PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz occupies the same sort of place in Portuguese Literature as Dickens does in English, Balzac does in French and Tolstoy does in Russian. The Maias, first published in 1888, is not just the story of a fictional family over 70 years or a panoramic sweep across 19th century Portugal but a powerful portrait of a society in inexorable moral decline. Its blend of romanticism and realism is a magnificent achievement, revealed in all its glory in this brilliant new translation by Margaret Jull Costa.
A veteran translator of Saramago and Pessoa, Jull Costa delivers Queiróz's 1888 masterpiece in a beautiful English version that will become the standard. Rich scion Carlos de Maia—like his best friend, writer João da Ega—is an incorrigible dabbler caught in the enervated Lisbon of the 1870s. His parentage is checkered: Carlos's mother runs off with an Italian, taking his sister, Maria, but leaving Carlos with his father, Pedro, who soon shoots himself. Raised by Pedro's father, Afonso, the adult Carlos returns with a medical degree to live with Afonso in the family's cursed Lisbon compound. His very romantic, very doomed affair with Madame Maria Eduarda Gomes sets in motion a train of coincidences, deftly prefigured, that resonantly entwines Carlos's fate with that of his father and spreads all of Portuguese society before the reader. Quierós has a magisterial sense of social stratification, family and the way eros can make an opera of private life. The novel crystallizes the larger unreality of an incestuous society, one that drifts, even the elite heatedly acknowledge, into decline. The neglect of the big Iberian 19th-century novelists—Galdós, Clarín and Queiróz—remains a puzzle. This novel stands with the great achievements of fiction.
Eca is the master of the narrative finale, usually accomplished through dialogue linked to skilfully deployed symbolism. The last scene of The Maias, in which Carlos and Joao, having agreed on the ultimate futility of effort in their lives, suddenly race to catch a tram, offers a fine flourish of comic irony. Margaret Jull Costa's new English version expertly captures the novelist's refined almalgam of the acerbic satirist and compassionate observer.
If you like Dickens or Tolstoy, you'll like this, Portugal's greatest novel.
The greatest book by Portugal's greatest novelist.
One of the greatest novelists of the novel’s greatest age, Eca is almost the most readable due to his narrative energy, sweeping range and tart sense of humour.
'The Maias' must have seemed shockingly contemporary in its verismo: its narrative ends in 1887, just a year before the book was published. But it is not a revolutionary tract. Rather, in Margaret Jull Costa's excellent translation, its appeal remains its strongly etched characters, not only the beloved and enlightened patriarch, Afonso da Maia, and his no-less-wealthy grandson, Carlos, but also assorted snobby aristocrats, drunken writers, greedy politicians, self-important businessmen, social climbers - and beautiful women. Their principal stage is Lisbon, where at clubs, restaurants, parties, private dinners, even on the street, they argue about politics and literature, gossip poisonously and plan seductions. Indeed, the men devote enormous energy to bedding their associates' wives. In Ega's case, alas, the lovely Raquel Cohen's husband finds out. Carlos, in contrast, soon tires of the Countess de Gouvarinho and "her tenacity, her ardor, her weight." The novel's main plot gets going after Carlos falls for Maria Eduarda, the wife of a wealthy Brazilian, Castro Gomes, who is spending time in Lisbon. When Castro Gomes returns to Rio de Janeiro on business, Carlos makes his move, and Maria Eduarda, "divine in her nakedness," responds with Flaubertian passion. "Her urgent kisses seemed to go beyond his flesh, to pierce him through, as if wanting to absorb both will and soul," Eça de Queirós writes approvingly. A frustrated suitor of Maria Eduarda strikes back, informing Castro Gomes in an anonymous letter of his wife's betrayal. But when Castro Gomes returns to Lisbon, he has a surprise: he informs Carlos that Maria Eduarda is not his wife but his mistress, a woman with a steamy past whom he is quite glad to be rid of. Stunned, Carlos is also ready to dump her, but she wins him back, recounting the hardship of her life and persuading him of her undying love.
