In Miguel de Unamuno’s book on Portugal, the Spanish author mentions but never elaborates on the lives and works of two important writers: Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877) and Almeida Garret (1799-1854). So far this month we’ve met writers who left their marks on the second half of the 19th century. With these two authors, however, we look back at the birth of modern Portuguese literature, particularly of prose narrative.
|Garrett and Herculano, in the background|
Not so with Herculano and Garrett. Neither man shied away from playing active roles in the great questions of their time. A liberal and a defender of a constitutional monarchy, Garrett participated in the 1820 liberal revolution that instated the first Constitutional government in Portugal. In 1823, with the military coup orchestrated by D. Miguel (1802-1866), who wanted to restore an absolutist monarchy, Garret fled to England and then to France. Herculano, also enamoured with liberal ideals, took part in the 1831 botched rebellion against D. Miguel’s dictatorship and he too escaped to England and France. In 1932 both returned to Portugal as soldiers enlisted in the army of D. Pedro IV (1798-1834), younger brother of D. Miguel, and fought in what our history calls the Liberal Wars, that ended in 1834 with the coronation of D. Pedro as the ruler of a constitutional monarchy (he would did just months after victory, of tuberculosis). As men who had seen the end of absolutism, they had good reasons to be optimistic and to take active roles in their country’s public life, so much so that both were even elected as deputies. According to Vasco Pulido Valente, in his time, Garrett’s peers admired him more for his oratorical skills than for his fiction, which they deemed a gentleman’s hobby, and Herculano as a historian, for introducing modern historiography in Portugal and for bringing scientific rigor to the writing of history, radical theories for the time that earned him the ire of conservative factions, particularly the clergy. Tireless, they held a multitude of jobs and activities in their lives. Almeida Garret was also poet, playwright, editor, novelist and journalist; Herculano idem, plus librarian.
Of course today we mainly remember them for their literature (although Herculano’s reputation as a great historian has not eroded). In their exiles in England and France, and in other travels, both men discovered such writers as Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Goethe and Schiller, they drank heavily from Romanticism’s cup and both share the credit for introducing Romantic literature in Portugal, in the landmark year of 1844. The year before, Garrett had written the tragic play Frei Luís de Sousa and privately staged it for a select group of friends, Herculano included. The following year he published his play, while at the same time Herculano published a historical novel called Eurico, o Presbítero. As a corollary of their Romantic facets, they also caught the fever of fairy-tales, folk tales, legends and fables that swept over Europe at the time, and in the manner of the Brothers Grimm set about compiling Portuguese folktales: Herculano edited Lendas e narrativas (1851), Garrett Romanceiro e Cancioneiro Geral (1843). As Romantics, they also took an interest in the past and history. Herculano is not just the father of the Portuguese novel (O Bobo, from 1843), but also the father of its historical novel, in the moulds of Walter Scott. Both Eurico, o Presbítero and Frei Luís de Sousa take history as their starting point. Garrett’s play goes back to the 16th century, to the catastrophic Battle of Ksar El Kebir, where King D. Sebastião died, causing a crisis of heirs and the nation’s loss of sovereignty to Spain; in the play, a noblewoman worries over the return of her husband, who disappeared in the battle; she’s remarried on the assumption that he died, but since no body was found, she lives in dread that he’ll come back. And return he does, disguised as a pilgrim, much like Odysseus on his return to Ithaca. Herculano’s novel goes further back in time, before even Portugal is a nation: 711 CE, the Arab invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. One book is set in the decline of the empire, the other in its inception. I will not however linger over Garrett’s play, another book by him will keep us occupied. But first some words on Eurico, o Presbítero.
“Chronicle-poem, legend or whatever it may be,” Herculano called it, not quite knowing what it was, a new thing in Portuguese letters anyway. The novel, by the way, comes with his own notes, insightful and displaying his vast historical knowledge. In them he explains that he wanted to write about “a time in transition – the death of the Gothic Empire and the birth of the modern societies of the Peninsula.” The novel starts with a description Visigoth society, which occupied the peninsula between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Arab invasion. The tone is elegiac since it’s also describing the end of a civilization, although he also argues that the ‘moral strength of the nation’ had disappeared by the time the Arabs invaded, no doubt using this decline as an analogy for Portugal at his time, still running on the past glories that ended at Ksar El Kebir, which runs against José Saramago’s interpretation of his novels.
