As a diplomat who served in England for fourteen years, from 1874 to 1888, the great Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós had no illusions about his country’s position in the world during the mid- to late nineteenth century. The five novels that he published during his lifetime–The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), Cousin Bazilio (1878), The Mandarin (1880), The Relic (1887) and The Maias (1888)–satirized the faults of Portuguese society in order to save it. Yet he was well aware that the stratified Catholic society he dissected was already in its endgame.

Its apex had been reached a century earlier, under King João V, who had the good luck of ascending the throne in 1706, just seven years after Brazil began shipping gold to Lisbon. Midway through João V’s reign, Brazil offered him another source of booty when diamonds were discovered in Bahía. By then, the tone of João V’s rule was well established. He transformed the area around the capital with extravagant churches, palaces and convents. He fathered children with at least three nuns. He built the University Library at Coimbra, where Eça de Queirós would later study law. And shortly after he died in 1750, the country entered a long, precipitous fall.

The first drop came on November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was hit by the worst earthquake ever recorded in Europe. Like the 2004 quake in the Indian Ocean, the Lisbon quake was followed by an enormous tsunami, with waves that reached as far as the Caribbean Sea. As many as 60,000 Lisbon residents died in the ensuing fires, floods, famines and epidemics. In its time the disaster was notorious enough to inspire £100,000 in aid from Britain and a poem by Voltaire.

The next catastrophe marched in from France. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal through Spain, sending the Portuguese royal family scampering to Rio de Janeiro. In their absence, Portugal’s old ally England stepped in to its defense, launching the Peninsular War. Together Portuguese and British soldiers eventually drove Napoleon’s army completely off the Iberian Peninsula, but the first three years of battle were fought mostly on Portuguese territory. (The rest were fought in Spain.) By the end of the war, in 1814, 100,000 Portuguese had died and much of their country had been laid waste.

The coup de grâce, however, was delivered by Portugal’s own rulers. Having acquired a taste for the tropical luxuries of Brazil, the Braganza monarchy decided to stay in Rio. For fourteen years they ran Portugal like a colony of its colony, leaving Lisbon under the thumb of an autocratic British overseer, William Carr Beresford. In Lisbon, soldiers and intellectuals reacted to this neglect by assembling a Constitutional Cortes, or Parliament, which drafted Portugal’s first Constitution. Needless to say, the nobles, the Queen and the Catholic Church were not pleased. But King João VI, who returned to Lisbon to settle the affair, accepted the new government with surprising equanimity–he had a liberal heart.

For a while, it seemed as if Portugal would transform itself into a constitutional monarchy without spilling any blood. Then the prince-regent, Pedro, declared Brazil an independent nation; João VI died; and Pedro’s brother, Miguel, usurped the Portuguese throne. The nation plunged into a civil war. Liberal Pedro defeated reactionary Miguel in 1834, with the help of England, Spain and France. A few months later Pedro died, leaving the Portuguese Treasury near bankruptcy and the country irreparably behind England and France in terms of manufacturing, literacy, science and architecture.

By 1845, when Eça de Queirós was born, Portugal had turned into a B-list country. His most famous novel, The Maias–which has recently been given a vibrant new translation by the talented Margaret Jull Costa–reminds us of this situation from its outset. In 1858, it tells us, an ambassador from the Vatican wanted to rent a property in Lisbon called the Casa do Ramalhete. Though its garden was a mess–abandoned to weeds, with a dried-up waterfall, a choked pond and a marble statue of Aphrodite turning black–the monsignor liked the home’s interior. The negotiations, however, went sour as soon as a number was named:

The rent proposed by old Vilaça, the Maias family’s administrator, seemed to the Monsignor so extortionate that he asked, with a smile, if Vilaça thought the Church was still living in the age of Pope Leo X. Vilaça retorted that the Portuguese nobility were likewise no longer living in the age of King João V.

A Catholic ambassador and the manager of an aristocratic fortune squabbling over who’s employer has fallen into worse decline? What a lovely way to begin a book!

