It is not simple to read a virtually unknown book that, suddenly, is supposed to be one of the greatest 19th-century novels. Margaret Jull Costa, translator of José Saramago and Javier Marías, has recently turned to José Maria Eça de Queirós, reputedly the great national author of Portugal. And the resulting translation, of Eça's masterpiece "The Maias" (New Directions, 628 pages, $17.95) wants entry into our closed canons.Read More
For a few hundred pages, I was disappointed. Hoping for a family epic, I found a fin-de-siècle morality tale of thin ambitions treading on thick, luxuriant carpets. Lisbon is not Paris or London; it did not corrupt Eça's young men with suitable dazzling force. Like Flaubert, Eça skewers the pretentiousness of 19th-century social climbers, but Portuguese pretentiousness looked like small fry in comparison: The follies of a few well-meaning dandies did not immediately justify the roomy designs of Eça's monumental novel.
But as I read on, into the long straightaway that, comprising only two years of the novel's 70-year narrative, takes up the majority of its pages, I began to appreciate Eça's emotional point. WhereacharactersuchasHomais, Flaubert's pedantic pharmacist, stays face up, a fool, in reader's minds, Eça's aristocratic fools have a flip side: Their civic and national damnation. Ridiculous as they may be, they always have the excuse of whistling in the darkness. In Eça's hands, a Flaubertian fool becomes a tragic symbol.
"The Maias" begins with the renovation of a house. A grandfather and his grandson are all that remain of the great Maia family. Afonso, the grandfather, was once a Voltaire-reading exile, living in England, but by 1875 he has become an eagle of the Ancien Régime: Venerated by his own peers, he stands throughout the novel for passive power. When his own, melancholic son commits suicide, Afonso consoles himself with his infant grandson, whose boyish good cheer promises the regeneration of the family line, and by analogy, Portugal. But instead of growing up to be a national leader, the young Carlos graduates from the University of Coimbra a diletantish doctor, and, when he and Afonso agree to move in together in Lisbon, it is house decoration that most excites him.
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