Friday, 30 August 2013

Fernando Pessoa, Tourist Guide

“I know, right? By the way, I ever tell you about that time Fernando Pessoa wrote a tourist guide book?”

Fernando Pessoa. His life was so awkward you can drop this question in the middle of a conversation without sounding bizarre. Not many poets had lives that let you get away with it. Your audience just duly files this fact away, next to the four fully-developed poetic personae he invented, the astrological charts that accurately predicted his friends’ deaths, and his helping Aleister Crowley fake a suicide. And yet the irritating impression remains that this is too incongruent, even for him.

Written circa 1925, that is, before the dictatorship, Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See is one of the many projects that attest to Pessoa’s nationalism. Although Pessoa spent his childhood and adolescence in Durban, South Africa, he returned to Portugal to live his life in Lisbon the rest of his life. Deeply nationalistic, and proud of the nation’s glorious past, he conceived many projects to export Portugal’s brand abroad. As the introduction reveals (the edition is bilingual, by the way), this was just one of his many ideas to promote Portuguese culture and identity. One of the most interesting ones involved publishing an English-language monthly magazine called Portugal. The introduction, remarkably informative and full of curious titbits, also explains that his famous symbolic poem Message was to have been called Portugal. Another fact: Pessoa couldn’t afford his own type-writer, so he used the one in the office. This book was found fully typed inside his legendary chest. His work today is mostly collated from the findings in this famous chest. He only published in life a few poems, dispersed throughout countless magazines, and the aforesaid Message; plus prefaces, articles and introductions in several books and newspapers. The Book of Disquiet was a project edited into existence after his death, following his notes. So it’s remarkable and amusing that this tourist guide book, of all things, was finished and ready for publication after his death. And even more curious, in English. Even a century ago Pessoa was acutely aware that to be known means to be known in English. Decades later the novelist António Lobo Antunes would reiterate this notion, with his usual candour: “In the U.S., if you have The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, you have America, and if you have America, you have Europe.”

It surprises me that Pessoa, amongst the first wave of Portuguese modernists, was the most nationalistic; the others were in a hurry to drink from world culture, and in the case of his great friend, António de Sá-Carneiro, he even moved to France, where he committed suicide. But Pessoa had actually studied and lived abroad several years, so his identification with his nation’s past and his pain for its receding importance on the world stage was unexpected, not least of which because he never lost his cosmopolitanism.

Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See is true to its title. This is not a work of art, it’s not one of his hoaxes, like The Education of the Stoic or the pagan philosophies of Antonio Móra. It’s a prosaic, direct tourist guide book for foreigners visiting Lisbon, advising them what sights they should see for maximum delight.

Teresa Rita Lopes, the great Pessoa scholar and author of the introduction, unfairly says that anyone reading it in English will realize Pessoa’s command of the English language isn’t as proficient as it is often assumed, and that his fame as a bilingual writer is exaggerated, an opinion anyone will disagree with who has read his many English poems. For my part, I skipped the translation and read the original, and found it fluid and readable, if not aesthetically laudable. Pessoa didn’t speak to his countrymen but to foreigners and he’s direct, clear and terse. He aims to inform, not to please.

Another reason I loved reading the English original is, paradoxically, to get a flavour of how the Portuguese language used to look like almost a century ago. Ours used to be a very Latinate language before a series of pointless spelling reforms starting in 1911 butchered the spelling of words, places and names. Pessoa all his life refused to change his spelling and it shows in the names of the monuments; he was a liberal in the British tradition and believed the state had no right to interfere with the way language developed. To the British tourist, who isn’t used to seeing his language’s spelling change every thirty years, he may wonder why Pessoa writes Theatro Nacional Almeida Garret and the translation Teatro Nacional Almeida Garrett; or, when he urges the tourist to visit the Praça Luiz de Camões, why the translation has it changed to Praça Luís de Camões. Teresa Rita Lopes doesn’t explain this in her introduction, so the amateur expert that I am feels obliged to do so.

But let us enter Lisbon:

   Over seven hills, which are as many points of observation whence the most magnificent panoramas may be enjoyed, the vast irregular and many-coloured mass of houses that constitute Lisbon is scattered.
   For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of the delightful seat, of this blessed region.
   The tourist’s wonder begins when the ship approaches the bar, and, after passing the BUGIO lighthouse – that little guardian-tower at the mouth of the river, built three centuries ago on the plan of Friar João Turriano –, the castled TOWER OF BELEM appears, a magnificent specimen of sixteenth century military architecture, in the romanic-gothic-moorish style. As the ship moves forward, the river grows more narrow, soon to widen again, forming one of the largest natural harbours in the world, with ample anchorage for the greatest of fleets. Then, on the left, the masses of houses cluster brightly over the hills. That is LISBON.

