Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Poet and the Magician Revisited




As my long-term readers may remember, back in 2013 I wrote about the letters Fernando Pessoa and Aleister Crowley exchanged in 1929. At the time of my reading I had two different impressions: first of all I held the impression that, the mythical nature of the interlocutors notwithstanding, the letters and the subsequent meeting in Lisbon left a lot to be desired; secondly, I thought it was deplorable that no one had ever written a novel about it, using the meeting as a catalyst for something more interesting.  

Well, I was wrong about my second point: unbeknownst to me until a few months ago, in 2007 up-and-coming novelist David Soares published his first novel fictionalizing this event, titled A Conspiração dos Antepassados, or The Conspiracy of the Ancestors. It was also the first book I read by him, and it was one of the most complete and well-balanced books I’ve read this year so far, equal parts intelligent, entertaining and gripping.

Soares (b. 1976) has pioneered the writing of genre fiction in Portugal, making unusual incursions into horror, thriller and what we nowadays call urban fantasy, in a country that has always looked with contempt and derision at anything that isn’t conventional tedious realist fiction, with the exception of academy-approved magical realism. Well, the novel’s plot is unapologetically fantastic. In Lisbon, the obscure poet Pessoa is mourning his mother’s death and finding it hard to recapture his poetic inspiration, attends a séance, patronized also by a mysterious Baron of Teive, to learn how to reach the dead, sabotages his fleeting romance with Ofélia de Queiroz, and begins hearing voices reciting sentences that, he later finds out, belong to Crowley’s The Book of the Law. In Tunisia, the infamous mage is feeling his magical powers exhausted, has a violent spat with his current Scarlet Lady that ends with head trauma and abortion for her, and worries more about how to regain his old magical prowess. Things start looking better when in Paris he meets an old friend, Cyril Grey, a magician himself, who hands him a case with an ancient manuscript belonging to the Portuguese Renaissance painter Francisco de Holanda (or d’Ollanda) and that contains the instructions to produce a Moonchild, a perfect being of extraordinary power who could rule the world. Grey and his partner, the magician Simon Iff, who had unsuccessfully tried to create the Moonchild, stole the manuscript from a secret society called The Three Hundred and now are on the run – Iff, believes Grey, has already been murdered by a magician called Oliver Haddo. Before disappearing, Grey asks Crowley to find out what happened to their old friend and to exact revenge. Receiving a letter from Pessoa, who in the meantime has discovered that the voices recite lines from his book, he considers that an omen since D’Ollanda is also Portuguese and travels to Lisbon where he enlists he befuddled poet’s help. Investigating, they unearth the secret behind the conception of King D. Sebastião, who turns out to be the real Moonchild, and also discover why he disappeared in Africa after the calamitous Battle of Ksar El Kebir. Oh, and there’s a secret society composed of hybrid insect-men after them.

De Holanda's Artwork: excuses to show it are scarce
Like all writing, this plot wouldn’t amount to anything if Soares weren’t a solid writer. Although conventional in structure, he has qualities that I appreciate. First of all he loves vocabulary and isn’t afraid of using it; he loves the awkward, archaic adjective and he doesn’t let clarity get in the way of precision: solifugous (something or somebody that flees from sunlight), occiput for the lower part of the skull, operculum, and even words I don’t know in English: it’s always reassuring to know that the author knows the verb for the sound elephants make (barrir). He’s also not afraid of using foreign words into the text when convenient: French, Latin, and another language I presume to be Hebrew (kabbalah shows up, of course). And then there’s a plain effort to come up with unusual word combinations of words: somewhere he uses “soul shavings” and elsewhere “odoriferous ballast” for the smoke someone has just inhaled. But above all Soares enjoys the oddball simile: distant pulsars blink “like wreckage hurled from the collision of two galaxies;” the cold air that awakens D. Sebastião when he arrives at another dimension feels “like an ice injection;” the Hells Mouth abyss where Crowley really faked a suicide is a “cave [that] expelled everything, as if it were rinsing its mouth, cleaning itself of algae caries and crabs;” cigarette smoke ascends from an ashtray “to glue itself like a spider web on a frame hanging above the bed;” streets rise “like scales on Lisbon’s back;” and so on throughout its almost 400 pages. (I’m not surprised that Soares considers Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat his favourite novel).

