Sunday, 8 December 2013

He was perhaps happy, he was certainly happy, that man who ended up with a shot in the head, leaving me his papers: or a return to the weirdness of Raul Brandão

In 1896, Raul Brandão (1867-1930) published his second book, História de um Palhaço (A Vida e o Diário de K. Maurício), or The Story of a Clown (The Life and Diary of K. Maurício). In 1926 the novel was republished in its current form with the equally long and bizarre title A Morte do Palhaço e o Mistério da Árvore, or The Death of the Clown and the Mystery of the Tree. Last year I discovered Raul Brandão and read his novel Húmus, a remarkable philosophical novel, full of irony, dark humour, and culminating in an apocalypse. Not long after I read the Jesus Christ play he co-wrote with his friend the poet Teixeira de Pascoaes. Since then I’ve made a pledge to read more by him, and this has taken me to this short novel.

I don’t what to make of it. In a way it’s a forerunner of Húmus, which also left me befuddled, but I also think it’s less deranged and less laboured, perhaps more opaque too. It’s a plotless novel formed by the ravings of a madman, alternating between his fiction and his diary. There’s much to applaud regarding the form, as exquisite as, if not more than, Húmus’.  As we know, this novel is told through the diary of a nameless narrator, interspersed with the aphorisms and philosophical writings of a mad philosopher, Gabiru, although it’s just as possible that the diarist and Gabiru are the same person. His earlier novel manages to construct a denser labyrinth. There’s a first section called “K. Maurício,” signed at the end by none other than Raul Brandão, who introduces himself as the friend of the late Maurício, comrades in an extinct literary group. This Brandão explains how he salvaged his friend’s unpublished writings and diary after his suicide; these constitute section two of the novel, “The Death of the Clown,” an unfinished novella, section three, called “Diary of K. Maurício,” with added commentary by the narrator, and a fourth section of his disjointed, unfinished writings. Like in Húmus, the narrator is very unreliable. As an added detail that I think makes the mixture of fact and fiction funnier, Brandão in his youth (1889) was indeed the member of a literary group called Os Insubmissos (The Insubordinate). Perhaps it is from that experience that he could extract the fondness and clarity with which he narrates the joys of belonging to a fin-de-siècle group:

   At every turn you see literary groups being formed. They exist in every generation. Boys have always felt the need to communicate and get together according to chance, affinities or aspirations.
   It’s a delicious moment that leaves forever in us a bit of dust at the end of the soul – some golden dust that insists in shining until the end of life. Already is the past very far away, already are the faded figures barely discernible and still the dust of dream shines there at the bottom… It’s because these hours are like the first flower of the trees: there’s nothing that could buy them. Regardless of better and more conscious friendships that are later acquired, none is like the one at the age of twenty, when man doesn’t have interests to defend and feelings are in full vigour.

It goes on:

In every corner, in a coffee, between four walls that don’t matter, because, as derelict as they may be, our soul has the extraordinary power to transform everything, we talk at the same time and with the same enthusiasm, sharing the dream by the handful. In that moment it’s visible and almost tangible the aureole that is formed above the heads of twenty-year olds.

I have never read a description of youth with so much nuance, affection and sensibility, with the right balance of irony and compassion, these first pages of the novel are a triumph of narrative feeling.

The narrator describes the group he belonged to, identifies its figures, characters like Pita (“who showed up and disappeared between always instantaneous lightning”), Prophet (“a draftsman full of dream, of hallucinated figures, of unreal landscapes, and who ended up mad, continuing at the hospital to create fantastic monsters, trees in attitudes of human despair”), and K. Maurício, a writer and violin player who lived in great financial difficulties. “I never heard him complain. I suspect he starved and endured cold – but no one, not even he, noticed it. He was perhaps happy, he was certainly happy, that man who ended up with a shot in the head, leaving me his papers – notes, projects, a diary, a sketch of a novella and certain singular pages. He killed himself for a ghost.” The narrator calls him the oldest and most artistic of the group, leader and a visionary who had given up reality for fantasy, quite a lot like Gabiru indeed. “He was a singular creature – I can say it, I who knew him better than others, and who completed the figure through the papers he left. Pain and dream – that’s what emerges from his notes.” This passage of course insinuates that he may have tampered with his writings. Maurício was a dreamer who ignored reality. “K. Maurício’s drama was this – to have lived everything and never to have lived; to have known life through books and not knowing how to take a step in life. Getting used to dreaming and being afraid to live.” And this brings consequences, dire consequences. “To those who feed on dream there comes the moment when they can’t live. Reality doesn’t lose its rights. The day comes when it imposes itself through force and then the dreamer is plucked and ground for having forgotten it. And the tragic point when he recognises with astonishment that he can’t live – that he doesn’t know how to live, and seeks death, not to annihilate himself, but as one who seeks a bigger dream, a dream without contrarieties and on which he can gobble at will.” I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call this novel symbolist, or perhaps expressionist, but I get the feeling he’s not talking about anything concrete, of a tangible reality. The worlds Brandão creates, and I noticed this in Húmus, are mostly shadows and mist, and his figures are little more than phantoms, I say this with the utmost of admiration for them.

There are really lots of similarities with Gabiru, for instance when the narrator talks about Maurício’s double: “For him each creature is accompanied by another being. By another invisible being who in silence contorts in pain and who we can at any moment hurt with our actions.” The idea of the double is paramount in Húmus, where we spend the whole novel wondering if the narrator and Gabiru are one person or two distinct beings.