The entrance to Lisbon could only be made from the sea, of course, symbol of our imperial greatness, of the great discoveries that took us to Africa, Asia and South America. Pessoa, curiously, was not the first Portuguese writer to write a Lisbon guide book for travellers. In 1554 Damião de Góis, historian, royal chronicler, keeper of the royal archives, and humanist, wrote in Latin the Urbis Olisiponis description, a short description of the Lisbon of the time, to send to his many acquaintances in Europe (like the poet Sá de Miranda, he was one of our bridges to the Renaissance since he travelled extensively in Europe, meeting Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Erasmus, Pietro Bembo and Albrecht Dürer, who painted him), curious about Portugal. Lisbon at his time was one of the most important cities in Europe, where ships from all the new lands passed bringing news, new products and curious marvels. Damião de Góis was writing from a different perspective than Pessoa: he was writing about the centre of an Empire in full expansion and growing rich; Pessoa was writing in an empire in decline, practically irrelevant on the world stage. Like Pessoa, Góis begins his description with a ship entering the harbour from the sea and stopping on the margins of the fabled Tejo. Their two guide books also have a few monuments in common: the Holy See atop one of the hills, the Santo António Church (Lisbon’s patron saint), the Tower of Belém. But reading the two also shows how much Lisbon grew and changed since the 16th century. If Góis’ was not a particularly hospitable city, to me anyway, Pessoa’s city is indeed arresting, modern and cosmopolitan.

The Santa Justa Elevator, made in iron. For Pessoa it was one of the city's symbols of modernity.

Acting as the tourist’s ‘cicerone,’ Pessoa takes the would-be traveller all over Lisbon, up and down its hills, to see all that it has to offer in terms of museums, churches, libraries, theatres, public parks, statues and entertainment. This is not just a tour but a history lesson (even for a Portuguese reader like myself) because Pessoa explains also the dates of construction, the names of the architects, and other textbook facts. At the same time we realize, with some sadness, that this Lisbon he describes is not an old city. Most of the dates he gives do not predate the 1755 Earthquake, testimony of the near-total destruction this natural catastrophe wrought and of the efforts to rebuild everything in its wake. In that regard Pessoa doesn’t avoid praising the visionary ruler who rebuilt Lisbon as we know is today, the Marquis of Pombal. Pessoa’s city then is old and young at the same time.

The Praça Marquês de Pombal, seen from the top of the Parque Eduardo VII. The Marquis was one of Pessoa's heroes.

The guide book is very thorough. I’m embarrassed to say it even reveals wonders I knew nothing about, and if I had the time, I’d take a few days going up and down Lisbon’s hills, book in hand, looking for each one of the sights he mentions and see many others I already know with fresh eyes. If Pessoa wanted to convince the tourist that Lisbon was a city capable of rivalling any European capital, I think he made a compelling case. It’d be too boring to list all the sights he recommends, so I’ll just make a few notes: Pessoa calls the Artillery Museum “indubitably the most remarkable one in Lisbon” because of its large collection of guns, cannons, uniforms and armours. It’s an odd one to recommend, but if it has Pessoa’s seal of approval, don’t miss it when you’re in Portugal; thankfully it still exists. Although he doesn’t mention, I also recommend visiting his favourite café, the Martinho da Arcada, which he preferred to the café A Brasileira, nowadays adorned with his bronze statue. Don’t let this fool you. His old haunt is still open and can be found in the Praça do Comércio, an ample square Pessoa may have exaggerated when he called it one of the largest in the world, but beautiful nonetheless. Thanks to Pessoa I now know the English call it the Black Horse Square. 

But as you can see, the horse is not black.

What I think changed mostly since Pessoa’s time was the people, that is, hardly anyone lives in Lisbon anymore. Nowadays it’s more a city for working and shopping than sight-seeing. Most inhabitants have left to the suburbs, making Lisbon a dilapidated ghost town where living is too expensive, and where on weekends you barely find a living soul. Although that could contribute to making sight-seeing better, it also means many of the sights have been left to decay, uncared for. None of this is in Pessoa’s guide book: his was indeed a wondrous, cosy, busy city, where an obscure poet could live, type books from his office’s typing machine, and manuscript poems in small taverns by the river.

