Friday, 19 October 2012

Reading Manuel António Pina

Unfortunate circumstances darken this article. I had been labouring on an article about Portuguese poet Manuel António Pina for some days now, and yesterday I had given it the finishing touches to have it ready to post today. So it was a sad coincidence to discover, moments ago, that Manuel António Pina passed away hours ago, at the age of 68.

Manuel António Pina was a Portuguese poet who had a vast oeuvre published from the 1970s onwards. His first book was in fact a children’s book, in 1973. The following year he made his poetic debut. Since then he had been active in these fields, as well as in writing for newspapers, for which he was better known. In spite of a large and praised body of work, I only discovered him after he received the Camões Prize in 2011. Curious, I recently read him for the first time. I’ll leave his poetry for another time, today I’m going to write about his enigmatic novella Os Papéis de K. (K.’s Papers, 2003).

Perhaps it’s because I have a tendency to see Kafkaesque vestiges in everything, but I bought this book exactly because the title resonated with Franz Kafka. Although his name isn’t anywhere in the story, his presence however impregnates every page. From the opening paragraph we enter a vague, unstable world, where memory doubts itself, reality is a work in progress, and the narrator, a nameless interpreter, questions the facts of his own bizarre narrative, as if he were living in one of Kafka’s many waking nightmares:

That which I remember (in a present that also seems past to me) is full not only of strangeness and improbability but equally of lacunae, of hesitations and of imprecisions, for maybe I don’t remember the facts but my recollection of them. It may thus happen that what I remember is not what I heard; or that I heard it from another person, in another place, in other circumstances; or even that I myself have dreamt or imagined it.

In the early seventies, the narrator, a Portuguese interpreter, after accompanying a group of businessmen to Hamburg, uses the occasion to travel to Paris to visit his brother, deserter of the colonial wars, forbidden from returning to Portugal (the action occurs before the Carnation Revolution), and who works at Gallimard. Due to an incident, the narrator makes an emergency landing in Amsterdam, where he meets Agnes, a Norwegian woman accompanying K., a Japanese scholar, to a conference in Paris. On the same night of their meeting, K., author of books on history, anthropology and religion, dies from a heart attack. The narrator continues his journey and doesn’t hear from Agnes again until she contacts him asking him if his brother would be interested in reviewing K.’s final manuscript, which K. asked her to destroy, for publication. The narrator gives her his brother’s contact but she never sends him the manuscript. Years pass and they unexpectedly meet at a NATO meeting. She tells him she destroyed the manuscript as requested but that she needs to talk to someone about it. Since she was the one who typed it, she remembers the content well.

   I was starting to get curious. “Was it a history book?”
   “I don’t know, perhaps. Or a novel, I don’t know…”
   “Ah, he also wrote novels…”
   “No, at least not that I knew of… But it was such a strange text, with so many coincidences, that, although it looked like a scientific work… it was a scientific work, I’m certain… and of all the documentation that he gathered…”

K.’s book proposes a fantastic thesis: it was not Jesus, but one of his brethren, who died upon the cross. This is no longer remarkable thanks to Dan Brown. But K.’s thesis continues: Jesus and his followers escaped to Japan, to the region of Hokkaido, where he lived to be 106 and started a dynasty. Agnes also explains that one of Jesus’ great-granddaughters or great-great-great-granddaughters, Hana, was raped and murdered. The culprit, one Sesshu, drowned to death when the river magically flooded his hut near the riverbank. This was, according to K., a punishment meted out by the kami, spirits. Only one of Sesshu’s sons, Genji, survived.

Agnes then tells the narrator that one of the documents she also destroyed was a copy of a school composition written by a girl called Michiko, whose 9th birthday was on August 9, 1945, and who was a victim of the Nagasaki atomic explosion. The original document, which she claims to be in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, is at the centre of K.’s thesis. But more of this later.

Agnes then reveals (Agnes has many things to say; the chapters are short, as if Agnes has to stop a lot to catch her breath because she has so much to say) that K. wasn’t completely Japanese. He had French nationality, and he was Jewish. After he lost his family during the war, he left to France and then Norway, where he hired Agnes as a secretary. He was the father of Michiko and believed he was the descendant of Genji. Furthermore K. believed, and wanted to rigorously prove with historical and scientific documents, that the atomic bomb had been an act of the kami, the Japanese spirits that influence human will, in order to punish Sesshu’s last descendant, Michiko.

“It was the Christian kami that (…) inspired Otto Hann, two years after Michiko’s birth, to discover the process of uranium nuclear fission and, next year, Einstein the letter which he wrote to Roosevelt and was in the origin of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb,” says Agnes. “As it was the good kami who made, later on, other scientists involved in the project to try to avoid launching the bomb.”

And after she tells this amazing fable to the narrator, she disappears again. Although the narrator finds the thesis of the kami fantastic, he believes nevertheless in K.’s despair. The way he sees him is that he was a troubled man who tried to find meaning in chaos, a sort of supernatural explanation to the tragedy of his life. But years later he travels to Japan and starts doubting all the facts in Agne’s story. He visits the Atomic Bomb Museum and finds a poem written by one Michiko, but not the school composition Agnes spoke of. There are other discrepancies between the two Michikos. He investigates further and discovers that Agne’s K. never existed. Some time later he discovers that an Israeli writer has just published a book called K.’s Papers. This writer claims he got the idea for the book from a strange woman who in her turn got it from a young man accompanying the mysterious K. Confused, the narrator even starts wondering if he wasn’t the young man who told her the story.

Anyway, memory is a fiction and the past a sort of dream that dreams us as much as we dream it. But can two men dream the same dream, or the same dream dream them both? If I ever met Amir Zach, the Israeli writer, who would I find? A man or a shadow?

I have no answer as to why Manuel António Pina filled this novella with so many Franz Kafka parallels. They’re simply there, in the text. A writer of Jewish origin who dies before he completes his book and asks a person to posthumously destroy it. The similarities aren’t just with Kafka’s life but with his fiction. K. shares the same single-consonant name as the protagonist of The Castle. K. is writing, not about revenge, Agnes makes a point of stressing this, but justice. For K., the kami were performing a work of justice by continuing to punish Sesshu’s descendants until the line was extinguished. Kafka’s The Trial is also about justice. In both cases, justice seems like a tenebrous abstraction whose scope transcends human dimension. The narrator is baffled to think that spirits would use an atomic bomb just to kill a little girl. But the gods, Agnes argues, can’t have a sense of human proportion, making their actions incomprehensible by their excess, much in the way that Joseph K. can’t understand the gigantic bureaucratic machinery that governs the legal process that ensnares and ultimately kills him.

But more than Kafka, the book is also about memory and the effect of time over memory and facts. Let us then say this novella springs from a point of confluence between Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. But it’s not just about memory, but also the unreality of reality, the vacuity of facts. Agnes herself is only telling what she remembers of the book she typed. “I’m not sure if I’m doing right by telling you this. He asked me to destroy his papers…” she says. And the narrator replies, “And you destroyed them. You’re telling what you remember. He couldn’t ask you to forget, no one can.” But time itself distorts and erases memories, and beyond time there’s the creative force of every person that changes things alongside time. And this is where I started thinking about the differences between Kafka’s protagonists and K. It occurred to me that Joseph K. and K. the surveyor lack this imaginative faculty. Thrown into horrible circumstances, the threat to their existence is so pervasive that it makes them totally lethargic and impels them to their own destruction. K. the Japanese scholar, supposing that he exists, concocts an alternative history of Western civilization just to explain his tragic life. This is wonderfully terrifying.

I think the book is especially about that. It’s about reality as a work of creation, as a narrative that collapses upon itself. One thing is to think K. was crazy and made up a mad thesis; a different thing is to suspect K. never existed. Another very different thing is realizing the “I” may be the author of this forgery and not remember it.

