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Iron Comedian

The Mandarin and Other Stories

by Eca de Queiroz, translated by Richard Franko Goldman
Ohio University, 176 pp., $5.00

The City and the Mountains

by Eça de Queiroz, translated by Roy Campbell
Ohio University, 217 pp., $5.50

The Illustrious House of Ramires

by Eça de Queiroz, translated by Ann Stevens
Ohio University, 320 pp., $5.00

Eça de Queiroz (1843-1900) is the great Portuguese novelist of the nineteenth century—not an Iberian Balzac, like Galdos but, rather, a moistened Stendhal, altogether more tender, and, despite his reformist opinions, without theories. He was a diplomat, something of a dandy and gourmet, whose career took him abroad in France, England, the Near East, Cuba, and the United States, and he was responsive to the intellectual forces that were bringing the European novel to the height of its powers. The temptations of a light and elegant cosmopolitanism must have been strong, for he is above all a novelist of wit and style, and he was amused by the banalities of diplomatic conversation.

But the foreign experience usually serves to strengthen his roots in the Portuguese idiosyncrasy: under the lazy grace, there is the native bluntness and stoicism. A novel like The Illustrious House of Ramires is very rich, but it also contrives to be a positive and subtle unraveling of the Portuguese strand in the Iberian temperament. The soft sensual yet violently alluring Atlantic light glides over his country and his writing, a light more variable and unpredictable than the Castilian; no one could be less “Spanish” and more western European, yet strong in his native character.

The fear that one is going to be stuck in the quaint, exhaustive pieties of the folklórico and regional novel with its tedious local color, its customs and costumes, soon goes at the sound of his misleadingly simple and skeptical voice. The Portuguese love to pretend to be diminutive in order to surprise by their toughness. Portuguese modesty and nostalgia are national—and devastating. In an introduction to an early short story, “The Mandarin,” he wrote a typically deceptive apology to its French publishers, in which he puts his case. “Reality, analysis, experimentation or objective certainty,” he said, plague and baffle the Portuguese, who are either lyricists or satirists:

We dearly love to paint everything blue; a fine sentence will always please me more than an exact notion; the fabled Melusine, who devours human hearts, will always charm our incorrigible imagination more than the very human Marneffe, and we will always consider fantasy and eloquence the only true signs of a superior man. Were we to read Stendhal in Portuguese, we should never be able to enjoy him; what is considered exactitude with him, we should consider sterility. Exact ideas, expressed soberly and in proper form, hardly interest us at all; what charms us is excessive emotion expressed with unabashed plasticity of language.

Eça de Queiroz, we can be certain, did not commit the tolly on reading Stendhal in Portuguese. The most exact of novelists, he read him in French, and the comedy is that he was very much a romantic Stendhalian—he was even a Consul-General—and in exactitude a Naturalist. Under the irony and the grace, there are precision and sudden outbursts of ecstasy and of flamboyant pride in a prose that coils along and then suddenly vibrates furiously when emotion breaks through, or breaks into unashamed burlesque.

He was an incessant polisher of his style. The following passage, from The City and the Mountains, shows his extraordinary power of letting rip and yet keeping his militant sense of comedy in command. His hero has just been thrown over by a cocotte in Paris. His first reaction is to go and eat an expensive meal of lobster and duck washed down by champagne and Burgundy; the second is to rush back to the cocotte’s house, punching the cushions of the cab as he goes, for in the cushions he sees, in his fury, “the huge bush of yellow hair in which my soul was lost one evening, fluttered and struggled for two months, and soiled itself for ever.” He fights the driver and the servants at the house, and then he goes off home, drunk and maddened:

Stretched out on the ancestral bed of Dom “Galleon,” with my boots on my pillow and my hat over my eyes, I laughed a sad laugh at this burlesque world…. Suddenly I felt a horrible anguish. It was She. It was Madame Colombe who appeared out of the flame of the candle, jumped on my bed, undid my waistcoat, sunk herself onto my breast, put her mouth to my heart, and began to suck my blood from it in long slow gulps. Certain of death now, I began to scream for my Aunt Vicencia; I hung from the bed to try to sink into my sepulchre which I dimly discerned beneath me on the carpet, through the final fog of death—a little round sepulchre, glazed and made of porcelain, with a handle. And over my own sepulchre, which so irreverently chose to resemble a chamberpot, I vomited the lobster, the duck, the pimientos and the Burgundy. Then after a superhuman effort, with the roar of a lion, feeling that not only my innards but my very soul were emptying themselves in the process, I vomited up Madame Colombe herself…. I put my hat back over my eyes so as not to feel the rays of the sun. It was a new Sun, a spiritual Sun which was rising over my life. I slept like a child softly rocked in a cradle of wicker by my Guardian Angel.

This particular novel savages Paris as the height of city civilization, a wealthy Utopia; it argues for the return to nature in the Portuguese valleys. Eça de Queiroz can still astonish us in this satire with his catalogue of mechanical conveniences. They are remarkably topical. (His theater-telephone, for example, is our television or radio.) The idea of a machine civilization that has drained off the value of human life recalls Forster’s The Machine Stops. Maliciously Queiroz describes our childish delight in being ravished by a culture of affluence or surfeit. He was in at the birth of boredom and conspicuous waste. One brilliant fantasy of the hero is that he is living in a city where the men and women are simply made of newspaper, where the houses are made of books and pamphlets and the streets paved with them. Change printed-matter to the McLuhanite Muzak culture of today, and the satire is contemporary. The hero returns to the droll, bucolic kindness of life in Portugal, in chapters that have the absurd beauty of, say, Oblomov’s dream.

