Monday, 2 December 2013

More and more I think Portugal doesn’t have to be saved, because it’ll always be lost as it deserves. It’s us who have to be saved from it: the correspondence of Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner

I think everyone already knows – by now everyone has an obligation to know – my love for the Portuguese poets Jorge de Sena and Sophia de Mello Breyner. I’ve written about their poems before, and in Sena’s case even about his experiences living in America. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity to write about both at one fell swoop. Recently I finished reading the letters they exchanged for almost twenty years, starting in 1959 shortly before Sena’s self-imposed exile in Brazil and ending in 1978 with his death in Santa Barbara, California. These two giants of Portuguese letters kept a very curious correspondence, he an expat living in freedom, she politically committed alongside her husband in several anti-fascist causes but living in a dictatorship. In these letters they discussed many things: art, poetry, politics, friendship, history, each other’s work. Perhaps the most important thing is the friendship both expressed, a friendship expanded to their spouses, Sena’s Mécia and Sophia’s Francisco. It’s hard to articulate these letters into coherent texts, so I’ve edited bits and pieces according to theme. We’ll start with their thoughts about Portugal, and Sena’s experiences in Brazil.

Jorge de Sena keeps bringing up one topic: the pettiness, small-mindedness of the Portuguese intelligentsia, and the difficulty of making a career in letters and literary criticism in Portugal. Sena did not have a background in letters, he was an engineer, in spite of which he wrote better literary criticism than many PhD critics. But Portugal was and still is an elitist society, and he was an outsider. A case in point comes with the publication of the third volume of Líricas Portuguesas (Portuguese Lyrics, 1958), an anthology collecting Portuguese poetry from its inception to modern times. The poet José Régio had organised the first volume, which encompassed poetry from the medieval era to the first quarter of the 20th century; the second volume, edited by poet Cabral do Nascimento, showcased the work of poets born between 1859 and 1908; Sena’s third volume included the poets born between 1909 and 1929, that is, the poets of his generation. For reasons that he doesn’t explain, and that I can’t ascertain, this volume wasn’t well received, as he complains in a letter to Francisco, 1 February, 1959:

You took upon yourself the initiative of promoting in the National Cultural Centre a debate about the 3rd series of Portuguese Lyrics, from Portugália Editora, which I selected, prefaced and annotated. I could not but agree, in principle, with such initiative, for I understand anything to be liable to be publicly debated that, in the intellectual, social or political life, may interest the collectiveness in general or the villages which that collectiveness is composed of. But no one’s forced to take part in a public debate. I think I already participated enough by providing the object and the pretext for the deplorable exhibition of pettiness, incompetence, intellectual dishonesty, lack of politeness, malice, invectives, envy, rancour and mediocrity, of which, sadly with only a few noble exceptions, have been composed the direct or indirect references to that work of mine, publicly printed and more or less anonymous. One thing’s a debate, another’s a feast of opportunism. I cannot, therefore, sanction with my presence a session which, regardless of the intentions and the intelligence, honesty and culture of many participants, runs the risk of being the recognition that, to the moral defects that miserably afflict a great part of the alleged Portuguese intelligentsia, the same status of freedom and independence must be attributed which we demand in everything in the matter of ideas and action. I terminally refuse such recognition.

We get to see more of this pettiness in Sophia’s letter to Sena urging him to add his signature to the petition asking the Swedish Academy to give the Nobel Prize to the poet Miguel Torga in 1960. At the time of this petition there was a heated debate in society over the Portuguese nominee: one camp defended Torga, another wanted novelist Aquilino Ribeiro to win the prize. The cause of this conflict was political: Ribeiro was the candidate of the communists, and Miguel Torga was the alternative for the intellectuals who were not communist partisans. And things got ugly, with each side vituperating the other side’s candidate. Sophia’s description is an eye-opener, although she only writes what’s being done to her candidate: “What’s going on, in my terms, is the following: Portuguese writers and intellectuals don’t want Torga to receive the Nobel prize. There are pamphlets, groups, manoeuvres, wars, sophistry, etc.” I love her reasoning to stand up for Torga: “I think a Nobel prize in Portugal can only be given to poetry.” That’s logical since poetry has always been, and continues to be, the apex of our literature. “And, besides my admiration for [Miguel] Torga, which you know, I think an award given to Torga means a prize to Portuguese poetry, a prize to Teixeira de Pascoaes and Fernando Pessoa, like the prize to [Juan Ramón] Jiménez means a prize to Spanish poetry.” Miguel Torga, it should be noted, is considered one of the greatest Portuguese writers of the 20th century and was the first recipient, in 1989, of the prestigious Camões Prize; this reminds me I really need to write about him one day. “Few people have signed it,” she continues, although I was happy to see my hero Alexandre O’Neill signed it. “Many people abstain under the most varied pretexts.” Needless to say, amidst the ugly feud between the Torga and Ribeiro factions, the Nobel Prize that year went to the insufferable Saint-John Perse. Still on the subject of the Nobel Prize, in the final years of Sena’s life she informs him that the Swedish Academy asked her to propose a candidate for the prize, and she proposed Sena, a gesture illustrative of their friendship, not to mention Sena totally deserved the Nobel Prize.

