Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz' Short-Stories

More books came out with Eça de Queiroz’s name after his death than during his life. In 1903 his friend Luís de Magalhães, after collecting his short-stories published in several newspapers, published them together in a single volume called Contos.

I don’t consider it an essential book, or even illustrative of his many talents. Novels and novellas provided a more fertile terrain for his imagination, his ability to increment details upon details to create dazzling landscapes, and his ease in orchestrating a vast cast across episodes and dialogues that produced panoramic vistas of society. And I suspect Eça himself did not like the genre. His first stab at it, “The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman,” dates from 1874. He didn’t have another go at it until 1885, when his friend Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho asked him to contribute something for a charity anthology and he sent an abridged version of “The Sweet Miracle,” whose complete version he didn’t publish until 1898 – his last published short-story in fact. The remaining ones, starting with “A Lyrical Poet,” came out between 1892 and 1898. Don’t forget that in 1892 Eça had closed down Revista de Portugal since it was losing money, The Maias had sold poorly, his household was increasing and his letters showed him renegotiating with his editors for more profitable contracts: poor finances may have motivated this unusual turn to short-stories.

In Contos we find a hodgepodge of styles, and a striking instability in quality. Some, to my mind, don’t even belong in the volume since Eça didn’t intend them as stand-alone short-stories. An example is the “The Wet Nurse,” a so-called short-story available in Alves & Co. & other stories. Luís de Magalhães, as far as I know, didn’t use rigorous criteria and included it because it looked like one. But as I’ve written before, “The Wet Nurse” was in fact part of an article Eça wrote for the Gazeta de Notícias where he derided the clichés of Romantic fiction; Eça whipped up a quick tale to illustrate his points, but without the article’s frame text the joke is lost and readers are induced to think Eça wrote that mushy nonsense with a straight face.

However, some short-stories are quite strong, amazing. “The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman” is a send-up of idealistic love. Macário, a good young man, falls in love with a young lady called Luísa. He wants to marry her, he wants to provide for her, he wants to build a family with her. He courts her and behaves respectfully – he’s the opposite of the roguish Bazilio. Unfortunately he doesn’t have the means to support her; a friend tells him a company is looking for an employee in Cape Verde; he immediately takes the offer and asks Luísa to wait while he builds a small fortune during a year. Travails ensue, travails he endures with dignity: “He knew the laborious voyages in enemy seas, the monotonous seasickness on a stuffy bunk bed, the colonies’ harsh suns, the tyrannical brutality of the rich landowners, the weight of humiliating burdens, the pains of absence, the journeys into the dark hinterlands and the melancholy of the caravans that on violent nights camp, for days and nights, on peaceful rivers redolent with death.” He comes back but doesn’t have enough, just a sum to start more profitable business enterprises to give his future wife the comfort she deserves. “And he worked: he put into that work the physical strength of his passion. He got up at dawn, ate quickly, barely spoke. In the afternoon he visited Luísa. Then he painfully returned to fatigue, as a miser back to his safe. He was stocky, strong, hard, ferocious: he uses ideas and muscles with the same impetus: he lived in a storm of doubts. Sometimes Luísa, passing through, walked into his warehouse: alighting like a fugitive bird, she gave him joy, faith, comfort for an entire overworked month.”

Business goes so well he lends money to the same friend who told him of the Cape Verde vacancy; he needs money to open a shop, Macário helps him out of gratitude. But his friend runs away with a married wife, the investment is lost and Macário turns poor again. A relative takes pity on him and gives him a job. Macário has set up the wedding date; one day he goes shopping with Luísa, takes her to a jeweler to buy her a ring. While they’re trying out rings the shop owner accuses her of stealing; Macário inspects her hand and finds a ring on her finger. He pays for it, saying she was “distracted,” and outside the shop breaks off the engagement. At a time when the Letters were full of ideal, passive women who existed only to be sung, Luísa was a slap on the face of the lyrical writers.

Speaking of them, in “The Lyrical Poet” the narrator tells us about Korriscosso, a poet who serves as waiter at a London hotel. Intrigued by this figure after he learns the waiter has stolen his volume of Tennyson poetry to read, he listens to Korriscosso’s travails: a great poet who sighs after Fanny, a maid at the same hotel. With his poetic gifts it should be easy to devote lyrical poetry to her, however there’s a predicament: “Korriscosso can only write his elegies in his mother tongue… and Fanny doesn’t understand Greek… And Korriscosso is only a great man – in Greek…”

Whoever reads “At the Mill” without knowing the dates, could swear it was an apprentice’s text, a forerunner of his future glories. That’s what I thought anyway: I was surprised to see Eça treading old ground after Cousin Bazilio and The Maias – the short-story is about adultery, about a young, faithful woman, Maria da Piedade, happily married and living in the countryside, taking care of her children, who is seduced her husband’s cousin. Much like Bazilio, the temper, Adrião, is in need of a woman to while away the time: “He found it absurd and infamous to seduce his own cousin… But he involuntarily thought of the delicious pleasure of making that heart not yet deformed by a corset beat faster, and of at last placing his lips on a face without rice powder… And what enticed him above all was thinking that he could run through the entire Portuguese countryside without even finding those body curves or the touching virginity of a sleeping soul… It was an occasion that would not return.” In a twist, though, he thinks again and decides not to corrupt just for sport; so he leaves without anything happening other than a kiss he regrets. But for Maria da Piedade that kiss was a revolution – suddenly she discovered the allure of having a lover. With Adrião gone she gives herself to another man in the village and scandal breaks out.

