Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz Month: The Wrap-Up Post

At last, it is completed! The Eça de Queiroz Month is no more! And its conclusion alleviates me from the strenuous effort that ruled my life in the last weeks. I began composing the posts two or three days before June began, and I kept writing one per day even if I only published five per week – weekends were crucial in getting ahead of schedule. Thanks to that I managed to fulfill my plan for writing 22 posts; actually finding material for 22 parts was a more complicated matter: I had to break up his biography in smaller chunks, re-read more than I had counted on; but I think it all turned out well. It was always my intention to interpolate Eça’s life with his oeuvre, to keep this month from reading like a dull lecture. I hope to have achieved that goal.

Although a month in length, I began preparing the Eça de Queiroz Month around a year ago; it was in June or July of 2014 that the idea began coalescing; and once I had decided on it the next step was furnishing myself with Eciana. Although I had read practically every fiction he had written, I was very poorly read up on his secondary bibliography. A preliminary event was my reading of Joel Serrão’s O Primeiro Fradique Mendes, back in 2013. The second half of 2014 and the early months of 2015 saw me taking a crash course on Eça de Queiroz, and I’d be unfair if I didn’t list every author from whom I learned, took quotes, and received wider frameworks in which to understand and appreciate Eça de Queiroz. English-language literary criticism on Eça is scarce, but there are at least two books: Maria Filomena Mónica’s biography Eça de Queiroz (I have not read it), and Maria Teresa Pinto Coelho’s Eça de Queiroz and the Victorian Press, the ultimate source on Eça’s ill-fated attempt at creating his own review – how I learned so much from it! But the majority of the scholars I read will never, I fear, move into English, so I leave their names and books here:  José Augusto-França (As Conferências do Casino no Parlamento), Ernesto Guerra da Cal (A Relíquia – Romance Picaresco e Cervantino), Dominique Sire (Madame Bovary de Gustave Flaubert/O Primo Basílio de Eça de Queiroz), Harold Bloom (Genius), Maria Filomena Mónica (editor of Eça de Queiroz Jornalista and As Farpas), Miguel Real (O Último Eça), Joel Serrão (Temas Oitocentistas II), Luís Manuel de Araújo (Eça de Queiroz e o Egipto Faraónico), Moniz Barreto (A literatura portuguesa no século XIX), Elza Miné (Eça de Queirós Jornalista), João C. Reis (editor of As Polémicas de Eça de Queiroz), Heitor Lyra (O Brasil na Obra de Eça de Queiroz), Alberto Machado da Rosa (Eça, Discípulo de Machado?), and the two great living Eça scholars: João Medina (Reler Eça de Queiroz; Eça Político; A Geração de 70, uma geração revolucionária e europeísta), and the venerable, inspiring and tireless A. Campos Matos (Eça de Queiroz/Ramalho Ortigão; 7 Biografias de Eça de Queiroz; Um Caso Insensato da Cultura Nacional; and the superb biography Eça de Queirós - Uma Biografia). Other books I bought during the Month that I couldn’t read on time to use them; but that’s OK – I’m never finished with learning about Eça de Queiroz. I can't describe the sense of exhiliration I felt on widening my knowledge, on considering new aspects of his life and work, on getting a deeper understanding of what made him so extraordinary.

I read so much because I really wanted this to be the best of the Months I had held at St. Orberose; whatever its flaws, I hope it remains a helpful resource for those initiating their discovery and appreciation the great novelist that was Eça de Queiroz. So I leave here an index of posts:

Finally I wish to thank everyone who followed this event, and who commented. Small as it may have been, I was encouraged by knowing that there was an audience interested in what I was doing. Thank you very much for having been present at the Eça de Queiroz Month.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: Beyond 1900

Eça de Queiroz’s problems ended with his death, but new ones started for his family and oeuvre. A crisper image of old relationships also began to emerge. As soon as he passed away Emília wrote to his friends Eduardo Prado, travelling with his wife in Sicily, and Ramalho Ortigão, his oldest friend: Prado immediately came to Paris to aid the widow, letting her stay at his house, whereas Ramalho continued his holidays in Venice. This and other behaviors have led the always-reliable A. Campos Matos to believe that, although Eça revered Ramalho, the friendship was not absolutely reciprocal. Informed, the Portuguese sent a war ship, called Africa, to bring Eça’s remains to Portugal, although such behavior may have more to do with his long and admirable career as consul than with his status as a writer.

