Sunday, 18 January 2015

St. Orberose: 3 Years




My novel-writing has kept me so aloof from earthy matters that I didn’t even notice that yesterday St. Orberose celebrated another anniversary. You read that correctly: for the past three years I have kept this blog busy with stuff about books.

In 2014 I increased the number of posts in relation to 2013; even so I missed by 3 posts my objective of reaching 100. I would no doubt have succeeded had my productivity, after six first great months, not decreased almost to a residual minimum of activity. I will try to remedy that in 2015.

Once more I owe much of my perseverance to the excellent book blogging community that I discovered and that continues to keep me enthralled and humbled by the intelligent, funny, passionate and generous bloggers. To them and to the people who sometimes stop by to comment, or who merely lurk around to read my shenanigans about books: thank you very much!

And don't forget: you can still select 10 books from my TBR pile for me to read in 2015.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Earlier hearts of darkness




“Hasty critics, who see the 15th and 16th centuries from the prism of their ideological convictions, particularly the ones with a crypto-Marxist pedigree, have tried to call The Tragic History of the Sea (as well as The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto) a sort of Counter-Epic in which they only accentuate what they designate as the negativism, cruelty, frantic wickedness and covetousness of the Portuguese Navigations and Conquests.” João Palma-Ferreira (1930-1989) wrote these lines in his book Textos e Ensaios (1984). The occasion was a brief essay about the classic The Tragic History of the Sea, the sort of oddball book he specialized in. Ever since I discovered him last I’ve been learning to pay attention to what he says about literature, history, and literary history. He wrote novels and diaries, translated (including Hemingway, Henry Miller and Ulysses), and taught literature in Spain, which perhaps accounts for his encyclopedic knowledge of the picaresque novel: his book Do Pícaro na Literatura Portuguesa opened up lots of new worlds for me – I had never heard of Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache, but now I want to read him. In 1987 he also published Vida e Obra de Dom Gibão, a self-conscious picaresque novel into which he pours everything he knows about the genre, making it hyper-inter-textual and self-referential: it comes with hundreds of footnotes where he has to explain to you every allusion and reference you’d otherwise miss, because you’re not as clever as he is. Trust me, you’re not. He was also providential in rescuing from oblivion books that were never part of the canon: novellas in the vein of Cervantes’ Novelas ejemplares, an anonymous satirical feuilleton popular in its time, an anonymous chivalry romance, a fantasy novella starring a devil, and other oddities that didn’t sit well with Portugal’s repressive Inquisition. I like reading him because it’s like stepping into a parallel Portuguese Literature. But for all his knowledge, diligence and devotion, no one knows or reads him anymore. “Margined and obscure,” the title of one of his books of essays, could easily apply to him. I do my best to remedy that injustice.

To my knowledge, and to my disappointment, he never wrote at length about The Tragic History of the Sea, a compilation of texts bibliophile Bernardo Gomes de Brito (1688-1759) put together in two volumes in 1735 and 1736. It’s an unusual book, so unusual I don’t know of another similar to it. At the height of the Portuguese Discoveries, there were dozen of ships en route to India and dozen more returning to the metropolis, its compartments filled with spices and other exotic goods that Europe craved. Although the Portuguese tend to idolatrize the 15th and 16th centuries, things were never quite as glorious as the version promoted by official history. It’s not so much that there was a bad side – which this book doesn’t even cover in great detail: slavery, forced conversions, extortion – it’s more that there was an incompetent, greedy side that was the main cause of the Empire’s decline and that few like to remember co-existed with the good if short-lived side. This book contains twelve “relations” of shipwrecks, from 1552 to 1601: most of them occur off the Western Coast of Africa, and there’s one in Brazil too. What titillated Marxist scholars so much in the 1970s, motivating Palma-Ferreira’s response to them, is that the causes of shipwrecks allowed them to create the so-called “Counter-Epic” that confronted much of the exalted rhetoric of official history, which is best represented by Luiz de Camões’ epic poem The Lusiads (far more critical of the Discoveries than many of its patriotic appropriators imagine).  The Tragic History of the Sea, truth be said, does cast several shadows on the whole enterprise; what we glean from its narratives is that most of the ships were lost because of: ignorant, inexperienced pilots; rotten ships full of leaks in dire need of repairs; and a greed that translated into excessive cargo for what the ship could safely carry, making it vulnerable in sea storms. Covetousness! Corruption! Evil dead white men getting their due! And colonialism to boot! You have to forgive the Marxists for not jumping at the opportunity. In the 1970s there was an edition with commentaries by José Saramago, before he was a famous novelist, but already prestigious inside left-wing intellectual circles: you can imagine what he made of a book like this. Around the time American scholar Rebecca D. Catz was initiating her decades-long achievement to prove that TheTravels of Fernão Mendes Pinto was a pioneering critique of European imperialism (and why not?), whereas traditional scholarship tells us that it’s the autobiography of a vicious pirate. I think there’s ample room for all these interpretations. As a historian of literature, though, Palma-Ferreira was more interested in how the narratives related to literary currents, how they “come from a tradition deep-rooted both in the medieval novella and the prestige of travel literature and the exotic.” In fact the popularity of these narratives is due to the “generalized curiosity in the realism and veracity of the navigations and conquests” that the Discoveries had awakened in Portugal at the time. With dozens of thousands of people boarding ships to faraway lands, there was a hunger for knowledge of everything related to sea-faring. Because of the country’s engagement with nautical affairs, it’s no wonder the shipwreck news, because of their tragic content and sense of dramatic narrative, became favorite reads and continued to seduce new readers long after the decline of the Empire.

It’s interesting that Palma-Ferreira italicizes realism and veracity. Portugal, in part because of the Inquisition, was slow in developing fictional genres. Although rich in poetry and claiming a theater that enjoyed a golden age in the 16th century before decaying because of censorship, it doesn’t have a good track record of what we could call long narrative fiction: some novellas, nowadays forgotten, some chivalry romances, no picaresque romances, no novels until the 19th century. In the case of the picaresque, however, it could be said that its counterpoint was the shipwreck narrative. If by picaresque we understand realistic narratives about ordinary people at odds with a fatalistic world and determined to survive at any cost and by whatever means, many of the narratives The Tragic History of the Sea share similarities with that genre, although he goes so far as to say that they prefigure modern reportage, with their objective description of facts and ordeals. Without rejecting the book’s “documental richness” to history, he stresses that nowadays its “value is eminently literary.” And that’s how I personally prefer to read them.

