Monday, 15 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: Alves & Co




Throughout his career, Eça de Queiroz heard many critics voicing the complaint that he was aping French literature and dressing up French characters and behaviors in Portuguese suits. Cousin Bazilio remains an emblematic example, since few can read it without noticing the similarities with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This even prompted the French scholar Dominique Sire to write an interesting comparative study in 1971. To my mind, Alves & Co. is a sort of reaction to those critics and also an attempt at thinking how a real adultery Portuguese-style would pan out. There’s a character in Cousin Bazilio, Ernestinho, a mediocre playwright who writes a metafictional play about an adulteress murdered by her cuckolded husband. Later we find out he changes the ending to give it a happy resolution, implying that this type of tragic finale, full of blood and violence, did not represent the behavior of the generally sedate and docile Portuguese, who have more bark than bite. Eça was pretty conscious he was bringing a new sensibility to Portuguese letters. In Alves & Co, though, we have exactly that kind of irate but harmless personality.

Godofredo Conceição Alves is an ordinary, upstanding, hardworking, and successful businessman. He has his own company, his partner is his best friend, and he has a beautiful and loving wife. The novella opens on a special day: Alves is feeling romantic because it’s the 4th anniversary of their marriage. Everywhere he picks up romance. He even notices that his best friend, Machado, must have a new woman because of the way he behaves. He approves, thinking of his own marital bliss. “For deep down this thirty-seven-year-old man, balding a bit already in spite of his black moustache, was a bit romantic. He had inherited it from his mother, a thin woman who played the harp, spent her life reading verses. She’s the one who gave him that ridiculous name, Godofredo. But later all those sentimentalities that for long years she had given to literary things, to moonlight, to romance affairs, turned to God: she had had the beginning of a religious monomania; the Lamartine reader turned into a maniac devotee of Our Lord Jesus; she who then had him brought up by Jesuits – and her final days were a long terror of hell. And he inherited something of her: as a boy he had all sort of interests that never lasted, and that floated from Garrett’s verses to the Sacred Heart; then, after a typhoid fever, he calmed down, and when the occasion came to take over his uncles’ business he was a practical man, using life just from its material and serious side; but he a vague romanticism remained in his soul that refused to die: he liked plays, of big melodramas, of violent incidents. He read many romances. The great actions, the great passions excited him. Sometimes he felt capable of heroism, of tragedy. But it was vague, and it moved deafly, and seldom, at the bottom of that heart where he had them captive. Romantic passions interested him above all others: no doubt he had never dreamed of tasting their bitterness of sweetness: he was a chaste man who loved his Lulu; but he liked them in the plays, in the books.”

On this special he leaves work earlier to buy Ludovina’s gift. The jewel is a “serpent biting its own tail, with two ruby eyes. And this gift had a meaning: the serpent symbolized eternal continuity, the regular turn of happy days, something that forever keeps spinning in a gold circle. He only feared the jewel were expensive. But it wasn’t: and while he examined it the jeweler told him he had sold an identical one to the Marquise of Lima just days before. He immediately paid for it – and he hadn’t walked two steps in the street when he stopped, in a shade, opened the book, give it another look, thoroughly happy with his purchase. And then he felt tenderness – like they always do who receive a gift. And like a small open door in man’s natural selfishness and greed, a whole wave of latent kindness had burst through it. That moment he wished to be rich to give her a jewel necklace. But she deserved it.”

Then he catches Ludovina in Machado’s arms. His friend runs away and she locks herself in the bedroom, to avoid his rage. “‘Open up or I’ll knock it down,’ he shouted while banging the door, as if he were hitting her body already, full of ideas of blood and death.” Violent ideas cross his mind. “And thanks to the blood boiling in his head his ideas grew firmer, he decided to challenge Machado in a duel to the death; and as for her, he’d send her back to her father’s home. He also thought about a convent. But it seemed more dignified to simply restore her to her father. And as soon as he measured, weighed and fastened these two decisions, his tremendous wrath calmed down.”

