The Maias is about many things.
* The novel is organized in eighteen long chapters, each with its own narrative arc, each complete in its own way. I could imagine a couple of them, with minor adjustments, standing on their own in the sense that “The Dead” stands on its own. Or, because so many of the chapters include party scenes, I can compare Eça de Queirós to Proust. Most of the chapter, the party, is not concerned with advancing the plot. It may not be clear until the next chapter that the plot has advanced at all.
Chapter X, the horse race chapter in the center of the novel, is a standout. The long, complex scene, an expansion, I think, of a short horse race scene from A Sentimental Education, ranks near the horse race in Anna Karenina (1877) as one of the century’s greats. I worry that I have been overrating the novel as a whole; I do not worry about overrating this chapter.
Eça de Queirós uses the horse race to do – everything, just everything. Carlos, our hero, pursues one woman and is pursued by another, so that takes care of the story. Nearly every character in the novel intrudes on the scene, including all sorts of new ones, some never to be seen again, such as “Little Sá Videira, the daughter of a wealthy shoe merchant, entered on her brother’s arm, looking like a small petulant doll, rather irritated with everything and talking very loudly in English” (277, this post's title, slightly modified, is on the same page). I feel like Eça de Queirós could have followed her off into another novel if he had not been preoccupied with this one.
The great accomplishment of this chapter is that it shows the protagonist at his most elegant. Surrounded by chaos and nonsense – the Portuguese cannot even operate a horse race correctly – Carlos is effortlessly graceful: “They had all lost; he had swept the board, won all the bets, got away with everything. What luck!” But I had been with Carlos for a long time at this point, so I could tell the difference between luck and grace.
* The Maias is a male novel. Eça de Queirós never, that I can remember, wanders into the thoughts of a woman, and there are really only two female characters of consequence. One of them, the Grand Passion, has an especially dangerous role, since she has to embody a lot of Romantic clichés while still having some personality. Little touches have to counter or complicate the protagonist’s view of her as an Ideal Object.
I think both characters are successful, but I did wonder where the rest of the women were in the world of Eça de Queirós. It turns out that they are in Cousin Basilio (1878). One of the central women there is a maid – servants stay in the background in The Maias – and she is a terror. I was just a bit worried, having read The Mandarin and a chunk of The Maias, that Eça de Queirós might be like Robert Louis Stevenson: not so great with female characters. Never mind. No worries now.
* With The Maias (long) and The Mandarin (short) and a substantial piece of Cousin Basilio behind me, my enthusiasm for Eça de Queirós has not yet flagged. Challengists: The Crime of Padre Amaro is coming up sometime, no need to be too specific, I think? And The Illustrious House of Ramires sooner than that. I’m never sure what I am accomplishing, but I hope anyone who skimmed through this first set of pieces on Eça de Queirós is clear enough on what will likely be found in his novels: a less bitter-tasting Flaubert, a less icky Zola, Anna Karenina without the soul-searching. Something like that.
Friday, September 30, 2011
One could hear only the [Amateur Reader's] voice, like the high-pitched gobble of a turkey, saying of everything: c'est charmant, c'est trés beau - a Maias miscellaney
The Maias is about many things.