For us book worms, there’s also the pleasure of spotting small references to other books: when Pessoa asks a person at his office if he’s ever read António Mora, the joke of course is that no one could have read it since Mora, the pagan philosopher, was one of the poet’s heteronyms; when Pessoa thinks about “having to make ends meet” that’s a shout-out to António Mega Ferreira’s book on Pessoa’s many attempts at setting up private businesses (the title is Fernando Pessoa – Fazer Pela Vida, which is how we say “to make ends meet” in Portuguese); Pessoa strolling about Lisbon and wondering what he’d say if he met one of his heteronyms may be a reference to José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which has the opposite situation: a heteronym going about Lisbon and having conversations with Pessoa’s ghost; not to mention allusions to verses he has not yet written – knowing Pessoa’s poetry is not mandatory to enjoy the novel, but heightens the experience. For the comic book lover (Soares also writes them) there are also Easter eggs if you’re familiar with Alan Moore’s From Hell and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Soares can sometimes indulge in sheer essayism when he reconstructs Lisbon in the 1930s, or when he points out the occult lore hidden in every stone and façade and statue, much like Moore’s psychogeographical jaunt through London (Grey also predicts a coming war, much like Robert Lee does at the end of the comic book). As for The Invisibles, Soares is gracious enough to remember those who before him used the myth of the Moonchild in fiction. As most people don’t know, Grant Morrison’s superb sci-fi/occult thriller about a cell of anarchists fighting against an insectoid species for the freedom of Mankind – one of its many subplots involves the bad guys trying to bring forth a royal child called the Moonchild. Of course Morrison himself was only appropriating Crowley’s fantasy novel Moonchild (1923) which is also about warring magicians trying to create the Moonchild. Simon Iff and Cyril Grey happen to be characters from that novel (Iff also shows up in detective stories whose Wordsworth Edition collection I own but have not yet read), not to mention that Oliver Haddo is the character William Somerset Maugham created based on Crowley himself. By the way, the Baron of Teive and The Three Hundred come from Pessoa’s own oeuvre. The interesting thing about the Moonchild is that, if Moore clearly influenced Soares, Soares got to the myth first. In 2009 Moore started publishing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume III: Century, which was about the League trying to stop a magical conclave from giving birth to the Moonchild/Antichrist (also known as Harry Potter) and since the concept of the League is to fusing existing fictional worlds together, Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray bump into Oliver Haddo and Simon Iff, plus Carnacki (!) and Karswell Trelawney (from a fine M.R. James short-story). There’s an interesting essay in comparative literature waiting to written on them.


Soares also shows a debt to Moore and Morrison (or an affinity) in a more subtle way: his love for erudition and research. The novel is extensively researched and annotated (he provides a lengthy bibliography at the end – very From Hell, that), and on every page he shows ease in talking about the private lives of Pessoa and Crowley, or in discussing occult lore, or in simply connecting many strands of arcana into a coherent, persuasive whole. People with a better knowledge of occultism could probably write a more in-depth analysis of that aspect of the novel, but I’ll just mention one aspect: the scatology. Throughout the novel Soares associates magic with bodily functions. “The body is a bicolor mosaic tiles of fair skin and dark blood.” Paracelsus, he informs us, used excrements in his potions, and there was even an Italian called Christian Franz Paullini who created a “scatological grimoire” with receipts for balms based on human and animal feces. Soares knows his stuff, he does. During the reading I sensed that Pessoa was often associated with semen (he’s a great masturbator in the novel), which perhaps culminates with a bizarre scene where he goes to a brothel, picks out a prostitute with a hump and asks to cum on it; and Crowley would be more associated with blood, given his violent behavior; but going through my notes I realized that Crowley at every turn has his hands steeped in semen, blood and feces. “Blood is a magical medium,” says the mage to an assistant; and he brags about inventing a way of performing sex in that requires sexual activity – his two favorite things together. When Crowley first appears in the book he’s in the bathroom tasting his own diarrhea. There are also ample appearances of vomit, piss, snot, sweat, veins, viscera, and amniotic liquid. A character to join The Three Hundred must sever a finger, that is, make a blood sacrifice. Magic may deal with the spirit, but it’s performed with the whole body. In two different occasions, when he needs to activate the magical properties of an athanor, and when he must open a gateway into a dimension called Daath, he masturbates as part of the ritual. Even better, in order to get out of Daath he must be literally shat back into his reality through a demon’s anus (the demon is called Choronzon, by the way, whom Crowley once actually met). I liked this messiness because it’s tedious to see how often magic in popular culture is portrayed, with nice-looking wizards and plastic Halloween wands. Soares’ magic is dirty, filthy, vicious, not for the faint-hearted, and has a more convincing air about it. No drippy fluorescent thunderbolts, just your body – self-reliant magic.

Soares’ research also extends into the lives of his protagonists. Since I know Pessoa better than Crowley, I enjoyed his forays into the latter; even so I thought he attempted and interesting and successful thing in showing similarities between the two. After his mother died, Pessoa became depressed. “In the same he was forgetting how to talk to the living, he had lost a long time now the ability to hear words from the dead.” He drinks, he wears his mother’s clothes. Madness is a preoccupation: “He was afraid of going mad and the horror was not groundless because he was a worker of the brain: it was his professional illness.” Crowley, trying to recover his juju in Tunisia, also fears going crazy: “an unknown fear of going crazy was turning the discharging of magical energy heavier. What if, because of that fear, he died the wrong way? He could end up in the wrong company: that was very dangerous.” In the same way Pessoa wonders what a young woman like Ofélia could see in him, the mage wonders why Olsen hangs out with him. Pessoa is trying to beat writer’s block; Crowley worries that his magical prowess has abandoned him forever. The affair of ancient manuscript is essential in renewing their lives. Since they’re real-life characters, I don’t think I’ll ruin the twists by saying that Pessoa will survive until 1935 and Crowley until 1946. But the experience changes them: the poet resumes his writing and creates the 1934 poem Message; Crowley, struggling to write an explanation of The Book of the Law, after receiving the manuscript beats his own writer’s block.


