Monday, August 6, 2018

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.

“THE ILLUSTRIOUS HOUSE OF RAMIRES” by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (first published in 1900; English translation by Ann Stevens published 1968; later translation by Margaret Jull Costa)

In my long-term project of reading my way through the novels of the famed Portuguese author Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900), I have so far read and written comments on this blog about, CousinBazilio, The Relic and The City and the Mountains. Often compared with nineteenth century French masters of prose such as Balzac, Flaubert, Zola or even Joris-Karl Huysmans, Eca de Queiroz was essentially a satirist - ironical, anti-clerical, urbane and more than a little cynical. He has much in common with Zola in terms of his preoccupations, but he has one virtue which Zola conspicuously lacked – a sense of humour.

Although specifically set in the Portugal of his time, Eca de Queiroz’s novels address matters that can still resonate with us – seduction and adultery in Cousin Bazilio; religiosity in The Relic; or the opposing attractions of city-living and country-living in The City and the Mountains. However, for the non-Portuguese – and especially for the non-19th century Portuguese – it is much harder to relate to The Illustrious House of Ramires because it so specifically addresses historical matters of that particular country at that particular time. Put simply, The Illustrious House of Ramires concerns the historical decay of Portugal, the increasing redundancy of its old aristocracy, and the growing pains of what might one day turn into a democracy.

From the beginning, we know that the novel’s title is ironical. The famed house of Ramires may once have been illustrious, but it is now on its uppers. Goncalo Mendes Ramires is the distant descendant of medieval and pre-medieval warriors, conquerors, crusaders and king-makers. But – a bachelor with, as yet, no offspring – he could well be the last of the line. Often referred to – with varying intensities of irony – simply as “The Nobleman”, he lives on what remains of the family estate in the north of Portugal near Coimbra (which is where Eca de Queiroz came from). Looming over his domicile is a dark Tower, which rapidly takes on symbolic value as a sign of his family’s daunting past. Goncalo Mendes Ramires wants to be a power in the land. By this stage, in the late nineteenth century, Portugal is officially a constitutional monarchy and there is a parliament, although its power is very limited and (franchise being for the few) the political parties there are little more than squabbling factions of the upper classes.

Nevertheless Goncalo sets his heart on being a parliamentary deputy.

But how to achieve this goal?

First he has to make a name for himself. Goncalo is a partisan of the “Regenerators” who see themselves as being in opposition to the “Historical Party”. One of his friends among the “Regenerators”, Antonio (“Tito”) Vilalobos, suggests he write, for a “Regenerator” periodical, an historical novella in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, concerning Portugal’s heroic past. His literary fame should thus launch him into parliament. Goncalo sets about scribbling diligently but, having little imagination, he plagiarises most of his plot from a botched, unpublished epic poem written by his late uncle Duarte. As The Illustrious House of Ramires proceeds, we are given large chunks of Goncalo’s resulting tale of knights and conquerors and heroism in battle. So we have the chief thread of overt irony in the novel. This is the contrast between ancient aristocracy as Goncalo conceives it, and the genuinely threadbare nature of aristocracy as played out in Goncalo’s everyday life. The comparison with Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote (a man bewitched by knightly tales) is obvious.

Goncalo imagines himself to be a lordly person living according to old chivalric codes. Obligingly, one of his companions flatters him by writing, and progressively elaborating, a fado about how illustrious the Ramires lineage is, as if he is Goncalo’s court bard or troubadour. Goncalo indulges in public displays of showy courtesy, to prove to the world that he knows what noblesse oblige is. Why, he once even allows an injured commoner to ride to a doctor on his mule – in the sight of gazing villagers, mind. And of course Goncalo believes it is his duty to protect the honour of his sister “Grachina”, who is married to a chap called Jose Barrolo. This is especially the case because Grachina does not yet have any children and is possibly the only means by which the Ramires line might be perpetuated. Goncalo has heard vague rumours about threats to Grachina’s virtue. He reflects: “ All that could help her was her pride, a certain religious respect for the name of Ramires, the fear of a small, prying and gossiping community. Her salvation lay in abandoning the town and retiring to the seclusion of one of Barrolo’s estates…. With its beautiful wood, the mossy walls of the convent, and the surrounding village to occupy her in her role of the grand chateleine…” (Chapter 4) The threat to Grachina comes from a popular local politician called Andre Cavaleiro whom Goncalo despises because he has authority but comes from a lower class than “The Nobleman”, seems to be a notorious seducer and belongs to the “Historical Party” whom Goncalo’s “Regenerators” oppose.