Literature is, by its very nature, mystification, perhaps Agnes had been deluded by the fact that the manuscript didn’t belong to a precise genre and was instead some confused sort of historical novel, alternating facts with fiction; or, like in Macpherson’s Scottish epopee, mixing documents and imagination under the appearance of a work of investigation. Or maybe K. had simply gone mad. Or Agnes.

Or the nameless narrator, we’re forced to add. Although the novella has less than 80 pages, Manuel António Pina keeps it dense and fast-paced: Shinto, Franz Kafka, the atomic bomb, alternative history, intertextuality, and post-modernist techniques make Os Papéis de K. a mysterious and inventive book. Portuguese literature lost a great writer today.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Aleister Crowley's Short-Stories

I no longer remember the circumstances that made discover the infamous figure of Aleister Crowley, but comic books most likely played a role introducing me to the great occultist. That’s inevitable when the two best comic book writers – Alan Moore and Grant Morrison – also happen to practice magick in a serious way. The history of magick, chaos magick, occultism, the Tarot, and the Kabala have a tendency to sneak into their best work. You can’t read From Hell, Promethea, Doom Patrol or The Invisibles without noticing them and the man who did much to champion them in the 20th century. Just a few months ago Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman: Century came to a conclusion, after taking direct inspiration from Crowley’s novel The Moonchild.

But Aleister Crowley really just pops up everywhere. Robert Anton Wilson, one of my favourite counter-culture writers, also loved his work and featured his writings prominently in Prometheus Rising and Quantum Psychology. Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa corresponded with him, drew Crowley’s horoscope for him, translated his poetry, and even helped Crowley fake a suicide (you can actually visit the spot in Portugal where they faked it). And then for some reason Crowley’s picture shows up on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album cover.

Aleister Crowley has been such a part of my life that I regret not knowing him better. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to buy Wordsworth Editions’ collection of short-stories, which publishes for the first time many of his short-stories. It’s a long book, containing almost 600 pages of stories. For someone who has been called the wickedest man in the world, Crowley is very funny, very witty, very sarcastic. I didn’t, of course, like every story. But then I don’t like every story Jorge Luis Borges has ever written, and he’s the greatest writer ever, so I shouldn’t expect Crowley not to produce a few duds.

What follows are a few words on some the stories:

The Drug is billed in the introduction as one of the first short-stories to portray a psychedelic drug trip. First doesn’t mean best, though, and it doesn’t do anything but have the narrator describe a series of colors and lights and forms and shapes in his drug trance.

Cancer? is a darkly funny short-story about a healthy man who lives obsessed with the fear of getting cancer. It’s a preoccupation that conditions every aspect of his life: the places he visits, the things he eats, his relationships. The story reaches its climax when the protagonist slashes his throat thinking this way he’s avoiding a worse fate.

The Soul-Hunter provides a glimpse into the mind of a deranged man. It’s told in fragmented diary entries written by a scientist who kidnaps and experiments on a man in search of the place where the soul is located in the body. It’s one of the darkest stories in the collection, the choice of diary gives the story a very impersonal, cold touch and it’s obvious the scientist’s sanity is slipping away as his disregard for the subject’s well-being increases. A very good example of how Crowley could turn out a good horror story if he wanted.

His Secret Sin made me smile throughout its little send-up of Victorian morals. A respectable father travels to France where he purchases a dirty picture, but, once back in England, he worries about people discovering it. He grows paranoid and his behaviour becomes stranger and stranger until an incident with his daughter causes him to accidentally reveal the truth, thus making him vulnerable to her blackmail.

The Woodcutter is about a city couple that one day visits the woods, where they meet a woodcutter who has lived and worked there for many years, the last of a family of woodcutters. His lonely life is devoted to woodcutting, but the man from city, who happens to be a philosopher, interrupts his simple life discuss philosophy with him. After the couple leaves the woodcutter kills a person because of the ideas the philosopher gave him. This was one of my favourites.

The Testament of Magdalen Blair is, in my opinion, an unsuccessful horror story about telepathy and how such a power can affect a marriage relationship. Crowley does a good job showing how reading peoples’ thoughts can be creepy and unpleasant, but ultimately the story failed to hold my interest.

The Stratagem, appreciated by Joseph Conrad of all people, is another one of my favourites. Another gem that showcases Crowley’s gift for humour. Imagine you’re riding alone on a train, you have a compartment just for yourself. Suddenly an ordinary-looking man walks in and sits down next to you. You don’t feel like having company, but what can you do? Now imagine this stranger starts talking to you. Oh God, is he really going to tell the story of his life? Politely you pretend to listen. You nod listlessly, and then he says he just escaped from prison. What? And you stare at him wondering if he just said what you think he said, and he continues to look normal. And suddenly you start worrying. Things get worse when he explains that he was in prison for mass murderer. Now you’re in a state of panic, you’re in the company of a deranged killer, a madman. And next he wants to placidly explain the ingenious stratagem that got him out of the prison, and you just want him to go away, but you continue to listen because you’re too afraid to run away. It’s hilarious, it’s creepy, it’s disturbing, and the ending is the most satisfyingly disappointing ending I’ve ever read. This one should be in anthologies of great short-stories.

Robbing Miss Horniman is about a woman who returns rich from South Africa and is rumoured to have diamonds in the house. And it’s about the unsuccessful attempts at robbing, and it’s also about a conman who wins her heart and relieves her of her fortune.

The Argument That Took The Wrong Turning is a short pamphlet, written as a story, that attacks the hypocrisy of puritan values and especially laws against alcohol prohibition.

Face is a ghost story without ghosts, in which a man, slighted in his honour, kills himself so that guilt destroys the people responsible for his loss of honour. Great magic, of course, is all about the power of suggestion, of subtly affecting the brain.

Atlantis is almost a novella about the history and collapse of the fabled Atlantis. Atlantis, incidentally, has more than a few passing similarities with Crowley’s England. Half high fantasy, half social satire, this one shows his imagination working overtime.

The Mysterious Malady is similar to The Soul-Hunter in formal terms: diary entries and a descent into madness, it follows a seemingly normal man who marries the love of his life but he starts sensing strange things about her, he thinks she’s betraying him and ends up killing her and several guests with poisoned food. In the end we discover that many of the things written in his diary were distortions by his deranged mind.

Black and Silver is another story poking fun at puritan values – the man was obviously traumatised by his Victorian upbringing – and follows the unsuccessful attempt of a woman to blackmail a man with dirty pictures, only to discover that this man no longer cares because his reputation was irrevocably tarnished in South Africa after perpetrating many foul deeds there. Poor lady, she tried to blackmail a character from a Victorian story but he ended up being one from a Conradian story. It’s like she’s in the wrong story with the wrong characters.

Felo de Se means, I discovered, ‘felon of himself’ in Latin and is an archaic legal term for suicide. It’s another darkly humorous story. A young man is about to jump off a bridge when a Master of the Law of Thalema arrives to have a chat with him. Now this latecomer has no intention of stopping the young man from plunging into the river; in fact he approves – do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law. No, the Master just wants to have the honour of talking with the young man before he kills himself. The Master gives him a very thorough lecture on why suicide is perfectly acceptable. After all the whole Western culture, with its Christian foundations, is based on suicide – from the ultimate suicide was performed by Jesus Christ, who was also God and so knew he was going to kill himself, to the partial suicide of his believers who reject the world of flesh and matter to serve the austere wishes of God. The ending is predictable, you know the young man won’t kill himself, how could he after being mesmerised by the personality of the Master? Instead he becomes his disciple and the two stroll away happy as larks. This is now one of my new favourite happy ending. It’s one of those stories that ends exactly the way you want it to end.

