There is a photograph of the Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queirós (1845– 1900) surrounded by his friends in a Lisbon salon in the late 1880s. They all convey a notable elegance of attire and toilette —striped pants, burnished top hats, abundant beards, and finely-waxed upturned moustaches. Eça de Queirós is seated at a table in front of the group, walking stick in hand, eyes cast down demurely. This group of eleven men represented the intellectual elite of Portugal at that time. They were poets, diplomats, statesmen, politicians who for a time gathered weekly at the Hotel Braganza or at the home of one of the group.

Energetic achievers in many realms, they paradoxically called themselves Os vencidos da vida (“Those defeated by life”). The morose title given to the group has as much to do with the apparent glories of Portugal’s past—the adventures in Brazil,...

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