Friday, 19 June 2015

The Maias: Critical Reception




After 8 years of intensive work and revisions, of abandoning To The Capital to focus on it, in June 1888 The Maias appeared in the bookstores. Eça de Queiroz’ longest novel, containing around 210,000 words, nowadays critical consensus considers it his masterpiece. And yet it’s hard to see what makes it better than his previous novels: it didn’t break new ground, like The Relic, it’s more like a summula, or an expansion of former themes: moral decay, a panoramic vista at a society populated by eloquent and seductive wastrels, adultery, incestuous relationships, scathing critiques, lots of caricature. The same targets reappear: priests, journalists, politicians, outdated literati, Romantic poetry, Portugal’s backwardness compared to Europe’s progressivism, Lisbon’s ignorance of the rest of the country. The Maias simply seems more labored, more inclusive, more orchestrated – fuller, perhaps, and funnier than his previous Realist novels.

No one denies its virtues nowadays, but when it came out it met mixed reviews and generated controversies that in hindsight are ridiculous. Pinheiro Chagas waited until 1890 to write about The Maias, although he used the novel more as a pretext to excoriate Realism as a whole. He spoke little of the novel in particular, and his arguments were identical to what I’ve shown before, so we can move along. The most virulent review came from the quill of journalist Fialho de Almeida. He belonged to a new generation of journalists brought up on the caustic, pessimistic prose of As Farpas. He created his magazines where he outdid Eça and Ramalho; but whereas these two had always known how to temper their bleakness with humour, Fialho progressively grew bitterer and more hateful. One of his collections of articles can be literally translated as The Cats – a name chosen not for its fuzziness. For a time Fialho praised Eça’s novelistic output – I’ve quoted his glowing reviews of The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio. I could not find any text by him on The Relic, but beginning with The Maias Fialho’s relationship with Eça soured: the former devotee turned into an enemy who continued to flail him even after Eça’s death. Some scholars have interpreted this change as Fialho’s envy of Eça because his own failure to launch a literary career.

Fialho’s extensive review is the perfect hatchet job. “The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz, doesn’t add much to what we already knew about the writer’s process, nor does it mark any progresso in the psychology a bit à la diable for which the novelist seems to have a predilection in cultivating. They’re the torturous, disjointed and difficult work of a man of genius who got lost in a subject and takes 900 pages finding a way out of it, running and rerunning through the same path many times, persuaded that he moves triumphantly across a large and beautiful royal road.” Structurally, the novel’s a mess. “It’s a remodeled work, strewn with patches, laborious overlaps, innuendos, which for that reason made it lose the beautiful serenity of its composition, its clarity, and whose episodes, diverging from the main action in long and useless digressions, make the luster of many scenes turn dimmer, and sometimes replace interest with fatigue, notwithstanding the profuse, luminous, admirable talent sprinkled across all those pages.” Then he states that Eça’s view of Lisbon has remained static. “For the novelist, the Lisbon of The Maias is still that sleepy and filthy Lisbon of the first issues of As Farpas, where every man is grotesque, idiotic, insignificant and a rascal; where there is nothing but adulterous women – and all these mediocrities, living in sweat-smelling dens, go about life aping foreigners, with an aesthetic disorientation and a lack of sense analogous to those African tribal lords who go about the desert in a torn loin-cloth, an admiral’s hat and a lancer’s uniform.” And he continues to pile up complaints: there aren’t honest women in the novel; and “love, even when it’s given without payment, love is an exclusively physical and bestial things, without idealism, without tenderness, without arrangements – like between animals of a dirty species;” there’s no psychology, just caricature, no nobility of spirit, just filth; no one works, everyone’s a parasite, everyone hates the country, etc. It’s 13 pages tearing the novel to pieces. And yet he also makes bizarre judgments: he considers Carlos da Maia, a weak-minded dilettante as man possessing the “virtues of a gentleman,” when from the beginning he’s described as a rogue interested only in sensual gratification; he shows surprise at the fact that João da Ega, a smooth-talking pseudo-intellectual who sometimes produces the illusion of seriousness, is nothing but a parasite living off Carlos, when that’s his portrayal from the beginning. Even more amusing is to see him criticize Eça for his bleak view of Portugal, when Fialho’s own vitriolic journalism seldom found anything worth praising or admiring. More than anything, Fialho seems upset because Eça did not write the novel he wanted to read, a psychological novel full of contemplations about the human condition; instead Eça, as usual, turned Lisbon into the stage of an ongoing farce. As a letter to Mariano Pina shows, Eça did not find the review fair or accurate: “To criticize the book, as does, not for what it is but for what it should be – that’s ridiculous.”