Both Pessoa and Crowley are recalcitrants who don’t conform to society; both abjure groups; both are conservative and despise socialism; both are deeply individualistic and resent others who try to meddle in people’s lives. Both also saw themselves as teachers of the ideal life. Pessoa once defined himself as an “indiscipliner of souls” (I was surprised this famous expression wasn’t used in the novel), and Crowley sees himself as a master who teaches others to do away with masters and live according to their own will: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” They’re both aware that around them most people are failures, and envious and resentful of those who succeed. Both live on the margins. Crowley flat out rejects a normal life. Pessoa also refuses one. “I don’t suffer from abnormal compulsions,” he says. “What’s an abnormal compulsion for you?” asks Crowley. “Marry. Have children. Pay taxes.” Deformity plays a role here: physically normal, their minds are skewed. The insectoid members of The Three Hundred, through, demand ritual deformity but want to impose spiritual sameness on mankind. So it’s no surprise that Pessoa and Crowley, in their battle against The Three Hundred, are really performing a battle, not unlike the magical anarchists in The Invisibles, between free will and oppression.

Another strand of subtext is the relationship between magic and writing. “… Write and may writing be for you a source of pleasure…” says The Book of the Law. For Pessoa it’s anguishing, actually; and Crowley also despairs to learn how to write about the said book. And yet it’s also a balm. When Crowley finds himself stranded in Daath and travels through an endless plain, he recites poems to himself. Writing is a form of magic itself, an elixir of immortality: “Yes, to be immortal is a mark of the gods and man will never achieve it, save through his oeuvre,” says Crowley. Language can be a magical weapon, like in the African myth of Ditaolane, a baby-god who slays a gigantic serpent by uttering words at it. And Pessoa describes a pen like “a fallen sword with a drop of shining blood on the widest bit of the blade.” Both writing and magic require a touch of cruelty, reclusion and loneliness; Crowley to be a great magician must indulge in obnoxious behavior; although Pessoa is milder than his counterpart, he watches the world go by without taking part in it. “Writing is a dangerous activity,” says he to a workmate. “Why?” Because, replies the poet, “… It doesn’t teach you to live.” “Then what is it good for?” “To write better!” This is their obsession: to the besta at their respective arts, at the price of not knowing normalcy. Soares himself doesn’t refrain from brief meta-commentaries on craftsmanship: “Magical thought was like the novelist’s authorial voice: a quality that could not be thought except by the experience of erring. Magic was very similar to fiction writing: the word used to denote the act of casting a spell was the same used to denote the act of spelling a word – spell - and what was a grimoire but a grammaire?” I’d add the verb to curse, which means both to damn someone and to use bad language.


But the writing and the magic have a benefic effect on them. Alan Moore somewhere said that magic is nothing but a method of self-improvement, a way of producing effective change on our live, of pointing it towards a more meaningful direction, of controlling it. Crowley would agree: “Magic makes people more responsible for their fate by giving them the opportunity to change.” At the end of their ordeal he says to Pessoa, “I think we’ve transformed into something that we couldn’t have reached on our own.” What that transformation entails is left for the reader to decipher.

David Soares is the novel’s real magician. A Conspirações dos Antepassados is a triumphant mixture of genre fiction’s page-turning enthusiasm with above-average writing and a depth of learning that would leave Alan Moore and Alexander Theroux dazed. He doesn’t just know his data inside out, he shows genuine affection for his subjects, and he makes his reader become just as interested in his obsessive themes. His fantastic world, a bit out of synch with ours, is fully coherent and immersive. I usually don’t need fictional worlds to be coherent and credible to enjoy them, but those who consider solid world-building a sine qua non condition, Soares doesn’t disappoint. His erudition persuades, and entertains.

If a contemporary Portuguese novelist needs to be translated into English, it’s David Soares.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Adolfo Bioy Casares: A Plan for Escape




Henrique Nevers, a young Frenchman in love with poetry, after an uncle accuses him, probably wrongfully, of stealing valuable documents that compromise the family, arrives at the French Guiana to take up a post as warden on an prison-island in order to atone for this crime before he can return to resume his love affair with his cousin, Irene. His duties take him to an archipelago called Salvation where, according to the terms his uncle stipulated, he must penance a whole year in; composed of three islands – Devil, Royale, and Saint Joseph – it altogether keeps some 700 inmates, ordinary and political, and a few oddballs. That wouldn’t be problematic, since you must expect lunacy to thrive amongst prisoners, if it weren’t for the fact that the oddballs belong to the staff, especially the Governor, Pedro Castel, who’s rumored to be an anarchist preparing a rebellion to set up a communist republic. Nevers doesn’t even want to hear about these rumors, he doesn’t want to investigate them; he just wants to do his job and come back home to Irene, fearing that any investigation may only delay him. But curiosity and a residual sense of duty overcome his longing to escape the island, so he investigates, discovers something stranger than he originally imagined and comes to a tragic end.

Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote A Plan for Escape after The Invention of Morel. At this point islands attracted him; having read his further novels, I think his quality took a plunge when he moved inland into urban spaces. ABC knew the island tradition in literature. “Robinson’s fable is one of the first habits of human delusion,” the narrator says about the allure of the deserted island where the castaway can build himself a home away from others, “and The Works and the Days had already retrieved the tradition of the Happy Islands – they’re that ancient in men’s dreams.” Of course the author also knew their potential as places of danger, mystery and magic due to their isolation: cut off from the world, they seem to operate under different rules, obey skewed realities, allow bizarre activities. No wonder Never thinks of Wells’ Moreau when he learns that the Governor has been experimenting on animals. Morel showed a utopia; Escape shows a Hell.