There are many more stories in the book, but I leave their discovery to others.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Karenin's Dignity

Given that adultery and divorce were taboo subjects at the time, it’s not surprising that Society treats Anna coldly. At the same time, it’s obvious that it’s not the affair itself that is problematic, but the public display of the same. Society, especially men, could tolerate infidelity, since it was a widespread activity anyway, provided affairs did not overstep the limits of propriety. Anna is especially attacked by women. The most poignant example is the lady who insults her at the opera, after Anna has made her relationship with Vronsky public. But from the start her own sex is against her:

The majority of young women, who envied Anna and had long been weary of her virtues praised, were pleased at what they guessed, and only waited to be sure that public opinion had turned before throwing the whole weight of their scorn at her. They already prepared lumps of mud to pelt her with in due time. Most of the older people and of those highly-placed regretted this impending social scandal.

Anna Karenina is as much about adultery as it is about social appearances. Tolstoy uses adultery as an opening into a society that is rigidly ruled by a system that uniformizes thoughts and personalities. We get this idea from the first pages when Oblonsky, a character who has cheated on his wife, reads the morning paper:

   Oblonsky subscribed to and read a Liberal paper – not an extreme Liberal paper but one that expressed the opinions of the majority. And although neither science, art, nor politics specially interested him, he firmly held to the opinions of the majority and of his paper on those subjects, changing his views when the majority changed theirs, - or rather, not changing them – they changed imperceptibly of their own accord.
   Oblonsky’s tendency and opinions were not his by deliberate choice: they came of themselves, just as he did not choose the fashion of his hats or coats but wore those of the current style. Living in a certain social set, and having a desire, such as generally developed with maturity, for some kind of mental activity, he was obliged to hold views, just as he was obliged to have a hat. If he had a reason for preferring Liberalism to the Conservatism of many in his set, it was not that he considered Liberalism more reasonable, but because it suited his manner of life better.

In the novel’s second book, Karenin, Anna’s husband, when confronted with the evidence that he’s being cheated on, echoes these ideas:

Karenin did not see anything peculiar or improper in his wife’s conversing animatedly with Vronsky at a separate table, but he noticed that others in the drawing-room considered it peculiar and improper, therefore he also considered it improper, and decided to speak to his wife about it.

Karenin, surprisingly, doesn’t mind that Anna have an affair provided that she doesn’t tarnish his image and good name in society, where it’s highly respected. She can cheat him so long as she does it with discretion. It’s only when Anna and Vronsky start making their relationship more and more public that Karenin is forced to take a firmer stand against them. With Karenin’s preoccupation with image and honour it’s easy to consider him a cold and ruthless villain, especially when compared with the more romantic Vronsky. Vronsky’s problem is that he really loves Anna and doesn’t just want to have a dirty, seedy affair with her, he wants to be lawfully married to her and walk with her in broad daylight, as husband and wife. Vronsky is against the entire system of falseness on which vulgar love affairs are based:

He felt all the torment of his and her position, all the difficulties they were surrounded by in consequence of their station in life, which exposed them to the eyes of the whole world, obliged them to hide their love, to lie and deceive, and again to lie and deceive, to scheme and constantly think about others while the passion that bound them was so strong that they both forgot everything but their love.

Vronsky wants to live an honest life, and he and Anna end up despising and hating Karenin for what they see as weakness and lack of moral fiber. Anna even tells herself she could respect him more if he’d try to kill her or duel with Vronsky for her. This is a rare occasion in the novel when Anna slips into the caricature that is Emma Bovary. Emma’s concept of romantic love comes from reading too many romances, where characters give in to crimes of passion. Vronsky’s the one who’s prone to killing himself for love, and he nearly does it once. Karenin, who is cold but not insensitive, doesn’t have the personality for that sort of display, but that doesn’t mean the affair leaves him indifferent. It affects him where it matters the most to him: his ability to work. Unable to concentrate, he seeks solutions. He does contemplate a duel with Vronsky, only to push the thought away because it strikes him as too absurd. His second alternative is a divorce, which he also resists because it’s an embarrassing solution for a man of his social position. But it’s even remarkable that he seriously contemplates it. This was quite ahead of its time. As late as 1920, John Galsworthy was still showing his protagonist, Soames Forsyte, indecisive about getting a divorce from his wife, Irene.

Karenin is always thinking of his image, his dignity and honour. And he has reasons to be worried; as Anna’s infidelities continue, Karenin’s career in civil service stalls. It’s easy to condemn Karenin for ruthlessness, but in a society where appearances are everything, it’s not an easy thing to lose his dignity. I’m not sure in what novel by French writer Albert Cossery I once read that dignity is a worthless thing invented to make poor people think they possess something valuable. Cossery’s characters, incidentally, tend to be thieves, drug addicts, prostitutes and liars, therefore people with little use for dignity. But the sentiment I think is true. Dignity is everything we have when we have nothing else, and Karenin doesn’t have a lot more besides it: his wife doesn’t love him, his child doesn’t love him; he has few friends; like others around him, he thinks only insofar as his thoughts don’t contradict the Tsar’s decrees. He has devoted his life to obedience, zeal, propriety, not even for self-gain, for he’s not an arriviste, but because he genuinely gets satisfaction from being a serious, rigorous working man and because he wants to serve Russia, and since his career ends because of the scandal, even that is taken away from him.

I don’t know if he deserves pity, but I cannot judge Karenin too harshly.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Cruel, Faithful Vronsky

This post is an expansion of the thoughts I wrote about Vronsky before. Vronsky is one of the finest characters in Anna Karenina, the young officer who falls in love with Anna, seduces her and for whom she leaves her husband. Vronsky is dashing, handsome, intelligent, high-spirited, and rich. So far that’s hardly remarkable, since these attributes are the stock and trade of his type of character, the charming seducer who sweeps the married woman’s feet off her ground. What is so remarkable about Vronsky and what elevates Anna Karenina above Madame Bovary and Cousin Bazilio is that he genuinely loves Anna. He’s not a rake or a Lothario who has a fling with Anna and then abandons her to her misfortunes. His love is sincere and to the best of his ability he tries to have an honourable life with her. This makes Anna Karenina all the more tragic because it’s a real love story rather than a cynical satire of romantic love.

It’s true that when we meet him, Vronskys is about to break Kitty’s heart by giving her false expectations of intending to marry her. His youth, beauty and joie de vivre make him careless and prevent him from seeing that he’s hurting anyone. In a way, he’s like Oblonsky, a married womanizer in the novel, too cheerful to care about anything:

He did not know that his behaviour toward Kitty had a name of its own, that it was decoying a girl with no intentions of marrying her, and is one of the evil actions common among brilliant young men like himself. He thought he was the first to discover this pleasure and he enjoyed his discovery.

He even has a sneering attitude for those ordinary people who build families, have mundane jobs and live boring lives:

In his Petersburg world people were divided into two quite opposite sorts. One – the inferior sort: the paltry, stupid, and, above all, all ridiculous people who believe that a husband should live with the one wife to whom he is married, that a maiden should be pure, a woman modest, and a man, manly, self-controlled and firm; that one should bring up one’s children to earn their living, should pay one’s debts, and other nonsense of that kind. These were the old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another sort of people: the real people to which all his set belonged, who had above all to be well-bred, generous, bold, gay, and to abandon themselves unblushingly to all their passions and laugh at everything else.

But then he meets Anna and changes. He quits his military career to be with her. He once tries to commit suicide because of her. But he desperately wants to live with her, he wants Karenin to grant her a divorce so he can legally claim their daughter as his, and he wants to have a male child with Anna. In other words, with Anna he’s wiling to live the mundane, predictable life he censored others for living. Tolstoy masterfully captures Vronsky’s awareness of this change in himself:

He was angry with everybody for their interference, just because he felt in his soul that they were right. He felt that the love that united him with Anna was not momentary infatuation, which would pass, as Society intrigues do, without leaving any trace in the lives of the one or the other except pleasant or disagreeable memories. He felt all the torment of his and her position, all the difficulties they were surrounded by in consequence of their station in life, which exposed them to the eyes of the whole world, obliged them to hide their love, to lie and deceive, and again to lie and deceive, to scheme and constantly think about others while the passion that bound them was so strong that they both forgot everything but their love.

