Thursday, September 29, 2011

A work of art lives only through its form - Eça de Queirós and originality

The Maias is about originality.  Eça de Queirós  wrote near the beginning of the great turn-of-the-century change in tastes across the arts, the shift towards innovation as the central measure of artistic value.   Let us not argue the existence of this change, but rather pause for a moment and be thankful that the effect was not as pronounced in fiction as it was in poetry, painting, or music.

Eça de Queirós was really responding to something particularly Portuguese, the dominance of Portuguese culture – elite culture, artistic culture – by France.  France was the source of the “isms” to which the restless young Portuguese intellectuals reacted:

there were noisy passionate debates, in which Democracy, Art, Positivism, Realism, the Papacy, Bismarck, Love, Hugo, and Evolution each had its turn to flame and flicker in the cigarette smoke, as light and vague as the smoke itself.  These metaphysical discussions and even revolutionary certainties tasted more exquisite still in the presence of the liveried valet uncorking the beer or serving croquettes. (75-6)

An aside: note that Victor Hugo is a one-man literary movement.  His name recurs with some frequency in The Maias, as often as that of Zola, who is the New Thing, the creator of “lavatorial” literature, as a bitter Romantic poet calls it (139).

Is originality possible in Portugal?  Eça de Queirós argues the case by writing a massive imitation of Flaubert, the great innovator.  Some readers may have thought the carriage scene I mentioned yesterday sounded awfully familiar, since it is stolen from Madame Bovary; the great source, though, is A Sentimental Education (1869), which is obliquely invoked repeatedly.  It has been too long since I read that novel for me to be sure, but I suspect that The Maias is often a direct parody or imitation of A Sentimental Education.  A project for some other day, figuring that out.

The curious phenomenon is that Portuguese literature is often imitative.  The greatest 19th century Portuguese poem is an imitation of Baudelaire; The Lusiads is an imitation of Virgil.  Living after the Modernist turn to innovation, I am likely to reflexively associate “imitation” and “imitative” with more negative words (“derivative,” “unoriginal”), but  If I were an early modern Humanist, imitation, imitatio, would be a virtue.  Virgil's works are, after all, imitations of Theocritus, Hesiod, and Homer.  Perhaps “adaptive” would be a friendlier word.  Eça de Queirós brilliantly adapts French models and techniques to Portugal.  The great Renaissance writer imitates the great classical form, the epic; Eça de Queirós imitates the great form of his time, the “realistic” novel:

Caught between two fires, Ega thundered forth: the trouble with realism was precisely  that it wasn’t scientific enough, so that it ended up having to invent plots, create dramas, and lose itself in literary fantasy!  The pure form of naturalist art should be the monograph, the clear-eyed study of one character, one vice, one passion, just as if it were a pathological case, stripped of all picturesque detail and all style.

“That’s absurd,” said Carlos, “characters can only be described through their actions.”

“And a work of art,” added Craft, “lives only through its form.”  (141)


  1. The predisposition toward imitatio was also keen in huge swaths of medieval Europe, but that didn't stop anybody from adapting or innovating freely in the long run. Funny tendency that. Speaking of which, "lavatorial" literature should be a great technical term to add to my blogging vocab, thanks! P.S. My problems leaving comments here the last few days seem to be browser-related: IE bad, Firefox good. At least I got through the "defenses" this time.

  2. You have to look at it a certain way, but The Maias really is a brilliant form-meets-function conceptual response to the idea of originality, or the value of imitation. There is no reason why outside readers should be particularly interested in the Portuguese part of the question, but the larger question is universal, and as you say, an old one.

    The anti-Zola language (from one particular character) is consistently hilarious. "The only way to criticize realism is to hold you nose!"

  3. I agree, Flaubert's influence is apparent, especially his 'Sentimental Education' in E de Q's 'Maias'. Also the Form/Function aspect of the novel makes it a highly original work.

  4. I have seen the book described as a copy of A Sentimental Education, just Flaubert moved to Lisbon, but that really misses most of the interesting things E de Q is doing with the concept.

  5. Thanks to you, Tom, I now find myself plowing through "The Maias" for the second time in just over two years - though I have to say this second reading is proving immensely enjoyable in light of your observations. Plus, since my first visit to Lisbon came between the two readings, I can now better imagine the setting. Your observation about "The Maias" taking on literary originality as a subject is fascinating; it seems EdQ is highly conscious of the imitative aspects of his work and keeps them fresh by frequently calling into question the function of the realist novel, lending the work a strikingly modernist aspect thanks to this reflexiveness. It's been a long time since I've read "Sentimental Education," so perhaps my recollections are unclear, but I certainly didn't think of "The Maias" as a mere copy of it.

  6. I feel like I should re-read it, too, so I am not surprised that you are enjoying it.

    Yeah, that self-consciousness now seems especially interesting. Modernist readers are well-trained in the subject, whatever E de Q's purpose was.

    That "copy of Flaubert" idea is just shorthand, an oversimplification.

  7. 'Im not so sure, Queiroz greatly admired Flaubert enough for his novel, like 'Sentimental Education' to have an identical conclusion; two long-term friends and now confirmed bachelors reminiscing on the happiness they once had in their distant, youthful past.

  8. Yes, exactly - a complex parody of Sentimental Education.

  9. Damn it, that link doesn't work anymore; now I'll never know what was the greatest 19th century Portuguese poem!

    But let guess - "The Feelings Of A Westerner” by Cesário Verde?

  10. Yes, exactly, you got it. Maybe Zenith's site has a good link.

  11. Here it is:

    I've always loved this stanza:

    Oh lucky travellers in hired coaches
    Now hieing to the railway station! Countries
    And exhibitions file past me: Madrid,
    Paris, Berlin, St Petersburg, the world!

  12. Hey, thanks, good. It really is a great poem. Maybe someone will slip a little Verder collection into English someday.