Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: Cousin Bazilio

Published in 1878, Cousin Bazilio represents for many the apex of the Portuguese Realist novel. In terms of plotting and themes, however, it didn’t break new ground in the 19th century novel. A young married woman, while her husband travels, receives a call from a cousin who emigrated to Brazil where he became wealthy; in their adolescence they had a short-lived affair, but distance atrophied these feelings; now that he’s returned they resume an affair; but her maid obtains incriminating letters and blackmails; her cousin, instead of aiding her, abandons her; after many humiliations she acquires the letters but the mental anguish breaks her health and she takes to bed with one of those nameless, vague 19th century illnesses that novelists so extravagantly used when they needed to kill someone; after much withering and suffering she dies; her husband, having discovered her adultery, forgives her. It’s another novel of adultery about the downfall of an honest woman, predictable in its outcome. And if that were all, we shouldn’t waste our time with it.

Nonetheless I think Cousin Bazilio contains some novelties and idiosyncrasies that rescue it form being just a fashionable novel of adultery. For one thing the adulteress may be the least interesting character in the novel. You’ll notice that the title is named after the male figure, the tempter, the corruptor. Perhaps there was nothing else to say about the adulteress. Flaubert had written Madame Bovary, about a strong-willed, scheming woman who boldly pursues her affairs but slowly ensnares herself in a web of lies and debts that lead to her suicide. Tolstoy had given us Anna Karenina, a rather more virtuous woman whose genuine and heartrending love for Vronsky has none of Flaubert’s cynicism, and whose final tragedy was but farce in Emma’s case. Where do you go from there? Either you focus on the adulterer or you explore the husband’s anguish. Eça did both, in two different books. In this novel the great novelty is Bazilio, the devilish cad who seduces and then discards Luísa when he’s had his fun with her, leaving her alone to fend for herself when scandal comes crashing down. In a novella he wrote a few years but not published until 1925, called Alves & C., Eça followed a husband who catches his wife in flagrante delicto and mechanically goes through the motions of restoring his honour, except he runs into the indifference of a society that no longer cares about insults to honour and duels. Since we’re on this subject, I must give a not to Machado de Assis’ Don Casmurro (1900), about a paranoid husband who thinks, without any evidence, that his wife has cuckolded him. What is it about Portuguese-language novels that give the man the spotlight? My tentative explanation, considering Portugal alone, is that during Eça’s time women still had a low status in society. They lived sheltered lives, were monitored by husbands and fathers, were badly educated and hardly talked to other men besides priests, who leeched off their religiousness.

These women obviously had very little to do besides governing the household. Tedium was a consequence, and the thirst for adventure always on the mind. As the novel begins Luísa has woken up to a house that is redolent with boredom and stillness. “It was July, a Sunday; it was extremely hot; the two windows were closed, but outside one felt the sun glittering in the panes, scorching the balcony’s slab; there was the quiet and sleepy silence of a morning mass; a vague fatigue dulled one, brought one the desire for siestas, or for soft shadows beneath trees, in the countryside, by the water; in the two cages, between the blue cretonne awnings, the canneries slept; a monotonous fly buzzing dragged over the table, dropped at the bottom of cups over badly-melted sugar, filled the whole room with a sleeping rumor. António Sérgio once observed that the conflict of every Eça character is how to escape tedium; Luísa is a good example of how the ennui of her surroundings condition her, compel her to an illicit tryst. Like Emma Bovary, she’s a compulsive reader. “She read romances a lot; she had a monthly subscription, downtown. When she was single, at the age of 18, she had been enthused by Walter Scott and Scotland, then she had wished to live in one of those Scottish castles, with the clan’s coat of arms over the ogives, furnished with Gothic arks and military trophies,  lined with large tapestries, embroidered with heroic legends, which the lake’s wind agitates and brings to life; and she had loved Evandale, Morton and Ivanhoe, tender and grave, keeping on their beret the eagle’s feather, clasped next to Scotland’s thistle with emeralds and diamonds. But now it was the modern that captivated her: Paris, its furniture, its sentiments: she laughed at troubadours, gushed over Mr. De Camors; and the ideal men appeared in white tie, at the threshold of ballrooms, with magnetic eyes, devoured by passion, saying sublime words.”