He’s aware this isn’t a mere fleeting love, coquetry. He wants to build his life with her, and to return with her into society as husband and wife. Of course he’s prey to the usual problems that affect all lovers: his love grows a bit weaker, he can’t abandon some of his past vices, his love for parties, entertaining friends and going out, a behaviour which upsets Anna as she grows more possessive of him. But for all their difficulties and Anna’s growing irritation and jealous paranoia that he’s cheating on her (he’s not), he’s a model husband, caring, affectionate, who continues to love her still after her death, and indeed finds her absence so unbearable he volunteers to serve in a war and hopes to die in it. At one point in the novel, Dolly, who almost left Oblonsky after he cheated on her, worries that Vronsky might get tired of Anna too, but he never does. Perhaps if their love had continued, they would have got tired of each other, that is always a possibility, but what we can glean from the text is that Anna’s death leaves Vronsky emotionally fractured, so heartbroken, that he has no alternative but to leave for war with the expectation of dying.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Three Novels of Adultery

Spoilers for Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Cousin Bazilio.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has got me thinking about novels of adultery. This controversial topic led in the 19th century to a proliferation of such novels, beginning with template-setter Madame Bovary (1857), Anna Karenina (1877), Cousin Bazilio (1878), Effi Briest (1896), The Awakening (1899), and extending into the next century, with the infernal Ethan Frome (1911) and too many more to mention. But let us focus on the first three.

Madame Bovary is about an adulteress. Anna Karenina is about a cuckolded husband. And Cousin Bazilio is about a loathsome cad who seduces a married woman, and cousin to boot. I know that in principle Anna Karenina should be about Anna Karenina, but I defy anyone to say the first couple of hundreds of pages aren’t more interesting when they deal with Karenin’s tortured thoughts, feelings and actions. Anna dominates the final chapters of the novel, there’s no doubt about that, no preamble to a suicide has ever been better written than the fast impressions that cross Anna’s mind before she puts an end to her life.

The way each woman dies is interesting in its own different way. Gustave Flaubert gets Emma Bovary to drink poison out of despair after her mounting debts, which she contracted during her illicit affairs, threaten to expose her infidelity to her husband, Charles; alone, unable to obtain money from her former lover, Rodolphe, who disdainfully turns his back on her, she dies a slow, agonising death lying in bed. As she expires a blind beggar sings a dirty song outsider her bedroom window. It’s a tragic novel, allegedly. But this juxtaposition of the tragic and the profane say much about Flaubert’s intentions with this novel.

Anna Karenina dies because, after developing a severe depression, she develops a paranoid jealousy of her lover, Vronsky, and fear of becoming alone if he abandons her; this contributes to constant irritations at Vronksy and fights with him, which only increases her delusions that he’s planning to abandon her for another woman. An irrational urge to punish him incites her to kill herself. If realism were an important criterion, I would put Anna’s motivation below Emma’s. I don’t use the word irrational lightly for Anna for even Tolstoy has difficulty explaining what truly motivates her and eventually stops at a wall that doesn’t allow him to go any deeper into her thoughts. As a character says in All the Names, a José Saramago novel I’ve just finished re-reading, perhaps suicide can’t be explained. But I find Emma’s fear of social embarrassment, of losing face, more convincing.

Eça de Queiroz, whom I adore above the other two, takes the least artistic way out, the simplest one: he just has Luísa expire. Luísa is the victim of a terrifying blackmail by her maid, Juliana, who possesses letters involving her in an affair with her cousin, who hurriedly returns to France after his frolic. Overwhelmed by fear, shame and the mental anguish Juliana causes her, she falls into a lethargy that slowly consumes her health. Although a friend manages to recover the letters before they cause any harm, Luísa dies. Like Machado de Assis justly observed in a review of the novel, that’s not very believable. Luísa dies because she has to die, or rather, adulteresses have to die. The fact is these three novels follow moral conventions. The heroines must die punished for their social transgression. “Anna Akhmatova,” writes Isaiah Berlin in The Sense of Reality, “once complained that Tolstoy killed Anna Karenina to satisfy not his own moral code – for he knew better – but that of his Moscow aunts.” How true. The question, for me anyway, then becomes who pulls off the better death? For me it’s undoubtedly Flaubert – the impression he transmits of Emma’s final days is that she’s like a trapped wild animal, desperately gnawing its own paw to escape the hunters. A sense of urgency is in every action of hers.

Flaubert, nevertheless, wrote differently than Tolstoy. Flaubert was concerned with images, description, the famous mot juste, whereas Toltoy preferred the interiority of his characters. Flaubert doesn’t give us access into Emma’s mind, we can only interpret her from her actions. Tolstoy, on the contrary, doesn’t leave out the minute movements of Anna’s thoughts, he’s a master at converting impressions into convictions into decisions into actions. A typical passage describing Anna’s thoughts before her suicide:

In her soul there was another vague idea, which alone interested her, but of which she could not get hold. Again remembering Karenin, she also remembered her illness after her confinement, and the feeling that never left her at the time. She remembered her words, ‘Why did I not die?’ and her feelings then. And suddenly she understood what was in her soul. Yes, that was the thought which would solve everything.´

Emma Bovary is external, mildly chaotic, her descent into suicidal despair conveys primitive, instinctive reflexes. Anna Karenina is analytical and clinical, every nuance is meticulously registered, the whole chain of ideas is laid down before our eyes, organised, logical. Tolstoy was especially interested in understanding how people thought, in getting into their heads, and this he achieves with every character, but masterfully so with Anna in the chapters preceding her death.

Tolstoy is also the most tragic writer of the three, in the classical sense of the word. His tone is solemn and grave, his characters full of dignity. Flaubert, and Eça even more, wallowed in the sordidness and coarseness of human relationships. They were both materialistic writers and were going for the scandal; one can almost imagine them rubbing their hands in anticipation of the shock their novels would cause on their readers. Tolstoy favours the spiritual, his novel is a serious study of the consequences of an adulterous affair. While Flaubert turns it into a grotesque farce, and Eça, true to his wonderful self, turns the volume of satire up to eleven, Tolstoy relinquishes easy comedy while addressing the important questions of love, honour, jealousy, fidelity, propriety, life and death. His refusal to add a touch of levity to the novel is present in almost every page. Flaubert and Eça wrote what we call piquant novels, they enjoy the sexual innuendos and try to shock with strong appeals to luridness: who can forget Emma and Léon’s cab ride after their tour of the Rouen Cathedral? And Eça doesn’t mince words when describing Luísa and Bazilio’s secret love nest and everything that goes on in there. There’s titillation galore in both. But in Tolstoy there’s no trace of sexuality. Every time we see Anna and Vronsky it’s in moments of conflict, or in someone else’s company, never sharing intimate moments. What happens in the bedroom is completely irrelevant to his purposes.

This seriousness of tone obviously sets apart Tolstoy’s characters from the other two’s. Vronsky, unlike Rodolphe or Bazilio, has true, pure feelings for Anna; his love for her lasts well after she kills herself – in the novel’s final book, Vronsky volunteers as a soldier in a war between Serbians and Turks, since he’s lost a reason to live. By contrast, Rodolphe is a despicable bastard who seduces Emma, has fun with her, abandons her and refuses to aid her when she asks for his help, being indirectly responsible for her suicide. Eça, who has been called better than Flaubert, indeed created a character even more repulsive. Bazilio’s reaction, after returning from France, on hearing that Luísa has died is unforgettable in its callousness: he laments he didn’t bring a French mistress with him because he doesn’t have a woman now.

