Friday, 12 September 2014

Lobo Antunes is so good no one can keep up with him

I reserve this final post on António Lobo Antunes for… I’m not really sure what; I guess something about his perception of his place in the world, how he measures his success, his egotism, the exact age when writers’ brains start rotting, etc. I’ve tried to build each post around a theme, but this one suffers from disjointedness since I just have a hodgepodge of loose quotes left that, like Pound’s Cantos, can’t cohere. So just go with the flow: if the previous posts prove anything, is that there’s never a dull moment in his interviews.

Although Lobo Antunes pegged as a difficult writer (for the record, he doesn’t share that impression) he’s been a bestselling author in Portugal since his first novel, Memória de Elefante (1979). It was an overnight success. “I think it had a big impact in Portugal because it was the first to talk about things that weren’t talked about: the war, relations with women…” Yes, well, the women relations bit is quite a stretch, we’re not all castratos here, but the war part is probably true: the war had only ended in 1974 and was something of a taboo; then along comes this war veteran who spills out all its traumas and horrors. I can imagine the appeal. It was of course a rather new way of writing, he introduced certain influences that hadn’t been explored yet, like Faulkner, Dos Passos, Thomas Bernhard and Céline: never forget that Portugal has always been a Francophile country that tends to shun most things English. This new way of writing novels, which he calls polyphonic novel (nothing to do with the sense Mikhail Bakhtine and Milan Kundera give it), is still pretty unusual around here. In spite of that he claims that young readers tend to understand him better than old readers. His parents sort of confirm that. “I can’t read António’s books, I lack the patience for it,” confesses his father. “I read his books, but I don’t enjoy them because it’s all very sad,” his mother adds, it’s just tragedies… These characters don’t belong to our society. It’s not people we mingled with. I don’t understand it because, in his childhood, António was very happy.”

Fame was all a bit unreal for Lobo Antunes. He used to go to bookstores at night to watch the books in the shop windows. Sales pleased him but he insists they were never his objective, and considering the manuscripts had to be pried from his fingers that’s probably true. “You can’t write thinking about success, I don’t do it, but I’m afraid of writing a bad novel.” And he also dislikes bad novels. “I get sent many manuscripts to give my opinion about, and I’m astonished because these kids want to be read on Monday, published on Tuesday, have an amazing hit on Wednesday and be translated all over the world on Thursday. They’re not writers because they have an appetite for immediate success and that attitude stops them from growing literarily. If they want success so badly they should devote themselves to other things. I think nowadays too many books are published and with too scarce a literary ambition, they don’t even have pages, they’re too short. On the other hand, critics get frequently drunk very easily and the writer, since he was successful with a formula, uses it again like an automaton. He always repeats the same for fear of losing his success.”

I fully subscribe to this diatribe, but ironically he was describing his own meteoric rise to world fame in a couple of years. When The Land at the End of the World came out months after the first novel it seemed unlikely that he could ever write one of those bad books he fears; the Nobel Prize even seemed already in the bag: the secretary of the Swedish Academy, according to Lobo Antunes, declared that, “Finally an extraordinary writer has arrived.” Unfortunately the rest of the Academy has continued to disagree. The reader of these interviews must have a high level of tolerance for smugness. Lobo Antunes also wants to make it clear that the critics weren’t keen on his way of writing in spite of his success. “My way of writing, of making novels, was a very new way which people weren’t used to, I can’t explain it better, but here you didn’t write like this.” Well, there were precursors like Vergílio Ferreira and Maria Gabriela Llansol, but let’s not turn this into a comparative literature class.

Lobo Antunes cultivated from an early age a bad boy attitude. To Blanco he says that, “It’d be very difficult for me to talk about literature in Portugal,” but that’s because he had said everything, mostly negative, before meeting her. In his early interviews, which I happen to own in book form, he enjoyed disparaging his peers and to ridicule the quality of Portuguese literature. The dead, the living, they were all valid targets: Eça de Queiroz, Raul Brandão, Fernando Pessoa, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Vergílio Ferreira, José Saramago of course. “I didn’t like what was being written in Portugal when I started publishing and I said it, but it was very badly received. I was very naïve in those first interviews.” The apotheosis arrived in 1996 when he declared that Portugal didn’t deserve a Nobel Prize because it didn’t have worthy writers. Two years later Saramago received it. He continues to insist on this point (2001) but at least he opens an exception for poets. At the time of Blanco’s interviews, however, he had mellowed out a bit: “There are no bad books for me, a book deserves respect. There’s so much hope, sometimes suffering and even the author’s health…” This is quite considerate, as is: “Maybe people make books that we think are bad, but they worked so hard and did the best they could. But I don’t judge novels publicly anymore, I can talk about it with a friend, but in public I’m more and more reserved. Precisely because I know it hurts.” Alas such lines take on a whole new sense of irony after you read him abusing several writers in the exact same interview.

One of his favourite victims is José Saramago. In a 2008 interview Lobo Antunes feigned surprise at the fact that their names are so often paired up, like Tom and Jerry. The following lines help explain how that came to be: “Saramago is the big reference [in the intellectual wing of the Portuguese Communist Party] and he chose the party’s hard line, he violently criticised his comrades who argued for openness. But he only showed this side recently. Because he was always very careful with his statements. In Spanish newspapers he says he’s a political expat, a political expat of nothing, because here we live in a democracy. Before the Revolution he was never in prison and those who were never forgave him for that.” He forgot to mention that Saramago’s arrest was scheduled for a few days after the revolution, which happened in the meantime impeding him from adding prison time to his freedom fighter CV. Which is still more impressive than Lobo Antunes’, whose writings were never censored during the regime like his nemesis’. But I only add this in the interest of those who like these petty squabbles. The funny thing about the mutual hatred between these two men is that Lobo Antunes tries to pretend it doesn’t exist when everything he says about Saramago screams otherwise. “Literarily for me he’s not competition. He has more presence in Spain and in Brazil, but not in the rest of the world.” This was said after the Nobel Prize. Lobo Antunes likes to pretend that Saramago is a regional phenomenon whereas he’s a world-renowned name. I fear he doesn’t hang around in the same book forums I do where no one ever heard of him.

But there’s no doubt that his success was unique and sudden. “The first translation showed up in the USA in 1981.” As I’ve explained before, US literary agent Tom Colchie got in touch with him bent on representing him. This was quite unusual for a Portuguese author, being translated into English. Lobo Antunes doesn’t ignore the importance this event had. “When you have a good review in Europe, it’s relatively important, but if it’s in the United States and if we show up in the big newspapers, what happens has nothing to do with what happens in Europe, we’re literally overwhelmed. You get requests from all places.” That meant France, Germany, the rest of Europe and the whole world in general. But although he got rave reviews he didn’t seem to sell as well as in Portugal. His real triumph, however, according to him finally comes with Fado Alexandrino (1983), his best novel, in my opinion one of the best novels of the 20th century. Suddenly everyone wanted to publish him. Except Spain. In 2001 he’s still a bit resentful that Spain took so long to understand this world genius that had conquered the interest of book lovers with a penchant for obscure books. Publisher Siruela was the first one to take a chance on him. “They said that I was very bad, that there were more important writers. I didn’t understand, I thought that attitude was weird, especially in Spain.” He never explains why, it’s like he just took for granted his genius and everyone had to do the same. “They didn’t want me in France either, because they said my novels were very complicated, very strange. A novel isn’t like that, the editors said, they’re too difficult, they won’t sell.” Now that’s a bizarre thing for editors to say in the country of Derrida and Baudrillard.