The Invention of Morel, about an escaped convict finding refuge on an island, is about the capture of time, the possibility of creating a closed, immutable world where nothing is lost. I don’t think it’s ABC’s best novel, but its high-concept twist will endeavor to make it popular forever. A Plan for Escape is its opposite: the island as prison, wanting to flee it, going back to the normal world. In effect it’s also the opposite of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe: unlike Drogo, who wastes his life away in a frontier fort waiting for action, and who ritualizes the exaction of his duty as a means to alleviate his doubts that no battle will ever happen, Nevers is desperate to abandon Salvation and wobbles in his devotion to duty, seeing in it binds that hold him.

There are a few factors that, to my mind, make this novel better than Morel. For one thing ABC perfected the escalation of suspense. From page to page, chapter to chapter, up until the last page, the suspense gradually piles up until the reader shares Nevers’ dread. ABC achieves this in a simple way: he alternates between revealing glimpse of dangers or horrors, and then having Nevers find a logical explanation for them. But the reader is trained from early on to remember that the protagonist wants to be blind; so there’s also expectation about, and satisfaction, when he collides against new evidence that he can’t reject from his neat vision of the island. This piling up occurs slowly: already on the first letter he writes to uncle Antoine he mentions upsetting conversations aboard the ship about the island “that he later regretted not to have paid attention to.” In Cayenne, where he makes a stop before going to Salvation, he learns that Castel left the town, the traditional Governor’s residence, to live in the archipelago; at the same time he sent the former warden back to Cayenne. It’s also during a dinner with the influential Frinziné family that he hears that he’s an anarchist who keeps a private zoo, allegedly starving the guards to death. “If they didn’t have their own henhouses…” regrets Mrs. Frinziné. Castel also indulges in other proclivities. “She also accused him of writing and publishing, in prestigious periodicals, small prose poems.”

On the islands his apprehension and paranoia continue. He meets the Jew Dreyfus, a released convict living there. His real name is Bordenave, but he’s obsessed by the real Dreyfus. He’s also a simpleton who confuses Victor Hugo with Victor Hughes, a former Governor. Nevers learns a lot from him, befriends him, tries to get him to read books, discover the classics, to no avail. When he arrives Castel is living on Devil, which is presently camouflaged: this leads Nevers to believe that he’s preparing for some all-out war with the mainland in case of invasion. The inmates amble about with tasks; there are madmen; there is no doctor, sent away. “The Governor and the secretary take care of the sick,” explains Dreyfus. These regulation breaches worry Nevers. “He censored Castel, thought that he should take the patients off the island, send them to a hospital. Finally he discovered that his passionate reproach was not alien to a puerile terror of being infected, of not seeing Irene again, of staying on the island some, a few months, until his death.” Nevers waits for the Governor to call him; spots him about the island, waking followed by a menagerie of animals. Thinks him dangerous, mad, his suspicions widen. But when he meets him he’s charmed. However Castel soon unsettles him again; he needs an intelligent, humane collaborator to work with him and De Brinon, his secretary; he mentions obscure plans to save the inmates; Nevers becomes apprehensive again: his investigation resumes, discovers that Castel is redecorating the cells with strange color patterns, talks to inmates: Bernheim, a dangerous revolutionary and terrorist, gives him startling information but then joins Castel because he’s convinced the Governor is planning a revolution, and the terrorist doesn’t want to be left out. Castel tempts Nevers a second time, he replies he just wants to fulfill “my duty automatically.” Later Castel gives him an errand to send him to Cayenne. “Castel wants to keep me away in order not to have eyewitnesses or opponents. He won’t,” he confides to uncle Antoine. He has received a letter from his cousin, Xavier, informing that soon he’ll arrive on Salvation to replaced him – soon he’ll be back home, with Irene. Why detain himself? “The evidence that had tormented him were futile. He attributed the obsessions to the weather, the pestilential miasmas and the delirious sun, also to Bernheim, that ridiculous madmen.” These excuses alleviate him of his responsibility; let Xavier investigate when he arrives. Of course it doesn’t pan out that way.

As you may have noticed, some bits are in italics. That’s because the novel has another particularity that makes it, to me, more interesting than Morel: the actual narration is composed of a report uncle Antoine is writing that includes italicized citations from the letters Nevers sent him. A mysterious detail is that Antoine, Pierre’s brother, seems to harbor some ill-hidden hostility against his nephew, and because of this bias the narration is quite unreliable. Antoine makes fun of him, judges Nevers’ personality and disapproves of his relationship with Irene. In the first letter he receives he points out that Nevers dreamed of inciting 40 convicts aboard the ship to mutiny, as if to point out that Nevers is fanciful and not to be taken seriously. When Nevers mentions Irene in a letter, he accuses him of “lack of decorum,” and is upset whenever he discusses women. He also considers him a bit of a wuss. “Of course he himself recognized that he was a hero totally inadequate for the catástrofes happening to him. We mustn’t forget what were his true concerns nor how extraordinary those catastrophes were.” Apropos of Pierre’s decision to send him to the Guiana, he’s pretty supportive. “The governor is extremely polite, says Nevers; but he confesses that he looked upon him, from the first moment, with hostility. This toughness is a new faculty in my nephews; perhaps the mistake of sending him to the Guiana wasn’t that big after all.” Elsewhere he insists: “Pierre showed firmness but also good judgment” for exiling him. He also reproaches him for not taking his job seriously. This hostility sometimes isn’t direct, you just glean it from a few words. “Perhaps it’s experiments, something neither Bernheim nor I understand. In any event, he says with pathetic hope, there’s a probability that those paintings aren’t the first signs of war.” Anything Nevers says he turns into a reason for mockery. About the animals Castel keeps: “Friendship with an animal is impossible; coexistence, monstrous, continues my nephew in search for a crass originality.” Nevers is absolutely alone in the novel.

