The Proust of Portugal

Leonel Marques Pereira: A View of the Passeio Público (detail), a park in Lisbon, 1856

The Portuguese novel The Maias appeared in 1888, when its author, José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845-1900), was forty-three years old. Eça had spent close to a decade working on the book—which he initially planned as the first entry in a series called “Scenes from Portuguese Life”—during his diplomatic service in England. The novel’s story involves three generations of an illustrious noble family, which by the 1870s has been reduced to the white-haired Afonso da Maia (“a man from another era, austere and pure”) and his singularly charmed and charming grandson Carlos. A Lisbon doctor with intellectual ambitions, Carlos is also adept with a sword and possesses “precisely the correct number of enemies required to confirm his superiority.”

The plot of The Maias turns on a forbidden love affair of Carlos’s and its consequences. But outlining these does little to account for the book’s exalted status among its admirers—why José Saramago called it “the greatest book by Portugal’s greatest novelist,” for example, or why V.S. Pritchett, writing in The New York Review in 1970, wrote that Eça’s novels pointed “toward the achievements of Proust.” It’s tempting to single out its fine quality of description, brilliant dialogue, rich cast of secondary characters, and unusual irony, which combines biting misanthropy with a broad and flexible attention to human pain. For my part—and I am, admittedly, reading in translation—another aspect of Eça’s writing has to be mentioned: how time unfolds in the book, with a sublime, almost arboreal leisure.  

Eça’s numerous fictions have a central place in Portuguese and Brazilian literature, but they don’t seem much read elsewhere—at least not these days. Abroad, he is often cast as an overlooked equal to the great nineteenth-century European realists. That comparison is not illogical: his sexually provocative and socially scathing early novels, which dealt with love affairs and scandals among the clergy and the well-off middle class, were heralded for introducing realism to Portugal. These works not only mention certain of their inspirations, such as Balzac, but pay clear tribute to them—Flaubert above all—in the details of their plots. (Luísa, for instance, the stifled and daydreaming wife in Eça’s 1878 Cousin Bazilio, can’t help but evoke Emma Bovary.) At the same time, critics have often been at odds in characterizing Eça: asking if he is patriotic or subversive, or whether the answer to that question changed over the course of his career; how much of the Romantic colors his sense of “reality”; and whether he wouldn’t more profitably be understood as a kind of camouflaged avant-garde writer. What all these conflicting accounts confirm is the beguiling elusiveness of the Lusitanian’s work.

Eça established his reputation with his tense and claustrophobic first novel, The Crime of Father Amaro. It is a debut that’s also not one: it was twice seriously revised after publication. (Among other changes, the third edition is almost five times as long as the first.) The novel was initially released in 1875 without Eça’s knowledge or approval after he had given it to an editor friend with the understanding that it was still at an early stage; he made substantial changes to the next published text. The second revision, in 1880, was to improve on aspects of the book with the novelistic maturity five more years had lent. This is the edition that’s commonly read now.

It tells a story of country-town scandal about a sensitive local beauty (Amélia) and the new priest of the title, initially a boarder at her seamstress mother’s house. The romance is beset with difficulties: as well as the mother, there’s a domestic staff and a legitimate young suitor for Amélia to mind, and the town’s other priests are often around, arguing, plotting, gossiping, and, wherever possible, eating and drinking. Chief among the book’s quirks is Eça’s oddly malleable sense of character; the novel seems to stand at a strange juncture between realism, fantasy, and the philosophical conte. Amaro’s backstory is cursory and not quite convincing enough to explain the extreme change he undergoes over the course of the novel; Amelia, for her part, suffers a fever that seems something other than medical. Yet reservations like these fall away in light of Eça’s acute and uncannily limber sense of his characters’ psychology from moment to moment, and his genius for surfaces and physical detail. Meeting at one point, the pent-up lovers rush to clasp hands “from the wrists to the elbow.” Throughout his work, Eça’s rapid and clear descriptions make fleeting characters lodge in the mind: it might be someone whose jacket is held together with a pin, a mother nursing a coughing baby, a farmer with hands that look like roots, or an irritable hunchback who “deliberately kept his nicotine-stained fingernails long” so as better to play the guitar.

