The Maias is regarded as the most important work of the late 19th-century Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eça de Queirós. For the most part, the book follows the life of Carlos de Maia and his grandfather, Afonso de Maia, the last remaining male survivors of an extremely wealthy Lisbon family.
Young Carlos is raised by his grandfather following the suicide of his father, who killed himself after being abandoned by his wife. Raised unaware of this tragedy, Carlos becomes a doctor and opens a medical practice and laboratory in Lisbon, where he plans to make significant medical discoveries.
However, it’s Carlos’s fate to spend a lot of time talking about success, but little time actually pursuing it. He meticulously and expensively decorates his medical office and his laboratory only to abandon them both. His real business, and the business of his social circle, is drinking, debating, gambling, and chasing after young, wealthy wives, that is, when they’re not on vacation and doing the same thing in Paris or Italy or some small Portuguese resort town.
Carlos’s best friend, Ega, is a dandy and a libertine whose outrageous toilette is equaled only by his wit and who functions as a sometime mouthpiece for the author. Ega is the first in Carlos’s circle to fall prey to the charms a woman; she is the wife of a minister, and she often distracts Ega from his groundbreaking novel, Memoirs of an Atom, which he is always on the verge of starting. Carlos follows his friend’s lead shortly thereafter, falling in with the Countess de Gouvarinho. Both relationships bring a halt to any real progress in the young men’s lives:
Ega had arrived from Celorico just six months ago, swathed in his vast fur coat, ready to dazzle Lisbon with his Memoirs of an Atom, to hold sway over it with the new magazine he was planning to set up; he was to be a beacon, a force to be reckoned with, and a thousand other things. And now, debt-ridden and an object of ridicule, he was scuttling back to Celorico, his tail between his legs. A bad beginning! He, for his part, had arrived in Lisbon full of ambitious plans for his work, armed as if for battle: there was his practice, his laboratory, his pioneering book, and a thousand other bold projects. And what had he achieved? Two articles for a journal, a dozen or so prescriptions, and that melancholy chapter on “Medicine Among the Greeks.” A bad beginning, indeed!
In the midst of his faltering relationship with the Countess, Carlos stumbles across a mysterious and beautiful woman whose husband, Castro Gomes, is a wealthy Brazilian. The woman, Maria Eduarda, is rarely seen in public, however, and Carlos struggles to get introduced to her husband. Eventually, he manages to set himself up as their doctor, and when Castro Gomes goes away on business, Carlos and Maria fall deeply in love. The couple’s bliss is short-lived, however, as a terrible discovery destroys their idyll and sends the novel toward its tragic conclusion.
It doesn’t appear that Eça de Queirós was particularly interested in crafting a complicated story. The Maias is told in a very straightforward narrative style and with a simple structure. None of the surprises are that surprising.1 The novel is a rather ordinary melodrama, with sexual dalliances, family drama, honor to defend (or offend), threatened duels, extravagant balls, and all the other ingredients we’ve come to expect from these big 19th-century whist-and-salon novels.
This isn’t to say that The Maias is without interest. Like many authors before and since, Eça de Queirós is utilizing the novel as a vehicle to comment on his social milieu. And, as is often the case, de Queirós’s time was one of degradation and moral decline. In The Maias de Queirós presents the agents of the current degradation—as well as the agents of the degradation to come, Carlos and Ega—in all of their glory.
These are people that are excessively interested in things. Carlos collects antiques, as do his friends, and de Queirós repeatedly enumerates the lists of things surrounding the characters and the amount of time they spend arranging, re-arranging, and purchasing the things that make up their lives:
She did not reply, smiling and wandering slowly among these things of the past, things possessed of a cold beauty, exhaling the vague sadness of a now defunct luxury: fine furniture from the Italian Renaissance, like marble palaces, inlaid with cornelian and agate, which lent a soft, jewel-like sheen to the black of ebony or to the satin of the pinker woods: wedding chests, as big as trunks, painted in purples and golds with the delicacy of miniatures, which once stored gifts from popes and princes; stately Spanish cabinets, adorned with burnished metal and red velvet, and with mysterious, chapel-like interiors, full of niches and tortoiseshell cloisters. Here and there, on the dark-green walls, there glowed a satin coverlet all embroidered with golden flowers and birds; elsewhere the severe tones of a fragment from an Oriental rug bearing verses from the Koran were juxtaposed with the gentle pastoral of a minuet danced in Cythera on the silk of an open fan.
They are also people of reason, and of classical education, although this education’s most proximate use is for seduction, conversation, making fine speeches at meetings, crafting flowery poetry, or, in Ega’s case, writing “a prose epic, using symbolic episodes to describe the great stages of the Universe and Humanity,” that never gets off the ground. (It’s nice to see that de Queirós numbers himself among the sinners.) Here, reason is little more than a tool for self-justification and is most often referred to when Carlos is explaining why his latest paramour will surely understand the latest bit of bad news he’s preparing to bring them: they’re reasonable women. The list of their faults goes on, and the examples of the futility of human action multiplies . . .
As a window into the Portuguese world of that time, The Maias has a lot to offer, and Margaret Jull Costa’s translation is transparent, as all good translations are. The characters are sharply and believably drawn and the story moves along at a regular, if languorous, pace, allowing de Queirós to say what he’d like to say about the society without drawing the reader away from the story he’s telling or descending into a moral lecture. However, the reader is left feeling that de Queirós is more concerned with his message than with the characters themselves. Somehow, the balance is a little off. Perhaps it’s his repeated insistence on the Portuguese nature of his characters; something of the universal that you find in the truly great novels, the novels that manage to transcend their specificity, is missing here. And once the universality is gone—or when de Queirós has prevented us from seeing it—we begin to see these characters as other. The satire doesn’t bite as hard, and much of the original driving interest in the novel is lost. We’re left to view The Maias in a different way: not as a satire of ourselves, but as a satire of a people whose mores we regard as antiquated and, on some level, a little ridiculous.
E.J. Van Lanen is the senior editor at Open Letter, a new press dedicated to publishing innovative works of fiction from from around the world.
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