The first of the narratives is the most famous, emblematic of the whole genre and of tremendous importance to Portuguese literature. It narrates the shipwreck of the galleon S. João and what befell the crew members who survived and made their way into the African continent looking for a place of civilization that could help them return to Portugal. The ship’s captain, Manuel de Sousa Sepúlveda, is an immortal figure now and even makes a cameo in António Lobo Antunes’ The Return of the Caravels. It’s also a good example of why I think these narratives constitute 16th century versions of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

In 1552 Manuel de Sousa’s ship sails from Kochi (in India; Portugal had a settlement there since 1500, its first in Asia, founded by explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral), full of merchandise to sell in European markets. But a sea storm, the ship’s weight and its bad shape caused it to suffer damage somewhere along former Natal (nowadays KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa), and a group of people got inside a boat and got ashore hoping to find the materials to repair the ship. They left just in time because next it fell apart and cracked into several parts, with over 500 people aboard. “More than forty Portuguese and seventy slaves died on jumping out; the others came to land swimming above and below the sea, as it pleased Our Lord, and many of them wounded from nails and wood. Four hours later the galleon was in pieces, without a seven-feet-sized bit showing up, and everything the sea cast ashore, with a great tempest.” And we’re told its riches were unique. “And the cargo that was in the ship, for the king and others, they say was worth a conto in gold, because since India was discovered no ship sailed thence so rich.” Some 500 people are alive, including Manuel de Sousa’s wife and children. Without materials to fix the ship or build a new one, they form a counsel and decide what to do, first take care of the wounded, then meet the natives to barter food. “So they made their trenches from some arks and barrels, and were there twelve days, and in none of them no black from the land came talk to them; except in the first three nine natives showed up in a clearing, and stayed there two hours without having any speech with us; and as if astonished they left. And two days hence it seemed good to them to send a man and a native from the same ship, to see if they found some negroes who with them wished to talk to barter some supplies. And they walked there two days without finding a living person, only some emptied straw huts, so that they realized the negroes had fled with fear, and then returned to the party, and in some houses they found arrows sticking out, which they say is their war sign.” Not long after natives resurface, with a cow, willing to trade it for iron; the captain offers nails, which they at first seem interested in, but then another group of natives dissuades them and they leave with the cow. After twelve days on the beach, waiting for the wounded to recover, they decide to set out and run up long a river that will take them to Mozambique, where Portuguese can help them. And so the 500 people go, about 180 Europeans and the rest slaves and natives in their pay. “In this manner they walked for a month with many efforts, hungers and thirsts, because in all this time they ate nothing but rice rescued from the galleon and some fruits from the bush, for no other supplies in the land they found, nor anybody who sold them; wherever they went through so great an aridness that it can’t be believed or written.” And so people start dying and disappearing, or simply left behind. “In all this time they could have walked a hundred leagues; and because of the great detours because of rivers they hadn’t yet walked thirty leagues up the coast; and already then they had lost ten or twelve people; just a bastard son, ten or eleven years old, who, already too weak from hunger, he and a slave who carried him on his back, were left behind. When Manuel de Sousa asked for him they told him he had stayed behind around a half a league back, he nearly lost his mind; and thus he lost him for thinking that he was moving in the rear-end with his uncle Pantaleão de Sá, as it sometimes happened; and immediately promised five hundred cruzados to two men who went back after him, but there was none who would take them, because it was already close to night and because of the tigers and lions; because as soon as some was left behind he was eaten; so that he was forced not to abandon the path he was taking and thus leave his son, where he lost his eyes. And so you can see the travails this nobleman endured before his death.”

And as they continue their journey they’re constantly attacked by natives. “There was so much work, of keeping watch and of hunger and walking, that every day more people passed out, and there wasn’t a day when one or two people didn’t stay on those beaches and woods, for not being able to walk; and immediately they were eaten by tigers and serpents, because of the earth having them in large quantities. And it’s certain that watching these men who each day remained alive, through these deserts, was a thing of great pain and feeling for ones and the others; because the one who stayed told the others who walked away from his company, perchance fathers and brothers and friends, that they go very away, that they prayed for them to Lord God. It caused tremendous sorrow to watch parents and friends unable to aid them, knowing that in a while he’d be eaten by mindless beasts, and if it causes sorrow to whoever listens how much more to whoever saw and went through it.”

Under the circumstances it’s every man for himself, and even though they’re all at risk there are still those who use the situation to make a profit. People can make money risking their lives to fetch water from the rivers; others amass money from selling it at exorbitant prices. Still others sell fish they catch in rivers. It’s extraordinary how greed will manifest itself even in such a situation, when there’s a slim margin of anyone surviving to enjoy the profit, but such is human nature. Morale also runs low, and the will to survive overpowers all other considerations. “For many days now they didn’t feed on anything but fruits they found by chance and toasted bones [??????]; and many times it happened that they sold in the party a snake skin for fifteen cruzados; and although it was dry they threw it into the water and ate it like that.”

The relations with the Africans are always interesting. At one point they come across a native king who rules over two villages; he offers to shelter and feed them the best he can, and urges them not to proceed since there’s another king up ahead who will steal and kill them. This first king, whom they nickname Garcia de Sá, has already met Portuguese before and is considered trustworthy. In fact in hindsight they regret not heeding his request since it doomed them all. Unable to prevent them from moving on, they nevertheless aid him in curbing an uprising in his lands and stealing cattle from an enemy. In hindsight the narrator tells us that the party had already reached the Lourenço Marques river but ignored it and so make the mistake of forging ahead. This is one of the most interesting parts of the narrative to me, because of the native king’s insistent requests that they remain, and the Portuguese’s will to continue, showing even a hint of mistrust and fear that is later shown to have been unfounded.

Going up another river they find more natives and are informed that the a ship with “men like them” had been there recently but sailed away, so they have to wait. It’s also around this time that Manuel de Sousa starts showing signs of dementia and what nowadays we’d call paranoia. After hiring a few Africans to help them cross a river he starts thinking they’re trying to kidnap them and pulls out his sword, prompting the rowers to jump out of the ship. Hunger, despair and fatigue were taking their toll on them. Reduced to 120 people by this time, they meet more natives who take them to the kind they had been warned against. Here their downfall is completed. The king welcomes them, shelters them, feeds them, but immediately starts plotting a way to steal and enslave them. Although a large number, they agree to be divided across several villages to be better served, and thus weakened they’re slowly overpowered. When they agree to hand the Africans their fire arms Manuel de Sousa’s wife, D. Leonor, remarks in terror, “You’ve given up the guns, now I give myself for lost along with all those people.” And so it is. They’re stripped naked and robbed of all their belongings. “Here they say that D. Leonor did not herself be stripped, and that with fists and slaps she defended herself, because she was such that she would rather be killed by the natives than be seen naked in front of people, and there’s no doubt that her life would have ended there if it hadn’t been for Manuel de Sousa, who begged her to let them undress her, who remembered her that they were born naked and, since it pleased God, that she be naked. One of the great travails they felt was watching two small boys, their children, crying in front of them, asking for food, without anyone being of aid to them. And D. Leonor seeing herself naked, she threw herself on the ground and covered herself up with her coils which were very long, digging a hole in the sand, where she fit up to her waist, without ever getting up from it. Manuel de Sousa then went up to an old maid of his, who had a torn scarf yet, and asked it to cover D. Leonor, and she gave it to him; but she never again wanted to get up from that place, where she fell into when found herself naked.” Not long after one of his sons dies, then his wife and other son. After digging their graves he sets out into the woods and is never seen again. Not long after a Portuguese shows up, hearing that countrymen are held captive: their ransoms are paid and they’re taken to Mozambique, arriving in May 1553.