Although sometimes discounted for its comparatively lower stakes, his second novel, Cousin Bazilio, a flirtation with Madame Bovary that simultaneously reproduces much of the layout from Father Amaro, offers a new and entertaining brio. (It’s the first nineteenth-century novel this reader has encountered in which two female friends roll around laughing after one has fended off a man by striking him with his own walking stick.) It did well for its sensational subject—adulterous bourgeois seduction—but was criticized, along with Father Amaro, by a promising young Brazilian critic: in two articles, Machado de Assis acknowledged the author’s gifts but objected to the books’ explicit sensuality and a few other strange things, including a “photographic” brand of prolix realism that arguably applied little to these works.

Eça de Queirós was an illegitimate child brought up by his paternal grandparents, who lived in a small coastal town called Verdemilho and sent him to school in Oporto. His parents finally married, but even then he didn’t join them. He studied law but never practiced—his novels, it’s hard not to notice, are full of people not following through. Since literary careers at any level were precarious, at his father’s urging Eça eventually joined the consular service. His posts included Havana, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol, where he stayed for nine years, and finally a short stint in Paris, where the former Francophile had surprisingly little contact with other writers. Retrospectively included as part of Portugal’s reform-minded “Generation of the Seventies”—with friends such as the influential historian Oliveira Martins and the poet Antero de Quental—Eça appears not to have minded irritating a host nation when he saw the need. In Cuba, he continued advocacy efforts for exploited Chinese plantation workers; from England he wrote articles for a paper back home (a few samples appear in the out-of-print Letters from England), some of them lengthily dissecting British misjudgment and aggression in Ireland and the Middle East.

Eça’s books are quite specifically about Portugal, and at a particular moment. The country in which he came of age didn’t have much in common with France or England, nor did it much resemble the maritime and trade power Portugal itself had been three centuries before. A character returning from abroad in The Maias observes how “the same guard patrolled sleepily round and round the sad statue of Camões,” embodying this changed fortune. At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugal’s system of agriculture was still close to feudal. The population—Roman Catholic, widely illiterate, and ruled by an inert constitutional monarchy—had been depleted by emigration to Brazil, a former colony that had been independent since 1822. At the same time, Lisbon housed a sophisticated elite, and university life at Coimbra was notably fermented in Eça’s generation by an influx of European texts, culture, and liberal social ideas. This curious entanglement of classes and values strongly informed Eça’s novels, although the Portugal of his imagination could lag behind reality. (The books depict a place only lightly grazed by the Industrial Revolution, perhaps never to meet the twentieth century, while the actual nation had begun a major public works program, including extensive road and railway systems, while Eça was still a child, and machine production was to pick up significantly in the following decades.)  

A number of Eça’s opinionated talkers are acidly critical of the country as a whole, while also a bit melancholy about the contrast between its current situation and the old Portugal of seafaring discovery and glory. A dandy in Cousin Bazilio, talking of his homeland, asks God for a cleansing earthquake, “vaguely grateful to a nation whose defects supplied him with so much material for his jibes.” That Lisbon had lost tens of thousands in the great earthquake of 1755 lends the glib cynicism here an added hint of cruelty.     

José Maria de Eça de Queirós reading with his children, circa 1893

What does Eça’s Portugal feel like? It is dominated by hot sunny days, white trousers, dust, theater tickets and evening strolls in Sintra, roses in buttonholes and glimpses of gowned women getting in and out of coaches, gorgeous landscapes and trees and flowers, hale farmers and country maids, long conversations, cats and singing birds and orchards, pumpkins drying on a station roof, baked sweet rice, and cheese pastries. Furthermore plenty of cognac, white wine, iced champagne, rolled cigarettes, and good cigars. Late in The Maias, a dish of cold pineapple served with madeira and orange juice gets sustained attention. In another novel, someone says, “It’s an absolute disgrace, you know. I’ve never once eaten a decent melon here.”

The upper-class men in these novels occasionally challenge each other to duels, and talk with conspicuous frequency of wanting to “thrash” one another. Those, at least, are the words they use in the English of Margaret Jull Costa, Eça’s frequent, highly regarded current translator. “The animal ought to be put down. It’s a moral duty, a question of public hygiene and good taste, to do away with that ball of human slime,” says Carlos da Maia’s best friend about an absurd and conniving flatterer in their circle. (As is often the case in Eça, there are nonetheless times where you can feel this man’s self-inflicted suffering.)

