I recently commented on FB that I was looking for novels set in Russia in the time of the Patriotic War (as resources for the Russian novella). A friend asked “Why novels instead of non-fiction?”
Well, I like period novels because they show me how those people actually saw things. Of course there’s a filter, but it’s closer than anything I’ll produce myself. They also provide really good setting details, like descriptions of restaurants, bedrooms, and kitchens. (Queiroz has a description of a lady’s dressing room at one point where the man is mooning over an empty corset left lying on a bench. It was probably terribly racy for the period.)
I’ll use The Maias as an example. I read this doorstop of a book while working on the second Portuguese novel. Published in 1888 by one of the greatest Portuguese novelists, it give me an insight into the zeitgeist that I need for -my- work.
So what are some of the interesting things I learned from reading this very male-centered novel?*
1) Prostitutes (or the demimondaine) were referred to as “Spanish Girls”.
Interesting, huh? That tells me something about the Portuguese view of the Spanish then. I use this term in novel 1.
2) Houses, even those of the not-super-wealthy, had names.
The house in which most of the action in the novel takes place is called “Ramalhete.” I did NOT do this, because I think most readers would find it pretentious.
3) Among the wealthy, there were a lot of foreign nationals.
There are several foreign characters in this novel (in Lisbon), including a Scandanavian Ambassador, Germans, Brazilians, and, of course, the French.
In the case of my story (set in Porto instead) there are a few English (because Porto is crawling with English) and Spanish characters, one Russian, a Brazilian and a Cabo Verdean.
4) The French were cool. Portugal was just kinda sad.
I can’t tell you how much of this was the author’s filter, but it kinda took me by surprise…and yet it didn’t.
Part 1: Yeah, a lot of Europe looked to France for fashion and sophistication for centuries.
Part 2: A lot of Portugal is rural, especially in the north. Farming (often subsistence) and fishing were major percentages of the GDP.
But most importantly (and related, I think):
5) The Portuguese have an element of their zeitgeist called suadade. I think this really came through in the novels of Queiroz, a cultural longing for a perfect world, a better world that just can’t be. There’s a fatalistic lack of happiness that seems to ooze out of his pages…
I stole this definition from Wiki:
“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”
This is really hard to capture, and I don’t think I have anything near the comprehension of this concept to convey it properly.
Anyhow, I think those are things I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. I’ve read a few near-period historical accounts, none of which told me much about prostitutes. So there’s an odd validation of my methods ;o)
And I just like reading, too.
FWIW: I tried to find a period -anything- written by a Portuguese woman and translated into English. Hah!