This is one of the twelve narratives. The others don’t deviate a lot from it. Longer or shorter, they follow identical structures – usually there’s a storm (in the last narrative the cause if a naval battle with Dutchmen) that aggravates factors like excessive weight and lack of maintenance; the survivors make it ashore and then spend months walking around inside the African continent, looking for other whites and terrified of the natives, dying of hunger and thirst, and constantly fighting off attacks. The details of violence and squalor vary; there are amazing descriptions of people reduced to eating bugs and whatnot to survive. Manuel de Sousa’s figure haunts many of the following narratives, especially because several of the shipwrecks occur around the same area, so the survivors meet natives who knew. This attests to the popularity of the event and the swiftness with which they were written down and distributed in Portugal. Besides these harrowing tales of survival, there’s a wealth of detail on flora, fauna, native customs and nautical science that makes these narratives priceless documents. A lot can be learned about 16th century European-African relationships.

Why do I compare this book to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? I think they have many contact points: human horror; extreme conditions; insanity; dehumanization; the fragility of civilization. If that doesn’t convince you to read this book, here’s a cool detail: Guimarães Rosa, the Brazilian author of the The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a huge fan. This is from an interview he gave in 1966: “And I’m going to tell you something I never told anyone: what influenced me the most, maybe, what gave me courage to write was The Tragic History of the Sea.” A huge lover of classic Portuguese literature because of its richness of vocabulary, there are also basic similarities between this collection of shipwreck news and his huge novel: both depict groups of people in the middle of jungles, far from civilization, constantly fighting enemies in order to stay alive. It’s worth pointing out that Rosa’s novel in Portuguese is called Grande Sertão: Veredas. Sertão (big desert) is also the word the 16th century Portuguese used to name the African hinterlands.

C. R. Boxer (1904-2000) a lusophile historian who authored many books on Portuguese history related to the Discoveries, translated several of the narratives into English. He doesn’t credit Bernardo Gomes de Brito, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t the original edition. First of all, it only includes 7 narratives (it’s still over 500 pages!); secondly, it contains shipwrecks not included in Gomes de Brito’s version. For instance, this reviewer mentions the shipwreck of the São João Baptista that I had never heard, but it sounds pretty thrilling. There exist countless narratives that were left out. Over the years some have been published in different forms. The tireless João Palma-Ferreira, for instance, devoted an anthology to this genre called Naufrágios, Viagens, Fantasias & Batalhas. So see the positive side: you’re going to get translations of narratives we don’t even have access to. Reset assured, however, that the crown, the Manuel de Sousa Sepúlveda shipwreck, is included in Boxer’s edition, and that’s a great reason to buy it.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Tell Me What To Read




Last year I gave visitors the opportunity to pick 10 books from my reading pile. I tallied up the votes and then read the winning books. I liked this experiment since it forced me to give priority to books that might linger on my shelves for years, ignored, abandoned, despondent. The final list was:

Virgil: Bucolics/Georgics/Aeneid
Giambattista Vico: The New Science
Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian
Saint Augustine: Confessions
W.B. Yeats: The Collected Poems
Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey
Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy
Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
Umberto Eco: Inventing the Enemy

The Nabokov and the Austen ended up being two of my favourite books in 2014. This was very positive because I probably wouldn’t have read Austen without this encouragement. So I figured we could repeat the experiment. It’s really simple: pick 10 books from my reading list and put them on a comment; you can vote until February 4, 2015; the books with more votes win; in case of draws I’ll proceed like last year and give preference to the order the votes were cast. And then I’ll spend the rest of the year reading them and writing about them. So now vote; I have 225 books to choose from:

A Campos Matos: 7 Biografias de Eça de Queiroz
A.J. Saraiva/Óscar Lopes: História da Literatura Portuguesa
AAVV: Palavras para Saramago
AAVV: Quando a Justiça Julga os Lobos Uivam
Adam Zagajewski: A Defense of Ardor
Adam Zagajewski: Another Beauty
Adam Zagajewski: Two Cities
Adolfo Casais Monteiro: Clareza e Mistério da Crítica
Adolfo Casais Monteiro: Sobre o Romance
Afonso Cruz: Enciclopédia da Estória Universal - Arquivo de Dresden
Afonso Cruz: Enciclopédia da Estória Universal - Recolha de Alexandria
Agustina Bessa-Luís: Vale Abraão
Albert Cossery: Men God Forgot
Albert Cossery: Proud Beggars
Aleister Crowley: The Simon Iff Stories
Alexandre Cabral: Polémicas de Camilo
Alexandre Cabral: Subsídios para uma Interpretação da Novelística Camiliana
Alexandre Herculano: História da Origem e Estabelecimento da Inquisição em Portugal
Alexandre Herculano: História de Portugal
Alexandre O’Neill: Uma Coisa em Forma de Assim
Alexandre O'Neill: Já Cá Não Está Quem Falou
Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz
Almada Negreiros: Ficções
Almada Negreiros: Manifestos e Conferências
Almada Negreiros: Poemas
Ana Luísa Amaral: Inversos
Ana Paula Arnaut: Entrevistas com António Lobo Antunes 1979-2007
Ana Paula Arnaut: José Saramago
Ana Teresa Pereira: Intimações de Morte
Ana Vicente: As Mulheres Portuguesas Vistas por Viajantes Estrangeiros
Anónimo: Arte de Furtar
António Borges Coelho: Alexandre Herculano
António José da Silva: O Diabinho da Mão Furada
António Lobo Antunes: D'Este Viver aqui neste papel descripto
António Lobo Antunes: The Inquisitors' Manual
António Mega Ferreira: Fernando Pessoa: Fazer Pela Vida
António Policarpo da Silva: O Piolho Viajante
António Sérgio: Ensaios
António Silva Neves: Aquilino Ribeiro - Desigual entre Iguais
Antonio Tabucchi: Requiem
Aquilino Ribeiro: Aldeia
Aquilino Ribeiro: Páginas de Exílio
Beatriz Berrini: Ler Saramago: o romance
Benoît Peeters: Hergé - Filho de Tintim
C.R. Boxer: A Mulher na Expansão Ultramarina Ibérica
Camilo Castelo Branco: Mistérios de Lisboa
Carlos Reis: Diálogos com José Saramago
Castelo Branco Chaves: Os livros de viagens em Portugal no século XVII
Christopher Hitchens: Arguably
Colin Tudge: In Mendel's Footnotes
D.A. Russell/M. Winterbottom (ed.): Classical Literary Criticism
Dalila Pereira da Costa: O Esoterismo de Fernando Pessoa
Daniel N. Robinson: Wild Beasts and Idle Humours
Eça de Queiroz: As Farpas
Eça de Queiroz: Correspondência
Elza Mine: Eça de Queirós Jornalista
Fernando Dacosta: O Botequim da Liberdade
Fernando Pessoa: A Língua Portuguesa
Fernando Pessoa: Cartas de Amor de Fernando Pessoa e Ofélia Queiroz
Fernando Pessoa: Obras de António Mora
Fernando Pessoa: Poesia 1902-1917
Fernando Pessoa: Poesia 1918-1930
Francis Bacon: The Major Works
Franz Kafka: Diaries
Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra
G.E. Bentley: The Stranger from Paradise
Gabriel García Márquez: Viver para contá-la
Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space
George MacDonald, Phantastes
Georges Minois: Histoire des enfers
Gilbert Sorrentino: Mulligan Stew
Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso: Contos e Novelas de Proveito e Exemplo
Gonçalo M. Tavares: A Man: Klaus Kump/Joseph Walser's Machine
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Crónica del rey pasmado
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Sobre a Literatura e a Arte do Romance
Guilherme Oliveira Martins: Oliveira Martins - Uma Biografia
Gustave Flaubert: The Sentimental Education
H. de la Torre Gómez: Conspiração Contra Portugal 1910-1912
Irene Flunser Pimentel/Cláudia Ramos: Salazar, Portugal e o Holocausto
Isaiah Berlin: Russian Thinkers
Jaime Cortesão: A Expansão dos Portugueses no Período Henriquino
Jaime Cortesão: Memórias da Grande Guerra
Jaime Cortesão: Os Factores Democráticos na Formação de Portugal
Jean-Baptiste Botul: Landru, précurseur du féminisme
Jim Steinmeyer: Hiding the Elephant
Joana Pontes/Rodrigo de Sousa e Castro/Aniceto Afonso: A Hora da Liberdade
João C. Reis: As Polémicas de Eça de Queiroz
João Céu e Silva: Uma Longa Viagem com José Saramago
João Gaspar Simões: Crítica
João Medina: A Geração de 70
João Medina: Eça Político
João Medina: Herculano e a Geração de 70
João Palma-Ferreira: As Novelas
João Palma-Ferreira: Diário I
João Palma-Ferreira: Naufrágios Viagens Fantasias e Batalhas
João Rui de Sousa: Fernando Pessoa - Empregado de Escritório
João Tordo: O Bom Inverno
João Ubaldo Ribeiro: O Sorriso do Lagarto
Joaquim Barradas de Carvalho: Portugal e as Origens do Pensamento Moderno
Joaquim Veríssimo Serrão: Alexandre Herculano e a consciência do Liberalismo
Joe Bellamy: The New Fiction
Joel Serrão: Da Indústria Portuguesa
Joel Serrão: Fernando Pessoa
Joel Serrão: O Carácter Social da Revolução de 1383
Joel Serrão: Portugueses Somos
Joel Serrão: Sampaio Bruno
Joel Serrão: Temas de Cultura Portuguesa I
Joel Serrão: Temas de Cultura Portuguesa II
Joel Serrão: Temas Oitocentistas I
Joel Serrão: Temas Oitocentistas II
John Barth: The Friday Book
John Keats: The Complete Poetry
John Lahr: Coward - The Playwright
John Vincent-Smith: As Relações Políticas Luso-Britânicas 1910-1916
Jorge de Sena/Guilherme de Castilho: Correspondência
Jorge de Sena/José Régio: Correspondência
Jorge de Sena/José-Augusto França: Correspondência
Jorge de Sena/Vergílio Ferreira: Correspondência
Jorge de Sena: A Literatura Inglesa
Jorge de Sena: Diários
Jorge de Sena: Estudos de Literatura Portuguesa I
Jorge de Sena: Fernando Pessoa & Co.
Jorge de Sena: O Reino da Estupidez
Jorge de Sena: Trinta Anos de Camões
Jorge de Sena: Uma Canção de Camões
José Cardoso Pires: Alexandra Alpha
José Luís Peixoto: Uma casa na escuridão
José Martins Garcia: Vitorino Nemésio
José Régio: Ensaios de Interpretação Crítica
José Rodrigues dos Santos: A Última Entrevista de José Saramago
José Rodrigues Miguéis: Nikalai! Nikalai!
Joseph McElroy: Women and Men
Julio Cortázar: Rayuela
Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind
Langston Hughes: The Collected Poems
Louis J. Budd (ed.): New Essays on Huckleberry Finn
Luandino Vieira: O Livro dos Rios
Luís Manuel de Araújo: Eça de Queiroz e o Egipto Faraónico
Luís Vidigal: Imaginários Portugueses
Luís Vidigal: O Jovem Aquilino
Luiz Pacheco: Diário Remendado 1971-1975
Manuel Alegre: Poesia
Manuel António Pina: Crónica, Saudade da Literatura
Manuel António Pina: Todas as Palavras
Manuel Mendes: Aquilino Ribeiro
Maria Alzira Seixo: Os Romances de Antóno Lobo Antunes
Maria Filomena Mónica: Eça de Queiroz Jornalista
Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa: A Literatura Negra ou de Terro em Portugal
Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa: Mito e Criação Literária
Maria Velho da Costa/Maria Isabel Barreno/Maria Teresa Horta: Novas Cartas Portuguesas
Mário Vargas Llosa: Capitão Pantojas e as Visitadoras
Max Hayward/ Edward L. Crowley (ed.): Soviet Literature in the Sixties
Miguel Real: Agostinho da Silva e a Cultura Portuguesa
Miguel Real: Eduardo Lourenço e a Cultura Portuguesa
Miguel Real: Narração, Maravilhoso, Trágico e Sagrado
Miguel Real: O Último Eça
Miguel Torga: Contos
Miguel Torga: Poesia
Miguel Torga: Vindima
Mircea Eliade: Diário Português 1941-1945
Mircea Eliade: Salazar e a revolução em Portugal
Moniz Barreto: A literatura portuguesa no século XIX
Moniz Barreto: Oliveira Martins - Estudo Psicológico
Natália Correia: Poesia Completa
Neil Carson: Arthur Miller
Norman Doidge: The Brain that Changes Itself
Oliveira Marques: O Terceiro Governo Afonso Costa
Oliveira Martins: A Inglaterra de Hoje
Oliveira Martins: Alexandre Herculano
Oliveira Martins: Brasil e as Colónias Portuguesas
Oliveira Martins: Filosofia e Literatura
Oliveira Martins: História de Portugal
Oliveira Martins: Política e Economia Nacional
Oliveira Martins: Política e História I
Oliveira Martins: Portugal Contemporâneo
Pablo Neruda: Las Uvas y el Viento
Pablo Neruda: Canto General
Pedro Guilherme-Moreira: Livro sem Ninguém
Pepetela: A Gloriosa Família
Pepetela: Jaime Bunda, Secret Agent
Pepetela: O Quase fim do mundo
Pepetela: Yaka
Peter Nadas: Parallel Stories
Philip Roth: Reading Myself and others
Philip Roth: The Facts
Philip Roth: The Humbling
Phillip Roth: Everyman
Ponson Du Terrail: Rocambole and the Mysterious Inheritance
Raul Leal: Sodoma Divinizada
Rebecca Catz: A Sátira Social de Fernão Mendes Pinto
Rebecca Catz: Cartas de Fernando Mendes Pinto e outros documentos
Rubem Fonseca: Diário de um Fescenino
Rubem Fonseca: E do meio do mundo prostituto só amores guardei ao meu charuto
Rubem Fonseca: Ela e Outras Mulheres
Rubem Fonseca: Histórias de Amor
Rubem Fonseca: O Buraco na Parede
Rubem Fonseca: Pequenas Criaturas
Rubem Fonseca: Vastas Emoções e Pensamentos Imperfeitos
Ruben A: Páginas I
Rui Afonso: Aristides de Sousa Mendes - Um Bom Homem
Ruy Belo: Todos os Poemas
Selma Lagerlöf: The Miracles of the Antichrist
Serpa Pinto: How I Crossed Africa
Shusaku Endo: A Life of Jesus
Teófilo Braga: História da Literatura Portuguesa VI - Ultra-Romantismo
Teresa Pinto Coelho: Londres em Paris – Eça de Queiroz e a Imprensa Inglesa
Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon
Tom LeClair: Anything Can Happen
Tony Mitchell: Dario Fo: people's court jester
Vasco Pulido Valente: Portugal - Ensaios de História e Política
Vasco Pulido Valente: Uma Educação Burguesa
Vassilis Vassilikos: Z
Vergílio Ferreira: Espaço do Invisível I
Victor de Sá: A Crise do Liberalismo
Victor de Sá: As bibliotecas, o público e a cultura
Victor de Sá: Liberais e Republicanos
Victor de Sá: No mar do futuro
Virginia Woolf: The Common Reader vol. 1
Voline: The Unknown Revolution
W.B. Yeats: The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats vol. IV Early Essays
William Faulkner: Wild Palms
William H. Gass: Fiction and the Figures of Life
William H. Gass: Habitations of the Word
William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience
Zetho Cunha Gonçalves: Notícia do maior escândalo erótico-sexual do século XX em Portugal

