Last night I finished Jose Maria de Eça de Queirós' novel The Illustrious House of Ramires. It's not a great novel, but it's a darned fine novel and the more I think about the third act, the better I think the book is. The third act essentially turns all of the symbolism and characterization of the first two acts on its head; you realize that you've been marvelously set up. The Tower, which represents the ancient authority and strength of the family? Forget about it. The election? The novel? Whatever you thought they stood for, you were right and you were wrong.
This is a moral book, and while it has a message or two at the end, it's not a book with a moral and Eça de Queirós isn't moralizing. What I mean by that is that the author has a definite point of view, definite opinions about people and society and politics, but he doesn't editorialize. So I'm fine with him ending on a sweet and sentimental note. It's not quite Chekhov though some of the humor is there; maybe it's more like Cervantes but I only grasp at Cervantes. Certainly it's not like Thomas Hardy (hurrah for that). By which perhaps I mean The Illustrious House of Ramires keeps a grip on Romanticism while resisting a lot of the grittiness of Naturalism. Eça de Queirós' wealthy landowners are not D.H. Lawrence's wealthy landowners, either.
What am I saying? I don't know. If you like your stories to have dirt under their fingernails and to offer up a believable everyday reality, this is not the book for you. But then neither is Shakespeare, so you can fuck off. This is a good book, and I had a blast reading it. It's well crafted and funny and sad and the final chapter is very interesting from a formal perspective, especially considering that it was written in 1900. If this was an English-language novel, literary historians would be pointing to this final chapter and calling it a precursor of Modernism, maybe.
Also, The Illustrious House of Ramires has a book-within-the-book, and I really like the way Eça de Queirós handled the transitions into and out of that interior novel. Also also, I clearly don't know how to talk about books except as a writer; I focus on technique and so you aren't getting a feel for why I think this book was worth my time and why you should go read it. But it was, and you should. Honest.