Monday, August 7, 2017

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago

“COUSIN BAZILIO” by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (“O PRIMO BASILIO” first published in 1878; first full English translation by Roy Campbell published 1953; another translation by Margaret Jull Costa published 2003)

            I often wonder how hard it must be to establish an international reputation if you write in a minority language. Write in English, Spanish, French, German or Russian and you will be capable of addressing a large audience in your own language. But write in some more marginal European language - Croat or Flemish or Romanian, let’s say – and you are at the mercy of translators to build your wider fame. I know that Portuguese is the language of Brazil as well as of Portugal, and is therefore spoken by many millions of people. But as far as Europeans and other Westerners are concerned, it is a minority language; and literature in Portuguese is a closed book.
For years there have sat unread on my shelves six novels by the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900). Often regarded as Portugal’s greatest novelist, Eca de Quieroz (his last name is also spelt “Queiros”) has been compared with Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and other French nineteenth-century realists. Only recently have I begun to read my way through (English-language translations of) Eca de Queiroz’s work, and I have discovered that these comparisons are perfectly legitimate. But I have also discovered that Eca de Queiroz has a voice uniquely his own, with his detailed depiction of distinctly Portuguese manners and attitudes, as well as his very vivid evocations of the Portuguese physical scene.
Take one of his most famous novels Cousin Bazilio (O Primo Basilio). Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Fontane’s Effi Briest, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Zola’s La Curee, it deals with an adulterous affair in which the woman is depicted in more detail than the man – although distinctly masculine judgements are made on her. It uses some of the devices which were relatively common dramatic tropes in French realist novels. As in Zola’s La Curee (which was written years before Cousin Bazilio), and as in Guy de Maupassant’s Fort Comme LaMort (which was written years after Cousin Bazilio), it has a scene set in a theatre in which the events on stage loosely echo what the novel’s characters are experiencing. The novel’s level of sexual intrigue, and its depiction of a whole society, also suggest to me the long-term influence of Balzac’s CousinBette, as does the fact that Cousin Basilio features a vindictive and vengeful old maid wreaking havoc on others. I wonder too if Eca de Queiroz wasn’t following the example of Balzac’s Cousin Pons in naming his novel after somebody who is the mainspring of the action, but who is not the main character. The eponymous Bazilio disappears a little under two-thirds of the way through the novel, making a brief reappearance at the very end.
Cousin Bazilio shows a level of frankness in sexual matters that was simply not permitted in novels of the English-speaking world at the time. Apparently its first English translation, in 1889, was heavily bowdlerised and irrelevantly retitled Dragon’s Teeth. Only in 1953 did the poet Roy Campbell’s complete and unbowdlerised translation appear. Another full translation came in 2003. It is Roy Campbell’s translation that I have read.
In late 19th century Lisbon, Luiza, young and childless, is married to the solid mining engineer Jorge. The marriage is tranquil and uneventful, although Luiza is not unaware that other people have different morality from the official and accepted one. Luiza’s gossipy friend Leopoldina, slightly less affluent that Jorge and Luiza, has taken a string of lovers and doesn’t hesitate to give Luiza too-worldly advice.