And yet some of those jabs may have upset Eça because he agreed with them. In a 1878 letter to Ramalho Ortigão, Eça recognized that his consular job abroad interfered with the precision of his observations: “In order to write any page, any line, I must make two tremendous efforts: to free myself from the impressions I receive from the surrounding society [Newcastle, at the time], and evoke, by flexing my reminiscences, a far away society. This means that my characters become less and less Portuguese – without becoming more English.” Eça came to Portugal from time to time, in short visits, but he couldn’t stay up to date with societal changes. His solution was to paint in broader and broader strokes, forsaking his previous meticulous observations. It was a change of style, not necessarily a loss of quality. The Maias retains some of his best prose and many of his most memorable characters.

Once again, Mariano Pina had to jump into the fray to defend Eça. His review, published after Fialho’s, doesn’t reply to it and remains vague, attacking general enemies. He opens with an attack on the competence of reviewers: “In our century’s literary history there are more errors of criticism than works of art. (…) It always erred because it obeyed the mot d’ordre of conservative literatures, without wanting to take seriously each new generation that showed up animated by another ideal.” This could not mean Fialho since he had previously Eça for his innovation; but it gives an idea of how Eça’s fiction continued to look for its place in a country still devoted to Romantic fiction. Then Pina berates the publishing world in words that seem modern: “For the critics who find The Maias abominable, this is what they call a novel: a volume not exceeding 350 pages; having characters and plot very nicely tidied up beforehand; having its situations of comedy or drama with effects and trucs according to the flavor of fashion; having the petit scandal, something à la sensation, a bomb every couple of pages – and everything very composed, combined, tidied up, very fashionable to meet the masses’ favour (…) Add to that a complicated, twisted, torturous, bizarre, with fanciful adjectives and adverbs – and there’s the desired novel, which tobacco shops applaud!” This was a great j’accuse until Pina started lambasting twisted and fanciful, what’s wrong with that? But everything before that slip, it’s like a recipe for the “literary fiction” novel. And he continues: “Nowadays literary production is entirely industrial, and the wealth of Letters shall be the cause of its death. As soon as the novelist reaches stardom and enjoys the first manifestations of fortune – he starts writing in partnership with the editor, inquiring the caprices and tastes of the Public, like someone selling clothes. He stopped being an artist to be only a producer. The main thing is that instead of 20 he sell 50,000 copies of his work…” Eça, with his frequent money problems, probably wouldn’t object to selling 50,000 copies, but he also once complained that his tendency to rewrite, revise and perfect led to a small output and kept him from making a successful career. And yet he never abandoned his love for precision and perfection. Finally Pina addressed some of Fialho’s charges: but to those who criticize Eça for “seeing only the ridicule, always the ridicule, nothing but the ridicule in Lisbon’s society, of seeing only stock-figures, whom the author delights in showing and flagellating with his fearful irony,” to those critics Pina said that “Mr. Eça de Queiroz’ comical temperament makes see the comical constantly. Why, to demand that Mr. Queiroz’ critical nature transform into a contemplative and optimistic nature – is demanding too much.” In the rest of his review Pina congratulated Eça for daring to be pessimistic in a country that wallowed in false optimism, for being the most truthful observer of Portuguese writers, called The Maias “pure literature,” praised the “characters who are not slaves to a conventional plot” and considered Eça in Portugal “the writer who best knows how to use words.”

The rest is history; nowadays The Maias is considered the best Portuguese novel ever written.

