When reading The Illustrious House of Ramires, it is difficult not to imagine the sound of pen scratching at paper. Barely a character appears who is not, in some way, engaged in the act of writing. From Father Soeiro’s history of the cathedral at Oliveira and Tonio’s compendium of scandals committed by Portugal’s oldest families to the novella whose composition sits at the novel’s center, its content largely drawn from an epic Romantic poem by the protagonist’s Uncle Duarte, The Illustrious House is crammed to bursting with aspiring writers. Aggrieved letters are sent to the newspapers, archives sifted through, periodicals founded, the full spectrum of literate and literary nineteenth-century life laid out before the reader.
That this vision of Portugal should be rendered by the act of writing is only appropriate. As a novelist far removed from the country of his birth, acting as Portuguese consul in Havana, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Bristol, Eça de Queirós occupied a space wherein Portugal was not so much a rocky, sloping strip along the Iberian peninsula as it was a whirlwind of inky words and paper documents. Born in 1845 in the northern Portugal town of Povoa de Varzim and educated in law at the prestigious University of Coimbra, he went on to immerse himself in the literary culture of his age, his country, and his continent. From his diplomatic position in the United Kingdom, he composed a series of missives for readers of a Brazilian periodical, in which he abstracted the oddities of British life into delightful anecdotes and observations. These letters, available in English translation courtesy of Alison Aiken and Ann Stevens in Carcanet’s Eça’s English Letters, reveal an author of unstinting curiosity, whose fingers could barely be prized away from his pen. Given that this period also marked the composition of his most famous novels, including his masterpiece, The Maias, published in 1888, we are left with the undeniable image of a man for whom writing was life.
But is life writing? How accurately can words, strung into sentences that themselves are then strung into novels and poems, represent life? As a reader of Balzac and Flaubert, Eça de Queirós was alive to the distance between art and life, words and acts, and it is this space that provides The Illustrious House of Ramires, Eça de Queirós’s final novel which was published posthumously in 1900 and now appears in Margaret Jull Costa’s lively translation, with its dramatic thrust and intellectual fizz. Set in late nineteenth century Portugal, the novel documents Gonçalo Ramires’s attempt to write a historical novella based upon the heroic exploits of his twelfth-century ancestors. As a descendant of a family older than the Kingdom of Portugal itself, Gonçalo bears the weight of a formidable family name. Eager to enhance his reputation in preparation for a planned entry into parliament, he sets out to win the prestige bestowed by the act of literary composition. It is to be an act of aggrandizement.
And yet, as Gonçalo’s novella evolves, it throws into relief both the inadequacies of its writer and the gap that exists between the romanticized past and the real present. Lacking imagination, Gonçalo is best described as a creative plagiarist, taking details from “Sir Walter Scott and various stories published in Panorama” and stitching them onto a poem composed by his Uncle Duarte. In the landscape of The Illustrious House of Ramires, glory is almost always borrowed and the perception of past triumphs looms large. With Gonçalo’s jejune straining for glory, de Queirós presents us with a protagonist and a nation attempting to live up to a supposedly heroic past that we come to suspect actually may never have been such. There is a sense, held by most of the novel’s characters, that Portugal’s greatest achievements lay in the distant past. The very distant past, actually: the exploits of the knight Martim Moniz (who died in 1147), the explorer Vasco de Gama (who died in 1524), and the poet Luís Vaz de Camões (who died in 1580) still cast a long shadow over nineteenth-century Portugal.
The resulting sense of inadequacy is further underlined in Margaret Jull Costa’s essential and informative afterword. We learn that it is during the period of the novel’s composition that, during a conflict with Britain, Portugal received a blow to its confidence. Having lost Brazil earlier in the century, Portugal was now forced to confront the failure of its Mapa Cor-de-Rosa project, an attempt to link the colonies of Mozambique and Angola, so as to create a swathe of Portuguese territory across Africa. Thwarted by the British, insecurity took root and bred bluster. And so this bluster, which was ultimately a desire to restore Portuguese glory, is endlessly parroted by the novel’s milieu.
