light of an historical perspective. The same day the lecturers wrote an open letter protesting the decision. In As Farpas Eça asked: “What did they want to silence about the conferences? Was it the political criticism? Then why do they allow books by Proudhon, Girardin, Luis Blanc, Vacherot to circulate within the country? Was it the religious criticism? Then why do they consent that books by Renan, Strauss, Salvador, Michelet cross the border and customs?” For him there was no logical reason to prohibit the conferences since the ideas discussed already moved freely in Portugal. He also had to defend himself from the absurd theories that he was a revolutionary rabble-rouser. “We want the revolution carried out serenely, first of all via the realm of ideas and science – then through the peaceful influence of an enlightened and intelligent opinion, and through successive concessions by the conservative powers – in sum a revolution through the government, just like it’s done slowly and fertilely in English society. That’s how we want the revolution. We detest traditional outbursts, bells tolling sentimentally, and I think a bullet is an argument that penetrates the opponent… a bit too much!”

Maria Filomena Mónica, one of Eça’s biographers, claims that Eça’s participation in the Casino Conferences cost him his job in Leiria. The venerable A. Campos Matos, Eça’s best living scholar, doesn’t mention that in his own biography and I don’t know documents that attest it. Be that as it may, for whatever reason around this time Eça found himself jobless again. He continued to pen newspaper articles, to write novels that would only come out years later, and to run for a vacancy as consul. In terms of fiction he didn’t release anything during these years save for an 1873 short-story called “Idiosyncrasies of a young blonde woman,” considered the first Portuguese Realist short-story. However the bulk of his writing goes to furnishing the As Farpas with caustic, satirical texts that savaged society without exceptions. As the periodical grew in popularity it received encomiums but also made enemies and instigated polemics that still darken his biography. For a long time it allowed Eça to pursue a slightly prosecutorial mania that his consular career didn’t get off the ground because of political revenge. “A few days ago I had the occasion to learn of a singular case. The Minister of Foreign Affairs has declared that I could never join the consular career because I was... THE CHIEF OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY.” Poor Eça, he who despised politicians to be mistaken for one. Then, with his talent for reductio ad absurdum, he made a long list of more things he was suspected of being:

“Republican Chief
Speaker at meetings
Strike organizer
Agent for the International
Karl Marx’s delegate
Working class associations representative
Accomplice in the Paris fires
Ex-murderer of Monsignor [Georges] Darboy
Secret redactor of proclamations
Stolen petrol fencer
And finally – a former convict!”

And he amplified the joke even more: “There were convulsive fears; whenever I entered the theater with my coat buttoned up, the police agent sent this message to the civil governor: ‘He had his coat buttoned up.’ This one telegraphed the council of ministers: ‘Something’s afoot: he had his coat buttoned up!” And then the Minister of War, livid, said to his colleague in Foreign Affairs: “That’s the man who wanted to be a consul: what contempt for institutions! What a revolutionary strain! He had his coat buttoned up! I’m 62 and I never saw such a thing before!”

During these years Eça reveals himself a ardent supporter of causes and a free thinker who refused to connive and always looked at things from an independent perspective. He discussed everything, attacked everything he considered unfair, immoral and backward. He defended a church separated from the state: “Liberal opinion doesn’t love temporal power, and believes that the Pope should mind the matters of Heaven exclusively. You poor wretched ones! Console yourselves! Jesus, your friend, isn’t happier than you: for many centuries now he’s been trying to lift the slab from his tomb – and for many centuries now his clergy keeps pushing the slab down!” Eça, who did admire Christ’s teachings, frequently aimed at priests who used their authority to hold back freedom and progress. “A mighty philosopher has already observed that the priest’s temperament has a tendency to cause suffering. Thanks to the Gospel’s tradition, every Christian keeps in his memory the subtle, feral cruelty of the Pharisees, who were priests. The priest compels to war. The killings of Moors, Turks, Cathars, Lutherans, Jews, New-Christians, which fill history with blood, were preached, guided, executed by priests. The Inquisition is ecclesiastic. In the invention of its torments the Church placed all the subtle talent it had placed in the discussion of casuistry.”