Meanwhile I continue receptive to new book suggestions. I’ve pretty much given up my chimerical goal of reducing my book pile; it goes up by itself.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Failure of New Year Resolutions






Remember all those New Year Resolutions I made last year? Me neither! The results are so awful I prefer to forger them. I did not read 10 plays; I did not finish reading José Saramago's 4 remaining books; I did not read books from 30 countries; I did not read a book in Italian for practice. Oh, and the one about reducing my book pile to 100 books? A year ago I had 130 books; now I have 225. Maybe I've been going about this the wrong way: what I need is to aim to reach 300 books - then I could easily achieve one resolution at least! Wait a minute, wait a minute! I read 3 books from Jorge Luis Borges' A Personal Library and The Library of Babel: Gustav Meyrink's Der Kardinal Napellus, Pedro Antonio de Alarcon's El Amigo de la Muerte, and Marcel Schwob's Brief Lives. Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Oh, I also pretty much failed at all my reading challenges: I started 20014 Women Challenge and 2014 European Reading Challenge, but then abandoned them for lack of time and disposition. I didn't even begin 2014 Books on France Reading Challenge. For that reason I’ve decided there will be no reading challenges and no New Year Resolutions at St. Orberose in 2015. I’m taking it easier this year. As some of you may have noticed, around midyear blogging became difficult, my output decreased and I struggled not to give up on the blog altogether. I think you all deserve at least an explanation.

I’m writing a novel. I’ve been writing it since September 2013. I finished the first draft circa November 2013 and it was such a piece of shit dung beetles could have mistook it for a bistro. Despondent, distressing thoughts overwhelmed as I realized I was on the right track to achieved what I so vehemently did not want to achieve: contributing another worthless, useless, insignificant, mediocre novel to a world already obese with them. So I revised. Then I revised some more. And more. I’m currently going through what I think is my fifth, and hopefully last, draft. It currently has some 270,000 words and it’s either going to be one of the greatest novels ever written in the Portuguese language, or it’s going to be such a big pile of shit you can fertilize the whole of Sahara with it. That’ll be decided in this definitive draft. I think. I hope. 

From year to year I’ve become more and more obsessed with perfecting my novel. I notice a growing sense of urgency in doing a great work, a necessity of putting the best I have in me in its execution, and an ongoing fear that no matter how much I work it’ll continue to be another worthless, useless, insignificant, mediocre novel the world could do without. Be that as it may, I’ve noticed changes in me. Honestly, I think writing a novel is doing strange, bad things to my head: I’ve stopped going to the cinema, I feel anxiety when I have to go to work because it’s time wasted, I’ve become grouchier around people because I’m with them instead of with my novel, I’ve lost sense of most things happening around me, I spend more time worrying about finding a word than about people’s problems. This callousness would perturb me a lot more if the actual act of writing didn’t fill me with so much joy. Because the truth is: the more I write, the more I enjoy writing. Inventing dialogues, coming up with events, playing with words, doing the research and then fitting it in the narrative, overcoming technical problems, once in a while deluding myself I’ve written something worthwhile, these are balms against a sadness I generally have around me. The turning point, the moment when I really accepted I had to give everything to my novel, occurred halfway through 2014 and that’s why I reduced my blogging. At least until February or March I won’t blog a lot, but I’m not giving up St. Orberose. I really like this place and the fine people who visit it, who are also one of my balms, and I thank you all for brightening my life and for inspiring me to be a better, more demanding reader.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

What I Read in 2014




2014 has ended, and with it another great year of reading. I read almost up to the final hours of December 31, occupying myself with Walter Benjamin’s idiotic “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” an essay that has the sole redeeming value of avoiding the utter abstruseness of Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacle, the last book I read, otherwise filling me with the same nausea of having wasted hours of my life for no reason.

I report with a sense of achievement that I read more in 2014 than in 2013: 117 books; actually in order to find a more fecund year I have to go all the way back to 2010, which holds my personal record of 126. Remarkably I also read more long books than last year, my current definition meaning anything over 500 pages:

Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote
Roberto Bolaño: 2666
Robert Coover: The Public Burning
John Barth: The Sot-Weed Factor
António Lobo Antunes: Fado Alexandrino
Alexander Theroux: Darconville's Cat
Virgil: Bucolics/Georgics/Aeneid
Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão: Obra Breve
Bernardo Gomes de Brito: Tragic History of the Sea
A. Campos Matos: Eça de Queiroz – Uma Biografia
Giambattista Vico: The New Science

I believe I performed so well because I counterbalanced them with lots of short books, especially the informative, lucid and addictive volumes of Biblioteca Breve: with a bit of effort, they don’t take more than a day or two to finish. Even so, I officially name 2014 the Big Books Year at St. Orberose!

Now let’s take a look at highlights:

Novels

This year I read lots of African novels because of my theme month. I admit with sadness that they didn’t sweep me off my feet as strongly as the Brazilian novels I read in 2013. I much preferred spending a month with Rubem Fonseca, João Ubaldo Ribeiro and Jorge Amado than with Mia Couto, José Eduardo Agualusa and Paulina Chiziane. I was more impressed by the poetry. 2014 was no doubt the year of United States literature: after astonishing me with Ada or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov again showed me what a perfect novelist he is with Pale Fire. But I also like William H. Gass’ Middle C, for the careful, patient style that produces a 400-page alliterative novel; Alexander Theroux’s Darconville's Cat for its erudition and rigorous vocabulary; Robert Coover’s The Public Burning and John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor for their humour, fast pacing and boundless imagination; and William Gaddis’ Agape Agape for being totally incredible. Other pleasures include Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a novel that at least helped me overcome some prejudices against the hype built around the author, and Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, a very humane novel that doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets: it’s not War and Peace, but the psychologies are so finely built and described. I continue to believe no one beats Tolstoy are putting human consciousnesses on the page; he understands the mechanics of how a person’s ideas turn into another idea or transform into actions; beholding the inner life workings of his characters is like having someone real next to you. What else? I vaguely remember I signed up for something called 2014 Women Challenge. Although impeded by lack of time to write the reviews, I did go beyond the minimum requisites. One of the best books I read for the challenge was Sigrid Undset’s Gunnar’s Daughter, which in the Portuguese translation has the better title of Vigdis the Untamed. The term “strong female character” was invented for Vigdis: the novel ends with her beheading a guy with an axe; extreme for my Mediterranean, sun-drenched sensibilities, but I read that’s actually a pretty ordinary way for a Scandinavian book to end. On a more cheerful note, Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires was probably the best 2014 translation you didn’t even hear about; and doesn’t that make you feel bad? It should, it should because it’s an extraordinary… something, er, it’s a great example of, uh, whatever genre it belongs to. Also in Spanish, I continued to read Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s novels: although I wasn’t crazy about La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados and Yo no soy yo, evidentemente, they continue to exert a mystique on me: there’s always something worthwhile in his novels, and I insist he deserves to be translated and better known. And I also read Portuguese novels! José Saramago’s The Cave was a surprising re-read, I noticed things in the novel I hadn’t seen years ago and I now think it’s a better novel than I used to give it credit. It was also the year I rediscovered António Lobo Antunes, after a few bad starts: Act of the Damned and Explanation of the Birds are prodigies, wonders, novels so delicate, so well-crafted you think God was sending him all the words. And there are no words for the technical perfection of Fado Alexandrino. And the challenging, hearty, ironic Aquilino Ribeiro continues to grow on me: so forgotten nowadays, so under-read in an age when people only have a vocabulary of 1000 words (when he had one of 50,000 and didn’t mind using all at once): but novels like Aventura Maravilhosa and S. Banaboião, Anacoreta e Mártir are masterpieces of erudition, wit, adventure and good disposition. He’s one of the pillars of the Portuguese language, even more than Saramago and Lobo Antunes. I was also enchanted by Hélia Correia’s Montedemo, a very oneiric and seductive novella that time has also forgotten: I guess I just buy from used bookstores than I should. Another forgotten novelist is João Palma-Ferreira, whose Vida e Obra de Dom Gibão is a modern homage/pastiche of picaresque novels, on which he was an expert: in fact I think he wrote it mainly to show off what an expert he is because the voluminous footnotes end up taking a life of their own; there’s something bizarrely post-modernist about it, and that was one of the things I liked about the book. Still my favourite novel was Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: this Gothic parody hit all the right notes, it’s just a hell of good time.

Poetry

This wasn’t a good or productive year for reading poetry: I didn’t read a lot, and I made some disappointing choices overall. I think I was lucky in extracting 20 poems I enjoyed from W.B. Yeats’ The Collected Poems. I also could not get into Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy, and I found Virgil’s Bucolics/Georgics/Aeneid stupefying. The translations may have had something to do with my failures to appreciate them. I also read a collection of Luiz de Camões’ lyrical poetry, which was also not exemplary of what I admire in his poetry: I’m crazy about his sonnets, a form he excelled at, but he also wrote in many other forms – songs, vilancetes, esparsas that don’t quite excite me. I also found Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão’s 700 page collected poetry intolerable and incomprehensible. It’s my fault for not sticking to Pessoa, Sophia and Jorge de Sena. More enjoyable was my re-read of Harry Martinson’s The Procession of Memories, a short collection of his poems in English. As for the African poets, like I said, I think they’re overall very strong: Ana Paula Tavares’ erotic poetry, Arménio Vieira’s surrealist irreverences, José Craveirinha (who shares many traits with Langston Hughes’ poetry), João Vário, and Mia Couto, who in poetic form is much more palatable than in his novels.

Non-Fiction

Like in 2013, I read lots of books on art. Bruno Ernst’s The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher is a concise, informative, clear, well-illustrated introduction to the work of this amazing 20th century artist. José Stichini Vilela’s Francisco de Holanda - Vida, Pensamento e Obra is also worth reading, if only to better understand the Renaissance painter and writer who gave us Dialogues With Michelangelo, a 1548 book that has the virtue of probably being full of false dialogues with Michelangelo that nevertheless are nowadays quoted as if they were actual words by him, the original source unknown. Speaking of Michelangelo, Waldemar Januszckzak’s Sayonara, Michelangelo is a great example of how not to write an art book: ignorant, arrogant, badly-researched. Januszckzak, a former art critic for The Guardian, wrote this awful book in the wake of the ‘80s restoration/cleaning of The Sistine frescoes, an operation that many historians and academics have accused, with very persuasive evidence, of having damaged and erased portions of the ceiling painted by the great Florentine himself. The story goes like this: there are two types of fresco painting (three actually, but let’s not complicate): buon fresco, or pure fresco, applying the pigments over a wet plaster; and a secco, that is, painting over a dry stone with the use of glues to make them stick. In the 1980s the extent to which Michelangelo had used a secco painting was unknown and even disputed: few wanted to believe the greatest painter of all times had used anything but pure fresco, even though that was the norm at the time. You see, you can’t paint on a wet plaster for long because, and you certainly can’t paint with the level of detail he did on the short time it takes for the plaster to dry; so he had to make lots of finishing touches with a secco: hair, shadows, fingernails, eyes, wrinkles, creases on the clothing, etc. But like I said, many of the Vatican experts denied he had used a secco and so didn’t use cleaning techniques that took the fragility of a secco frescoes into consideration. The result is that lots of details have been erased from the ceiling. A scabrous example can be found at ArtWatch’s website:

Fig.11

Fig.12

Fig.13

Above, Figs. 11, 12 and 13.
This sequence records many alterations made in the Libyan Sybil’s right foot: before cleaning (top); after cleaning (middle); and after repainting (bottom). In fig. 11 we see a mini fanning movement in the three short dark accented folds at the ankle of the sybil’s right foot which have melted away in Fig. 12. We see also in Fig. 11 examples of what Alexander Eliot described as “Michelangelo’s loving depiction of fingernails, eyelids and tiny wrinkles”. Once again, Michelangelo’s habit of placing a dark shadow beind the lit edge of a form and a light ground behind its shaded side was evident here in his treatment of the strategically dramatic arched foot.

UNDOING AND (PARTIAL) REDOING
This sequence also comprises a tacit acknowlegement of error on the part of the restorers. Evidence is here present not just of the loss of the foot’s cast shadow (as also with the Jonah below) but even of its anatomical credibility. Michelangelo had repositioned this foot, scraping away one part and adding another. The cleaning undid this revision, and thereby produced (uniquely in Michelangelo’s oeuvre) a human heel that was not rounded but that came to a point, as in Fig. 12. We questioned this transformation (and that of the Erythraean Sibyl’s right foot, shown below) to Fabrizio Mancinelli, the co-director of the restoration, when he gave a talk on the restoration at the Courtauld Institute, London. Later, on visiting the Chapel we discovered that the heel had become rounded again if not entirely whole, as seen at Fig. 13. Clearly, if the repainted addition is now correct, it should never have been removed in the first place.

