Friday, 12 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: 1881-1888




During this period Eça de Queiroz’ personal life had many tribulations. In 1887, his brother Alberto, a civil servant, passed away in Angola. The previous year Eça had married Emília Castro, an aristocrat in line to inherit lots of property. She was a reader, according to their letters, who read George Sand, George Eliot and Guy de Maupassant, whom she considered “dirty.” Although with an education above the usual standards women could aspire to at the time, she was also a deeply religious woman; this latter caused trouble when Eça passed away and she gained control of his own somewhat dirty and anti-clerical books – but more about that later. Thanks to her Eça acquired an estate called Quinta de Santa Cruz do Douro, in the Douro region, an ancient estate that still contained the tombs of the descendents of the squire of Portugal’s first king. This family later married the Castro family, whose title – Count of Resende – came from the 18th century. Eça later used many of these elements in one of his final novels, The Illustrious House of Ramires.

Although stationed in Bristol, the good consul Eça continued to harbor the dream of one day receiving transference to Paris. In 1885 he wrote that “Paris is still a place where mankind’s heart beats vaster. A year before the same Eça had written to Oliveira Martins saying that, “Deep down my novels are French the way I am French in everything – except in a certain sincere bedrock of lyrical sadness, which is a Portuguese characteristic.” Still Eça’s ambivalent stance on England could also produce lines such as this: “I hate England, but that doesn’t stop it from being, as a thinking nation, perhaps the foremost.” As we’ll later see, when Eça had the unfortunate idea of creating his own high-brow review his models were mainly English. In 1888 Eça also asked this friend, who in the meantime was working for the government, to help him get the recent vacancy for consul in Paris. The good news arrived in September, and Eça would spend the last twelve years of his life residing in Paris. The transition from one consul to another was not peaceful; in a letter to Martins, Eça described, perhaps not without some of his usual exaggerations, the scene the former consul’s wife caused when Eça arrived to replace him. “It was the Viscountess of Faria who received me, as if she were the consul. I don’t know if you’ve met her. She’s a sort of virago, in the postiche manner, with a thick and husky voice, and gigantic gestures. She made a frightful scene with howls, protests, insults, barks, punches on the table – which I listened to paralyzed, stupefied, hat on my hand, now walking backwards when she raised her threatening fist, now making a move to the door, as if in flight, when for an instant she turned her back.” Finally, the police had to intervene.

However around this time Eça’s attitude regarding Paris started changing: the city he had idealized gave way to a concrete city that he slowly began to detest and bewail in his letters, articles and fiction. But we’ll see examples of that in future posts.

Regarding Eça’s literary life, this long period only includes the publication of two novels: The Relic and what many consider his masterpiece, The Maias. Otherwise he continued his secluded existence abroad, writing his newspaper articles, working as consul and corresponding with his friends. In 1883 he was elected member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, a testament to his rising star, although as we’ll later see Eça didn’t have particular for this institution. Around this time he also wrote the novella Alves & C., although he kept it unpublished; readers had to wait until 1925 to finally read it. In 1883 he also sent his longtime friend, Ramalho de Ortigão, revised proofs of their first collaboration, the serialized novel The Mystery of the Sintra Road: this new edition cam out in 1885 and remains the definitive version. Eça’s devotion to it gives credence to scholars’ theory that Ramalho contributed very little to the book; many defend he only wrote 3 of its chapters, and even those have now been changed by Eça’s style.

Also in 1885, in the company of journalist Mariano Pina, Eça visited Emile Zola in Paris. Not much of this meeting is known save what Pina recorded. “What frightens me is not death,” said the Frenchman to Eça, “it’s the idea of not being able to complete my series of novels, the Rougon-Macquart series. I still have six to go. This task will only be ready six years from now. But if I reach fifty-one years of age, having written all the remaining volumes, then I’ll devote myself to theater, exclusively to theater.”  Complaining to Eça about the effort he needed to write Germinal, his then forthcoming novel, he said: “Germinal left me truly exhausted and ill… So I’m going to write a lighter novel, a novel that doesn’t demand a huge effort, a novel in the manner of Joie de Vivre, of Page d’Amour.” What novel would that be? “The Oeuvre will be a novel about a painter, the life of artists, which I known pretty well, also connected to the life of the literati. It’ll portray the effort employed by talent to achieve success, the effort employed by the artist to dominate Paris, to be a Parisian celebrity. There’ll be pages portraying types of crowds never before studied. Making this novel will be a very enjoyable thing for me, because all of it will be made with childhood memories, sprinkled with sun-filled landscapes, bits of Provence, and I’m going to describe myself on a second level, next to the action, which will be very simple.”