The poor in his books can be poor indeed, without even the illusion of upward mobility, given to illness, and encouraged by the church to accept their lot as a sign of Christian virtue. Conversation can be blatantly sexist (as, very occasionally, can be the narrative voice itself) and harsh nicknames are normal. Women risk disaster if they get involved with men; at the very least, as the seducer Bazilio says in the novel that bears his name, “A woman who runs away ceases to be Senhora Dona So-and-so and becomes plain So-and-so, that woman who ran away, that hussy, someone or other’s mistress!”

For a range of reasons, there are several posthumous Eça books. The brisk and charming novella The Yellow Sofa—reissued by New Directions last year in a translation by John Vetch—was one of three manuscripts discovered in a box by the author’s son, without accompanying information. According to Maria Filomena Mónica, Eça’s thorough biographer, the text, quite possibly unrevised, was edited by the writer’s eldest son more freely than he acknowledged—even so, it’s a good introduction to Eça’s sensibility, naturally fusing as it does two of the main tones between which he moved: one more realist in style, the other more wholly comic.

The Yellow Sofa begins on the day of the forgotten fourth wedding anniversary of a somewhat dull Lisbon importer named Godofredo Alves, who comes home to find his wife with a man: his elegant and younger business partner, Machado, who has also been a longtime family friend. Both his wife and Machado claim it was the first time, inexplicably laughing off some found, beribboned correspondence between the pair as a joke. It’s characteristic of Eça’s humor that much of what follows is taken up by the anticipation of a duel that never occurs, and also revealing about his irreverence and irony that the kernel of the book should be an illicit affair: “He seemed to see throughout the city a sarabande of lovers and husbands, some of them escaping, husbands pursuing them, a hide-and-seek of men chasing each other around women’s skirts!” In varying configurations and among all social classes, this game of hide-and-seek is played out across Eça’s work.

The final book Eça wrote, The Illustrious House of Ramires, has just come out in a much-needed new translation by Jull Costa. Gonçalo Mendes Ramires, the main character, is a familiar Eça type—a well-meaning yet weak-willed aristocrat, this time one whose family is so rarefied and woven into national lore that he is often referred to in the book simply as “The Nobleman.” (After his marriage to Emília de Castro Pamplona Resende in 1886, Eça had begun to encounter some of Portugal’s most prominent aristocratic families.) A bachelor with beautiful estates and a thousand-year-old tower, Gonçalo feels both proud of and unnerved by the Ramires legacy, the harsh shadow it casts over his cushioned and at times pusillanimous existence. To better earn the family name, he decides to dramatize some of the family heroics in a novel for a friend’s literary magazine, plundering an uncle’s battle-epic-style poem and some Walter Scott novels. Doubling and interlocking with this endeavor is a political end: when the influential position of deputy opens up in local government, Gonçalo makes up his mind to run, even though that entails partnering with Cavaleiro, a despised former friend and onetime suitor to his sister.  

Ramires appeared in serial form, in Revista Moderna, starting in November 1897, but was interrupted when the publication went out of business. Eça completed the story but died before revising a final portion of the proofs, not that this is in any way obvious now. (In this case, the job of editing was handed to the writer Júlio Brandão.) As with his rambunctious fable The Relic (1887), the novel is structured around a bold narrative conceit. As the story proceeds, Gonçalo not only manages to convince himself that he is on a path that would impress his storied forebears, but, echoing Don Quixote, more or less dreams his way into their twelfth-century world—the novel includes colorful excerpts of his literary effort, a pastiche of Herculano, it turns out, full of chain-mail and dismounts from horses, and humorous cries of things like “Stand ready, crossbowmen, stand ready!” Ramires was well received, and even satisfied de Assis, who called it “a new blossoming for our Eça.” (Under Salazar, the book was popular with the right for its romantic depiction of the country: such readings must have included some pretty willful downplaying of its lampooning and quietly damning portrayal of nationalist mythologizing and self-justifying codes.)