And in The Illustrious House of Ramires, Portugal, like Gonçalo, is found wanting. The present is not the past and words cannot hide that. In Portugal at the end of the nineteenth century, sieges are conducted not by armies but by gossips. The Lousada sisters, “scrutineers of everyone’s life, the spreaders of all malicious gossip, the weavers of all intrigues,” lay siege to the Casa dos Cunhais, home to Gonçalo’s beloved sister and her husband. In response, our hero and his friends cower and peer “like soldiers at an arrow slit in a castle” through a gap in the curtain. It is from this mischievous puncturing of bravado and bluster that much of the pleasure of reading The Illustrious House of Ramires is gained. And, of all the characters the author skewers with relish, none are run through the wringer quite like Gonçalo.
Gonçalo is a man engaged in the act of writing himself. He uses words to self-dramatize and fabricate, to clothe his flaws. He is, above all, a coward. We read how he barricades himself in his room to avoid the drunken rampages of his gamekeeper Rolho and, after breaking a promise, runs from the wronged farmer, Casco. These act of cowardice are then refashioned in subsequent retellings. The sickle, for example, wielded by Casco, becomes a gun. Gonçalo wishes to be a hero, but character dictates otherwise: “cowed by fear, by the wretched shiver that always ran through him whenever he was confronted by any danger or threat, and which irresistibly forced him to retreat, to withdraw, to run away.”
He is also not a man of his word, his nobility undercut by broken promises and opportunistic maneuvers. To advance his political career, he is willing to switch political allegiance, to seek union with a former enemy and to expose his sister to infamy. And yet, it is this failure to live up to an ideal that makes Gonçalo so compelling. One of the most contradictory and complex characters in fiction, he is also one of the most loveable and democratic, prone to acts of charity. He rejects the title of “Dom” and speaks on terms of equality with his servants. His friends are drawn from less gilded background—Videirinha, for example, singer of the Ramires fado, is the son of a pharmacist.
Indeed, the process of democratization—which was well underway in Portugal at the time of the novel’s writing—is present throughout the novel. Occasionally, it is reacted to. Gonçalo laments that, “despite his native talent and his name, his extraordinary lineage and those ancestors who had built the Kingdom,” he lacks the authority of an elected official. The spell cast by his name is on the wane. The words that invoke the illustrious past of his house no longer have quite the same clout as they once did. That being said, democracy in the Portugal of the novel is severely limited. Gonçalo sits in a safe seat and his election is, in essence, fixed—“and that was the Election over and done with.” Eça de Queirós presents us with a society transitioning toward democracy, but still with some way to go.
This attention to the imperfect development of both individuals and the societies they form is central to de Queirós’s vision. He is both damning and empathetic, open to the possibility of change. His relation to his characters maintains a fascinating balance between acidic contempt and humane affection. These oscillations within his prose are present within his most famous novel, The Maias, another, more sensationalist account of a family in decline, and yet it is within The Illustrious House of Ramires that this contrast in tone becomes more striking. A tauter, funnier, more scathing novel than its predecessor, one is surprised to learn that the novel was published posthumously. It has the feel of a total work, of a vision distilled.
The novel’s structure, its central narrative periodically interrupted by excerpts from Gonçalo’s work in progress, lays bare the contrast between reality and the ideal, in a way that mirrors de Queirós’s shifting register. As Gonçalo discovers, even the novella has its rules. Form is not easy to escape. By presenting to his readers, a writer bumping up against the limitations of his talents and a man bumping up against the limits of his character, Eça de Queirós creates one of the greatest portraits of human fallibility, of the intermingling of good and bad, honesty and falsehood, that makes up the fabric of our humanity.
Above all, it brings us back to the mysterious relationship between literature and life. The act of composition allows Gonçalo to probe his personality, to cast an eye across the contemporary social scene. His novella facilitates a confrontation with the reality of himself and his society. Gonçalo’s shortcomings as a writer do not undermine the importance of the act of writing. As we bid farewell to Gonçalo at the novel’s end—and I do confess to an intense sadness at parting—we become aware that what we have read is not just a portrait of a man and the stories he tells about himself, but a stark rendering of a society and the narratives it recites about itself. With The Illustrious House of Ramires, Eça de Queirós gave Portugal a new voice with which to inscribe itself on the world.
Gary Michael Perry is the Assistant Head of Fiction at Foyles.