In those days the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party) had tremendous power and influence over the intellectual class, and politically-committed writers like Sophia and Jorge de Sena, who retained non-partisan positions, suffered for their refusal to conform. The PCP had members everywhere, including in award juries, who excluded recalcitrant writers and awarded fellow travellers. So it’s no wonder that Sena jokes that he’ll never win the Camilo Castello-Branco Award for his short-stories, invoking political reasons, and saying that there are “lots of Redóis” to get it. Alves Redol is one of the fathers of the neorealist novel and a writer closely linked to the PCP; he was the sort of dogmatic, socially-engaged writer who pleased the party so much. In my estimation he was also a crude writer who didn’t know how to put sentences together, the kind of scribbler who thinks big themes excuse poor style – I’ve only read one of his novels, but it was as dreadful as Jorge Amado’s early novels, when the man was also in thrall of communism and before he realized that writing about sexy women was better than writing about slums. In 1964, Sophia and Sena competed for the same poetry prize, and she won for Livro Sexto, although she claims one of the judges voted for “whom he hated the least,” a judge who in her view had a “dogmatic, restricted and fanatic recipe for poetry.” After receiving the prize she was harassed for a while, receiving anonymous phone calls and letters; funny that she doesn’t specify if she suspected the PIDE (secret police) or the PCP, I guess it could go either way. I sympathise with the hardships poets like Sophia and Sena endured, having to fight both a dictatorship and the communists who could behave as despicable as its lackeys. In March 1962, Sophia is in Florence attending a meeting of COMES (European Community of Writers, founded in Naples in 1958.), when a woman accuses Sophia of writing “poetry so removed from Portuguese social problems.” This organization, COMES, ended in 1968 due to politics and ideological clashes between Soviet sympathisers and others hostile to it. Sophia’s letter to Sena offers a glimpse of the type of politicking going on in it as she explains how he congress' goal was to choose a new Portuguese delegate, although he had already been chosen without discussion: Urbano Tavares Rodrigues, another neorealist writer with strong ties to the PCP’s intellectual wing. “The Congress was anti-fascist – something I agree with but the methods were fascistic, impolite and police-like. I wonder what goes on behind all this. The Congress’ entire atmosphere was one of nervousness and mistrust and me without my Francisco by my side, and without even having agreed with him on the line to follow, I felt truly alone in a world of intrigue that isn’t mine. I missed your presence there dearly.” A few lines later she complains, “Our life is more and more engaged in the struggle as you know but the opposition is full of adventurers that soil and confuse everything. It’s also full of fools.” Dangerous fools; I suppose little more than a decade later these were some of the same people who would try to turn Portugal into a Soviet republic, and who nowadays still regret it isn't. According to the book’s introduction, some of the names have to be written in initials because some of the people mentioned are still alive; I can’t wait to read future editions.

Of course I don’t want to give the impression Sophia only had to put up with fanatic communists. She was also targeted by the fascists. On 22 September, 1961, she writes to Sena:

Some time ago during a dinner I was asked what I thought of a fascist (and very shameless) lady who hates me and Francisco and who persecutes us with incredible impoliteness and slander. I replied I thought she was good, intelligent, serious, cultivated and polite. Even the friends of the so-called lady had to burst out laughing. That’s the only system: to laugh at those trying to kill us.

