Friday, 5 October 2012

Vergílio Ferreira, Existentialist

I buried my wife today – why do I call her my wife? I buried her myself at the end of the garden, under the old fig tree. Take her to the cemetery, and how? It’s far. She asked me to do it once, unexpectedly, waking me up in the middle of the night. She wanted me to bury her next to the wall overlooking the pathway, because her house can be seen from there. She got used to looking at that place after she was left alone. And she thought: “I’ll see my bedroom window from there.” But I’d have to carry her there. I don’t have the strength and snow is falling. What date is it? It’s winter, December perhaps, or January. I remove the snow with a shovel, mark the rectangle and dig. Two dogs show up at the garden’s door, skinny with hatred and hunger. Are there still dogs in the village? They drool and how sinisterly. I pick up a rock, throw it at one, they both disappear yapping. And again silence grows all around, from the mountain, which I keep on staring at until my eyes hurt. I always look at it, question it. When I’m tired of digging, I wipe the sweat and look at it still. A dialogue was left unfinished between us, since when? – since childhood perhaps, or maybe since further back. A dialogue interrupted with everything that happened and that is necessary to liquidate, settle. I’m alone, horribly alone, o God, and how I suffer. All the loneliness in the world has entered me. And yet, this sad pride, bloating – am I Man? From the universal disaster I lift myself huge and tremendous. Me. Two lonely peaks rise up ahead, far off, trembling in the silence. Between them and the village there’s an emptiness dug out in the mountain, from where shadows and mist rise. In the morning the shadows infiltrate the canyons, and the whole mountain range and village float. Then it’s as if time emptied itself out and life appeared out of life. But now the air is pure, transparent, like a bell in the morning. Only shadows rise from the deep end. With the accumulated snow they acquire a violet hue. But it’s a clear hue, like in the solar spectrum. The two peaks, with their clean edges, vibrate imperceptibly in the humid and already dark sky.

This passage is the first paragraph of the novel Alegria Breve (Brief Joy, 1965), written by Portuguese novelist Vergílio Ferreira (1916-1996). It’s one of the most beautiful passages of Portuguese literature, although my pedestrian translation leaves much to be desired.

Ferreira is one of the greatest Portuguese novelists of the 20th century, member of a generation of young writers that emerged in the 1940s. Although Portugal has never had a strong and free dialogue with the rest of world literature, it has produced at least one specimen of every possible literary permutation; it had an epic poet (Luís de Camões), a Romantic novelist (Camilo Castelo Branco), a realist novelist (Eça de Queiroz), a genius poet (Fernando Pessoa), an expressionist novelist (Raul Brandão), a surrealist poet (Mário Cesariny), a magical realist (José Saramago), and so on. Vergílio Ferreira was our existentialist. In his first phase as a novelist he was a neorealist, a Marxist-influenced literary tendency that was much in vogue at the time; but then, with the discovery of the works of André Malraux and Jean-Paul Sartre, he filled the existentialist niche that was still vacant. Of Sartre he in fact translated and commented the seminal essay Existentialism is a Humanism.

Ferreira had a vast literary production. He wrote dozens of novels, short-stories, some ten volumes of diaries full of juicy gossip about writers and abrasive opinions that still upset people today, and literary criticism, which I’m sad to say doesn’t live up to the standards of Borges’ and Kundera’s, my two benchmarks in these matters. I fiercely believe that writers are the most interesting people to write about literature, but Ferreira is the exception that proves the rule. Borges and Kundera, and Calvino and Eco for that matter, write like practitioners full of love for their subject, with an enjoyable informality that appeals to the layman; Ferreira writes dry academic texts for other academics. One of his earliest essays was exactly a study of humor in Eça de Queiroz’ oeuvre. I haven’t read it yet but I’m dying to read it once it’s reprinted – after his death his work slowly disappeared from bookstores due to poor management – because I can’t imagine a person more unfit to write about humor than Vergílio Ferreira. It can be safely said, if I’m forgiven the generalization, that Portuguese literature is not particularly funny, nor are the concepts of humor and entertainment familiar to its writers. Although it produced, miraculously, unexpectedly, one of the greatest masters of satire and irony in the history of literature, Eça de Queiroz left neither a school nor followers. Melancholy, misery, anguish, tedium form the humus that nurtures our writers’ pinched imagination. The long passage quoted above leaves no doubts that he was a barrel of laughs. It doesn’t surprise me that the four most translated Portuguese writers are Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, António Lobo Antunes and José Saramago, the only writers who have in fact understood, appreciated and used humor in their works.