The Martinho da Arcada, under the arcades of the Praça do Comércio

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The fate of the wave that crashed on the shore: Saramago in his own words.

La estatua y la piedra is the name of an improvised lecture José Saramago gave, in 1997, at the University of Milan. Revised and expanded by the author before his death, it was published in a slim volume months ago. Saramago was notorious for not liking to talk about literature; for him books served as an introduction to more important topics. So it’s a precious thing to have a text where he opened himself and discussed his work, from Manual of Painting and Calligraphy to The Double.

In a very short text Saramago addresses several pertinent topics: his being pigeonholed as a historical novels, the way he works history and the past, the role of women in his fiction, and the stylistic changes after The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. He starts the lecture rejecting the popular claim (and I’m guilty of promoting it) that he writes historical novels:

There’s a definition which, in a way, marks my career as writer, in particular as novelist, and which I must confess I have always received with impatience. It’s the commonplace tag that I’m a historical novelist, which would find confirmation both in some books I wrote and in my relation with Time and my position regarding History. I must say, nevertheless, that, already before I started writing, I maintained as a given truth (otherwise nothing original) that we’re all inheritors of a time, of a culture, and that, to use a simile that I have already used other times, I see mankind as if it were the sea. Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re on a beach: there’s the sea, which continuously approaches in successive waves that arrive at the shore. Very well, those waves, which advance and couldn’t move without the sea behind them, bring a small fringe of foam that arrives on the shore and there ends. I think, pursuing the maritime metaphor, that we’re the foam carried over by the wave, and that same wave is impelled by the sea which is time, all the time that stopped behind it, all the lived time that transports and pushes us.

He then goes on to explain the relationship between history, the past and the place of mankind in time and how he explains the relationship in his fiction:

Without a doubt, History worries me, even if it’s truer to say that what worries me is the Past, and, above all, the fate of the wave that crashed on the beach, the mankind pushed on by time and which to time is always returning, taking with it, in the reflux, a sheet music, a painting, a book or a revolution. For that reason I prefer to talk more about life than literature, without forgetting that literature is in life and that we’ll always have amongst ourselves the ambition to make life out of literature.

Other important remarks about history, which I think are relevant here since they were uttered around the same time, can be found in his lambasting ClaudioMagris when he wrote ‘We all thought it was very easy to quickly surpass history, but the crisis will be long. We need more humility, we need to know the weight of history is far more intense than we thought.’ Magris wrote this apropos of the European Project and of the unexpected (to him anyway) difficulty in creating a European identity. Saramago was aghast at how a man of Magris’ intelligence could really believe a whole continent could forge a new identity outside history.

Saramago then returns to the defining moment of his life as a writer: his being sacked from his job as director of a newspaper during the counter-revolution of 1975. The unemployed, and politically unemployable, writer decided to turn this into an opportunity to become a full-time writer (even though he had to support himself with translations for several years) and two years later published his first novel in thirty years:

In 1977, two years after having left my job in the Diário de Notícias, I published a novel called Manual of Painting and Calligraphy and which of historical novel has nothing. I emphasise this to point out to what degree it can be reductive the definition of José Saramago as a historical novelist. Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is not History, is a novel of current times, written in 1976 and which goes back exactly to the weeks prior to the 1974 April Revolution. It’s the story of a painter (which shouldn’t be too strange, since I’ve always been interested in painting), it’s the story, I was saying, of a mediocre painter nevertheless aware of his mediocrity (which is truly extraordinary…) and who, unhappy with what he does, decides to change his way of painting, thinking that that way he’d improve his work’s quality. It happens, however, that quality not always depends on will, and our painter, on realizing of his inability to express what he profoundly intends, starts writing about the painting he’s doing and, inevitably, starts writing about the writing he’s doing. For that reason the book is called Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.