A few years ago I read most of Bioy Casares’ novels: if read in chronological order, I think they show a steady decline in quality. Asleep in the Sun is unreadable, and I shudder at the idea of reading The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. But his first two novels were remarkable. I think this is his masterpiece; Morel has a great twist, although the build-up bored me; Escape has a gripping build-up for a climax that could never live up to the expectations; unfortunately ABC succumbs to the temptation of explaining too much, and we get needless pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. But until the last chapters it’s a thrilling book blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, sanity and madness. The way of narrating, too, is more sophisticated and rewards second readings. And Nevers’ hesitation between commitment and indifference makes him more captivating than the narrator of Morel.

In A Plan for Escape Adolfo Bioy Casares crafted a verbal nightmare in the likes of Franz Kafka; it’s his most ingenious, tight-plotted and carefully-constructed book, and doesn’t deserve the obscurity it lingers in.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz Month: The Wrap-Up Post



At last, it is completed! The Eça de Queiroz Month is no more! And its conclusion alleviates me from the strenuous effort that ruled my life in the last weeks. I began composing the posts two or three days before June began, and I kept writing one per day even if I only published five per week – weekends were crucial in getting ahead of schedule. Thanks to that I managed to fulfill my plan for writing 22 posts; actually finding material for 22 parts was a more complicated matter: I had to break up his biography in smaller chunks, re-read more than I had counted on; but I think it all turned out well. It was always my intention to interpolate Eça’s life with his oeuvre, to keep this month from reading like a dull lecture. I hope to have achieved that goal.

Although a month in length, I began preparing the Eça de Queiroz Month around a year ago; it was in June or July of 2014 that the idea began coalescing; and once I had decided on it the next step was furnishing myself with Eciana. Although I had read practically every fiction he had written, I was very poorly read up on his secondary bibliography. A preliminary event was my reading of Joel Serrão’s O Primeiro Fradique Mendes, back in 2013. The second half of 2014 and the early months of 2015 saw me taking a crash course on Eça de Queiroz, and I’d be unfair if I didn’t list every author from whom I learned, took quotes, and received wider frameworks in which to understand and appreciate Eça de Queiroz. English-language literary criticism on Eça is scarce, but there are at least two books: Maria Filomena Mónica’s biography Eça de Queiroz (I have not read it), and Maria Teresa Pinto Coelho’s Eça de Queiroz and the Victorian Press, the ultimate source on Eça’s ill-fated attempt at creating his own review – how I learned so much from it! But the majority of the scholars I read will never, I fear, move into English, so I leave their names and books here:  José Augusto-França (As Conferências do Casino no Parlamento), Ernesto Guerra da Cal (A Relíquia – Romance Picaresco e Cervantino), Dominique Sire (Madame Bovary de Gustave Flaubert/O Primo Basílio de Eça de Queiroz), Harold Bloom (Genius), Maria Filomena Mónica (editor of Eça de Queiroz Jornalista and As Farpas), Miguel Real (O Último Eça), Joel Serrão (Temas Oitocentistas II), Luís Manuel de Araújo (Eça de Queiroz e o Egipto Faraónico), Moniz Barreto (A literatura portuguesa no século XIX), Elza Miné (Eça de Queirós Jornalista), João C. Reis (editor of As Polémicas de Eça de Queiroz), Heitor Lyra (O Brasil na Obra de Eça de Queiroz), Alberto Machado da Rosa (Eça, Discípulo de Machado?), and the two great living Eça scholars: João Medina (Reler Eça de Queiroz; Eça Político; A Geração de 70, uma geração revolucionária e europeísta), and the venerable, inspiring and tireless A. Campos Matos (Eça de Queiroz/Ramalho Ortigão; 7 Biografias de Eça de Queiroz; Um Caso Insensato da Cultura Nacional; and the superb biography Eça de Queirós - Uma Biografia). Other books I bought during the Month that I couldn’t read on time to use them; but that’s OK – I’m never finished with learning about Eça de Queiroz. I can't describe the sense of exhiliration I felt on widening my knowledge, on considering new aspects of his life and work, on getting a deeper understanding of what made him so extraordinary.