Eça’s remains arrived safely, but his belongings didn’t have the same fate. In 1901, the ship transporting his correspondence sank and the cargo was lost; however, thanks to the diligences of many scholars, including the tireless Campos Matos, nowadays there are two thick volumes of letters, plus two addenda. (In 1915, Eça’s library was stolen: only 315 books remain, depriving scholars of a valuable means of understanding) His family was also afflicted: Emília, rich in lands but short on liquidity, and with four children to raise, needed money quickly. Prado, with his usual gentlemanliness, travelled to London to activate an insurance Eça had made: as a testament of the novelist’s usual monetary difficulties, of the 1500 pounds Prado collected he had to pay back 500 to a British consul from whom Eça had borrowed in 1879: he was kind enough not to add interest to the sum.

But Emília’s friends believed that the real way of making a steady income would be to manage her late husband’s oeuvre, and to bring to light unpublished novels. The task fell to Ramalho Ortigão: at the time it must have seemed like the best option, due to his long-time friendship with Eça, but in hindsight it was an almost tragic disaster that could have endangered many of his books. Emília wrote to Ramalho, asking him to perform the task of editing the manuscripts; he received them and replied that he’d also collect Eça’s newspaper writings and publish them. But in fact he didn’t do anything. In October 1900, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes and The Illustrious House of Ramires came out: but these novels had been left nearly ready by Eça (he passed away before revising Ramires’ last three chapters). In 1901, The City and the Mountains came out, with some editorial input from Ramalho, but this was the whole of his involvement in organizing Eça’s oeuvre (in fact Ramalho made lexical and stylistic changes that future scholars expurgated). In his letters he kept putting off the task and making up excuses for the delays. He also promised to carry out a critical study of his friend, which also never came to fruition. Campos Matos believes that Ramalho, whose own literary career was going through a decline, wanted to obliterate his friend’s memory. Eça’s fame soared while his dimmed; apropos of this, the essayist António Sérgio once quipped that Ramalho died in 1894 and that after that he “outlived himself,” a useless relic. The theory of envy is not remarkable since the praise of people like Fialho de Almeida and Pinheiro Chagas also had a phony note to them. In 1915 Ramalho even claimed to have written The Mystery of Sintra Road all by himself, having offered partnership to Eça out of “friendly comradeship.” In a 1901 letter Ramalho finally asked Luís de Magalhães to take his place.

Books continued to come out, but mostly due to the efforts of Luís de Magalhães (for whose novel, O Brasileiro Soares, Eça had written a preface): he collected the short-stories in Contos (1902); edited Eça’s early writings under the name of Prosas Bárbaras (1903); English Letters and Ecos de Paris followed (1905); then another collection of newspaper pieces, Cartas Familiares e Bilhetes de Paris (1907); also Notas Contemporâneas (1909); and finally Últimas Páginas (1912). These books comprised the bulk of Eça’s non-fiction; his posthumous novels had to wait another decade – this was chiefly because Luís de Magalhães did not have access to them, unlike the non-fiction that he could cull from extant periodicals. But before we jump to 1925, there are more years and events to cover.

In 1901 the State granted Eça’s widow an annual pension, secured by his friend the Count of Arnoso. This same Count promoted the construction of a marble statue of Eça which was inaugurated in Lisbon in 1903 (a tip for tourists: the real statue stands in the Museu Municipal de Lisboa; tired of fixing damage to the statue, in 2001 it was replaced with a sturdier bronze copy). Although it illustrated Eça’s growing importance (it was the second Lisbon statue raised in honour of a writer; the first one was Camões’, in 1867, a few steps up the road from Eça’s), it also provoked polemic in the press: one newspaper found the female figure’s nudity offensive; another one, contesting the value of Eça’s writing, didn’t consider it right for him to have a statue when so many writers didn’t have theirs. “And they raise him a statue! Why? Camilo and Herculano and Oliveira Martins have statues somewhere? And Garrett?”

But not one reached Fialho de Almeida’s heights of vitriol. His article on Eça’s death, written three years before, was a masterful hatchet job. He propounded the then popular notion that Eça was an accidental Portuguese writer. “Eça de Queiroz is a European writer, not a national writer. In the history of written Portuguese Ramalho’s prose yet last; Eça’s, never.” Alas, Ramalho, nowadays a mere appendage of Eça, surviving only through their colaborations in As Farpas and The Mystery of the Sintra Road, is far from meaning much. Obviously I don’t agree Eça was a European writer; I think he expanded what a Portuguese writer could be. But Fialho needed to believe Eça was mediocre to continue to believe his own prose would last. “In conclusion I will say that Eça de Queiroz is a failed genius due to the bad use he made of himself as a writer, a genius who diminished himself with philosophical indiscipline, the predominance of vulgar instincts, the lack of faith in a intense and absorbing ideal.” Fialho would not have been content with anything but late period Tolstoy. It’s never enough to reiterate that Fialho, in his career as a journalist, was mostly a purveyor of hatred and bile. His prose is collected in volumes called The Cats, for reasons those who know the feline temperament will understand. He also deplored that his funeral had attracted such a procession (over sixty carriages), appalled at the laurels conferred to the “greatest denationalizer Portugual had in recent times, the cynical genius who so poorly understood his moral mission as a man of letters, and who instead of rising the soul of his nation towards centralizing ideals that defended it from death, who instead of instilling in souls the root of activity, fatherland and family, spent his life denying, depressing, empowering modern French nonsense, doubting honor and virtue, seeing in men nothing but cretins and cads, and in women nothing but the vulgar rudiments of prostitutes!” Where was the balanced man who had once praised Cousin Bazilio? Foreshadowing the polemics over the 1903, Fialho finished this diatribe complaining that Camilo Castelo Branco had been forgotten in detriment of Eça.