Others include figures whose eyes have disappeared. But the best example is the extinction of shadows. As a sculptor and designer (the artist cared more about drawing than painting) he painted as if he were carving, and his figures showed many games of lights and shadows in order to heighten the impression of their tridimensionality. In fact in his time he was praised for his shadows, for his understanding of chiaroscuro, and for the tridimensional illusion of his paintings, not for his bright colours, which is what the cleaning “discovered.” The cleaning erased most of the shadows, making them look flatter as if they were two-dimensional, Cezánne-like figures. But the best part of this debacle came when they tried to explain why viewers, for centuries now, had been fooled into thinking Michelangelo has painted shadows: according to the Vatican experts’ explanation, and repeated by many in the academic art world, the shadows we think are shadows are in fact the result of centuries of layers of soot, air pollution and incense falling onto the surfaces and producing the effect that shadows had been painted onto them. The most amazing aspect of this delusional explanation is that they really wanted detractors to believe that a random, chaotic process like filth accumulation could produce the same shadows you’d expect an artist to paint by design: the same length, the same positions, the same shapes. Before there were smart phones there was smart dirt. Unfortunately archival evidence shows that the figures had shadows from the beginning: for one thing Michelangelo’s surviving sketches included them, it’d be bizarre if he had painted them in preparatory sketches but not in the actual ceiling – why go to the trouble then? And immediately after the frescoes were unveiled people started reproducing them, they became like a school for artists, and the oldest surviving examples already show them. Another evidence: reproductions continued to be sketched across centuries, and from century to century the shadows were always identical: you’d expect that with filth accumulating over the years, the soot-shadows of the 18th century would look different from the 17th ones, but they’re the same. This is all pretty damning evidence against the official intelligent soot line. But incredibly lots of authorities in the art world believed it and continue to peddle that lie. Waldemar Januszckzak is one of the many people who sang the praises of the restoration, turned a blind eye to the criticism, attacked the detractors and helped cover up the many snafus that have damaged Western art’s greatest achievement. Januszckzak was one of many who thought that because the Vatican restorers had oodles of technology and gizmos at their disposal, they were as infallible as the Pope. But obviously they weren’t. Of course no one wants to be accused of having ruined the frescoes, or of having helped hush its destruction. In Januszckzak’s case he literally helped destroy because he was on the scaffolding and was given a tissue to wipe out a bit of paint that he thought had been painted a secco by someone after Michelangelo. If, as it nowadays seems to be the case, he did paint a secco, then Januszckzak may have erased an actual trace painted by Michelangelo’s paintbrush. I’d be in denial too. His book, poor as it may be in matters of scholarship, is nevertheless a useful lesson on how science blinds us.

Its total opposite is James Beck and Michael Daley’s Art Restortaion: The Culture, The Business, The Scandal. Beck, an American scholar, was one of the few people who publicly decried the Sistine cleaning. Although he was unable to stop the operation, he produced a book full of information (up to 1993; the ArtWatch website keeps updating new findings) that makes a strong case that the Vatican erased parts of the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. But more than an exposé of this particular incident, it’s an attack on the entire modern restoration industry that has turned monstrosities like this common. A few days ago I joked that no one who likes painting should read this book, and it’s true: you’ll never look at an Old Master’s painting without asking yourself, “This is pretty, but did he really paint that? Or was that a modern addition by a post-graduate art restoration student who erased a bit of the painting and then added a bridge or a tree to cover it up? And did the painter really want the colours to be that garish and bright? Or did the restorers clean them up to make them look fresher, more commercial, more appealing to ticket-buying modern audiences who like shiny things looking brand new, even objects that are old as centuries and should have a right to look old?” James Beck and Michael Daley, after writing this extraordinary book, created ArtWatch, an organization devoted to monitoring and bringing attention to badly-conceived restorations. I recommend visiting their website, if you like being horrified: you won’t believe in what incompetent, greedy, indifferent hands the world’s art is, at the complete mercy of people who are laws unto themselves, hidden from the world in the restoration departments of museums and galleries, where they don’t have to be accountable to what they’re doing to our common cultural heritage. If, however, you prefer to live in denial like Januszckzak, you better not have a look.

On a similar note, Eric Hebborn, a real-life art forger, shows juts how rotten the art market is in The Art Forger's Handbook. More than a book on forging fake paintings, it’s remarkable for showing the nasty habits of people who buy and sell artwork. A personal favourite example: one day Hebborn went to an auction; a guy was selling a Tiepolo, or so he said; but Hebborn saw the painting had the original S.R. painted on it, and he told the seller that most likely the Tiepolo had actually been painted by a painter called Sebastiano Ricci, who in his time was famous for imitating Tiepolo’s style. The seller told him he was wrong; years later Hebborn found the painting again, but this time the S.R initials had been scraped away and the painting was being sold as a genuine Tiepolo. Needless to say, Tiepolo fetches higher prices than Ricci. I must admit I had very little sympathy for the buffoons Hebborn tricked. Other art-related books include  Miguel Angel Corzo’s Mortality or Immortality, a collection of essays by people who are very, very worried about the rapid decay of contemporary art: no one quite knows how to restore or conserve or slow down their decay; some people even doubt they should. I also had a great time reading Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters, in which he shows how idiotic art studies have become in the wake of Marxist/Gender/Culture Studies. He basically writes about seven painters, from classic to Rothko, and gives examples of all the absurd things that scholars, their good judgement constrained by whatever theory they’re playing with this week, write about them. So Rothko’s blobs of color, we find out, “parallel the pictorial structure of a pieta,” Rubens’ Drunken Silenus suggests that the black figure behind Silenus is sodomizing him, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream becomes anti-racist propaganda where the “black man is both hero and victim, collapsing the old categories of triangular formalism into a powerfully condensed metaphor of implicit power blocked,” and John Singer Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, a cozy picture showing four bourgeois American girls living in Paris – one as young as 4 –  becomes a psychosexual fantasy about patriarchal power, where the children's father, although not seen, “is thus figured in absentia as the master or boss of these young females whom the title designates as his children but who, seeming to await his slightest word or wish, might also be thought of as his servants, his domestics, and even, at the level of submerged sexual fantasy, as his harem, his congregation of wives, his jolies fillettes du bordel/maison/boîte.” I know I write a lot of nonsense in my blog, many ignorant stuff about books, but I take comfort in knowing that there at least people who suck even more at writing about art. Finally, I adored Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. This book tries - and I think succeeds – to explain why abstract expressionism became the avant-garde movement after World War II. His thesis goes like this: many of the artists who would become abstract expressionists in the late ‘40s, were communists who went through a crisis of values in the ‘30s because of Stalin’s trials, the schism with Trotsky, the invasion of Finland, the Left’s internecine conflicts during the Spanish Civil War, and the pact with the Nazis, leaving them disoriented and unable to engage with the world politically; at the same time they didn’t want to uphold America’s centrist, liberal, free  market, imperialistic values of the post-war, not to mention Truman’s red scare pretty much killed all political debate in America, making it unfashionable to profess left-wing values or any alternative to the establishment. The solution was for artists to retreat deeper and deeper into art that bore no connections with the world – Pollock’s drips, Rothko’s formless colours – and mask the intellectual emptiness of their canvases with lots of talk bout myth and the unconscious. Ironically by becoming apolitical their work was easily co-opted by the American government, which used it in order to promote its values in the new world order: speed, aggressiveness, a rupture with the past, rugged individuality, effectively making it propaganda art that the government could export as an alternative to left-wing art; thus with the help of the US government, which financed foreign shows, galleries, exhibitions, magazines, abstract expressionism conquered the world, spreading the new values of post-war America. The poor artists, who in the ‘30s were so vehement in their refusal to produce left-wing propaganda, became the instruments of an establishment they despised. It’s a fascinating thesis, and Guilbaut explains it a lot better than I can. It’s a necessary complement to Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper?, which describes the means the CIA used to promote abstract expressionism abroad in the war against the Soviets. History is such a fun playground. Think about that next time someone tries to hustle you with that crap about Rothko’s paintings being concerned withexpressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” Nope, they’re just badly-painted shit made popular by Uncle Sam and a PR guy called Samuel Kootz.