I read so much because I really wanted this to be the best of the Months I had held at St. Orberose; whatever its flaws, I hope it remains a helpful resource for those initiating their discovery and appreciation the great novelist that was Eça de Queiroz. So I leave here an index of posts:

Finally I wish to thank everyone who followed this event, and who commented. Small as it may have been, I was encouraged by knowing that there was an audience interested in what I was doing. Thank you very much for having been present at the Eça de Queiroz Month.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Eça de Queiroz: Beyond 1900




Eça de Queiroz’s problems ended with his death, but new ones started for his family and oeuvre. A crisper image of old relationships also began to emerge. As soon as he passed away Emília wrote to his friends Eduardo Prado, travelling with his wife in Sicily, and Ramalho Ortigão, his oldest friend: Prado immediately came to Paris to aid the widow, letting her stay at his house, whereas Ramalho continued his holidays in Venice. This and other behaviors have led the always-reliable A. Campos Matos to believe that, although Eça revered Ramalho, the friendship was not absolutely reciprocal. Informed, the Portuguese sent a war ship, called Africa, to bring Eça’s remains to Portugal, although such behavior may have more to do with his long and admirable career as consul than with his status as a writer.

Eça’s remains arrived safely, but his belongings didn’t have the same fate. In 1901, the ship transporting his correspondence sank and the cargo was lost; however, thanks to the diligences of many scholars, including the tireless Campos Matos, nowadays there are two thick volumes of letters, plus two addenda. (In 1915, Eça’s library was stolen: only 315 books remain, depriving scholars of a valuable means of understanding) His family was also afflicted: Emília, rich in lands but short on liquidity, and with four children to raise, needed money quickly. Prado, with his usual gentlemanliness, travelled to London to activate an insurance Eça had made: as a testament of the novelist’s usual monetary difficulties, of the 1500 pounds Prado collected he had to pay back 500 to a British consul from whom Eça had borrowed in 1879: he was kind enough not to add interest to the sum.

But Emília’s friends believed that the real way of making a steady income would be to manage her late husband’s oeuvre, and to bring to light unpublished novels. The task fell to Ramalho Ortigão: at the time it must have seemed like the best option, due to his long-time friendship with Eça, but in hindsight it was an almost tragic disaster that could have endangered many of his books. Emília wrote to Ramalho, asking him to perform the task of editing the manuscripts; he received them and replied that he’d also collect Eça’s newspaper writings and publish them. But in fact he didn’t do anything. In October 1900, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes and The Illustrious House of Ramires came out: but these novels had been left nearly ready by Eça (he passed away before revising Ramires’ last three chapters). In 1901, The City and the Mountains came out, with some editorial input from Ramalho, but this was the whole of his involvement in organizing Eça’s oeuvre (in fact Ramalho made lexical and stylistic changes that future scholars expurgated). In his letters he kept putting off the task and making up excuses for the delays. He also promised to carry out a critical study of his friend, which also never came to fruition. Campos Matos believes that Ramalho, whose own literary career was going through a decline, wanted to obliterate his friend’s memory. Eça’s fame soared while his dimmed; apropos of this, the essayist António Sérgio once quipped that Ramalho died in 1894 and that after that he “outlived himself,” a useless relic. The theory of envy is not remarkable since the praise of people like Fialho de Almeida and Pinheiro Chagas also had a phony note to them. In 1915 Ramalho even claimed to have written The Mystery of Sintra Road all by himself, having offered partnership to Eça out of “friendly comradeship.” In a 1901 letter Ramalho finally asked Luís de Magalhães to take his place.

Books continued to come out, but mostly due to the efforts of Luís de Magalhães (for whose novel, O Brasileiro Soares, Eça had written a preface): he collected the short-stories in Contos (1902); edited Eça’s early writings under the name of Prosas Bárbaras (1903); English Letters and Ecos de Paris followed (1905); then another collection of newspaper pieces, Cartas Familiares e Bilhetes de Paris (1907); also Notas Contemporâneas (1909); and finally Últimas Páginas (1912). These books comprised the bulk of Eça’s non-fiction; his posthumous novels had to wait another decade – this was chiefly because Luís de Magalhães did not have access to them, unlike the non-fiction that he could cull from extant periodicals. But before we jump to 1925, there are more years and events to cover.

In 1901 the State granted Eça’s widow an annual pension, secured by his friend the Count of Arnoso. This same Count promoted the construction of a marble statue of Eça which was inaugurated in Lisbon in 1903 (a tip for tourists: the real statue stands in the Museu Municipal de Lisboa; tired of fixing damage to the statue, in 2001 it was replaced with a sturdier bronze copy). Although it illustrated Eça’s growing importance (it was the second Lisbon statue raised in honour of a writer; the first one was Camões’, in 1867, a few steps up the road from Eça’s), it also provoked polemic in the press: one newspaper found the female figure’s nudity offensive; another one, contesting the value of Eça’s writing, didn’t consider it right for him to have a statue when so many writers didn’t have theirs. “And they raise him a statue! Why? Camilo and Herculano and Oliveira Martins have statues somewhere? And Garrett?”