"Suddenly, all he saw, blotting out her every weakness, were her beauty, her pain, her sublimely loving soul. A generous delirium, a grandiose kindness mingled with his love. And bending down, his arms open to her, he said softly: 'Maria, will you marry me?"' Ah, those 19th-century Romantics. Well, twists and turns lie ahead, but there is still ample time to dwell on the terminal ennui of these aristocratic Lisboners who seem to have no need to work. And it is their slow-moving world of vapid conversation and fear of change that Eça de Queirós most delightfully mocks. To Alencar's revolutionary poetry, the Count de Gouvarinho can only tut-tut: "To speak of barricades and make extravagant promises to the working class at a society event, under the protection of the queen, and in the presence of a minister of the crown, is perfectly indecent!" Gradually, then, while charting Carlos's travails of the heart, Eça de Queirós paints a picture of a society trapped in a time warp, stubbornly refusing to follow the rest of Europe. And here, far more than Carlos,a sympathetic but spoiled rich boy, it is the unsuccessful writer Ega who seems to speak for the novelist. Ega loves Portugal, but is also unforgiving.
'There's nothing genuine in this wretched country now, not even the bread that we eat,' he laments in a form of conclusion.
As a diplomat who served in England for fourteen years, from 1874 to 1888, the great Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós had no illusions about his country's position in the world during the mid- to late nineteenth century. The five novels that he published during his lifetime--The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), Cousin Bazilio (1878), The Mandarin (1880), The Relic (1887) and The Maias (1888)--satirized the faults of Portuguese society in order to save it. Yet he was well aware that the stratified Catholic society he dissected was already in its endgame.
Its apex had been reached a century earlier, under King João V, who had the good luck of ascending the throne in 1706, just seven years after Brazil began shipping gold to Lisbon. Midway through João V's reign, Brazil offered him another source of booty when diamonds were discovered in Bahía. By then, the tone of João V's rule was well established. He transformed the area around the capital with extravagant churches, palaces and convents. He fathered children with at least three nuns. He built the University Library at Coimbra, where Eça de Queirós would later study law. And shortly after he died in 1750, the country entered a long, precipitous fall.
The first drop came on November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was hit by the worst earthquake ever recorded in Europe. Like the 2004 quake in the Indian Ocean, the Lisbon quake was followed by an enormous tsunami, with waves that reached as far as the Caribbean Sea. As many as 60,000 Lisbon residents died in the ensuing fires, floods, famines and epidemics. In its time the disaster was notorious enough to inspire £100,000 in aid from Britain and a poem by Voltaire.
The next catastrophe marched in from France. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal through Spain, sending the Portuguese royal family scampering to Rio de Janeiro. In their absence, Portugal's old ally England stepped in to its defense, launching the Peninsular War. Together Portuguese and British soldiers eventually drove Napoleon's army completely off the Iberian Peninsula, but the first three years of battle were fought mostly on Portuguese territory. (The rest were fought in Spain.) By the end of the war, in 1814, 100,000 Portuguese had died and much of their country had been laid waste.
The coup de grâce, however, was delivered by Portugal's own rulers. Having acquired a taste for the tropical luxuries of Brazil, the Braganza monarchy decided to stay in Rio. For fourteen years they ran Portugal like a colony of its colony, leaving Lisbon under the thumb of an autocratic British overseer, William Carr Beresford. In Lisbon, soldiers and intellectuals reacted to this neglect by assembling a Constitutional Cortes, or Parliament, which drafted Portugal's first Constitution. Needless to say, the nobles, the Queen and the Catholic Church were not pleased. But King João VI, who returned to Lisbon to settle the affair, accepted the new government with surprising equanimity--he had a liberal heart.
