Monday, September 26, 2011

He's one of the best things in Lisbon. You'll love him! - introducing The Maias, Eça de Queirós' elegant masterpiece

The Maias: Episodes from Romantic Life (1888) is the enormous Eça de Queirós masterpiece, a standard candidate for Greatest Portuguese Novel, and a credible longshot candidate for Greatest 19th Century Novel, as long as one discounts Importance and Influence and just takes the text on its own terms.  What I will not do is spend a week justifying these claims.

The novel is easy to misdescribe.  I have seen it called a multi-generational family saga – the Maias are the family – but nearly ninety percent of the novel centers on a single character, the handsome, talented, wealthy, and elegant young doctor Carlos da Maia, during two years or so, autumn 1875 to 1877 (or 1878? - high on my re-read priority list: pin down the timetable).

Carlos arrives in Lisbon, fresh from college and his Grand Tour, full of energy and ideas.  He will start a medical practice, write a history of medicine, reinvigorate arts and letters, and on like that.  He in fact manages to furnish an office, nap, and fall into an affair with a married countess.  His friends – poets, composers, patrons of the arts, wealthy nitwits – have similar troubles accomplishing anything.  Portugal, I fear, is in decline.  The slow-building plot of the novel is about a second affair, one that turns into a grand passion but has melodramatic complications.  The Maias is a conceptual demonstration of the use of a Romantic plot in a Naturalistic context.  Doesn’t that make the novel sound exciting?  Let us never mention this again.

The Maias is written on exact Flaubertian principles.  The author is well-hidden, the third person is tightly limited, imagery and metaphors are generated from within the setting, and sensual details are abundant.   The details and imagery are artfully repeated and modified to form a complex structure that reinforces, foreshadows, and ironically comments on the surface story. The novel required eight years to complete, and I can see why.

Browsing through the book now, I see that I am only beginning to notice the sophistication of the structure, of the deployment of the elements of the novel.  The use of the bewildered Finnish ambassador, for example, who was dropped in when needed for color and comedy, I had assumed, wrongly.  This novel almost requires maps – actual maps, of Portugal, and Lisbon, and a couple of the houses, as well as diagrams of the thematic elements and imagery.

One huge and enormously appealing difference from the gleefully vulgar Flaubert:  The Maias must be one of the most elegant novels ever written.

What he loved about Craft was his imperturbable air of the perfect gentleman, for with the same air he would play a game of billiards, ride into battle, lay siege to a woman, or set sail to Patagonia.

“He’s one of the best things in Lisbon.  You’ll love him.  And you should see his house in Olivais, he has the most wonderful collection of antiques!” (131) 

In a typical deflection, this description of a minor character also fits the protagonist, to whom it is directed.  Carlos is Fred Astaire or Clark Gable.  The style of the novel is perfectly matched to this character.  Everything is managed with the lightest of touches.  Tres chic, as an irritating minor character cannot stop saying, and as I will say all week.

Margaret Jull Costa’s translation was typically expert.  The modest amounts of French dialogue are untranslated, even in footnotes, which I know annoys some readers.  Her comments on the novel appear in an afterword, not an introduction, which I know delights some readers.


  1. a credible longshot candidate for Greatest 19th Century Novel

    I happen to know this is a hard title to win. But you are making The Maias sound fabulous.

    Also, The Book of Disquiet made its way home with me yesterday. The Margaret Jull Costa translation of course! Seems totally unjustified when I know no Spanish or Portuguese, but she seems very good.

  2. The Maias is definitely a cut below your favorite three or four 19th century novels, whatever those are. I don't quite put it up with Anna Karenina. But it is competitive with its French peers.

    I bought a different translation of Pessoa. I think the variety will be all to the good. Who knows what we might find.

    Costa is consistently impressive.

  3. Is there a free e-version anywhere? English - my Portuguese is not quite on a par with my German (to say the least!).

  4. No. Or I very much doubt it. I do not think that there was an English translation at all until 1965.

  5. Great post, Tom. "Elegant" is precisely the word that comes to mind when I think of this novel, which ranked very high on my list of my favorite novels read in the last couple of years. I really loved it - it has a modernity and freshness that cantilevers it out of the 19th century to hover over the 20th, with a lot of interesting self-reflection about literature itself embedded in the narrative. I also thought it was quite funny, with a gentle, subtle humor of the sort I love. By the way, I should have mentioned the name of the hotel in Lisbon that's the reconstructed "Ramalhete" from "The Maias" - it's the As Janeles Verdes, and while it's a bit pricey, it's definitely worth a stay for a night (plus, they throw in a bottle of decent port for free, and they seem delighted to talk about de Quieros). Also, while it's not from before 1920 and, although written in Portuguese, not even by a Portuguese author, you might be interested in Antonio Tabucchi's "Requiem," a sort of hallucinatory love poem to Lisbon with strong echos of "The Maias" consciously woven into it (or so it seemed to me).

  6. Thanks, seraillon. It's a start.

    It does feel fresh and modern. I kept bumping into intimations of Proust and Colette, another elegant writer, and of course the sexual frankness of The Maias is thirty years or more ahead of English and U.S. literature.

    Oh yes, I am very interested in that Tabucchi novel! It will be an additional little reward for getting more Pessoa under my belt.

    As Janelas Verdes. "One feels good here" - I will bet.

  7. I read this many years ago in the translation that used to appear in Penguin Classics by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens, and, looking back, I remember the style better than I do the content. The style is deliberate, studied, somewhat distant, and always, as you say, very, very elegant. But the fact that it is this style I remember rather than the content does make me wonder whether the content is of sufficient substance to warrant ranking it with the best. Perhaps it does: perhaps a re-read is in order.I'd be interested to read your furtherthoughts on this novel.

    Apparently, Zola described de Queiros, on the evidence of this novel, as “far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert”. Steady on, Emile!

  8. Sufficient substance! man, are you at the wrong blog for that! But rather than assume that my intellectual flaws are shared by everyone, I will concede that the Big Ideas crowd will wonder what the fuss about The Maias could possibly be about.

    Zola's comment is amusing, but I suspect that E. de Q. is just being dragged into someone else's Oedipal conflict.