But not one reached Fialho de Almeida’s heights of vitriol. His article on Eça’s death, written three years before, was a masterful hatchet job. He propounded the then popular notion that Eça was an accidental Portuguese writer. “Eça de Queiroz is a European writer, not a national writer. In the history of written Portuguese Ramalho’s prose yet last; Eça’s, never.” Alas, Ramalho, nowadays a mere appendage of Eça, surviving only through their colaborations in As Farpas and The Mystery of the Sintra Road, is far from meaning much. Obviously I don’t agree Eça was a European writer; I think he expanded what a Portuguese writer could be. But Fialho needed to believe Eça was mediocre to continue to believe his own prose would last. “In conclusion I will say that Eça de Queiroz is a failed genius due to the bad use he made of himself as a writer, a genius who diminished himself with philosophical indiscipline, the predominance of vulgar instincts, the lack of faith in a intense and absorbing ideal.” Fialho would not have been content with anything but late period Tolstoy. It’s never enough to reiterate that Fialho, in his career as a journalist, was mostly a purveyor of hatred and bile. His prose is collected in volumes called The Cats, for reasons those who know the feline temperament will understand. He also deplored that his funeral had attracted such a procession (over sixty carriages), appalled at the laurels conferred to the “greatest denationalizer Portugual had in recent times, the cynical genius who so poorly understood his moral mission as a man of letters, and who instead of rising the soul of his nation towards centralizing ideals that defended it from death, who instead of instilling in souls the root of activity, fatherland and family, spent his life denying, depressing, empowering modern French nonsense, doubting honor and virtue, seeing in men nothing but cretins and cads, and in women nothing but the vulgar rudiments of prostitutes!” Where was the balanced man who had once praised Cousin Bazilio? Foreshadowing the polemics over the 1903, Fialho finished this diatribe complaining that Camilo Castelo Branco had been forgotten in detriment of Eça.

Eça’s friends rallied against Fialho’s accusations. Maria Amália Vaz de Carvalho, an author of popular romances, wrote an obituary that was also an indirect refutation. “Now he’s finally Eça de Queiroz, the artist extraordinaire, the great peninsular novelist, whose glory would be European if the Portuguese language were known all over Europe, and who even so, beating the obstacles that our milieu places in front of everything that is beautiful and grand, managed to be loved by the intellectual elite of two brotherly nations – Portugal and Brazil!” Like Mariano Pina before her, she realized that writing in Portuguese had kept Eça away from worldwide fame. That is, unfortunately, the plight of every Portuguese writer. She also addressed the view that Eça had a bad knowledge of the language. “This is not Portuguese! – they exclaimed with rage. Portuguese for them was something ornate, precise, contorted, when it wasn’t stiff, rigid, when it wasn’t inflexible and slithery, something untouchable, but from which every reader eventually fled, from which they would fled by now, if it hadn’t been for Camilo’s chisel and Latino Coelho’s attic quill.” Portuguese prose was an acquired taste; easy to acquire, and quite enjoyable, if you have a thing for the Baroque. For her Eça “transformed the language into a most delicious music, breaking up its pompous periods, separating its heavy members, alleviating its ostentatious march, making it light, foamy, transparent, luminous, lively, musical, rich with melancholy moods and silvery laughs, creating in it the marvelous and unique tool in his humorist’s hand, moving it with convulsive grins, making it smile with Parisian elegance, making her cry, from that modern sadness which seems to be mocking itself while it cries!”

In Spain Eça also enjoyed recognition. We don’t know what Galdós thought of Eça, although it’s a fact his 4000-volume library did not contain a single Eça; but Miguel de Unamuno thought highly of him; and Emília Pardo Bazán considered him the best writer of the Iberian Peninsula, although not without some censure. “This great Portuguese artist could have been much bigger, almost perfect, he had sprung from his nation’s own entrails; if he had been more vernacular, pure, and Lusitan or peninsular down to the marrow, a son continuing his country’s literary tradition.” It’s no wonder that she preferred The Relic, a modern pícaro.

In Brazil Eça’s popularity continued to increase. In 1900 Machado Assis was still a bit sour from some words Eça had indirectly addressed him during the 1878 polemic about Cousin Bazilio. “What is worth saying about this calamity? For us novelists it’s as if we had lost the family’s best relative, the most beautiful and the most beloved. And such a family isn’t only composed of those who entered it through the life of the spirit, but also of relics from another generation, and, finally, of the new crop. The same he hurt when he exercised direct and mundane criticism, have forgiven him the pain because of his honeyed language, the new values he gave it, the old traditions he conserved and also the strength which united the former to the latter the way only great art can unite.” But Brazil was crazy over him – everyone read him, spoke of his characters as living entities, pilgrimaged to Portugal to kiss Eça’s statue, or to France to visit his houses. It’s even said that a man went mad trying to memorize The Maias. A Brazilian writer called Monteiro Lobato coined the word Ecitis to describe this obsession with Eça de Queiroz. Indeed we owe them the first book-length study, a 1911 biography by Miguel Mello.

Meanwhile, in Portugal his importance dimmed in part because of his wife, Ramalho, and foolish critics. In 1916 Alexandre Cabral wrote a study that, although praising the author, reproached Eça for “the crudities of his realism, his use of foreign words, and above all his ‘plagiarisms,’ which he ferociously enumerated, aided by the finest authors who pointed them out,” writes the great Campos Matos. Plagiarism was a charge Eça continued suffered during and after his death, for some decades: Camilo Castelo Branco, António Enes, Cláudio Basto, Machado de Assis, Pinheiro Chagas, João Meira, Adolfo Coelho all accused him a tone point of committing them. Apropos of that, there’s an excellent book by Dominique Sire comparing Cousin Bazilio to Madame Bovary: although finding similarities (like any ordinary reader would), she also shows the many deviations in style, theme and tone from Flaubert’s book. Most of these charges were petty, ungenerous, and in many cases motivated by the need to bring down a rival who was slowly but irremediably becoming Portugal’s greatest novelist.