For a while, it seemed as if Portugal would transform itself into a constitutional monarchy without spilling any blood. Then the prince-regent, Pedro, declared Brazil an independent nation; João VI died; and Pedro's brother, Miguel, usurped the Portuguese throne. The nation plunged into a civil war. Liberal Pedro defeated reactionary Miguel in 1834, with the help of England, Spain and France. A few months later Pedro died, leaving the Portuguese Treasury near bankruptcy and the country irreparably behind England and France in terms of manufacturing, literacy, science and architecture.
By 1845, when Eça de Queirós was born, Portugal had turned into a B-list country. His most famous novel, The Maias--which has recently been given a vibrant new translation by the talented Margaret Jull Costa--reminds us of this situation from its outset. In 1858, it tells us, an ambassador from the Vatican wanted to rent a property in Lisbon called the Casa do Ramalhete. Though its garden was a mess--abandoned to weeds, with a dried-up waterfall, a choked pond and a marble statue of Aphrodite turning black--the monsignor liked the home's interior. The negotiations, however, went sour as soon as a number was named:
The rent proposed by old Vilaça, the Maias family's administrator, seemed to the Monsignor so extortionate that he asked, with a smile, if Vilaça thought the Church was still living in the age of Pope Leo X. Vilaça retorted that the Portuguese nobility were likewise no longer living in the age of King João V.
A Catholic ambassador and the manager of an aristocratic fortune squabbling over who's employer has fallen into worse decline? What a lovely way to begin a book!
Eça de Queirós's main target in The Maias is the insular, fashionable society that Portugal's upper class built amid the country's ruins, and its hero, Carlos da Maia, is a young aristocrat of exceptional looks, wealth and taste. Carlos arrives in Lisbon in 1875, fresh out of Coimbra's medical school, seasoned by a year of Grand Tour and itching "to do something really brilliant"--though he's not quite sure what. "For him, a man of study accustomed to luxury," Eça de Queirós explains, this brilliant accomplishment needed to involve "a mixture of social status and scientific work; a profound thinking of ideas carried out in the exquisite shelter provided by great wealth."
Carlos's buddy Ega rides into Lisbon with similarly vague, contradictory ambitions. A lawyer by reluctant training, he wants to write a novel called Memoirs of an Atom. No, he wants to start a Portuguese version of the Revue des deux mondes. No, he wants to win the prettiest mistress in Lisbon. What both friends do with most success, however, is banter, order clothes and arrange interior décor.
With the help of an "architect-cum-decorator" from London, Carlos transforms dusty old Casa do Ramalhete into a stylish bachelor pad, complete with a billiards room, a music room, a smoking room and a card room ruled by his doting grandfather Afonso. His medical office is just as posh: morocco leather benches, "albums filled with photographs of half-naked actresses" and a piano, to help his nonexistent patients forget their aches.
If you're hearing overtones of A Sentimental Education in this précis, you're not far off the mark. Gustave Flaubert, Costa tells us in her afterword, was Eça de Queirós's "literary hero," and it's obvious that The Maias owes Flaubert's 1869 Bildungsroman a debt. Like it, The Maias mocks the dissipation of youthful promise in love affairs and fashion. Indeed, one of its most amusing scenes occurs when Carlos visits Ega's home, the Villa Balzac, just outside Lisbon. Ega has chosen this location ostensibly so he can concentrate on completing Memoirs of an Atom but actually so that he can conduct a clandestine affair. Surveying his buddy's messy bedroom, which is cluttered with books, champagne glasses, hairpins, shirts and a huge box of face powder, Carlos inquires, "And where do you work, Ega, where do you produce your great art?"
"There," Ega responds saucily, pointing in the direction of his enormous scarlet bed.
In A Sentimental Education, the shirts and the face powder would have been native to Paris; in The Maias, they're more likely to be imported. Eça de Queirós was keenly aware of this difference, which meant that the fashions widely available in Paris were, in Portugal, the exclusive province of the rich. "Civilisation comes at a very high price," Ega jokes. "What with the customs duties one has to pay, and, besides, it's second-hand, it wasn't made for us, and so it's all a bit short in the sleeve."
