Monday, August 14, 2006

BOOK: Eça de Queiroz, "The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers"

Eça de Queiroz: The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Sawtry: Dedalus, 2000. 187398264X. 346 pp.

Another very pleasant novel by Eça de Queiroz, the Portuguese realist writer whose novels I've been reading at a rate of approx. one per year for several years now (see my post about The Relic from last year). Interestingly, Eça never quite finished this one, although a casual reader like me wouldn't really notice this from the text itself. Nevertheless, he never published it, and instead moved on to his next work, which turned out to be his masterpiece, The Maias. As for The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, it was only published in 1980, eighty years after his death, when his copyrights finally expired.

I recommend you not to read the translator's introduction before reading the novel, as she gives away a spoiler regarding the relationship between two leading characters of the book. Without this, you'd only have some hints dropped by the writer a few dozen pages into the novel, while the situation would only be cleared up explicitly at the end, on p. 341 (and a very melodramatic end it is).

Otherwise, the basic story of the novel is simple enough. A beautiful although no longer very young woman named Genoveva returns to Lisbon after many years spent abroad, chiefly in Paris, and becomes the paid mistress of a rich man named Dâmaso, whom however she rather despises and considers him stupid. She falls in love with Vítor, a young lawyer, and spends much of the novel trying to squeeze from Dâmaso enough money to pay off her old debts in Paris, and have enough capital left to enable her and Vítor to live off the interest on it (after kicking Dâmaso out of her life). Vítor's uncle Timóteo is a bit of a libertine and is quite glad that his nephew has such a splendid mistress, but he opposes his idea of marrying her; he goes to talk to Genoveva about this, and this conversation brings the novel towards a dramatic and shocking conclusion.

As I mentioned above, Eça went on to write The Maias after abandoning The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, and it's interesting how many elements of the latter novel he reused in the former. There is, firstly and perhaps most obviously, that to which I refer in the second paragraph above. But there are numerous other smaller things as well; I read The Maias six if not more years ago, and nevertheless I noticed many of them. I suppose that a more careful comparison would turn up many more similarities and parallels. Here are some I've noticed:

  • a diplomat who takes to truly absurd heights the usual diplomatic unwillingness to commit themselves to any explicit statements (pp. 172, 177);
  • an English housekeeper or governess who is not quite so innocent under her prim exterior (pp. 61, 235);
  • a character with the surname Maia already appears in this novel, although in a minor role (see e.g. pp. 255–6);
  • a vile newspaper titled The Devil's Trumpet (pp. 298–9; more details are given here about the newspaper and its editor than in The Maias);
  • a duel almost takes place (pp. 283–6); I seem to vaguely remember that something similar occurs in The Maias, though I'm not sure.

Here are some other interesting passages from the book:

“Dr Caminha hated anyone else sitting on his green velvet cushion when he was out, and to avoid such a crime occurring, he always left the chair primed for revenge; whenever that powerful legal orator — as some described him — was out of the office, he would leave a small nail on the seat of the chair; it was his favourite prank.” (P. 74.)

One of the minor characters is a painter named Camilo, who produces a couple of rather shockingly misogynistic paragraphs on p. 129. Here's one that sounds, in both content and style, very much as if it came from something titled Painter of Gor... :-) “ ‘She's the ideal female for an artist. She's stupid and passive. She eats, obeys, takes her clothes off. She's just a body that takes orders. She doesn't bother me or interrupt me, doesn't speak to me, she's just there. When I need a female, I call her.’ ”

Camilo also makes the following nice contribution to the genre of anti-lawyer quotations: “ ‘[. . .] Lawyers, huh, don't start me on lawyers.  . The lawyer with his disorderly rhetoric is the true scourge of this verbose, astute century! Those jaundiced, wise, ambitious, empty men, full of clichés, are the essence of constitutionalism. [. . .]’ ” This last sentence is particularly delightfully outrageous. I guess Camilo had the fin-de-siècle artist's robust contempt for the masses and anything that the masses could produce, such as constitutions and democratic politics.

João da Maia entertains his fellow diners with the story of a “republican conspiracy in which he had taken part&rdquo: “ ‘[. . .] We already had our list of victims drawn up: at the top, the royal family, then you, Dâmaso, and about two or three thousand other people. [. . .] Father Melo had given us the names of all the bishops, and I gave the names of all my creditors. The thing failed because we didn't have any money for the weapons; [. . .] In the end, Father Melo ran off with the money, and order prevailed. [. . .]’ ” (P. 259.)

“We should speak to women either on our knees or in verse.” (Vítor, paraphrased by the narrator of the novel on p. 264.)

What to say at the end? I've enjoyed every single book of Eça's I've read so far, and this one is no exception. As always, he provides enough melodrama and titillation to keep the reader interested, there's a nice assortment of minor characters, the usual implicit barbs thrown against contemporary society (though their presence is perhaps not quite so strong here as in some of his other novels); in short, everything is as it should be. I heartily recommend everyone to make the acquaintance of what is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable 19th-century realist writers.


Post a Comment

<< Home