The Maias is a novel about furniture.* Eça de Queirós is a master of the “showroom scene.”
And the first thing he wanted to show Carlos was his bedroom, decorated in red cretonne sprigged with white, and entirely filled and dominated by the bed. The bed appeared to be the raison d’etre, the very centre of Villa Balzac, and into it Ega had poured all his artistic imagination. It was made of wood, and set low, like a divan, with a high headboard, a lace valance, and, on either side, a luxuriance of scarlet plush rugs; it was draped about with voluminous, red, Indian silk hangings, which gave it the air of a holy tabernacle; and inside, on the headboard, hung a mirror, as if it were a bed in a brothel.
Carlos, very gravely, advised him to remove the mirror. (Ch. VI, 126)
The novel contains at least five or six house tours, room by room inventories. To the theoretical reader considering the tedium of these passages, fare thee well! The dry humor of the last line is typical of the book, as is the irony that “Ega had poured all his artistic imagination” into a bed. Villa Balzac (“his patron saint”), meant to provide a work space, “a literary cloister,” for Ega to finish his long avant garde poem, Memoirs of an Atom, turns out to be a love nest and party house, a fine setting for the proper enjoyment of champagne.
Later in the novel Carlos builds, or buys ready-made, really, his own love nest, and the tour of that house parodies that of Villa Balzac two hundred and fifty pages earlier: “the bedroom glowed like the inside of a profaned temple, transformed into the lascivious inner sanctum of a seraglio” and the bed is “built for the large, voluptuous pleasures of some tragic passion from the days of Lucretia or Romeo” (Ch. XIII, 373-4). A joke again follows, puncturing this overwrought sexualized rhetoric: “And it was there that Craft, peaceful and alone, a silk scarf tied about his head, snored away his seven hours of rest each night.”
Craft is the house’s previous owner, an English connoisseur and collector of antique furniture, and both the narratorial and thematic device by which Carlos and his mistress are connected to the house. Carlos and Craft – I have leapt back to Chapter VI again – are discussing furniture collecting. Craft mentions the house where he stores his collection, its first appearance in the book, which summons, by a flick of the magician-novelist’s wand, its future occupant, “a very tall fair woman, wearing a thick dark half-veil,” along with her carriage and her servant and her silver terrier. This is also her first appearance in the novel.
Reading the novel for the first time, I did not know who this woman was or who she would become, nor did I guess that the offhandedly mentioned house would become so important – how could I? But now I can start to decipher the mysterious formulas of the novel, how old furniture leads to intriguing women and over-aestheticized bedrooms led to the decline of Portugal.
* “a novel about furniture” is Nick’s description of The Spoils of Poynton in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, if I remember correctly.