Her doting, hard-working husband is Jorge, an engineer who at the novel’s start is upset because for having to spend the Summer months travelling through dusty, arid Alentejo on business. “It was the first time he went away from Luísa; and he already missed that small living room, which he himself had helped line with new wallpaper on the eve of his marriage, and where, after the night’s joys, his lunches lingered in sweet idleness!” It’s funny that he’s going to miss the living room, not his wife. Jorge is a positive, if you will, character: he’s responsible, he’s respectable, he’s tender, but he’s also stuffy and predictable. He wants everything neat and orderly, and sees Luísa as an extension of that neatness and order. “Luisa, little Luísa, turned out to be a very good housewife: she was very delicate in her cares; she was tidy, joyous like a little bird, like a little bird very fond of its nest and of the male’s affections; and that little blonde and gentle being had given his abode a serious charm.” Jorge’s best friend, Sebastião, “good Sebastião” as he’s ironically called several times, idolizes that picture of domestic bliss; “he did not understand that she could speak, feel, live unless in the interest of the household and Jorge’s happiness.” Luísa gives her husband the comfort and tranquility he craves; she has a loving husband who takes her of her. Their relationship is not cold or insincere.

But the tedium, his going away and her romance-damaged imagination conspire against Luísa. On the same day Jorge prepares to leave he reads in the newspaper that Bazilio, who made a fortune in Brazil, is coming to Lisbon from Bordeaux. This awakens old memories in Luísa. She had had a teenage crush on Bazilio, but his going abroad made her forget the affair and doubt the intensity of her feelings for him. Years later she married Jorge. “At first she did not like him. She did not like bearded men: then she realized that it was his first beard, fine, short, very soft actually; she began admiring his eyes, his freshness. And without loving him, next to him she felt weakness, dependence and fatigue, a will to fall asleep on his shoulder, and to stay like that many years, comfortable, without fearing anything.” A recurring trait in Luísa is that she doesn’t have a lot of will power, she usually does what others want. This was not, as some critics implied at the time, a fault in Eça’s character building, it’s the essence of her character and the result of his observations. Eça observed women in society; and in this society where women were smothered by tyrannical fathers, jealous husbands and parasitical priests, women were little more than pieces of shipwreck floating here and there as the currents decided.

She’s also an impressionable woman who captures ideas and trends around her and tries to turn them into reality. An example is her friend, Leopoldina, a scandalous freethinking woman who has “more lovers than shirts.” She visits Luísa a few times in the novel, even tries to help her get Money to pay blackmail, but what she likes to do is have na audience to narrate her sexual frolics, shocking but also enticing Luísa. Jorge doesn’t like her because of her reputation. “It was known that she had lovers, it was said that she had vices.” And he frequently forbids Luísa from having her at home. “It’s because of you! It’s because of the nieghbours! It’s because of decency!” He even instructs “good Sebastião” to keep an eye out and to watch over Luísa, to help her not deviate from goodness. “Because if she feels supported, she takes decisions.” But not alone, alone she’s vulnerable.

There’s no point explaining what happens next, the novel is predictable. I’ll just mention some of its aspects. First of all Gustave Flaubert’s influence is quite obvious: Luísa’s taste for novels mirrors Emma’s. But there are other mirrored scenes. Bazilio’s ticket to Luísa is built on two levels – the feelings it expresses and what the writer actually thinks whilst writing it – like in a scene Rodolphe self-consciously writes a sentimental letter to Emma. “Luísa, in bed, had read, reread Bazilio’s ticket: ‘I couldn’t – he wrote – be any longer without telling you I love you. I barely slept! I woke up early in the morning just to declare I’m mad for you, and that I place my life at your feet.’ He had composed that prose in on eve, at the Association, at three o’clock, after some games of whist, a steak, two glasses of beer and a lazy read of the Illustração. And it ended exclaiming: ‘Let others covet fortune, glory, decorations, I covet you! Just you, my dove, because you are the only tie holding me to life, and if tomorrow I lost your love, I swear I’d put an end, with a good bullet, to this useless existence!’ He had asked for more beer, and took the letter to seal it at home, in an envelope with his monogram, ‘because the always caused more impact.’”

This Flaubertian technique of contrasting the ideal with the sordid is also present in Luísa’s visit to their secret love next, called the Paradise. Before entering it she builds her perception of it on her romance books. “She was going to meet Bazilio in Paradise for the first time. And she was very nervous: she had a vague fear since morning that she couldn’t dominate, that made her put on a very thick veil and got her heart beating fast when she met Bazilio. But at the same time an intense, multiple curiosity compelled her with a tiny jolt of pleasure. At last she was going to have adventure she had read many times in love books! It was a new way of love that she was going to try, exceptional sensations! There was everything – the mysterious little house, the illicit secret, all the palpitations of danger! Because the apparatus impressed more than feeling; and the house itself interested, attracted her more than Bazilio!” And her literary comparisons continue: “It reminded her of a Paul Feval novel in which the hero, poet and duke, lines a dump’s  interior with satins and tapestries; in it he finds his lover; passersby, looking at that dilapidated dump, give a merciful thought to the misery no doubt inhabiting it – while inside, very secretly, flowers flourish in Sevres vases and naked feet step on venerable Gobelins! She knew Bazilio’s taste – and the Paradise in a way was like in Paul Feval’s novel.” Of course this is just buildup for her disappointment when she realizes its sleaziness. “She became red, she sat down, silent, embarrassed. And her eyes, very wide, centered on the ignoble burnout matches by the bed; on the frayed, worn out mug, with a paint stain spilled on it; on the windows’ awnings, made of red cloth, with landscapes; on a lithography where a figure wrapped in a floating blue tunic flew spreading flowers… Above all a large photograph, above the old straw settee, fascinated her; it was a stocky individual, with a pale and hilarious look, with a wide beard, the look of a sailor on the Sunday: seated, with white trousers, with his legs wide apart, one hand resting over a knee, the other leaning on a truncated column: and under the frame, as if from under a tomb slab, dangling from a yellow nail, a wreath of immortelles!” There are more gruesome details: a neighbor, who rented Bazilio the room, interrupts them over blankets left to dry on the clothesline. Luísa looks at the bed and repugnantly realizes that others have used it before for sexual escapades.