But now he’s super-famous, a condition that astonishes him. “A poet friend of mine, Eugénio de Andrade, told me that he didn’t understand my success, because in order to read my books you have to know about literature and it’s not normal to sell so much. I think he’s right, but the last book I published in October [2001] had been on the top ten for four weeks now.” Still he’s wisely careful to consider himself a best-selling author. “In any event, I don’t think I can be a best-seller because what I do is very hard. My literature is not easily digestible. It’s normal for me that García Márquez sell so much, because his writing is very tasty, very pleasant.” But he doesn’t want to be tasty or pleasant, he just doesn’t want to write bad novels, and he’s certain he hasn’t because no one writes bad reviews of him anymore. “I don’t have them, I no longer have bad reviews and that is very distressing. Because if what I do is so good, then I’m ahead of my time and not everybody can keep up with me.” Holy cow, this is the most smug, pretentious, arrogant crap I’ve ever read in a literary interview! Of course he has bad reviews. What Can I do When Everything's on Fire? received mixed reviews when it came out in English. And he receives his share of bad reviews in Portugal, he just pretends they don’t exist. A few years ago there was a small ruckus when he was interview over a bad review, and Lobo Antunes just claimed not to know the reviewer, in the sense that he was too insignificant to be noticed; the reviewer, who is rather famous and popular, wrote back an angry post in his blog making a convincing case that Lobo Antunes had personally known him and autographed his poetry books. So the man’s a liar and touchy; aren’t we all?

Well, the problem is that Lobo Antunes just keeps rising the bar. Blanco asks him if now that he’s famous people write like him in Portugal. “Now? Lots of people.” She doesn’t dare contest him. For what my opinion as a Portuguese citizen familiar with the book market is worth, this is absolutely delusional: no one even tries to write novels like him. But let’s not interrupt his fantasy. “Everywhere people write like António Lobo Antunes.” Wait, everywhere? In America, the UK, France, Australia, Germany, India, Russia, China, everywhere everywhere? “Lots of people do it, I think it’s even a fad to write like this. It’s incredible the number of disciples who showed up. Here and in other countries. Lots of people try to do the same I do… That makes me feel old.” Of course he doesn’t mention the names of those non-existing disciples. Lobo Antunes has a perception of his role in world literature that quite simply doesn’t align with reality. “For instance, in America, when you show up in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Washington Post, you have everything. In those newspapers I always get the first pages.” I beg you pardon?

With a temperament like this, it’s no wonder he considers himself the world’s best living writer. “Of course I like reviews and, above all, the love of readers and people I respect. And don’t you think they sometimes exaggerate with all those hyperboles and comparisons to great writers. I’m one of them.” Alright, this isn’t too bad, the man has a realistic view of his worth. But then he comes out with this: “I’m not insecure because I know nobody writes like me, I can seem vain but I say it because I feel it, I’m honest. Now that doesn’t fulfil me because I have to work hard to get it. Each page is a conquest and I always have a horrible fear of doing a bad job, especially now – he jokes – when I’m a star in Europe and in America, if I make a bad book, what will I do next?” The interviewer assumes he’s joking, but I’m pretty sure he’s being serious about his stardom.

He has everything: readers, translations, good reviews, lots of prizes, money. He just doesn’t have the Nobel Prize. A loss that in 2001 didn’t bother him anymore (of course not): “Now it’s indifferent to me that I didn’t get it, but yes, I wanted to have it for my first wife, the mother of my daughters. She was already dying, I lived with her all these months, the novel I’m writing now I started writing it by her bedside and she was happy, she had so much hope, so much faith in me, that it was a big disappointment. It was the only time I saw her crying.” Somewhere else he updated this story to say that he wished he had won the Nobel Prize while his father was still alive. Hopefully he’ll never run out of relatives who’ll keep him sad for not winning it for their sake. At peace with the duplicitous Swedes who gave him so many false hopes after his second novel, Lobo Antunes wrestles with one fear only: losing his skills. He was pushing sixties at the time and he decided to conjure this theory that good novelists don’t write anything good after they’re sixty. Blanco counter-argues with Victor Hugo. “Yes, of course, he wrote La Légende des Siècles at the age of 70, but it's an exception, you can't find anyone else. Poor Saramago... Torrente Ballester... you can't find one. Besides, most writers died before that. I think imagination starts atrophying and the mental processes too. I think I can write two or three more novels, no more. In the best case scenario it'll happen to me the same that happened to Thomas Hardy, a writer I like very, very much, who left the novel and started writing poetry and wrote 'till the age of 80, until his death. He never got the Nobel, Conrad didn't get it either.” Between 2001 and 2013 Lobo Antunes published a new novel every year, excepting 2002 and 2005. He’s currently 72. Hm, I wonder what he thinks of his last decade of work?

And that’s that. I hope you had a good time travelling inside António Lobo Antunes’ mind. And don’t forget: just because he’s incorrigibly full of himself doesn’t mean he’s not one of the world’s best living writers.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Work Ethics of António Lobo Antunes

“I think to the question of why write each person can give fifteen or twenty true answers, although none is certainly sincere, because the truth is that no one knows why. It's as if we asked an apple tree why it gives apples. We do not know the profound reason for writing, what we know is that writing is a necessity.” António Lobo Antunes likes natural metaphors to explain his obsession with writing: he doesn’t know why, he just knows he has to. Failure to obey the inner commands of his vocation results in dire consequences. “If I live a day without writing I feel as if I had put my clothes on without taking a shower. If I don't write I'm invaded by a sensation of absence and profound emptiness. If I don't write I'm assaulted by a feeling of enormous guilt that I've never stopped feeling.” As he admits to María Luisa Blanco, he hardly exists as a citizen: he doesn’t have an opinion on anything, he doesn’t give many interviews, he’s seldom seen on television. He has kept this posture since an early age: when he enrolled in Medicine, Portuguese universities were ablaze with violent student protests that usually ended with the police invading campuses. By his own admission, he never cared about fighting the regime. It’s not fear or conformity that inhibits him; I’m coming to the opinion that he’s a literary organism in its purest and most evolved form: he cares only about reading and writing, like a Borges, a Pessoa or a Nabokov.

This subjection to writing shows itself in tiny little details he shares with Blanco: he writes 12 hours per day; when he travels to promote books he writes at night; he can wherever he wants, so long as he has pen and paper. Fortunately he doesn’t have rituals that hide procrastination. Now fans of Lobo Antunes know that his work is divided into two sets of texts: his novels and his newspaper writings; he’s been writing a biweekly article for Visão magazine for decades now, so far totalling five thick collections. For all that he doesn’t take them seriously, considers them more of an entertainment and the simpler form of writing that the masses like to read. “I don’t consider literature.” This by itself doesn’t mean anything since he doesn’t consider most literature literature. He’s also prejudiced against trying the short-story. “It’s a problem of inspiration, when inspiration is too big it’s not possible to fit in such a small tale. After reading Chekov, Cortázar, Katherine Mansfield, what can one write after reading that? They have a concision I don’t have.” Lobo Antunes is especially complimentary of Chekov, “That man who said everything, you find everything in his tales.”

