First published in 1888, The Maias is considered to be one of the masterpieces of this often unjustly overlooked 19th century novelist. Along with his novels, The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Basilio, Eça de Queiroz major novels are considered to be cornerstones of Portuguese literature. Zola considered him a greater talent than Flaubert.
With my first encounter of his work, the narrative for me is artistically at the very least on a level with Flaubert or Zola. Eça de Queiroz is more of a ‘show-er’ than a ‘teller’ than any of the French Realists/Naturalists, more similar to modern authors than most 19th century writers. The prose maybe more efficient and fluid than any of the french masters. One feels after the first few scenes one is reading someone who is in total command of his craft. A few deft strokes and the nuances of scenes resonate beyond the five senses.
In this novel, the reader encounters a fine Balzacian array of (mostly male) main characters. Most are memorable, finally drawn and go beyond mere flat types. Though you could find some of the society types found in The Maias, in the The Human Comedy, they are not mere stereotypes like drawing room silhouettes. They are unique and can be more apt to change and less apt to be predictable. Things/characters take place in a binary form. With the great exception of the two Maias, the grandfather Afonse, the old school Portuguese, and his grandson, our hero Carlos, representing the ‘new’ Lisbon, they aren’t really foils or contrasts, and the relationships between schools of thought (Liberals vs Socialists, Naturalists vs Positivists?), the human relationships of the characters for that matter are not symbiotic. The societal and individual human juxtapositions are incapable of dialectic, in any sense ‘healthy’ or capable of procreating…society, nor individuals ultimately benefit from the kind of relationships found in the novel.
The subtle recurrence of the Rose in the Japanese vase losing its leaves in Ramelhut echoes the inevitable dying off of beauty that is ephemeral and merely cultivated for aesthetics. The hero and his merry band of society most-eligible bachelors are all dilletants, they talk and spend big, but contribute nothing to their society. The lone exception is Afonso, the older Maias. His is the lone voice pleading that their culture needs a shot of Voltaire’s Pangloss…’No one is raising Vegetables’ he complains at one point. He is the only one, who is not one of the hollow men, seen in small discrete narrative snapshots helping out the poor with contributions of work, food or money in back doors or alley ways..
The knock on this novel has been that its plot is simplistic and not dramatic. I will argue, though while true to a point, it reflects De Queiroz theme that satirizes Portugal’s cultural malaise. In a society characterized by its enervation, nothing truly meaningful takes place. It is ALL style, NO real substance. The gardens are all for decor, there is nothing cultivated of sustenance. An interesting aside, twice the protagonist in passing was called a “weed”. At one point Ega, (great sidekick of Carlos that bears a lot of resemblance to the a younger De Queiroz) after an oration by a nationally acclaimed poet at public performance: What does it matter what he said, it was done in great style, and that’s what we Portuguese thrive on (I am paraphrasing). Of the three challenges to duels in the novel, none are acted on!
Eca’s prose style in The Maiasis so nuanced, lyrical yet economical and a perfectly calibrated authorial distance. I find I am more easily apprehending his text more readily than those I mentioned. Turgenev’s I liked as well as Eca’s based on Sketchesonly…and not to construe I don’t appreciate the others immensely, it just that Eca’sstyle is closer to a more ‘modern’ register. With him, I am not listening to myself think in the narrative inter-locutions, as in Balzac and Stendahl, ‘ok, this is where my implied author reading/buddy is putting his arm on my shoulder and offering comments on his story or making generalizations based on it.
A brief example of his stlye, the ‘frame’ of Carlos and Cruges riding in a caliche on their way to Sintra:
“On either side, as far as the eye could see, the land was dark and sad, and high above them, in all that solitude the endless blue sky seemed equally sad. The horses hooves kept up a steady trot, beating monotonously on the road. There was no other sound; occasionally a bird would cut through the air, flying fast, fleeing the bleak wasteland. Cruges, heavy with eggs and sausage, was staring vaguely and glumly at the horses’ lustrous rumps”
The Margaret Costa English translation was awesome BTW
This book was to be part of a larger series, or scenes of society and that De Queiroz abandoned the idea. A surprising introduction for me into a writer I had no familiarity with.