Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Relic: Critical Reception

In 1887, seven years after the fantasy-addled The Mandarin prompted critics (and rivals clothed as disinterested critics) to thrash Eça de Queiroz for abandoning militant art at the service of social reform, The Relic reenacted these old accusations, besides producing new ones on matters of good taste and narrative structure. Camilo Castelo Branco, the veteran novelist whose preeminence was shaken by Eça’s arrival, didn’t mince words: “This book has two parts – 1st filth. 2nd boredom. It’s a pochade à la Paul de Kock – hyperbolically implausible jokes – a despotic will to produce laughter at the expense of everything; but that’s not what makes it a bad book; it’s the absolute lack of good sense and good taste. It must be considered an example of decay, for having been written after The Maias, which must be better.” This is incorrect, by the way: Eça wrote it simultaneously with The Maias, in fact he rewrote The Relic three times during the 1880s, according to a letter by the poet António Nobre. Elsewhere Camilo added that in Raposo’s “utterly rotten brain” and “hypnotized in every brothel at home and abroad, the luminous phrase-maker suggested a transcendental ascetic dream running 150 pages!” This complaint would dog Eça: how dare he have an ignorant good-for-nothing dreaming about the Passion with the erudition of a scholar? Doesn’t he realize how improbable that is, how psychological false it is?” Once again Eça, who schooled his country on psychological realism, was coming under fire for writing the way his countrymen used to write before him. It never crossed their mind that Eça was doing it for a reason. But by then Realism and Naturalism were hot words; Camilo knew that if a writer wanted to sell he had to claim loyalty to their schools, or at least pay them lip service. He never surrendered to them, instead he ended his career (he committed suicide in 1891) writing parodies of Realism.

The notion that The Relic was a minor, and foolish, work continued to find adherents for many decades. In 1945, the biographer João Gaspar Simões dismissed it as “a picaresque joke, without responsibility regarding culture or psychological plausibility.” I still remember the jolt of excitement I felt when I came across this sentence. “That’s my novel!” I thought, “He’s describing my novel. How did he know?”

Even Eça’s reliable defender, the journalist Mariano Pina, was wont to give the novel more than backhanded praise. His review, published in A Ilustração in July 1887, was the only contemporary review I managed to find. It was a strange beast of a review. Like most reviews praising Eça, it begins by deriding the mediocrity of Portuguese letters before him and lamenting the lack of attention the press grants his books. “It’s not easy to find a country on Europe’s map with more literary put-ons than ours. Nowadays no youth would consider himself worthy of aspiring to the hand of the most ordinary and ugliest of the maidens who ‘performs’ the Avenue every afternoon, if he hadn’t first perpetrated either a verse, or a short-story in the ‘naturalist way,’ or an article kicking above Victor Hugo’s shadow or above Dumas père’s shadow. Now it’s precisely that excess of bad letters, this bazaar of three-penny literature, this crowd of mediocrities and audacities, this clandestine prostitution that is energetically demanding its own register at police stations, and a special shelf at the Boa-Hora’s archives [the palace where the courts operated] – that made us arrive at this state of odious swindle of ideas, at this ocean of stinking but newspaper-consecrated banality, and that we see in the same newspapers the works of Mr. Cunha Seixas and the works of Mr. Florêncio [don’t worry, no one know they ever existed] praised in terms that would make Descartes and Lamartine blush with modesty… and that we don’t find two lines about Mr. Eça de Queiroz and his beautiful novels.”

After this great aperture, however, Pina joined the chorus that maligned Eça for structural and psychological flaws. For Pina The Relic had an “artist fault,” namely the fact that a sleazy womanizer like Raposo could dream such a beautiful dream about the Passion of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, he remained confident that “the author can correct [it] in a second edition, with the same ease with which a sculptor can correct on marble a muscular deformity the artist got wrong on the gesso.” That Eça had intended the novel that way did not cross his mind; suddenly the critics became prisoners of the Realist tenets Eça popularized, blind to any other novelistic possibilities. Ironically, Pina got close to understanding these other possibilities. “If The Relic were intentionally and overtly a novel, this book would be doomed under the most basic elements of criticism, which wants every effect in a work of art to be convergent. If The Relic were a novel we’d hesitate to know what the purpose of this book was.” Still he never suggested that the novel, instead of springing from Balzac and Flaubert, harked back to the picaresque novel and was totally ‘correct’ within that tradition.