Eça’s friends rallied against Fialho’s accusations. Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho, an author of popular romances, wrote an obituary that was also an indirect refutation. “Now he’s finally Eça de Queiroz, the artist extraordinaire, the great peninsular novelist, whose glory would be European if the Portuguese language were known all over Europe, and who even so, beating the obstacles that our milieu places in front of everything that is beautiful and grand, managed to be loved by the intellectual elite of two brotherly nations – Portugal and Brazil!” Like Mariano Pina before her, she realized that writing in Portuguese had kept Eça away from worldwide fame. That is, unfortunately, the plight of every Portuguese writer. She also addressed the view that Eça had a bad knowledge of the language. “This is not Portuguese! – they exclaimed with rage. Portuguese for them was something ornate, precise, contorted, when it wasn’t stiff, rigid, when it wasn’t inflexible and slithery, something untouchable, but from which every reader eventually fled, from which they would fled by now, if it hadn’t been for Camilo’s chisel and Latino Coelho’s attic quill.” Portuguese prose was an acquired taste; easy to acquire, and quite enjoyable, if you have a thing for the Baroque. For her Eça “transformed the language into a most delicious music, breaking up its pompous periods, separating its heavy members, alleviating its ostentatious march, making it light, foamy, transparent, luminous, lively, musical, rich with melancholy moods and silvery laughs, creating in it the marvelous and unique tool in his humorist’s hand, moving it with convulsive grins, making it smile with Parisian elegance, making her cry, from that modern sadness which seems to be mocking itself while it cries!”

In Spain Eça also enjoyed recognition. We don’t know what Galdós thought of Eça, although it’s a fact his 4000-volume library did not contain a single Eça; but Miguel de Unamuno thought highly of him; and Emília Pardo Bazán considered him the best writer of the Iberian Peninsula, although not without some censure. “This great Portuguese artist could have been much bigger, almost perfect, he had sprung from his nation’s own entrails; if he had been more vernacular, pure, and Lusitan or peninsular down to the marrow, a son continuing his country’s literary tradition.” It’s no wonder that she preferred The Relic, a modern pícaro.

In Brazil Eça’s popularity continued to increase. In 1900 Machado Assis was still a bit sour from some words Eça had indirectly addressed him during the 1878 polemic about Cousin Bazilio. “What is worth saying about this calamity? For us novelists it’s as if we had lost the family’s best relative, the most beautiful and the most beloved. And such a family isn’t only composed of those who entered it through the life of the spirit, but also of relics from another generation, and, finally, of the new crop. The same he hurt when he exercised direct and mundane criticism, have forgiven him the pain because of his honeyed language, the new values he gave it, the old traditions he conserved and also the strength which united the former to the latter the way only great art can unite.” But Brazil was crazy over him – everyone read him, spoke of his characters as living entities, pilgrimaged to Portugal to kiss Eça’s statue, or to France to visit his houses. It’s even said that a man went mad trying to memorize The Maias. A Brazilian writer called Monteiro Lobato coined the word Ecitis to describe this obsession with Eça de Queiroz. Indeed we owe them the first book-length study, a 1911 biography by Miguel Mello.

Meanwhile, in Portugal his importance dimmed in part because of his wife, Ramalho, and foolish critics. In 1916 Alexandre Cabral wrote a study that, although praising the author, reproached Eça for “the crudities of his realism, his use of foreign words, and above all his ‘plagiarisms,’ which he ferociously enumerated, aided by the finest authors who pointed them out,” writes the great Campos Matos. Plagiarism was a charge Eça continued suffered during and after his death, for some decades: Camilo Castelo Branco, António Enes, Cláudio Basto, Machado de Assis, Pinheiro Chagas, João Meira, Adolfo Coelho all accused him a tone point of committing them. Apropos of that, there’s an excellent book by Dominique Sire comparing Cousin Bazilio to Madame Bovary: although finding similarities (like any ordinary reader would), she also shows the many deviations in style, theme and tone from Flaubert’s book. Most of these charges were petty, ungenerous, and in many cases motivated by the need to bring down a rival who was slowly but irremediably becoming Portugal’s greatest novelist.

