Saturday, May 26, 2018

Eca de Queiroz: The Maias

There's a technique used repeatedly by the 19th-century Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz (modern spelling Queirós) in his great novel The Maias (1888), but it's so effective it never gets old. A character will become effusively idealistic, or romantic, or philosophical, and then reality will inevitably (and comically) assert itself:
  • At a tribute dinner the guest of honor is feted, lofty and noble sentiments are expressed, and "toasts were exchanged, ardent and eloquent." Then we are given a view of the table: "The dessert lay strewn about in disorder on the tablecloth, and on Alencar's plate cigarette butts were mixed with bits of chewed pineapple." (Book 1, Chapter 6). And unbeknownst to the guest of honor, one of the men offering toasts of undying friendship is sleeping with his wife.
  • Carlos Eduardo da Maia, the novel's protagonist, contemplates an affair with a married woman who seems to be sending him unmistakable signals. But their first passionate kiss ends in slapstick:
"The Countess selected a bud with two leaves and came up herself to pin it on his frock-coat. The warm scent of verbena rising from her heaving breast assailed Carlos's senses. She took a long time pinning the flower; her fingers were tremulous and slow, and seemed to linger and sleep on the cloth of his coat. . .
"Without knowing how it happened, irresistibly, Carlos found himself with his lips on hers. The silk of her dress rasped against his suit with a soft rustle as he held her in his arms. White as wax, she threw back her head and tenderly closed her eyes. And, clasping her as though she were dead, he took a step; his knee encountered a low sofa, that slid away escaping him. Carlos followed the wide sofa as it rolled off, and he stumbled as he did so, for her silk train had got wrapped round his feet. Then he bumped against the pedestal upon which the [bust of the] Count elevated his inspired forehead. A long sigh died amidst the sound of crushed skirts. . .Suddenly, in the hall, the voice of the Count sounded." (Book 1, Chapter 9)
  • In the closing pages of the novel, a middle-aged Carlos and his friend Ega are exchanging their hard-won philosophies of life—when suddenly they realize that they are about to miss a streetcar:
"It was not worth taking one step to reach anything on this earth—because everything resolved itself, as the wise man in Ecclesiastes had already taught, in dust and disillusion.
'If I was told that a Rothschild's fortune or the imperial crown of Charles V awaited me down the road here if I ran, I wouldn't quicken my pace. No! I wouldn't change this slow, prudent, safe and steady step which is the only one you should have in life.'
'Nor I!' agreed Carlos, with conviction. . .
'Wait!' cried Ega. 'Here's a tram coming. We'll catch it if we hurry!'
'We'll make it!'
"The two friends set off at a brisker pace. And Carlos, who had flung aside his cigar, was saying in the keen cold breeze which stung their faces: '. . .As you say, it's not worth making any effort, or chasing anxiously after anything whatsoever. . .'
"And to catch the tram the two friends had to run desperately down the hill and along the Aterro under the light of the rising moon." (Book 2, Chapter 8) [1]

The Maias is about the decadence of a family, a society and a nation, but at the same time Eça undermines grandiose narratives about progress and renewal by constantly intruding the comedy of human incompetence and vanity. We follow the adventures of Carlos, the sole male heir of the Maias, who dissipates his modest ambitions in an endless social round of dinners, theater, horse races, love affairs, and duels threatened but somehow never fought.

In a letter to a friend Eça called The Maias "that vast machine of a fresco done in sombre colours, in boringly monumental proportions, pompous and frivolous, which may well earn me the name of the Michelangelo of the insipid. Oh well. . ." Of course it's not Eça's novel but the world it depicts that is pompous and frivolous. At the same time that world enforces rigid social mores that destroy happiness and lead inexorably to tragedy. The obvious comparison (and possibly a source of Eça's technique of ironic undercutting) is Flaubert.

Eça had both an insider's and an outsider's perspective on the society he depicts so scathingly. Born out of wedlock, he was only acknowledged by his mother after he'd turned 40. (His parents married when he was four; despite being unacknowledged, Eça took his mother's maiden name.) In his late 20s, after earning a law degree, he was appointed to the consular service and thereafter largely lived outside of Portugal. He was sent on official missions to Cuba, the United States, England (where most of The Maias was written), and France, where he died in 1900 at age 54.

If Flaubert is one source for The Maias, another might be Schopenhauer, who observed that a "wish fulfilled at once makes way for a new one. . .No attained object of willing can give a satisfaction that lasts and no longer declines; but it is always like the alms thrown to a beggar, which reprieves him today so that his misery may be prolonged till tomorrow." [2] When Carlos finally experiences a great passion his idyll is ultimately shattered by the revelation of a secret relating to his lover's background. But perhaps a greater horror is his recognition that, despite their blissful love, he has begun to grow tired of her:
. . .that night as he lay beside Maria who was asleep, tired out, he felt, like the first cold breath of death, a presentiment of what might come.

He could feel emerging from the depths of his being a satiety, only tenuous now, yet nevertheless already perceptible. . .his mind wandered to another life he could lead, far from here, in a simple house all open to the sun, with a legitimate wife, a domestic angel, petite and shy and modest, a woman who did not cry out lasciviously nor use such a warm, heavy perfume! And unfortunately he no longer doubted it—if he went away with her, he would very soon be beset by the indescribable horror of physical nausea. . .Henceforth existence could only offer him intolerable bitterness. (Book 2, Ch. 7)
Carlos lacks the moral courage either to seize the happiness that has been offered him or to directly face the consequences of the transgression he and his lover have unwittingly committed. His punishment is to be exiled forever from deep feeling. He turns once again to fleeting pleasures, and remains only fitfully aware that, as Pascal has written, "The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries." [3]

Update 22 December 2018: The Maias was selected for my Favorites of 2018: Books.

  1. José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, Os Maias (The Maias, 1888), translated by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens, J.M. Dent, 1986; translation originally published by The Bodley Head, 1965. There is another translation by Margaret Jull Costa published by New Directions in 2007.
  2. Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation, 1818-59), Vol. 1, translated by E.F.J. Payne, Dover, 1966, p. 196.
  3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Thoughts, 1670), translated by W.F. Trotter, E.P. Dutton, 1958, 171: Misery.

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