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cousin bazilio

16 october 2022

Eça de Queiroz' second novel Cousin Bazilio (1878) begins with a scene of blissful young married love between a woman named Luiza and her husband Jorge. After a page or two of languor, Luiza notes in a newspaper item that her cousin Bazilio is coming home from Brazil. Alert readers sense that all this bliss may not be perpetual.

Jorge, an engineer, goes off on an extended tour of the mines of central Portugal. Bazilio shows up at Luiza's door, flower in buttonhole. Before long, they are spending steamy afternoons in a seamy love-nest. Luiza has been so happy with Jorge that it's hard to see why she starts up with Bazilio. Unlike Emma Bovary, stuck with her dreepy doctor husband, Luiza isn't in the throes of ennui. She is just impatient staying put at home. Plus, Eça establishes that Bazilio had been her first romantic attachment, when both were very young. He left the hemisphere and dumped her, and it looks as if she has never really gotten over him.

Clearly, like Emma Bovary, Luiza is riding for a fall. Her servant Juliana knows what's going on, and what's more steals letters that prove the affair is taking place. Juliana sets up a sustained if somewhat erratic blackmail operation. In the end, all of Luiza's efforts to stop Juliana from exposing her are pointless, as Jorge learns of her infidelity via a much more prosaic, chance incident.

With a few changes in situation, Cousin Bazilio is thus pretty much the same story as Eça's first novel, The Crime of Father Amaro. A household is the center of an eclectic group of friends. A young woman in that household is seduced by an uncaring philanderer. The lovers set up a secluded trysting-place for their meetings, finding the venue piquant and depressing at the same time. Various people learn of the seduction; some suppress their knowledge; others angle for self-interested ends. The affair blows up but is largely hushed up. The young woman dies.

The differences: Cousin Bazilio is set in Lisbon, not in the provincial city of Leiria. The seducer is a secular gadabout, not a parish priest. The woman seduced is married. Otherwise, same book. And the debt to Madame Bovary is so much stronger in the latter novel, the situation so much more banal, that I'd have to rate Cousin Bazilio a notch below The Crime of Father Amaro: though the earlier novel is very good, and a notch below is still well worth reading for fans of long 19th-century fictions.

One background is unique to Cousin Bazilio: Eça's use of opera as a motif. Faust in particular hangs over the entire novel, and a performance of Faust is the setting for a key scene late in the book. When another text looms so large in the one you're reading, you search for a thematic connection, and it's usually pretty easy to find them in operas because their themes are so stark. There is no real Faustian bargain in Cousin Bazilio; instead, the narration dwells on the susceptibility of Marguerite to the wiles of Faust and the Devil.

But other operas, and opera tunes, populate the novel. La Traviata is one, and its source La dame aux camélias. Here the connection is even more obvious, the "fallen woman": Luiza's reading of Dumas fils doesn't warn her but leads her further astray. Other operas are invoked in the form of sheet music that the characters play from, or songs they hear from organ-grinders. Lisbon of the 1870s seems as full of opera numbers as New York of the 1950s did of Broadway songs.

Eça de Queiroz. Cousin Bazilio. [O primo Basilio, 1878.] Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Sawry: Dedalus, 2003.

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