Eça’s family, however, posed an ever worse threat. Emília was a pious, conservative, royalist lady who considered her husband’s work immoral and ungodly; she did everything to hide from her children that their father was a great novelist, and indeed didn’t become aware of that until their return to Portugal. She tried to remove The Crime of Father Amaro, Cousin Bazilio and The Relic from the market, because of their indecency and attacks on moral; fortunately, Eça had sold the rights to his old editor, Lello, who paid no heed to her demands. Emília also damaged the publication of Eça’s work abroad. Between 1921 and 1922 The Relic was serialized in a French newspaper; but Emília opposed the idea of publishing it in book form and the idea was abandoned. Valéry Larbaud, a  writer himself and admirer of Eça, wrote to one of the translators, Manuel Gahisto: “The author’s heirs’ extraordinary inflexibility can’t be explained, to me, except by their ignorance of literary history: they don’t know how slowly and through how many periods of neglect and obscurity a lasting literary fame is built, even in the case of an illustrious and classic writer in his mother tongue.” But keeping him obscure was precisely what Emília, her genuine feelings for Eça notwithstanding, wanted.

Considering the conservative mood in Emília’s household, it’s not surprising that Eça’s children grew up to be royalists and fascist sympathizers. When a republican revolution overthrew the monarchy in 1910, two of his sons declared themselves anti-republican and joined the guerrilla against the young Republic. This caused Emília to lose her annual pension. In 1919 these two sons took part in military uprisings to restore the monarchy; when the counter-revolution failed, they fled abroad. One of them, José Maria, fled to Brazil. There he met Ramalho’s son, who had inherited his father’s papers. Amongst them he had discovered several unpublished manuscripts. He had moved to Brazil and taken them with him, not knowing that he had them. When he met José Maria he gave them to him to publish them. Up until then no one known that these books existed, since everyone presumed that Ramalho, back in 1900 had examined them for anything of importance or worth. Out of this discovery José Maria edited Alves & Co, O Conde de Abranhos, and letters (1925), To the Capital (1926), and O Egipto and Cartas Inéditas de Fradique Mendes e mais Páginas Esquecidas (1929). It’s chilling to think what could have been lost if the ship that carried the manuscripts to Brazil had sunk. Particularly in Brazil there was a hunger for more Eça, and through the 1940s there new editions of his letters: the hunt was on for any bit of text that had come from his quill. Alberto, another son who moved to Brazil and died there in 1938, wrote that “only here did I begin to measure the greatness of Eça de Queiroz’s oeuvre.”

But in Portugal things were about to change. In 1945, in order to celebrate Eça’s centennial, there was an explosion of interest:  lectures, radio programs, exhibitions, new studies and biographies. The National Information Bureau, one of pillars of the dictatorship in power since 1926, organized an exhibition about Eça – António, his other fascist son, worked at it. The regime had tried to claim Eça’s oeuvre for itself, the way it would with many other classics. One of its henchman, during a radio lecture, even claimed that “Eça de Queiroz was – in truth we say it – a master of healthy nationalism.” Nothing new: in 1935 another fascist henchman had proven that Eça was a precursor of fascism; Fradique Mendes, in his view, was a “highly constructive” critique of “the errors of democracy.”

The most enduring book published was João Gaspar Simões’s monumental biography, Eça de Queiroz o Homem e o Artista, which the modest Campos Matos considers the best ever written. An anti-fascist, Gaspar Simões, who would also write Fernando Pessoa’s biography, locked horns with Eça’s heirs on ideological matters: he saw him as a defender of freedom and individuality; they wanted him to conform to the regime’s distorted image. António was obsessed with “protecting” his father’s image – thanks to his resources at the NIB he was always up to date on newspapers and new books and kept watch over anyone who, to his mind, slandered his father’s reputation. For that reason Gaspar Simões and many scholars remained in bad terms with the Eça estate, denied access to his private papers and unable to carry on research.

But life went on, studies continued to come out, new letters were discovered and published, new biographies written in Portugal and Brazil, and even new books published at last. The last major novel to see the light of day was The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (written in 1877-78, published in 1983), a sort of understudy for The Maias, and especially offensive to the heirs’ religious feelings given its overt theme of incest.