Always hurting from a wound called Portugal, he bewailed the way the nation presented it to Europe. “Let us state it rudely: we are not in condition to receive guests! We live here in our corner, nonchalantly, in slippers – and we don’t like it when polite people come here to have a look at our poor furniture and our rustic conversation.” He also considered the maintenance of colonies useless and expensive and suggested selling them. “If we can sell India to the British, let’s sell it: the best improvement we can give to India is sound English sense.”

But no polemic stands out as memorable and infamous as a series of texts he wrote when D. Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, visited Portugal in February 1872. As usual Eça made fun of his manners and habits. Many of his articles in As Farpas could be puerile, cruel and tasteless. Camilo Castelo Branco, the novelist, mentioned in a letter to poet Feliciano Castilho: “I read with stupefaction, and even tears in my heart, what’s being printed against the Emperor of Brazil. The childishness of As Farpas isn’t even funny for us to make allowances for it.” But Eça was quite democratic in being tasteless and cruel about everyone, that was just his style, and ordinarily it would have been forgotten. The real problem started when he wrote an article called “The Brazilian.” Mind you that Brazilian here doesn’t mean a person born in Brazil, but the nickname given to Portuguese emigrants who went to Brazil to work and came back rich. These people were usually the target of envy and countless stereotypes were invented for them. What Eça did was construct his article enumerating them to dismantle them. However people believed that he was endorsing these stereotypes. The repercussions were severe: in Rio de Janeiro a pamphlet was hastily written in reply, describing Portugal as the “corner in Europe where hunger shoos thousands away to an emigration greedy for money.” It wasn’t totally incorrect: the country was poor and the solution for many was to seek better jobs abroad. There were uprisings in Bahia, Portuguese emigrants were threatened, people feared for their property, Eça himself had to write to Brazilian newspapers assuring them that he never intended to offend anyone. Although rare for a text published in As Farpas, that was partially true; its real target were the Portuguese. Even now, however, this episode has an unfortunate whiff of xenophobia that doesn’t quite synch with his known personality. When I first read the text it seemed so clear that Eça was not indulging in stereotypes. First of all he distanced himself from them by adopting an indirect tone quite apart from the truculence he showed in As Farpas. Consider:

“No positive trait and delicate trace is presumed about the Brazilian: he’s not presumed to have esprit, the way blacks are not presumed to have blonde hair; he’s not presumed to have courage, and they are, in popular tradition, like those August pumpkins exposed to too much heat: they’re not granted any quality – and they are, to public opinion – the eternal dolts in slippers from Ouvidor Street. Public opinion denies them character and ascribe them with negro behavior. Ironic imagination suspects them of wearing green velvet vests with scarlet tones and of living in houses with façades scratched yellow and with blue tiles.” And he continues with a litany of examples of poor taste attributed to them. I put in italics the words that show Eça’s refusal to state, that lack in firmness and that do not partake of general opinions. He speaks of presumptions and suspicions, an uncompromised style the complete opposite of Eça’s typically assured, assertive, passionate journalism. But look how the style changes when he decides to talk about the Portuguese who mock these emigrants in their back: “Although the Brazilian isn’t pretty, or witty, or elegant, or wise – he’s a working man: - and you Portuguese, you who are not pretty, etc. – you’re a good-for-nothing! So although you laugh at the Brazilian – you also try to live off him. So you laugh aloud at a Brazilian when you see him face to face – and if he gave his back to you? You’d starve to death!” Short of raising a monument to emigrants, Eça couldn’t have been clearer. Even so even the venerable Campos Matos, in his 2009 biography, had to rationalize what he interpreted as xenophobic remarks as follies of youth that Eça bravely grew out of.

Eça’s collaboration in As Farpas ended in October 1872 when he the government finally appointed him for the Havana consulate. He boarded a ship to Cuba in December, but quickly wrote back asking (and receiving) permission to sojourn in the USA, where he spent six months travelling and where he had at least two girlfriends. He was in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, the Niagara Falls, and even crossed the border to visit Montreal. Blasé as always, New York did not impress him. “It’s a century-old city and it’s rotten: it’s détraquée. Because the truth is this: New York has no civilization. Civilization is not having machines for everything – and a million for each thing: civilization is a feeling, it’s not a construction.” Regretfully, he does not mention any American writers he may have discovered or read during his travels.

