Baudelaire pretended to be surprised that anyone could think of Balzac as a realist. It had always seemed to him, he said, that the novelist was ‘a passionate visionary’. The only perverse element in this claim is the suggestion that Balzac was not a realist as well as a visionary, and more broadly, that realism is not a vision. At one of the founding moments of European realism, in the early pages of Le Père Goriot, Balzac describes, or rather keeps saying he can’t describe, the miserable Paris boarding-house where much of the novel is set:
The first room exhales an odour for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the ‘odeur de pension’. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing … Yet, in spite of these stale horrors, the sitting-room is as charming and as delicately perfumed as a boudoir, when compared with the adjoining dining-room.
The panelled walls of that apartment were once painted some colour, now a matter of conjecture, for the surface is encrusted with accumulated layers of grimy deposit, which cover it with fantastic outlines.
Then the owner of the house, Mme Vauquer, appears.
She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes. Mme Vauquer alone can breathe that tainted air without being disheartened by it … Her whole person explains the boarding-house, just as the boarding-house implies her person [toute sa personne explique la pension, comme la pension implique sa personne].
Writing like this is not a refusal of symbolism, it is a form of it, a selection of details to show what lies beyond the details. Realism in this sense is devoted to a profusion of material signs but also, and more emphatically, to a theory of the readability of those signs. The odour that can’t be named is metonymically named at once; the original colour of the walls doesn’t matter, since the encrustations and fantastic outlines carry the full message of misfortune. In the great works of realism surfaces always speak, they communicate with the depths the way a trap-door communicates with a cellar or a space beneath a stage. And the attraction of the Balzac instance lies in the literary doctrines it skirts but doesn’t endorse. It does not say that Mme Vauquer is the product of her environment, although she might well be; it does not say her house is the result of her personality, although that might be true too. It asserts a correspondence between place and person and invites us to think of one in terms of the other. But there is none of the narrow determinism that is so often associated with realism and even more with naturalism; no actual suggestion of causality at all, since explanation and implication are rather different processes and in this context half-metaphorical anyway. The damp room and the sharp nose have equal rights, and both are very talkative.
I thought of this theory of readable surfaces because I was trying to understand my pleasure in the beautifully crafted descriptions in Eça de Queirós’s masterly novel The Maias, extremely well rendered in Margaret Jull Costa’s new translation. The novel is set in Lisbon in the 1870s: 1875 to 1878, to be precise, with a couple of flashbacks to establish the family history, and an epilogue placed in 1887, the year before the book was first published. It begins and ends with a house, as in Balzac, and the city – or more precisely, a certain style of life in that city – is in one sense its chief character. But the descriptions do more than create atmosphere or even give us this character. They hover on the edge of explanation, they promise to interpret a whole world for us; but tactfully never quite do this, thereby avoiding the determinism that I have just evoked and that critics regularly associate with Eça de Queirós. Everything is rich and charming here, even the weather and the light, as if the writer had managed to locate in reality the paradise of Baudelaire’s ‘Invitation au Voyage’, that place of ‘order and beauty/luxury, calm and pleasure’. Well, the same place tinged with a melancholy that arises from its very attractions, marked in the following quotations by the excess of velvet, the mildly threatening, over-modern steel, and the giveaway word ‘torpor’:
in the background, the broad blue Tejo river, as blue as the sky, gave off a glitter of finely powdered light
in the silence, the lovely afternoon seemed to spread out around them, softer and calmer. In the dustless air, without the shimmer created by the sun’s strongest rays, everything took on a delicate clarity
the curtain was slightly drawn back, and through the gap, he had a glimpse of one warm cosy corner of the room, its damask furnishings bathed in a tender rose-pink light: the cards lay waiting on the whist table; on the sofa embroidered in subtle silks, a languid, thoughtful Dom Diogo was gazing into the fire and stroking his moustaches
the afternoon was drawing to a close, in an Elysian peace, without a breath of wind, and with small, high, pink-tinged clouds motionless in the broad sky; the fields and distant hills on the other shore were already disappearing beneath a velvety, violet mist; the water lay smooth and polished as a perfect sheet of new steel
a soft light, slipping sweetly down from the dark blue sky, gilded the peeling façades, the bare tops of the municipal trees, and the people sitting idly about on benches; and the slow whisper of urban indolence, along with the soft air of a benevolent climate, seemed to seep gradually into that stuffy office, to slither over the heavy velvets, the varnished furniture, and to wrap Carlos in a quiescent torpor.
