Margaret Jull Costa’s translation of José Maria Eça de Queirós’s The Maias: Episodes from Romantic Life has been hailed by such literary critics as Harold Bloom as infinitely more readable than the other versions of this nineteenth century Portuguese masterpiece available in English. They agree that it will no doubt become the standard translation.
Set in Lisbon at the close of the nineteenth century, The Maias can be viewed as a classic bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. Carlos da Maia, the novel’s young hero and the heir to one of Portugal’s greatest fortunes, has been living a petty, idle life of parties, fine wine, and romantic intrigue. Suddenly, he is forced to learn that all the money in the world cannot buy happiness and to accept the fact that actions have consequences, even though it might take generations for the results of irresponsible conduct to come to light.
Carlos grows up under the tutelage of his illustrious, highly principled and loving grandfather, Alfonso da Maia, after his father Pedro da Maia commits suicide in “romantic” desperation upon the departure of his beautiful and mysterious wife, Maria Monforte, with a man simply called the Italian. Maria takes with her Carlos’s sister, Maria Eduarda, whom she favors, but leaves Carlos behind in the care of his father. Knowing full well the horrific family drama, and in time coming to learn that his sister has died, Carlos grows up and flourishes at the hands of his attentive grandfather, who takes solace in his grandson as the youngster grows in kindness and character.
Although he is heir to one of Portugal’s largest family fortunes, Carlos applies himself to his education and decides on a career in medicine to help his fellow human beings. However, despite his high intelligence and his well-meaning plans, after his return from the University of Coimbra to Lisbon, he soon falls into the opulent lifestyle of the city’s upper crust. Sleeping until all hours, dressing luxuriously, lunching for hours, dining and drinking well into the night, attending the theater, and conducting casual sexual rendezvous in carriages with the wives of the local nobility take up all his time. He never gets around to establishing a list of patients, not to mention writing medical treatises or helping his fellow man. His offices in time become merely well-decorated meeting places for his long list of dandified acquaintances.
Chief among these friends is João da Ega, who, after being cast aside by the love of his life, spends most of his time at the Maias’ richly decorated compound known as Ramalhete in the neighborhood of Janelas Verdes on the outskirts of Lisbon. Another friend, Dámaso Salcede, uses women for social gain. When these young, fashionable men tire of women, they coldly cast them aside and get angry when the women make a scene or have the effrontery to tell them they love them. Despite numerous affairs, Carlos has never been in love and looks askance at men who feel passion and devotion. However, this is shortly to change.
Meanwhile, Carlos’s grandfather feels deeply disappointed by his grandson’s behavior but remains patiently waiting in the family dwelling, in Olivas, for his sole heir to put aside childish things and grow up. Although he may not be ready, life will soon hit Carlos da Maia over the head and he will fall down hard.
The main plot of the novel begins one night when Carlos spies a beautiful, sophisticated-looking woman who, his pompous friend Dámaso tells him, is Maria Gomez, newly arrived from Brazil with her husband, Castro Gomez, and young daughter, Rosa. The boastful Dámaso promises Carlos an introduction but fails to deliver. When Carlos is called to attend the Gomez family’s governess, Miss Sarah, Maria and Carlos instantly connect and begin an affair after the husband returns to Brazil. Carlos buys an idyllic summer home in the forest, and Maria and Rosa move in. The couple are ecstatically happy and plan to run away togetherthat is, until Castro returns and informs Carlos that Maria is merely his mistress, not his wife, and that, in fact,...
(The entire section is 1692 words.)