What he’s obviously known for is novels. And today we’re taking some time to learn more about his relentless pursuit of perfect novels. Lobo Antunes likes to talk about writing novels, and he likes to read about writing novels. In fact he laments there aren’t more books about it. “I miss books on writers and literature, books that help me understand an author. I think there are too many novels, too much poetry, they should make more books like that.” Well, in that case I’ll write a few lines that might help understand some things about particular Lobo Antunes novels: in Portugal The Return of the Caravels is called As Naus (The Ships) because the title was copyrighted already, although translations were allowed to use it; The Natural Order of Things, which talks about the death of his father’s sister, an aunt he loved very much, receives its title from the answer his parents gave little António when he asked questions; Fado Alexandrino, a novel divided in three books, each section subdivided into twelve chapters, takes its name from one of four types of fado music, well, that’s what he says, there is more than four types and I don’t know any called alexandrino, but I do know the alexandrine verse composed of twelve syllables. Still apropos of Fado Alexandrino, Lobo Antunes defines himself as a puritan who doesn’t write sex scenes, I think he forgot two from this novel. Blanco comments that his novels are always sad, a perception the author doesn’t share. “I couldn’t live so long with a novel if it were sad. Cardoso Pires also told me he didn’t understand why they say my novels are sad, because for him they were full of joy and humour, and I also think that, I don’t understand why that feeling lingers.” What else does this book teach us about his novels? What about his characters? “I don’t describe characters, just with a bit of detail, hair, hands, something like that, because description constrains me. The reader has to imagine the characters. I don’t even like to give them names because from a literary and narrative point of view it seems constraining to me too. What happens is that I have to give them names otherwise the reader mistakes them, and me too; I don’t know which one I’m working with.” Apropos of control he’s learned to relax: “In my first books, in order to protect myself, I worked with a plan wherein each chapter was predetermined. Not anymore, but at the time I didn’t understand yet that a good novel is like an organism that lives under its own laws.” Given his propensity for autobiography, Blanco asks him if he writes for catharsis; he replies that “writing protects one from suffering,” which is a marvellous answer. But the rest of it helps us segue into the next part of this post: “With my first books it was like that, no doubt about it, but progressively I grew more interested in style, the depuration of form and words. Each word is achieved like a stone I remove from a well.”

So let’s move away from the concrete to the abstract. Reading the man talk about the creative process is fascinating, frustrating and sometimes just plain bizarre. He says things that make sense and yet you don’t think they apply to himself; he castigates writers you’d expect him to uphold; he defends practices he doesn’t practice. We can start with his admiration of poetry. The same way he admires the concision of short-story writers, he admires what poets do with a single verse. “And sometimes I ask myself why write 500 pages if some manage such a moving result in a sentence. The problem is how to structure emotions, a poem is like an orgasm, but it's impossible for a reader to have an orgasm during 400 pages, because the orgasm after a certain while starts being painful and the pleasure is lost.” Later he states that “the best verse is the unexpected one, including for the poet. The problem is to do that in a novel.” Lobo Antunes presents himself as a hardworking novelist who is always in control. “I’m very conscious of Bach’s music, I have to be implacably efficient, of an almost mathematical precision.” But that control and hard work can’t transpire into the act of reading: the writing must seem natural to the reader. “The problem is to achieve that efficiency with maximum simplicity. I’m very worried when I’m told my books are hard to read.”

Perhaps like all budding writers, Lobo Antunes started thinking writing was about making up stories. When he was a boy he wrote about boxers and pirates, but “the feeling of the text’s importance, the concern over words, understanding that what mattered was the way of writing and not the story being told, that came later, to me it especially came much, much later.” Nowadays he’s capable of getting a bit upset when an interviewer asks him about his novels’ stories and plots. That’s irrelevant to him. “The writer works with language and this is naturally the most important thing, but you have to structure language, it has to be at the service of what you want to tell.” I think it’s more the reverse in his case: the shadow of a plot is just there for him to pile up lots of words into brilliant sentences and similes and metaphors. Bizarrely Lobo Antunes in recent novels has sort of forsaken his gift for metaphors. “I just want my writing to be efficient in the sense Tolstoy said, for whom a good writer was the one who didn't sacrifice the implacability of his narrative to the temptation of a pirouette, of a metaphor or of an adjective.” In English the only novel that I think shows the style he’s been practicing for over a decade now is What Can I do When Everything's on Fire? I confess I don’t know his style after 1994.

His position on the craft results in his butting heads with several great novelists. It’s not every novelists who has the courage to lambast Ulysses:

Yesterday I was reading Joyce's Ulysses and I consider it a fantastic novel from the perspective of its verbal richness, but at the same time I was bothered a bit because I didn't understand what that extraordinary verbal ostentation was in the service of. The pirouette for pirouette's sake, the fantastic showcase of an immense capacity of verbal invention, it stays a bit in the void because it doesn't help the story in the sense of narrative efficiency.

On the one hand, it’s important to master language, words, but I’d be restless if it were just that because, in the end, you realize that’s not the most important thing.

What’s important is for the book to write itself, that it have its own existence and that it can stand on its own, and not that someone wrote it. With Joyce we’re always feeling his craftsmanship, his expertise as a writer is imposed on us and we’re noticing all the time that it’s him, Joyce himself, who’s behind everything. That reminds me whenever I talk with some Frenchmen. I always have the impression they’re telling me: ‘Look how clever I am.’

You don’t have to be clever, it’s the book that has to be.

And yet I don’t know any case of a dictionary spontaneously turning into a novel without the help of one of those clever writes. This reminds me of a Theory of Literature class I once had on the Russian Formalists. I don’t who said it, but one of them argued that if Alexander Pushkin had never existed, someone else would have written Eugene Onegin. The actual consciousness behind the novel is irrelevant to the process of its creation. But the problem with this view is that we had to wait for Pushkin’s particular consciousness to exist for Eugene Onegin to be written. I never really understood this providential view of writing, as if an independent spirit acted through writers. It’s almost like a form of low self-esteem that renders the figure of the author totally insignificant. For my part I side with Northanger Abbey’s view of the novel as a vehicle for “greatest powers of the mind are displayed.” I think everyone knows I detest Ulysses, but if Joyce likes pirouettes and verbal ostentation, why shouldn’t he displayed his talent to the best of his capabilities? Well, because “efficiency lies especially on not giving in to the temptation of a beautiful metaphor. A beautiful image, a beautiful verbal pirouette can damage a novel.” But that’s everything I like in your novels!

So an author should abstain from metaphors and verbal pirouettes? Well, Lobo Antunes wouldn’t forbid you, since he’s a nice man, but he vehemently advises you not to. “It’s not the writer that has to show his technical capability, his craftsmanship or his challenges and difficulties. In a good book the author isn’t in it, he’s not noticed. When we’re reading like readers we feel that the writing is telling us: ‘Look how I do this, look how hard it is to solve this and how I solve it well.” Not only doesn’t the book work, but I believe you fall into a problem of poor taste. Those books can’t be good.” I think, however, that we can reply that if the writer put himself in such a hard situation perhaps he doesn’t think it’s hard at all. After all a writer can choose not to raise challenges and problems to himself; if he does perhaps it’s because he likes them. The problem with this type of mentality is that it can be applied to any writer we don’t like: pigeonholing an author as uppity clever just to make ourselves feel good with our inability to understand them is common behaviour. I do that all the time with Joyce, but the truth is I wish I were smart enough to understand Ulysses. This kind of behaviour can be applied to just about any good writer who demands a bit more from the reader: Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, his beloved Faulkner, Saramago, Gass, Gaddis, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes. In fact I think it’s amazing Lobo Antunes fails to realize this is precisely what the average reader thinks of his writing: “Why does he write all those long sentences full of temporal distortions and abrupt shifts in perspective in a single line? Does he think he’s being clever? The big show-off!”

