Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God - the surprisingly sweet Illustrious House of Ramires

I was reading an early novel of Eça de Queirós, The Crime of Father Amaro, alongside a much later one, The Illustrious House of Ramires (1900, published just after the author’s death).  Eça may well have mellowed with age.  Father Amaro is cruel; Ramires is almost sweet.

Young and aimless nobleman Gonçalo Ramires holds the oldest title in Portugal and lives in the shadow of a thousand year-old tower and a string of illustrious ancestors.  He dreams of imitating the medieval exploits of his heroic forebears, but times have changed a bit – leading one’s feudal retainers to ravage one’s neighboring enemies is frowned upon – and anyways Gonçalo is a coward.  He is also a terrible braggart, which is a kind way of calling him a congenital liar; he is also extraordinarily kind to children, the ill, and other weak people.  Weak people like himself.

After the chilly elegance of The Maias, the savageness of Father Amaro, and the hysterics of Cousin Basilio, I am almost shocked at how gentle Ramires is, how nice Gonçalo is.  Not that he’s not a fool – the last line in this passage (ellipses in original) could stand as a description of any number of  Eça’s characters:

He, Gonçalo, had stupidly and irresistibly succumbed to the fatal Law of Increase, which had led him, as it leads everyone in their desire for fame and fortune, to pass rashly through the first door that opened to him, without noticing the dung that cluttered up the doorway…  Yes, really, all of them were so little guilty before God, who had created man so variable, so weak, so dependent on forces that were less governable than the wind or sun! (218)

This is being thought by Gonçalo himself.  One of his most endearing, and frustrating, traits is his changeability.  He can be venal, but never for too long.  He can be skeptically thoughtful, but is too easily comforted.  He is ambitious, artistically and politically, but is too easily distracted.  An inevitable result is self-pity.  Another motto (ellipses again not mine):

“Why?” murmured Gonçalo, miserably removing his coat.  “So much deception in such a short life…  Why?  Poor me!”

He fell upon his vast bed as if into a tomb, and hid his face in the pillow with a sigh, a sigh full of pity for so frustrated and helpless a fate.  (235)

Gonçalo is an early edition of a popular Modernist character, the kind who through charm and good intentions quickly engages my sympathy, but then spends the rest of the novel making me wince.  Oh, Gonçalo, pull yourself together!

I want to spend a couple more days with the book.  Perhaps I will engage with the ideas of Scott Bailey, who write about the novel here and also here.

The Illustrious House of Ramires is translated by Anne Stevens.  The translation is so good that the novel has not been re-translated by Margaret Jull Costa!


  1. Yes, this novel is more witty than serious, I think. It's an old-fashioned book and perhaps is less sophisticated than EdQ's other novels you've written about here. Though it's still merciless in exposing the characters' flaws and EdQ doesn't apologize for upholding Goncalo's kindness as a virtue without a hint of irony. So sweet and funny, yeah. It would be easy to take the same story elements and make them into a tragedy, a condemnation of political and economic hypocrisy etc.

    But what about that final chapter, "four years later," where Goncalo doesn't even appear in person? That was well done, and violates the narrative rules EdQ had established for the bulk of the novel.

    ~scott gf bailey

  2. Less sophisticated in its use of multiple points of view, yes. As you say, only the denouement moves away from Gonçalo. The earlier novels all dance around in a typically complex Bovary-ish fashion.

    And then Eça gives the game away - "do you know whom he reminds me of?" Ha!

  3. That ending makes the book a sort of love letter, don't you think? Did you say recently that EdQ wrote most of his books while living away from Portugal?

    I have The Crime of Father Amaro on order with my local indie bookstore. I've bought an enormous number of books in the last couple of weeks. Which somehow hasn't made the enormous pile of unread books I already owned seem any smaller. Huh.

    ~scott gf bailey

  4. A love letter - oh yes, and I suspect the "next" posthumous novel, The City and the Mountains pursues the idea.

    I am not sure when Eça wrote Ramires but if it was post-Maias, he was living in Paris, where he was consul-general, a bigwig in the Portuguese diplomatic corps.

  5. I admire Scott's book-buying style. This book sounds kinda admirable, too--even if lacking in "cruelty."

  6. There is actually one scene of no-holds-barred cruelty, a real - I was going to say "corker," but in the context that comes across as some meaningless Portuguese pun - brute of a scene, a genuine torture scene. Dang book turns into Saw.

  7. Richard, you have an excellent blog. As I'm sure you know. My book-buying style means that I have to hurry up and finish renovating the attic so that we have more walls for bookshelves.

    AR(T), I keep forgetting the scene with the surly hunstman, though it's the turning point in the story. It really is pretty graphic, but I suppose it's got to be in order to give a negative symmetry, if you will, to the earlier scene with the cheated renter.

    The whole book has a nice sense of formal balance, if you like that sort of thing.

  8. That is just the sort of thing I like!

    Yeah, the huntsman scene and its "fictional" swampy counterpart in the historical novel.