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.


  1. I too am really drawn to literary criticism written by other fiction writers. I never thought about bad writers practicing criticism, however. It really opens up new angles not presented when none artists produce commentary.

    That lack of apparent influence of Kafka in Agustina Bessa-Luís work is puzzling. I like your concept of the Ulysses Paradox.

    1. With a few exceptions, I think literary criticism by fiction writers is the best type of it; the rest is too busy trying to sound... scientific?

  2. This was great. We'll just set aside the Joyce business. Or I will limit myself to pointing out that Dubliners has been highly - almost too - influential.

    I wonder what the link to Kafka is? If I did not know about one particular book, I do not know if I would connect Philip Roth to Kafka, either.

    1. But Dubliners is Joyce's most conventional book! Not to mention that his influence on other great 20th century short-story writers of note is dubious: Hemingway, Borges, Buzzati, Calvino, Torga, Cardoso Pires...

      What connects Roth to Kafka? Eroticism (as Kundera points out), fascination with authority, bizarre plots, a gentle rejection of realism, fathers, emphasis on clear storytelling than wordplay... There's more between Roth and Kafka than Joyce and Nabokov, who claimed Ulysses the greatest novel ever written. In fact, there's more Kafka than Joyce in Nabokov, which is ironic...