Lobo Antunes’ solution for this authorial interference with abiogenetic texts is to remove the author’s name from books. In order for writers not to be the books’ protagonists, books should be published anonymously. Let’s put aside the fact he hasn’t put into practice his own suggestion: anonymous books would continue to be books written by someone, you’d just be failing to give credit where credit is due. Someone always writes the book. Ulysses without James Joyce on the cover continues to contain the same defects of design he complains about. But he’s not convinced and continues to insist in what to me resembles medieval mystical mumbo-jumbo: “It’s the text that builds itself independently of me.” How? Does Muse or the Holy Spirit inhabit you or something? “I had a teacher at the Faculty of Medicine who used to say: ‘Patients get better in spite of the doctor.’ And that happens many times with the book. Because you don’t have concrete plans; you start in one direction and it’s the book that takes us wherever it decides.” It’s no wonder Lobo Antunes could never consider Nabokov a great novelist, they’re absolute opposites. Nabokov is all about control and likens writing to running a galley-ship. Of course new ideas come to us when we’re writing, but in the end it’s always the writer who decides if he wants to go wherever the novel wants to take him. Still the medical analogy is utterly nonsensical in light of a cancer he had a few years ago that nearly killed him; he got better, not in spite of doctors, but thanks to the surgeon who operated him.

But notwithstanding these opinions that could get lots of ink running, what emerges is a writer fully committed to his craft and determined to change the way we understand novels. For all his spontaneous texts gibberish, the word he most often repeats is work, work, work. He’s never satisfied with what he writes and is aware that his ultimate goal may be unreachable. “I will never achieve the novel I want because, first of all, if I did why continue writing?” Nevertheless this acceptance of his failure does not preclude his search a perfection he knows does not exist: novels do not have beginnings and endings, you can never know when a novel is finished; you just stop when the text expels you from itself. “I never read proofs. Because if I read it again I know I’ll regret it, you can always change a novel.” The novels he publishes are just concessions he has made to his will to write the greatest novel ever. “What I intend is to change the art of the novel, the story is the least important, it’s a vehicle I use, what matters is transforming that art, and there are a thousand ways of doing it, but each one has to find his.” He’s not sure he’s found it yet and so toils on. “The bigger the experience and literary maturity, the more one understands the path one still has to walk. I’m never certain, doubts are always terrible, they grew evermore because I’m sure that my books could have been better if I had laboured more.” In fact he doesn’t forgive lazy writers. “I think writers in general don’t work on their books a lot, they don’t correct them. That’s a shame because sometimes it’s just one single word, but a single word that can be fundamental.” As it turns out, sometimes he begins reading a novel only to find himself correcting his peers. That could be great: an imprint devoted to famous novels rewritten by him.

António Lobo Antunes’s view of his own worth as a novelist fluctuates between modesty, insecurity and arrogance, sometimes he displays all three characteristics in a single quote. “Speaking with friendship and total honesty, I can tell you that I don’t think anyone writes like me when I’m writing well, when I work a lot. But that doesn’t give me any sensation of superiority, on the contrary, it fills me with dread. Because I know I pull it off because I work more than others.” It follows that if others worked harder, if they were less lazy, they’d surpass him. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I read pages by him and get stuck in a remarkable simile, an unexpected description of a feeling, an outstanding moment of absurdist humour, and I think to myself, “He’s the greatest living novelist.” Why can’t that be possible?

Next: how he conquered the world!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

From time to time António Lobo Antunes likes other writers

We all know that António Lobo Antunes decided to become a writer at the age of seven. He insists that he’s been writing manically since that age: he wrote through his medical course and the war in Angola. And yet it this was a sickness to him, an urge he couldn’t resist and that left him with a feeling of guilt whenever he ignored it, reading for him was always a pleasure. It was not of course a propitious environment the one he grew into: if it’s true that his parents enjoyed culture and nurtured his reading habits, it was also true that his “friends saw me as an idiot because I was reading all day.” His class, moneyed and aristocratic, cared only about making more money and defending its privileges. But the conditions of his class did not damage the exceptional way he took to reading. “I wrote to Louis-Ferdinand Céline when I was a boy, I was fifteen, and he replied and I kept the envelope all these years, because deep down the greatest joy for me wasn’t so much the later as seeing my name written by him on the envelope.”

So what were the first books this correspondent of Céline read? “When I was twelve or thirteen I started by reading Salgari, Jules Verne… amusing and passionate reads, but a bit later the surprises came: my immense amazement at what could be done with words.” As a kid he wrote simple tales of “automobile pilots, boxers, or things like that.” Then he discovered poets and his “literary disquiet” began. “Early on, aged fifteen, language started to interest me.” But we’re getting ahead of us: next time we’ll deal with his approach to writing; now we just want to list the writers he admires and loathes. The poets are certainly important and a procession of old names runs through the interviews: Alexandre Machado, Federico García Lorca, Francisco de Quevedo, San Juan de la Cruz, Gabriel Celaya, Blas de Otero, Carlos Barral, Carlos Bousonõ, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Ana Maria Moix, Pere Gimferrer, Rosalía Castro, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Luis Cernuda, Vicente Aleixandre, Rafael Alberti, that’s a lot of Spanish poets, from the Siglo de Oro, from the ’27 Generation, from Galicia. Also Luiz de Camões, Cavafy, Dylan Thomas and Eugénio de Andrade, Alexandre O’Neill and José Tolentino Mendonça. And Max Jacob and Apollinaire, “poets who did juggling with words, things I was incapable of doing.” And he tried, he wrote poetry until he was nineteen, then accepted he was awful at it and gave up.

