Essay: Eça de Queiroz’s Modern Masterpiece - By George Monteiro
Posted on 24 February 2016.
By George Monteiro, Contributor (*)
While it differs from its major literary predecessors in strikingly innovative ways, Eça de Queiroz’s A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes (1900) reaches back to the English novel: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1748), as well as his own model, Les Lettres Portugaises (1669). Unlike them, however (and this is important), Eça’s novel dispenses with a discernible narrative arc or a conventional plot and its turns. Rather it anticipates the modern epistolary novel defined by the drama of a figure who expresses himself in letters, a strategy that recalls as well the dramatic monologues practiced and perfected by poets such as Tennyson and Robert Browning, or novels by the likes of Saul Bellow and Nabokov. As for the far reaches of Eça’s legacy, consider the “Fradique” sighting in Love in the Days of Rage (1988), Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s novella, where the central figure, a Portuguese anarchist banker aptly named Mendes, is a descendant of Pessoa’s “anarchist banker,” one who himself as a fictive character harks back to Eça’s Fradique Mendes.
First we shall look at the complex and most interesting genesis of Eça’s book as he himself worked his early ideas into workable shape, gradually revealing that what he was purposing was a novel. Even after its publication, readers remained unconvinced. In 1914, for instance, Aubrey Bell while recognizing that A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes “contains some of Eça de Queiroz’ most delightful and most finished work,” it is not, he insisted, “a novel” (217). A century later Bell’s conservative judgment still flickers from time to time in Queiroz criticism. Oddly enough, both Bell and subsequent critics have continued to ignore, deny or minimize Eça’s own understanding of what he hoped to accomplish in a work he conceived of, in its entirety and at every point, as a piece of fiction. The matter needs addressing: first by rehearsing the record of Eça’s conscious and deliberate intentions for this work and then, as I see it, by speculating on how, at the end of the book’s first century, readers might begin to see it clearly and in its entirety for what it actually is.
Let me approach this task by way of a digression. In 1945, to the then already well-stocked shelf of critical and scholarly studies on Eça and his work, Luiz de Oliveira Guimarães added O Espírito e a Graça de Eça de Queiroz. This unprepossessing gathering of anecdotes, gossip, and witty remarks by Eça and about him was intended to display its subject’s social cunning and verbal quickness. Prefacing the collection, as announced, is a previously unpublished letter by Eça’s own Fradique Mendes. In accordance with the novelist’s own practice in A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes, this letter, although identified as having been written in “September,” bears neither day nor year of composition. In a discursive note at the bottom of page one the editor explains that the Fradique letter prefacing this volume is written from Paris in French. The date of Fradique’s “death” is given as November 1888, a scant two months after Eça had assumed the functions of Portugal’s consul in Paris. The
model for this letter, of course, is first of all the letters authored by Eça as having been written by his fictitious letter-writer, but its use as a genuine preface authored by a fictitious individual writing about a real writer is a variation on Eça’s own example in A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes. For in Eça’s work, it is an unnamed (fictitious) narrator who, employing testamentary opinions and anecdotes attributed to real figures, with verifiable biographies and (already) a place in Portuguese history, presents us with a long introduction to a figure of the imagination. Just how closely Luiz de Oliveira Guimarães has followed his Queiroz model is further suggested by his Fradique Mendes’s beginning his letter-as-preface with an account of his having introduced (inadequately and perhaps misleadingly) Eça de Queiroz, the newly appointed Portuguese consul in Paris, to Monsieur Chambray. He will now, in this letter, continue that first introduction with an extended, even fulsome, account of the new consul. He, too, will introduce testimony from those who have known Eça even as Eça, in the Correspondência, had invoked friends mutual to himself and to Fradique Mendes to say their piece about the fictional and fictitious esthete, traveler, skeptic, and bon vivant configured by Eça with such verve and staying power.
It is, of course, that very verve and undeniable staying power of Eça’s creation (forget for the moment that in personality and character this last Fradique differs significantly from the so-called first and second Fradiques, who were the creation by committee of Antero de Quental and Jaime Batalha Reis, no less than Eça, and then altered a bit in Eça’s and Jaime Batalha Reis’s O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra that makes Luiz de Oliveira Guimarães’ own literary resurrection of Fradique Mendes forty-five years after Eça’s death a lively modernist experiment of his own. Going beyond Eça, who after all did have a stake in the first Fradique Mendes, Luiz de Oliveira Guimarães feels entirely comfortable, it seems, in taking a stab himself at approximating the voice Eça had created in order to turn it back on its creator. It is as if Fradique Mendes has been waiting in the wings, in a sort of writer’s limbo, for his chance to turn the tables on Eça, working back on his creator the writer’s own formidable tricks of voice, tone, and attitude.
