Friday, September 30, 2011

One could hear only the [Amateur Reader's] voice, like the high-pitched gobble of a turkey, saying of everything: c'est charmant, c'est trés beau - a Maias miscellaney

The Maias is about many things.

* The novel is organized in eighteen long chapters, each with its own narrative arc, each complete in its own way.  I could imagine a couple of them, with minor adjustments, standing on their own in the sense that “The Dead” stands on its own.  Or, because so many of the chapters include party scenes, I can compare Eça de Queirós to Proust.  Most of the chapter, the party, is not concerned with advancing the plot.  It may not be clear until the next chapter that the plot has advanced at all.

Chapter X, the horse race chapter in the center of the novel, is a standout.  The long, complex scene, an expansion, I think, of a short horse race scene from A Sentimental Education, ranks near the horse race in Anna Karenina (1877) as one of the century’s greats.  I worry that I have been overrating the novel as a whole; I do not worry about overrating this chapter.

Eça de Queirós uses the horse race to do – everything, just everything.  Carlos, our hero, pursues one woman and is pursued by another, so that takes care of the story.  Nearly every character in the novel intrudes on the scene, including all sorts of new ones, some never to be seen again, such as “Little Sá Videira, the daughter of a wealthy shoe merchant, entered on her brother’s arm, looking like a small petulant doll, rather irritated with everything and talking very loudly in English” (277, this post's title, slightly modified, is on the same page).  I feel like Eça de Queirós could have followed her off into another novel if he had not been preoccupied with this one.

The great accomplishment of this chapter is that it shows the protagonist at his most elegant.  Surrounded by chaos and nonsense – the Portuguese cannot even operate a horse race correctly – Carlos is effortlessly graceful: “They had all lost; he had swept the board, won all the bets, got away with everything.  What luck!”  But I had been with Carlos for a long time at this point, so I could tell the difference between luck and grace.

* The Maias is a male novel.  Eça de Queirós never, that I can remember, wanders into the thoughts of a woman, and there are really only two female characters of consequence.  One of them, the Grand Passion, has an especially dangerous role, since she has to embody a lot of Romantic clichés while still having some personality.  Little touches have to counter or complicate the protagonist’s view of her as an Ideal Object.

I think both characters are successful, but I did wonder where the rest of the women were in the world of Eça de Queirós.  It turns out that they are in Cousin Basilio (1878).  One of the central women there is a maid – servants stay in the background in The Maias – and she is a terror.  I was just a bit worried, having read The Mandarin and a chunk of The Maias, that Eça de Queirós might be like Robert Louis Stevenson: not so great with female characters.  Never mind.  No worries now.

*  With The Maias (long) and The Mandarin (short) and a substantial piece of Cousin Basilio behind me, my enthusiasm for Eça de Queirós has not yet flagged.  Challengists:  The Crime of Padre Amaro is coming up sometime, no need to be too specific, I think?  And The Illustrious House of Ramires sooner than that.  I’m never sure what I am accomplishing, but I hope anyone who skimmed through this first set of pieces on Eça de Queirós is clear enough on what will likely be found in his novels:  a less bitter-tasting Flaubert, a less icky Zola, Anna Karenina without the soul-searching.  Something like that.


  1. The horserace chapter remains probably my favorite of the you say, everything is encapsulated there.

    A sidenote--the last story in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table traces the life of a carbon atom that works its way into Levi's brain. I realize Levi may have never even heard of The Maias, but thought you would get a kick out of the reference.

  2. "...a less bitter-tasting Flaubert..." One thing that I get from "The Maias" is a palpable sort of joy in its writing. EdQ is witty in a way that Flaubert isn't, the latter's humor infused with a few potent drops of cynicism and disgust (I can't imagine EdQ ever writing a scene like the botched foot operation in "Madame Bovary"). "Bemusement" is a word I might use to describe EdQ's narrative tone; that's not a word I'd use to describe Flaubert's. Sometimes there are details in EdQ that seem put there just for the delight in putting them there. I've started calling my own idle, obese old cat "Reverend Boniface" (pp. 7-8).

  3. So someone completed the Memoir of an Atom, someone actually qualified to write about atoms. Excellent.

    The horserace chapter was so good that I looked up when Anna Karenina was translated into French. 1885 or so - EdeQ could have seen it, but his work is almost certainly independent of Tolstoy.

    I was oh so tempted to devote a day to Reverend Boniface, among the greatest cats of literary history.

    I agree about the foot operation - it would foul the tone of The Maias. We'll see if there is anything like it elsewhere in EdeQ's books.

  4. Oh good.The Crime of Father Amaro arrived through my door a mere five minutes ago. I am looking forward to it, as your enthusiasm for The Maias has been a great warm-up act.

  5. Good, same for me. Although who knows, perhaps Padre Amaro is completely different.

    I dropped an entire word in the original post. The Grand Passion character has to embody "Romantic clichés" not "Romantic [blank space]". Geez.

  6. Tom, I'll try to read Crime/Amaro in the second half of October to sync up with you and Litlove a little bit. Curiously, your Eça posts have been making me not only want to read his stuff but also those giant novels of his Spanish next door neighbors (like Fortunata y Jacinta and La regenta).

  7. Re: Amaro, that sounds reasonable.

    Re: Pérez Galdós and Clarin, I have been thinking the same thing! Maybe that'll be the next challenge. Except the sheer bulk of Pérez Galdós is a challenge all its own.

  8. The most difficult challenge regarding Perez Galdos (I haven't yet figured out how to do accents on my iPad) is getting hold of English translations. Even his most famous novel, Fortunata and Jacinta, keeps going in and out of print.

    His novels aren't all long. Fortunate and Jacinta is, admittedly, a hefty tome, but Misericordia and Nazarin, two of his later novels, are both quite short, and are both excellent. See here:

  9. I had missed that post of yours. Thanks for the link.

    When I say bulk, I do not just mean the length of F&J, but the bulk of his production. At least 25 books have been translated (I think not in terms of "in print" but "in a good university library"). And then I ponder his 46 volume (!) series of historical novels on 19th century Spain.

  10. I am a fan of Proust which "Recherche" I have read many times.
    I am reading de Queiros (Os Maias) for the first time and I am finding a strong analogy with Proust (irony on "le monde" and diluted plot).
    So I'm very glad to find in this post the same comparison ...

  11. I suppose Proust and Eça were responding to common elements in French literature, especially in Flaubert. But I also think they shared a manner of thinking.