This place looks and feels wonderful, it seems to be where we’d like to live (where I’d like to live) and where Eça de Queirós himself, no doubt, wouldn’t have minded living – he wrote the novel while he was Portuguese consul in Bristol. Before that he had been consul in Havana and Newcastle. All five of the novels published in his life time – Cousin Bazílio, 1878, The Crime of Father Amaro, 1875, The Mandarin, 1880, The Relic, 1887, The Maias, 1888 – appeared while he was working in England. He was born in 1845 and died in 1900.
But this place also, we know as we think about the soft light and the silk-covered sofa, is likely to suffocate us, and perhaps Eça de Queirós could not have written his novels there. He suggests this discreetly by having a talented and witty man in the book fail to write anything at all in spite of his many projects, and by having his hero, the above-named Carlos, become a doctor who scarcely practises and a scientific experimenter who doesn’t experiment. But is the place to blame? Or is it an elegant and agreeable excuse for failure? Does it merely offer a temptation to fail? What is the relation between culture and climate, and between climate and human achievement? Is there a relation? These are the questions the descriptions implicitly ask and leave floating. Lisbon and Portugal imply or at least mirror the lives of (some of) their rich and self-indulgent citizens. Or is it the other way round? Either way a claim to explanation seems to be going too far, as it no doubt already was in Balzac.
Balzac is named several times in The Maias. Two characters are said to have a ‘Balzacian eye’, and Balzac is elsewhere called a ‘prodigy of observational powers’. A love nest is called the Villa Balzac, an intricate, critical irony because the owner of the house is a ‘great fantasist’ far from fully aware of what he is doing when he adopts the great realist as his ‘patron saint’. The book itself, I should say, is subtitled ‘Episodes from Romantic Life’, so these touches are important. ‘Romantic’ in this context has all kinds of associations, and its near-synonyms could include ‘poetic’, ‘stylish’, ‘idealistic’, ‘liberal’, ‘deluded’. As in ‘all English songs were alike, they always struck the same sorrowful romantic tone,’ or (spoken of a poem that has just been recited) ‘such romantic outpourings’. ‘Literature,’ we are told, ‘used to be all about the imagination, fantasy, ideas. Nowadays, it’s all about reality, experience, facts, documentation.’ And about money, which is this character’s main translation of ‘facts’. But then he calls it ‘marvellous money’, slipping unconsciously back into the romantic mode, in spite of his attempt at irony. Eça de Queirós’s chief question, perhaps, is whether realism is possible in Portugal, in literature or anything else, and his mischievous suggestion is that ‘Portugal’ may just mean ‘romantic’ – there couldn’t be episodes of any other sort of life there. He is doing this, however, with sly intelligence, in an undeniably realist Portuguese novel.
The writer’s master and companion in this venture, in spite of the frequent mentions of Balzac, is Flaubert, and especially the Flaubert of Sentimental Education. Carlos, when a student, tries his hand at a few ‘historical tales’ in the manner of Salammbô, and at one point Eça de Queirós borrows from Madame Bovary the idea of a travelling coach as a place for a lovers’ rendezvous. But then he quotes literally from Sentimental Education – ‘it was like an apparition,’ both writers say when the love of our hero’s life presents herself – and his book ends with a brilliant, affectionate parody of Flaubert’s bitter last joke. In Sentimental Education two old friends, having failed in everything, recall an episode from their schooldays: a visit to a brothel. Was that a success at least? It could have been, but one of the boys panicked in his embarrassment, and ran off to escape the laughter of the young women. Since he was the one who had the money, the other boy had to leave too. Now they tell each other the story once again, in great detail, ‘each one completing the memories of the other’. One of them says: ‘That’s the best thing we ever had’ – ‘C’est là ce que nous avons eu de meilleur.’ The other says perhaps it was. ‘That’s the best thing we ever had.’ The double irony is devastating, a perfect instance of what Flaubert in a letter called ‘the comedy that doesn’t make us laugh’. The men are probably right, this was the best thing they ever had. And what they had was nothing.