Although the circumstances surrounding the original conception and debut of the title character of A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes are readily familiar to Eça’s readers, it might prove useful to rehearse their details briefly for the sake of the questions that they inspire. In the journal A Revolução de Setembro on August 29, 1869, there appeared in print for the first time four poems by a poet new to the Lisbon scene. Although the poems were the work of Antero de Quental (“Sonetos” and “Fragmentos de Guitarra de Satã”), Jaime Batalha Reis (“A Velhinha”), and Eça (“Serenata de Satã às Estrelas”), they were credited to the then-unknown poet Carlos Fradique Mendes (Dicionário, 276). In the same year, in O Primeiro de Janeiro on December 5, there appeared four new poems attributed to Fradique Mendes, this time identified as the author of Poemas do Macadam. Fradique Mendes’s next appearance comes in the following year, on September 16, 1870, in the Diário de Noticias, where he appears, it seems, in a new guise. He is a figure in a letter written by the “Condessa de W.,” one which appears in a series, beginning in late July of that year, that resulted in Eça’s and Ramalho Ortigão’s book O Mistério da Estrada de Sintra later that year. The basic characteristics of the Fradique Mendes in this last title and the details of his life, ventures Carlos Reis, correspond generally to those of the poet Carlos Fradique Mendes who published that handful of poems in 1869 and 1870—for example, claims of friendship with Baudelaire, touches of exoticism and dandyism, and evidences of a certain Satanic propensity (137-38).
Here ends the first incarnation of Carlos Fradique Mendes. One might have expected it to be the end of the fictional creation that was attributable in a kind of joint-stock company to Antero, Batalha Reis, and Eça, who were responsible for their collaborative product’s appearance, especially in the epistolary prose of others. When Carlos Fradique Mendes resurfaced, it was to live a more extensive and quite different life. This fictional character, entirely attributable to Eça, would have undergone a rather thorough makeover, emerging now from the privacy of his correspondence.
The second phase of Carlos Fradique Mendes has its beginnings in 1885. On June 10, 1885, writing out of what he himself characterizes as a “period of stupidity,” Eça details, for the benefit of his friend Oliveira Martins and his journal Provincia, a deceptively simple project:
A series of letters on all sorts of matters, from the soul’s immortality to the price of coal, written by a certain great man who lived here some time ago, after the siege of Troy and before that of Paris, and who was called Fradique Mendes! Don’t you remember him? Ask Antero. He knew him. A distinctive man, poet, traveler, philosopher in his spare time, dilettante and voluptuary, this gentleman, our friend, died. And I, who appreciated him with all due consideration in life and was able to judge his picturesquely original spirit, have the idea to gather his correspondence, as has been done for Balzac, Madame de Sévigné, Proudhon, Abélard, Voltaire and other immortal beings — and publish it (or hope to publish it) in Provincia. Fradique Mendes corresponded with all kinds and varieties of people, all sorts of men, as they say in the official Bible of this land [that is, from Bristol, England]. He writes to poets such as Baudelaire, statesman like Beaconsfield, lovers of humankind such as Santo Antero, and men of elegance such as (I cannot now recall any such being other than Barata Loura) and characters who are none of these things, such as Fontes. Beyond this, he has lovers and discusses with them the metaphysics of voluptuousness. And in his letters to his tailor are found the most profound rules for the “art of dress.” When he travels, in Japan or central Asia, he provides landscapes and portraits of ways and customs. And when he comes to Portugal, he paints for his friends in London and Berlin the things and ideas of the Chiado, São Bento, the tobacco shops and the salons.
It took great effort to collect these letters, but where Provincia is concerned, effort in such a matter is no object, etc., etc. What a subject, right? And with this unassuming title — Correspondência de Fradique Mendes — preceded, it goes without saying, by a study of the life and opinions of this lamented gentleman. These letters should be published in no particular order, other than by date, and therefore somewhat at random, here or there (Correspondência, I, 262-63).
No resulting literary project was ever more clearly laid out or, for that matter, more closely followed in its intention and in most of its details than was A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes. By May 23, 1888, when he next writes to Oliveira Martins, the writing is done, announces Eça.