Saramago interrupts his point about historical novels to briefly explain the role of women in his novels. Starting here with M., the woman who helps H. on his journey of self-discovery, Saramago claims to see his women as symbols of regeneration and of the best qualities of mankind. M. will later became Blimunda, Maria Sara, who persuades Raimundo Silva to become a writer, and the doctor’s wife who takes care of the blind. And though he leaves her out, I’d include Death from Death at Intervals because, paradoxically, she brings positive changes to the violoncellist. I have to confess I’m wary of characters as symbols and not characters. But going back to the doctor’s wife, Saramago reveals that he originally planned to make her blind too:

The woman, who accompanies her husband to the ambulance, also gets in. When the driver orders her to get out, she answers, lying, that she has just lost her sight. She’s not blind, yet she will accompany her husband, and this is a first step in the definition of her personality. That woman won’t blind ever, even if at the time she got in the truck I didn’t know it… It could happen that she’d lose the sight in the next chapter, but suddenly, when I was working on her, I understood that this character, the woman, couldn’t blind because she had been capable of compassion, of love, of respect, of keeping a sense of deep dignity in her relation with others because, recognizing man’s weakness, she was capable of understanding.

This also gives credence to the notion that the blindness in Blindness is more ethical than physical. People are affected because of their choice not to see and do, for their actions, they’ve blinded themselves to the suffering and humiliation around them.

After ‘Manual’ and The Lives of Things, he started working on a project to write his autobiography, that is, the memories of his childhood up to his fifteen years: his childhood and adolescence, his years in his grandparents’ village, the struggles and miseries of the people he grew up around. This project, which at one point was called The Book of Temptations and was published decades later as Small Memories, planted in Saramago’s mind the seed of his next novel, Raised from the Ground, a novel that paid homage to the humble peasants and workers he had lived amongst during his childhood. Again he refutes the claim this novel is a historical novel.

It’s true that it describes the final years of the 19th century until the 1974 April Revolution. However, of the three generations, only the first one properly belongs to what we’d call historical past, and, for that reason, on describing its way of life, I had to carry out a reconstruction of ancient facts. Someone could then object that indeed it is a historical novel. I don’t agree with that at all, because it’d mean to depreciate, in a way, the sociological and ideological mark that characterises it.

He followed this with a novel I don’t particularly love, Baltasar and Blimunda. He clarifies that he got the idea of writing this novel after his idea for a novel about Ricardo Reis. He explains that he wrote B&B first because the idea of writing about one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms was more daunting a task that inserting the whole Mafra Convent into a novel. According to him, and I disagree, if this novel had been published after Ricardo Reis it’d not be considered a historical novel. I think he’s wrong, B&B has all the trappings of a historical novel and I’m not even particularly convinced it’s not. But he poses a good question: when do we start considering something history? “Is what happened one hundred years History? It seems there are not many doubts about that, but is fifty years History? And twenty years, is it? And twenty-four hours? Is History yesterday’s day? The truth is we don’t know where resides that border that separates the notion of a Present without dimension from a Past (…)”

For him what he does when he writes about history is different from what historical novelists do, and he gives the writers Walter Scott and Alexandre Herculano (our first novelist, and a great historian) as examples of that genre. “Deep down, a historical novel is like a journey the writer takes to the Past, he goes there, takes a picture, and then returns to the Present, places the picture in front of him and describes what he saw and what the picture teaches. None of his concerns of today will interfere in a direct way with the recreation of a past time. That is, more or less (for in these matters we should not be too radical…) the historical novel as Alexandre Herculano and Walter Scott understood it.”

To Saramago, he distances himself from their way of working because he brings his own personality and consciousness of his time into the novel. I’m not completely sure a writer can step outside his own era so completely and recreate a past one without some influence from it. I think Saramago is trying to create a difference where there’s none. About B&B he says that it’s “a fiction about a time in the past, but seen from the perspective of the time the author is inserted in, with everything that the writer has: his education, his interpretation of the world, his way of understanding the processes of transformation of societies. Everything is seen under the light of the time the author lives in, and not with the concern of illuminating that which the lights of the past had already reflected.” This is my italics; even if I disagree with Saramago I think it’s a very original way of dismissing the historical novel.

Afterwards he wrote The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, his magnum opus. And until reading his lecture I hadn’t understood the joke in title. Indeed now I realize the novel really is more about the year of 1936 than Ricardo Reis per se. Perhaps I am being reductive, but the title itself points that out – Saramago did a magnificent reconstruction of the major events of this critical year, against which he contrasts the withering of a poet who never even existed, or existed in the most exceptional of ways. Next we have The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which was an even greater attack on historical truth because it denies the existence of ‘historical truth,’ without whose assumption historical novels can’t be written. In this book Saramago imagines a new history for Lisbon and consequently Portugal. His next novel, The Stone Raft, was a story set in modern times and it seemed like his cycle of novels about the past were over, but then he gave us one of his greatest books: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. This time he doesn’t just go into historical time, he goes into mythical time. Not content with rewriting the history of Portugal, he tries to make more realistic a history that may never have existed. But there’s something else I realize now. I used to think this was his first book dealing with history outside Portuguese history, but he had already done that with ‘Ricardo Reis.’ The events that course through this novel have nothing to do with Portugal – the start of the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the Nazi Party’s consolidation of power, vestiges of which bled their way into Portugal and Reis’ aloof life. Although Saramago claims not to plan his books, there’s a symmetry to their trajectory that seems to imply a grand design at work.