Still a final controversy plagued the novel. In August 1888, two months after the novel came out, a rumor spread that Bulhão Pato, an old-fashioned lyrical poet, had hurriedly written a satire of Eça to include in his new book, that came out that month. For yet unexplained reasons, Pato believed that Eça had modeled Alencar, a talentless Romantic poetic, after him. Feeling slighted, he poured his indignation to mediocre verses that don’t contribute at all to his reputation, so I’ll refrain from translating them. Eça himself ignored them and the matter seemed dead and buried until Pinheiro Chagas – “always that fatal man,” Eça once wrote of him – revived it six months later. The scholar João C. Reis, without evidence truth be said, has theorized that Chagas was behind Pato believing Alencar was a satire of him. Another theory, also by him and more persuasive, is that Chagas reignited the controversy in order to keep the attention focused on Pato – according to Reis, Alencar was a closer portrait of Chagas’s piss-poor poetry; having realized it, he used Pato to deflect possible recognitions. Everything I know about Chagas tells me he wouldn’t be above such petty behavior. In January 1889 he published an article saying that he had only now read Pato’s book and found the anti-Eça satire (hardly convincing since Lisbon had been aflame with it six months before) and to commiserate with poor Pato; in fact the article’s intention was the same as always: to attack Eça and the Realist novel. According to Chagas, this incident was the logical conclusion of writers drawing from observation instead of creating; so obsessed are they with getting real life into the page, he argued, that they’d stop at nothing to transfer a real life person, complete with its tics and personality, to the book, under an alias. “The author did not know how to create a human being, he did not know how to fabricate an organism, how to put in place in a true and logical way the passions of feeling that actuate in that organism.” The same critiques he had used to deny giving an award to The Relic, and echoes of Fialho’s own trashing. He continues by saying that Eça’s characters are essentially empty and lifeless. Incredibly, his attack had some effects. Even Antero de Quental had to write to Pato apologizing for Eça, saying that his obsession with Realism had led to a “perversion of intelligence.”

Although Eça did not reply to Pato, perhaps for considering it absurd, he replied to Chagas’ article. In a letter to a newspaper, he begins by claiming that until he had not known that Pato had seen himself satirized in The Maias and written a satirical riposte (doubtful, but not unlikely). He also declares not to have used Pato as a model, but not before joking about the matter: “To be portrayed in a novel or in a comedy has constituted for antiquity, as you well know, my friend, the most decisive evidence of celebrity. Since Aristophanes put Socrates in The Clouds – to Pailleron who portrays Caro in Monde oú l’on s’ennuie, the portrayal of a coeval has always been the definitive consecration of his importance in society, in politic or in letters.” But he also questioned why Pato would see himself portrayed in the figure of a mediocre fictional poet.

   But if Mr. Bulhão Pato recognize himself in the flaws, then here we have a man who amidst his friends turns to the public and declares with serenity: “A novel has showed up where there is a mediocre poet, a blabberer, a narcissist, a moocher. Why, with such vicious traits only I exist in Portugal. That poet, therefore, is me!”
   In this case, never in the world would we have seen such a painful example of self-humiliation and self-insult.

They should know, since the days of As Farpas, that you can’t beat Eça at words. When he had to defend himself or attack, his mind didn’t miss an illogical maneuver on the enemy’s side. Pato replied with a few more satires, but this time Eça remained silent and the matter finally died.

8 comments:

  1. Definitely a book I want to try - I do need to put some time aside for works like this...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's a very readable 500-page book; Eça's humour seldom relents, and the dialogues, the episodes, the descriptions have always an element that keeps them engrossing.

      Delete
  2. Miguel - What a treat to have this summary of the critical response to The Maias. The misunderstandings in the Fialho review appear fairly egregious; how painful it is not to be understood! But Eça appears to have been well equipped to parry back, if that Pato response is any indication. I was most interested in Eça's comment about the problems of distance while writing the novel mostly abroad and wonder if that in any way accentuated rather than diminished the work. Not that there's much to grab onto in The Maias as an example of anything diminished. Twice I've read the novel, and your observations above are pushing me back towards it. But I think I must attempt one I haven't read first, most likely The Relic (thus I've so far held off reading your comments on that one).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, sure, do read The Relic, it's such a hilarious novel; it's a bit unexpected in Eça's oeuvre, but that makes it all the more special.

      Delete
    2. I have it on order - should be arriving any day now. I can't believe that my library doesn't have a single copy.

      Delete
    3. Libraries can't have everything, and I suppose it's not a very popular book. But you want to read it - that's what matters. I'm sure you'll love it, for me it's the epitome of Eça's humour.

      Delete
  3. I've been meaning to read Eça for some time now. Your posts gave me the final push, I'm almost done with The Maias. I love it! I didn't expect it to be so funny and full of life and characters so well depicted. It really is a gem. I'm very curious about The Relic. If it's Eça's funniest novel, I will have to read it. Too bad I will have to get in English as it hasn't been translated into Polish.
    I finished Zola's The Kill right before starting The Maias and even though of the three books by Zola that I read, I liked The Kill the most, The Maias seem a lot "fresher" and original.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah, thank you for visiting, pesahson.

      I'm glad you're enjoying The Maias; posts like yours make me think all this effort was worth it: to direct at least one person to Eça's books is a great reward!

      Delete