At the end of The Maias, two old friends, agreeing that they have ‘failed in life’, become philosophical about this outcome. The moral is not that they could have done better, but that they shouldn’t have been trying – which is just as well, because they certainly weren’t. ‘The futility of all effort’ is what it all comes down to. ‘There was no point in trying to achieve anything on this Earth, because … everything ends in disillusion and dust.’ In fact, this character continues his argument, ‘If someone were to tell me that down there the fortune of a Rothschild or the imperial crown of Carlos V were just waiting for me, and that it could be mine if I ran to grab it, I wouldn’t so much as quicken my step.’ His companion agrees ‘with great conviction’.
And they slowed their step as they went down the Rampa de Santos, as if that really were the road of life, along which one should always walk slowly and scornfully, certain, as they were, of finding at the end only disillusion and dust.
But then they remember they are late for drinks before dinner with friends. There is no cab in sight, but they could possibly catch the tram that has stopped some little distance away from them, its red lantern stationary in the dark. If they run for it, that is. They are ‘filled by hope and by a need to make one last effort’, and the novel ends in this way:
‘We might still catch it!’
‘We might still catch it!’
Again the lantern slid away and fled. In order to catch the tram, the two friends started racing desperately down Rampa de Santos and along the Aterro beneath the initial glow of the rising moon.
The glance at Flaubert is clearly an act of homage and Eça de Queirós wants us to know that someone else has told this sad story before and told it incomparably. But because that earlier telling is incomparable, Eça de Queirós is not trying to repeat it. He is translating it to another country and shifting its mood. The failure is roughly the same in both cases. A whole privileged generation, represented by these two men and others, has missed its chance, whether in the 1840s or the 1870s; and the final conversation suggests in each case that the protagonists are a long way from understanding what has happened to them. But the thought of the two men literally running when they have just sworn never to quicken their metaphorical step is funny in a way in which Flaubert’s grim irony is not, and this perception has a lot to do with the whole tone of the book, briefly illustrated in the descriptions I quoted above. At the heart of Flaubert’s world is a void, a profound belief in the disillusion and dust that are just fancy words for the Portuguese characters. If the French boys had had a wonderful night at the brothel it would still have rotted in the memory, and left them with a later desolation, only in a different register. In Eça de Queirós’s world characters sacrifice their ideals and their energies to sheer self-pampering; they just cannot say no to a pleasure if it comes their way. In one sense this story is even sadder than Flaubert’s, precisely because it’s kinder and further removed from anything like purifying or levelling anger. But at least someone, somewhere, is having a good time.
At the beginning of the book the Maias, a very rich Lisbon family, have decided to move their principal residence from the country back to the city, and are renovating a house they own there. It has a light and sunny name, the House of the Bouquet of Flowers, or simply Ramalhete, but a rather depressing aspect, ‘the gloomy appearance of an ecclesiastical residence, and indeed, to complete its resemblance to a Jesuit college, it needed only a bell and a cross’. We might think that this house is a kind of family destiny, announcing on the first page a misery the characters can only postpone, not avoid. And indeed within a few pages of our learning that Carlos’s ‘moral life’ is ‘in ruins’, the house itself is to feel ‘like a ruin’. But it isn’t a ruin, it’s an enormously comfortable, richly furnished place of which we have already had a glimpse (‘the curtain was slightly drawn back’), and the double sign composed of the stern exterior and the floral name tells us the complex story in a compressed form: this is a place where life is and isn’t a bed of roses.
