Monday, October 31, 2011

Illustrious House of Ramires Part 2

I'm a little more than halfway through Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires, first published (in Portuguese) in 1900. It's a hoot-and-a-half, as Harold Bloom would say. I'm reading it in English because I am an American philistine.*

Ramires is a witty social novel dealing primarily with the vapidity and egotism of the Portuguese ruling class at the end of the 19th century. It's full of fun being poked at the protagonist (Gonçalo Ramires) and his social circle, who vie for money, power and prestige. Every character is fully aware of his/her place within the social fabric though every character seems to believe that he/she is somehow superior to everyone above and below them. Portugal in 1900 or so seems to have been a feudal society on the brink of collapse brought about by representative democracy, though the elected officials all seem to have gotten their positions through nepotism and cronyism.

Our hero Gonçalo is an unemployed member of the landowning class. He's just inherited the Ramires estates (including the noble tower that's stood for a thousand years) from his father but he craves a political career. The first half of Ramires shows Gonçalo working on his plan to achieve notoriety via scholarship and literature: he is writing a novella dramatizing an event from his illustrious family history, to be published by friends of his who are involved in conservative politics (the Regenerator party). Gonçalo has written a couple of chapters of this novella, based heavily upon a poem written by his uncle Duarte (there is a funny passage about plagiarism and who "owns" history) and padded with actual historical research and some odd bits of Walter Scott. The passages about writing historical fiction ring too true and made me laugh out loud.

Interrupting this literary adventure is Gonçalo's enemy, Cavaleiro. Cavaleiro dumped Gonçalo's sister after courting her for a very long time. She has since married a nice fellow who has no idea that Cavaleiro once pursued his wife or that Cavaliero is now again pursuing her to make her his mistress. But Gonçalo knows, and he is enraged. He dreams of marshalling his feudal armies and burning down the house and estates of Cavaleiro, "in the manner of his illustrious ancestors." Alas that the law, the lack of a feudal army and Cavaleiro's sudden willingness to offer Gonçalo a political post with the liberals put the kibosh on this righteous act of revenge!

Will Gonçalo abandon his conservative Regenerator allies and join the forces of Cavaleiro's liberal Historicals? Will he sell out his own sister for political gain? Will he write the novella about his illustrious ancestors and send it off for publication by his conservative pals? Will they publish it if he's part of Cavaleiro's liberal machine? Et cetera. There are more plot threads than this, and it's hugely funny to watch Gonçalo squirm and bluster his way from situation to situation. Gonçalo Ramires and his fellows aren't particularly honest and Gonçalo lacks self awareness but he has--beneath his cowardice, self-doubt and almost crippling pride--a core of kindness. So we'll see.

* I hear that Philistia is actually a nice place.


  1. That Harold Bloom is so facetious.

    I like the word facetious because it has all the vowels in order. I also like the word strength because it's 8 letters long but only one vowel. This has nothing to do with your post. Sorry.

  2. Why do I think your comment is actually a sly statement about reading in English rather than in the original Portuguese? My difficulties with Portuguese, after all, have to do with all those damned vowels, and my not knowing how to pronounce them when there are four or five in a row.

    This post isn't the post I thought I'd write about this novel. I thought I'd quote the bits about historical fiction, and then the later bit about Goncalo's encounter on the road with an understandably angry farmer who lets Goncalo run away but when Goncalo relates the event later he casts himself as a brave man who fought off a hooligan, and I was going to use that as an example of the way Goncalo constantly embroiders upon the truth to make his stories both more interesting for the listener and more flattering for the teller. Just like a real-life writer, in other words. Alas, that's not the post I wrote.

  3. Don't mistake my smart-assery for insight...That's an accident.

    If the vowels in Portuguese are overwhelming, switch to something in consonant-heavy Literary Welsh (Cymraeg llenyddol).

  4. I don't know that I want to blame a lack of Portuguese on our American language education, pathetic as it is. I wonder how many Dutch people read Portuguese - my foreign language education comparison group is always the Dutch, since I have never met a college-educated Dutch person with fewer than five languages.

    Anyway - very exciting to hear how this moves along. I wonder why the novel was posthumous. Suppose I could look that up.

  5. I enjoyed your post. The novel was posthumous due to being left unfinished. Eça de Queirós died before considering the novel ready for publication and it was another writer who finished reviewing it (Júlio Brandão, I think).
    In portuguese, the novel is actually full of arcaic words, so it would be very hard to read for someone with but a very good knowledge of the language.
    Check out my own view of the novel here.