Monday, 22 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: 1889-1892




During this period Eça de Queiroz and Portugal hit a slump. His book received mixed reviews, and the country went through political and economical upheavals. After The Maias Eça de Queiroz didn’t publish another novel in his lifetime. In 1890 he revised As Farpas and republished them under the name of Uma Campanha Alegre, new versions scholars consider less ferocious than the original ones. A telling omission is the series of articles on Brazilians that created an international scandal. Eça, however, preferred to devote his time and energy to fulfill a dream he had nurtured twenty years: create his own British-style review. Since at least 1867, in a letter to a former teacher, Eça indicated his wish to create a cultural review that rivaled Europe’s finest. “It is necessary to offer our help to these poor ideas that walk next to the border without managing to step in, without daring to do so terrified by the brutish look of our citizens, fearful of being crushed, stoned and taken in mockery to the police station.” As always, Eça, the cosmopolitan who knew the newest trends and ideas in Europe, was motivated by a sense of inferiority; he refused to accept that Portugal did not one single illustrious review the way London and Paris did. In Paris, in the months leading to the first number, he patronized Librairie Galignani, a bookstore where he could purchase British newspapers, magazines and reviews. Not only were they useful for his job as a consul, to stay up to date, but also because he considered the British press the best in the world.

And Eça was also aware that the Portuguese press needed to improve its standards. “Nowadays a Lisbon newspaper,” he wrote in 1887, “is a private feuilleton where a politician defends his interests and insults opponents who hold different interests: and since it’s necessary to fill the rest of the feuilleton, he finds a toady at the office or downtown to transcribe the gist of the Diário do Governo, the arrivals and departures, the crime section and the Lottery list. A newspaper like this has as little to do with literature as the bullfighting poster: and indeed it only resembles a newspaper because of its shape and selling system.”

Before its launch, Eça wrote to Oliveira Martins from Paris explaining that he envisioned “a true national work, with collaborations from the cream de la cream, in every specialty, and showing at last that Portugal is not as stupid as they think around here.” The review would act as a cultural and intellectual ambassador of Portugal throughout the continent, showing it its best talents. For that reason he wrote to several figures of the arts and sciences to send him essays and articles to enrich the periodical. However he began having problems right at this stage: Camilo Castelo Branco, for instance, didn’t even reply to his request, a blow to the reviews’ stability since he was a popular writer who would have drawn readers just on his name alone.

But these predicaments did not discourage Eça. In the review’s Program he set out his ambitions: “A nation only lives because it thinks – cogito ergo est. The nation that, in matters of intelligence, shows itself dead, or that responds with disdain at every effort made on its behalf to show it alive, voluntarily debasing that effort and publicly transmitting a dead behavior – tacitly invites other nations to treat it like a corpse that despises itself in the cogitation of living forces, and that, when it best suits those which can do more because they think more, can be stepped on and torn apart without scruples.” Eça was on an apocalyptic mode here: creating the review was nothing short of defending Portugal.

The review, called Revista de Portugal, came out July 1889. Eça wanted an impartial, tolerant periodical open to all political and literary ideas. “The only thing demanded or expected from the collaborators is sincerity in thought and exaction in writing.” The review published texts by the poet Antero de Quental, a young Raul Brandão, Moniz Barreto, who inaugurated modern Portuguese literary criticism in the first issue, Batalha Reis, an expert on music, and Magalhães Lima, who wrote one of the earliest texts on Tolstoy and the Russian novel in Portuguese (he was in fact a Tolstoyan, corresponded with the legendary author and even translated Antero into German so he could read him). Emília, Eça’s wife, helped out translating pieces by American, English and French authors. Eça chipped in with the always popular letters of Fradique Mendes and also a translation of Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, which continues to be reprinted to this day.

But lots of problems undermined the periodical and hurried its demise. For starters Eça, the editor, resided in Paris and had difficulties overseeing the review, even though he had delegated power to two editors in Portugal. He had also wanted pictures in Revista de Portugal, to make it more appealing, but Portuguese printers didn’t have the level of quality he desired, so he scrapped that idea. His dream of using the review to display the nation’s best contemporary literature also failed to materialize, because few writers submitted and their quality was not up to Eça’s standards. “The old are depleted – the young are not extremely appetizing.” Not just literature, but his associates also dawdled in sending him articles, or failed to meet their commitments altogether, meaning Eça was always in crisis to fill each issue with enough material. Besides that, those who collaborated complained about the payments. Many were taking part in it only because of Eça’s friendship. Furthermore, the public never cottoned to its literate identity, and Eça several times tried to revamp the review to make it more in line with ruling taste. But it never managed to sell more than 1000 copies per issue, and by May 1892, after an existence strewn with delays and redesigns, it officially closed down: all in all 24 issues were published.

