The Mandarin and Other Stories
The City and the Mountains
The Illustrious House of Ramires
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 …