Eça de Queirós’s main target in The Maias is the insular, fashionable society that Portugal’s upper class built amid the country’s ruins, and its hero, Carlos da Maia, is a young aristocrat of exceptional looks, wealth and taste. Carlos arrives in Lisbon in 1875, fresh out of Coimbra’s medical school, seasoned by a year of Grand Tour and itching “to do something really brilliant”–though he’s not quite sure what. “For him, a man of study accustomed to luxury,” Eça de Queirós explains, this brilliant accomplishment needed to involve “a mixture of social status and scientific work; a profound thinking of ideas carried out in the exquisite shelter provided by great wealth.”

Carlos’s buddy Ega rides into Lisbon with similarly vague, contradictory ambitions. A lawyer by reluctant training, he wants to write a novel called Memoirs of an Atom. No, he wants to start a Portuguese version of the Revue des deux mondes. No, he wants to win the prettiest mistress in Lisbon. What both friends do with most success, however, is banter, order clothes and arrange interior décor.

With the help of an “architect-cum-decorator” from London, Carlos transforms dusty old Casa do Ramalhete into a stylish bachelor pad, complete with a billiards room, a music room, a smoking room and a card room ruled by his doting grandfather Afonso. His medical office is just as posh: morocco leather benches, “albums filled with photographs of half-naked actresses” and a piano, to help his nonexistent patients forget their aches.

If you’re hearing overtones of A Sentimental Education in this précis, you’re not far off the mark. Gustave Flaubert, Costa tells us in her afterword, was Eça de Queirós’s “literary hero,” and it’s obvious that The Maias owes Flaubert’s 1869 Bildungsroman a debt. Like it, The Maias mocks the dissipation of youthful promise in love affairs and fashion. Indeed, one of its most amusing scenes occurs when Carlos visits Ega’s home, the Villa Balzac, just outside Lisbon. Ega has chosen this location ostensibly so he can concentrate on completing Memoirs of an Atom but actually so that he can conduct a clandestine affair. Surveying his buddy’s messy bedroom, which is cluttered with books, champagne glasses, hairpins, shirts and a huge box of face powder, Carlos inquires, “And where do you work, Ega, where do you produce your great art?”

“There,” Ega responds saucily, pointing in the direction of his enormous scarlet bed.

In A Sentimental Education, the shirts and the face powder would have been native to Paris; in The Maias, they’re more likely to be imported. Eça de Queirós was keenly aware of this difference, which meant that the fashions widely available in Paris were, in Portugal, the exclusive province of the rich. “Civilisation comes at a very high price,” Ega jokes. “What with the customs duties one has to pay, and, besides, it’s second-hand, it wasn’t made for us, and so it’s all a bit short in the sleeve.”

Nowhere is this poor tailoring clearer than when Lisbon’s aristocrats decide to hold a horse race; though, as Afonso observes, it would have been more patriotic for them “to put on a good bullfight.” The ersatz event is a fiasco. The ramshackle hippodrome fills with “suffocating dust.” The women dress in black instead of cheery checks and stripes. The jockeys brawl over the referee’s calls. “It’s all pretty dire,” one man in attendance observes. “For heaven’s sake if you’re going to have a proper horse-race you need cocottes and champagne, not grim faces and cold water, it just won’t work.”

The problem, of course, is that the horse race requires participation from members outside Carlos’s circle. Lisbon’s upper class can import suits and songs and magazines, but their snobbery, combined with Portugal’s general poverty, prevents them from re-creating anything like the democratic, industrialized cultures they admire from afar. Unlike Flaubert’s Sentimental hero, Frédéric Moreau, for example, Carlos socializes almost exclusively with aristocrats and gentry–that is, with people who have no need to work. And his last chance to accomplish something worthwhile founders on his reluctance to swim outside this clique.

Near the end of the book, when Carlos and Ega are growing tired of Lisbon’s provincial entertainments, they take up Ega’s old idea of founding “a journal that would shape literature, educate taste, elevate politics, create civilisation, and, in short, rejuvenate worm-eaten old Portugal.” Filled with sudden energy and enthusiasm, they hole themselves up in Afonso’s study to draw up a list of collaborators:

However, difficulties began to emerge at once. Ega disliked almost all the writers suggested because they lacked the artistic, Parnassian elegance of style of which he wanted the magazine to be an impeccable model. And Carlos thought certain men of letters quite simply “impossible,” although without wishing to confess that what mainly repelled him was their lack of manners and their appalling clothes.

