Thursday, November 17, 2011

Where to start with Eça de Queirós, a non-answer

Where should a reader start with Eça de Queirós?  Or Charles Dickens, or Virginia Woolf, or William Shakespeare?  These are not my questions.  I assume the existence of a reader with a large appetite, and enough sense to not dismiss the judgments of previous good readers on the basis of a random encounter with Barnaby Rudge or Henry VIII.

As I get to know an author, the question I ask is: where should I stop?  Which books are just trivia, or impenetrable period pieces, or juvenilia, or scrapbooks? For a certain kind of critic – Edmund Wilson, Frank Kermode – who reviews new novels only after reading something close to everything the author had ever written, there is no stopping place.  How this was feasible, I do not know, except that I suppose these critics read a lot faster than I do, or magazine deadlines were more leisurely than I imagine.

Given enough time, almost anyone can read almost everything.  Major works are read in pursuit of the experience of great art, minor works in the pursuit of knowledge.  Knowledge about the major works, most likely.   I am getting close to “everything” – well past the halfway point – with Eça de Queirós.  Wilson and Kermode, unlike me, were not blockheaded enough to publish their notes, or to work for free.

But that’s not my point, which is, rather, that The Illustrious House of Ramires, although well-written, humorous, representative of Eça’s lifelong concerns, and on in this vein, may not be a great place to start, although Scott Bailey did darn wellRamires is the most deeply Portuguese of the Eça novels that I have seen so far.  It makes more demanding assumptions about the history and culture of the country.  I suspect that the demands would be similar for Portuguese readers who are not medieval history buffs, but still, the names, dates, and places come thick and fast in the first few pages:

One of the most valiant of the line, Lourenço, nicknamed the Butcher, foster-brother of Afonso Henriques (with whom, the same night in Zamora Cathedral, he kept vigil over his arms before receiving his knighthood) appears at once in the Battle of Ourique where Jesus Christ also appeared, on fine clouds of gold, nailed to a cross ten ells high. (6)

One of those names I admit I already knew.  Our hero Gonçalo, a coward, in fact a Portuguese nebbish, lives under the shadow of “a House ten centuries old, with more than thirty of its males killed in battle” (288).  Over the course of the novel, we see Gonçalo make peace with his past and overcome his nebbishness – Ramires is, in form, a classic Nebbishroman – partly through the means of the historical novel about his own ancestors, The Tower of Don Ramires, that he is writing or more accurately rewriting, stealing the whole thing from a poem written by his uncle:

The whole plot, with its passion of barbaric grandeur, the savage battles in which family feuds were settled by the dagger, heroic words uttered by steely lips – there it all was in dear Uncle’s verses, sonorous and nicely balanced:

[poem snipped]

Really, all that was needed was to superimpose the mellifluous tones of 1846 Romanticism upon its terse, virile prose…  Would this be plagiarism?  No!  To whom, more than to him, a Ramires, belonged the memory of these historic Ramires?  (16)

A summary of the historical novel is, as it is composed, part of Ramires – more names, more history, and at first with only the broadest thematic connection to the contemporary story.  It all works out in the end, though, in the third act, as Scott calls it – “you realize that you've been marvelously set up.”   Gonçalo grows out of his plagiarism.

So, a place to start, why not, right, Scott? Bad place to stop, though.

What else should I write about? That Nebbishroman thing was just a joke.


  1. Illustrious House possibly didn't give me a good view of EdQ, but it certainly whet my appetite for more. Not a deep novel (whatever the heck that's supposed to mean) but an honest one (whatever the heck that's supposed to mean). So why not a good place to start? It's a fine novel and there are a lot of excellent things in it that one could discuss at length. I'll spare you, though.

    Nebbishroman is good. An argument could easily be made for it being an actual genre. Hell, it's Campbell's transformative hero's journey taking place in a library or drawing room. Anyway, I look forward to The Crime of Fr Amaro.

    Where would one start with Shakespeare? I always recommend "Julius Caesar" and "Taming of the Shrew." But only because they're the first of the plays I read, back in my youth, and are therefore my favorites.

  2. Why not a good place to start? I am thinking of, and probably should ignore, readers who complain about and even resent long Russian names and unfamiliar facts and geography. Ramires packs in way more of that than other Eça novels.