And Eça de Queiroz’ star continued to rise: critical editions of his books, more biographies, countless studies, movie adaptations, translations. For what it’s worth, Harold Bloom includes him in Genius. Eça has never been more popular and read than nowadays. The world, however, on the whole has not yet placed him on that pedestal where Flaubert, Tolstoy and other 19th century masters enjoy their reputations. I’m not sure if a novelist, great as he may be, hailing from a small, obscure country and so far away from his time can find wide acclaim in another time – like Larbaud wrote in 1922, the creation of literary fame has its procedures, and Eça has had too many obstacles keeping him away from world renown. But I think that so long as people like to read intelligent, funny, humane and well-written novels Eça will continue to find new fans in every part of the world.

Tomorrow, the wrap-up post.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz' Newspaper Writings

Eça de Queiroz’s newspaper writing produced almost as many volumes of fiction. He started writing for the press in the 1860s and continued up until his death, in order to increase his income since he never had the prolific rhythm necessary to life off his own fiction. He wrote about politics, famous figures of his time, literature, even roses and ancient cuisine. It’s impossible to make a fair overview of his interests, but I’ll quote from some of his most enduring articles.

In November 1800 Eça was living in Newcastle; part of his job as a consul was to stay up to date on European affairs and politics, and this prompted an article called “The Persecution of the Jews.” “The two ‘sensations’ of the month,” he begins “are undeniably the publication of Lord Beaconsfield’s new novel and the turmoil in Germany against the Jews.” Once again anti-Semitism was rearing its ugly head in Germany, although Eça was especially interested in the British press’ passivity about the matter. “I don’t see, for instance, that what is going on in Germany, in spite of exhaling an odious auto-de-fé smell, prompts London’s liberal press to be greatly indignant: and even a newspaper with the authority of the Spectator has already been forced to attenuate, after grave protestation from the Israelite community, articles where it described Jews as an isolated and selfish corporation, in the manner of Catholic communities, working only for their gain, closing themselves in the strength of their tradition and keeping sympathies and tendencies overtly hostile to the ones of the State that tolerates them. All of this is already disagreeable.

 He also notices with worry that Bismarck’s government has condemned the rise of anti-Semitism, and has no plans to interfere. “As soon as the ministry’s answer was known, a band of youths in Leipzig, who could be mistaken for Dominican friars, but were only Philosophy students, went about expelling Jews from beer halls, depriving them of the dearest and most sacred individual right for the Germany: the right to have beer!” As for the motive, he finds mostly envy. “The motive for the anti-Semitic furor is simply the growing prosperity of the Jewish colony, a relatively small colony, composed of only 400,000 Jews, but which due to its activity, tenacity, discipline, is carrying out a triumphant competition against German bourgeoisie.”

Eça always sided with the weaker and persecuted, and that trait of his personality is again evident in his September 1882 article, “The English in Egypt.” One of the longest articles he ever wrote, it’s an in-depth, intelligent analyses of the bombing of Alexandria, a fascinating history lesson on an episode few have heard of. In 1882, France and Great Britain sent ships to Egypt because a military uprising was putting at risk the payment of this country’s debts (created by the khedive Muhammed Tewfik Pasha) to European creditors. “Officially, however, the war ships were there performing a naval demonstration, but in fact were carrying out a foreign intervention – because troubles had occurred in Egypt and the khedive had declared himself besieged. (…) This means His Royal Highness is in his palace, surrounded by a gloomy populace that grabbed sticks, found a flag and placed it atop a pole, and has come to impose a formula tremendously unpleasant for His Royal Highness: less royal authority and more public freedom…”

“If His Royal Highness,” explains Eça, “keeps a few faithful regiments in his palace, then he puts on a general’s uniform and gives out orders to cut down his people: if unfortunately, however, the soldiers are in tandem with the citizens, then His Royal Highness declares himself besieged, and asks a stronger and less busy neighboring king to send him a division to restore order – that is, to ensure His Royal Highness keeps his royal authority totally intact, dispersing with bullets any attempt at public freedom. Nowadays this isn’t used in Europe indeed: but in the East, it seems, it’s still a very decent method of calming down national disapproval.”

Eça also traces the profile of coronel Ahmed ‘Urabi, the leader of the uprising. Although Eça realizes ‘Urabi has rebelled mostly to solve the problem of the soldiers’ pay, which had on hold for two years now, he had also become the bearer of the people’s complaints and a hero capable of carrying out progressive reforms. “But ‘Urabi brought three or four ideas that, if a decent Europe existed which allowed him to implement them, could be the beginning of a new Egypt, an Egypt owning itself, an Egypt ruling itself, an Egypt for Egyptians – not just a colossal race dependent on Muhammad Ali’s family, and certainly not a free alehouse for starving Europeans.”