Frustrated, the gentlemen turn to their usual anodyne–a passionate discussion of the future offices’ décor:

It would have to be luxuriously furnished, with sofas from Carlos’s consulting rooms and a few antiques from the Toca [his country estate]; and above the door (adorned with a liveried doorman), would hang a highly polished black sign with The Portuguese Review in large gold letters. Carlos was smiling and rubbing his hands, thinking how pleased Maria Eduarda would be when she knew about this decision…. Ega, on the other hand, could already see the canary-colored magazine piled up in the windows of bookshops, discussed at the Count de Gouvarinho’s soirées, leafed through with horror by politicians in the Chamber.

And so the practical matter of finding writers for this canary-colored masterpiece is lost amid the two men’s fantasies. Ten years later, when they meet after a long separation, Ega recalls their youthful ambitions (to be a great scientist! to write a magnificent book!) and declares, “We have failed in life, my friend!”

Retail therapy is, in fact, one of the novel’s leitmotifs. Like out-of-shape yuppies who buy mountaineering jackets designed for treks up Mount Everest, Eça de Queirós’s characters regularly purchase objects as substitutes for endeavors that they cannot, or will not, undertake themselves. Thus, Carlos’s top-of-the-line laboratory equipment replaces actual scientific research; Ega’s Wildesque fur coat becomes a stopgap for membership in a real bohemian society. And the ultimate substitute is, of course, their circle’s use of luxury goods as a replacement for a true reformation of Portuguese society–a situation that Eça de Queirós ridicules when Carlos’s friend Dâmaso Salcede announces his belief in individual action:

“I believe that every person should contribute in some way to the civilisation of their country.”
 ”Well spoken, Senhor Salcede!” cried Afonso. “You have said a great and noble thing!”
 ”It’s true, isn’t it?” declared Dâmaso triumphantly, bursting with pride. “I, for example…”
 ”You?” came the cry from every side. “What have you done for civilisation?”
 ”I’ve ordered a white frock-coat for the day of the races and I’ll be wearing a blue veil on my hat!”

Ultimately, Carlos’s moral failure is poignant, rather than merely comedic, because he is one of the few characters in The Maias to display real intelligence. During the few months he actually applies himself to his medical practice, he saves a woman from diphtheria and comes up with the idea for a sort of flu vaccine. So when Carlos moves to Paris after the death of his grandfather (and after losing Maria Eduarda, a stunning femme fatale), Portugal’s hope for a First World future seems to leave town with him.

A friend of the family sums it up at Afonso’s funeral: “You won’t find people like those Maias now, my boys–lion-hearted, generous, valiant! Everything seems to be dying in this wretched country of ours!” Ega puts it more plainly: how will Portugal ever have the “personnel” it needs to catch up with the rest of Europe if he and Carlos, “who have all the right skills,” do nothing but drive their dogcarts?

It’s hard to tell how much Eça de Queirós subscribed to the belief that progress in Portugal needed to come from the upper class–he does the fly on the wall rather too well. Occasionally, his omniscient narrator will let loose an opinion or two–remarking, for example, that the “poison” of dilettantism had entered Carlos’s blood–but mostly Eça de Queirós subordinates his narrator to his characters’ perceptions. Instead, he relies on more subtle techniques like symbolism, juxtaposition, allegory and irony to communicate his own opinions.

Reading The Maias, then, is rather like watching L’Avventura: you have to keep an eye on the background in order to understand the foreground. In the scene featuring Dâmaso’s blue veil, for example, it’s clear that he is being ridiculed for his superficiality. (“‘You?’ came the cry from every side.”) What’s less obvious is that Eça de Queirós scorns Afonso’s hypocrisy as well. For that, one must remember that some 250 pages earlier Eça de Queirós informed us that during the civil war between Pedro and Miguel,

Afonso was to be found at the Epsom races [in England], riding in a gig, wearing a large false nose and uttering fearsome war whoops, utterly indifferent to the fate of his brother masons, who were, at that very moment, being driven along the alleyways of the Bairro Alto in Lisbon by the Infante Dom Miguel mounted on his fine Alter do Chão stallion.

