ThinkBooks: The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz

ThinkBooks: The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 4, January, 2021

THE PORTUGUESE writer José Maria Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900) created a series of novels portraying Portugal as a society in decay. Family dramas involving infidelity, deception and tragedy  are at the centre of them.  He was well-placed to be a detached and sardonic observer of his country’s foibles. The illegitimate son of a magistrate and a well-born teenage girl, he was born in the northern coastal town of Povoa de Varzim which doubled as  a fashionable watering hole and a gritty fishing port. Until the age of six he was brought up by a wet nurse. His parents later married but he was not recognised as having been their child until aged forty.  A childhood in which he was passed around between different relatives endowed him with detachment and self-sufficiency. He put these traits to literary use when  he entered the consular service. Most of his career was spent in two British cities, first Newcastle and then Bristol. It was in these places that he wrote the novels that are his main claim to fame, The Crime of Father Amaro and The Maias.  

I had read most of  Eça’s works down the years but I came very late to The Maias, considered his greatest work. (I read it this autumn while convalescing from a bout of illness.)

It is a tale of carefree life and dissipation set in the claustrophobic upper echelons of Lisbon society in the 1870s. The story centres around a well-off young doctor Carlos de Maia. He is handsome, intelligent and charming but he lacks an outlet for his talents. He drifts along inhabiting a society marking time if not experiencing outright decay. Much of the narrative involves a social whirl involving him and his loyal and intelligent friend João de Ega. His friend possesses some scruples amidst his love of pleasure and it is possible to view him as a semi-autobiographical portrait of the author himself but one who failed to escape Portugal.

They take up with a hedonistic crowd and there are love affairs of varying intensity.  This isn’t a novel about action or politics even though there is a great deal of comment  about the broken-down state of Portugal, depicted essentially as a third-rate France. It is a penetrating look at why characters think and behave as they do.

Family history predominates over political history. Tragedy lurks in the background of the Maias. Grandfather Afonso is a sturdy patriarch, full of good sense. The suicide of his son, after a failed marriage and the mysterious disappearance of his wife and young child, hangs over the story. Afonso also bemoans a blocked country that seems incapable of renewing itself.

His hopes are invested in Carlos who a doting grandfather kits out with a medical laboratory.   Through his desultory activity as a doctor he meets a mysterious woman of ethereal beauty thought to be from Brazil but in fact from much nearer home. Thoroughly infatuated Carlos begins a passionate affair which eventually dominates the book.

Eça writes masterfully about the power of love and it makes up for the slowness with which the story often unfolds.  He is also accomplished at eloquently describing a whole host of features from landscape, weather, Lisbon life, gardens to interior decor . His writing is liquid, displaying humour, irony and grace with seemingly effortless dexterity.  His nocturnal strolls through Lisbon as a young man enabled him to describe the ambience of that city which in appearance has managed to keep some of its original features.  A Sunday afternoon race meeting, private dinners, a masked ball or a literary evening in a Lisbon theatre enable him to parade the uncouth bourgeoisie, pretentious intellectuals, and worldly priests.

When the book appeared in 1888 Eça expressed the hope that he could play his part in renewing Portuguese society and preparing a better elite. But the scepticism that is in his book about the ability to escape from stagnation soon took hold. He married, helped raise four children and died in 1990 in Paris where he had become Portugal’s consul.

In the final chapters dread and horror abruptly replace the assured and languid pace which has defined the book through much of its 714 pages when there is much to observe and reflect upon but nothing terribly serious ever happens.  The ending is macabre and would shock the sensibilities even today when readers are supposed to be more inured to outrageous turns of fortune.  The reaction of Carlos is unexpected when his passions are found to be built on sand.  Along with Ega he finds in travel balm for his tormented soul.  After a decade he returns to Lisbon, finds there is some physical change in the city’s appearance but the languid standstill atmosphere is the same.  At the very close he sets out his philosophy which is one of noble inertia.

Elites which have managed to reduce society to a miserable state would give much to have a population so content with an inglorious lot. Scotland in 2020 has been ruled far more badly than late 19th century Portugal but despite the manipulation exercised through the power of television, it is unlikely to be one where fatalism and resignation endure indefinitely.

Any blocked society will be very fortunate if it produces a writer with Eça’s panoply of literary gifts. The novel oscillates from realism to romanticism and from satire to tragedy. Margaret Jull Costa’s wonderful translation enables Eça’s writing to captivate an English audience.

The American literary critic Harold Bloom believed The Maias was ‘fully comparable to the most important novels of the great Russian, French, Italian and English masters.’ Not being especially well-read myself, I will take his word for it and return to reading some of the seven novels about Portuguese life discovered after his death.

Interestingly, in contrast to The Maias, many of these were filled with sentimental appreciations for traditional features of Portuguese life.

The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz. Translated by  Margaret Jull Costa. Dedalus edition. Cambridge 2007. 707 pp. ISBN 9781903517536

Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of Scotland Now, a Warning to the World (2016). His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54

Photo of the novelist Eça de Queiroz (+ seagull) in his home town of Povoa de Varzim taken by Tom Gallagher.

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