Jorge has to go away for some weeks, on mining business, to a distant Portuguese province. In his absence, Luiza’s cousin Bazilio turns up. He has had an adventurous life in Brazil, Paris and elsewhere. To the reader, it is at once quite clear that Bazilio is a rake, a cad, a bounder and a serial seducer of women. But Luiza has fond memories of him, because they were childhood friends with an innocent love for each other. Despite her misgivings, Luiza’s head is soon turned. In her mind, it is the classic contrast of dull-but-reliable husband and dangerous-but-exciting intruder, a configuration as old as Madame de La Fayette’s 1678 novel La Princesse de Cleves. Thus Luiza thinks:
“[Jorge] had everything to make a woman happy and proud; he was handsome, with magnificent eyes; and he was loving and faithful… Nevertheless, against her will, she began to think of Cousin Bazilio, swaying his white burnous in the Holy Land, or sitting upright in his phaeton, in Paris, and guiding his spirited horses with graceful skill: and that gave her the idea of a more poetic life and one more suited to sentimental romances.” (Chapter 3)
It doesn’t take Bazilio long to seduce Luiza, with smooth talk and declarations of true love.  He at first swyves her in her home, in a scene written with great discretion, wherein Luiza swoons away at the crucial moment. (It reminds me of the similarly discreet scene of Esther’s deflowering in George Moore’s EstherWaters). But they are aware that gossipy neighbours may be watching, so Bazilio arranges a love-nest for their assignations. Luiza is at first shocked by how sordid the place of their rendezvous is. Eca de Queiroz uses an interesting extended simile to convey her sense of deflation after romantic dreams:
So a yacht, nobly apparelled for a romantic voyage, goes down to the anchorage on the mud-banks of the lower Tagus; and then you see its eager and adventurous owner, who had been dreaming of the essences and perfumes of aromatic forests afar off, sitting motionless under cover and trying to stop his nose, so as not to breathe the marshy stenches and the sewage that surrounds him.” (Chapter 6)
But Eca de Queiroz makes it clear how naïve Luiza still is about Bazilio’s motives:
He began to use rough words and brutal gestures so that she began to doubt if he loved her at all and feel that he only desired her body. At first she wept, resolved to have an explanation from him, to break with him if necessary – but good heavens! She never dared. His glance, face, figure and voice dominated her and, firing her with passion, took away any courage she had for quarrels or complaints. She was always convinced that he loved her, and that the exaltation of his passion compensated for the greatness of sentiment which he lacked. He enjoyed her so much because he loved her so much. And her natural honesty and her sense of shame found refuge in fabricating such fantastic arguments.” (Chapter 6).
Even less than halfway through the novel it is plain that Bazilio, having conquered Luiza, is losing interest in her. She has to coax him into passion and becomes frantic at the thought that he might desert her. He has to introduce her to “new sensations” (cunnilingis is suggested) to keep his interest alive.
Whereupon the thunderbolt falls on Luiza. Her maid Juliana is a vindictive and bitter person, tired of living in a stinking-hot, rat-infested garret, desiring an easier life and permanently angry at having to wait on such a vapid mistress. Juliana finds and secretes passionate love letters Luiza has exchanged with Bazilio and proceeds to use them as a means of blackmailing her. At first Juliana demands huge sums of money. Luiza rushes to Bazilio with the romantic idea that he will run away with her. He does indeed run away – but on his own, back to Paris. Before he goes, he frankly tells his equally cynical friend Viscount Reynaldo what he really thinks of Luiza and reflects quietly to himself:
Smoking he began to consider the situation with a kind of squeamish horror. That would have been the last straw – to trundle that little baggage all the way to Paris! What impudence! The whole affair had been a mistake from the start. He should really have come to Lisbon, conducted his business, immediately left the Central Hotel and taken a steamer, wishing his Fatherland to the Devil. He had wound up his affairs successfully soon after he arrived, yet like a great idiot he had remained roasting in Lisbon and frittering away his money on endless cabs – just for one of those bits of skirt. Surely, for that sort of thing, it would have been better to bring Alphonsine [his French mistress] with him from Paris and taken her straight back.” (Chapter 7).
So we have the new regime under which Luiza has to live – serving Juliana, satisfying her every whim, giving her new and luxurious quarters, handing on expensive clothes to her – and all the while under the shadow of Jorge’s finding out about her affair with Bazilio. By the time Jorge returns home, Luiza is even doing the starching and ironing while Juliana lies about the house pretending to be ill. It is almost farcical satire on social class as maid and mistress swap roles. Yes, there is the slightly mitigating circumstance that Luiza has accessed one of Jorge’s letters to a friend showing that out in the country, Jorge was casting a lustful eye over available country girls. But this does not lessen Luiza’s terror at being found out and the consequences her husband could impose on her. Her health begins to deteriorate under the stress. She has headaches and fevers in true psychosomatic fashion.
Reader, I have often said that I do not hesistate to reveal essential plot elements of an old book that has already been long in the public eye. But I will not reveal what happens in the last third of Cousin Bazilio because Eca de Queiroz’s plot-spinning is so well wrought. The dove-tailing of events, and clever connections with minor characters who have been introduced early in the novel, are the work of a real master. Suffice it to say that it does not end well for either Juliana or Luiza. At one point, Luiza almost prostitutes herself to get money to pay off her blackmailer. There is a touch of melodrama in the denouement, and if it were bowdlerised a little the novel could almost be read as an exemplary tale on the dangers of adultery.