Nowhere is this poor tailoring clearer than when Lisbon's aristocrats decide to hold a horse race; though, as Afonso observes, it would have been more patriotic for them "to put on a good bullfight." The ersatz event is a fiasco. The ramshackle hippodrome fills with "suffocating dust." The women dress in black instead of cheery checks and stripes. The jockeys brawl over the referee's calls. "It's all pretty dire," one man in attendance observes. "For heaven's sake if you're going to have a proper horse-race you need cocottes and champagne, not grim faces and cold water, it just won't work."
The problem, of course, is that the horse race requires participation from members outside Carlos's circle. Lisbon's upper class can import suits and songs and magazines, but their snobbery, combined with Portugal's general poverty, prevents them from re-creating anything like the democratic, industrialized cultures they admire from afar. Unlike Flaubert's Sentimental hero, Frédéric Moreau, for example, Carlos socializes almost exclusively with aristocrats and gentry--that is, with people who have no need to work. And his last chance to accomplish something worthwhile founders on his reluctance to swim outside this clique.
Near the end of the book, when Carlos and Ega are growing tired of Lisbon's provincial entertainments, they take up Ega's old idea of founding "a journal that would shape literature, educate taste, elevate politics, create civilisation, and, in short, rejuvenate worm-eaten old Portugal." Filled with sudden energy and enthusiasm, they hole themselves up in Afonso's study to draw up a list of collaborators:
However, difficulties began to emerge at once. Ega disliked almost all the writers suggested because they lacked the artistic, Parnassian elegance of style of which he wanted the magazine to be an impeccable model. And Carlos thought certain men of letters quite simply "impossible," although without wishing to confess that what mainly repelled him was their lack of manners and their appalling clothes.
Frustrated, the gentlemen turn to their usual anodyne--a passionate discussion of the future offices' décor:
It would have to be luxuriously furnished, with sofas from Carlos's consulting rooms and a few antiques from the Toca [his country estate]; and above the door (adorned with a liveried doorman), would hang a highly polished black sign with The Portuguese Review in large gold letters. Carlos was smiling and rubbing his hands, thinking how pleased Maria Eduarda would be when she knew about this decision.... Ega, on the other hand, could already see the canary-colored magazine piled up in the windows of bookshops, discussed at the Count de Gouvarinho's soirées, leafed through with horror by politicians in the Chamber.
And so the practical matter of finding writers for this canary-colored masterpiece is lost amid the two men's fantasies. Ten years later, when they meet after a long separation, Ega recalls their youthful ambitions (to be a great scientist! to write a magnificent book!) and declares, "We have failed in life, my friend!"
Retail therapy is, in fact, one of the novel's leitmotifs. Like out-of-shape yuppies who buy mountaineering jackets designed for treks up Mount Everest, Eça de Queirós's characters regularly purchase objects as substitutes for endeavors that they cannot, or will not, undertake themselves. Thus, Carlos's top-of-the-line laboratory equipment replaces actual scientific research; Ega's Wildesque fur coat becomes a stopgap for membership in a real bohemian society. And the ultimate substitute is, of course, their circle's use of luxury goods as a replacement for a true reformation of Portuguese society--a situation that Eça de Queirós ridicules when Carlos's friend Dâmaso Salcede announces his belief in individual action:
"I believe that every person should contribute in some way to the civilisation of their country."
"Well spoken, Senhor Salcede!" cried Afonso. "You have said a great and noble thing!"
"It's true, isn't it?" declared Dâmaso triumphantly, bursting with pride. "I, for example..."
"You?" came the cry from every side. "What have you done for civilisation?"
"I've ordered a white frock-coat for the day of the races and I'll be wearing a blue veil on my hat!"