The narrator here claims to be impressed by him, to admire him, and for that reason he’s going to publish his books. “I only cut out some pages.” The narrator himself concedes he doesn’t know the meaning of the writings, and he’s not even sure if they’re sincere. “It’s true that sometimes he irritates me, and sometimes he moves me.” He advises each reader to make what they will of the book, which is a good advice for all books.

The novella-within-the-novel, The Death of the Clown, is autobiographical according to the narrator, and in the first pages we see similarities with what he’s just described about K. The Clown is a member of a literary group living in a pension that includes a madman, an anarchist and a man called Pita, the same name as one of Maurício’s friends. The group is a grotesque gallery of madmen, slum philosophers and dreamers, all living a bohemian nightmare of poverty and moral degradation. Not a lot happens, they hang around having conversations, talking about their dreams, not doing anything concrete. The Clown, who’s a real clown, falls in love with an acrobat called Camélia. She’s not interested in him, and Pita gets in between the two with counsels on how to woe her. But since he’s a cynic and a nihilist, he recommends the Clown to kill himself to prove her love to her, because that’s the only way she’ll ever love him. So the clown kills himself by jumping from the acrobat’s platform down onto the stage, in front of a horrified audience, with Pita and the others watching. That’s basically it, I don’t get the purpose of it, but I guess we can interpret Camélia as unreachable dream that drove him to death, prefiguring Maurício’s actual suicide. Or maybe life imitates art, I don’t know.

Then we have the diary, which doesn’t explain anything. “The Diary of K. Maurício is constituted by bits of soul here and there. It’s a husky and detached monologue, with incomprehensible sentences and almost unconnected. Some bits I’ve cut out: because some things can’t be published – farce for those who laugh, pain for others to feel pity.”

The bits written by K. are indeed incomprehensible at times, although they’re also very similar to Gabiru’s, I apologize for bringing this up all the time, he is one of my favourite characters. “You know it’s not my fault. There’s another being inside me who does, under my sight, everything that is bad, without my having the energy to protest, or to oppose…” This is so Gabiru, but I also think there’s something of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man here, I wonder if Brandão ever read the great Russian? I have no idea about the state of Russian translations in 19th century Portugal, if they existed, they probably were translated from the French ones. Other bits echo Gabiru’s aphorisms and fragmentary sections: “I start crying with pity for me!... I’m here, I’m mad.” Or: “The pessimists! But I love them, as much as optimists irritate me like creatures that don’t have a soul. What is it to be a pessimist? It’s to believe in life like a diabolic being, blaspheming is still to believe in God.” At the same time I also think Brandão channelled ideas that predated what Pessoa would do a few decades later. “But can’t you see yourself, can’t you feel yourself bored and empty? It’s not just the tedium vitae of the ancient. You’re tired, you’ve consumed yourself, burned out, you dreamt too much: your life can never prolong itself like this: you’re left no choice but to enter practical life, to be null and banal – or then die.” This could be an excerpt from Bernardo Soares’ The Book of Disquiet.

I have to be honest, I don’t have the faintest idea what I’ve been writing about for the past 1700 words, I don’t have a grand theory about this novel, I don’t see any particular meaning about it, I don’t think it makes sense at all, I don’t feel like interpreting it, I’m just letting its sticky, spongy prose coat the walls of my brain with half-images, I’m just being driven by the prose, which is sublime in the original, so vague and redolent with possibilities. It’s beautiful prose, so good you think God himself was choosing each word for the author, so precise is each sentence. Another thing I admire about him, his courage to make a disjointed novel like this, with a clear spirit of crudeness, of being unfinished, and built willy-nilly, when in fact its effect were clearly calculated. In its form, in the way it addresses unreliability and also the disintegration of meaning, it’s a novel ahead of its time.

Also, just to make sure I’m not the only crazy person who had this thought, but did anyone else notice the similarities between K. Maurício and Franz Kafka’s life? Besides the letter K, you have two people who died young, left a diary and mostly unfinished fiction, which were published by a friend (Kafka’s Max Brody), who posthumously edited and altered them, and hailed them as mystic visionaries. It’s eerie…


  1. This sounds crazy but fantastic.

    Your second to last paragraph made me thing, sometimes there is no unifying theme or grand theory. Sometimes there is just beauty and emotion to be found in a work.

    1. Brian, it's quite possible, but for some reason that worries me. Perhaps not so much in poetry, I think its musicality and the way the words are weaved together is reward enough, but in narrative I do expect meaning, something that unifies everything, something to make sense of the chaos, after all that is what the mind exists for, to give shape to things.

      Anyway, I was reading some pages by the literary critic Adolfo Casais Monteiro, he argues that most surely Brandão read Dostoevsky, which leaves me quite happy. Few 20th century Portuguese writers have shown interest in him, so this possibly pairing of the two thrills me very much.

  2. I still have Húmus on my list from your great post about it last year (and hey, it's available in French, so I intend to pick up next time I get a chance if I'm lucky enough to get a chance).

    That short bit about the aureole above the heads of twenty year olds is stupendously good.

    1. I hope you have that chance.

      I think his prose is pure poetry all the time, he has a way with words that leaves me in awe, he gets inside things, and makes his images sparkle. At the same time he developed a style of vagueness, like he's writing dreams, opaque and bizarre but at the same time intensely real to the reader. I don't know anyone quite like him.