Although the lyricism of their language satisfies me on an aesthetic level, Ferreira’s novels make me feel as if I’ve spent many hours cooking an intricate meal only to end up with fast food. The surface details – the language – hide the hollowness of the novels, which are extremely repetitive. The incidents and ideas of previous novels blend into a smudge in my memory, and if I still retain anything of Alegria Breve it’s because I finished it last month. The novel is exaggeratedly told in non-linear order, with the protagonist’s memories joggling back and forth, although I think it’s less to make a poignant point about existence than to hide the sterility of the plot. He’s a teacher in a small village. He’s a lonely man, plays chess with the local priest. Engineers arrive to open up some mines. The village prospers for a while. Then the mines close down and the village enters a slow decline. People leave, the school is closed down because of lack of students, the village becomes deserted. He remains with the woman he loves, mending things, thinking people will return one day, and waiting for a son that he may not have. And that’s it, everything else are snippets of unfinished dialogues, and lots of soul searching interspersed with lots of solemn statements about God, Humanity, Memory, Life, Existence. Serious Literature, don’t you dare doubt it.

I think my main problems with the novel stem from two different sources: existentialist literature; and, to a smaller extent, the novel of ideas. Regarding the novel of ideas, I have nothing against it. Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann allegedly wrote novels of ideas, and I like both. But this is nothing like The Magic Mountain. Whoever has read this extraordinary novel will agree that one of its strongest points is its dialectical nature: ideas are debated, refused, attacked in conversations between proponents who are symbols. Who can forget the erudite duels between humanist Settembrini and the nihilist Naphta? The dramatic conflict of their verbal confrontations? This conflict is sadly lacking in Alegria Breve, which is a dreary monologue. There’s nothing to discuss or argue here because the protagonist doesn’t have opponents. This isn’t fiction, or literature, it’s misplaced philosophy.

But my biggest problem lies with existentialism itself. I always thought existentialism and existentialist concerns stank of falsehood, they were purely armchair preoccupations with no direct reflection in real life. Questions like What is the meaning of life? or What not that God is dead? do not convince me. They break my suspension of disbelief, they’re questions blown out proportion. Certainly they have a part in a novel, a small part, but to overwhelm it is to give importance to things that aren’t of importance to most people, and I do believe novels exist to question the pressing questions of existence. Is God dead? Having never believed in a deity, for me the real question is, Is the idea of God dead? And after a cursory glance at our troubled world, at the Muslim fanatics that kill filmmakers, the Christian fanatics that blow up clinics that practice abortion, the Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony who thinks he has a direct line to God, it becomes hard for me to think that Nietzsche was talking anything but nonsense. So novels like Alegria Breve make me think of what British philosopher Mary Midgley wrote in The Myths We Live By:

   Today, too, another influential image, drawn from Nietzsche, works on the model of the Deaths column in a newspaper. Here you just report the death of something: Art, or Poetry, or History, or the Author, or God, or Nature, or Metaphysics or whatever, publish its obituary and then forget about it.
   The trouble about this is that such large-scale items don’t suddenly vanish. Prominent ideas cannot die until the problems that arise within them have been resolved. They are not just a kind of external parasite. They are not alien organisms, viruses: ‘memes’ that happen to have infested us and can be cleared away with the right insecticide (…). They are organic parts of our lives, cognitive and emotional habits, structures that shape our thinking. So they follow conservation laws within it. Instead of dying, they transform themselves gradually into something different, something that is often hard to recognize and to understand.

It must be terrible for most existentialists to be living in an age without God when many people, in stubborn defiance of their wisdom, continue to believe in a god who created the universe and who judges their actions. It does deflate the sense of urgency and seriousness of their questions, doesn’t it? As for the question of the meaning of life, subordinated to the existence of God, I believe it’s another paper question that no one really frets about outside satisfying some pressing needs. For me, for instance, the meaning of life is to have a few friends, read many books, try not to make the world a worse place than it was before I arrived in it, and die without as much pain as possible. I don’t presume to use myself as a measure, however I never discussed the meaning of life with a co-worker in front of the water cooler. It’s a non-issue for most people, I firmly believe. I just can’t wrap my head around the anguish the absence of God has left in some writers’ and thinkers’ consciousnesses. If it’s so unbearable, why don’t they just go back to believing in God? Wouldn’t that just solve their problems? Raul Brandão, who was a superior novelist to Ferreira – and funnier, but alas, not yet translated; my theory has holes, you see? – pretty much solves the problem of existentialism by having a philosopher simply decide to believe in God again because it makes his life much easier that way. This was in 1917, that’s how ahead of his time he was. This is the simplicity that separates a genius from a talented writer who merely transposed the ideas of others into Portuguese literature.

And since it’s a novel of ideas, in the worst sense of the term, Alegria Breve doesn’t give much attention to insignificant but necessary aspects of the novel like characters, plot, interesting dialogue, action. Trifles, I know, relics of the primitive novel, but some Neanderthals like me still like them. I don’t object the absence of plot; again, Brandão manages not to tell a story in a fascinating way because his narrator has a unique and captivating protagonist; he’s insane, he’s ironic, he’s full of bile and rage, his misanthropy reaches exuberant levels of intentional parody. Such a voice could describe the melting of icecaps and it would be enthralling.