But it is too sophisticated a work to be a moral sermon.
Eca de Queiroz could be accused of cynicism. No character in this novel is seen in a good light. They are deluded and naïve (Luiza); exploitative (Bazilio); pompous and self-righteous (Jorge); venal (Juliana); morally corrupt (Leopoldina); or hypocritical (many minor characters). There is no real exemplar of virtue here, although Luiza’s terror and Jorge’s bafflement at his wife’s behaviour do often make us sympathise with them.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the way it is able to suggest a whole society in this “Domestic Episode” (as the novel was originally subtitled). Cousin Bazilio gives us the “upstairs and downstairs” of Jorge’s and Luiza’s domicile, depicting the servants as roundly as the bourgeois and bourgeoise master and mistress. There is not only the detailed portrait of Juliana, but also the cheerful sketches of the cook Joanna who, smitten with a neighbourhood apprentice, carries on a more straightforward illicit affair than the one that entangles Luiza. In the narrow streets of old Lisbon, there is the sense of people always watching, always prying into other people’s business. This is a society on the edge of modernity, but with lingering peasant folk superstitions, especially among the lower orders. Officially everybody is Catholic but the bourgeois males are sceptics and anti-clericals to a man, often in the interests of following their own libertinism. The women (both bourgeois and lower class) pray when it suits them, though mainly in the cause of asking God to hide their sins from others. They also follow advice which the church wouldn’t sanction – consulting “wise women”  in quest of love potions or magical cures for diseases. Yet there is the buzz of the late nineteenth century. People of Jorge’s and Luiza’s class go to the opera, read modern novels, consult newspapers and discuss political affairs. The parlour is filled with the sound of the piano playing Chopin or Verdi or Gounod, and Luiza fills her head with the superior romantic trash of Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camelias.
There are two chapters which are almost self-contained social satire. In Chapter 2 there is a soiree at which are an unsuccessful doctor who feels political influence has caused him not to be promoted; an overripe woman foolishly imagining that a court official will soon start courting her; a courteous Councillor with somewhat unrealistic olde worlde habits of thought and a naïve reverence for the monarchy; and a local playwright who obviously trades in melodrama. But Eca de Queiroz is too skilful to have this as a mere intrusion in the novel, for all these characters play a key part in the unwinding of his plot in the novel’s last third. The playwright, for example, has written a play which hinges on whether a husband will or will not forgive his adulterous wife. (And the theatrical event everybody goes to later is Gounot’s opera Faust, with its plot of temptation and a seduced and abandoned woman.) Chapter 10 has the scene where the old Councillor throws a party to celebrate a royal order that has just been bestowed on him. Again, the chapter throws light on men who are important to the plot, with all their status-seeking and social-climbing and cynical talk about women and the church.
And very impressive is the sense Eca de Queiroz gives of the bright, glaring sun and the stinking heat of Lisbon and its environs in summer, as in this sequence where Bazilio takes Luisa into country:
The sun reflected on the trees until the shadows themselves seemed to glow on the ground. Everything had the appearance of August. The grass on the cracked earth was like ashes. Heaps of yellowing dust lay at the sides of the road. The villagers drooped over the croppers of their mules, with danglish legs under wide red sunshades, and the light that came down from the obscure sky made the whitewashed walls glitter blindingly with the reflections of pails of water left outside the doors.” (Chapter 5).
One final plaudit. If I am to trust the translation I read, Eca de Queiroz was a master of bright and colloquial dialogue, quite unlike the more artificial form of conversation that appears in so many nineteenth century novels.
The swift and believable talk is another reason to seek out this fine novel, which makes us see a whole society in a tale of adultery.

Cinematic footnote: Cousin Bazilio has been filmed at least five times by Portuguese, Spanish, German and Brazilian companies. At the time of writing this notice, there is news that Ben Kingsley will star in a two-part American TV adaptation. I have seen none of these adaptations, which appear not to have made a dent on the English-speaking part of humanity. But the publicity I have seen that surrounds some of them would suggest that the story is presented as a tale of “forbidden passion” and of a woman breaking free of marital conventions for some steamy sex. Bollocks! The novel is essentially about a naïve woman who is seduced by an insincere smoothie, with a story arc that shows no good comes of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment