The Portuguese novelist Eca de Queiroz's vast novel The Maias (Episodes from Romantic Life) first published in 1888, chronicles the life and fortunes of one of Portugal’s most distinguished families, the Maias. As such it offers a portrait of upper-class Portuguese society from circa 1820 to 1887, centering specifically upon the life and times of its protagonist, Carlos da Maia.
Carlos da Maia is lovingly nutured by his grandfather Afonso da Maia. Upon coming of age he leads the life of a privileged Portuguese aristocrat. Crucial to the story is the fact that Carlos is the last in lineage of the ancient family of da Maia. Admired by his good-looks, his fine English thoroughbred horses and impeccable taste, Carlos da Maia eventually chooses to study medicine in order to become a doctor, however he is invariably distracted from advancing himself in his profession by love, social events, his many friends and his essentially weak nature.
Much of the novel’s broad canvas of 700 pages is a near seamless procession of glittering balls, poetry recitals, nights at the theatre and opera house, dinner parties and evening soirées which Carlos gaily attends. There's also a great deal of drinking - Port, Champagne, Cognac and wine flow in abundance as well as much fine cuisine and dining throughout the novel. More often than not Carlos is pre-occupied with a love-affair and in finding accommodation, selecting furniture and interior decoration suitable for a tasteful boudoir for romantic trysts with his mistress. It's only towards the novel’s conclusion that a devastating revelation occurs shattering the lives of both Carlos and Afonso da Maia. The ramifications and aftermath of this revelation profoundly alters the lives of both Da Maia's and brings the novel to its tragic conclusion.
Counterbalancing the essentially tragic tale there's a strain of quite subtle humour coursing through The Maias. The novel also includes a revealing chapter which describes the events of a horse-race meeting in which the love–hate relationship of the Portuguese towards the English is explored. De Queiroz makes cultural comparative humour about both Portugal and England thus-
The Maquis….. continued to inveigh against Portugal. ..'This is a country fit only for picnics and funfairs. Horse-races, like many other civilized pastimes, they enjoy abroad, require, first and foremost, an educated public. Basically, we’re nothing but thugs ! What we like is cheap wine, a bit of guitar music, a good brawl, and plenty of back-slapping bonhomie afterwards ! That’s how it is !'
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‘… the national anthem is the musical definition of a nation’s character. The rhythm of a country’s national anthem is, he says, the moral rhythm of the nation… The “Marseilles” marches forth like an unsheathed sword. “God save the Queen” advances, dragging a royal train…’
‘Ours minces along in a tailcoat’.
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‘And tell me something else,’ Senhor Sousa Neto went on, full of interest and curiousity . ‘In England, do they have the same pleasing literature we have here, writers of serials and important poets?’
Carlos placed the stub of his cigar in the ashtray and replied shamelessly:
‘No, no, there’s none of that.’
‘I thought as much,’ said Sousa Neto. ‘They’re all businessmen over there, I suppose’.
Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900) began writing The Maias in 1878 while resident in England when living in Bristol and took over ten years to complete it. An English translation of his masterpiece was not published until 1965. Margaret Jull Costa's acclaimed translation of De Queiroz's great novel highlights its full stature as a work of world literature and captures well the witty dialogue, eccentric characters and social foibles of Portuguese upper-class as described by Queiroz.
The Maias is a portrait not only of the moral decline of its protagonist, Carlos da Maia, but also by implication, in its depiction of inept politicians, petty bureaucrats and dilettantism in high places, the moral decline of nineteenth century Portugal itself. Not unlike Querioz's novel The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (unpublished in his life-time) The Maias offers the reader a portrait of upper-class Portuguese society with a back-drop of a passionate love-affair, only to deliver a devastating revelation late in the novel, which colours and shapes its tragic conclusion.
Eca de Querioz has been compared to Balzac for his sharp eye on human nature, to Marcel Proust for his description of the prejudices of upper-class society, and to Flaubert for his realism. In fact Queiroz greatly admired Flaubert for his development of Naturalism in writing. Yet, as Margaret Jull Costa points out in her excellent introduction to the 2007 Daedlus edition of Querioz’s masterpiece, The Maias fluctuates between sympathy and stern judgement towards its protagonist and floats ambiguously between Naturalism and Romanticism in style and content. Its this undefinable stance, somewhere between a harsh portrait of the cruel reality of life and romantic idealism which imbues The Maias with a quite unique sensibility.
Eca de Queroz’s masterpiece is a novel which deserves to be much better-known, and it probably shall in time, due to Costa's decisive translation which showcases De Queiroz as a literary figure equal to his contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dickens. The real tragedy is no longer the moral decline of Portugal, but the neglect by western readers, translators and publishers alike, of a major nineteenth century novelist.
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Post top picture - The front cover of the Dedalus paperback edition of The Maias (2007) reproduces a portrait of an aristocratic French woman by the French painter Ingres. Closer in geography, unable to find a striking Portuguese portrait, but having enjoyed viewing it at Dublin National Gallery, this post is headed by a portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate, an actress painted by Goya cica 1805.