After Bazilio has his way with her, he begins treating her like a paid mistress and Luísa’s romantic delusions begin crumbling under the realization of what she has become. Another scene likens Bazilio to Rodolphe. When Luísa’s maid finds out compromising letters and blackmails her, Luísa turns to Bazilio: without means of earning her own money, she can only borrow it from him. At first she wants to run away, still enwrapped in literary clichés, but Bazilio, more rational, more pragmatic, tells her that she’d only ruin her life and explains that her maid just wants money. “Your case is quite simple. You make a deal with that creature, you give her a couple of pounds, which is what she wants, and you stay home, quiet, respected as before – only more cautious! There!” Like Rodolphe he refuses to run away with her, and since Luísa becomes too proud to beg for money he breaks off with, abandons Lisbon and leaves her alone to deal with that fallout.

The maid, Juliana, together with Bazilio is what elevates this book from an ordinary 19th century adultery novel. She’s a bitter, self-righteous, ugly woman who has worked for others all her time; this has filled her with irrational hatred and contempt for her employers, for the entire middle class. More than blackmailing and making money to enjoy her old age without troubles, she wants to release decades of accumulate rage and humiliate the people she thinks are responsible for her situation: the rich, or just any slightly better off than her. “She must have been in her forties, she was quite scrawny. Her face, small, sucked in, had the yellowness of mate tones accompanying heart sickness.” This description, by the way, is foreshadowing: she has a heart condition and in a climatic scene she dies from it. “Her eyes, big, burrowed in, rolled in disquiet, with curiosity, blood-shot, between eyelashes always lined with red.” Once she harboured the dream of saving up to open up her own establishment: but one day she got extremely ill, was fired and spent all her money in convalescence. She never got completely well, but more importantly she was reduced almost to poverty, and realizes she can never save enough again to quit serving others. “She’d have to serve until she was old, forever, from master to master! That certainty gave her a constant distress. She began turning sour.” But this hidden rage needs to be checked, and she also lives a dual live all the time, smiling at her masters but loathing them on their back. “The need to refrain herself brought her the habit of hating: she especially hated her mistresses, with an irrational and puerile hatred. She had them rich, with palaces, and poor, clerks’ wives, old and girls, choleric and patient – she hated them all, without a difference. It’s enough being a mistress!” “They’re all the same, a bunch of bitches!” she moans in disgust whenever she catches them in the wrong, with the satisfaction of the self-righteous. Her ambition is to find out a secret, something big, that she can use to extort money from a mistress so that she need not serve ever again. When Luísa falls in her hands she progressively humiliates her until Luísa is reduced to ironing her own clothes and emptying the latrines. Jorge, meanwhile returned from Alentejo, slowly loses patience with Juliana, in spite of Luísa lying for her sake all the time. Butit escalates to a point where Jorge decides to fire Juliana for disrespect, idleness and going out whenever she wants. This forces Luísa to try to find money to pay off Juliana so she’ll leave without revealing the truth. Alone, she enlists Leopoldina’s assistance: her solution is begging money from a businessman who loves Luísa. What she’s proposing is that Luísa tart herself up and seduce him for the money she was too proud to ask Bazilio. She reluctantly agrees, but when he starts grabbing her she attacks him with a whip. Although it helped her blow some steam, her worries remain and she falls ill, beginning a slow death.