Vronsky starts as a careless man, using his beauty and uniform to dazzle women; in this manner, without malice, he breaks Kitty’s heart; but when he falls in love with Anna he decides he really wants to live her forever, to help her arrange a divorce from Karenin and marry her and have a son with her. When she dies he just wants to die. He’s therefore a character who changes a lot in the novel. In comparison, Rodolphe and Bazilio are caricatures, off-springs of the Gothic rake who threatened the heroine’s sexual purity. Likewise Karenin isn’t the foolish buffoon that Charles and Jorge are. For one thing, Karenin finds out Anna’s infidelity immediately. This changes the dynamic of the character. Instead of Charles and Jorge, who only find out the betrayal after their wives’ deaths, and who are almost excrescencies in the novels, Karenin has an active role in shaping Anna’s actions, not to mention that it gives us a far richer insight into the mind of a man cheated on by his wife. His initial attempts at ignoring the affair, then containing it within the bounds of propriety, followed by his threatening her with divorce, and trying to forgive her, make him, as I’ve said, a character more interesting than Anna in several ways.

Tolstoy was obviously interested in writing a complex and vast treatise about human feelings. He had a tragic view of life. Flaubert and Eça had different aims. Flaubert was concerned in destroying a whole inherited tradition of Romantic love, true love, pure and honest, by making it as filthy and ignoble as possible. Flaubert, I think, didn’t believe in the tragic dimension of human existence. Often he writes scenes that ordinarily would be solemn and imbued with dignity but that in his hands are juxtaposed with touches of sordidness that deflate all their tragedy and seriousness. Flaubert’s novel exists in the tension between the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the comic, lofty feelings and vulgar reality. When Rodolphe feigns a confession of love to Emma, they’re both attending an agricultural fair; as he declaims his love to her, in exalted forms, people around them discuss chickens and manure. His writing of a very heartfelt letter to her, complete with tears, is accompanied by his cynical thoughts that show that every line lacks any spontaneous feeling. My favourite example is the Rouen Cathedral tour: Emma and Léon, a young man she’s fallen in love with, are trying to discuss their feelings, but a guide constantly interrupts them in order to show them the cathedral. It’s a hilarious use of an ordinary incident to disrupt what should otherwise be a serious scene. In Flaubert’s world, real, serious conversations can’t exist. It’s the opposite world of Tolstoy’s. Eça, who was equally cynical, explores the unnoticed figure of the maid. If Emma is worried about being discovered, Eça shows what happens when a resentful maid gains power over her mistress. Eça creates a topsy-turvy world where Juliana is the de facto mistress of the house, turning Luísa into her slave. His novel is, more than the other two, about class. Although he’s labelled as a realist, Eça’s love for the bizarre denounces the limitations of that label when applied to him.

All have their strengths and weaknesses, all offer something novel and different insights. I’m not asking the reader to make any judgments on them. My own cynicism makes me sympathetic of Flaubert and Eça, even if Anna Karenina stands out as the most mature of the three. But I’d recommend reading all of them.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La saga/fuga de J.B.

“One day I wrote that the place to the right of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of the Quixote, vacant for many centuries, had been occupied by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, author of La saga/fuga de J.B. I say it again now, I’ll have to repeat it tomorrow, knowing that many and many years will have to pass before a book like this is written again.” José Saramago wrote these words in his preface to the French edition. Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (1910-1999), a Spanish novelist from Galicia, was greatly admired by Saramago, who frequently mentions him in his diaries Cadernos de Lanzarote. This was how I discovered a writer who, although considered one of the greatest of his country, is practically unknown to the world. Even in Portugal, where he’s been amply translated, finding him is virtually impossible nowadays. Not willing to let this detail get in my way, I bought the book in Spanish. I never studied Spanish in my life and this was the second time I was going to attempt reading a book in that language (there was a failed attempt at reading Gabriel García Márquez’ Memories of my Melancholy Whores a few years ago). Now, contrary to what is believed, Portuguese and Spanish aren’t that similar; many things are written the same way, and some differences are so negligible one can guess their meaning from context, but there are also vast vocabulary differences. And to make it harder, I chose La saga/fuga de J.B, an 800-page novel. Surprisingly, with some patience and many dictionaries and online resources, I succeeded in understanding most of the novel. In any event, the effort was well worth it.

Written in 1972, La saga/fuga de J.B is a novel that defies explanations, definitions, synopses. It’s long, meandering, plotless, and downright bizarre. Even the censor who reviewed thought the novel was a bit confusing:

Of all the gibberish this reader has read in this world, this is the worst. Totally impossible to understand, the action takes place in an imaginary village, Castroforte del Baralla, where there are lampreys, a holy body that appeared from the water, and a series of madmen who speak lots of nonsense. From time to time something sexual, almost always as nonsensical as the rest, and some swearing in line with the current literary tendency.

This book deserves neither condemnation nor approval. Condemnation would find no justification, and approval would be too great an honour for so much stupidity and insensitivity. It is proposed applying ADMINISTRATIVE SILENCE.

The novel was approved. Now in fairness to the censor, his description of the novel is pretty accurate. The novel starts in media res with events that don’t catch up with the main storyline until the third part of the novel. In the first pages the reader is informed that a famous holy relic has been stolen from Castroforte del Baralla, a Galician village. In the second chapter, which has the form of a ballad, it is sung how the Holy Body of a woman saint was rescued from dangerous waters by a sailor called Barallobre, whose descendants would later help shape the history of Castroforte, “the city that dreams itself.” The recovery of the relic is of the utmost importance to the village not only because it sustains religious tourism but because without the relic the man-eating lampreys, which live in the village’s rivers and provide an integral part of the local economy, go away.

Castroforte is a strange place, and Juan Bastida, the protagonist, is its official historian and the reader’s guide to its historical and supernatural mysteries. José Bastida, an outsider, is an ordinary man, weak and ugly. “This boy is so ugly he can only be a priest,” his mother said of him. And he failed even at that because the bishop refused to ordain him due to his ugliness. A political radical, he’s been in jail, and now works as a teacher. Unloved but eager for affection, watched by the police, he lives in a pension room where he starves almost to death because of his meagre salary. Despised by the dwellers, his only friend is Julia, the pensioner’s daughter, whom he loves. He’s also a poet, although he writes in a personal language he invented in prison. When we first meet him, he’s living with four other individuals with the initials J.B. He calls them “sustained characters” and they’re figments of his imagination who have characteristics he admires; they are: Mr. Bastid (Englishman, confidence), M. Bastide (Frenchman, good looks), José Bastideira (Portuguese, romantic), and Joseph Petrovich Bastidoff (Russian, anarchist, man of action). “If I were as elegant as Mr. Bastid, or as refined and romantically attractive as Bastideira; as good looking as M. Bastide or as imposing as Bastidoff, it’s almost certain I’d have conquered her,” Bastida sighs.

Julia’s father is known only as the Spiritist because he frequents séances. And he’s obsessed with Hitler. Believing that Bastida is a medium, he takes him to these séances. Bastida hopes this will grant him a special treatment, but the Spiritist firmly believes his medium skills flourish the longer he starves. Treated like a freak, Bastida is however our gateway into Castroforte’s byzantine history that dates back to the Romans, or maybe not. Spending countless hours in the village’s archives reading old newspapers he discovers the history of the Round Table, a secret society that in the past worked to protect Castroforte from its enemies, particularly from the rival village Villasanta de la Estrella. Bastida, showing a contagious enthusiasm for Castroforte’s history, becomes the catalyst that sets in motion the restoration of the Round Table. Once involved in the mysteries of Castroforte, he also discovers the conspiracy to erase it from existence. Castroforte, it turns out, doesn’t exist on maps; buses don’t officially go there. Children don’t learn about it in school. Furthermore, the citizens don’t trust public functionaries, whom they call Goths, because they see them as invaders suppressing the village’s freedom. We can see how this mistrust of public functionaries troubles, for instance, the Spiritist:

To the Spiritist, convinced that the Führer hadn’t died and that he was hiding in Spain, he was worried to the point of obsession that he’d show up one day through the door of his inn and take a room in it with a false name. “For, in that case, how am I going to denounce him to the police, if the police is completely in on it?”

