Monday, 8 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: 1877-1880

Eça had arrived at Newcastle in December 1874, but although transferred from the end of the world to European civilization, he continued to bemoan his consular appointments. A dirty working class town, Newcastle was far from the Parisian excitements and luxuries he coveted. “Imagine a black brick town,” he wrote a friend in a letter, “half drowned in mud, with a thick atmosphere of smoke, pierced by a damp cold – inhabited by 150,000 anonymous, badly-pad and bitter workers, and by 50,000 lugubrious and horribly rich bosses – that’s Newcastle-on-Tyne. On Tyne – this tail with the town’s name gives it a ridiculous touch that consoles me.” Eça had been reared on French culture and for him anything outside Paris was uncivilized and uncouth. His complaints about England were not dissimilar to his complaints about Portugal: “I haven’t heard music in years – save for the barbaric songs that compose the art of the concert-halls. Alas, the intelligent world appears before me like a confused and misty thing, through the prose of London’s newspapers.” However it was more correct to say that Eça was unhappy wherever he lived; his critical mind was trained to find fault everywhere. Years later when he finally received the Paris consulate, he discovered France was no better: wherever he went, he realized that dishonesty, corruption, incompetence, injustice and greed had taken over.

But although he constantly criticized England’s imperialism, he admired its literature for its output, originality and quality. We know that he read authors such as Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, William Thackeray, George Meredith, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russell Wallace, Jonathan Swift, and Thomas Hardy. Furthermore, he also admired the virtues of its press, which he later tried to emulate when he created his own review. In fact, journalism was an activity Eça continued to carry out there. In Newcastle kept himself up to date on Portugal via A Actualidade, a Porto newspaper (although Eça wrote about, or railed at Lisbon, the nation’s capital, his affinities were mostly linked to the Northern town of Porto, where he spent his youth: his publisher was located there; he read its newspapers abroad; and he had property there). In April 1877 he started sending articles for A Actualidade, continuing a collaboration that lasted until May 1878 and producing 15 articles that were later collected in book form. Alas, alas there were problems with payment and Eça interrupted his articles. But Eça, a big spender, was always desperate for money so in July 1880, in the meantime transferred to Bristol, he started writing for a Rio de Janeiro newspaper: Gazeta de Notícias (created in 1875), a collaboration that lasted until 1897. It was a prestigious newspaper (although Eça sometimes showed some disdain for South American newspapers and literature) that had published important Portuguese and Brazilian figures like the novelist Machado de Assis, the historian Oliveira Martins, Eduardo Prado, and the poet Olavo Bilac. For the newspaper it was a find and a reason of pride to have Eça since The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio were by then bestsellers in Brazil. For Eça it was a steady source of income and a way of building his brand in Brazil and creating a wider readership. Although Eça occasionally wrote for the Portuguese press, he never kept a 17-year-old relationship with any newspaper, so in his country he was mainly known for his novels.

The English years also witnessed a vast literary output, although no book was more important than Cousin Bazilio, considered the apex of Portuguese Realism. In 1877 he wrote to his editor, Ernest Chadron, the sketch of a project called Portuguese Scenes, a la Balzac’s Human Comedy: 12 works, a new one every 2 months, ranging from 180 to 200 pages. “The charm of these novellas – which are harder to make than a novel – is that there is no digression, nor proclamation, nor philosophy: everything is plot and drama – and rapidly told; one reads it in one night and gets impressions for one week.” Presumably, novellas like Alves & C. and O Conde de Abranhos (both published posthumously) fell within the aims of this project that Eça later abandoned as he began moving away from Realism. In a letter to Chadron he described O Conde de Abranhos as “a biography, the biography of an fictional being, written by an fictional being.” For him this “book is indeed a small novel, presented under a new way, which I believe has no precedent in literature.” In June he sent the tentative titles of the 12 volumes of Portuguese Scenes; only two titles would effectively belong to actual books: To The Capital (I) and The Maias (XII). About the latter he wrote in August: “I’m quite pleased with To The Capital – although I fear the same charges of scandal will be repeated, this time more seriously because it’s not about women or affairs, but rather cruel pictures of Lisbon’s literary life (journalists, artists, etc.). God willing no one will be foolish enough to feel slighted.” Perhaps because he knew many sensitive egos would see themselves portrayed in its pages, Eça put this book away. Anyway, it wasn’t published until 1925. 

Cousin Bazilio was his last Realist novel before The Maias (1888), and was a resounding success. The first edition came out in February 1878, and the second one in August. But in spite of sales, Eça ran into the same problem that plagued The Crime of Father Amaro: the newspapers’ indifference to it. Once again he had to cajole his friend Ramalho, with As Farpas always at hand, to publish some words about it. Nowadays we know the reactions some of that era’s public figures had, but they must be gleaned from private correspondence. The most outspoken criticism actually came from Brazil: Machado de Assis penned an infamous review where he tried to demolish Eça’s novels, although it was mostly a pretext to attack the “systematic obscenity” of the Realist School which he opposed (I’m devoting a future post to the novel’s critical reception).

