Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Do you, a family man, really think love an indelicate matter? - the frank Eça de Queirós

The Maias is a novel about sex.  I could argue that the men in the novel have so much trouble accomplishing anything of value, writing books or reforming politics or whatnot, because they expend all of their time and imaginative energy chasing women.  Thus the attention paid to possessing the proper bed.

Unmarried women are hidden away, and in fact barely exist in The Maias, leaving prostitutes and married women, and because elegant gentlemen like Carlos da Maia are too refined for prostitutes – brothels are strongly associated with vulgarity in The Maias – the married women are the only possible partners.  And then the marriages of older men to younger women arranged for the sake of status or money maintain a steady supply of bored, sexually adventurous married women, so the system maintains a decadent, ineffective equilibrium.

Eça de Queirós is direct about all of this, quite frank about the sexual behavior of his characters, startlingly so for a novel from 1888:

Ega protested vehemently.  A woman with accomplishments, especially of the literary variety, with opinions on Thiers and Zola, was a monster, a freak, and would be better off joining the a circus and jumping through hoops astride a horse.  A woman should have only two accomplishments: she should be good in the kitchen and good in bed.  (343)

Startling for an English or American novel from 1888, I should say.  Maupassant and Zola and Flaubert are  hardly much different.  I should mention that Ega is, I am afraid, not merely a devil’s advocate but at times an actual devil; he means none of what he says in that passage but is tweaking the moustaches of some pompous idiots.

Some readers, not me, certainly, with my mind always on loftier things, may have wondered about the specific mechanics of affairs back when people, women especially, wore such enormous quantities of cloth.  The observant Eça de Queirós has some answers.  A tryst in a carriage, a “verbena-scented bower of love,” has just ended:

The Countess had got out in Largo das Amoreiras, and Carlos had taken advantage of the quiet Rua da Patriarcal in order to dismiss the decrepit old carriage with its hard seats, in which, for the last hour, legs numb, he had been suffocating in the heat, not daring to lower the windows, and feeling wearied and irritated by the yards of crumpled silk and by the interminable kisses which the Countess kept planting on his beard.  (260)

And in fact, the Countess is always associated with the weight and sound of her clothes.  During their first embrace “[h]er silk dress brushed against him, rustling gently in his arms… [t]he silk train of her dress became tangled about his feet… a long sigh died on the air amid the murmur of crumpling silk” (257-8).  To Carlos, his affair with the Countess is like her clothes, beautiful and even daring (see her outfit on p. 283, “cream cashmere” with “black musketeer’s gloves”), but unnecessarily heavy.

Michael Wood, in an LRB review of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of The Maias, includes another scene from the affair – another bed! – which is one of the best single paragraphs in the novel (“her hard bed was left as turbulent and disorderly as a battlefield”).  Wood uses the passage to compare Costa to an earlier translation; the entire piece is easily recommended to anyone who would like another 4,200 words, and better ones, on The Maias.


  1. Ah, back to an internet connection and I get to revisit The is good.

  2. I think I might have borrowed the idea for this post from something in one of yours, actually.

  3. Can you imagine a contemporary such as Dickens writing anywhere near as frankly as Queiroz about sex ? It's up there with great 19th c. Euro-novels such as Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina' and Flaubert's 'Sentimental Education' and much funnier in a sly way, with far more interior decoration than either of them.

  4. A closer example, in time, would be Hardy. He was moving towards this kind of frankness, and he paid the price for it.

    I have read that the novels of Eça de Queirós were thought of as scandalous, but I do not know what that means. He continued to write and publish them while employed as a diplomat. He obviously did not get in too much trouble!

    I do agree about the understated humor. Tolstoy's understanding and portrayal of character is unmatchable, but E. de Q. has this marvelously light, ironic touch that reminds me more of Proust than of his 19th century peers.

  5. Love the clothes/sex post!

    These unsavory thoughts about the overwhelming weight of 19th-century women's clothing have often occurred to me in my other incarnation as a knitter & sewist. I've made myself modern dresses, which call for an average 3 yards of fabric, and some in a 1950s style which took up to 5 yards. But those 19th-century ladies' dresses took 8-12 yards, and that was just the outer layer & didn't take into account the (at least) 2 under-layers, the boned corsetry, whatever lining & under-lining & bustles etc. etc. were currently in fashion. All that would surely get in the way of a covert rendezvous. Especially the really high-end stuff that required your maid actually to sew you into your dresses. Awkward!

    Anyway, all your posts on de Queirós are piquing my curiosity, thanks.

  6. In the breakup scene, it is relevant that the Countess is "uncorseted." E. de Q. is good with clothes.

  7. Hardy of course ! A much better comparison than to Dickens. I like your short-hand 'E de Q' and hope the reference catches on among the non-linguistically gifted at Portuguese proper-names among us (including myself)!

  8. It's true, isn't it, that the name itself is an obstacle, the multiple parts, the ç. I remember reading someone's argument, not exactly convincing but not crazy, that readers avoid writers whose names they cannot pronounce. The specific examples were Leonardo Sciascia (SHAW-shaw)and Walter Bagehot (no idea).

  9. Totally not crazy, although [vapors], Sciascia only sounds like that for people for whom "caught" rhymes with "cot." And, well, those people are crazy. (I bet you are one of them, eh?)

    [Obligatory disclaimer: I am very well trained in descriptive linguistics but I am still allowed to have my own regional aesthetic preferences! "Mary," "marry," and "merry" also all sound different in my dialect. I realize I am the unusual one.]

  10. I thought, I don't know what you are talking about, but can surely learn. Looking up the pronunciations of "cot" and "caught" at Merriam-Webster, I found: \ˈkȯt\ and \ˈkät\. I have no idea how to interpret those vowels, and thus a new vista of ignorance opens before me.