There’s also a prophecy that says that a J.B. always appears to save the village in times of need.

Thanks to Bastida we discover many fascinating things: for instance, Castroforte has thirteen instead of twelve Zodiac constellations, whose symbols have been updated for the scientific age. Bastida also discovers that the village levitates when its people are all worried about the same thing at the same time. There’s a female branch of the Rosicrucians. The most interesting part, however, is the story of the Round Table. “The history of the Round Table, at least as far as I can see it, is a political history and a pornographic history,” Bastida says. Oh, the censor was right: this is a dirty, bawdy, sexy novel. One of the members of the old Round Table describes the purpose of the group like this. “Our first obligation, after rescuing the old city from ignorant hands, and aiding the local girls – don Torcuato declared, in private – consists no more no less than liberating our fellow citizens from their ancestral erotic habits. What can one expect from a people that doesn’t know another posture but the normal one, and besides in the dark and with the pyjamas on?”

Also, the Round Table’ members are named after King Arthur, Merlin, Lancelot, et cetera. In modern times, when it comes to choosing names, everyone passes Parsifal. “I don’t think any of us would dare to take his name, because he was chaste,” Bastida says.

Don Torcuato, a 19th century amateur scientist and man of progress, wants to modernise Castroforte and fight the forces of ignorance and superstition. He’s the man who devises a didactic poem about lampreys. However, the group’s poet, Barrantes, disagrees on the form and produces a poem “without didacticism and almost no lampreys:”

His soul is being corrupted by the nefarious doctrine of Art for Art’s sake, which, as very French as it may be, is a reactionary doctrine. Art, either it serves human progress, or it’s useless. Why waste time inventing sufferings of love in verse, if his loves only matter to him? Apart from the fact, my friend, that one of the worst evils you can inflict on future generations is keeping them under the belief that love is an almost divine thing. It’s necessary to desacralise love, and we have to imbue the young with the idea that what we have so far called Love, with a capital L, is nothing but the coerced display, when not blocked, of sexuality, natural activity which we men have made an effort to mystify through the process of making it difficult or impossible. If you, instead of abstaining from all contact with females in the name of an imaginary fidelity to a woman that doesn’t exist, participated in the methodical, I’d almost say scientific, orgies that we, on fixed dates and with gymnastic synchronicity, offer ourselves to, you’d understand that what you call Love is no other thing but the result of cerebral perturbations caused by the accumulation of semen in Graaf’s vesicles, which, once empty, stop sending poisons into the brain until they’re full again.

But when the members of the Round Table weren’t having amorous adventures and misadventures, they’re fighting to preserve the spirit of the village, the capital of a Galician country that, like I’ve mentioned, isn’t on the maps, has been suppressed by the state. The existence of Castroforte has been erased from the national consciousness. The Round Table, which was founded in 1865, also possibly invented many of the legends and histories of the city, which is always under constant attack from thinkers and historians who want to disprove its historical existence.

And this is where the novel becomes complicated. Bastida recounts many historical episodes about Castroforte, but everything he reveals may just be lies concocted by the Round Table. The novel is one long first act. It’s all about set-up. When the reader thinks Bastida has finally revealed everything to know about Castroforte and the novel is going to move to the next act, someone exposes his facts as lies. Because of that the novel ends on a unsatisfying note. It just fizzles out. The novel only exists in the tension between building and demolishing the substance of Castroforte, exposing its unreality and solidifying its mythical existence. The novel oscillates between myth making and myth busting. There are revelations and counter-revelations, and counter-counter-revelations. It’s a lot like Franz Kafka’s The Castle. It also doesn’t help that the chronology is disorderly, that it moves back and forth, that incidents are left suspended to go back to explaining something better, then jump forward in time. Frustration is built into the fabric of the novel. And I’m left wondering if this may not be a metaphor for writing. He invents a city with painstaking detail. This isn’t mere historical recreation of a time, an era, a place. It’s a thorough invention of a fictional place. And then he unravels its creation by having people deny its existence. It does look like a metaphor to me.

At the same time, the history of Castroforte is cyclical. The same pattern keeps occurring in time, with subtle permutations. “In La saga/fuga de J.B., everything, in the literal sense of the word, is connected to everything, exactly as if it were a living body, a biological system, the skeleton connected to the blood vessels, the brain to the spine, the digestive chemistry to the chemistry of assimilation, the heart to the lungs, act to thought,” explains Saramago. There is always a poet in the Round Table (Bastida is the new one), a J.B. always dies in the Ides of March, the King Arthur is always a scientist. And the duels. The novel is full of absurd duels that symbolise Castroforte’s struggle against outside forces. There’s the legendary duel between the lampreys and the starlings who mysteriously appear out of nowhere, leading to an unprecedented aero-naval battle. There’s the duel of parrots. There’s the duel between the Castrofortinos and the Goths over how many words for penis and vagina they can discover. For the Castrofortinos it’s a matter of honour that they have more words for vagina. Oh, this is a strange novel.

And then there are simply many delicious incidents that make this novel worth reading. We can begin with Bastida’s alter egos who reject the idea that they’re fictional. “The idea of madness is incompatible with the solidity of my personality,” argues Mr. Bastid. There’s the modern King Arthur’s scientific vision of a universe without women, where reproduction is strictly done in laboratories. This version, however, isn’t as outré as his predecessor, Don Torcuato, who has original ideas about how men evolved from monocular to binocular vision, which segues into a dialogue between cavemen, one a painter, the other a thinker. “Everyone despises high Palaeolithic realism. They say it’s an outdated art,” the caveman painter complains. Another highpoint is Bastida defending Julia in court with his invented dialogue. And then there’s the time travelling, when Juan Bastida visits the other historical JBs.

On a purely inventive level, La saga/fuga de J.B. is a marvel, a masterpiece. Just its many narrative disruptions and subversions make it one of the most original novels of the 20th century. On page 225, Bastida advises the reader to skip 15 pages and continue from 240, if he doesn’t wish to read Don Torcuato’s treatise about binocular vision evolution. But then he’d miss musings about high Palaeolithic realistic art. This however is not as good as when a Jacinto Barallobre murders his sister and Bastida revises and edits the text to change this event. The narrative is loose, deliberately lacks focus, it’s slow, but like in Moby Dick, we’re in the hands of an excellent narrator so everything’s alright. Also, the novel is written in long paragraphs. Torrente Ballester doesn’t use indented paragraphs if he can help it, and usually he prefers to break these long chunks of text with diagrams, tables, and poems. There’s a single paragraph from page 41 to 94. It may be the longest paragraph I’ve ever read.

Saramago was a great admirer of Torrente Ballester and this novel, and I can’t help noticing the similarities between this novel and some ideas sprinkled throughout Saramago’s oeuvre, like the Passarola from Baltasar and Blimunda and the strange starlings from The Stone Raft. At the same time, this novel is comparable in scope to Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, which also shares many ideas, namely the concept of cyclical time and the central idea that it takes many lives to make a person. This is illustrated when all the JBs coalesce into a single individual.

But the legend of JB is the least interesting part of the novel, especially because it runs into an anti-climatic finale. The novel is great in its individual scenes, when it’s not subordinated to anything but the pleasure of distilling ideas. Here’s a scene from the members of the Round Table discussing the obscurity of the poet Barrantes:

What could one say about him? Many things actually: that his Viaje subterráneo is similar to Une saison en enfer, of which it is contemporary; that his poem “Uno, dos, tres…” uses the metric and spirit of his Odas particulares coincide with the metric and spirit of the Six grandes odes; that he used the alexandrine like Rubén Darío; that his concept of love coincides with Machado’s: his social and political poems say things similar to what Celaya and Otero did; that in his Canciones al bosque muerto he prefigures La entrada a la Madera. Do you want more? An able critic, with all this, would make of him, not just a great poet, but a great precursor, and this would assure his glory. You know full well that poets nowadays aren’t read, but studied. What did he take and from where? What did he legate and to whom? What’s his place in the golden chain of poetry? Was he ahead of his time, was he in harmony with it, was he behind it? And let’s not mention those who ask, before the work of a poet, if it contributed or not to the revolution.