After the ‘Gospel’ there occurred a change in Saramago’s perspective. To explain this, he comes up with the metaphor that gives the title to the lecture: the statue and the stone. Up until ‘Gospel’ he had been ‘describing a statue.’ Afterwards he started describing stones. Speaking of Blindness he explains: “The book is no longer committed to describing the statue, it’s an attempt to get inside the stone’s interior, in the deepest part of ourselves, it’s an attempt to ask ourselves what and who we are. And what for. Probably there’s no answer, and, if there is, surely I wouldn’t be the person capable of offering it. Deep down, what the book wants to express is very simple: if we’re like this, let each one ask himself why.”

Blindness was a violent, brutal, apocalyptic novel, a total rupture with what he had written before, leaving history behind to tackle the new social problems of modernity. Following Blindness his novels became more introspective and allegorical: All The Names was about loneliness and the need to interact with others; The Cave was about the illusions that sustain the modern world and the consumerism that seems to have replaced religion as a way of killing existential doubts; The Double was about identity. Saramago was now writing about the challenges in a post-Soviet world where globalization and neoliberalism had triumphed: matters of ethics, critical thinking, scepticism became his favourite topics. My only regret is that Saramago, since he expanded the lecture before his death, left out his thoughts about my favourite novel, Seeing. Since it’s his most direct political allegory and a scabrous satire on the crisis of democracy, I’d like to know his personal opinions about it. Even so, La estatua y la piedra contains a lot for the reader interested in having a better understanding of José Saramago.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Agustina & Franz

Agustina Bessa-Luís (b. 1922) is a Portuguese novelist I don’t see myself having many future occasions to write about in this blog. The main reason is that I think she’s an insufferably dull writer, and, after reading four of her books, I’ve decided never to waste my time with her again once I finish reading the remaining book of hers in my book pile. I’ve read two novels, a collection of short-stories and a book of essays, this last forming the genesis of this post. I thought everything save the essays was execrable.

My opinion of Agustina (as she’s known) is highly unpopular. She’s considered one of the greatest living Portuguese writers. In 2004 she received the Camões Prize. There are even critics who argue that she’s superior to José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes. I’ll let others defend Lobo Antunes, but I find the claim that she’s better than Saramago risible. It’s not without its reasons. Saramago, truth be said, is a wild card in Portuguese letters, an awkward figure that never fit in. In a country whose literature historically has not strayed away from plotlessness, meaningless divagations, vocabulary preciousness, unmemorable characters, “melancholy lyricism” (to use Saramago’s lovely and accurate description of Portuguese literature), humourlessness, and ordinary realism, I fear an imaginative fabulist emulating the Spanish-language magical realists would never be totally accepted by the critics. He’s tolerated because of his unexplainable popularity with readers, and the Nobel Prize of course. Most critics and politicians will overcome their disgust for Saramago because, in our national anxiety for the world to know we exist at all, they’ll take a Nobel laureate they don’t like to no Nobel laureate at all. But hidden underneath the often heard claim that Lobo Antunes deserved the Nobel more than Saramago we glean the insinuation that the Nobel went to a Portuguese writer who didn’t write real Portuguese novels, who didn’t capture the real soul of Portuguese people. I don’t know what the Portuguese soul is but I have a good idea of what it is not. The Portuguese people are certainly not heroic people – they’re more justly described as greedy, servile, petty, close-minded and duplicitous. This, however, has not impeded The Lusiads, the epic poem that portrays the history of the Portuguese people as a heroic endeavour, from becoming our national epic. Of such contradictions is literature made.