But what about novelists? He’s only famous for his novels. There are also the names of many novelists, some surprising, and so are his positions on some famous ones. One thing can be said of Lobo Antunes, he doesn’t kowtow to popular views. Does he like Franz Kafka? “Not much. But what I know is the plot of his oeuvre, his work on language perhaps I don’t know so well because I read it in translations. Said work is enjoyed when you read in the original.” Well, obviously not only because everyone discovers Kafka via translations. But what about one of Kafka’s famous translators? “Certain gods like Borges… Borges doesn’t interest me personally. I don’t like what he wrote. He’s very intelligent but has little blood. He doesn’t carry me over. He’s a man who can handle words with a great mastery, but his poetry doesn’t It’s possible that it’s my fault, but he doesn’t enthuse me.” His poetry? Who cares about his poetry! Tells us what you think about his short-stories. At least tell me you like his essays. “His articles on writers are luminous intelligent, but when he talks, he’s not.” So he doesn’t care about two pillars of modern literature; surely he won’t start knocking down more gods. For instance Vladimir Nabokov, a writer with so much attention to detail and language and metaphor like Lobo Antunes will surely have a compliment for him. “He was a charming man” – aha! – “although in my opinion he was too delicate to be a great novelist, too intelligent… There’s so much attention to detail in his prose that sometimes it precludes us from seeing the whole, but it’s magnificent.” What about Eça de Queiroz, Portugal’s greatest novelist? “Eça de Queiroz is not a great novelist, he’s a great prose writer, in my opinion. His characters are always caricatural. They don’t have thickness, nor flesh, nor blood.” Is there at least one writer I don’t like that you don’t like either? “Paul Auster, Raymond Carver, I don’t like them, but perhaps I’m not right and I don’t understand them.” He also assures us he met Claude Simon once in Sweden and didn’t like him, the fact he’s often compared to him probably had nothing to do with it. Of course for people like me who love to follow the great soap opera of pettiness and jealousy that is the minuscule Portuguese literary community, the pièce de résistance is his hatred of José Saramago, which the good Nobel laureate often reciprocated. “I remember when I was in Brazil, at the beginning of the eighties, with other Portuguese writers and the woman Saramago then had [writer Isabel da Nóbrega] used to come in morning to say, ‘José, you had twelve lines, that one nine, the other eight…’ She counted the lines the press dedicated to each one. And spent the mornings underlining the newspapers, not just what they said about him, but what they said about the others. As if a compliment to another were an attack against him. It’s a very strange thing.” Lobo Antunes obviously doesn’t suffer from that kind of jealousy. I still hope one day to understand when and why they started hating each other, not that I mind the fine moments of comedy such hatred has generated. In a 2008 interview – not from this book – Lobo Antunes stated that once someone had shown him a picture of Saramago throwing one of his books on the ground. When confronted, Saramago categorically denied demanding proof.

The list of novelists he writes, however, is considerable: Miguel de Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Henry Melville, or at least Moby Dick, John dos Passos, Truman Capote, J.R.R. Tolkien, but perhaps only in his youth, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe when he’s cooling off. Playwright Eugene O’Neill also receives his blessing. And some more outré tastes. “As a reader I like books with lots of pages. I bought Thomas Pynchon. A thousand pages!, but it gives me the impression that it's written very quickly, not like William Gaddis, for example, who seems to chisel the words, or Scott Fitzgerald, who when he passed away was transforming Tender is the Night, which is a fantastic title.” The one that really caught me by surprise was Gaddis, a novelist I’m ambivalent about: he’s the only Portuguese novelist I know who’s ever mentioned him by name. In fact here’s another quote from the same 2008 interview: “There’s a writer I like a lot: William Gaddis. He died a while ago. He’s a writer who continues to be very controversial. [George] Steiner, who has been so generous to me, completely crucifies him. Qualifies him as unreadable. He has four books, huge. Published ten, fifteen, twenty years between each other.”

And what about the great Modernist Holy Trinity: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway… and Paulo Coelho? “Faulkner and Hemingway, in Faulkner all the technique is there and it’s very seductive for someone starting, on the contrary in Hemingway all the work is interior, it seems very simple prose, but it’s very laboured. There are so many good books! But I don’t want to undervalue readers who buy Paulo Coelho and writers like that. I understand they buy them, they work so many hours, then they arrive home and there’s the family, there’s the TV set… they need escape books.” He’s a tolerant man, except with Saramago.

What else? The man is gaga over the Spaniards and the Latin-Americans. The whole boom he practically discovered while he was serving in Angola. “My wife sent me all the books that were coming out at the time: Lezema's Paradiso, I remember the tremendous joy it was to receive it: the joy Cortázar gave me; Cabrera Infante, Ernesto Sabato... I met there the whole of Latin-American literature. It was when I started reading Cortázar, Lezama Lima, Cabrera Infante, Sabato, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Bioy Casares, whom I like more than Borges.” In another part of the interview he corrects that he used to like Sabato more than he does now [2000-2001], and And specifies that he likes Cortázar’s short-stories but not the famous Hopscotch. And what about the gentleman who won the Nobel Prize in 2010? “I also like Vargas Llosa’s first novels a lot, they’re very good: Conversation in the Cathedral, The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service… What he wrote afterwards I enjoy less.” And the boom’s poster boy? “García Márquez, yes sir, he’s a writer. You can point at him all the limitations you want, [Who does? What limitations?], but he’s a great writer. I don’t like him, but I know he’s very good.” It’s a relief to know he received your seal of approval.

And from Spain? He likes the Spaniards a lot, apparently more than he does the Portuguese. But he's being interviewed by a Spanish journalist for a book that was originally published in Spain, so maybe he was was trying to flatter the readers. Or maybe he really thinks that. Once he famously said that Portugal didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize because we didn’t have great writers. Two years later Saramago proved him wrong, not that he believes he’s a great writer or an indication that Portugal has great novelists, himself excluded of course; no, “I wish there were a Marsé, a Marías, a Villa-Matas here, but there isn’t.” But not to end this post on a sour note, here’s another one of his backhanded compliments, this time to my current obsession, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: “We can point all the limitations we want at him [what, again?], but he’s a good narrator, a classic writer, we can’t say he’s invented anything, but he’s good. Or, for instance, Camilo José Cela.” Yes, Cela also knows his stuff so he’s in the clear.

Of course, a few good modern writers aside, nothing really compares with the golden 19th century. “In the previous century you had at least thirty great writers working at the same time: In Russia: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev… In England: Jane Austen, Dickens, Emily Brönte… In France: Stendhal, Flaubert… It’s amazing what went on in the previous century, it didn’t repeat itself, there wasn’t another moment like that, I don’t know why. It was a special time.” As was the time I took to read this book. A final note: let’s never forget these opinions reflect only his state of mind in 2000 and 2001; in other interviews his tastes are slightly different, as is to be expected.

Next: matters of ars poetica! What the titles of his novels mean! And why there’s no writer like him in the world!

Monday, 1 September 2014

António Lobo Antunes: child, doctor, soldier, gigolo

María Luisa Blanco is a Spanish journalist: she directed the newspaper ABC’s cultural supplement and then moved to El País. Between April 2000 and February 2001 she interviewed Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes. On weekends she drove to Lisbon, stayed there 3 days, met him 5 hours per day and then returned. She says that he never limited the interviews’ time but “he never wasted his time having lunch, dinner or even a beer with me.” But on the last day of the project he invited her for a meal with him and his daughters. The journalist met him between the writing of two novels: Não Entres Tão Depressa Nessa Noite Escura (2000) and What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? (2001), whose work in progress he alludes to all the time.

It was a difficult time in Lobo Antunes’ life. Maria José, his first wife, the great passion of his life, had passed away in February 1999, weighing 27 kilos. Although they separated in 1976, and he remarried, they remained friends and to like each other; one day she called him informing him that she had cancer and didn’t have a lot of time left He moved in with her, who still lived in the same house they shared when he came back from the war in Angola; they lived together during the five months she managed to remain alive. While taking care of her he started a new novel, Exortação aos Crocodilos (1999), he literally wrote it by her bedside. In spite of the sickness, he claims it was a period of great happiness for both of them. When Blanco met him, he was still living there, with his two oldest daughters, Joana and one also called Maria José.

Under these circumstances Lobo Antunes granted Blanco 12 interviews; she also interviewed his parents. These interviews constitute a treasure of information that should keep scholars, fans and enemies entertained for many years to come: he talks about his childhood, his family, his medical studies, his taste in books, the war, his novels, the writers he likes and doesn’t like, his working methods.

I’ve collated all the data that I considered essential and interesting, and also unknown to English readers who may be into his novels (he believes there are lots of them; I’m less optimistic), and tried to organize them into two articles: this post will focus on his personal life; the next one will be about his writing process and his thoughts on literature.

