The Maias is about originality. Eça de Queirós wrote near the beginning of the great turn-of-the-century change in tastes across the arts, the shift towards innovation as the central measure of artistic value. Let us not argue the existence of this change, but rather pause for a moment and be thankful that the effect was not as pronounced in fiction as it was in poetry, painting, or music.
Eça de Queirós was really responding to something particularly Portuguese, the dominance of Portuguese culture – elite culture, artistic culture – by France. France was the source of the “isms” to which the restless young Portuguese intellectuals reacted:
there were noisy passionate debates, in which Democracy, Art, Positivism, Realism, the Papacy, Bismarck, Love, Hugo, and Evolution each had its turn to flame and flicker in the cigarette smoke, as light and vague as the smoke itself. These metaphysical discussions and even revolutionary certainties tasted more exquisite still in the presence of the liveried valet uncorking the beer or serving croquettes. (75-6)
An aside: note that Victor Hugo is a one-man literary movement. His name recurs with some frequency in The Maias, as often as that of Zola, who is the New Thing, the creator of “lavatorial” literature, as a bitter Romantic poet calls it (139).
Is originality possible in Portugal? Eça de Queirós argues the case by writing a massive imitation of Flaubert, the great innovator. Some readers may have thought the carriage scene I mentioned yesterday sounded awfully familiar, since it is stolen from Madame Bovary; the great source, though, is A Sentimental Education (1869), which is obliquely invoked repeatedly. It has been too long since I read that novel for me to be sure, but I suspect that The Maias is often a direct parody or imitation of A Sentimental Education. A project for some other day, figuring that out.
The curious phenomenon is that Portuguese literature is often imitative. The greatest 19th century Portuguese poem is an imitation of Baudelaire; The Lusiads is an imitation of Virgil. Living after the Modernist turn to innovation, I am likely to reflexively associate “imitation” and “imitative” with more negative words (“derivative,” “unoriginal”), but If I were an early modern Humanist, imitation, imitatio, would be a virtue. Virgil's works are, after all, imitations of Theocritus, Hesiod, and Homer. Perhaps “adaptive” would be a friendlier word. Eça de Queirós brilliantly adapts French models and techniques to Portugal. The great Renaissance writer imitates the great classical form, the epic; Eça de Queirós imitates the great form of his time, the “realistic” novel:
Caught between two fires, Ega thundered forth: the trouble with realism was precisely that it wasn’t scientific enough, so that it ended up having to invent plots, create dramas, and lose itself in literary fantasy! The pure form of naturalist art should be the monograph, the clear-eyed study of one character, one vice, one passion, just as if it were a pathological case, stripped of all picturesque detail and all style.
“That’s absurd,” said Carlos, “characters can only be described through their actions.”
“And a work of art,” added Craft, “lives only through its form.” (141)