Coming out of the bedroom, now that his initial murdering fantasies have withdrawn, Ludovina tries to convince him that nothing serious had happened, that Machado had seducer her, that she had been a victim. “And it already seemed to him that she spoke the truth when he saw a ream of letters, tied up with a silk ribbon, and stupidly exposed in front of him, since the beginning, between two brushes. He grabbed it, unlaced it: they were not his letters, they were hers. The first one he opened started with, my angel. Then he calmly placed them in his pocket. He faced her, who had remained crouching by the bed, said: ‘Get dressed, you’re leaving today.’” He can’t be at peace until she’s out of the house. But his many travails begin when he tries to return Ludovina to her father, Neto. First of all he goes to his building, hires an errand boy, a Galician [quite common in Portugal at the time, used for menial labors], to deliver a letter to him, and waits outside. “He saw the man enter his father-in-law’s building, a four-storied building, worn out, with an antique shop underneath. Neto lived at the top, with a vase in the balcony. And he stood far away watching the door for an eternity; the Galician did not come down. So he feared that the father-in-law was not at home. If he only came back at night, if he dined out, then he wouldn’t reply until late at night! And what would he do? Wander in the streets, waiting for his wife to depart? This gave him a terrible feeling of abandonment, of disorder, as if the regularity of things had ended forever. Suddenly he saw the Galician. He had delivered the letter to Mr. Neto. And he came down immediately, he didn’t wait for anything else. So Godofredo, relieved, continued ambling about, and little by little his steps instinctively walked the same way they did every morning, the way to the office. He went down Chiado. In Ouro Street he stopped for a moment looking at a pistol, at Lebreton’s window. And the idea of death struck him. But he didn’t want to think about that now, or about his duel. About seven o’clock, when he returned to find the house empty, then he’d think about the duel, in getting even with the other.” But in the idleness of that home, while he waits for a new day, his thoughts ramble into new possibilities. “For a moment he thinks of suicide. And it didn’t terrify him, nor did he tremble at the idea of killing himself. Except looking for a gun, taking a step to jump into the river were still efforts, which disgusted him in that withering of will. He wanted to die there, without moving. If a word were enough, an order close to his heart telling it to halt and cool, he’d say that word calmly… And maybe she’d cry, and missed him. But the other? He opts for the duel, so that Machado won’t go unpunished.” Alves can’t bear the idea of his best friend not facing some sort of justice. “On thinking about him energy came back to him, a vague energy, yet enough for him to get up and continue his path… Yes, the other would be pleased if he disappeared tonight. He’d feel total relief. For a day or two he’d be gloomy, maybe he felt genuinely upset. But then life would continue: the company would be Machado & Co.; he’d continue to have lovers, go to the theater, put pomade on his moustache. That wasn’t fair. He had been the cause of his beautiful happiness’ ruin, he should be the one dying. It was Machado who should disappear; he’s the one who should kill himself. That was fairer.” This idea appeals to Alves, retribution, penitence. “That’s the way it should be. God, looking at one and then the other, measuring each one’s virtues and blames, should make Machado disappear, inspire in him the idea of suicide.” Poor Alves still believes in divine justice, still thinks people live according to honor. The next days are going to disabuse him of this notion as he tries to bring forth justice. But his next idea is worthy of Dostoevsky at his most absurd: “Nevertheless Godofredo want to his office. Now the idea that had suddenly struck him on coming back from his walk, the solution that had seemed to him the only possible one came back, taking roots in his spirit, now becoming the center of his entire inner activity. And it was this: they’d throw lots, both of them to see who’d kill himself!” After much thinking he concludes this is the best possible solution: the most rational and balance and fair. The problem is that his mind thinks within a moral framework that no longer exists. When a new day starts and he goes about his errands to see Neto and propose Machado their ritual suicide, he discovers contemporary morals are far more complicated than he imagined.