    Start anywhere with Shakespeare, anywhere at all, just have the sense to not ask the question "Is Shakespeare for me?" or take a lack of enjoyment or understanding as saying anything meaningful about Shakespeare.

    "Julius Caesar" and "Shrew" are good for young'uns because of length, vocabulary, and complexity. But I am thinking of adults.

  3. Once I got into a tiff with an English guy who thought Saramago was a crappy writer because his books had all sorts of cultural references that didn't mean anything to someone who'd grown up in England. I don't talk to that guy anymore, because there's only so much apoplexy I can afford these days.

    Which adults for Shakespeare? Anyway, start anywhere at all is the right answer, yes? Shakespeare is magic. I don't know why people are intimidated by him (or Dostoyevski or Saramago or anyone else). Somewhere recently I read a blog post about how November (or was it October) was "read a classic month" and I just shook my head. As if reading 1984 or Wuthering Heights or The Odyssey was like running a marathon or surviving grad school. Etc ranting.

  4. Adults = adult book bloggers. This is just me whining about book bloggers. I should knock it off.

    Substantively: yes, exactly!

  5. The Literary Saloon points out today that there's a new Eca de Quieroz novel out (only 111 years after it was first published in Portuguese):

  6. A copy of that book arrived at my house just 2 days ago. Because I ordered a copy. I should get to it soon - it's short.

  7. I both like to delve into things and save books to savor, so when I discover an author whose works really excite me, I question where to stop for now. I am, in part, saving something I know I'll like for later. I also find that I hit a place with diminishing returns on enjoyment if I read too much of one author at once (unless I'm trying to be comprehensive, which provides a different sort of enjoyment, but one that I have not pursued in a long time).

    And my opinion on the asides-- J.C. is not a good starting point for Shakespeare.

  8. I'll argue for just diving right in, then finding your way through splendid direction signs like everything you've written about EdQ so far.

    Your observation about Kermode and Wilson points to one of those things that just beleaguer the mind (my tiny mind, anyway): how do they do it? I've just finished reading a critical book in which the author seems to have read everything by Joyce Carol Oates (can one actually do that in a lifetime?), who's awarded only a few pages of discussion.

    And nebishroman is a term that really merits inclusion in the canon.

  9. Nebbishroman or nebishroman will likely be my 2nd greatest contribution to civilization, after "A Watched Plot Never Spoils."

    I don't know exactly how Kermode or Wilson operated. Bloom used to read 1,000 pages an hour. That would help. I agree, a mastery of Oates sounds so unlikely.

    SpSq - you are deftly identifying some of my many unspoken assumptions. That "where to stop" is purely theoretical, long-term, not "when to stop now." No one should read one Eça after another like I am doing.

    Instead, you (a general you) should read someone else in depth, someone I do not know well, and then tell me all about it, preferably in the comprehensive manner of Wilson and Kermode. If you are taking requests, Miguel de Unamuno or Paul Valery would be great, thanks.

  10. I'm living a nebbishroman, and it's no joke, I can assure you. My favorite of the where to start evasions is the blogger who avoids the Don Quixotes and Moby Dicks of an author and chooses a slim, not all too celebrated minor work instead (won't select an example from Cervantes and Melville out of respect). Time considerations aside, why not start with the "best" work, no matter how long (or short), or a work that really speaks to you for other reasons? "I don't know if I'm going to like that big juicy filet mignon I've heard all about. Maybe I should just try this microwaved, cardboardy Boca Burger first, what do you think?"

  11. Again Tom, very interesting post and discussion! Regarding cultural references, I was discussing the other day why is it that Baltazar & Blimunda (Memorial do Convento) is the most popular Saramago in Portugal, but almost unknown outside. The conclusion we reached was that, as you've put it, it’s "the most deeply Portuguese" of Saramago's novels. Others include The Year of the Death... and History of the Siege..., but there's something about B&B that would probably make non-Portuguese work harder to completely understand and appreciate it.

    That being say, some my favorite British novels were also the ones that made me work the hardest. The Aubrey/Maturin series or Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles come to mind. It took me on endless Google and Wikipedia searches to better understand the History and the characters. But was it was worth it and I’m the better for it :)

  12. Laughing at Richard's whole comment!

    I usually recommend Richard III for people starting out with Shakespeare. You've got a super-charismatic villain, some compelling female characters (including Margaret's fantastic cursing scenes - who doesn't love a well-done cursing scene? she just REVELS in the bloodshed), Clarence's "methought what pain it was to drown" speech, lots of murders, double-crosses and battlefield action, and, as a bonus, you get the context for some very famous lines. But then, I'm sure everyone has a personal favorite.