“Brother Juniper” is in line with Eça’s late interest in religious themes. In his final years he composed a Dictionary of Miracles and one of his final compositions was a novella called Saint Christopher, recently translated into English. The titular figure is a kind and virtuous monk who devotes his life to following the word of God. It’s divided in two parts: the first one follows some episodes of his life and ends with his death; the second one sees him being judged before God. The irony is that after all his virtue, a single, almost negligible fault – cruelty towards animals, by the way – denies him Heaven “All the light and all the shadow, from the brilliant Paradise to the crepuscular Purgatory, contracted with inexpressible love and terror. And in the static nakedness, the vast hand, from on high, made a gesture that repelled him…” And so an angel drops Brother Juniper in Purgatory.

In another short-story he deals with the Genesis: “Adam and Eve in Paradise,” Eça applies a realistic, Darwinian register to describing the creation of the universe.

   Adam, Father of Men, was created on October 28, at two o’clock in the afternoon…
   So says, with majesty, in his Annales Veteris et Novi Testamento, the very wise and very illustrious Usserius, Bishop of Meath, Archbishop of Armagh, and High Chancellor of Saint Patrick’s Church. (1)
   The Earth existed since the making of Light, on the 23rd, on the morning of all mornings. But it wasn’t that primordial Earth anymore, brown and soft, soaked with muddy water, stuffed in a thick cloud, lifting, here and there, hard branches with just one leaf and just one shoot, very silent, with a whole life hidden, only deafly revealed by the rustling of obscure, gelatinous critters, colorless and nearly shapeless, growing at the bottom of mire. No! now, between the genesiac days of 26 and 27, the whole of it will be completed, furnished and decorated, to receive with dignity the Foretold one who was coming. On the 28th it appeared already perfect, perfecta, with the supplies and decorations the Bible enumerates, ripe corn ears with green leaves, the trees heavy with fruit and flower, al the fish swimming in the glowing seas, all the birds flying through clear skies, all the animals feeding on abundant hills, and the streams irrigating, and the fire kept inside the stone, and the crystal, and the onyx, and the very fine gold from the country of Hevilath…

“Back then, my friends, the Sun still turned around the Earth.” But the highlight is the Creation of Man. “Then, in a very thick and very dark forest, a certain Being, slowly releasing his claw from the tree branch where he had been perched all morning many centuries ago, slid down the ivy-covered trunk, rested his two paws on the ground that moss softened, on his two paws he perked up with strenuous energy, and stood erect, and opened his free arms, and took a strong step, and felt his unlikeness from Animality, and a dazzling thought struck him about what he was, and indeed had been! God, who had held, at that moment created him. And alive with a higher life, brought down from the tree’s unconsciousness, Adam walked towards Paradise.” But it’s not a picnic: he’s alone, terrified, creatures prey on him, he doesn’t know anything, everything scares and startles him, like watching the sea for the first time. Not to mention gigantic, dangerous creatures like the plesiosaurus and the ichthyosaurs, roaming around him. Fortunately, to help him make his life easier, one day he wakes up with a companion. “And, oh, joy! in front of Adam, and as if disconnected from him, was another being equal to him, but slender, smoothly covered in a silkier hair, who contemplated him with large lustrous and liquid eyes. Red hair, of a toasted red, rolled in thick waves down to its round hips with harmonious and fertile plenitude. From between its hairy little arms, which had been crossed, they appeared, abundant and fat, two honey-colored breasts, with a rough fluff around the  perky, tumescent tips. And rocking, slowly rocking her furry knees in a sweet rocking, the whole of that silky and tender Being offered itself to him with a stupefying and lascivious submission. It was Eve... It was you, Venerable Mother!” And so on, rewriting the entire Genesis. In my humble opinion, thanks to the humour and the unexpected perspective, it’s his best short-story.

Others exist, some are realistic, others are fantastic; I’m also quite fond of one about the mythical Ulysses torn between remaining with Calypso on her island and braving the sea to be with Penelope. There are two volumes of Eça’s short-stories in English: The Mandarin & other stories, and Alves & Co. & other stories. Unfortunately his best aren’t in English yet – I suspect that one day Dedalus will release a third volume, to include the novella O Conde de Abranhos: if that happens readers will have some of Eça’s best short fiction in one single volume.

1 He actually means James Ussher. The dates are taken from the real life Annales Veteris et Novi Testamento.

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