Eça’s family, however, posed an ever worse threat. Emília was a pious, conservative, royalist lady who considered her husband’s work immoral and ungodly; she did everything to hide from her children that their father was a great novelist, and indeed didn’t become aware of that until their return to Portugal. She tried to remove The Crime of Father Amaro, Cousin Bazilio and The Relic from the market, because of their indecency and attacks on moral; fortunately, Eça had sold the rights to his old editor, Lello, who paid no heed to her demands. Emília also damaged the publication of Eça’s work abroad. Between 1921 and 1922 The Relic was serialized in a French newspaper; but Emília opposed the idea of publishing it in book form and the idea was abandoned. Valéry Larbaud, a  writer himself and admirer of Eça, wrote to one of the translators, Manuel Gahisto: “The author’s heirs’ extraordinary inflexibility can’t be explained, to me, except by their ignorance of literary history: they don’t know how slowly and through how many periods of neglect and obscurity a lasting literary fame is built, even in the case of an illustrious and classic writer in his mother tongue.” But keeping him obscure was precisely what Emília, her genuine feelings for Eça notwithstanding, wanted.

Considering the conservative mood in Emília’s household, it’s not surprising that Eça’s children grew up to be royalists and fascist sympathizers. When a republican revolution overthrew the monarchy in 1910, two of his sons declared themselves anti-republican and joined the guerrilla against the young Republic. This caused Emília to lose her annual pension. In 1919 these two sons took part in military uprisings to restore the monarchy; when the counter-revolution failed, they fled abroad. One of them, José Maria, fled to Brazil. There he met Ramalho’s son, who had inherited his father’s papers. Amongst them he had discovered several unpublished manuscripts. He had moved to Brazil and taken them with him, not knowing that he had them. When he met José Maria he gave them to him to publish them. Up until then no one known that these books existed, since everyone presumed that Ramalho, back in 1900 had examined them for anything of importance or worth. Out of this discovery José Maria edited Alves & Co, O Conde de Abranhos, and letters (1925), To the Capital (1926), and O Egipto and Cartas Inéditas de Fradique Mendes e mais Páginas Esquecidas (1929). It’s chilling to think what could have been lost if the ship that carried the manuscripts to Brazil had sunk. Particularly in Brazil there was a hunger for more Eça, and through the 1940s there new editions of his letters: the hunt was on for any bit of text that had come from his quill. Alberto, another son who moved to Brazil and died there in 1938, wrote that “only here did I begin to measure the greatness of Eça de Queiroz’s oeuvre.”

But in Portugal things were about to change. In 1945, in order to celebrate Eça’s centennial, there was an explosion of interest:  lectures, radio programs, exhibitions, new studies and biographies. The National Information Bureau, one of pillars of the dictatorship in power since 1926, organized an exhibition about Eça – António, his other fascist son, worked at it. The regime had tried to claim Eça’s oeuvre for itself, the way it would with many other classics. One of its henchman, during a radio lecture, even claimed that “Eça de Queiroz was – in truth we say it – a master of healthy nationalism.” Nothing new: in 1935 another fascist henchman had proven that Eça was a precursor of fascism; Fradique Mendes, in his view, was a “highly constructive” critique of “the errors of democracy.”

The most enduring book published was João Gaspar Simões’s monumental biography, Eça de Queiroz o Homem e o Artista, which the modest Campos Matos considers the best ever written. An anti-fascist, Gaspar Simões, who would also write Fernando Pessoa’s biography, locked horns with Eça’s heirs on ideological matters: he saw him as a defender of freedom and individuality; they wanted him to conform to the regime’s distorted image. António was obsessed with “protecting” his father’s image – thanks to his resources at the NIB he was always up to date on newspapers and new books and kept watch over anyone who, to his mind, slandered his father’s reputation. For that reason Gaspar Simões and many scholars remained in bad terms with the Eça estate, denied access to his private papers and unable to carry on research.

But life went on, studies continued to come out, new letters were discovered and published, new biographies written in Portugal and Brazil, and even new books published at last. The last major novel to see the light of day was The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers (written in 1877-78, published in 1983), a sort of understudy for The Maias, and especially offensive to the heirs’ religious feelings given its overt theme of incest.

And Eça de Queiroz’ star continued to rise: critical editions of his books, more biographies, countless studies, movie adaptations, translations. For what it’s worth, Harold Bloom includes him in Genius. Eça has never been more popular and read than nowadays. The world, however, on the whole has not yet placed him on that pedestal where Flaubert, Tolstoy and other 19th century masters enjoy their reputations. I’m not sure if a novelist, great as he may be, hailing from a small, obscure country and so far away from his time can find wide acclaim in another time – like Larbaud wrote in 1922, the creation of literary fame has its procedures, and Eça has had too many obstacles keeping him away from world renown. But I think that so long as people like to read intelligent, funny, humane and well-written novels Eça will continue to find new fans in every part of the world.

Tomorrow, the wrap-up post.