This is just a tiny bit of all the non-fiction I read in 2014 but I think this post is growing longer than necessary. Moving on, I’m happy to say that I read from 25 different countries in 2014, in increase from the 19 in 2013:

Ancient Rome
Angola
Argentina
Austria
Belgium
Brazil
Cape Verde
Chile
Colombia
Denmark
France
Guinea-Bissau
Ireland
Italy
Mozambique
Netherlands
Portugal
Russia
São Tomé and Príncipe
Serbia
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
UK
USA

And finally here’s a comprehensive list:

A Campos Matos: Eça de Queiroz – Uma Biografia
A. Campos Matos: Eça de Queiroz/Ramalho Ortigão
Adolfo Casais Monteiro: Estrutura e autenticidade na teoria e na crítica literárias
Adolfo Casais Monteiro: O País do Absurdo
Agustina Bessa-Luís: Longos dias têm cem anos
Alexander Theroux: Darconville's Cat
Alexandre Cabral: Notas oitocentistas II
Alicia Giménez: Torrente Ballester
Amílcar Cabral: Documentário
António Lobo Antunes: As Naus
António Lobo Antunes: Auto dos Danados
António Lobo Antunes: Explicação dos Pássaros
António Lobo Antunes: Fado Alexandrino
Aquilino Ribeiro: Aventura Maravilhosa
Aquilino Ribeiro: S. Banaboião, Anacoreta e Mártir
Arménio Vieira: No Inferno
Arquimedes da Silva Santos: Testemunhos de Neo-Realismo
Athol Fugard: Statements
Baltasar Lopes: Chiquinho
Bernardo Gomes de Brito: História Trágico-Marítima
Brenda Turner: Out of your mind: The links between brain and body
Bruno Ernst: O Espelho Mágico de M.C. Escher
Carlos Vaz Marques: Os Escritores (Também) Têm Coisas a Dizer
Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian
Corsino Fortes: A Cabeça calva de Deus
Dante Alighieri: A Divina Comédia
Dominique Sire: Madame Bovary de Gustave Flaubert/O Primo Basílio de Eça de Queiroz
Eça de Queiroz: Contos
Eduardo Lourenço: O Labirinto da Saudade
Eric Hebborn: The Art Forger's Handbook
Eugénio Lisboa: O Segundo Modernismo Português
Fernando Pessoa: Prosa de Ricardo Reis
Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão: Obra Breve
Giambattista Vico: A Nova Ciência
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Las Islas Extraordinarias
Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Yo no soy yo, evidentemente
Graça Almeida Rodrigues: Breve História da Censura Literária em Portugal
Gustav Meyrink: Cardeal Napellus
Guy Debord: A Sociedade do Espectáculo
Harry Martinson: The Procession of Memories
Hélia Correia: Montedemo
Henri Michaux: Um Certo Plume
Henrik Pontoppidan: O Visitante Real
Ivo Andric: O Pátio Maldito
Jacinto do Prado Coelho: A Originalidade da Literatura Portuguesa
Jaime Cortesão: Influência dos Descobrimentos Portugueses na História da Civilização
Jaime Cortesão: Portugal - A Terra e o Homem
James Beck: Art Restortaion: The Culture, The Business, The Scandal
Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey
João Bigotte Chorão: Além da Literatura
João Palma-Ferreira: Do Pícaro na Literatura Portuguesa
João Palma-Ferreira: Vida e Obra de Dom Gibão
João Paulo Borges Coelho: As Visitas do Doutor Valdez
Joaquim Barradas de Carvalho: Da História-Crónica à História-Ciência
Joaquim Barradas de Carvalho: Rumo de Portugal. A Europa ou o Atlântico?
Joaquim Veríssimo Serrão: Cronistas do Século XV Posteriores a Fernão Lopes
Joel Serrão: A Emigração Portuguesa
Joel Serrão: Da situação da mulher portuguesa no século XIX
Joel Serrão: Do Sebastianismo ao Socialismo
John Barth: The Sot-Weed Factor
Jorge de Sena/Mécia de Sena: Correspondência
Jorge Martins: A República e os Judeus
José Carlos de Vasconcelos: Conversas com Saramago
José Luandino Vieira: Nós, os de Makulusu
José Saramago: A Caverna
José Stichini Vilela: Francisco de Holanda - Vida, Pensamento e Obra
José-Augusto França: A História da Arte Ocidental 1790-1980
José-Augusto França: As Conferências do Casino no Parlamento
José-Augusto França: O Ano X
Julio Cortázar: Fantomas contra os Vampiros Multinacionais
Leo Tolstoy: Resurrection
Lindley Cintra: Formas de Tratamento na Língua Portuguesa
Luís de Camões: Lírica Completa I
Marcel Schwob: Vidas Imaginárias
Maria Alzira Seixo: Os Lugares da Ficção em José Saramago
Maria Antónia Oliveira: Alexandre O´Neill - Uma Biografia Literária
Maria Leonor Carvalhão Buescu: Gramáticos Portugueses do Século XVI
María Luisa Branco: Conversas com António Lobo Antunes
Mia Couto: Venenos de Deus, Remédios do Diabo
Miguel Angel Corzo: Mortality or Immortality
Miguel de Cervantes: Dom Quixote
Muamati Barnabé João: Eu, o Povo
Nicoló Machiavelli: The Prince
Oliveira Marques: A Primeira República Portuguesa
Oliveira Martins: Camões
Oliveira Martins: História da Civilização Ibérica
Oliveira Martins: Portugal nos Mares
Óscar Lopes: Jaime Cortesão
Óscar Ribas: Ecos da Minha Terra
Paulina Chiziane: O Sétimo Juramento
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón: O Amigo da Morte
Pepetela: Muana Puo
Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza: O Aroma de Goiaba
Robert Coover: The Public Burning
Roberto Bolaño: 2666
Roger Kimball: The Rape of the Masters
Rubem Fonseca: O Caso Morel
Ruy Duarte de Carvalho: Lavra
Saint Augustine: Confessions
Serge Guilbaut: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art
Sigrid Undset: Vigdis, a Indomável
T.S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood
Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice
Uanhenga Xitu: Bola com Feitiço
Umberto Eco: Construir o Inimigo
Valter Hugo Mãe: O Remorso de Baltazar Serapião
Vasco Pulido Valente: O Poder e o Povo
Vasco Pulido Valente: Os Devoristas
Virgílio: Bucólicas, Geórgicas, Eneida
Virginia Woolf: The Complete Shorter Fiction
Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire
W.B. Yeats: The Collected Poems
Waldemar Januszckzak: Sayonara, Michelangelo
William Gaddis: Agape Agape
William H. Gass: Middle C
Zetho Cunha Gonçalves: Terra: Sortilégios