The protagonist is Eurico, an officer in the Visigoth army, brave, fearless, and enamoured with Hermengarda, daughter of the Duke of Cantabria, who sneers at a suitor from humble origins for his daughter. Heartbroken, Eurico becomes a presbyter and travels to Carteia, near Gibraltar, where he lives in solitary wilderness seeking communion with God. His sensibility and eccentricity mystifies people around him, who conjure legends about him:
Each one waved his novel aided by the beliefs of superstition: criminal arts, dealings with an evil spirit, penitence for an abominable past life, and, even, madness, everything was used to explain the presbyter’s mysterious ways. The rude people of Carteia couldn’t understand this life of exception, because they didn’t understand that the poet’s intelligence needs to live in a vaster world than that on which society has crossed such petty limits.
Alexandre Herculano, it should be noted, as he became more and more disillusioned with public life, turned into a notable reclusive. Miguel de Unamuno’s one reference to him is saying that he “committed suicide by isolation – like monks.” Then rumours of overseas threats start reaching the Visigoths:
Incredible things are told about those people who assail Africa, called Arabs, and who, in the name of a new creed, intend to erase the vestiges of the Cross in the world. Who knows if to the Arabs was entrusted the punishment of this corrupt nation?
With the arrival of the Arabs, Herculano gives us several set pieces, like the Battle of Guadalete, where the invaders achieved a decisive victory in the peninsula and marked the fall of the Visigoth Empire, and later the Battle of Covadonga, the turning point in the resistance. Between these two events, Herculano parades a cast of characters, both fictional and historical, like Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim general who lead the invasion between 711 and 718, Roderick, the fallen Visigoth King, Oppas the Bishop of Seville, whom the author portrays as a traitor on the side of the Arabs, and Pelagius of Asturias, brother of Hermengarda, and legendary founder of the Kingdom of Asturias, where the first armed opposition to the invasion started. The founding of the Kingdom of Asturias, of course, also marks the beginning of Portugal, first centuries later with the independence of the Kingdom of León, from whose nobility descended the first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques (1109-1185), who devoted half his life to conquering land from the Moors for his newly-founded kingdom.
Between the two great battles, we follow the lives of Eurico, Hermengarda and Pelagius. Hermengarda has become a nun, and there’s a vivid description of a mass suicide of nuns to avoid capture. Alas, Hermengarda is stopped before she stabs herself and is sent as a present to the Emir as a sex slave. Meanwhile, Eurico, on knowing of the invasion, picks up his weapons again and rides to war under the identity of the fearful Dark Knight, who wreaks heavy losses on the enemy and inspires his countrymen to fight the oppressor. Learning that Hermengarda is a prisoner, he invades the Arab camp, rescues her from the Emir, and restores her to Pelagius, leader of a ragtag band of soldiers. The novel ends with the Dark Knight revealing his identity to Hermengarda and bidding her farewell before riding off to fight at the Battle of Covadonga, his fate left unexplained.
Eurico, o Presbítero is not a novel I particularly enjoy for reasons of style, since I find Herculano’s writing tedious, dry and his characters insipid. There’s erudition, I love the man’s vocabulary, it’s a novel to read with a good dictionary at hand, but I think he lacks the imaginative power to dramatize history; then again, I’ve never cottoned to Walter Scott either. No doubt his history books are better, hopefully one day I can regale my readers with episodes from his book on the origins of the Portuguese inquisition, now doesn’t that sound fun?
Almeida Garret’s Viagens na Minha Terra (1846), as a work of literary fiction, deserves more consideration and has had more influence on the Portuguese novel. Published periodically in his own newspaper, this indefinable genre-defying book is simultaneously a travel book, a novella, literary criticism and unpredictable ruminations about everything that catches the author’s fancy. From the title it purports to describe his travels from Lisbon to Setúbal, by boat and on horse, but he discusses everything save the places he visits, or the landscapes and customs.
Re-reading this book since high school, the first thing I notice is the intertextuality; on every page he’s just showing off his knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, and politics. The man’s the ultimate pedant, but he does it so charmingly. Just consider the first paragraph:
That one travels around one’s room at the foot of the Alps, in Winter, at Turin, which is almost as cold as Saint Petersburg – that’s understandable. But with this weather, with this air that God gave us, Xavier de Maistre himself, if he were writing here, would at least go to his backyard.
