Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Furniture should be in harmony with the ideas and feelings of the man using it, damn it! – The Maias as furniture showroom

The Maias is a novel about furniture.*  Eça de Queirós is a master of the “showroom scene.”

And the first thing he wanted to show Carlos was his bedroom, decorated in red cretonne sprigged with white, and entirely filled and dominated by the bed.  The bed appeared to be the raison d’etre, the very centre of Villa Balzac, and into it Ega had poured all his artistic imagination.  It was made of wood, and set low, like a divan, with a high headboard, a lace valance, and, on either side, a luxuriance of scarlet plush rugs; it was draped about with voluminous, red, Indian silk hangings, which gave it the air of a holy tabernacle; and inside, on the headboard, hung a mirror, as if it were a bed in a brothel.

Carlos, very gravely, advised him to remove the mirror. (Ch. VI, 126)

The novel contains at least five or six house tours, room by room inventories.  To the theoretical reader considering the tedium of these passages, fare thee well!  The dry humor of the last  line is typical of the book, as is the irony that “Ega had poured all his artistic imagination” into a bed.  Villa Balzac (“his patron saint”), meant to provide a work space, “a literary cloister,” for Ega to finish his long avant garde poem, Memoirs of an Atom, turns out to be a love nest and party house, a fine setting for the proper enjoyment of champagne.

Later in the novel Carlos builds, or buys ready-made, really, his own love nest, and the tour of that house parodies that of Villa Balzac two hundred and fifty pages earlier: “the bedroom glowed like the inside of a profaned temple, transformed into the lascivious inner sanctum of a seraglio” and the bed is “built for the large, voluptuous pleasures of some tragic passion from the days of Lucretia or Romeo” (Ch. XIII, 373-4). A joke again follows, puncturing this overwrought sexualized rhetoric: “And it was there that Craft, peaceful and alone, a silk scarf tied about his head, snored away his seven hours of rest each night.”

Craft is the house’s previous owner, an English connoisseur and collector of antique furniture, and both the narratorial and thematic device by which Carlos and his mistress are connected to the house.  Carlos and Craft – I have leapt back to Chapter VI again – are discussing furniture collecting.  Craft mentions the house where he stores his collection, its first appearance in the book, which summons, by a flick of the magician-novelist’s wand, its future occupant, “a very tall fair woman, wearing a thick dark half-veil,” along with her carriage and her servant and her silver terrier.  This is also her first appearance in the novel.

Reading the novel for the first time, I did not know who this woman was or who she would become, nor did I guess that the offhandedly mentioned house would become so important – how could I?  But now I can start to decipher the mysterious formulas of the novel, how old furniture leads to intriguing women and over-aestheticized bedrooms led to the decline of Portugal.

*  “a novel about furniture” is Nick’s description of The Spoils of Poynton in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, if I remember correctly.


  1. That's a great observation about the furniture (you've made me haul out my copy of the book and consider rereading it for the challenge). There's a line I'd copied down from "The Maias" that first time around thats puts Ega's literary aesthetics on par with those of his interior decorating. It's from the scene (maybe the same one as the room description?) where Ega reads to Carlos a section of his novel in progress:

    “All this came out in a rush, like a loud unbridled sob, and it was written in the modern style, filled with tortured, expressive phrases, and colors laid on thick to make it vivid and alive.”

    As I recall, the plot description of "Memoirs of an Atom" was fairly hilarious too.

  2. This fills me with anticipatory thrills at reading Illustrious House of Ramires next week. EdQ sounds like good fun.

    ~scott bailey

  3. I want some of that furniture. There is an armoire in the novel - well, we couldn't get it up our stairs without damaging it, so never mind.

    I agree, too, that the fate of Memoirs of an Atom is a promising subject of its own. pp. 113-4 of Costa, that's the scene with the dramatic reading.

    "Carlos could only say: 'Sensational!'"

    Scott - I will slip Illustrious House into the queue. The E. de Q. I am reading now is not at all dampening my enthusiasm.

  4. I had no idea furniture could be so important. I might have to rethink my own furniture choices as a consequence!

  5. The second paragraph of Illustrious House of Ramires is a long description of a library:

    The library, a light and spacious room, with blue-washed walls and heavy blackwood bookshelves, where, amid the dust and grave leather binding, lay thick volumes from convents and legal parchments, overlooked the orchard through two of its windows, one with a small balcony and stone seats with velvet-cushioned tops, the other a broader one, with a veranda deliciously perfumed by the honeysuckle which entwined the railing..." and then you get the table, the table's legs, the stacks of books (named), the yellow flowers, the chair, the pen, the view out the window of the Tower and so on for a few hundred more words. How fine is that?

    ~scott bailey

  6. scott, that's wonderful. Cousin Basilio has similar scenes. That's the tradition EdeQ is writing in - get the good reader to imagine the space, the clothes, the props, as precisely as possible, but make the details meaningful at the same time through repetition and recurrence. but you have to start by seeing clearly.

    Stefanie - these characters take mood-setting to a sometimes hilarious extreme.

  7. The best thing about that paragraph of description is that it describes not only the room, but also Don Ramires and what he's going to be doing in the story. So, as you say, EdeQ gives us the specific, sensual details of good writing and as well makes them immediately significant.

    These days, starting a novel with a description of a room is considered poor writing. Fie upon that, I say. Fie! (and other affected stuff)

    ~scott bailey

  8. Balzac did this a lot too, started stories or novels with longish scene-setters. Sometimes they are just brilliant, his best writing, with details that are not just ornament but something the reader will need for later. Other times, he seems to be writing an estate inventory.

  9. I was going to note the other day that this reminded me of the only Balzac I've read—that awful Girl with the Golden Eyes. "[A] love nest and party house, a fine setting for the proper enjoyment of champagne"—Villa Balzac indeed.

    Of course, The Maias seems much better.

  10. nicole - oh yes, exactly, explicitly. I assume that is the intent of the character, to evoke French decadence. And then The Girl with the Golden Eyes and The Maias are entangled in other ways.

    This is why we have to read that Balzac story, regardless of how irritating it is.

    The Maias is actually surprisingly sweet, or I guess the irony and entropy undercut possible menace. Ega, the decadent with the ridiculous bedroom, is not actually all that decadent. He is not terribly effective.