What were ‘Urabi’s reforms? “In the first place, ‘Urabi wanted the end of the khedive’s absolute authority, Egypt ruled by an elected Parliament; and, as a consequence of that new regime, a radical reform in the use of public expenditure, which until then one part went to the khedive, one part to the Sultan’s harem, the sovereign lord of Egypt, one part for the tight-knit cohorts of foreign civil servants, one part, a large part, to pay the debt coupons in Paris and London, leaving so little for the needs of the country, to the point the army hadn’t received pay for two years now!” Of course Eça knows that what worried the imperialist powers was the matter of the debt: “‘Urabi did not deny the foreign debt, created by that splendid spender Isma'il Pasha, but recognized by the nation and warranted on its honour – but he did not tolerate that France and England were installed in Cairo, with the keys to the safes, waiting for the arrival of taxes in order to chomp on the lion’s share; in order to satisfy the European creditor’s voracity, the fellah was crushed with taxes, who, no matter how hard he worked day and night, in the end he had to seek the European moneylender. Remarkable thing! Europe officially presented itself as creditor, and in order to fill its pockets, secretly provided the usurer!...”

‘Urabi, however, was determined to reduce foreign influence in Egypt. “But the delicate point of ‘Urabi’s reforms was over the situation of foreigners in Egypt. There were monstrous interests there. ‘Urabi demanded the abolition of privilege by which foreigners living in Egypt and growing rich in Egypt paid no taxes. That horrible man didn’t want those special courts for foreigners, which, under the name of mixed courts, gave out two verdicts – a sweet one for the European, a bitter one for the Arab. Alas, that fatal man didn’t want civil servant jobs given exclusively to foreigners – and he didn’t want to pay, as it was paid, over three thousand contos of good Egyptian money to French, English and Italians living the good life in sinecures in every state department in the Nile Valley, and all of them as useful to the state as that Englishman who, with a letter of recommendation from Lord Palmerston, was nominated coronel in the Egyptian army, and at the end of nine years, after he had received around eighty contos in pay, he still had not seen his regiment and didn’t even have his uniform!”

Eça returns to the matter of the debt. “Ah! The matter about the creditors! The famous question of the Egyptian debt! In what did Isma'il Pasha spend those hundreds of millions that Europe loaned him, and that the poor fellah is paying? First of all, in bringing to life an economic idea – to convert Egypt, which is an agricultural country, into an industrial nation. Egypt produced sugar – why not refine it? It had cotton – why not weave it? And so, on the strength of millions, he began to cover the Nile’s banks with those colossal factories, of which nowadays only ruins remain – ruins of rusted iron and of rotten wood, so miserable and sad, next to the beautiful granitic ruins of the pharaonic temples, representing, like them, a people’s servitude, but, given its ugliness, unable of at least being useful, like they are, for aquarelles...”

“The khedive’s other reason to be ruined was his generosity. Who doesn’t know the illustrious legend? Who doesn’t remember the Suez Channel parties? There each expenditure cost millions. Two million for the Cairo lighting. Four million for the Ismailia banquet. Expenses with two thousand guests invited for a fortnight in Cairo and the Channel – seventy million!... For the champagne drank on those weeks of repast – two millions! The fellah paid.” Eça also remembers that he himself is to blame, since he was present and drank that champagne. 

Given the risk of an uprising that interfered with European interests, the war ships were sent to intimidate and pressure ‘Urabi. This of course led to nationalistic chants against the foreigners. “That was the situation on June 11. Alexandria had become a furnace of nervousness. The mosques preached a passionate crusade against the Christian: in the bazaars they spoke of foreigners as of rabid dogs, birds of prey, worst than the grasshopper who devours the harvests on the Nile’s fertile fields; and either because of the increasing fanaticism, or because misery wanted revenge – every good Muslim armed himself.” And soon the European powers found their casus belli to bomb Alexandria. “In those circumstances, a race war can grow from an alehouse joke. And, more or less, that’s what happened. On the morning of the 11th, on the Sisters Street, one of the richest ones in the European quarter, an Englishman, out of an old habit, whipped an Arab; but against all traditions, the Arab struck back with a blow. The Englishman gunned him down with a revolver. Not long after the conflict between Europeans and Arabs, in full force, spread throughout the quarter... This lasted five hours – until Cairo telegraphed orders for the troops, neutral until then, to calm the streets down. And the result, quite unexpected but understandable, for we know the Arabs only had sticks and the Europeans had rifles – was this: around one hundred Europeans dead; more than three hundred Arabs exterminated. The newspapers have called this the massacre of the Christians: I don’t want to be unpleasant in any way to my brothers in Christ, but I’ll respectfully ask that this be called the killing of the Muslims.” Using the murders of Europeans, the French and British ships claimed Alexandria was out of control and bombed it in order to restore order. Afterwards they invaded and restored the khedive to power, although they became the de facto rulers of Egypt until World War II.