First of all there’s Neto, who still believes in a reconciliation between husband and wife, only because it financially suits him. This is him trying to mend things. “I fulfilled my duty as a father, and I’m fulfilling it still in this solemn moment… As soon as I received the letter, as soon as I realized there were misunderstandings at home, I came here to take my daughter, to give it some time, so that you could exchange explanations, so that you could untangle this matter… When two people are not in agreement, the best thing for each one is to go his own way. From afar, in cold blood, everything is better taken care of.” Actually Neto just wants Ludovina to go back to Alves because he doesn’t want the burden of supporting her anymore. When Alves threatens to leave her out in the street if Neto doesn’t take her back, he feigns indignation: “Let me have a look at you, sir… Let me have a loot at you, for you, sir, are a monster. So you mean to tell me you’d abandon your wife, you’d leave her in the cold, with a place to take shelter in?” Next he tries to argue that no evidence exists that Ludovina and Machado were having an affair; Alves shows him the letters; Neto becomes embarrassed for a moment because she forgot to tell him about that; finally Alves accepts to pay him to keep her at home. “It’s reasonable, it’s reasonable,” Neto says, pleased with the bargain since he can afford to go on holiday with the money. The fact that his daughter cheated her husband never really bothers him. Rejoicing with these news, Neto is certain that later both will get together. And he parts with Alves thinking about his free vacations. Ludovina is no better than him. When Neto informs her of the conversation’s outcome, “She breathed a vague relief, there was a bustle of satisfaction. Teresa looked at the sister, awestruck at those thirty thousand réis that had come the way of her pocket for having been caught with a man. Mrs Joana admitted it was a gentlemanly thing to do. But Ludovina didn’t see anything extraordinary about it: the nerve of him, to kick her out without any money.”

Then there’s Machado to deal with. The confidence of his resolution begins to shaken, not because he has stopped believing in its correctness but because his adversary may not share his mind about it. “Distress overtook him. What would the other say to such a proposal? What if he turned it down? And other difficulties of details emerged. How would they throw lots? With white papers? And suddenly he feared that, on hearing such na excited proposal, he’d only laugh a it… In that case he’d slap him. But no, he couldn’t refuse it, he was a man of honor! Alas, in a few hours he’d know.” When he does reveal his idea to Machado, his worst fears come true: his rival finds the whole thing ridiculous. “I’m ready to give you all reparations, and with all my blood… But it’ll be done in a wise, regular way, with four seconds, by sword or pistol, however you prefer, whatever distance you prefer, a duel to the death, anything you want. I’m at your disposal. Today at any time, tomorrow at any time, I’ll be waiting at home. But I won’t have anything to do with a madman’s ideas. And there’s nothing else to talk about…” Although Alves is the grieved party, Machado is the one calling the shots. So he acquiesce, and sets out to find seconds. He remembers a friend, Carvalho, and pays him a visit. In no time he’s explaining the whole sordid affair, much to his friend’s concern, who pales at the prospect of having to take part in a duel. “Then Carvalho’s whole pimply face expressed distress. Now he understood, Godofredo hadn’t gone there to cry on his shoulder, he had come to find a second: and he was instantly struck with a bureaucratic fright, a fear of the law, the dread of entangling himself. Andhis selfishness rebelled at the violent and disturbing things it foresaw. He tried to attenuate, quickly searched for explanations. Now, if Godofredo hadn’t seen anything else… If they were just in the living room… It could be a game, a foolishness.” It is much easier to pretend nothing happened. When Alves explains him the idea of throwing lots, Carvalho’s reaction is identical to Machado’s. “Now a regular duel, with a sword or even a pistol, to save his honor, yes indeed. I’m up for it. But tragic stuff, never.”