Ha, that’s a nod to Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around my Room. I hadn’t read this one at the time, I missed the joke. Like I did the ones about Laurence Sterne’s black page, Lord Byron, Miguel de Cervantes, Eugene Sue, Victor Hugo, Goethe, Joseph Addison, Schiller, and a handful of ancient Greek poets. I wonder, why bother teaching a book like this in high school? The students won’t get nine tenths of the references and the teachers won’t bother to explain them, they probably don’t know most of them either. This book is the product of a lifetime of reading, and only a lifetime reader can get it, or even bother to try.
The narrator, by the way, is also a bit of a liar. “My destination is no less than Santarém: and I declare that of everything I see and hear, of everything I think and feel I shall write about,” declares the author. On July 17, 1843, he sets out on his journey with friends from Terreiro do Paço, where he boards a boat. But he gives the reader a fair warning not to expect the typical travel book. “These interesting travels of mine will be a masterpiece, erudite, brilliant, with new thoughts, something worthy of the century. I must tell the reader, so that he may be prepared; he mustn’t think that they are one of those fashionable scribbles that, with the title Impressions of Travel, or some such, fatigue the presses of Europe without any gain or advancement for the species.” Ah, his ego, how I love the tone of his ego. Towards the end, though, he writes, “It bothers me heavily, dear reader, if you expected something else from my Travels, if I break to you, without intending, the promise you thought you saw in this title, but which I did not certainly make. Did you want perhaps that I told you, milestone by milestone, the road’s miles? Foot by foot, the heights and lengths of the buildings? Number by number, the dates of its foundation? That I summed up for you the history of each rock, of each ruin?...” Well, yes, after you said you’d write about all you saw and heard. Oh, but the stuff in your head is infinitely more interesting. One of literature’s most extraordinary narrators, and I’ll arm-wrestle anyone who disagrees.
Since there’s not much of a narrative, perhaps we should just highlight good bits. We have, for instance, the aforesaid intertextuality:
I don’t remember Lord Byron ever celebrating the pleasure of onboard smoking. It’s a remarkable forgetting in the most boat-loving, most sea-prose poet that ever was, and who even sang sea-sickness, the most prosaic and nauseating of life’s miseries! Well then, on a day like this, feeling in one’s face and hair the cooling breeze that passed above the water, while one languidly breathes in the narcotic exhalations of a good Havana cigarette, that’s one of the few sincerely good things that we have in this world.
We have reflections about progress with a wonderful metaphor from Don Quixote:
A few years ago there was a profound and learned philosopher from beyond the Rhine who wrote a work about the march of civilization, of intellect – what we’d call, to be better understood by all, progress. He discovered there are two principles in the world: the spiritualist, which marches without paying attention to the material and earthly part of this world, with its eyes fixed on its great and abstract theories, rigid, dry, hard, inflexible, and which may well be personified, symbolised by the famous myth of the Knight of la Mancha, D. Quixote; the materialist, which, without giving any importance to those theories, which it doesn’t believe in, and whose impossible concretizations it considers all utopian, may well be presented by the rotund and fat presence of our old friend, Sancho Panza.
But, as in the story of the malicious Cervantes, these two principles, so adverse, so disharmonious, however walk always together; now one more farther behind, now the other more ahead, hampering each other many times, helping each other seldom, but progressing always.
And here’s what’s possible to human progress.
And here’s the chronicle of the past, the history of the present, the program for the future.
Today the world is a vast Barataria, where King Sancho rules.
Then D. Quixote will come.
Common sense will come with the millennium: reign of the children of God! It’s promised in the divine promises… like the King of Prussia promised a constitution; and hasn’t failed yet, because – because the contract doesn’t have a date; he promised, but didn’t say when.
We have him ribbing Romanticism…
I shall certainly disappoint the benevolent reader; I shall lose, due to my fatal sincerity, all I had achieved in his estimation in the first two chapters of this interesting travel.
But what did he expect of me now, of me who dared declare myself in these Romantic eras, century of the strong sensations, of descriptions at broad and incisive strokes, which are carved into the soul and run with blood into the heart?