Pina’s review also has the virtue of pointing out that always puts a smile on my lips – the fact that Eça was once upon a time judged ignorant of grammar. No, really, throughout his life and beyond many critics leveled at him the charge that he had a wobbly grasp of Portuguese syntax, punctuation and grammar. Camilo thought so, and so did his friend Antero de Quental. Pina responds to that: “The Relic must be a wretched mud hole of grammar mistakes, commas out place, and expressions and foreign words that have not yet and will never be confirmed by authorities.” But he doesn’t give that too much importance. “What does that matter! Grammar is certainly the most circumspect of inventions, and if it didn’t exist we’d have to invent it for the joy of our more or less divine and more or less beloved high school teachers.”

But the novel’s reception reached its apotheosis when Eça de Queiroz submitted it to a literary award. In 1887 the Royal Academy of Sciences opened a competition (with a financial award) sponsored by the king, D. Luís I. In a letter to Ramalho Eça said that he was going to submit his new novel, although he didn’t think he had a chance of winning – he just wanted to have a reason to make fun of the Academy after losing. Which if of course what happened. It was a strange competition since poetry, plays, novels and non-fiction competed in the same category. The jury, composed of nine elements, headed by the inimitable Pinheiro Chagas, gave the prize to a play, O Duque de Viseu, as forgotten as its author, somebody called Henrique Lopes de Mendonça. It wasn’t a unanimous decision: several votes picked the historical novel Amores de Julia, by the equally forgotten Sousa Monteiro. Eça’s novel didn’t receive a single vote. To make matters worse, Chagas serialized a long report on a newspaper between 1887-88, explaining the merits and flaws of each participant and justifying the choice. Above all, Chagas, Eça’s long-time nemesis, used it to demolish him.

“The future,” he ominously declared, “will tear our many of Cousin Bazilio’s pages, which are perhaps the author’s dearest, the same way it jumps Hamlet’s euphuistic word puns, the plays’ madrigals, the speeches in Anthony in order to go look in chapters and immortal scenes for the eternal expression of anguish, of love, of doubt, of everything that disturbs, moves and upsets man during his stay on Earth.” We could always add that in his case, the future tore out every page. His critique is interesting because he simultaneously attacks Eça for being a Realist and for not being one. Chagas can’t hide the hatred for “needless details” (an echo of Machado de Assis’ criticism) and the “transitory,” i.e. the everyday that Eça so strenuously tried to capture. Chagas wanted art all made of “eternal human truths” disconnected from a time and a place – knowing him, it’s easy to understand why; if he managed not to write about his time, if he did not describe and judge what he saw, he had better chances of not upsetting anyone; by making his art hermetic, and thus lifeless and harmless, he did not run the risk of imperiling his arrivisme, which was his main motivation.

Chagas also insisted on the “flaw” about the journey to ancient Jerusalem. “It is Teodorico who falls asleep, and the author who dreams.” Chagas also took offense at Raposo lighting a cigarette when he hears the news of Jesus’ death. Reading the report’s subtext, it’s obvious The Relic was blacklisted because of its farcical treatment of biblical themes.

When the report came out, it generated controversy. In 1888 Pina insinuated that the competition was rigged from the beginning. “Some had told me that it had been decided a long time ago that the prize should go to Mr. Lopes de Mendonça – how could they know it?” I don’t know if someone really told Pina that; he may have just made it up just to fan the fires; but considering the deep-rooted system of nepotism and networking operating in Portuguese letters up to this day, I don’t find that improbable at all. “Others told me that Mrs. Eça de Queiroz could compete in this award every year, that it would never be given to him!” It gets more intense: “Others threatened me for suggesting that Eça was better than Lopes de Mendonça.” And he bemoans that “In Portugal you can no longer have an opinion, you can no longer say to a newly-arrived poet: ‘You’re not Camões yet, but perhaps you’ll get there one day!’ – without running the risk of being murdered by that same young poet, or by his band of admirers.” Pina was also amused at the fact that Lopes de Mendonça was being compared to Almeida Garrett, father of a 19th century theatrical revival (and still widely read): “This opinion only had the flaw of being a nice peninsular exaggeration, as Portuguese as our habit of praising with excessive enthusiasm the promising young ones, and of forgetting with excessive ease the men who had already produced.” Pina also questioned the fact that a literary jury, composed of nine members, only had three writers.

