The Maias: Episodes from Romantic Life (1888) is the enormous Eça de Queirós masterpiece, a standard candidate for Greatest Portuguese Novel, and a credible longshot candidate for Greatest 19th Century Novel, as long as one discounts Importance and Influence and just takes the text on its own terms. What I will not do is spend a week justifying these claims.
The novel is easy to misdescribe. I have seen it called a multi-generational family saga – the Maias are the family – but nearly ninety percent of the novel centers on a single character, the handsome, talented, wealthy, and elegant young doctor Carlos da Maia, during two years or so, autumn 1875 to 1877 (or 1878? - high on my re-read priority list: pin down the timetable).
Carlos arrives in Lisbon, fresh from college and his Grand Tour, full of energy and ideas. He will start a medical practice, write a history of medicine, reinvigorate arts and letters, and on like that. He in fact manages to furnish an office, nap, and fall into an affair with a married countess. His friends – poets, composers, patrons of the arts, wealthy nitwits – have similar troubles accomplishing anything. Portugal, I fear, is in decline. The slow-building plot of the novel is about a second affair, one that turns into a grand passion but has melodramatic complications. The Maias is a conceptual demonstration of the use of a Romantic plot in a Naturalistic context. Doesn’t that make the novel sound exciting? Let us never mention this again.
The Maias is written on exact Flaubertian principles. The author is well-hidden, the third person is tightly limited, imagery and metaphors are generated from within the setting, and sensual details are abundant. The details and imagery are artfully repeated and modified to form a complex structure that reinforces, foreshadows, and ironically comments on the surface story. The novel required eight years to complete, and I can see why.
Browsing through the book now, I see that I am only beginning to notice the sophistication of the structure, of the deployment of the elements of the novel. The use of the bewildered Finnish ambassador, for example, who was dropped in when needed for color and comedy, I had assumed, wrongly. This novel almost requires maps – actual maps, of Portugal, and Lisbon, and a couple of the houses, as well as diagrams of the thematic elements and imagery.
One huge and enormously appealing difference from the gleefully vulgar Flaubert: The Maias must be one of the most elegant novels ever written.
What he loved about Craft was his imperturbable air of the perfect gentleman, for with the same air he would play a game of billiards, ride into battle, lay siege to a woman, or set sail to Patagonia.
“He’s one of the best things in Lisbon. You’ll love him. And you should see his house in Olivais, he has the most wonderful collection of antiques!” (131)
In a typical deflection, this description of a minor character also fits the protagonist, to whom it is directed. Carlos is Fred Astaire or Clark Gable. The style of the novel is perfectly matched to this character. Everything is managed with the lightest of touches. Trec chic, as an irritating minor character cannot stop saying, and as I will say all week.
Margaret Jull Costa’s translation was typically expert. The modest amounts of French dialogue are untranslated, even in footnotes, which I know annoys some readers. Her comments on the novel appear in an afterword, not an introduction, which I know delights some readers.