Ultimately, Carlos's moral failure is poignant, rather than merely comedic, because he is one of the few characters in The Maias to display real intelligence. During the few months he actually applies himself to his medical practice, he saves a woman from diphtheria and comes up with the idea for a sort of flu vaccine. So when Carlos moves to Paris after the death of his grandfather (and after losing Maria Eduarda, a stunning femme fatale), Portugal's hope for a First World future seems to leave town with him.
A friend of the family sums it up at Afonso's funeral: "You won't find people like those Maias now, my boys--lion-hearted, generous, valiant! Everything seems to be dying in this wretched country of ours!" Ega puts it more plainly: how will Portugal ever have the "personnel" it needs to catch up with the rest of Europe if he and Carlos, "who have all the right skills," do nothing but drive their dogcarts?
It's hard to tell how much Eça de Queirós subscribed to the belief that progress in Portugal needed to come from the upper class--he does the fly on the wall rather too well. Occasionally, his omniscient narrator will let loose an opinion or two--remarking, for example, that the "poison" of dilettantism had entered Carlos's blood--but mostly Eça de Queirós subordinates his narrator to his characters' perceptions. Instead, he relies on more subtle techniques like symbolism, juxtaposition, allegory and irony to communicate his own opinions.
Reading The Maias, then, is rather like watching L'Avventura: you have to keep an eye on the background in order to understand the foreground. In the scene featuring Dâmaso's blue veil, for example, it's clear that he is being ridiculed for his superficiality. ("'You?' came the cry from every side.") What's less obvious is that Eça de Queirós scorns Afonso's hypocrisy as well. For that, one must remember that some 250 pages earlier Eça de Queirós informed us that during the civil war between Pedro and Miguel,
Afonso was to be found at the Epsom races [in England], riding in a gig, wearing a large false nose and uttering fearsome war whoops, utterly indifferent to the fate of his brother masons, who were, at that very moment, being driven along the alleyways of the Bairro Alto in Lisbon by the Infante Dom Miguel mounted on his fine Alter do Chão stallion.
Eça de Queirós also employs descriptions as a kind of foreshadowing, remarking, for example, that a woman's red parasol obscures a man's head "like a large bloodstain" some twenty pages before she provokes him to suicide. (Costa does a marvelous job of rendering these important details--she knows that Eça de Queirós, like Flaubert, employs "a naturalist surface with a symbolic subtext.")
Reading these traces, one finds hints that Eça de Queirós did not entirely escape the snobbery of his society. His Jews all prove greedy, treacherous or fickle. His three most admirable characters turn out to be not only aristocrats but blood relations. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the departure of an educated aristocrat like Carlos constitutes a sort of Portuguese brain drain: there aren't enough men of sense and education to take his place. Even Ega succumbs to Portugal's more vulgar comforts after Carlos leaves the country, gaily mocking the ignorance of a prostitute, for example, before raffling her off among his friends. "Oh," he says, recalling this elegant adventure, "it had been a splendid night!"
Eça de Queirós has a knack for turning the screws on his characters when he wants to, and this talent had led many critics to approach The Maias as a caustic satire--which, at times, it is. But the greatness of Eça de Queirós's masterwork, like the greatness of Jean Renoir's film The Rules of the Game, lies in its ability to blend pointed criticism with genuine pathos and nobility. Indeed, it's here that Eça de Queirós surpasses his essentially misanthropic hero, Flaubert.
Take for example, the tenderness with which Eça de Queirós communicates Carlos's love for Afonso, which may be based on Eça de Queirós's own relationship with his grandparents, who raised him after his unmarried mother started a legitimate family:
Of his mother, he did not possess so much as a daguerreotype, or even a pencil sketch. His grandfather had told him that she was fair-haired. He knew nothing more. He had not known [his parents]; he had not fallen asleep in their arms; he had never received the warmth of their affection. Father and mother were, for him, like the symbols of some conventional religion. Father, mother, and loved ones were all contained in his grandfather.