Besides politics, Eça also wrote to express his admiration for those who had shaped his life. In June 1885 he wrote “Victor Hugo” in honor of the great French author (he always called him  Master) who had recently passed away. It contains some of Eça’s most beautiful pages. In an open letter to a newspaper editor who wanted to know Hugo’s importance to Eça’s generation, after explaining that the previous considered Hugo stiff and lifeless, he goes on to note that his generation has obscure him with useless praise: “As for the younger generation, the sacred Spring that gives flowers ‘in those published writers every morning,’ as the archbishop of Paris has modestly said – that generation always alludes to Hugo in mysterious way, calling him the ‘titan,’ the ‘colossus,’ the ‘eagle,’ the ‘volcano.’ One cannot tell from these statements the impression the La Légende des siècles left on them; because this manner of talking about a poet, treating him like a ‘volcano,’ is just an inept way of getting away from the severe duty of understanding.” Eça doesn’t fall into abstractions; he’s precise, concrete, illustrative. “I almost learned how to read with Hugo’s works: and each one penetrated me in such a way that, in the same way others may remember ages of their lives or states of spirit from a scent or a melody, I suddenly see, on rereading old verses by Hugo, a whole past, landscapes, houses I lived in, occupations and dead feelings… I was indeed created inside the Master’s oeuvre – the way you can be created in a forest: I received my education from the sound of his odes, from the vast exhalations of his anger, from the confused terror of his deism, from the grace of his pity and from the luminous mists of his humanitarianism.”

For Eça, Hugo’s greatness was the nobility and compassion for mankind he placed in everything he wrote. “One of Hugo’s greatness, quite French, is his vast clemency, his infinite pity for the weak and the small… And in this regard his life weighed considerably on our century. Hugo certainly did not invent mercy, but he popularized it. In the Gospel itself there’s still a lot of anger: Jesus has inflexible words of condemnation and punishment. Hugo, especially in old age, had reached such a state of ‘supreme compassion’ – that he forgave even tyrants, the ferocious exterminators of people, monsters.” This ethical imperative, for Eça, is indissociable from Hugo’s work. “Using a parallel analogy, I consider Hugo’s political action profoundly fertile. In his time, Hugo was not a statesman like Turgot: Hugo is the bard of democracy. His job is not to organize: his job is to sing it. He preaches, in radiant lyricism, the coming of the Kingdom of Man; and his rhythmic voice calls the multitudes to him. The instinctive human masses move only due to imagination and feeling: logic converts the educated man, but not the simple man.” For Eça, then, Hugo’s work had the importance of humanizing people, of expanding the possibility of human compassion, justice, and generosity.

But although Eça loved Hugo and followed French culture, for some time now scholars have seen in Eça a need to distance himself from France. If in the 1860s-70s he was unapologetically a Francophile, in the 1880s he started showing reservations about drinking too much from its culture and ideas. To his mind, Portugal was dangerously becoming a mere copy of France, a cheap copy, losing its own identity. He expressed these feelings in letters, in The Maias (through the mouth of João da Ega) and in an undated article (believed to have been written circa 1887) published only after his death. Called “Frenchness,” it’s an X-ray of Portuguese society and its infatuations with all things French: it translated novels, poetry and plays while neglecting national authors; translated even textbooks, manuals and scientific books; imitated fashions; adopted its tastes in painting and music. Eça, who had long been accused of being too French, inverted the accusation by casting himself as a victim: “Instead of being guilty of our denationalization, I was one of its melancholy results.” Quite autobiographical, the article explains how since his birth onwards French literature, language and culture were inescapable since they were a necessary condition to become someone in Portuguese society. This affected his entire generation, excepting a few figures. “I don’t want to write memoirs. Just to informally show how I and my entire generation (save for higher spirits like Antero de Quental and Oliveira Martins) had fatally become French within a society that frenchified itself and that, all over it, from the State’s projects to individual tastes, national traditional had died off, undressing itself from its Portuguese clothes in order to cover itself – thinking, legislating, writing, teaching, living, cooking – with rags from France!” Other countries, like Germany and England, were absolutely ignored, to the point Eça knew civil servants who asked him if England also produced literature.