This experience left Eça bitter. In March 1890, realizing the lack of support it met with the public, Eça wrote: “The country neither reads nor does it want to read.” Elsewhere he deplored Portugal’s inability to maintain one single respectable with high standards: “Armenia, which is an ignorant province in Asian Turkey – has three.” And after the fiasco Eça wrote to the Count of Arnoso complaining about money: “Alas, my son, it’s the struggle for life! A rather vain struggle, when you fight with a quill in one hand, in the Portuguese language.” After the success he had with the satirical As Farpas, this failure must have been hard to swallow, especially because that by now legendary magazine represented the sort of silly, undemanding, unsophisticated he now sought to avoid. But that was what readers wanted. Years later he tried to launch O Serão, with a more inclusive feel, more like a generalist magazine than an erudite review. But the plans never got off the page. The problem, I think, is that Eça believed the existence of a serious review could create an intellectual bourgeoisie. He didn’t understand he needed to have one beforehand to make his endeavor successful.

Meanwhile more serious things were going on in Portugal. In 1890 the government received a debilitating blow in the form of a British Ultimatum. Portugal had African possessions in what is nowadays Angola and Mozambique, and sought to extend dominion over the territories between them, encompassing modern-day Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, connecting a stretch of land from the Atlantic to the Indic. However, these ambitions interfered with England’s own plans of building a railway from Cairo to Cape Town. The British ordered the Portuguese to abandon the territories, under the implicit threat of military intervention, and the Portuguese government. It was a national humiliation. Maria Filomena Mónica described the effects this way: “As soon as news spread, the ‘race of the Albuquerques’ rose (1), shouting, against the ‘English pirates.’ The British emblem was torn off from the English consul’s house, while the house of the minister of Foreign Affairs, Barros Gomes, was stoned. In order to boo at the ‘traitors,’ more than 15,000 marched to the Palace. In the following days signs of indignation grew. Downtown shops showed signs saying: ‘We don’t buy from and don’t sell to English.’ The statue of Camões appeared covered in black crepes. The duke of Palmela returned his British medals and gave away a year’s worth of profits, from his incredibly rich farming estate, for the public donation being organized with the end of acquiring a dreadnought. The count of Burnay summoned his two sons to Lisbon who had gone to study in London. Finally, for the first time it was heard the song that, after the implementation of the Republic, would become the national anthem: ‘To arms, to arms…” Between January and March 1890 dozens of patriotic commissions came into existence with ideas of avenging the national honour. For the republican movement it was the best of times, since they could point the finger at the Crown and blame it for the incident. The official republic poet, Guerra Junqueiro, a second-rate poetaster, even published a poetic diatribe called Finis Patriae, or The End of the Nation.

Few voices of reason dared oppose the patriotic frenzy. Antero, writing in the newspaper A Província, wrote: “Our biggest enemy is not the English, it’s ourselves. Only a false patriotism, false and criminally vain, could state otherwise.” Writing in February in Revista de Portugal, Eça also used the crisis for reasonable reflections about Portugal. He lamented that in such a poor country people were so quick to contribute to a public donation that had no use instead of using that collective spirit to steer Portugal in a better direction. “For little good new walls outside and only ruins inside would do. To a sick heart a bronze breastplate is no use!” He also suggested that Portugal should think less of attacking England and more of regenerating itself as a capable nation. “All this public movement, therefore, that in order to cause harm to England, imposes upon itself the mission of hating England, offending England, boycotting England – sterilizes itself, erring on its direction: because, evidently, as a national movement, born from the Nation’s soul for the benefit of the Nation, it’d never do to have as its ultimate end causing harm to England, but first of all and above all else doing good to Portugal.”

To make matters worse, in 1892 Portugal officially declared bankruptcy. Amidst all this the disappearance of Eça’s review must have passed unnoticed. But his newspaper collaborations continued. Between January 18 and June 13 Eça edited the newly created literary supplement of the Gazeta de Notícias, the newspaper he had been working on since 1880. Although he had interrupted his articles in order to devote himself to his own review, on the first issue of the supplement he resumed them. He once again invited friends to submit material, and once again met indifference and payment complaints.  In this period Eça wrote one of his most successful and prophetic articles, “Emperor Wilhelm,” published on April 1892, wherein he predicted that Wilhelm II in a few years would be “in his Schloss in Berlin overseeing the destinies of Europe” after inciting his people to war. (More in a future post on Eça’s journalism). Curiously, this article ended up becoming Eça’s most internationally popular. In October 1916, Charles Marriott translated it for the Fortnight Review. The Times had already published it in December 1914. “We publish today a striking forecast of the Kaiser’s career, written twenty-three years ago, in 1891 (sic), by the famous Portuguese author Eça de Queiroz. Our readers will be able to judge for themselves the extent to which this political horoscope has been fulfilled.” Years later Henry Wickam Steed quoted it in Through Thirty Years, as did Koppel Pinson in Modern Germany. In 1939 The Times would also publish a article narrated by the Kaiser where he reflects about his own life and wonders how Eça could have guessed his future. Eça had written that Wilhelm II would end up “at the Hotel Metropole in London, unpacking from his exile valise the crumpled double crown of Germany and Prussia.” Eça just got the destination wrong: he finished his exile in the Netherlands, where he died in 1941.

1 Allusion to Afonso de Albuquerque (1453-1515), an admiral who in the 16th century conquered, and practically built, the Portuguese Empire in the East.

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