Lobo Antunes was born in 1942, in the Benfica neighbourhood of Lisbon, the first of 6 children. He grew up in an aristocratic and privileged milieu: both his grandparents had been generals; his father was a neuropathologist; his mother, this being Portugal, lived around her husband’s orbit. The son lived in a bubble isolated from the regime and never experienced any political repression. Although he enjoyed the name of an important family, his parents were not rich and lived in a regime of austerity. He claims he “liked to go eating at [his grandfather’s] house because there was soup… two dishes… At my parent’s home we dined one soup; the same soup from lunch.” His relationship with his parents was cold and distant; they were not tender people, he can’t remember his mother ever kissing him. But when interviewed, she claimed that he had been a happy child. They loved to read, loved culture and transmitted that love to their son: his father, an aficionado of Vermeer and Velázquez, made his children copy Gaugin paintings; although he found it boring, Lobo Antunes later considered this a useful way of instilling discipline in him. But the favourite person of his childhood was his grandfather, a conservative, a monarchist and a supporter of dictator Salazar. At the age of 7 he took the boy to Padua for his first communion; they travelled through Europe and visited museums. Although the grandfather spoiled him with the tenderness he craved at home, his father wanted him to grow up ready to stand on his own, to be his own man, independent and responsible. “That was my childhood. I had to be the best, the strongest. If I arrived home and they saw another kid had hit me, my father got angry because I hadn’t struck back. ‘He was older than me,’ I protested. ‘Bite his testicles,’ my father replied.”

He remembers that he decided to become a writer at the age of 7. His mother, who loved to read, had taught him to read and write at the age of 5. “My mother says that ever since she can remember I was always writing, not playing or doing sports, because I devoted all my time to it.” But although the adults enjoyed culture at home, they did not want their child becoming an artist and gave him his first negative reviews when he showed them his writings. “Like a good mother she encouraged me, she told me: ‘This is worthless, you study and become a doctor, because you’ll never amount to anything as a writer.’”

Undeterred he continued to read and write, in a environment of pragmatic people whose intelligence existed only for making money: when he was 13 his grandfather asked him if he was gay only because he liked writing. He read everything in the family library. His father introduced him to Céline at the age of 14. His mother gave him money for public transportation, but he preferred to walk and buy books. He also had an aunt who deposited money into an account every month for him; when he turned 18 he withdrew the sum and blew everything on books. I think we can all relate. Then there was also school. “It was in high school that I started reading the Portuguese writers of the 19th century. But at the time, more than novels, what I really wanted to write was poetry. At the age of fourteen or fifteen I had a poetry collection.” But he wasn’t very good at it and quit by the age of 19. My impression is that he’s a frustrated poet who resigned himself to writing novels. He started a novel in his twenties but left it unfinished.

Then came the day he enrolled in the University. He wanted to study at the Faculty of Letters, but his father put him in Medicine against his will. “I was angry with him, but then I became happy all my life for having a scientific education. Besides my education helped me a lot as a writer because if I had gone to the Faculty of Letters, I'd certainly be writing like Sartre or Camus, or maybe I'd be a literary critic.” He continued to write throughout the course; he was a bad student because he didn’t care about it and repeated the first year three times. He also stayed out of the student protests against the regime, which were quite violent at the time, with police invading the campus to beat the crap out of rioters. Lobo Antunes didn’t care about politics and has continued not to care. Eventually he finished the course and left to London, hoping to work in the hospital Somerset Maugham worked in.

Portugal had been at war with its African colonies since 1961 and military service was mandatory. His army life started around 1969 or 1970. Like thousands of young men at the time he was dragged into the war. “I remember in a special way that I cried a lot on the New Year's eve night of 1970. It was a terrible night for me because on January 6 I had to leave for the war and that night, yes, I cried through that night.” Although his family was important it didn’t use its influence to stop him from going. “The children of important people didn’t go to the war,” he says. He didn’t come back until April 1973. He thought about deserting but a friend, Captain Ernesto Melo Antunes, talked him out of it. Although he didn’t want to go, he doesn’t hate his father for standing idle and has tried to extract something positive from his war experiences. Although he claims he did and saw many horrible things, he also believes the war helped him to become a better person: it thought him to be disciplined, a quality he needs to write his novels, comradeship, to understand true pain and to learn that he wasn’t the centre of the world, that other people existed. It was in the war that he began to understand the world better. The negative aspects tend to disappear in the background of the happy moments there. “The human being has an enormous capacity for forgetting, otherwise life would be horrible, it’d be like Primo Levi and his constant concentration camp stories, at the fifth camp I’m sick of them and of Primo Levi.”

His sojourn in Africa was a long sentiment of boredom punctuated by moments of horror and danger. He and the others could spend five days in HQ without doing anything all day, rattled only by a few attacks at night, then they’d head into the bush for five days and return exhausted to rest five more. During all this time, of course, he read and write. He missed ordinary things like cups and curtains on the windows; they always dined at five o’clock in the afternoon because the army didn’t have money for lights. He liked to be with the natives and liked meeting the tribe leaders; he built a personal dictionary to understand them, but had it confiscated by the secret police. He hated PIDE agents, they showed up whenever there were prisoners to be taken by helicopter.

Before leaving Portugal he “wanted to have a child because I thought I was going to die.” His first daughter was born in 1971. He wrote daily aerograms to his wife; she kept them and Lobo Antunes tells Blanco that he hoped they’d be published after his death. In fact they were published in 2005. Maria José came to Africa to be with him; she got sick with malaria and nearly died. Their daughter was also there, to the soldiers’ delight, who sort of considered her a collective daughter and took turns taking her for walks. Sometimes mother and daughter were left alone when Lobo Antunes left for the bush.

One of the best recollections of the war is his friendship with Ernesto Melo Antunes (1933-1999), one of the architects of the 1974 revolution. An officer who publicly opposed the war, he nevertheless carried out his duties with rigour; Lobo Antunes says with pride that thanks to his sense of discipline his unit was the one that suffered less casualties. This was another important lesson: discipline saved lives. When they returned in 1973 Melo Antunes involved him in the revolutionary movement. This was the only period in his life when politics mattered to him: at first he was enthused and when the regime fell he lived the ideals and hope of the time, even joined the Communist Party. But then came the disappointment with the revolution and a growing suspicion of politics, especially of the authoritarianism inside the party. “They told me that, as a writer, I had to make social art and that kind of things. That type of discipline didn’t please me, naturally.” Since Lobo Antunes does not hide that his writing is autobiographical, it’s not a stretch to see that disillusionment portrayed in the characters of Fado Alexandrino. At the time of the interviews he claimed not to vote.

He shares with Blanco a frequent dream. Although he doesn’t dream about the war, he dreams of being called back. “It’s a horrible dream: the war rages on, I’m called again to fall in as lieutenant, I show resistance… Always the same dream. Yet the war never shows up, never does; they just call me. In the last dream a body-guard showed up who told me: ‘Well, I’m here too; I’ll go with you…’ I never dream with the war; just with this. It’s a dream of tremendous anguish.”

