“Of all words of tongue and pen,/the saddest are ‘It might have been'” says Bret Harte. I’ve just finished reading Eça de Queiroz’ The Maias, a work poignantly saturated with this feeling of regret. Prepare for the book by listening to Amália Rodrigues, experiencing the feeling of saudade so prevalent in Portuguese artists.
José Maria de Eça de Queiroz (1845-1900) is considered Portugal’s greatest novelist, and The Maias (1888) his greatest novel. Other books by de Queiroz are The Sins of Father Amaro (1876) and The Illustrious House of Ramires. The Maias has been brilliantly translated by Patricia MacGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens, who have produced an equivalent masterpiece in English.
In its ability to deal with tragic conflict while retaining such an exquisite beauty of form the book reminds me of the Attic drama of Aeschylus and Sophocles.
In a long book (over 600 pages) no detail is forgotten, and a convincing picture of mid 19th century Lisbon is built up. The characters all ring true: I felt I knew them well. The dozens of central characters are all alive, real people with faults, somehow lovable – Eça de Queiros writes with great affection even though he deplores the decay of a once great country. So many of the book’s characters seem real, though presented in brief. They come and go and re-appear in a complex tapestry of events which makes them astoundingly like people I have known. Eça de Queiroz has the gift of bringing his world to life and making the reader a part of it. The mood is not tragic: ironic, satiric, even humorous at times, full of regret…let’s just say saudade, even though we English speakers don’t really know what that means. I was very moved while reading, and for long after. I feel sad that I do not have the ability of a de Queiroz to express what I had felt in reading the book.
Carlos Eduardo de Maia is the sole heir of an ancient, illustrious family. The family hopes and ambitions are dependent on him. Honour is a very real thing in this culture, and Carlos has a lot of expectations to bear. The glorious past and the unsatisfactory present are both with him at all times. A central plot strand of the novel details the incestuous love of Carlos and Maria Eduarda, and the tragedy this brings to all concerned. The affair is skillfully built up, and comes to a shattering, Sophoclean climax.
The Maias is a book which mourns many things. The decadence of Portuguese culture and spirit; the passing of time; the loss of things undone. Carlos and his friend Ega in the end have fulfilled none of their youthful ambitions.
The ending, with the friends Carlos and Ega running after a tram, reminds me of the end of Fellini Satyricon. One is suddenly made to realise that these people who have come to life so convincingly, who share my own pains and regrets, lived more than one hundred years ago. That poignant shock universalises the reading experience. Ambition, the great love of Carlos and Maria Eduarda, the virtues of Alfonso, the literary gifts of Ega, the pretensions and fantasies of so many of the characters, are all futile in the end. Fate, and perhaps some innocent fault of their own, conspires against them. Life wasn’t meant to be fair, and looking back is often a bitter affair.
I put the book away with a word of encouragement to Carlos, this imaginary character who died almost a century ago. Don’t be too cynical, I say: your gifts are great, and you have achieved much. Visit Maria Eduarda. Encourage Ega to finish his book. We all grow older, duller. What we love inevitably turns to dust. But still: to live! to love!
Finishing this book has been like saying goodbye to friends. Yet these friends: they are so alive, yet so dead, dead in two senses, living so long ago and being characters of fiction. Something that was lost long ago has been lost again today. The train pulls out and leaves someone behind on the platform to whom I can only say goodbye. I too am thinking more of what might have been than of what might be.
During the plague years in Elizabethan England Thomas Nashe expressed the same mood: “Beauty is but a flower,/Which wrinkles will devour./Brightness falls from the air;/ Queens have died young and fair…”
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