Where should a reader start with Eça de Queirós? Or Charles Dickens, or Virginia Woolf, or William Shakespeare? These are not my questions. I assume the existence of a reader with a large appetite, and enough sense to not dismiss the judgments of previous good readers on the basis of a random encounter with Barnaby Rudge or Henry VIII.
As I get to know an author, the question I ask is: where should I stop? Which books are just trivia, or impenetrable period pieces, or juvenilia, or scrapbooks? For a certain kind of critic – Edmund Wilson, Frank Kermode – who reviews new novels only after reading something close to everything the author had ever written, there is no stopping place. How this was feasible, I do not know, except that I suppose these critics read a lot faster than I do, or magazine deadlines were more leisurely than I imagine.
Given enough time, almost anyone can read almost everything. Major works are read in pursuit of the experience of great art, minor works in the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge about the major works, most likely. I am getting close to “everything” – well past the halfway point – with Eça de Queirós. Wilson and Kermode, unlike me, were not blockheaded enough to publish their notes, or to work for free.
But that’s not my point, which is, rather, that The Illustrious House of Ramires, although well-written, humorous, representative of Eça’s lifelong concerns, and on in this vein, may not be a great place to start, although Scott Bailey did darn well. Ramires is the most deeply Portuguese of the Eça novels that I have seen so far. It makes more demanding assumptions about the history and culture of the country. I suspect that the demands would be similar for Portuguese readers who are not medieval history buffs, but still, the names, dates, and places come thick and fast in the first few pages:
One of the most valiant of the line, Lourenço, nicknamed the Butcher, foster-brother of Afonso Henriques (with whom, the same night in Zamora Cathedral, he kept vigil over his arms before receiving his knighthood) appears at once in the Battle of Ourique where Jesus Christ also appeared, on fine clouds of gold, nailed to a cross ten ells high. (6)
One of those names I admit I already knew. Our hero Gonçalo, a coward, in fact a Portuguese nebbish, lives under the shadow of “a House ten centuries old, with more than thirty of its males killed in battle” (288). Over the course of the novel, we see Gonçalo make peace with his past and overcome his nebbishness – Ramires is, in form, a classic Nebbishroman – partly through the means of the historical novel about his own ancestors, The Tower of Don Ramires, that he is writing or more accurately rewriting, stealing the whole thing from a poem written by his uncle:
The whole plot, with its passion of barbaric grandeur, the savage battles in which family feuds were settled by the dagger, heroic words uttered by steely lips – there it all was in dear Uncle’s verses, sonorous and nicely balanced:
Really, all that was needed was to superimpose the mellifluous tones of 1846 Romanticism upon its terse, virile prose… Would this be plagiarism? No! To whom, more than to him, a Ramires, belonged the memory of these historic Ramires? (16)
A summary of the historical novel is, as it is composed, part of Ramires – more names, more history, and at first with only the broadest thematic connection to the contemporary story. It all works out in the end, though, in the third act, as Scott calls it – “you realize that you've been marvelously set up.” Gonçalo grows out of his plagiarism.
So, a place to start, why not, right, Scott? Bad place to stop, though.
What else should I write about? That Nebbishroman thing was just a joke.