The Maias by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz

The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz/de Queirós, is a proper doorstop of a C19th novel, over 700 pages long. It’s late C19th, though, 1888. I was trying to think of apt comparisons, and none of them seemed exactly right, but it’s more like George Eliot or Tolstoy than Dickens. Or even early C20th novelists like Forster or Proust. Though the Proust comparison is not so much to do with style as subject matter: the romantic entanglements of wealthy, mildly bohemian society types.

One of the blurbs on the back compares him to Flaubert — ‘Eça de Queiroz rivals Flaubert in his suavely satiric pictures of provincial torpor and metropolitan glitter’ — which is another plausible choice.

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Among the themes running through the book, the one I found most interesting was the question of Portugal’s place in the world, which is seen in terms of tradition vs. modernity but also Portugal’s cultural relationship with other European powers: there’s a real sense of a smallish country on the edge of Europe looking towards London and Paris with a hint of an inferiority complex. So the characters swing between claiming unique virtues for Portugal and admiring, for example, a dress that could only have come from Paris. Every discussion, of literature or an event or whatever, turns to comparisons with other countries; the yardstick for quality is an external one. It’s oddly like reading post-colonial fiction, even though Portugal was in fact colonist rather than colonised.

I think what I liked most about the book was the leisurely pace of it. Events at which nothing much happens — or at least nothing which is essential to advancing the plot —are allowed to spread over five or ten pages. There’s a 30-page description of them going to the races which is a big set piece within the book, full of social observation, incident and humour, but none of it is actually crucial to the plot. On another occasion, in another mood, I might have just been bored by it; but this time I enjoyed that expansiveness.

In Lisbon, from the Grémio to the Casa Havanesa, there was already talk of ‘Ega’s mistress’. He, for his part, was trying very hard to keep his happiness safe from prying eyes. While perfectly serious about the complicated precautions this entailed, he also took a romantic delight in mystery, and so always chose the most out-of-the-way places, n the outskirts of the city, in the area near the slaughterhouse, for his furtive meetings with the maid who brought him Raquel’s letters. But his every gesture (event he affected way he had of pretending not to look at the clock) revealed the enormous pride he felt in that elegant adultery. He was perfectly aware that his friends knew all about this glorious adventure of his, and were au fait with the whole drama, and this was perhaps why, when in the company of Carlos or the others, he never even mentioned her name or betrayed the slightest flicker of emotion.

One night, however, a night lit by a calm white moon, as he and Carlos were walking along together in silence on their way to Ramalhete, Ega, doubtless filled by a sudden inrush of passion, uttered a heartfelt sigh, reached out his arms and declared to the moon in a tremulous voice:

Oh, laisse-toi donc aimer, oh, l’amour c’est la vie!

This escaped his lips like the beginning of a confession. Carlos, at his side, said nothing, and simply blew his cigar smoke out into the air.

Ega clearly felt somewhat ridiculous, because he immediately recovered himself and pretended a mere literary interest.

‘They can say what they want, but there’s no one like old Hugo.’

Carlos still said nothing, but he recalled Ega’s Naturalist outbursts, in which he had inveighed against Victor Hugo, calling him a ‘spiritualist blabbermouth’, ‘an imitative yokel’, ‘a lyrical old fool’ and worse.

But that night, Ega, the great phrase-maker, went on:

‘Ah yes, old Hugo, the heroic champion of the eternal truths. We need a bit of idealism, damn it, because the ideal might one day become reality.’

And with this formal recantation he shattered the silence of the streets.

It’s good stuff. Another of the blurbs says ‘Eça ought to be up there with Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy as one of the talismanic names of the nineteenth century’, and without deciding at this moment exactly where I think he ought to come in the leaderboard for C19th novelists, I would say this: The Maias is undoubtedly a substantial, high quality and important novel, and at the very least deserves to be better known. I certainly hadn’t even heard of it before I noticed it in a bookshop.

A quick name-check for Margaret Jull Costa, who translated this edition, and has done a good job of it, as far as I can tell without knowing any Portuguese.

The Maias is my book from Portugal for the Read The World challenge. I realised after making up my original list that I had actually read a book from Portugal already: The Lusiads by Luís de Camões, which I read in a second hand copy of a 1950s Penguin Classic edition which I seem to have lost. But I was happy to read another.

» The photo, which comes from Wikipedia, is of Eça de Queiroz.

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