A curious book that Eça only suggested but never wrote was A Batalha do Caia. In 1878 he wrote a letter to Ramalho suggesting a scandalous novel about Spain invading Portugal and the nation losing its independence. It was so bleak and unpatriotic he hoped the government would pay him not to write it. A horrified Ramalho wrote back chastising him for the blackmail attempt and Eça replied apologizing for the idea. Although never written, a sketch exists called “The Catastrophe.” This non-existing book has gained a life of its own and in 1995 the novelist Mário Cláudio wrote As Batalhas do Caia.

In 1879 Eça moved to the consulate in Bristol, with a better weather and closer to London. The fantastic novella The Mandarin, marking Eça’s first break with Realism, came out in 1880. Camilo Castelo Branco, who did not cotton to it, called it “a sort of apologue, dirtied by time, the reflection of obsolete chimeras, a few Chinese confabulations, completely false in our current biological conditions and spiritual demands.” What’s amusing about this is that Camilo was one of the outdated Romantics the brash young Eça railed against. To see him now complain about fantasy books because they’re false and out of place in modern times is quite ironic. Many of those who had violently opposed Eça’s introduction of Realism in Portugal would later attack Eça’s fantastic books on the grounds that he had abandoned Realism. It was simultaneously sad and comical. The Mandarin is one of Eça’s most enduring works, by 1907 it was already in its fifth edition. His readers would have to wait until 1887 before he published a new book: The Relic.

Eça was a slow writer and a perfectionist. His modus operandi was to write a first draft in a quick burst of creative energy and later return to the text, correcting it, subtracting from it, adding to it. O Conde de Abranhos, for instance, was written in the town of Dinan in 1879 in one sitting without corrections. But although he wrote to Chadron informing him that it was ready, he didn’t publish it in his lifetime, probably because he always requested more time to make new corrections. His editor was constantly reproaching him for his delays. Many of his acquaintances remembered this devotion to the craft. The poet António Nobre, who knew him in Paris, mentioned that Eça rewrote The Relic 3 times. A de Tréverret, writing in 1892, said that Eça “speaks modestly about his work, and he seems to prefer writing well to writing a lot.” Eça himself jokingly bemoaned that his rigorous style prevented from having a vast oeuvre. In 1884, the journalist Mariano Pina reflected on his work ethic: “One of Eça’s many points of affinity with Flaubert, is the time he consumes in the construction of a novel. Eça de Queiroz is immensely works every day, but only releases a book every couple of years.” Eça was always perfecting his craft. To Teófilo Braga Eça had written in 1878 saying that “my process needs to simplify itself, to condense – I study that. The main thing is to provide the right note: the right and sober trace creates more than the accumulation of hues and values – like they say in painting. But that’s wanting too much. Woe is me – I can never achieved the sublime note of eternal reality, like the divine Balzac – or the right note of transient reality like the great Flaubert! These gods and these semigods of Art are in the heights – and I, pitiful me, I move in the lowly grass.” A good example of his constant striving to do better is that in the years 1878-79 he rewrote The Crime of Father Amaro for the 1880 edition.

With no new book before 1887, Eça kept to his journalistic activities. Most of the articles were for money and dealt with fait divers. But one particular 1880 article led to another feud with Pinheiro Chagas. It began when Eça dissected a Times article about Brazil. Writing for a Brazilian newspaper, Eça certainly knew this would captivate his readers, after all it wasn’t every day that The Times honoured the South American giant with a mention. Except Eça noticed the English newspaper’s imperialistic subtext hidden in its praise of Brazil. The Times, observing that Brazil has tremendous resources that, out of typical tropical laziness, doesn’t process into richness, exhorts its inhabitants to work harder. “Either the Brazilian works by his hands or he gives away the rich inheritance he’s too incompetent to administer. As time goes by, it’s turning into a positive certainty that all of South America’s great resources will enter mankind’s heritage.” Eça quipped: “This is system of expropriation for the sake of mankind’s benefits. The favorite theory of England and of all nations of plunder…”

The feud erupted when the English newspaper started discussing Portugal’s colonialist past. According to The Times, Brazil broke free from Portugal’s hold it “had no ugly memories of tyranny and rapacity.” This prompted Eça to joke that “We were surely never anything but kind and modest masters to Brazil.” Leaving The Times, Eça began a series of provocations about Portugal’s former empire. He accused it of failing to modernize its colonies and leaving them to decay because it preferred to “simply contemplate the number of our possessions: to put a finger, here and there, on the map” and to rejoice: “’We have eight; we have nine; we’re a colonial nation; we’re a seafaring people.’”