At last Eça decided to chime in, going after the Academy itself. “Now, I neither state nor deny the Academy’s literary influence, and its usefulness in a nation’s thinking life. Without an Academy England produced, produces a literature of incomparable nobility and originality. But in the saying of two masters, Saint-Beueve and Renan, French literature owes the Academy those perfect qualities that made it in every era and in every genre a model, and which in the 18th century turned it into the most persuasive and effective civilizing agent that Europe had. On the other hand, in the Southern countries, Spain has a very pompous Academy and a very mediocre literature. And in Portugal you can’t evaluate the Academy’s efficiency – the same way you cannot appreciate the usefulness of an instrument forgotten for years in the corner of a mansion, getting rusty and rotting under the dark and the mould.”

After this letter to the newspapers, where Eça also questioned the judges’ tastes, Chagas charged once more, repeating his grievances with the novel: “What’s the accusation I formulate against The Relic? It’s that it’s a book without logical unity, an extravagant aggregate of two incompatible individualities, the Foolish Teodorico who dominates most of the novel with great fatigue for the reader who must accompany him in long chapters quite unworthy of the author of The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio, and the Teodorico in whose imagination wondrously stimulated by Palestine’s sun that famous sketch, the dream, is rendered.” These arguments did not convinced the author, who replied once more: “I want literature and criticism – and not emphasis and chicanery. I want the demolition, argument by argument, of my thesis. When I see it razed to the ground, with the regrettable look of a soft cardboard ruin, I’ll pound my chest, I’ll proclaim out loud that the competition was an excellent thing and that my ignorance did not understand it, and that no one has the honest right to complain about it in the dailies.” Obviously Eça did not think the Academy was right in awarding some other author. We could just chalk it up to lack of sportsmanship, but in his defense he’s only the competitor who’s still read more than a century later. If Eça understood the value of his book better than his coevals, that’s not his problem. To me what’s curious is how the book suffered from bad timing: published a century earlier, it would nicely hold its ground against any novel by Daniel Defoe or Henry Fielding; published a century later, it’d just be another book in the picaresque revival, something to read alongside The Sot-Weed Factor. The fuss about it nowadays is only ridiculous.

Strangely however, outside Portugal it met gentler reviews. Emília Pardo Bazán, the Spanish novelist, called it “one of the most singular works of literature recently produced.” And she added: “I know not if The Relic is, as some claim, Eça’s best work, but for me it’s the strangest and at the same time the one that most belongs to him.” Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish philosopher, was so impressed with its final reflections about the importance of willpower in creating Truths, that he incorporated it in Our Lord Quixote, his classic study of Don Quixote. More recently Harold Bloom, for what it’s worth, included Eça in his Genius and singled out The Relic, “a comic masterpiece that deserves rediscovery.” Although he also likes Eça’s “admirable realistic novels,” he claims that “The Relic is something rarer: a novel of absolute comic genius, an invention provocative of outrageous laughter." And an interesting fact I recently learned from a Brazilian essay: apparently this book is Eça’s most republished and translated.

Finally there was Ernesto Guerra da Cal, who in 1971 radically changed the interpretative possibilities of this novel. Tomorrow, his in-depth study described and idolized.


  1. Fascinating - thanks for this, Miguel. I'm not surprised the novel wasn't well received when it appeared. Plus ça change.... Though it's interesting to see that one of the main charges against it was the implausibility of Teodorico being capable of that dream. What, the debauched can't be imaginative dreamers too?

    1. What's interesting, to me anyway, is that there wasn't much of a noise about the novel's mockery of religion. People disliked the book because of aesthetic reasons!

      This incident shows why it's dangerous for book reviewers to have a set of preconceived notions of what novels should be. The reason why Chagas attacked it is basically the reason why James Wood dismisses so many great novels that don't adhere to his dogmatic "free indirect style" crap.

    2. I don't know Wood well enough, but your recounting of The Relic's reception should certainly serve as fair warning to critics to try to dislodge themselves a bit from the conventions of their time and of themselves.

    3. Well, I can't be too harsh on them, I'm guilty of that myself many times!