At the end of the preceding chapter we stopped at the door of a roadside inn: what roadside inn should it be, today in the year of 1843, at Victor Hugo’s beards, with Doctor Faustus trotting over people’s heads, with the Mysteries of Paris in the hands of everyone?
… before making a description of the posada in Cervantes’ time, followed by an anti-capitalist diatribe, and then he describes the roadside inn.
More reflections, now on virtues:
I shall always give first place to modesty above all the beautiful qualities. – Even above innocence? – Even, yes. It takes one fault to lose innocence; of modesty only grave charges, only true crimes can deprive one of it. An accident, chance can destroy the first; the latter only an action by oneself, determined and voluntary.
A fun game for tourists:
The café is one of the most characteristic features of a land. The experienced and refined traveller arrives anywhere, enters a café, observes it, examines it, studies it, and has learned what country he’s in, its government, its laws, its costumes, its religion.
Take me blindfolded to any café wherever you want, don’t uncover my eyes until we’re in the café; and I declare that in less than ten minutes I can tell you where I am, if it be a sublunary country.
On the aesthetic use of friars:
Friars… Friars… I don’t like friars. The way we saw those of this century still, the way we understand them today, I don’t like them, I don’t want them for anything, morally and socially speaking.
From an artistic point of view, though, I miss the friar a lot.
In towns, those grave and serious figures, with their habits down to the feet, almost all picturesque and some elegant, traversing the crowds of monkeys and dolls in their tights coats and bulbous hats that distinguish the stylish European race – they interrupted the monotony of ridicule and gave the people physiognomy.
In the fields, the effect was even bigger: they characterised the landscape, poeticized the most prosaic situation in hill or valley; and so necessary, so compulsory were their figures in many of those pictures, that without them the panel is no longer the same.
Besides, the convent in the settlement or the monastery in the wilderness animated, gentled, gave soul and greatness to everything: they protected the trees, sanctified the fountains, filled the land with poetry and solemnity.
Which neither can nor will the barons and money-lenders who replaced them do.
The friar was up to a point the D. Quixote of the old society.
One of the things I better remember from Miguel de Unamuno’s book is his mentioning the friars in Garrett’s books; he’s right, he has friars everywhere in his books, his famous tragedy is after all Frei Luís de Sousa.
A send-up of Énio-Manuel de Figueiredo, an obscure Portuguese playwright of his time, so obscure I had to look him up on Wikipedia. After tersely describing the comical value of several of his tragedies, he goes for the jugular:
Poet in Prose Years! Oh! Figueiredo, Figueiredo, what a great man you were, for you imagined that title that is in itself a volume! There are books, and I know many, that shouldn’t have titles, nor do the titles belong to them.
Please tell me what’s the purpose, what is the meaning of [Eugene Sue’s] The Wandering Jew put in the frontispiece of that interminable and commercial novel moving around the world, more wandering, more endless, more undying than its prototype?
And there are titles also that shouldn’t have a book, for it’s not possible to write any book that becomes them as they deserve it.
Poet in Prose Years is one of those.
I don’t read any of the rare things that nowadays are written in a truly beautiful way, that is, simple, truthful and, consequently, sublime, that won’t bellow with sincere sorrow from inside: Poet in Prose Years!
For is this century for poets? Or do we have poets for this century?...
There’s more, there are anti-war appeals and pastoral scenes, there’s poetry. He also tries his hand at a narrative, the nightingale girl story. “It’s the first episode of my Odyssey; I’m afraid of getting into it, because the ladies of our land say that Portuguese isn’t good for that, that French has another I don’t know what…” The story is set against the background of the Liberal Wars, and of course the protagonist is a friar, Frei Dinis. Because Garrett hated friars, but he loved them. The novella-within-the-book is my least favourite part of the book, actually, it’s so conventional and dreary by comparison with the madness of the ruminations, I’m still not sure it’s not a parody of something. If Herculano gave us the classic novel, Garrett gave us the open novel, and like he brought the action to modern times, so did Camilo and Eça follow his lead. Unfortunately, the formal irreverence of this book seldom found fertile ground in Portuguese fiction, formally most of our great 20th century novelists – Aquilino Ribeiro, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Vergílio Ferreira – could easily have written their novels in the 19th, the great exceptions being Saramago and António Lobo Antunes.
So there you have it, two more pieces for the jigsaw puzzle that is Portuguese literary history here at St. Orberose.