What does Agustina write about? About nothing really, her books are blank slates to me. The two novels I read concerned the affairs of rich land-owners, although there was no plot to really speak of. The characters had no motivations, no problems to overcome. I can’t even recall their names. The novels were long descriptions of their day-to-day existence. I barely remember anything from these novels because they didn’t have any points of interest for me to fix my attention on. Not like, say, Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, which I read last month. I don’t presume I’ll remember everything from this extraordinary novel, but certainly bits will remain forever with me: a general sense of the plot, a conversation between Van and Ada, a flowery description, some clever wordplay, a scene like Lucette’s suicide, a sequence like Van’s foiled attempts at duelling. With Agustina, my mind is blank. I can’t remember names, things they did or thought. Everything was as insignificant and pinched and lifeless as to be worthy of no retention after I closed the books.

The triumph of this aesthetic on Portuguese letters poses a tremendous mystery to me. How is it possible that, after having had Eça de Queiroz, our novelists deteriorated so quickly? Where is his influence on future generations? Although Eça de Queiroz is one of the greatest novelists of all times, and revered in his country, his aesthetic runs in contraction to the work of Agustina, Lobo Antunes, José Cardoso Pires, Vergílio Ferreira and Aquilino Ribeiro. Where his characters are memorable and bursting with life, theirs are anonymous and listless. Where he could concoct wild plots – a man selling fake relics to the bourgeois, a man killing a rich mandarin with a magic bell, a Darwinian take on Adam and Eve – his descendants are obsessed only with the strictest of realities. He was ironic and hilarious, they are solemn and more serious than atom bombs. When we look at things from this perspective, we realize that Saramago, if he did not write about the cramped Portuguese soul, did at least write novels in the tradition inaugurated by Eça. He may well be the only one. I wonder if this explains why they’re, internationally speaking, the two most popular Portuguese novelists?

Saramago himself, in his younger years, did not cotton to Agustina. For a short time in the fifties he wrote book reviews for a magazine called Seara Nova. In one review he expressed his concern that Agustina ‘will not fall asleep to the sound of her own music.” I think this is an accurate description of what her prose does to me, but Saramago, after he became a famous writer, publicly regretted this sentence in his diaries and blog. Less timorous in his opinions was the seminal literary critic João Gaspar Simões, also writing in the fifties. The first biographer and editor of Fernando Pessoa, with whom he also corresponded, Gaspar Simões also wrote an early biography of Eça de Queiroz, studies on novels, theatre and poetry and literary criticism for newspapers and magazines. Agustina was one of his pet hatreds and I subscribe to his views in full:

We speak of the “genius” of Aquilino, of the “genius” of Torga. Seldom do we speak of the “genius” of Eça de Queirós. Author of often genial works – The Maias, for instance – the great novelist does not belong to the brotherhood of our writers who wear the suit of prose-writers and who, to affirm themselves as such, need more of a page than a book, give themselves more quickly in two sentences than in thousands of them. And that’s how “genius” became a term of the critical lexicon applicable especially to those literary natures which amongst us affirm themselves through an irresistible personal weight first of all achieved by the manner in which they express themselves. In our tongue “genius” implies more precisely character than intelligence, rather form of expression than worldview.

Agustina Bessa-Luís belongs, by right, to that deeply traditional phalanx and that’s exactly why we’re not surprised by the literary prizes that, from the start, have crowned The Sibila and the somewhat astonishing career which we contemplate, when it’s likely that the work of this writer is everything you want it to be save an accessible and popular work.

On Agustina’s insipid characters:

No. Agustina does not seem to me to have the gift to create characters, she’s not a demiurge in the manner of the true novelist. In fact, she lacks, to be so, love for mankind. And that’s why her really impressive pages are not those in which she paints the love, hatred, disharmony, disgrace, glory or despair of her figures, but those she kills them in.

On her annoying, meandering verbosity:

The stories of Agustina Bessa-Luís, which have completely stopped belonging to the limits of the real world, are now told to us with the impatience, impertinence and the infallibility with which are clothed the words of a lady when well-polite men listen to her and know it’s not nice to interrupt a woman when she’s talking.