Eça de Queirós also employs descriptions as a kind of foreshadowing, remarking, for example, that a woman’s red parasol obscures a man’s head “like a large bloodstain” some twenty pages before she provokes him to suicide. (Costa does a marvelous job of rendering these important details–she knows that Eça de Queirós, like Flaubert, employs “a naturalist surface with a symbolic subtext.”)

Reading these traces, one finds hints that Eça de Queirós did not entirely escape the snobbery of his society. His Jews all prove greedy, treacherous or fickle. His three most admirable characters turn out to be not only aristocrats but blood relations. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the departure of an educated aristocrat like Carlos constitutes a sort of Portuguese brain drain: there aren’t enough men of sense and education to take his place. Even Ega succumbs to Portugal’s more vulgar comforts after Carlos leaves the country, gaily mocking the ignorance of a prostitute, for example, before raffling her off among his friends. “Oh,” he says, recalling this elegant adventure, “it had been a splendid night!”

Eça de Queirós has a knack for turning the screws on his characters when he wants to, and this talent had led many critics to approach The Maias as a caustic satire–which, at times, it is. But the greatness of Eça de Queirós’s masterwork, like the greatness of Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game, lies in its ability to blend pointed criticism with genuine pathos and nobility. Indeed, it’s here that Eça de Queirós surpasses his essentially misanthropic hero, Flaubert.

Take for example, the tenderness with which Eça de Queirós communicates Carlos’s love for Afonso, which may be based on Eça de Queirós’s own relationship with his grandparents, who raised him after his unmarried mother started a legitimate family:

Of his mother, he did not possess so much as a daguerreotype, or even a pencil sketch. His grandfather had told him that she was fair-haired. He knew nothing more. He had not known [his parents]; he had not fallen asleep in their arms; he had never received the warmth of their affection. Father and mother were, for him, like the symbols of some conventional religion. Father, mother, and loved ones were all contained in his grandfather.

Or take Carlos’s affair with the apparently married Maria Eduarda, which begins as a superficial infatuation with her Parisian wardrobe and her “foreign glamour” (she descends on Lisbon from France) but eventually forces him to confront his snobbery. “What was it you loved in me?” she demands of him. “Was it the fact that I belonged to another man, was it my name, the chic of having an adulterous affair, my clothes perhaps? Or was it me, my body, my soul and my love for you?” It takes Carlos a good night of soul-searching to answer that one.

There’s no doubt that The Maias is, as Harold Bloom has said, an account of “the decadence of Portugal in its long decline,” but the novel is also an aging man’s paean to young love and friendship and misbehavior. The work is, after all, semiautobiographical (Ega being a clever visual pun on Eça), and its ending is not so much angry as melancholy. “How everything passed!” Ega thinks when he and Carlos meet again in the book’s final pages. By then, it’s 1887. Ega is balding. Carlos has put on weight. Their errand for the day is to visit Casa do Ramalhete and rummage through the detritus of all the things they’ve lost.

These days Eça de Queirós is best remembered for the way he brought Portuguese literature out of its Romantic doldrums and infused it with the realism of its French and English counterparts. But after his death (in Paris, in 1900) seven more of his novels were found and sent to press–and these were filled with sentimental appreciations for everyday Portuguese life. What they teach us is that Eça de Queirós loved Portugal. Indeed, it’s this kind of love that sets all the most moving satires apart. The Rules of the Game, The Corrections, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Maias–these works manage the difficult task of keeping in balance two contradictory emotions: love for their subjects’ virtues and intolerance of their faults.

“There’s nothing genuine in this wretched country now,” balding Ega complains to Carlos, “not even the bread that we eat!”

In response, Carlos points to the upper hills of Lisbon, where the churches, the convents and the crumbling mansions cling to slopes burned dry by the radiant sun. “There’s still that,” he says. Eça de Queirós’s answer lies in the background, in his portrait of two middle-aged men who have squandered the best opportunities of their country but who have sustained a perfect friendship, never once marred by pettiness, betrayal or rivalry. In them, the flame of hope refuses to die.