I have here, for you (that is, for the Repórter), under certain conditions, an immense quantity of prose. In fact, an entire book. A book, however, that can be published in chunks, on a weekly basis, without damaging its unity or overall interest. You’ll understand this when I tell you that it’s called Correspondência de Fradique Mendes. It goes about, as you’ll immediately deduce, of doing for Fradique (I don’t know if you remember this old friend) what is now fashionable to do for all great men when they die — to publish their personal letters. Fradique was a great man — unpublished. I reveal him to his fellow citizenry by publishing for them his correspondence. If you remember him well, Fradique in our time was a bit comical. The new Fradique that I reveal is different: a truly great man, an original thinker, temperamentally inclined to bold actions, a soul that is polished and touchy — in short, the devil! (I, 473-74)
From the start, however, Eça anticipated some difficulty with the journal publication of what he considered a sine qua non of the overall project involving Fradique Mendes, that is, the prefatory essay that would introduce the letters of Fradique Mendes as well as give substance to the man himself. It must, above all, despite its length, appear of a piece in one issue of the journal. As he insists, “Look, this study cannot be broken up—that is, it must appear continuously and in sequence. And it is comprised of ten installments, at least” (Correspondência, I, 474). Understandably, given his other editorial responsibilities to his readers, Oliveira Martins balked at such massive usurpation of space in a single issue. He offered a compromise. He would present excerpts from Eça’s ten-article essay strung together to form a whole of its own kind. Eça would not hear of it. On June 12, 1888, he writes conclusively:
It is not possible — what you propose — to cull out the best pieces of the Fradique study, and stitch them together into a single installment. Surely I explained myself badly. The introduction to “Letters that were never written by a man who never existed,” cannot be other than a composition in which one will try to give such a man, first of all, reality, body, movement, life. One cannot decently publish the Correspondence of an abstraction. So that such a critical study is in fact a novella — a novella of a special type, didactic not dramatic, but nevertheless, a novella, with narrative, an action, episodes, some short bits of dialogue, and even — landscapes! Right off you can see that this cannot be reduced to extracts. Every word must be published! And besides, without the man’s previous history, it is impossible to start off the letters abruptly. Readers would naturally ask, “but who is this Fradique?” So come up with something else and give me a quick answer. I’m in a hurry to resolve this matter because of Brazil. The installments do not add up to ten, after all; there are eight, but they’re long (I, 479).
In the end, however, Eça capitulated before the dictates of format and space that he so well understood.
Forgive me for not having replied on the Fradique business. That’s not bad, the idea of publishing in a supplementary sheet — even though two such sheets in the same issue will mar pagination terribly. But there’s a better way. And that is to publish the piece when and how you wish. I don’t even understand the pretentious effeminacy with which I insisted that everything must be printed in sequence — in order not to interrupt the profound emotion that the masterpiece would bring about! What utter foolishness! Zola (who wrote Germinal!) is publishing in a Review that comes out once a week, a book of the finest and most delicate analysis! And there I was—a flea of the art, faire de façons fussing over my crude images! Publish, my boy, publish whenever you wish!) Perdoa não te ter respondido sobre a Fradiquice (I, 482).
The letters of Fradique Mendes began to appear that year in Oliveira Martins’s O Repórter, as well as, simultaneously — so that Eça could be the beneficiary of payments for each piece — in the Gazeta de Noticias of Rio de Janeiro. An occasional piece, after Oliveira Martins’s troubled departure from O Repórter, appeared in Eça’s own Revista de Portugal. Although Eça’s eight-installment piece did not appear unbroken, in one issue, neither did it appear truncated as a selection of excerpts, as Oliveira Martins had initially proposed.
From the beginning of the resurrection of Fradique Mendes, Eça had conceived of his letters, along with the long introductory piece, as constituting a novel. His model was simple, one taken from the more scholarly publications of the letters of the famous writers. As he wrote to Oliveira Martins, it will be recalled, “I had an idea to collect his correspondence — as was done for Balzac, Madama de Sévigné, Proudhon, Abélard, Voltaire and many others — and publish them in Provincia (or hope to do so).” This would put Fradique, though unpublished in his lifetime, in the proper company of the great. This illustrious man would be revealed to his fellow citizenry through this publication of his personal letters. To be sure Eça had no intention, it seems, to write a “life-in-letters” volume still so common in his day, but something of a memorial volume to this hitherto unpublished writer who would present himself, as it were, through his mannered and stylish letters. In fact, Eça’s unquestioning, admiring introductory essay devoted to a figure he sometimes described as Satanic, its fictitious author remaining anonymous (he is definitely not Eça), reads like an inspired piece of hagiography of the sort — despite the differences in tone and level of sincerity in the two pieces — that Eça himself found so appealing, given his sense of irony and sometimes scorn. It would be rewarding, I believe, to think of the way this novel apes by anticipation, both intentionally and generically, Eça’s own memorial to Antero de Quental, an essay originally titled “Um Génio que Era Um Santo.” (In this respect there might be relevance in pointing out that, in his earlier guises at least, Eça described Fradique Mendes as a “Satã,” a complement to, if not a reversal of, the epithet of “Santo” as familiarly applied to Antero.) Looking ahead, one can point to Fernando Pessoa’s planned heteronymic experiments in which a Ricardo Reis would supply a preface for a posthumous collection of Alberto Caeiro’s poetry. One might even look in the direction of other writers in other literatures. Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, comprised of an opening narrative, the text of a poem, and a set of scholarly annotations, John Updike’s forays into the Jewish-American novel in his Bech books or Saul Bellow’s Herzog, a story told slantwise by its eponymous protagonist in letters he writes to the living and the dead, giving a new meaning to the phrase “dead-letters,” letters that are never delivered to their intended recipients.