Or take Carlos's affair with the apparently married Maria Eduarda, which begins as a superficial infatuation with her Parisian wardrobe and her "foreign glamour" (she descends on Lisbon from France) but eventually forces him to confront his snobbery. "What was it you loved in me?" she demands of him. "Was it the fact that I belonged to another man, was it my name, the chic of having an adulterous affair, my clothes perhaps? Or was it me, my body, my soul and my love for you?" It takes Carlos a good night of soul-searching to answer that one.
There's no doubt that The Maias is, as Harold Bloom has said, an account of "the decadence of Portugal in its long decline," but the novel is also an aging man's paean to young love and friendship and misbehavior. The work is, after all, semiautobiographical (Ega being a clever visual pun on Eça), and its ending is not so much angry as melancholy. "How everything passed!" Ega thinks when he and Carlos meet again in the book's final pages. By then, it's 1887. Ega is balding. Carlos has put on weight. Their errand for the day is to visit Casa do Ramalhete and rummage through the detritus of all the things they've lost.
These days Eça de Queirós is best remembered for the way he brought Portuguese literature out of its Romantic doldrums and infused it with the realism of its French and English counterparts. But after his death (in Paris, in 1900) seven more of his novels were found and sent to press--and these were filled with sentimental appreciations for everyday Portuguese life. What they teach us is that Eça de Queirós loved Portugal. Indeed, it's this kind of love that sets all the most moving satires apart. The Rules of the Game, The Corrections, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Maias--these works manage the difficult task of keeping in balance two contradictory emotions: love for their subjects' virtues and intolerance of their faults.
"There's nothing genuine in this wretched country now," balding Ega complains to Carlos, "not even the bread that we eat!"
In response, Carlos points to the upper hills of Lisbon, where the churches, the convents and the crumbling mansions cling to slopes burned dry by the radiant sun. "There's still that," he says. Eça de Queirós's answer lies in the background, in his portrait of two middle-aged men who have squandered the best opportunities of their country but who have sustained a perfect friendship, never once marred by pettiness, betrayal or rivalry. In them, the flame of hope refuses to die.
I thought of this theory of readable surfaces because I was trying to understand my pleasure in the beautifully crafted descriptions in Eca de Queiroz's masterly novel The Maias, extremely well rendered in Margaret Jull Costa's new translation.
Over the years Margaret Jull Costa has produced a number of notable translations of the fiction of Eça de Queiróz, the great Portuguese novelist, who is widely considered to be one of the major European novelists of the 19th century, often ranked with Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, and Tolstoy. Most recently, Margaret Jull Costa turned her hand to Os Maias, Eça de Queiróz's greatest work, and the results are stunning. The sensuous elegance of the prose vividly captures the greatness of the original, bringing the novel to life for the reader in a way only the most masterful of translations can do. Clearly a labor of love, Margaret Jull Costa's brilliant translation of The Maias stands as a masterpiece in its own right. Eça de Queiróz lives in English!
Eça de Queiroz spent eight years writing The Maias. This is a novel in the tradition of Flaubert or Dickens, in which de Queiroz anatomises a society through a brilliant drama of a family's decline and downfall. Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is supple,
transparent and wonderfully paced. There seems to be no barrier at all between the reader and what the author intended. The novel shades from realism to romanticism, from satire to tragedy. The vigour and charm of the characters come across beautifully in this translation, and so does de Queiroz’s biting, sometimes despairing view of Lisbon society in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Translators are too often passed over as if their technique is almost administrative - something that will be replaced by Google in years to come. Instead they resemble musicians interpreting a score, with the best being able to bring a new light to improve on the original. Such is Margaret Jull Costa's rendering of Eca de Queiroz's magnificent tome, The Maias.