Much to his chagrin, Carvalho accompanies his cuckolded friend after another second, Medeiros. As soon as they enter his room he starts entertaining them with his last night’s escape from a husband who nearly caught him with his mistress. Carvalho tactfully interrupts him, adding that Alves just had a similar predicament. “And in front of Medeiros’ wide-eyed look, Godofredo felt the bottom of his throat choking with ridicule… He felt belonging to that grotesque tribe of cuckolded husbands, who couldn’t walk inside their abodes without a lover fleeing from it. And that was how it was throughout the city, corner-hidden infamies, lovers that fled and lovers caught. He had caught his.” Slowly we begin to realize Alves is fighting a lonely, losing battle against society: he’s its last honorable man, upholding old virtues that no one believes in anymore. And like Machado and Carvalho, Medeiros can only laugh at his plan to throw lots to decide the suicide. There’s no motive, he argues. Finally Alves explodes in indignation. “There’s no reason! Then what is a good enough reason for two men to kill each other?” he asks. “A spit on the face,” explains Medeiros, “or something like that.” How could he understand a cuckolded husband’s pain when he cuckolds too?

According to the rules of duels, now the two seconds must meet the opponent’s seconds and either avoid the conflict or set terms. Alves impatiently waits. When they return they give him troubling news. Vidal, one of Machado’s seconds, convinced them a “complete adultery” didn’t occur, only a “flirt.” So they downgraded it from pistol duel to the less lethal sword duel. Alves’ desire for a bloody revenge continue to crumble as no one takes his grievances seriously. Satisfied with themselves, with the duel scheduled for next day, his seconds take Alves to diner. During the meal they swap stories about lovers. Alves is the only one who doesn’t have such stories to tell; he’s an outsider in a society where cheating has become the norm.

Next day his seconds return with even more distressing news: the duel has been called off. “Nunes Vidal had behaved like an extraordinary gentleman. He began by saying that if he were convinced that if Machado had practiced a betrayal, a crime of adultery with his partner’s wife, he wouldn’t get involved in this. He told them that if they demanded a duel they had orders to accept everything, without argument: time and place, and the blows. And on arriving at the site Machado would take up his sword, he’d let himself be wounded like a gentleman. But then Nunes pleaded with them, as men of honor and good sense.” Siding with Vidal, Alves’ seconds crush him with arguments: “There had not been more than a few foolish letters exchanged, without importance, and that hug… Now, said Nunes: what does a duel do? It compromises Mrs. Ludovina, it makes public opinion believe there really was adultery, it makes Mr. Alves ridiculous and hurts the company…” And then there’s a dilemma. “Nunes presented this dilemma: you take up swords, if there was an adultery sword dueling is not enough; if there wasn’t then it’s too much. So that we decided that no duel should take place…”

The finale is ambiguous: years pass; Alves and Machado have reconciled, he’s together with Ludovina again; the company is successful; and he’s happy. It could be that this shows the wisdom of forgiving: he kept a friend and a wife after; or we can see this Alves a victim, brainwashed by a society that has no values anymore, led to abandon his own sense of honor in order to fit in. After his short-lived anger he adapted to survive in a world that was against his beliefs. In the end his only way of being happy is by adjusting his moral scale to the corrupted, hypocritical people around him. Like The Mandarin, that proceeded it, this novella is about the difficulty of being good. Both novellas suggest the struggle is not only hard but perhaps even pointless and fated to failure.

For me this adultery story is unusual since I don’t know any other (apart from Dom Casmurro) that focuses on the husband and not on the woman. Furthermore, it’s unusual because it explores the effects on adultery on the male psyche. Eça had already explored that to a smaller degree in Cousin Bazilio, but to me Alves is far more interesting than Jorge. Finally, there’s a refusal to give in to tragedy: Eça never sees Alves’ travails as anything but absurd. If Emma kills herself hounded by lies and debts, for Neto Lulu’s infidelity is a minor problem that he can turn into an advantage by getting money out of the cuckolded husband. In Eça’s world, Emma’s tragedy turns into farce. Just for that Alves & Co. is worth reading.

Note: all translations are mine, and not to be confused with Margaret Jull Costa’s no doubt superior translation.

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