The letters themselves, written as their content occurred to Eça and published as available would be presented with no certain chronology, not that of their composition or of their place in the fictitious Fradique Mendes’s putative life. Hence the letters were universalized somewhat by being presented undated as to day or year. Only the month is given, in most cases, and when even the name of the month is omitted, as in a final love letter, or replaced by the naming of a specific place, the suggestion is that only seasons matter to Fradique Mendes, not time measured in days and years. Of course, this device also tells the reader that there is no evolving narrative in the sequence of the letters. In fact, there is no apparent point to sequence as sequence when letters have been placed, one after the other, arbitrarily or seemingly at random. (One thinks, not without point or logic, of the various and quite different arrangements devised by scholars for the fragments collected in Pessoa’s Bernardo Soares’s Livro do Desassossego.)
For Eça the practicing novelist such planned indeterminacy had certain additional advantages. It meant that he could in the future, if there was demand for a sequel, bring out a second collection of such letters — and even a third. The fact, as he reveals, that Fradique Mendes is dead is no deterrent to the author’s “finding” and “publishing” additional letters if it suits his purpose. This plan, if implemented successfully, could have provided Eça with several more novels without the burden of conceiving each one of them anew, out of whole cloth. It also, of course, left open the way, since Fradique Mendes was an unpublished writer (not just a great man), for the possible subsequent discovery of other forms of unpublished writing, journals, diaries, maybe, even, a novel. Of course, none of this was to be since Eça himself died in 1900.
Early on Eça was calling his projected novel Cartas de Fradique Mendes. He did not explain why, finally, he preferred to call it Correspondência. He was not fazed by the common use of the term “letters” in a title to refer only to the letters written by the subject; whereas the word “correspondence” often refers to the letters exchanged between the subject and his correspondents. Thus Eça limits the dialogic possibilities both by providing only Fradique Mendes’s monologist letters and then including the equally monologist statements and tributes from his friends and acquaintances. That he put fictitious words into the mouths of actual identifiable beings of his own time—a practice the wisdom of which he was sufficiently dubious about at the outset to clear it with Oliveira Martins—obviously helped to give his “abstraction” (Fradique Mendes) the substance he needed to establish the “reality” that the human being behind the fictional letters was someone other than himself. Carlos Reis has rehearsed at length the evidence for considering Fradique Mendes a proto-heteronym in the Pessoa sense and concludes that he is nothing more than a heteronymic sketch, that is, a preliminary or, if you will, embryonic sketch for what remains an unachieved heteronym of the Pessoa variety. Indeed, he asserts, Fradique Mendes is another name for Eça himself. Where Eça “fails’ in the fictitious personage of Fradique is to distinguish him stylistically from his creator. While Pessoa, the master of the heteronymic project, creates heteronyms who write in clearly distinctive styles, in reading Fradique we are always reading Eça. In A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes, in short, we are always reading Eça under the thin disguise that a different name, merely, affords.
It is probable that Carlos Reis’s major point will stick, that is, his conclusion that in the figure of Fradique Mendes we have nothing but an incomplete attempt at creating a heteronym. But to put it that way may be to miss out, as Reis himself suggests, on what Eça did accomplish in this remarkable work, that is, he devised a flexible structure for a particularly modern kind of novel, one that he did not live to exploit fully or even test out on his many readers. As Reis concludes, while Fradique remains a sketch for heteronomy, he was decidedly a precursor of Modernity, then still very much in the offing.
