I was reading an early novel of Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro, alongside a much later one, The Illustrious House of Ramires (1900, published just after the author’s death). Eça may well have mellowed with age. Father Amaro is cruel; Ramires is almost sweet.
Young and aimless nobleman Gonçalo Ramires holds the oldest title in Portugal and lives in the shadow of a thousand year-old tower and a string of illustrious ancestors. He dreams of imitating the medieval exploits of his heroic forebears, but times have changed a bit – leading one’s feudal retainers to ravage one’s neighboring enemies is frowned upon – and anyways Gonçalo is a coward. He is also a terrible braggart, which is a kind way of calling him a congenital liar; he is also extraordinarily kind to children, the ill, and other weak people. Weak people like himself.
After the chilly elegance of The Maias, the savageness of Father Amaro, and the hysterics of Cousin Basilio, I am almost shocked at how gentle Ramires is, how nice Gonçalo is. Not that he’s not a fool – the last line in this passage (ellipses in original) could stand as a description of any number of Eça’s characters:
He, Gonçalo, had stupidly and irresistibly succumbed to the fatal Law of Increase, which had led him, as it leads everyone in their desire for fame and fortune, to pass rashly through the first door that opened to him, without noticing the dung that cluttered up the doorway… Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God, who had created man so variable, so weak, so dependent on forces that were less governable than the wind or sun! (218)
This is being thought by Gonçalo himself. One of his most endearing, and frustrating, traits is his changeability. He can be venal, but never for too long. He can be skeptically thoughtful, but is too easily comforted. He is ambitious, artistically and politically, but is too easily distracted. An inevitable result is self-pity. Another motto (ellipses again not mine):
“Why?” murmured Gonçalo, miserably removing his coat. “So much deception in such a short life… Why? Poor me!”
He fell upon his vast bed as if into a tomb, and hid his face in the pillow with a sigh, a sigh full of pity for so frustrated and helpless a fate. (235)
Gonçalo is an early edition of a popular Modernist character, the kind who through charm and good intentions quickly engages my sympathy, but then spends the rest of the novel making me wince. Oh, Gonçalo, pull yourself together!
I want to spend a couple more days with the book. Perhaps I will engage with the ideas of Scott Bailey, who write about the novel here and also here.
The Illustrious House of Ramires is translated by Anne Stevens. The translation is so good that the novel has not been re-translated by Margaret Jull Costa!