In a preface to the 1903 printing of his novel A rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans lamented the greatness of Flaubert's Sentimental Education. The “paradigm of Naturalism,” the novel fired a generation of writers. But: “it brought us little profit. It was perfect down to the last detail, and even Flaubert himself could not write another such; we were all reduced…to beating and roaming about parallel tracks that had already been explored.” That Naturalism should have been thrown into crisis before it ever existed as a movement is a perverse argument—Huysmans was a perverse creature, who took pleasure in crediting Flaubert with the invention of a form everyone else accord …mile Zola—but it is useful to think of the daunting shadow Sentimental Education cast over continental fiction of the 19th century's remainder. Zola escaped by pretending that this great father did not exist, at the same time turning to Balzac, an older and even more distinguished father. And though it was his own, Flaubert had to face this shadow, too. Too strong and too strange to reside under the shade of even his own work for long, he undertook in Bouvard et Pécuchet a yet more massive project. Bizarre, deliciously minor Huysmans retreated from all things Naturalist into orange rooms, deep carpeting, jewel-encrusted tortoises, and a counter history of French literature with Baudelaire as its modern polestar. There were many options, but every option ineluctably responded to Sentimental Education. These responses were not limited to France. Portuguese author Eça de Queirós's The Maias, newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published by New Directions, offers one of the finest offshoots.
The Maias, like Sentimental Education, centers on an attractive and talented young man in his capital city. Carlos da Maia, like his French counterpart Frederic, has wealth, talent, charisma, and ambition, lacking only the self-generating force to see his aims through. Like Frederic, he is abetted and occasionally undone by his best friend. Like Frederic, his one persistent action is the pursuit of a woman who will be the great romance of his life. Each novel claims for its subject a whole generation of young men and the political and social environment that they inhabit. De Queirós also makes great use of free indirect discourse, one of Flaubert's most famous tricks. The two works even conclude on an odd note of bathos.
Yet The Maias possesses far too much heft to be a mere airlift of Sentimental Education into Lisbon. No one—Flaubert and Balzac included—understands what men do with and to each other better than de Queirós here. The male relationships in the The Maias bubble with sexual attractions and sexual resentments startling in their modernity. Better than any other writer of his time, de Queirós seems fully to understand the implications of a society in which to sleep with another man's wife, one must be admitted regularly to his house and must therefore become his best friend. An early vignette in which a libertine dandy snuggles up to a banker, holds a dinner in the man's honor, and writes an adoring newspaper profile of him—all so that access to the man's pretty wife is unrestricted—never ceases to feel filthily revelatory. De Queirós's men brandish the fiery sword of Byronic Romanticism, recite an epic poem, shrug, and plunge that sword between the nearest set of shoulderblades. There are many grand gestures in The Maias, and de Queirós is relentless in showing the sordid action or cynical motive that accompany such flourishes.
Yetmdash;de Queirós invites us to say 'yet' when discussing him— The Maias is not a mean novel. This Naturalism is vibrant, and if it ironizes Byronic feeling, it also engages that feeling as lament. A sense of something greater pervades the book. The characters are oppressed by a certitude that real living happened long ago or is happening elsewhere but is not happening here. One character pines for Paris; another believes in England; a third is sure that men were taller, bolder, and made better lovers a generation previous. In each case, the text suggests that the dreamer is incorrect, that the problem is not a matter of miles or years. The exact nature of this problem is much debated, but no solution appears. Carlos has designs to be a great physician, yet his lushly appointed examining rooms serve no purpose but the initiation of a boring affair, taken up because he cannot see the woman he truly desires. Later, a poet attempts to amaze a charity concert with a poem about democracy. Some cheer him; others are embarrassed; almost no one perceives the mediocrity of the poem itself. A handful are able to perceive the truth: that here is the best work around and that it isn't very good. And these men write no poetry, write no criticism, change nothing by their knowledge. They are aware of greatness by its absence and can advance no further. One can feel de Queirós pushing his Naturalism into a double valence here. Certainly, we are seeing a portrait of a specific society at a specific moment in history. But there is also a symbolic register at work, a sensibility not dissimilar to that found in Werner Herzog's Even Dwarves Start Small. That film features an entirely dwarf cast, misbehaving in increasingly monstrous fashion in a prison built and furnished for men twice their size. In each case, we never meet the beings for whom the world seems made and who deserve its high rhetoric. We remain among the small ones, who struggle with ideas to which they cannot live up.
Alex Wenger is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction at Columbia University. He frequently reviews for Words without Borders.