Jose Eca de Queiroz is often cited as Portugal's Dickens, for he scrutinises his country's foibles, often with exasperation, sometimes with malice, occasionally with tolerance. His true venom is reserved for the priesthood, whose members are held up as hypocritical humbugs. In The Maias, Eca de Queiroz's lens is fixed on the upper echelons of Lisbon society; the young man Carlos da Maia and his society friends, who while talking a great deal about art, philosophy and the meaning of life never quite succeed in achieving anything.
Eca de Queiroz takes the reader into the heart of 19th century Lisbon society, giving us glimpses of art and politics, but above all a decaying city losing its moral fibre from the inside. Yet as the reader understands that the handsome debonair Carlos wishes to do good, to heal the sick (literally), make a name for himself in scientific journals while bringing style and philosophy to the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie; we indulge his youthful follies - which he never quite grows out of. For Carlos puts far more effort into the design of his consulting rooms and laboratory than actually using them. Style over substance is no modern option.
While these young men are mostly harmless and merely self-indulgent, their love lives are rather more scandalous. Looking for romance rather than marriage, they appear solely interested in married women. While one young man has to leave Lisbon when the husband makes a fuss, clearly as long as discretion was employed this was the norm: romantically inclined young men and beautiful older women who are bored of their husbands, but rely on them for their reputation and lifestyle.
Carlos has sprung from romantic stock; his father Pedro married an enchanting adventuress, who ran off with an Italian, taking their daughter and leaving the son. After taking the boy back to his childhood home, Pedro shot himself, leaving Carlos to be brought up by his grandfather. When love beckons for the young man, drama ensues.
Yet it is not the narrative that keeps the reader interested for over 700 pages, it is the slice of life so compellingly drawn - the characters who you could as easily find yourself living among now as in nineteenth century Portugal.
'... a fast paced and intriguing family struggle.'
'I first read Margaret Jull Costa as the translator of José Saramago, and then fell doubly in love with her when I started to read the translations of the great 19th-century Portuguese writer Eça de Queiróz including his masterpiece The Maias, an incredible family saga written in the lushest, richest prose. Jull Costa has such a finely attuned ear for the rhythms of the writing of a certain era, you get all the elegance, lyricism and gravitas without a trace of the stuffiness that can so easily creep into translations.'
The Maias (Dedalus), a realist family chronicle by the nineteenth-century Portuguese master José Maria de Eça de Queiróz, who was much lauded in his lifetime: he was regarded by Émile Zola as “far greater than my own dear master, Flaubert”.
Considered by many as one of Portugal’s best – if not the best – writer, Eça de Queiroz survives as a staple in the Portuguese canon. If your lockdown luggage allows for only one Eça de Queiroz title, then it has to be his 1888 masterpiece, The Maias. A stalwart of the school syllabus (and superbly translated by Margaret Jull Costa), the novel tells the story of Portugal’s incestuous bourgeoisie society through the decline and fall of a high-flying, ill-fated Lisbon family.
As of today, it looks like ‘The Maias’ will be the novel of the year for me. ‘The Maias’ is romantic and passionate as I expected somehow a Portuguese novel to be, but it also quite humorous in places and with finely drawn characters and a gripping busy plot. It is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Whenever our characters get into a position that is just too comfortable or romantic or pleasing so that they start to notice the luxurious flower gardens and the old trees and sunny days of Portugal, a new predicament arises.
With this excellent translation by Margaret Jull Costa, ‘The Maias’ is filled with appealing details of its time which is the 1870s in Portugal. The descriptions of the settings are precise, and the descriptions of nature are luminous. The characters in the novel are the well-to-do, the rich of inherited money, who don’t really have to work to maintain their place in society. Thus they are avidly interested in literature and the arts and have almost violent arguments pitting the new naturalism and realism of such writers as Zola and Flaubert against the lyricism of the old school of writers.
No. of pages: 720
Publication date: 03.11.2016
Re-print date: 29.07.2020
978 1 910213 44 5
978 1 907650 33 8
World English language in this translation.
US rights sold to New Directions