This was hardly new for Eça. He had been mocking the colonies and Portugal’s self-inflated mythology of the Discoveries since As Farpas. “Gentlemen, “he wrote in 1871, “first of all, we don’t have a navy. What a unique detail! We only have a navy for the same reason we have colonies – but our colonies don’t prosper precisely because we don’t have a navy!” He even recommended selling its Indian territories to England. Regarding the Discoveries, Eça followed pessimistic thinkers like Antero de Quental and Alexandre Herculano in blaming the glories of the 16th century for Portugal’s decline. In 1846 Herculano had written: “The glory acquired at that time was one of the greatest the world has seen; but we bought it with future disgrace, with the death of complete and utter hope, with the drinking, drop by drop, from a chalice filthy from evils and humiliations.” The Discoveries, to him, had encouraged the nation’s depopulation, the creation of parasitical habits, the creation of a rich but idle and ignorant class, and the neglect of an internal economy and the investment in modern infrastructure. So that when the spices, the slaves and the gold ended, Portugal was as poor as it was before 1500. Having failed to prepare itself for the future, Portugal now lived to glorify a dead past, and was in fact a corpse. This image came out from a history book by Oliveira Martins’ História da Civilização Ibérica (1879), a dispassionate account of Portugal’s origins that tried to apply to historiography the realistic rigor Eça had brought to literature. For Eça there was no better example than the Luís de Camões Centennial celebrated in 1880. Purporting to be an event to celebrate the 3rd centennial of the national poet’s death, it was in fact a political event instigated by Eça’s friend, Teófilo Braga, to give strength to the republican movement. It was also an event that divided the Generation of ’70: Eça, Antero and Martins stayed in the margins of the event, whereas names like Ramalho, Guerra Junqueiro, Batalha Reis and others embraced it. Later Teófilo would write that the “The entire nation had understood this great date, in which the loss of sovereignty coincided with the passing away with that great spirit, who on seeing the nation invaded by Philip II’s armies, died with a pain that became freedom’s eternal protest.” Oh, dear. In 1580 Portugal lost its sovereignty to Spain because D. Sebastião, a moronic teenaged king, decided to go kill himself in a North African crusade against the Moors without leaving an heir. And due to the complex meanders of royal intermarriage, Philipp II of Spain was the rightful heir to the Portuguese crown. When the Portuguese rejected his rule, he invaded. According to legend, Luís de Camões, author of The Lusiads, passed away the same year (not historically proven, of course) because he couldn’t bear the pain of seeing his beloved nation captured by invaders. The rest is rabble-rousing romantic bullshit that Teófilo, the up-and-coming leader of the republican movement, manipulated in order to foster a revolution against the monarchy. For him, Portugal in 1880 was like Portugal in 1580, except the enemies were within. And by overthrowing the regime Portugal would experience a spiritual, political, economical rebirth. That was the theory, anyway; the reality was that the 1910 revolution was such a shambles that by 1926 the population was anxious for a dictatorship to take over and bring a semblance of order into the country again. Eça, Antero and Martins were always opposed to armed, violent revolution; as Eça had written in As Farpas way back in 1871, he wanted a slow revolution where the government compromised and gave away power little by little, the way it was done in England. So they took a negative view of the Centennial. Martins asked if the event wasn’t “the mirror placed in front of the dead man’s lips” to see if he still breathes. Eça, in turn, rather than seeing Teófilo’s entire nation understanding the great event, saw only an example of its inertia and obsession with the past. “The nation is quite aware of its mental torpor,” he wrote in the abovementioned article about The Times, “and of the universal discredit it attracts. To make its national fiber vibrate, during the Camões Centennial, the slogan used was this – ‘Let us show the world we still breathe! That we still have literature.’ And it did nothing save organize a big party dedicated to a dead man; always celebrating the past, never doing anything for the future.”

What happened next is that Pinheiro Chagas, the literary amanuensis who was mentally unprepared to accept that the tiniest thing could be wrong in Portugal, took umbrage at Eça disparaging the Discoveries, the Camões Centennial, and the country itself. “That we were and are a nation of brutes is a given fact amongst a plethora of notable writers, who at least have the laudable grace of excluding themselves from the general rule.” Poor Chagas, he longed to be a notable writer without ruffling anybody’s feathers except the establishment’s enemies. That’s probably why he’s utterly forgotten. Chagas was a real watchdog, if he found someone badmouthing Portuguese history he’d go crazy. He was the epitome of the type of patriot Eça detested, the patriot for whom patriotism “is not just a doctrine, but a subject matter! A subject matter for drama, for odes, for feuilletons, for speeches, for shouts, for hiccups! Alas, patriotism was your magnificent career.” For Eça existed two types of patriots, which he described to Chagas: one was dedicated to the nation’s living forces and wanted solely to help the current nation improve itself; the other “climbs the parliamentary tribune or the newspaper editorial, and at the top, with his eyes glazed and his lips voluptuous, exclaims: Oh nation! Oh my love! Oh my dear! Oh you little thing! How pretty you are! – exactly what he had said the day before to a cheap Andalusian girl in a restaurant.” And he adds: “Your plan to be a patriot, my dear Chagas, was sublime and fertile. Do you know what its mistake was? That instead of basing your patriotism on the nation’s living forces, taking inspiration from them in order to help guide them, you based it on the dust of dead heroes, making it dry from the beginning.” Even if Chagas had better arguments, which he seldom did, Eça always had the best turn of phrase. That’s why he’s still read nowadays.

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