Monday, October 24, 2011

This is like something out of Eugénie Grandet! - recommending Cousin Bazilio by Eça de Queirós

Cousin Bazilio, the 1878 second novel of José Maria Eça de Queirós, would make a good Portuguese Literature Challenge choice.  It is well-plotted, with a lot of forward motion; the central characters are excellent; the novel is enjoyably thick (435 pages in the Dedalus paperback I read) without becoming an unwieldy tome like The Maias (1888). If I think The Maias is the stronger book, larger in reach, more carefully constructed, the distinction is trivial, especially for a reader new to the author, as I am.

I have described the novel so baldly because I do not want to write too much about it, in part to encourage Challengists who have not otherwise committed to think about reading the book.  The books I typically read are so rich and complex that my usual five post, three thousand word  approach barely blows the dust off the cover, but I fear that it can sometimes seem like I am beating the stuffing out of the poor book.  Wuthering Expectations is far from exhaustive, but is often exhausting.  I would prefer that Cousin Bazilio, or the idea of reading it, remains fresh and lively for a while longer, so I will not do much more with it, although tomorrow I will have to write about the bric-a-brac monkeys.  I do not see how I have any choice.

‘This is like something out of Eugénie Grandet, Sebastião!  What you’re telling me is straight out of a Balzac novel.  It is, it’s Eugénie Grandet!’

Sebastião looked at him, horrified.

Balzac’s 1833 masterpiece shares a returning Brazilian relative with Cousin Bazilio – he’s the title character, this time.  Bazilio, a male of the species known as “a dog,” arrives in Lisbon just as his married cousin, also at one time his fiancée, is feeling bored, lonely, and listless, her husband off on a long business trip.  But the invocation of Balzac is misdirection:  as The Maias is a theme-and-variations on A Sentimental Education, this novel is a recasting of Madame Bovary.  A great difference, and the reason the novel is so easy to recommend, is that the author is not contemptuous of his characters, or even of their stupid mistakes.  Eça de Queirós  is more humane than Flaubert, or the Zola of Thérèse Raquin.  Readers  will be more likely to sympathize with his characters, as they say.  I did.

The other difference is that the Portuguese Emma Bovary is cursed with an enemy, an amazing character, her maid Juliana.  The war between the two women is the real story of the book, not Luiza’s adultery.  This is Juliana:

She envied everything in the house: the desserts that the master and mistress ate, and even their underwear.  Soirées and visits to the theatre infuriated her.  If it rained on a day when a walk had been planned, she was over-joyed.  The sight of the ladies all dressed up and with their hats on, staring miserably out of the windows, delighted her and made her almost loquacious:

‘Oh dear, madam!  What a downpour!  It’s absolutely pelting.  It looks set in for the day too.  What a shame!’  (72)

Luiza, the wife, is a first-rate creation, but her struggle with Juliana, the Old Prune makes the book.


  1. Having just tallied up the gluttonous amount of books I've bought so far this year but not yet read (50!), I suppose I ought to be happy that Cousin Basilio/Bazilio is difficult to find in Massachusetts bookstores. However, it sounds delicious, especially that misdirection with Balzac and Flaubert. Enjoying the hell out of Crime of Father Amaro so far, too. Thank you, Portuguese Literature Challenge doyen, for the push.

  2. Good - I am just a little ways into Father Amaro and will not be done anytime too soon.