But, given these aristocratic habits of thought, we see Goncalo successively betraying nearly all of them. The would-be lordly Goncalo sells out his own political party, joins the “Historical Party” and allies himself to the seducer Cavaleiro once he sees his personal political advancement lying in that direction. In the process he places his sister Gachina in a compromising situation. He has been contemptuous of a wealthy woman, Dona Ana Lucena, because she is of lowly birth (a butcher’s daughter) – but once she is widowed he seriously considers marrying her for her cash. Sometimes he treats his real social inferiors appallingly. He mercilessly beats, with a bullwhip, a hunter whom he suspects of looking at him the wrong way, then tells his social companions that he was heroically resisting an attempted ambush. They, of course, inflate the tale to one of great courage, and it actually increases Goncalo’s popularity among electors. Most pitifully, he mistreats his tenant Jose Casco. The peasant strikes a deal with The Nobleman to rent some of his land at a reasonable price. But when Goncalo gets a better offer, he welches on the deal and cuts the peasant off. Angrily, Jose Casco confronts him about this lack of honour. Goncalo accuses the peasant of assault and Jose Casco is dragged off to jail, leaving his family destitute.

You can see by now how Goncalo Mendes Ramires does not live up to the aristocratic ideal. And yet, oddly, he never entirely loses our sympathy and is in some ways a comic and pathetic character. Eca de Queiroz’s irony is never simple. For one thing, Goncalo genuinely feels remorse over the way he injured the powerless Jose Casco, especially when the man’s wife and sick children come begging to have Casco released from jail. Goncalo obliges as soon as he can, and even takes great care of the peasant’s sick children. He is as embarrassed as we are when the mistreated Casco returns from jail and thanks The Nobleman profusely for his generosity; but at least Goncalo has, for once, shown that he really can be the noblesse that obliges. Goncalo also achieves a degree of intellectual redemption as he comes to realize that the chivalric fiction he is writing is probably literary trash, no matter how much sycophantic friends may praise him for it. He reflects: “Perhaps they were merely hollow puppets, enclosed in borrowed armour, inhabiting unrealistic camps and castles, without a word or gesture relating them to bygone days!” (Chapter 9) Possibly the past was really more brutal than literary romances pretend, and perhaps aristocratic courtesy was really a fiction even in its heyday. By novel’s end, through turns of the plot upon which I will not elaborate, Goncalo even reflects that his attempt to climb the greasy pole of politics was really worthless. We already know how fraudulent “democracy” is, in a country where so few people can vote and patronage is paramount. At one point Senhor Barrolo explains what he will do to get Goncalo elected: “Anything you want… Votes, money, all you want!... You just say! I’ll go along to Murtosa, there’ll be a feast and a barrel of wine tapped, and the whole parish offering their votes amid the fireworks…”  (Chapter 6) Allowing for this, Goncalo ultimately understands that his role as parliamentary deputy will merely be to act as puppet for more powerful people.

In what sense does this time-and-place-specific novel still speak to us? In the novella Goncalo is writing, there is the matter of Quixotism – the seductive daydream in which we mistake an imagined, exalted past for reality. In this respect, The Illustrious House of Ramires could be seen as a subtle commentary on self-delusion and self-deceit. A minor aristocrat imagines he is a great philanthropist and potentially a great power in the land. In fact, he will never be either because his caste no longer has anything to offer. Even he understands this at the end.

There are many very fine self-contained comic vignettes in this novel (I told you Eca de Queiroz had a sense of humour). My favourite is the one where a mixed bourgeois and aristocratic drinking-party suddenly have to dive for cover when two notorious prudes and gossips come calling. Eca de Queiroz was always good at delineating the small-minded, gossipy, bitchy, back-biting nature of little Portuguese towns, inhabited by underemployed people with much time on their hands.

Conceding all this, though, I still found The Illustrious House of Ramires a “clogged” novel, with too many topical references and a far less fluent narrative line than the other novels of the same author which I have considered. The final chapter in particular is a let-down. It is one of those “four-years-afterwards” chapters, in which the later destinies of the main characters are hastily summarised. Worse, the very last page spells out the novelist’s intention to make Goncalo himself a symbol for modern Portugal as he saw it – self-contradictory; obsessed with a glorious past that might never have existed; too concerned with dignity and petty matters of social precedence; failing to realise that it is no longer a “Great Power” in the world; and far too hesitant in its dealing with other nations.

The Illustrious House of Ramires first appeared in serial form in 1897-99, but was never fully revised by Eca de Queiroz before it came out in book form, in the year of the author’s death. Another writer was called in to smooth out the last chapter, and it shows. Apparently the novel was written at a time when Portugal had suffered another national humiliation. Britain had thwarted Portugal’s attempt to join its two large colonies (later known as Angola and Mozambique) so that there would be a large Portuguese “empire” stretching east-west across the African continent. Once again, Portugal was shown not to have the clout of a “Great Power”. While this historical background is interesting, it does not lift The Illustrious House of Ramires above the status of an interesting historical artefact.

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