Even if the article were an exaggeration (not by much), it’s worth reading for this great moment:

   Two or three years ago, that colossal comedian and show-off called Richepin published a book, Les Blasphémes, where he simply set out to end, once and for all, by means of some brilliant rhymes, mankind’s religious feeling, obscenely describing the intimate affections of his father and mother.  I was at Oliveira Martins’ house, and we all found this new of way of showing filial respect immensely funny. Antero de Quental, however, did not laugh.
   “This is very serious for us,” he said. “Because tomorrow, here and there, all over the newspapers, poems by young poets will show up starting like this:

My father was a thief, and my mother a whore!”

And just less than twenty hours later we were all reading, stupefied by this prophecy, Lisbon and Porto newspapers with poems where young men of the highest honesty, from highly honorable families, accused their mothers of prostitution and called their fathers ‘horny bulls.’” That’s where France will lead us.

In this article Eça also derided symbolists and decadent literature, singling out Paul Verlaine’s poetry for censure. Eça did not like the new directions literature was taking.

In the May 1890 article “Fraternity,” Eça reflects about the growing hatred between European nations (as if predicting WWI), and links them with the nationalist movements that swept across Europe during the 19th century. More prophetically, he sees that chauvinism and national rivalry has migrated from aristocrats and kings to the people. “It’s these irrational and violent antagonisms, as much as or more than state rivalries, that force nations into a rigid armed attitude where they lose vitality and grow agitated: and nowadays, unlike ancient times, love and caring for peace belongs to kings, and to the people the impulse for war.” For him the reason has to do with the fact that the intellectual class tends to adopt a supranational identity that reinforces cosmopolitanism. “This comes from the fact that power, or the influence on power, has moved from elites to the masses, from oligarchies to democracies. In the past oligarchies, made ‘cosmopolitan’ out of education, travelling abroad, alliances, a community of habits and tastes, similitude of duties to the Court, general tolerance that culture produces, and special affinities of the spirit created by classic culture, never hated other nations – because other nations were for them the other oligarchies with which they felt alike in all ways of living, thinking, acting, ruling. Democracies, on the contrary, deeply nationalistic and never cosmopolitan, keeping their own ways with traditional loyalty, and intolerant of foreign ways – only know each other (through the narrow notions of a fragmentary education) in their most nationally characteristic traits, and therefore irreparably opposite.”

Eça tried not to succumb to pessimism: he tried to see everything as a perpetual cycle of growth and decay, improvements leading to new challenges and problems, new problems to new solutions and social betterments. But he was also becoming skeptical of man’s infinite ability to improve himself, accepting some things were innate, and fearing that science and progress, for all their promises, were causing spiritual harm to man. So in February 1892 he wrote “The Decay of Laughter.” Eça has left many pages on the power of laughter – it was his favorite tool, after all. In 1878 he had written: “Laughter is the most ancient and still the most terrible form of criticism. Run a chuckle around an institution seven times, and the institution crumbles; it’s the Bible that teaches that to us, in the usually admired allegory of Joshua’s trumpets around Jericho.” But fifteen years later he was having doubts. He begins the text by quoting Rabelais that “rire est le propre de l'homme,” laughter is proper to man.

“But nowadays if, for the Meudon church and the Universe’s great benefit, Rabelais came back from the dead and again walked amongst us with his Gargantua, what would the noble master say? Perusing our books, going about our crowds, living our way of living, no doubt the good Rabelais would say that ‘crying is proper to man’ – because the large and pure laughter of his time would not be found on any face. Indeed, we children of this century, have lost the divine gift of Laughter. Nobody laughs anymore! Almost no one smiles.” He adds: “No one laughs – and no one wants to laugh.” And he tries to explain this impression. “I think laughter has ended because mankind has grown sadder. And it has saddened – because of its immense civilization. The only man left on earth who smile sounds the happy primitive laughter is the negro in Africa. The more educated a society – the sadder its face. It was the enormous civilization that we created in these last eighty years, the material, political, economic, social, literary, artistic civilization that killed our laughter, the way the will to rule and the bloody works necessary to bring it to fruition killed Lady MacBeth’s sleep. We have complicated our social existence so much that acting in it, given the tremendous effort it demands, has become a great pain – and we have complicated our moral life so much, to make it more conscious, that Thought, given the confusion it wrestles in, has become a larger pain. Nowadays the man of action and thought is irreparably fated to melancholy.” And he concludes: “The unfortunate wretch is destined to the infinite yawn. And his single consolation is that the newspapers call him and he calls himself – The Epitome of Civilization.

This, of course, didn’t stop him from continuing to write laugh-out-loud novels.

To date there is only one English translation of Eça's pieces for newspapers, his English Letters. It has some of his best articles, including the ones on Egypt and anti-semitism. Perhaps one day his later writings will appear.

Next week we'll find out what happened to Eça after his death.