Although I’ve given up on her fiction a slim collection of essays piqued my interest a few months ago. It’s a little book called Kafkiana, devoted to Franz Kafka, a writer Agustina claims to admire and to be influenced by. How this influence manifests itself in her work I do not see or understand. Kafka is everything she’s not: he’s succinct and prosaic where she’s bloated and precious. His characters always live in conflict with something: a criminal charge, the castle authorities, family; hers breeze through immaterial worlds devoid of situations. Borges considered Kafka a master storyteller and weaver of labyrinthine plots; Agustina, in the ridiculous tradition of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, seems to think she’s too good to throw a decent plot at her readers. I like to call this divergence between influencer and influencee the Ulysses Paradox. Ulysses is considered the greatest 20th century novel but one can count with the fingers of one hand the number of novelist who have rigorously adhered to its strict aesthetic. Most borrow one thing or another from it and continue to write novels the way they’ve been being written since Cervantes. How do we explain this paradox? I don’t know. On the other hand, one loses count of the number of novelists who, consciously or unconsciously, ape Kafka’s style. I retain my conviction that Joyce one day will be exposed as the charlatan he is and that Kafka will claim the role he merits as the greatest and most influential writer of the 20th century.

But to get back to Agustina. Although she writes nothing like Kafka she nevertheless admires him. I have a soft spot for literary criticism written by fiction writers. I think even a bad writer shows talent when he articulates his thoughts about writers he loves. I formed this impression from my readings of Borges, Kundera, Calvino, Eco, Sena, Eliot and a few others. I also think that if a writer can make me enjoy a book by Agustina, that writer is Kafka. I decided to put that to the test.

After reading Kafkiana, I have to say it’s not a particularly extraordinary or even informative book, it won’t change the readers’ perception of Kafka and it fails to add many pertinent new insights into his thinking and writing. The present book didn’t convert me to Agustina; I fear not even Kafka can cure me of my indisposition towards her. I’ve read superior analyses of him in the pages of Borges and Kundera. She tackles all the topics – the father, his views on family, the theme of indecision – but amidst all the encomiums she fails to build a cogent case.

The first page is actually promising:

In the letters to Milena, the most inspired and seductive that Kafka ever wrote, there’s a passage that attracted me particularly. He tells that, when he was still very young, he received a coin of ten kreuzers and he had the burning impulse to give it to a woman beggar asking for alms in a piazza corner. But the amount seemed exorbitant and he feared that the beggar would be embarrassed by that gesture. Exaggerated generosity, like all exaggerated gestures, can mean arrogance, and Kafka, child nevertheless, had the talent to understand that.

How to do it then? Small Kafka didn’t find a better way than exchanging the ten kreuzers in one kreuzer coins and walking as many times around the piazza as he needed to be able to deliver all the money to the beggar. He says that, probably, he didn’t succeed because the woman, impatient, got up and left.

I, impatient reader of the work of Kafka, identify myself with the Prague beggar. He has a treasure to give me; he offers that treasure with a fantastic and clever delicacy, but the human heart, needy of words more consoling than profound, resists to understanding the thinker’s laborious alms. Without patience, the patience the Prague beggar lacked, one does not receive the complete richness from Kafka.

But it goes slowly downhill from there. But when she’s writing about Kafka she manages to craft far livelier sentences than when she’s writing fiction:

No other writer has generated until today so much controversy as Kafka has. His bibliography ascends to over five thousand works that look at him, spy him and pulverize him. Admired, detested, watched in depth like one of the strange animals he himself closes in his pages like in a cage where they wait the appropriate vaccines, Kafka is, himself, a body for vivisection. He writhes, palpitates, offers the skin and all the organs to the laboratory experience that is his prodigious brain. When he appeared, coming from a minor literature which was the product of Prague’s Jewish colony, he could not but cause indifference or repulsion even.

Most of the time our thoughts are actually in harmony: “He’s not an intimate writer: he’s displeased with the idea of being treated as such. His suffering is marvellous, unreal, it explodes in the dark like a battle of lights, of flashes.” And I think the way she approaches the figure of Hermann Kafka is quite unusual:

There has been a lot of exaggeration about the famous hostility between father and son in the Kafkaesque case. But I think the father Kafka attacks, to whom he directs the famous letter, is an imaginary father and has little to do with Hermann Kafka, the modest Czech Jew, badly educated and who has one purpose only: to triumph in life. The type of persecution the son confers to him, in his pages, has the effect of ennobling him, of giving him a category that Hermann Kafka never had. Already as a child Kafka enjoys it and forces him to show himself unjust and cruel, for mere amusement; like in the episode in which he defies his father’s patience so that he, annoyed, will lock him inside a room from where he can’t come out.

But afterwards I closed the book and didn’t care about it anymore.

Re-reading this post I realize I just wrote four pages complaining about Agustina Bessa-Luís. Oh well, vociferating from time to time is good for the mind too.