There are only two Maias left, Afonso and Carlos, grandfather and grandson. The missing generation is represented by Pedro, who married against Afonso’s wishes and was then abandoned by his wife, who ran off with an Italian. Pedro, already depressive in temperament, couldn’t bear the disgrace and shot himself in his room at Ramalhete. There were two children, Carlos and a sister whom the mother took away with her and who is said to have died in childhood. In fact, this was one of her mother’s fictions, and the sister’s reappearance in Lisbon as a stranger, apparently married to a Brazilian, not knowing herself to be a member of the Maia family – she is pretty much the last person to find out – moves much of the plot of the second half of the novel. The plot is not the novel’s main interest, but its switches are strong and interesting enough to be left for the reader to discover, and it will be enough to say that it is Afonso’s death, from a combination of ripe old age and sudden shock, that gives Ramalhete the feel of a ruin, and that Carlos, having lived the good and easy life of a playboy in Lisbon, takes off for long Flaubertian travels in America and Japan, and ends up living in Paris.
Afonso thinks, not long before he dies, that he is beset by an ‘implacable fate’ that robs him first of his son and then of his grandson but that ‘fate’ is really a combination of chance and luxury. ‘Fate’ is what will happen one way or another among the sheer opulence of a world that refuses itself nothing, whether mistresses, lovers, whist, wine or horses. There has to be a good likelihood of damage where the only real loyalty is to what one wants at the moment. But this is rather a moralising way of putting it, and Eça de Queirós is more delicate. At one point, Carlos, in the midst of a great love affair, is asked what he is going to do when his grandfather finds out about this relation with a woman in so many ways apparently unsuitable: a repetition, as far as Afonso is concerned, of Pedro’s behaviour, and therefore in this sense a form of fate, if only as a bad family habit. Carlos, a decent, endlessly likeable fellow, constricted only by the selfishness of extreme privilege, shrugs. ‘For me to be profoundly happy,’ he says, ‘my grandfather will have to suffer a little, just as I would have to be wretched for the rest of my life if I wanted to spare him this unhappiness. That’s how the world is.’ That’s how the world is, and that’s how, in the end, a likeable fellow can kill his beloved grandfather. Even so, Eça de Queirós is not suggesting Carlos is completely wrong. His error, if there is one, is not in choosing his happiness but in under-representing its cost – as if nothing, to a really rich man, could be too expensive. He doesn’t know what it means to pay for things. His good fortune is his misfortune, and his blame, while real enough, can’t really be measured, only evoked.
The same is true of his country at large, or at least of its moneyed class. They want to play at being French or English, but they want to play the game at home. Portugal in 1875 is pictured as the headquarters of cultural underdevelopment, and people there speak of the situation in much the way Latin American intellectuals now ironically speak of theirs: with a sophistication totally lacking in so-called developed countries, they magisterially go on about the lacks and failures of their own. This is one of the reasons, I think, that The Maias reads not only like a long, subtle riff on Sentimental Education but like a discreet forerunner of One Hundred Years of Solitude – the verve of the indictment unravels the very case being made. ‘Here we import everything,’ a character says. ‘Ideas, laws, philosophies, theories, plots, aesthetic, sciences, style, industries, fashions, manners, jokes, everything arrives in crates by steamship.’ A politician explains that Portugal’s problem is the absence of ‘personnel’: ‘Say you need a bishop. There are none. Or an economist. There are no economists either … Even in the lesser professions. Say you want a good upholsterer, for example. There are none to be found.’
The man speaking in the first case is a wit, and in the second an idiot, but the mentality is the same. Everyone in Portugal has an Achilles’ heel of some sort, another character says. ‘Portugal’s other name should be Achilles & Co.’ Portugal’s originality lies in its total lack of originality. The place can’t be blamed for not having what it couldn’t possibly have. Or can it? Portugal in this novel is like a rich man who is just too stylish to do great things – or to do anything much – just as the characters in García Márquez are too deeply in love with their own elegant and witty solitude to think of wanting to end it.