Jorge de Sena is less ironic, but then his bitterness and rage are trademarks:

More and more I think Portugal doesn’t have to be saved, because it’ll always be lost as it deserves. It’s us who have to be saved from it. But do you know there’s no easy way? I for instance have behaved like a Brazilian in everything, which my official life imposes upon me here: I’m a civil servant here, an aide of the Ministry of Education (has it been said over there that it’s because of me that Portuguese Literature is compulsory in every academic course of Letters?), a public figure of known renown. This without abdicating at all from being the Portuguese who no one else is more than me. Well, I only manage to be suspicious to everyone: to the “exiled,” because I’ve gone Brazilian, when they refuse to take knowledge of the country they live from and from what they live; and to the Brazilian (not to my friends, of course), because I’m a fearful agent of “portugalness…”

Jorge de Sena was not having a better life in Brazil. After taking part in an aborted revolution in 1959, he settled on the other side of the Atlantic, where he was hired by a university as a teacher. His first letters show him confident and optimistic. On October 30, 1959, we find him dispatching a letter from the Faculty of Philosophy in Assis, São Paulo, where he’s ecstatic:

This letter is not yet of “news” from Brazil, to which freedom it’s hard for one to get used to, given the mental torpor we arrive here in. It’s a friendly souvenir, on the eve of my and Sophia’s birthday [Note: their birthdays were on November 2 and 6, respectively], with the best hopes that, soon, we can breathe together another air. And it’s also a request for news that Francisco will make me receive. I want you to know that, in this jump I made, all those I most esteem and respect, I brought in my heart. And that in no way will I abandon anything or anyone, on the contrary I’ll use one opportunity, in my name and the one we all represent, to show, here where others live by now, what we are, what we want and what we think. Tirelessly, out of groups, aware of the unity of everyone, to which I’ve always devoted myself, I’ll always be the same person. But I’ll be so without the rupture between an absorbing profession and a desire to communicate directly which only the University here knew to give me. (…) And what we need is for our voice to be heard. So send me poems, Sophia, and I’ll publish them. So the enlightened Francisco can send me non-partisan articles, and I’ll publish them too. And, understanding what it is for a person to adapt to a new world, forgive me the silences, and never leave me without news of you which are so precious to me.

Adolfo Casais Monteiro is another writer I need to write about one day; this post is becoming one long memo. Casais Monteiro, a literary critic and teacher, was also exiled in Brazil at the time, after the regime had forbidden him from teaching. In Brazil he got a job writing a weekly column for the newspaper Estado de São Paulo, and he fought the good fight for Portuguese culture at a time when the Estado Novo was totally indifferent to promote it, the main reason why we’re still so unknown, with a delay of fifty years of missed opportunities. Not to mention we were the wrong brand of totalitarianism, a US-approved right-wing regime; if we had been soviets, Casais Monteiro’s O País do Absurdo would be no less known than Czesław Miłosz’ The Captive Mind.

But to get back to Sena. On April 2, 1961, his views about Brazil have radically changed:

We have here the same torpid careerism, whose virtue is to be performed in shameless make-believe. And, almost definitely, no one cares for us culturally. They respect me, esteem me or admire me for what I publish and do; but no one seeks to read or know what I published or did – and that happens with all of us. If I read your poems, as I’ve done in public, people like and admire them. But they don’t bother, even, to ask me for your books to read you as they never asked me mine. I’m the great Portuguese writer, that amazing fellow who gave and gives splendid conferences, writes beautiful articles for the Estado de São Paulo, is the star of meetings… and that’s that. We don’t exist for them, otherwise, culturally, poetically, nothing exists: everything is literature for career, or career for literature. Brazilian literature studies fill everything, poison everything. Do you think, Sophia, that we’d exist culturally if we had spent our lives digging up and admiring the supreme beauties of 20th rate Portuguese poets, for instance the ultra-romantics of the Trovoada, Gonçalves Crespo, any text printed in Bahia in 1750? It’s what’s, equivalently, done here. And the poetic, dramatic, agonizingly metaphysical vibration, made by the best of our verses, how can it be justly appreciated if it ends up compared to a sonnet by Bilac?

Sena is not the only one to denounce the nationalism of Brazil and its grudge against Portuguese literature. Casais Monteiro makes the same comments. Sena was really excited about Brazil and even considered it Portugal’s only hope when the regime fell. Then he started suffering sabotage from his academic colleagues who didn’t like to see a foreign rival succeeding and threatening their positions. He didn’t stay long in Brazil, though, because there was a coup there and he fled to the USA to teach Portuguese literature and language. Where instead of Brazilians he had teachers of Spanish trying to sabotage him. The poor guy just couldn’t catch a break…

Tomorrow, Sena and Sophia talk about each other’s work, get into a lengthy discussion about Greek culture, and Sophia badmouths Cavafy.

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