After the war he went to work at the Miguel Bombarda mental hospital. When he chose his specialization he chose psychiatry because it gave him more time to write. He had to work for a living and wrote at night, at home, after his wife quickly cleared the dining table away. Everything he wrote, however, he destroyed, showing no interest in publication. In 1976 he left Maria José. He was 25 and she was 17 when they met and he considers her the great love of his life, and a great friend who believed in his talent. “I owe her my perseverance in writing. If it hadn’t been for her, for the enormous faith in me, and which she kept until her death, maybe I’d have abandoned it. She was convinced since she was seventeen that I was going to win all the prizes in the world.” He still can’t explain why they split; he says it was what everyone was doing after the revolution. Portugal was a traditional, puritanical country, divorce was taboo. Suddenly everyone was free to do everything they wanted, the sexual revolution was starting, a bit later there than in the rest of the world. “After the revolution many people split up, certainly because, as I was saying, we didn’t know how to manage freedom.” This dissolution of traditional values is also shown in Fado Alexandrino (1983). He never blames her. “I suffered a lot, I didn’t feel happy, and in those situations a person starts acting in a self-destructive way, with a stupid and incoherent behaviour.”

Although we see traces of this separation in Fado Alexandrino, its influence is more visible in his first novel, Memória de Elefante (1979). “Yes, Memória de Elefante is the story of that breaking up and it’s a book where you can guess a great suffering.” He adds, with his typical melancholy humour: “My Swedish translator jokes that I broke up because I needed working material.” In any event, with his first novel autobiography became one of the marks of his oeuvre: it’s a one-day-in-the-life kind of novel about a doctor who leaves home in the morning, heads for the hospital where he works, then goes out at night to pick up a prostitute in a bar, all the while full of stream of consciousness segments about his childhood, the war, the dictatorship, lost love, etc. The title means elephant memory and refers to his prodigious memory, which earned him this nickname as a child. Rejected by several publishers, it was picked up by a small one. The reviews were mixed, in those post-revolutionary times who you were mattered more than your talent, he was still in good terms with the CP but states that some people didn’t like to see this young aristocrat writing novels. But it was a huge hit: it sold thousands of copies and almost overnight he was a best-seller. He gave interviews and even went on TV. Three months later he published (the already written) The Land at the End of the World (1979). If the first novel stemmed from his break-up, the second one was inspired by his career as a gigolo.

For a few years after 1976 his life was an out-of-control mess. The author himself identifies a tendency for obliteration. “There is in me a very self-destructive part, that's very clear and the idea of suicide chases me all the time. An idea I don't why it exists because I've never had depressions. I've been through situations of enormous despair, but I never fell in depressions or sadness. I don't know. It's a thought that has always been with me.” After he left Maria José he started serially sleeping around with women and gambling. He worked in the mental hospital, made good money, started going to a casino and became addicted to gambling; there he also picked up strangers for one-night stands. Lobo Antunes, before he got old and fat, was a very handsome man and he even got a clientele: he was so popular, women talked amongst themselves and some looked him up just to sleep with him. Allegedly some considered him the best fuck in Lisbon. It wasn’t as great as you might presume. “It was a difficult period, after the separation. And I didn’t ever meet them… Sometimes I see a woman and I think: ‘Did I sleep with her?’ I think so, but… what’s her name? All that time I didn’t write anything. I spent two years without writing. I couldn’t write.” As readers of The Land at the End of the World know, the novel is precisely about a war veteran-cum-doctor who picks up a woman in a bar and takes her home to screw her. Incidentally, I detest his first two novels and maintain that he didn’t become a good novelist until Knowledge of Hell. Anyway, he sought a doctor to treat his addiction and he got himself back on track, but not without some traumas. “I felt physical repugnance, not just of women, but also of myself.” He claims that thanks to his daughters, to watching them grow and growing closer to them, he’s started feeling a different sensibility towards women. It was after his cure that hospital friend and non-fiction writer Daniel Sampaio (my mom loves his books) convinced him to publish. This information was provided, not by Lobo Antunes, but by his father.

Not long after their publication, one of these books made its way into the hands of Tom Colchie, the literary agent and translator involved with Jorge Amado, Cabrera Infante, Ernesto Sabato and Guimarães Rosa at the time. “When I received a letter by him telling me that he wanted to be my agent I didn’t reply to him thinking it was a joke. He wrote me a second one and I told him yes because, his fame and his efficiency as an agent aside, I thought it was chic to have a New York agent.” Colchie turned him into a world writer, although it took a few years for him to become successful.

In 1985, when he started making enough money from his books, he semi-retired from medicine, although he continued going to the hospital to see patients. The man Blanco meets didn’t strike me as a particularly happy man. Deaf on one ear, a condition he inherited from his mother, and forced to wear a hearing device, he thinks it makes him look ugly and ridiculous. He considers himself helpless in the quotidian and needs his daughters to do the most ordinary things like going shopping, driving, or filing income tax returns, he has no mind for practical things. Regarding friendship, he declared himself a solitary man with few friends: Nelson de Matos, his editor, Tom Colchie, his agent, José Cardoso Pires, a fellow novelist, and the aforementioned Melo Antunes – the latter two were dead at the time of the interviews. And on that cheerful note we end the biographical post. 

Next time: the books he loves! The writers he hates! And the secrets to writing great novels!

Monday, 25 August 2014

A true fan's guide to Jorge de Sena

After drawing up lists for Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes, I felt like doing the same for Jorge de Sena (1919-1978), one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, and as far as Portuguese poetry is concerned only a notch below Pessoa and Luiz de Camões, and also Portugal’s greatest literary critic. This time I’m sticking just to books by him; the truth is, if I added what exists about him, the list would implode. Sena was such a prolific writer – in fact my theory, after reading his letters to Sophia de Mello Breyner, is that he died, at the age of 58, from hard work – that he has an ever-growing bibliography. Although he passed away in 1978, his wife, Mécia, now aged 94, has carried out a strenuous battle of decades to publish a vast collection of posthumous documents that threatens to surpass in size Pessoa’s famous chest. By the way, I say strenuous because Sena, after he went Thomas Bernhard on his country and people, became a persona non grata in Portugal, for which reason a lot of his work disappeared from bookstores without publishers showing interest in rescuing them from oblivion. 2013 was the annus mirabilis: all his poetry written in life, after staying out of print for decades, was finally collected in a single volume. Together with what’s currently available and what can be found, after some searching, in used bookstores, it’s a great time to be a fan. But to be a true fan you need to read the following:


Poesia 1

Published last year, this collection supplants the anthology I used a few years ago to write about Sena’s poetry. It collects only the poetry he published in life, which still amounts to about 800 pages. Fortunately there are plans to publish a second volume collecting all his posthumous poems. I’m not sure they contain the prefaces he wrote for his individual books, but I hope so, he was an excellent reader of his own work.


Hopefully this little volume of poetry will become unnecessary once the second volume comes out. But as far as his single volumes of poetry are concerned, this is one of his most popular. Published after his life, it owes its longevity to its polemical nature: this is a series of poems he wrote vituperating and satirizing Portuguese intelligentsia, society, mythology, and politics.

Signs of Fire

Remarkably this novel, the only one he wrote, was translated into English. It’s a long novel and quasi-autobiographical. It’s a bildungsroman about a young poet who reaches maturity in 1936, during Salazar’s dictatorship and with the Spanish Civil War in the background.

The Wondrous Physician

Also translated into English, this erotic-fantastic novella is inspired by classic Portuguese literature and is a variation on the Faust theme: a young man sells his soul to the Devil, acquires magical powers and uses them to seduce ailing women. Because wouldn’t you?

