Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Everything Eça de Queirós wrote was enjoyable - The Yellow Sofa

We talked about Eça de Queirós; we said that we wished there were more of Eça's books; that everything he wrote was enjoyable…

I am again poaching from the enormous Borges diary of Adolfo Bioy Casares that Richard of Caravan de Recuerdos has been reading (the translation is his).  I have only begun Book #5 of Eça de Queirós, but that is enough to think that the claim of Borges and Bioy Casares is plausible.  Likely, even.

Consider The Yellow Sofa (1925), also translated, more accurately, as Alves & Co.  The publication date is twenty-five years after the death of Eça de Queirós; the date of composition is presumably sometime in the late 1870s or 1880s.

One might suspect – I suspected – that this 106 page novella is inferior for some reason, unfinished or inadequate.  But no, the story is complete, the characters fleshy, the action meaningful, the insights real.  And enjoyable, highly enjoyable.   By the end, my question was why Eça de Queirós had left the manuscript in his trunk.

The Yellow Sofa begins in tranquility.  Alves is in his office; business is good; his partner reliable; it is his fourth wedding anniversary.  He knocks off work early – always a terrible idea in a novel – only to discover, well, you can guess:

On the yellow damask sofa, fronting a little table on which there stood a bottle of port, Lulu, in a white negligee, was leaning in abandon on the shoulder of a man whose arm was around her waist, and smiled as she gazed languorously at him. (19)

Lulu is his wife; the man is of course Alves’s business partner.  The first 80 pages of the novel contain only two days of action – the discovery and aftermath, including the farcical arrangement of a duel.  For example, the friends Alves picks as seconds cannot stop talking – the subject is in the air, after all – about their own and others’ “conquests”:

Medeiros knew of a case much worse than that: a friend of his, Pinheiro, not the thin one but the other pock-marked one, had hidden in a pigsty for six hours.  He had nearly died!  And now, when he saw a pig, he turned as white as chalk.

Then, between Carvalho and Medeiros there was a whole string of anecdotes about infidelities.  Only Alves, a faithful married man, had none of these stories. (78)

The final twenty-five pages of the story accelerate.  Days and decades pass.  I wonder if this imbalanced structure is a clue to why Eça de Queirós abandoned the novel.  Perhaps he wrote a complete version of the story but never chose or figured out how to turn it into a novel.  Despite the presence, in the quotations above, of the pock-marked Pinheiro and the yellow damask sofa, the novel is less filled out, less thickly imagined, than the other Eça de Queirós novels I have read.  As a story, The Yellow Sofa is complete and satisfying, but it lacks the connective details that give a novel an extra level of artistic structure and meaning.

Still, however minor the book may be compared to The Maias, at the end, and also in the middle, and also near the beginning, I thought “This is the quality of stuff Eça de Queirós threw away!”


  1. Interesting ; looks as if even his rough sketches are worth reading, what a pity Eca seems inclined towards the large canvas rather than the short story, though 'Tragedy' and 'Maias' are episodic in narrative.

  2. Episodic is right - those amazing, worked-through chapters in The Maias.