If Eça was always the artist, from head to toe, as one of those who knew him insisted, his creation Fradique Mendes is an artist who presents himself as an esthete, dilettante, and dandy. Like Eça, he too is a writer, but one whose literary medium is the personal letter. Unconcerned with publication and therefore not bothered by the demands or tastes of a reading public, Fradique can channel his literary talents into his correspondence. Indeed, his letters are vessels for expression rather than the means of communication. Fradique holds forth, lectures, teaches. And if it is thought that the letter as a literary genre perforce narrows possibilities for expression, one need look only at the varied kinds of letters. To Guerra Junqueiro he writes a thesis letter (on ritual and rote behavior as the essence of religion. To Clara it is the love letter, ringing the changes on its sub-genres — the letter of seduction or the letters of the breaking-off or the end-of-the-affair. On the other hand, it is the historical essay letter he writes to Oliveira Martins. And to others he writes travel letters, replete with descriptions of landscape. The letter as character sketch makes its appearance in its portrayal of Pacheco to Sr. Mollinet, Pinho and the priest Salgueiro to Madame Jouarre. He even gives us an example of the letter as eclogue (explicitly adducing Virgil) when he writes from the Quinta de Rifaldes. In short, his letters avail themselves of the freedom traditionally accorded to the comics while exploiting the convention that they are intended for the delight and instruction of a single and specific individual. That they are letters, no matter how calculated their conception and careful their expression, enables Fradique to bask in the freedom from any responsibility to make his letters exhaustive, logical, or in any way complete. Because the reader has been carefully introduced to the writer of the letters that follow, it cannot be forgotten that the letters are of unique authorship, and that Fradique Mendes, in all his meticulous, controlled, sometimes supercilious glory, is their author. But as an author whose only “work” (at least his only extant work) is his correspondence he requires an editor, one who, in this instance, also provides an introductory essay. With that essay Fradique Mendes’s unnamed editor becomes a narrator of his subject’s life. But he will not narrate the life of his subject or even tell the story of the letters. The letters themselves may provide, though obliquely at best, fragments suggestive of a narrative, but the only real “story” is left to the reader, who must, if he wishes to have a story, work out some satisfactory explanation for how the unnamed editor and author of the prefatory article corresponds, that is, links up or connects, to the esthete who has written the letters, followed by some consideration as to how that story links up to Eça himself as prime mover of this new kind of fiction. This becomes even more involved when the reader recognizes that the prefatory essay offers an inadequate, if lengthy, introduction to its subject, and the author of the letters uses his letters not for communication (and even less so for self-revelation) but for the sake of presenting a consistent personage with a seemingly unflappable personality. What then is the correspondence between the two parts of this text called A Correspondência de Fradique Mendes and the intellectual dandy who is its subject, site, and occasion? When Eça writes that “Fradique does not exist; he is a creature made up of bits and pieces of my friends” (Ramos 46), we perceive that he wants principally to deny that there exists a single real-life model for Fradique Mendes. It is also a way of insisting, of course, on his “great” man’s substantial fictional reality; on his life, his thoughts, attitudes, and gestures—those matters, in short, that still matter in a fictional character or an actual flesh-and-blood person.
- Bell, Aubrey F. G. Studies in Portuguese Literature. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1914.
- Guimarães, Luiz de Oliveira. O Espírito e a Graça de Eça de Queiroz. Lisbon: Romano Torres, 1945.
- M., A. C. “Fradique (Carlos Fradique Mendes).” In Dicionário de Eça de Queiroz. Ed. A. Campos Matos. Lisbon: Caminho, 1988.
- Moreira, Eduardo Gonzales. “Fradique Mendes: Autor de Autores.” Revista Estação Literária, 8 (part B) (Dec. 2011), pp. 75-82.
- Moser, Gerald M. “O Mito de Fradique Mendes.” In Livro do Centenário de Eça de Queiroz. Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro: Dois Mundos, 1945.
- Piedade, Ana Nascimento. Fradiquismo e modernidade no último Eça—1888-1900. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional—Casa da Moeda, 2003.
- de Queirós, Eça. Correspondência. 2 vols. Ed. Guilherme de Castilho. Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional – Casa da Moeda, 1983.
- Ramos, Feliciano. Eça de Queirós e os Seus Últimos Valores. Lisbon: Edição da Revista “Ocidente”, 1945.
- Reis, Carlos. “Fradique Mendes: Origem e Modernidade de um Projecto Heteronímico.” In Estudos Queirosianos: Ensaios sobre Eça de Queirós e a sua obra. Lisbon: Editorial Presença, 1999.
- Sardinha, António. “O Espólio de Fradique.” In Eça de Queiroz “In Memoriam”. 2nd Ed.(enlarged). Ed. Eloy do Amaral and M. Cardoso Martha. Coimbra: Atlântida, 1947. Pp. 346-76.
- Simões, João Gaspar. Eça de Queirós: a obra e o homem. 3rd ed. Lisbon: Arcádia, 1978.
George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…
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