There are other elements that make this such an interesting novel. One of them is Eça’s fascination with sexuality. Eça liked women as sexual beings and reveled in describing their bodies. “She had the shoulders of a model,” he writes of Leopoldina, “with a drooping, full roundness; one could feel in her breasts, even through the corset, the hard and harmonious outline of two beautiful lemon halves; the thighs’ rich and firm lines, certain movements of her waist made men turn their burning gazes.” And when Bazilio first visits Luísa, he mostly remembers her body. “He saw the smallness of her body, he used it to mentally outline other beauties, undressing her, wanting to guess her… The lover he had left in Paris was very tall and thin, with a tuberculosis elegance; when she used a low neckline you could see the protuberances in her first ribs. And Luísa’s round figure made him decide.” We have another good subtly sexual description during a party: Miss Felicidade secretly loves Counselor Acácio, a buffoon who spouts only grave banalities (his popularity has transformed him into an adjective in the Portuguese language). When she’s close to him and sees his bald head, for which she feels a “perverse taste,” her body reacts. “When she got herself staring at the Counselor’s baldness, large, round, polished, glittering under the lights, an anxious perspiration wetted her back [wink wink nudge nudge], her eyes radiated, she had an absurd, covetous will to grab it with her hands, touch it, feel its forms, knead it, sink into it!”

Eça was the first Portuguese writer to see women, not as abstract entities, but as made of flesh and bones, with their own agency. Truth be said, he did not create what we nowadays call strong female characters – all her women are either pious ugly morons, foolish innocents, or predators like Leopoldina. Although this arose from the status the Portuguese woman was confined to back then, it’s also a consequence of his not taking love seriously; love never wins for him, it’s always a failure, ridiculous, disappointing. On the other hand he gives it a physicality that was quite unusual in writers like Tolstoy and Flaubert, whose women were mostly idealistic concoctions. Not Eça’s; his are made of flesh and bone, and their love affairs are not just sentimental but also corporal: they have secretions and smells. What other 19th century novel do you know where a man gives a woman cunnilingus? “Bazilio found her irresistible: who would say that a petit bourgeois could be so chic, have so much vocation? He kneeled, took her little feet between his hands, kissed them; then, chastising her garters, ‘so ugly, with metal clasps,’ he respectfully kissed her knees; and then he quietly made her a request. She reddened, smile, said: no! no! And when she abandoned her delirium she hid her face with her hands, all flushed, murmured chidingly, ‘Oh Bazilio!’ He twirled his moustache, quite pleased. He had taught her a new sensation: he had her in his hands!” Compared to him, his contemporaries were quite chaste. Eroticism and sensuality were always present in his novels. This was also a calculated strategy to be scandalous and sensationalist in a country badly used to this kind of content in literature, still reared on the tropes and idealisms of Romantic love. Leopoldina, by her behavior, was custom made to shock his readers’ sensibilities. “She was very indiscreet, she spoke of herself, of her feelings, of her alcove, of her bills. She never secrets for Luísa; and in her need to confide, to enjoy her admiration, she described her lovers to her, her opinions of them, the ways of loving, the habits, the clothes, with great exaggerations.” This could almost be Eça describing himself. “That was all very piquant, whispered at the end of a sofa, amidst laughter. Luísa tended to listen, all interest, her cheeks a bit embarrassed, stupefied, enjoying, with a pious air. She found it so curious!” And this were his readers.

Another aspecto I only noticed when I re-read this novel a few months ago, was the meta-fictional jokes. During a party at Luísa’s house, before Jorges leaves for Alentejo, one of the guests, a mediocre playwright called Ernestinho, describes the new play he’s working on, ponderously called Honour and Passion. The theme is adultery, but treated romantically, full of clichés Eça abhorred: exaggerated, with antiquated language, lifeless, full of idealized characters, sealed off from the modern world. “It was a married woman. In Sintra she had met a fatal man, the count of Monte Redondo. The husband, ruined, owed one hundred contos because of gambling! He was dishonored, he was going to be arrested. His wife, dazed, runs to some ruins in a castle, where the count lives, she removes her veil, tells him the catastrophe.” So the count pays off the debt. But he starts a love affair with the wife, “a complicated plot: the count of Monte Redondo love each other, the husband finds out, throws all the gold at his feet, and kills the wife.” He commits this violent deed by throwing her off an abyss. “It’s in the fifth act. The count sees it, runs to her, throws himself too. The husband crosses his arms, and gives an infernal chuckle.” But alas, Ernestinho can’t perform the play the way he envisions it: the manager wants him to change the ending. “He says the audience doesn’t like it! That it’s not in our country’s style.” Not only is this Eça having fun at the fact that his own novel is quite unusual in Portuguese letters, but this scene also highlights a change in Jorge’s temperament over the novel. “I’m for her death. I’m completely for her death!” At the end, though, when Luísa is withering in bed and he finds out the incriminating letters, he remains silent about it and continues to take care of her: even in his behavior does Eça deviate from Flaubert and Tolstoy. At one point we find out that Ernestinho has changed his finale to spare the adulteress, who is forgiven and travels with her husband abroad. “It’s more natural that way,” he argues, implying that he gave in to the public’s taste. But Eça would also write an adultery novella, Alves & C., that is indeed about forgiving, as if Jorge were the main character.

Note: these are my translations. The novel has been better translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

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