And this discussion about Cain and Abel is also high on my list of the novel’s best moments:

“Do you know where your sister is?” And Jacinto: “Am I my sister’s keeper?” Don Acisclo jumped, startled. “Did you kill her?” “But, man of God, you’re crazy! Why would I have killed her?” “You answered me like Cain to the Lord!” “But, unfortunately, neither are you the Lord nor am I Cain!” “Nevertheless, that’s what that reply always means!...” Barallobre interrupted him with a flowery gesture. “Don’t go on, I beg you. The meaning of a phrase doesn’t depend on the sum of the meanings of its words, but on endless coincidental circumstances whose enumeration is not the most opportune moment.” Don Acisclo, rather upset, jumped backwards: “What? You dare to relativize a text from the Bible?” “May God spare me from doing it in front of you! My defeat would be certain. Nevertheless, since you’ve mentioned it, that text can serve very well as a starting point, since it’s been in your mind and in mine, and, without wanting, both of us used it as a reference, or as the linguists say, a model. Let’s consider the situation: Cain has just killed his brother Abel, and the Lord asks for him. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ replies the fratricide. But is that, exactly, what he means? Let’s examine it with care and free of prejudices. The Lord is omniscient, and Cain knows it. The Lord, however, asks. With such a reply, Cain intends to tell the Lord, more or less: ‘You know full well I’ve killed him, because I couldn’t stand it, because he was too perfect, because he was your favourite, because the wind didn’t darken the smoke column of his sacrifices, because his wife gave birth to children peacefully, and mine died, because his livestock multiplied and mine were destroyed by hunger and thirst…’ You understand me: no one, not even Cain, dares to tell the Lord things like this in his face: so he replies with an absurd question. Now, you come and ask me a question similar to the one God asked Cain, and I answer with the same words. There’s an initial difference: the Lord knew where Abel was and you don’t know where my sister is. The Lord’s question was tricky, and yours naïve. My answer, then, enters a system of distinct meanings, and, for my part, lends it some inconsistency (the sentence results from an involuntary association) and a bit of irony (the sentence is disproportionate to the occasion). However you receive it, not in its literal sense, not even in its real sense, but as a reference to the model, and you reason this more or less:

If Jacinto Barallobre replies to me with the same words Cain used, that means he did the same,

from which arises your second question. Well now: if Cain hadn’t interpreted with rectitude the reach of the Lord’s question, that is, if it were hypothetically possible for the Lord to ignore the murder, doesn’t it seem more logical to have answered: ‘What do I know? He’s around. I haven’t seen him for two or three days.” Or shrug his shoulders. Since I didn’t kill my sister I can use with complete innocence the same words Cain did, even without suspecting, of course, that you’d mix, as you did, the semantic and linguistic levels, which one must never do, under the risk of mixing things up and incurring in the pathetic confusion you’ve incurred in.”
I’m not sure if Saramago is right in saying that Torrente Ballester sits to the right of Cervantes, but La saga/fuga de J.B. is a novel like no other I’ve ever read, and its rewards far surpass the disappointments.

Monday, 8 October 2012

José Saramago Month

As I surreptitiously wrote in a post in August, I'm devoting November to celebrate José Saramago's 90th birthday. Yes, I'm now officially announcing the José Saramago Month:

This is my small contribution to keeping alive the memory of my favourite novelist, the author of Blindness, Baltasar and Blimunda and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. If Saramago (1922-2010) were alive today, next November 16 he would have been 90. Therefore I can't let this important date pass unnoticed, uncelebrated.

What can readers expect from this event? Reviews, lots of reviews, of his plays, his novels, and his diaries. And much more. I hope to make this an interesting and entertaining event that, hopefully, will get other readers curious about José Saramago.

Although this initiative is but my affectionate way of remembering him, you are all invited to join it and read something by him, and post your reviews on your own blogs. Saramago won the Nobel Prize in 1998 and he's one of the best and most popular Portuguese novelists of the 20th century, and has many novels available in English. So it's easy to participate.

2012 European Reading Challenge

I probably shouldn't be joining more reading challenges, but this one seemed like such a piece of pie. Rose City Reader is hosting the European Reading Challenge until January 31, 2013, so I'm still in time to join it. The minimum required of the participant is five measly European books, or, as I like to call it, a normal month. Of course like it happened with the Africa Reading Challenge, I'll probably end up reading beyond that number. We'll see. I'm still not sure what I'm going to read for this one, but I have a few notions; of course the fun of these challenges is the unexpected places it takes us.

German Literature Month 2012

I should have already posted this. Caroline and Lizzy are hosting German Literature Month. Since I'm relatively new to book blogging I missed last year's event. This initiative is most welcome since I'm very ignorant of most literature in the German literature, save a smattering of Franz Kafka, Goethe and Günter Grass. And Heinrich Böll; I keep forgetting once, many years ago, I read the excellent novel The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.

I figured this would be a good opportunity to clear out some books from my growing list and an incentive to read some books I keep postponing. So I've ordered Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers and Elfriede Jelinek's Wonderful, Wonderful Times. These two have been on my mind for years now, and I finally have solid motives to read them.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Life and Work of Alberto Caeiro

Alberto Caeiro da Silva was born in Lisbon on April 16 of 1889, and died there in 1915, of tuberculosis. However, apart from the first years of his life and his final months, he lived on a farm in Ribatejo, where he wrote his short poetic oeuvre. Small as his literary output was, The Keeper of Sheep was enough to establish him as one of the most important Portuguese poets of 20th century. Little is known of his personal life. It is known that he had a disappointing love affair that inspired him to write the chapbook The Lovesick Shepherd. A man of meagre studies, his poetry, renowned for its simplicity, directness, and lack of erudition, nevertheless stems from profound and original reflections about time, experience, Nature and man’s place in the world. A poet-philosopher who despised philosophers, an anti-mystic who exalted Nature, Caeiro was a mysterious figure for most of his life and continues to be the subject of many studies.

Of possible influences we can only say, with certainty, that he had read the 19th century Portuguese poet Cesário Verde (1855-1886), one of the first singers of Lisbon, who was practically a marginal figure until younger admirers like Caeiro and Fernando Pessoa rescued him from obscurity and championed his work. In one of his poems, Caeiro directly mentions Verde, and expressed wishes that his collected poetry should be dedicated to his memory. The similarities between Caeiro and the American poet Walt Whitman have also not gone unnoticed, particularly by his English translator, Thomas Crosse, who however finds no conclusive evidence that the Ribatejo poet had read the author of Leaves of Grass:

“At first sight it seems that something of Whitman is present in these poems. I have no information as to Caeiro's knowledge of foreign languages, or of English and of Whitman particularly; yet, on the face of it, and after a very cursory reading of the poems, I suspect the first to have been, at best, very slight, and the second and third nil. However it may be, on close examination there is really no influence of Whitman here. There is at most an occasional coincidence and the coincidence is merely of tone, and more apparent therefore than real. The essential difference is enormous.”

Indeed Crosse also remarks that one of the most striking features of “Alberto Caeiro is that he comes apparently out of nothing, more completely out of nothing than any other poet. The one Portuguese poet whose influence he supposes himself to be under is so remote from him both in quality and strength of inspiration, that it is idle to do more than say so.” Obviously he here referred to Verde, who, apart from his late countryside poems, a radical change from his urban poetry, bears no similarities with Caeiro.