Os Grão-Capitães
Antigas e Novas Andanças do Demónio

Collections of short-stories.


A posthumous collection of short-stories, left unfinished if I’m not mistaken.

Mater Imperialis

A collection of one-act plays.

O Indesejado

A play about the myth of D. Sebastião, our version of the Arthurian legend.

Monte Cativo

A hodgepodge of literary texts and projects that the author never completed.


Uma Canção de Camões
Os Sonetos de Camões e o Soneto Quinhentista Peninsular
A Estrutura de Os Lusíadas e Outros Estudos Camonianos e de Poesia Peninsular do Século XVI
Trinta Anos de Camões

These four books attest to Sena’s fascination with Luiz de Camões. He studied him for more than 30 years and it can be easily said that he was one of the greatest experts on Camões that ever lived. On top of that he also made valuable contributions to studies of 16th century Portuguese poetry.

Fernando Pessoa & Cª Heterónima

Published in two volumes, this book collects several texts Sena wrote about Pessoa throughout his life. His arrival in poetry is concomitant with his interest in Pessoa’s life and work; he corresponded with the Holy Trinity of Pessoa scholars – José Régio, Adolfo Casais Monteiro, José Gaspar Simões – still in his twenties and gained access to his world through them. The result was a series of interesting and nowadays curious texts: for instance, Sena was one of the first critics to write about the poet’s connection to Aleister Crowley, at a time in Portugal when many still thought the infamous magician did not exist.

Estudos de Literatura Portuguesa (3 volumes)
Do Teatro em Portugal
Sobre a Poesia Portuguesa

He also made more general contributions to the study of Portuguese literature. He wrote about poetry, theatre, novels and even foreign books about Portuguese literature. In a country that culturally formed itself around France, Sena was also unusual in that he paid attention to how Portuguese literature was received in the UK.

Estudos de Cultura e Literatura Brasileira

Like many Portuguese writers, he was deeply interested in what was going on in Brazil. Furthermore he lived there, in exile, for a couple of years: the result was a book fully devoted to Brazilian literature.

A Literatura Inglesa
Sobre Literatura e Cultura Britânicas
Inglaterra Revisitada

These three books demonstrate his interest in English literature. Unlike most of his countrymen, whose attention was turned mainly to France, Sena followed the British too. Nowadays some of these books serve as lucid primers for Portuguese college students.

Dialécticas Aplicadas da Literatura
Dialécticas Teóricas da Literatura
Sobre Teoria e Crítica Literária

Sena didn’t just apply literary criticism, he reflected about it. I don’t know many Portuguese critics, save Casais Monteiro, who took the time to meditate on the art and science of literary criticism. In these three books, however, Sena showed a long preoccupation with understanding just what criticism was, what it was for and how it should be performed.

Maquiavel, Marx e Outros Estudos
Sobre Cinema
Sobre o Romance
Amor e outros verbetes

These are four heterogeneous books about divers matters: cinema, the modern novel (at the time, anyway), studies on Machiavelli and Karl Marx. For an unconditional fan of Sena, they’re not redundant.


In the last decade there’s been a boom on the publication of Sena’s correspondence. It turns out that, besides writing lots of poetry and essays, he had the time to correspond with many important people in Portugal and abroad. I continue to pine for the fabled correspondence between Sena and José Saramago, but so far we have:

Jorge de Sena/Eduardo Lourenço: Correspondência

Eduardo Lourenço is one of Portugal’s best essayists and philosophers, particularly interested in literary studies and especially in the poetry of Fernando Pessoa. So as you can see, there are lots of reasons for them to hang out together.

Jorge de Sena/Vergílio Ferreira: Correspondência

Vergílio Ferreira is considered one of Portugal’s finest novelists. An existentialist at heart, influenced by Malraux and Sartre, he passed away in 1996. He’s virtually unknown outside Portugal, save in France, overshadowed by the likes of Lobo Antunes and Saramago.

Jorge de Sena/Guilherme de Castilho: Correspondência

I honestly didn’t have the faintest idea who this gentleman was before learning that Sena had exchanged letters with him. An internet search tells me that he was a diplomat, essayist and literary critic. It’s a lot clearer now.

Jorge de Sena/José-Augusto França: Correspondência

José-Augusto França is another critic: he’s the author of one of my favourite books on Eça de Queiroz, although his real love lies in the history of Portuguese visual arts and has countless books on painting. He’s also the author of a fine anatomy of the year 1936, essential reading for fans of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

Jorge de Sena/Mécia de Sena: Correspondência 1959-1965

And amidst all those letters, he found the time to write to his wife too.

Jorge de Sena/Delfim Santos: Correspondência 1943-1959

Delfim Santos was a philosopher with specific interest in German philosophy. The internet tells me that he was classmate of Casais Monteiro in high school, and later was teacher of famous writers like Luiz Pacheco and José Cardoso Pires. It’s worth noticing that Sena started corresponding with him when he was in his early twenties.

Jorge de Sena/António Ramos Rosa: Correspondência 1952-1978

António Ramos Rosa, who passed away in 2013, was a literary critic and poet, with a vast work spread across dozens of books. Alas many of them are out of print and I’m anxious for the inevitable edition of his complete poems. He was considered a great poet but I practically know nothing about him and if it hadn’t been for Sena I wouldn’t know him at all.

Jorge de Sena/Raul Leal: Correspondência 1957-1960

Raul Leal was a friend of Pessoa and allegedly insane. I keep promising to write one day about the sex scandal that involved the two, a graphically homosexual book and the upheaval it caused amongst society’s reactionary forces, including a young student who one day would become a dictator.

Jorge de Sena/Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen: Correspondência 1959-1978

I’ve written about this one before.

Jorge de Sena/Carlo Vittorio Cattaneo: Correspondência 1969-1978

Published last year, I think, here we have Sena corresponding with an Italian critic who specialised in Portuguese literature and who translated some of his poetry, thanks to which Sena received the 1977 Etna-Taormina International Prize. 



It collects several small diaries Sena wrote during the 1940s and 1970s; most of the pages are devoted to his years of exile.

Entrevistas 1958-1978

Two decades’ worth of interviews.

Rever Portugal

Although Sena was a poet and literary critic, he was also interested in politics. He never joined a party, too individualistic for that, and unlike his countrymen he wasn’t crazy about the communists. But his poetry shows preoccupations with ethics, truth, human dignity and the abuse of power. This book collects his political writings and concern the political situation in Portugal: the dictatorship, the Colonial War and the hopes and failures of the Carnation Revolution.

América, América

Texts about his life in America. I’ve written about it before.

O Reino da Estupidez

This was my latest acquisition. Split in two volumes, it’s a collection of satirical texts, much like Dedicácias, only in prose format, that makes mince meat of the stupidity, illusions and backward mentalities of his countrymen. The title says everything: the kingdom of stupidity, keeping alive Portuguese writers’ time-honoured tradition of inventing vicious epithets for the Portugal they love to hate; no, really, I could write a whole post on that. The second volume, published posthumously in 1978 and never reprinted since then, has become a costly rarity. A rarity I now happen to own. I was so happy I felt like writing this post.

And this is basically what you need to read to become a Jorge de Sena true fan. I hasten to add that I’m a few dozen books away from being a true fan. But with perseverance, hard work and God on my side I’ll earn that title yet.