The prose carries this novel along, but one has to admit there is a slightly faded fin de siècle air about it. The Illustrious House of Ramires is a much better rooted and more ambitious work. Obviously his suggestion that the Portuguese are not experimentalists is a Portuguese joke, for the book is a novel within a novel, a comedy of the relation of the unconscious with quotidian experience. One is tricked at first into thinking one is caught up in a rhetorical tale of chivalry à la Walter Scott; then one changes one’s mind and treats its high-flown historical side as one of those Romances that addled the mind of Don Quixote; finally one recognizes-this element as an important part of psychological insight. What looks like old hat reveals its originality.

Ramires is an ineffectual and almost ruined aristocrat who is rewriting the history of his Visigothic ancestors in order to raise his own morale. It is an act of personal and political therapy. He is all for liberal reform, but joins the party of Regenerators or traditionalists whose idea is to bring back the days of Portugal’s greatness. Ramires revels in the battles, sieges, and slaughterings of his famous family and—while he is writing this vivid and bloody stuff—he is taking his mind off the humiliations of his own life. The heir of the Ramires is a dreamer. He is a muddler and his word is never to be relied on. He shuffles until finally he gets himself in the wrong. This is because he is timid and without self-confidence: he deceives a decent peasant over a contract and then, losing his self-control when the peasant protests, has him sent to prison on the pretext that the man tried to assault him. Then rage abates and he hurriedly gets the man out of prison.

Ramires has a long feud with a local philandering politician of the opposite party, because this man has jilted his sister; yet, he makes it up with the politician in order to get elected as a deputy—only to see that the politician does this only to be sure of seducing the sister. The price of political triumph is his sister’s honor and happiness. How can he live with himself after that? Trapped continually by his pusillanimity, he tries to recover by writing one more chapter of his novel of chivalry, fleeing to an ideal picture of himself. What saves him—and this is typical of the irony of Queiroz—is his liability to insensate physical rage, always misplaced. He half kills a couple of ruffians on the road by horsewhipping them and, incidentally, gives a fantastically exaggerated account of the incident; but the event and the lie give him self-confidence. He is a hero at last! He begins to behave with a comic mixture of cunning and dignity. He saves his sister, becomes famous as a novelist, long-headedly makes a rich marriage, and tells the King of Portugal that he is an upstart. Total triumph of luck, accident, pride, impulse in a helplessly devious but erratically generous character loved by everyone. Tortured by uncertainty, carried away by idealism and feeling, a curious mixture of the heroic and the shady, he has become welded into a man.

And who is this man? He is not simply Ramires, the aristocrat. He is—Portugal itself: practical, stoical, shifty, its pride in its great past, its pride in pride itself raging inside like an unquenchable sadness. There is iron in the coziness of Queiroz. He has the disguised militancy of the important comedians. His comic scenes are very fine, for there is always a serious or symbolical body to them. His sensuality is frank. His immense detail in the evocation of Portuguese life is always on the move; and the mixture of disingenuousness and genuine feeling in all his characters makes every incident piquant.

A match-making scene takes place in the boring yet macabre crypt where the ancestors of Ramires are buried. Ramires knows his ancestors would have killed his sister’s lover; all he can do is to pray feverishly that her silly, jolly, cuckolded husband will never find out. Prudence and self-interest suggest caution; not mere caution but an anxious mixture of politeness, kindness, worldly-wisdom, and a stern belief in dignity, if you can manage it, plus the reflection that even the most inexcusable adulteries may have a sad, precious core of feeling. Ramires is not a cynic; nor is Eça de Queiroz. He is saved from that by his lyrical love of life, his abandonment—for the moment—to the unpredictable sides of his nature; in other words, by his candor and innocence. His people live by their imagination from minute to minute. They are constantly impressionable; yet they never lose their grasp of the practical demands of their lives—the interests of land, money, illness, politics.

In the heroic pages of Ramires’s historical novel, there is a double note, romantic yet sardonic. The scenes are barbarous and bloody—they express the unconscious of Ramires, the dream that obsesses him and his nation—but the incidental commentary is as dry as anything in Stendhal. During a siege:

The bailiff waddled down the blackened, spiral stairway to the steps outside the keep. Two liegemen, their lances at their shoulders, returning from a round, were talking to the armourer who was painting the handles of new javelins yellow and scarlet and lining them up against the wall to dry.

Yet a few lines farther down, we shall see a father choose to see his son murdered, rather than surrender his honor. The violence of history bursts out in Ramires’s own life in the horsewhipping scene I have mentioned earlier. The sensation—he finds—is sublime. He is a hero. But when Ramires gets home his surprise at the sight of real blood on his whip and clothes shatters him. He does not want to be as murderous as the knights of old. He is all for humanity and charity. He was simply trying to solve his psychological difficulty: that he had never in anything until then imposed his own will, but had yielded to the will of others who were simply corrupting him and leaving him to wake up to one more humiliation. It is a very contemporary theme. A lot of this has happened in Vietnam.

The making of this novel, and indeed all the others, is the restless mingling of poetry, sharp realism, and wit. Queiroz is untouched by the drastic hatred of life that underlies Naturalism; he is sad rather than indignant that every human being is compromised; indeed this enables him to present his characters from several points of view and to explore the unexpectedness of human nature. The elements of self-surprise and self-imagination are strong; and his excellent prose glides through real experience and private dream in a manner that is leading on toward the achievements of Proust. His translators have done their difficult task pretty well, Roy Campbell being outstanding.

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