Friday, November 18, 2011

The beautiful land of Portugal, so full of endearing charm - the party and the coda in Eça de Queiros

Two tools that Eça de Queiros loved.

Party scenes.  Not big ones, balls or weddings, but more intimate gatherings, friends gathering over dinner, drinking themselves senseless, arguing about profound nonsense.  Sometimes the party is a regular event, not really a party at all but just a routine social activity.  A little piano playing, some snacks, some cards.  The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Basilio both structure the entire book around this kind of scene.  Sometimes the party is a rarer bird, a chance to indulge.  The Maias has some superb scenes of this type.  Chapter 2 of The Illustrious House of Ramires has a good one, too.

The great advantage to the author is that the party almost forces the reader to plunge in to the world of the novel, just like in a real party where I only know the person I came with.  I am introduced to a bewildering array of names and descriptions, lucky if I tack a characteristic or two onto each name.  In Chapter 2 of Ramires, Gonçalo meets his friends for dinner.  Here comes Titó (“powerful limbs…  slow rumble of his powerful voice…  idleness”) , maybe a bit of a weary libertine, and Gouveia (“very dark and very dry…  a bowler-hat tilted over one ear”) who has an aversion to cucumbers.

Wait, do I need to remember that?  Right now, there is no way to know.  The dinner scenes are humorously exhausting.  Luckily, the food is good:

Gonçalo , who claimed he had been miraculously cured [of a kidney pain] after the walk to Bravais and the excitement of the card-game, at which he had won nineteen tostões from Manuel Duarte – began with a dish of eggs and smoked sausage, devoured half the mullet, consumed his ‘invalid’s chicken’, cleared the dish of cucumber salad and finished off with a pile of quince jelly cubes; and as he accomplished this noble work, he emptied (without any flushing of that pure white skin) a glazed mug of Alvaralhão wine, because after the first sip of the Abbot’s new wine, he had cursed it, to Titó’s annoyance.  (29)

What juicy, thick writing.  It’s just a way to show the characters in action, any kind of action.

Then there is the coda.  Every remotely longish Eça novel ends with a coda chapter, letting us look back (“Four years passed lightly and swiftly like a flight of birds over the ancient Tower” – that was swift!), often with a lot of irony, although I do not remember there ever being anything like a plot twist.  The plot is finished.

The last chapter of Ramires does have a formal twist.  We have spent the entire novel with Gonçalo, sometimes watching him, sometimes deep in his thoughts, but the limit of the limited third has been strict.  The coda is entirely about Gonçalo, but he never appears in it, although he is described in a letter.  Many of the characters are reunited – they are preparing for a party that we do not get to attend.

The gentle last line of the novel, in the voice of whom?:

Father Soeiro, his sunshade under his arm, made his way slowly back to the Tower, in the silence and softness of the evening, reciting his Hail Maries and praying for the peace of God for Gonçalo, for all men, for the fields and the sleeping farms, and for the beautiful land of Portugal, so full of endearing charm, that it might be for ever blessed among lands. (310)

Thanks, Scott, for the readalonging.


  1. One element I thought curious in "The Maias" was a lack of much detailed description, such as that above, of the food (perhaps EdQ was more hungry when he wrote "Ramires"?). Having relished a different variety of bacalhau every day when I was in Portugal, I railed in frustration at the single reference to it in "The Maias," high praise of a particular recipe that EdQ mentions then - dammit - fails to provide.

  2. There's a lot more food in Ramires, and the food is more Portuguese.

    The difference is clearer with the wines, actually. The urban rich in The Maias only drink French wine - expensive Burgundies and so on. The country rich drink Portuguese wine, vinho verde. I don't remember green wine being mentioned once in The Maias.

    For those who don't know, Portuguese green wine is one of the glories of the country, inexpensive, modest and light.

  3. I haven't really read enough EdQ to comment, but I did love the 'party' scenes in Father Amaro. They provided perfect realist narrative - what are the codes and convention in this (micro) society, and how far do we dare to transgress them? Can we play the orthodox game to such an extent that it flips in on itself and actually favours us? And I suppose you could see the coda the same way - in the gap between two endings, all the subversive things that cannot be openly said get gestured towards, hinted it, implied. You are so whetting my appetite for more of his novels.

  4. Good. I think that's right, that even if I am not sure who each character is, I can pick up the norms quickly - what are the women doing, what are the servants doing, what kind of talk is allowed, what kind of entertainment. The author can pack in a lot of information quickly.

  5. Someone needs to do a serious study of 18-century party scenes. Form and function, mood and exposition, &cet.

    ~scott gf bailey

  6. A joyous study, says I!

    The Party in the Novel: From Petronius to Proust. But make the main title kickier.

  7. Ah, yes, the parties. Eça wrote mostly about worthless bohemians with delusions of grand projects that would make them famous and important, only they never accomplished anything. These parties served to stroke their egos, get together with their friends and admirers and have a chance to shine, utter a few intelligent quips. They were almost at their best in those parties, in closed rooms; but outside reality intruded on their dreams and projects.

  8. Yes, Carlos and most of the characters in The Maias, are wonderful at parties. Sharp and alive. And then the rest of their lives sort of trickle along.

  9. But that really is the Portuguese spirit, I'm sad to admit. A lack of self-esteem and ability to accomplish great things, to even start things. Eça knew his people so well.