Although Caeiro was quite distant from the emerging modernist circles of Lisbon – he died a month after the first issue of the modernist magazine Orpheu came out – he ended up having a seminal influence upon many of its most famous poets, as well as upon intellectual figures of the time, like the Pagan philosopher António Mora. Besides the admiration Pessoa had for him, Caeiro’s poetry also left a lasting impression on Álvaro de Campos, who considered him his master, and Ricardo Reis, who adopted Paganism in imitation of this Nature’s poet. Campos first met him after a return from a trip to the Orient. Through a cousin that took him for a ride in Ribatejo, he met one of Caeiro’s cousins who introduced each poet to the other. Campos, like many of his admirers, wrote impressions about him that were published posthumously.

Although he didn’t have many dealings with poets, we also know, thanks to an interview that he gave in Vigo in 1914, that he disliked the poetry of many figures of the establishment, namely Guerra Junqueiro, Teixeira Pascoaes and João de Barros. He didn’t forgive them for their sentimentality, mysticism and overt religiousness. 

Caeiro died like he lived, alone and unnoticed. “I was in England,” Campos writes. “Ricardo Reis himself wasn’t in Lisbon; he was back in Brazil. Fernando Pessoa was, but it’s as if he weren’t,” he mysteriously says, alluding to a possible falling out between Pessoa and Caeiro that has never been confirmed.

No photograph of him is known. The painter and writer Almada Negreiros (1893-1970), a member of the Orpheu group who personally knew him, however, immortalised him in a 1958 mural found in the façade of the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Letters, where he can be seen standing alongside his pupils, Reis and Campos:

From left to right: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos
Given his shy and reclusive personality, and true to the simplicity of existence that he espoused in his poems, Caeiro didn’t publish his poetry in his lifetime. Like a modern Socrates, the wisdom of his life was saved from oblivion by his followers. After his death, his oeuvre, badly organised and unedited, was generously ceded by his relatives to his friends and admirers in order to be edited. Thus three books, constituting less than 200 pages of poetry, exist – The Keeper of Sheep, The Lovesick Shepherd, and Poemas Inconjuntos (Disjointed Poems). Although the edition of the Complete Poems should have been a cause for celebration amidst his followers, difficulties arose when they tried to champion his work in Portuguese society. The philosopher António Mora, the father of a neo-Pagan revival, and who considered himself his ‘only disciple,’ when asked by his relatives to write a preface to the book, felt himself unfit for the arduous task of synthesising his work into a handful of pages, and ended up writing a long commentary that was later published in a standalone edition; he also discusses him in his magnum opus, O Regresso dos Deuses (The Return of the Gods). The authorship of the preface then fell upon Ricardo Reis, who encountered similar difficulties and also ended up writing a long text that exceeded the normal length of a preface. Saving this text for a rigorous study of Caeiro’s work, he wrote a second version, which is the one that now appears in the standard editions. Fernando Pessoa also published part of his poetry in the magazine Athena, in 1925, and in Presença, in 1931.

In a country of great poets who, however, often go sadly and unfairly unnoticed by the world, Caeiro was also quick to meet success abroad, thanks to Thomas Crosse’s translations of The Keeper of Sheep and The Lovesick Shepherd into English, making him a rare case of success. Less fortunate were his friends’ attempts at translating him into French, into which the translation of Le Gardien des Troupeaux was cut short by the untimely suicide, in 1916, of Mário de Sá-Carneiro, poet and close friend of Pessoa living in Paris who was managing the operation. Although Caeiro was not as generously admired in England as he was in Portugal, it is known that he was acquainted with Alexander Search, English poet and Lusophile (he was the younger brother of the celebrated translator Charles James Search, who translated the sonnets of Antero de Quental and Luís de Camões and Eça de Queiroz’ The Mandarin), who had read him in Portuguese and conducted the only known existing interview Caeiro gave, in 1914. Search, like Crosse, had no doubt that he had discovered one of the greatest poetic voices of the nascent century. To him we owe some of the sharpest impressions we have of this elusive figure.

The image he gives of Caeiro is far from the meek poet of his poems. “The poet speaks of himself and of his work with a sort of religiousness and natural exaltation which, perhaps in others less entitled to speak like this, would seem frankly unbearable. He always speaks in dogmatic sentences, excessively synthetic, admonishing or admiring (he seldom admires, however) with absolutism, despotically, as if he were not giving an opinion, but uttering intangible truths.” As for Caeiro, he defines himself in proud terms: “I don’t presume to be more than the greatest poet in the world. I’ve made the greatest discovery worth making and next to it all other discoveries are stupid children’s entertainments. I noticed the Universe. The Greeks, with all their visual clarity, didn’t do as much.”

His words, which leave nothing to modesty, would have been more repugnant, however, had they not found an echo in the praise of most of his admirers. Crosse, in his preface to the English edition, doesn’t mince words:

“I claim, in all confidence, that I am putting before Englishmen the most original poetry that our young century has as yet produced - a poetry so fresh, so new, untainted to such a degree by any kind of conventional attitude, that the words a Portuguese friend said to me, when speaking of these very poems, are more than justified. “Every time I read them,” he said, “I cannot bring myself to believe that they have been written. It is so impossible an achievement… !” And so much more impossible, that it is of the simplest, most natural and most spontaneous kind.”

Ricardo Reis used similar words to express his admiration for him: “Alberto Caeiro is, we believe, the greatest poet of the 20th century, because he’s the most complete subverter of all diversely known sensibilities, and of all the intellectual formulae widely accepted.”

On trying to explain the spontaneity and honesty that informs his vision of life, Álvaro de Campos argues: Ricardo Reis is a pagan by character, António Mora is a pagan by intelligence, I’m a pagan by revolt, that is, by temperament. In Caeiro there was no explanation for paganism; there was consubstantiation.” Caeiro didn’t think about his poetry, he lived it. “The biography would have no interest,” Mora once wrote, “for in Caeiro’s life nothing happened, except the verses he wrote, and they’ll speak for themselves.” As such, it is mostly in his poetry that clues can be found to explain his thought and worldview. He lived for poetry and everything he experienced and sensed he turned into poetry, as his love poems attest. What then can we learn about him from his poetry?

Here we have his radical interpretation of loneliness:

I have neither ambitions nor desires.
Being a poet is not an ambition of mine.
It’s my way of being alone.

And a synthetic description of his philosophy:

I believe in the world like I do in a marigold,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it
Because thinking is not understanding…
The world wasn’t made for us to think about it
(To think is being ill in the eyes)
But to look at it and to be in agreement.

 In fact his philosophy is a strident refusal to interpret the world beyond our five senses, rejecting the use of mental faculties, settling for what Campos called a sensationist view of reality:

The mystery of things? I don’t know what the mystery is!
The only mystery is there being those who think about the mystery.

He also likes to flaunt his anti-rationalism:

Virgil’s shepherds played rustic flutes and other things
And sang of love literarily
(They say – I never read Virgil.
What would I have read him for?).

But Virgil’s shepherds, poor things, are Virgil,
And Nature is beautiful and ancient.

He chastises poets:

Mystical poets are philosophers,
And philosophers are crazy men.

For mystical poets say that flowers feel
And say that stones have souls
And that rivers have moonlight ecstasies.

His poetry, in its cold exaltation of Nature for its own sake, also ends up downgrading the importance of man, and some of his poems are borderline misanthropic and suspicious of idealism and the belief in social progress of his time:

What do men matter to me
And what they suffer or think they suffer?
Be like me – they won’t suffer.
All evil in the world comes from caring about others,

Either for doing good, or for doing evil.
Our soul and the sky and earth are enough.
Wanting more is losing that, and being unhappy.

Like Thomas Crosse remarks, “Whitman's violent democratic feeling could be contrasted with Caeiro's abhorrence for any sort of humanitarianism, Whitman's interest in all things human, with Caeiro's indifference to all that men feel, suffer or enjoy.”

Be that as it may, it is undeniable that Alberto Caeiro is the author of a remarkable and singular poetic oeuvre that continues to offer, thanks to its many nuances, intellectual delights, challenges, and shocks to those willing to read it