There is an earlier (1965) English translation of The Maias, by Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens. It reads well, and it understands, as the new translation does not, that an abbé is not the same thing as an abbot. But its language is a little old-fashioned even for its time, and Margaret Jull Costa catches better the fluent intelligence of the Portuguese, especially the lyrical phrase-endings that often lead the way out of irony or melodrama, like slow fade-outs in the movies. An example would be the last sentence of the novel, where the two men race for the tram under what is literally ‘the first clarity of the moon that was rising’. Pinheiro and Stevens have ‘under the light of the rising moon’; Jull Costa has ‘beneath the initial glow of the rising moon’. The second seems a little wordy, the first a little too efficient. But the wordiness may be what is needed, since presumably Eça de Queirós wanted some sort of mildly over-ripe effect for his last unromantic episode from romantic life.
A longer example may help to show the differences – and also perhaps show that they are not large enough to quarrel over. This is, in any event, a fine instance of Eça de Queirós’s style, and a good indication of how a realist can become a (comic) visionary. The scene is the house of an aunt of one of Carlos’s mistresses, an Englishwoman, a place they have borrowed for their secret nights of love. (The first passage comes from the Pinheiro/Stevens translation, the second from Jull Costa.)
Carlos entered and tripped immediately over a mountain of bibles. The whole room was packed with them: they lay in piles on top of the furniture; they overflowed from old hat-boxes; they were mixed up with pairs of galoshes; they had wandered into the hip-bath. All of them were in the same format, wrapped in black binding like battle-armour, sullen and aggressive. The walls were resplendent, decked with cards printed in coloured lettering that irradiated harsh verses from Scripture, stern moral counsels, cries from the psalms, insolent threats of hell-fire. And in the midst of all that Anglican piety, on the night-table beside a small, hard, virginal iron bed, stood two bottles of cognac and gin that were almost empty. Carlos had drunk the saintly old maid’s gin; and her hard bed had become as disorderly as a battlefield.
When Carlos first went in, he had stumbled over a pile of Bibles. Indeed, the bedroom was a veritable nest of Bibles; there were small towers of them on various bits of furniture, others spilled out from old hat-boxes or were jumbled up with pairs of galoshes or had fallen into the hip bath, and all were of exactly the same format, bound in the same scowling, aggressive black leather as if buckled into armour for battle! The walls glowed, lined with cards printed in coloured lettering, radiating austere verses from the Bible, stern moral advice, cries from the psalms, and bold threats of hell-fire. And in the middle of all this Anglican religiosity, at the head of a small iron bedstead, stiff and virginal, stood two almost empty bottles of brandy and gin. Carlos finished off the lady’s gin, and her hard bed was left as turbulent and disorderly as a battlefield.
Each is more literal than the other at times. Pinheiro and Stevens keep the mountain (‘montão’) of bibles, and lose the nest (‘ninho’) of the same; generally stick with a word order that is a little awkward in English (‘wrapped in black binding like battle-armour, sullen and aggressive’, ‘entaladas numa encadernação negra como numa armadura de combate, carrancudas e agressivas’); and hang onto words like ‘resplendent’ and ‘irradiated’ that aren’t entirely convincing in their new home. But then they decide ‘piety’ is better than ‘religiosity’ as a translation of ‘religiosidade’. Jull Costa changes the tenses of the first sentence (literally ‘Carlos entered, stumbling immediately against a mountain of Bibles’, ‘Carlos entrou, tropeçando logo num montão de Bíblias’); adds words (‘indeed’, ‘veritable’), turns piles into towers, but then allows the Bibles simply to ‘fall’ into the hip-bath as they do in the Portuguese. The test perhaps is how we feel about two key moments at the end of the paragraph, the mention of the lady’s gin (‘o gin de santa’, literally ‘the saint’s gin’ or just ‘the gin of the pious lady’) and the verb indicating what the activities of Carlos and his mistress have done to the bed (‘ficou revolto’, literally, ‘remained turned over’). What to keep and what to let go? My sense here is that ‘saintly old maid’ is a little too much, broadens the irony an inch too far; and that ‘turbulent and disorderly’ does just the work it needs to.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.