    Taming of the Shrew is likely to piss off the feminists (she said, as a feminist who still loves the play).

  13. In the standard Nebbishroman (like Ramires) at the end the nebbish has become a mensch.

    I have no problem with anyone reading "The Dialogue of the Dogs" or "Bartleby" before the big books - these stories are awesome - but the strange response is to give up on the idea of reading Don Quixote because you did not like some other work. But of course I advocate abandoning the "enjoyment" standard, so I would say that.

    Baltazar and Blimunda is #1 on my Saramago list, meaning I hope to get to it next year after the Challenge has abated. I have never read S. and I am attracted to this one (& Ricardo Reis) exactly because it is so Portuguese.

    "Richard III" is fine, obviously. But really my assumption here is that the serious model railroader, I mean reader will just want to read lots of Shakespeare and learn to read it well, and will not be put off by idiosyncratic experiences. The feminist who abandons Shakespeare because of anger at "The Taming of the Shrew" is a fool, or at least not a serious model railroad enthusiast. Reader, I mean reader.

  14. Where to start? Such a good post, so many good comments! (Richard may be the winner here, aside from Tom's latest, at least.)

    Time considerations aside, why not start with the "best" work, no matter how long (or short), or a work that really speaks to you for other reasons?

    I like the "work that really speaks to you for other reasons" option here, but since time considerations are almost never aside, I'm sort of interested in a "Want to read Don Quixote someday? How about Dialogue of the Dogs for now"-type recommendation system. Of course, such possibilities for disagreement! Not ready for Moby-Dick? No, no, don't pick up Bartleby or Billy Budd, but The Piazza Tales (or Benito Cereno)! I don't want a diet of masterpieces, really, but I want something good and representative. There are plenty of small books like this that have no problem signalling to me that I will be reading the whole oeuvre...someday.

    And of course, death to the enjoyment standard! Down with the dabbler model railroaders! Tom, you're such a splitter.

  15. I hope the model railroading device is clear enough. Nicole gets it. I'm talking about the "reader as hobbyist," not the "reader as dabbler." There are many nice hobbies besides reading.

    Good reading is a wonderful mix of "read from the list" and "I'll see for myself, thanks."

  16. Tricky question.

    Chronologically speaking, The Illustrious House of Ramires is definitely the place to end Eça - it was the last novel he published in life. But it's sad to think this would be the last memory a reader would have of Eça; it's just not a very good novel, for his standards.

    On the other hand, starting with it could put people off because it's just not a very good novel. If you want to read a better Nebbishroman, try To The Capital: it's a hilarious book about a crappy countryside poet who comes to Lisbon thinking he's going to become a literary sensation. Reality completely disabuses him of that notion.

    "Illustrious" is interesting to understand the development of Eça's thinking: you can see that he's settled into married life and that he's no longer the ferocious satirist of his youth. He's even a bit nationalistic, complacent. Which means material comfort is hazardous to artistic quality. All writers should live in the gutter, for their own sake.

  17. I thought Ramires was excellent, actually, so I do not mind anyone starting with it. Just don't whine about the unfamiliar names and history. I do not believe I am addressing anyone who bothers to visit Wuthering Expectations.

    To the Capital does sound good.

    I disagree completely with your last paragraph. The gutter! But I do not see the artistic decline you do. I found Ramires comparable (sentences, structure, characterization) to the earlier novels, The Maias aside.

  18. I was being farcical about the gutter.

    The ending of "Illustrious" was a bit too optimistic for my taste. Like a writer trying to make amends with his country after spending years tearing it apart.

  19. I have no taste for optimism, or for pessimism. How does the artist do what he does; how well does he do it? Those are my questions.

    I was hoping the gutter business was a joke! Many of the greatest works of art were created by people who were loaded.

  20. Hm, I guess I was thinking about all those writers who lived in dictatorships, like Mikhail Bulgakov. Wrote a hilarious novel even though he could be killed on a whim.

  21. We are entering upon one of the great mysteries of creativity, how Count Tolstoy, Dr. Chekhov, and underground man Dostoevsky can all write great fiction.