Thursday, October 27, 2011

Philosophers, Hegelian and zombie, in the short fiction of Eça de Queirós

A couple more Eça de Queirós stories, then I will set him aside for a little while.  I mean, not write about him, since I am reading two of his novels simultaneously, each quite different, thank goodness.

The Mandarin and Other Stories, tr. Margaret Jull Costa.  Yesterday, The Mandarin; today, the other stories.

“The Idiosyncrasies of a Young Blonde Woman” is early (1873) and not as painstakingly written as Eça de Queirós’s best work, although the anti-Romantic plot of obsessive love is fine.  Costa tells me that it was the author’s “first largely realist story”; Portugal’s first “realist” novel, The Crime of Father Amaro, followed two years later.  But this is all Portuguese literary history.  A film version was released just two years ago; when the director, Manoel de Oliveira, made the film he was one hundred years old.

“The Hanged Man” (written 1895) is a largely unrealist(?) story, a medieval ghost story.  Or, wait, the haunt is a hanged corpse, so I guess that makes it a zombie story!  How of our moment!:

Don Ruy revealed neither terror nor disgust.  Casually sheathing his sword he asked:

‘Are you dead or alive?’

The man slowly shrugged his shoulders.

‘I don’t know, sir.  Who knows what life is?  Who knows what death is?’ (136)

The zombie appears to be a philosopher.  A Christian one, I should add (“it is from the Cross alone that I seek mercy”), animated by the Virgin Mary to – well, let me abandon the story right there.

“José Matias” (written 1897) is narrated by another philosopher, not a zombie but something worse, a Hegelian.  He is at the funeral of the title character, and tells the poor fellow’s story, how Matias devoted his life, energy, and fortune to a perfectly idealized love affair.  He falls in love with the married beauty next door, and she with him, but they conduct their affair in an entirely spiritual manner.  Matias lives as if he is married to Elisa, furnishing his house as if she lived in it, giving up smoking “even when out riding alone” because she dislikes the smoke.  The twists of the plot refine this perfect, or mad, affair; pure devotion is never pure enough.

Looking at the story now, I see a continual mix of the material and the spiritual.  It is a kind of anti-Romantic Romanticism, or a Romantic anti-Romanticism.  I do not know what either of those would be, but words like “naturalism” or “realism” are not helpful.

José Matias is buried; the story ends; the narrator, the philosopher who “proved beyond doubt the illusion of sensation,” ends the story with “Still, it is a lovely afternoon."


  1. Tom,
    Your persuasive enthusiasm for E de Q led me to look out for him in our local 2nd.hand book shop. I found a The Sin of Father Amarao trans. Nan Flanagan. (€5). Death by apoplexy in the first sentence, excellent.

  2. I'm about a third of the way into Father Amaro, and am just as happy with EdeQ's skill with characters. Lots of good stuff in this novel, like the others.

  3. It is a kind of anti-Romantic Romanticism, or a Romantic anti-Romanticism.

    Now that sounds curiously like (though still, I'm sure, unlike) something I just read...curious.

    But where oh where am I supposed to squeeze this guy on my reading list?!?

  4. Oh yes, the author of “José Matias” had read Elective Affnities.