21.09.2015 by Andrew Nixon
What to Read on Your Sofa - The Yellow Sofa by Eça de Queirós
In the latest of our recommendations of great books to read on your sofa, Nigel Andrew (of the renowned Nigenesss blog) introduces the appropriately-titled The Yellow Sofa - a short, sharp, funny classic by an almost-forgotten Portuguese novelist, whose time may be about to come again…
Sofas rarely have a starring role in literature – with one notable exception: The Yellow Sofa. This is the title of a brilliant novella by a great 19th-century Portuguese novelist who deserves to be much better known – José Maria de Eça de Queirós (Eça de Queirós for short). Of him more later – but first, to the sofa…
It’s a yellow damask sofa that stands in the Lisbon apartment where Godofredo Alves, a youngish, rather ineffectual businessman, lives with his pretty wife, Lulu. The sofa is in Lulu’s boudoir, and it is on that sofa that Alves, returning home unexpectedly one sweltering summer afternoon, finds his wife ‘in a white negligee, leaning in abandon on the shoulder of a man whose arm was around her waist, and smiling as she gazed languorously at him’. The man is Alves’s handsome young business partner, Machado.
Reeling with shock and suddenly full of righteous anger, Alves knows he must do something – but what? The twists and turns of his agonised efforts to decide what to do and how to enact it – or not - provide much of the entertainment for the rest of the story.
Clearly honour will have to be satisfied – a duel at the very least. But to the death? With what weapons? His resolve already faltering, Alves consults two worldly friends who know about such things, hoping all the while that they will rule out a duel altogether. Besides, he has had a much better idea – he and Machado should draw lots and the loser must agree to take his own life within a year. Not surprisingly, this too goes nowhere.
Meanwhile, Alves steels himself to return the errant Lulu to the care of her father – a rogue who readily agrees to have her back when Alves offers a generous allowance, with more on top of that to take her to the coast for the summer. Before long, the wronged husband’s anger is dying down, his domestic life is falling apart in Lulu’s absence, and he is feeling increasingly lonely… But I shan’t give away the whole story, only urge you to read it.
It’s a wonderfully readable tale, elegantly told by a witty, engaging and good-humoured narrator, with no illusions about humanity, but with a generous, forgiving and sympathetic nature.
It is also a novella that’s uncommonly cluttered with furniture. It’s not just that yellow sofa; there are sofas galore – and chaises-longues - onto which poor Alves is constantly slumping in his dejection.
Furniture is everywhere in the overcrowded interiors in which most of the action takes place, and the distraught Alves is always liable to bump into it as he blunders about. And then there is the massive partners’ desk at which he and the philandering Machado used to work cheerfully side by side in happier times.
When Alves returns to the office for the first time after the betrayal, ‘the very furniture seemed to show his anger’. Just as the yellow damask sofa has become the image of his betrayal – and yet Alves does not get rid of it, or even cover it.
A writer of charm
The Yellow Sofa (published in Portuguese as Alves & C.a - "Alves & Co.") is a minor work – indeed it only came to light after the author’s death, apparently filed away and forgotten – but, minor or not, it amply displays Eça de Queirós’s charm as a writer, along with his deep insight into the silly, self-deluding ways of the human heart.
As well as being a novelist, Eça was a diplomat – who spent several years in England (Newcastle and Bristol) – a devoted family man, a good host, a wit, dandy and bon viveur. It would surely have been a pleasure to know him – and you can’t say that of too many great writers.
Of his major novels, I’d strongly recommend Cousin Bazilio, a tale of misguided love that has been called ‘the Portuguese Madame Bovary’ and is the equal of Flaubert’s masterpiece (without its cruelty and bitterness).
But the best way into the works of this extraordinary writer is, I think, by way of The Yellow Sofa. Read it and you’ll be hooked.
The Yellow Sofa is available on Amazon and elsewhere in a Carcanet edition and as a New Directions Classic, and is being republished by Norton next May.
[Picture top - still from an operatic adaptation of The Yellow Sofa by Glyndebourne's Julian Philips. Photo credit]