That is not to say Ferreira doesn’t have good passages in the novel. The cold humor of the description of his gestation is good in an Albert Camus sort of way:

   I was born January 28 of 19… at three o’clock in the afternoon of a Friday, my mother used to say. It’s Christ’s hour, my wife said. I smile, I shrug my shoulders – truth is also weariness. Three brothers were born before me, but they died throughout childhood. At the time all three were still alive, I suppose. It was the start of summer, perhaps, my mother and her mother were going up the road for Sunday mass. And for a moment my mother hesitated with unexpected dizziness. She stopped, leaned on my grandmother:
   “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, mother.”
   She pierced her with clarity and alarm:
   “Don’t tell me! Don’t tell me you’ve already got another disgrace.”
   I was the ‘disgrace.’

Some words here remind me of The Stranger. ‘Suppose’, ‘perhaps’. There’s an imprecision in the language, an emotional detachment from the intimate things he’s describing – dead brothers, his mother – that is reminiscent of Meursault.

A few other passages that got my attention:

On uncertainty: “The explanation of ourselves, of what we do and live, is so ridiculous. In the end, we only notice. But inventing the why, formulating a law gives us the small illusion of controlling the unknown. We don’t dominate anything: we know only our finality.”

On living: “I’m alone, terribly peopled by myself. Was it worth living? I killed curiosity, I came here to see how this was, it was worth it. It’s funny, life and death. It’s funny, oh it is. I came here to know how this was and I learned fantastic things. I saw the light, the earth, the animals. I knew the body I appeared in. I was put inside it, I was never able to undress it, like a dog stuck with the colour of fur he got. It’s a big body, about one meter and eighty. It’s my body. I got it. I move my hands, my feet, and it’s as if they were mine and weren’t. It’s extraordinary, amazing, a body. With it I took possession and knowledge of amazing things. Wouldn’t it be a shame not having been born? I wouldn’t have known. You’ll say: what’s the use if tomorrow you won’t know it anymore? That’s right. But I know now. What’s the good of pleasures I had and can no longer have? They’re useless, they were useful (…)”

On truth: “What is true can’t even be demonstrated. Demonstrating is already doubting. God stared dying when they demonstrated his existence. War started dying when it started being justified. War has only had pretexts for a short time now. At first it didn’t need them. Its last form was the civil war, or ideological. But there is no ideology that can stand up.”

Vergílio Ferreira is also a precursor of António Lobo Antunes. I wonder if that would be an incentive to translate him. Lobo Antunes is one of those obscure novelists bloggers love to champion. Often he’s compared to the big names – Faulkner! Joyce! Céline! No one of course says how much he looks like Vergílio Ferreira or Maria Gabriela Llansol. But anyone who’s read Lobo Antunes, and is aware of his use of punctuation, syntax, and capitalization, can’t read this

 “I have nothing to give you. Nothing I want to give you.”
   “What did you do with hope?”
   I’ll kill myself perhaps. Away from the village, between two lost rocks. I’ll only tell you
   “Everything starts again!”
  and I’ll kill myself immediately afterwards. I’ll choose a lost place in the mountain. Perhaps one day you’ll find the remainders of my bones. They’ll be unrecognisable. Dogs and wolves will have chewed them. They’ll be unrecognisable, you’ll perhaps ask:
   “Are these the bones of some dog? of a very old donkey?”
   because no one is going to imagine that they’re the bones of a man.

without a sense of familiarity. So translating him would be a good idea. There’s a century gap between Eça and Saramago and Lobo Antunes, and nothing is known of those writers who lived in this interlude.


  1. Very intriguing commentary Miguel.! You are really getting my brain cells working! You wrote,

    "it becomes hard for me to think that Nietzsche was talking anything but nonsense. "

    and later,

    "For me, for instance, the meaning of life is to have a few friends, read many books, try not to make the world a worse place than it was before I arrived in it, and die without as much pain as possible."

    On a practical level I agree with you and mostly live my life as you seem to do. However, I find these philosophical ruminations fascinating. I usually am not pained by these thoughts, but I do often ponder them because I find it to be fun to do so. I just like the variety of human ideas so much, I find it irresistible to read about these things.

    1. Perhaps due to my animosity towards Vergílio Ferreira, I exaggerated. I think Nietzsche is right about many things, but Zarathustra's statement that God is dead is categorically dead.

      And although I'm also fascinated by these ideas, my point is that they're just academic concerns, paper theories. Some people - writers, philosophers, etc. - may be more sensitive to them, but my limited experience tells me most people don't care. And so it becomes hard for me to see any urgency in this type of novel. That's not to say Ferreira isn't a great novelist. I do think he's better than Sartre and Camus.