Havana was not the appointment he craved; he desired Paris, of course. But he conducted himself admirably. A curious episode in Cuba involves the Chinese workers, the so-called collies, who sailed off from Macau to work there in the sugarcane plantations. Eça deplored the abject conditions many lived in and did whatever was in his power to alleviate their troubles. In return the Chinese workers offered a gold-knobbed cane because, he wrote, his diligences “assured them for a while more bread and less whipping.” He stayed in Havana until May 1874, when he was called to take up the Newcastle consulate.

Back in Portugal his literary career was about to change. Between February 15 and May 15, 1875, a magazine titled Revista Ocidental, owned by Antero de Quental and Batalha Reis, serialized the first version of The Crime of Father Amaro. Eça had moved to Havana with the novel already written, however he intended to received drafts and make revisions. Unfortunately his friends did not wait and started its publication. They suppressed and corrected the text willy-nilly, without his knowledge and approval, with the consequence that the text was incoherent and shabby. Even so enough novelty and quality transpired. In the 1880s the journalist Fialho de Almeida described his reaction to reading this first version: “The literary form of this sketch was sloppier than anything I’d ever seen, but it was so picturesque and musical that I swear on my honor that it inebriated whoever read it. I preciously keep this text, to which I owe pulling my mind inside out, an intensity that could compared to a collapse. Because it goes without saying: it was the first book of a new art, arriving at the desolate penumbra in which I then lived.” Camilo, Portugal’s then-greatest novelist, also praised it in a 1876 letter: “Have you read The Crime of Father Amaro? I read some chapter in Revista Ocidental and found it excellent. The book release has been announced. That boy is going to upstage every novelist.”

Ironically his friends didn’t think much of the text. Antero found its realism too sordid. ”If I had a newspaper in the line of that magazine,” Batalha Reis wrote in a letter, “, do you know what I would have suppressed in The Crime of Father Amaro? Everything, starting with the title and finishing at the end.” Their silence on Eça’s request to cancel the serialization prompted the author to write about his mentor: “If Antero were here I’d strangle him. Antero is the greatest critic of the Peninsula but he knows as much about art – as I do about mechanics. Antero directing the publication of Father Amaro, that’s simply horrid.” Disappointed, Eça revised the text and published via the Chadron publishing house, in Porto. His father kindly paid for the publication, promising to Ernest Chadron to cover all expenses if the book were a fiasco. In fact the first edition ran out. However the press let it pass practically in silence. Eça feared a scandal because of the theme of a priest having sexual relations with a woman, but for a country where dailies reported frequent cases of priests fathering children, it wasn’t that shocking. Eça would have preferred a scandal to the indifference it received. “Without having crossed a partisan polemic, it now enters a classic tranquility,” he lamented. How disappointing it must have been for the artist who believed art should shock society form its inertia. Disappointed he asked Ramalho, still penning As Farpas on his own, to write something, good or bad, about the novel. Obliging his longtime friend, Ramalho began by distinguishing Eça from other writers, following the guidelines Antero had created in 1865. “Due to a physiological fatality, due to the effect of heredity, we lack the cerebral orientation for independence.” This, by the way, is a good example of what Eça meant about the Peninsular taste for verbosity. “Our spirit retains the servile stigma, the mark that across several preceding generation left in us the shackles of mental oppression.” Translation: the Inquisition fucked Portuguese Literature! But somehow from this verbal sea asphyxiating with thick oratorical algae a few praises surfaced like transparent bubbles. Just one personal favorite: “Whoever writes modern characters must fatally operate the gangrene.” In 1880 Eça revised the text once again for the second edition, almost doubling its size, developing crucial scenes and changing the ending to include references to the Paris Commune. Above all he took into consideration some critiques the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis leveled at him. More about that in a future post.

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