Spending time with Eça’s novels, a reader becomes familiar with certain recurring themes and patterns. There’s a slightly whimsical predilection for associating certain types of characters with physical traits—good people will probably have beaming white teeth, and villains tend to be blessed with excellent penmanship. A person’s skin might bring to mind a type of stone, and that will be significant. Other examples are more general: Eça tends, for instance, to associate beauty and illness, romantic passion and woe. But if the narration and dialogue sometimes suggest a humane pessimism, sad and indignant over how cruelly humans can treat one another, the clear, spirited pleasure Eça takes in describing all that he enjoys gives his fiction an underlying buoyancy. Consider this, from Ramires:

After briefly smoking a cigar, Videirinha, took up his guitar again. On the far side of the garden, fragments of whitewashed wall, the occasional stretch of empty road, the water in the great fountain, all shone in the moonlight silvering the hills; and the stillness of the trees and of that luminous night seeped into the soul like a soothing caress. Titó and Gonçalo were enjoying the famous moscatel brandy, one of the Tower’s most precious antiquities, and listening, silent and rapt, to Videirinha, who had withdrawn to the shadows at the back of the balcony. Never had he played more tenderly, more sweetly. Even the fields, the vaulted sky and the moon above the hills were listening intently to the mournful fado. Below, in the darkness, they could hear Rosa clearing her throat, the servants’ muffled footsteps, a girl’s occasional suppressed laughter, a hunting dog flapping its ears, and all those sounds were like the presence of people subtly drawn to that lovely song.

Both The Yellow Sofa and The Illustrious House of Ramires were written during the decade in which Eça finished The Maias. Though similar in its style and preoccupations to his other work, The Maias is more elaborate in structure and ambitious in scope; it is a culmination of his vision and best tendencies. The book is full of memorable, patiently unfurling episodes, a flow of set pieces occurring indoors and out that are often quotidian on the surface, and yet so sensuously and precisely registered as to make the reader feel like a visiting, happily observing ghost. The novel’s central figure, Carlos, has two sides: although he’s published a book, aspires to start an intellectual review, and radiates a charisma that works magic on men and women alike, Carlos’s medical practice and state-of-the-art laboratory are little visited. He spends his time instead with friends, who tend to be wealthy, titled, cultivated, and absorbed in the same kind of distractions as he is. (Their lives, too, are a “sarabande of lovers and husbands.”) This pursuit of idle pleasure at the expense of more solid aims, especially for someone of such ancestry and promise, is unintelligible to Carlos’s grandfather and de-facto dad, Afonso, a stolid and mysterious relic of an older Portugal. Carlos’s actual father killed himself after his wife ran off with an Italian, one of a number of tragic episodes alluded to in the family’s history.

Much more can be singled out in The Maias: the complex function of houses and properties in the story, Carlos’s funny, often amiable assortment of friends (they include Ega, an extravagant, monocled stand-in for the author), the lovely woman with whom he has a relationship, and the treachery that puts his life in chaos. As Eça develops this material, the trajectory of the family and that of Portugal become increasingly alike.

For all the splendid dinners, witty rejoinders, lovely views and moods, it is painfully clear that the country is stagnant, caught between daunting, inapplicable old standards on one side and the pressure of keeping up with Paris on the other. (A giveaway of foolishness in the novel is to often say “Chic!”) At the center of The Maias are a political vacuum—pompous and know-nothing officials are one of Eça’s regular satirical targets—and an intoxicating societal inertia. “We may not be cretins, but we have become cretinised,” Ega, Carlos’s (non-producing) writer friend declares. Late in the book, characters talk of present turmoil in France; the mood is apprehensive, with nobody able to say what’s about to happen to their country: “planting vegetables is the only thing one can do in Portugal—until, that is, the revolution comes, and some of those strong, original, energetic elements currently buried down below finally come to the surface.” Receptive to but baffled by his grandson’s generation, Afonso asks: “Then why don’t you two do something to bring about that revolution? Why, for God’s sake, don’t you do something, anything?”


José Maria de Eça de Queirós’s The Illustrious House of Ramires, in a new translation by Margaret Jull Costa, has just been published by New Directions.