We also know, thanks to Pina, that around 1884 Eça “has not yet abandoned the idea of writing a volume of short stories, in the vein of Dickens’ English short-stories, some of them tinted with the modern style, with the French style – whose secret Eça owns in the highest degree, and which would have made him one of the foremost novelists of the Mediterranean nations if, instead of hailing from Póvoa de Varzim, he had been born in French soil.” I don't know if this referred to Eça's at the time known plan for a series of novellas, or an actual book of short-stories. In any event Eça never wrote it - the few short-stories he wrote here and there were posthumously collcted. Pina was one of his Eça’s fiercest admirers and promoters. Even when his last novels started coming under fire, he always stood up for him, even if his arguments were somewhat awkward. He’s a bit like me: his love for Eça exceeded his talent to that express it through cogent words. Take for instance his argument that Eça’s greatness was hampered by his writing in an obscure language – nothing incorrect with that; but what kooky cogitations that lead him to. “What we want, if the needs of civilizations demand it, is to have a language that be universally adopted, the way we have a system for weights and measures; what we want is a single language, the way one day we’ll have a single currency; what we want is for the literatures of small nations not to be eternally hurt by the invasion and the dominance of Europe’s great literatures; what we want is that a book written in Rio de Janeiro find readers in Paris, London or in Berlin; what we want, in the end, what we ask and demand in the name of justice and equality is a single language,  so that the same thing happens to books that happens to Porto [ port] wine bottles, which although they’re as Portuguese as they come, they nevertheless has lovers in all the countries in the world where people drink and know how to drink.” What a crazy guy, even if he’s absolutely right about the literatures of small nations.

In June 1887 The Relic came out in book form, at the same time the Brazilian newspaper, Gazeta de Notícias, serialized it. It was a successful novel, getting a second print run in 1891. However it received mixed reviews. This was also the first time and last time Eça de Queiroz was nominated for a literary award. The Royal Academy of Sciences opened a competition for the best literary work – with odd criteria that allowed poetry, non-fiction, plays and novels compete against each other. There was some hubbub about it because it was called the first time an institution gave a literary prize in Portugal (actually in 1871 the Academy had already created a competition for poetry). And because Eça was always on the vanguard, and because he wanted to test the Academy’s commitment to quality (because he obviously considered his book the only rightful winner), he submitted The Relic. But I’m leaving the award’s fallout and the controversy for a future post.

I’ll also leave most of the fracas about The Maias for a later date: there will be so much to talk about. For now suffice to say that this bulky novel (990 pages, in 2 volumes – mind you, in current editions it’s no longer than 500; 19th century books were physically small, apparently) came out in July 1888. In Brazil the newspaper Província de São Paulo began an almost daily serialization that lasted from August 12 to January 6, 1889. It was Eça’s last published book in life: everything else he produced came out in magazines or was published posthumously. He started working on it in the late 1870’s and there were high expectations; but when it came out reviews were negative and readers didn’t cotton to it. Its print run of 5000 copies sold slowly and there was no need for a new print until 1903.

Shortly after The Maias came out, Eça wrote to Oliveira Martins sketching an idea for a new book. It’d take the form of letters sent by Fradique Mendes and published in newspapers. Fradique, as we know, was a character Eça co-invented in 1869 and later reused him in The Mystery of the Sintra Road. I once translated the letter where he explained the genesis of this book, so I won’t repeat it here. Fradique’s letters began to come out in Martin’s newspaper, O Repórter, and in the Gazeta de Notícias. As you can see from the simultaneous publication of his last works in Portugal and Brazil, at least within the Portuguese-language world Eça was already an international name to be reckoned with. Fradique sold well and Eça continued to write his letters almost until his death. In 1890, on a trip to Portugal, he noticed that “Fradique is a success; and he dominates a good deal of all conversations in Lisbon, to the point that his great name is heard in cafés, fashion shops, theater boxes, street corners, etc. The worst of it is that they truly believe Fradique exists and he’s the one, not me, who receives those general compliments.” If this was true, it was the third time Fradique was mistaken for a real-life person. Although I’ve written extensively about my beloved Fradique before, I’ll also devote a future post to him.

Next week there will be less biography and more book reviewing.

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