Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then - beginning The Crime of Father Amaro

Three readers have joined me to read The Crime of Father Amaro, the first (1875) or second (1876) or fourth (1880) novel of Eça de Queirós.  I finished the book last, after Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos), litlove (Tales from the Reading Room), and ombhurbhuva.  I believe this was the first Eça de Queirós for everyone but me, and I understand that everyone thought it was a good place to start with this fine novelist.

A young, worldly priest, Father Amaro, obtains a position in a provincial cathedral town, where he finds that the priestly class is venal, sexually active, gluttonous and domineering, especially of the city’s more pious and superstitious women.  Amaro , who never wanted to be a priest and who has a purely instrumental ethical sense, soon seduces the beautiful and all-too-susceptible Amélia, the daughter of his landlady.  Consequences ensue, mostly of the predictable variety.   See the links above for better summaries, please.

I was nervous that the novel, which is brutally anti-clerical, would be a topical period piece, but the version we all read, at least, is like Eça’s other novels: humanist Zola, or Flaubert with a heart.  Litlove called the novel “a study in how to keep a book engaging despite having a cast of unsympathetic characters”; Eça’s secret is that he allows us to understand everyone, no matter how stupidly they behave (and they can be awfully stupid), and cold understanding can sometimes melt into warm sympathy.  Another way to say the same thing: Eça de Queirós is, more than anything else, brilliant with characters.

For example, Amaro, our hero, a less intelligent Julien Sorel, the center of The Red and the Black, begins the novel with my sympathy but squanders it as he becomes increasingly corrupted.  His inner life, after a romantic setback:

And then the old despair returned that he was not living in the times of the Inquisition and could not therefore pack them off to prison on some accusation of irreligion or black magic.  Ah, a priest could have enjoyed himself then.  But now, with the liberals in power, he was forced to watch as that wretched clerk earning six vinténs a day made off with the girl, whilst he, an educated priest, who might become a bishop or even Pope, had to bow his shoulders and ponder his grief alone.  If God’s curses had any value, then let them be cursed. (176-7)

And an external view, after romantic success:

For [Amélia], at least, [Amaro] was handsome and better than any count or duke, and as worthy of a mitre as the wisest of men.  She herself had once said to him, after thinking for a moment:

‘You could become Pope!’

‘I am certainly the stuff Popes are made of,’ he replied gravely. (313)

Amaro’s vanity, humorlessness, and, worst of all, his sense of power is clear enough.  A potential monster.  One of the tragedies of this comic novel is that his potential is realized.

What else should I write about?  The ending, the last page, certainly.  Eça’s party scenes?  Dona Maria da Assunçao’s museum of arsenal of saints?  So many possibilities.

Margaret Jull Costa was, unsurprisingly, the translator of the New Directions edition I read.


  1. I decided just a few hours ago that this would be my next (and therefore second) EdQ novel. Happy I am to hear that it's a success. It looks a bit more serious than Illustrious House of Ramires, which is fine if that's the case and fine if it's not.

  2. It is a success. As Borges said, "[E]verything he wrote was enjoyable," which might even be correct.

    This novel is more serious in that a couple of real tragedies take place, physical and moral, and the tone is more corrosively comic than the looser and lighter House of Ramires.

  3. What an inspired comparison, to think of Amaro in terms of Julien Sorel. What is prickly pride and integrity in Sorel becomes vainglorious narcissism in Amaro, which is why, I suppose, in the end, Sorel only hurts himself whereas Amaro only damages others. I also like what you say about Amaro being a potential monster, whose tragedy is to be realised as such. That's very true.

  4. "Humanist Zola, or Flaubert with a heart." So true (at least from what little I've read of Flaubert) and yet one of the things that distinguishes Eça for me is the "comedic" sensibility attached to his satire. So over the top in some ways for his day and age. Would be interested in seeing just how drastically he rewrote the early versions of the book given Margaret Jull Costa's claim that the 1880 novel was an entirely different work from its 1875 and 1876 "predecessors in name only" (I paraphrase).

  5. Though I characterised the novel as anti-clerical also, I think that he transcended the pursuit of an agenda . The conversation at the end between the Canon and Amaro near the statue of Camoes is an ironic juxtaposition. The day of his death is the national day of Portugal (10th.June).

  6. I am a little too apt to insist on comparing E. de Q. to one French counterpart or another, but I think it is really the author's fault, not mine. What amazes me about The Red and the Black - a book I do not understand well! - is how such an unpromising specimen as Julien acquires such depths. Amaro is hopelessly shallow by comparison, but more dangerous.

    I, too, am curious about how different the earlier version of the novel really is. If it omits Father Ferrão, it is quite different.

    ombhurbhuva, you inspired me, and that is just what I wrote about today, the transcendence of the parochial "issue" of the novel. And I want to deal with that final page tomorrow, I think. Maybe something on both "endings," Amaro's and Amélia's.