Thursday, 31 January 2013

2013 European Reading Challenge


A few months ago I joined Rose City 2012 Reader's European Reading Challenge. This challenge ends today and I didn't do very well. I read five books and that was it, all of them in December.

Today I'm joining the 2013 European Reading Challenge and I expect to do a lot better this time.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Albert Cossery: The Color of Infamy



The Color of Infamy was the last novel Albert Cossery wrote (1999) and it was also the first novel I read by him, by sheer coincidence in 2008, the year he passed away. The death of this obscure and reserved French novelist ironically resulted in a surge of interest in him in the United States. Since 2008 five new translations have seen the light of day, thanks to NYRB and New Directions Publishing.

My first impression of Cossery was strongly positive: a playful mind that looked at the injustices and stupidity of the world through the prism of honour and irony, a sharp spirit that was sensitive to the overwhelming dangers of modernity – political corruption, unethical greed, arrivism, imperialism – but also a writer who was too intelligent to let despair turn him to misanthropy. Since then I’ve read more by him and now I do think he’s misanthropic, a bit, yes. The first time I read him I confused his revelling in the chaos of the world as gentle tolerance about mankind’s madness. Now I see more clearly that the pleasure he takes from watching the world unravel was already there.

This short novel introduces the reader to a handful of unique characters, the more important of which is Ossama, a pickpocket working in the streets of Cairo. He performs a noble, ancient profession; but like in every craft, Ossama has found a way of improving its methods. Ossama wears a fancy businessman-like suit, making himself respectable to police, who salute him on sight, obeying the impeccable logic that the police only suspect poor-looking people of being criminals. Instead of poor people, this young entrepreneur steals from rich businessman while walking freely in the opulent neighbourhoods of Cairo.

Ossama comes from a poor background and occasionally visits his blind father, a man living in the past, a man who lost his sight when a policeman hit him in the face during a protest against the monarchy. The blind man lives alone in a decrepit apartment, thinking he's a martyr of the revolution, ignorant of the sordid world outside, that Ossama, out of compassion, refrains from talking about. So the poor martyr lives believing that he sacrificed his sight for the improvement of society, not knowing about the mediocrity and conformity that run freely outside his window, and believing that when he dies the state will honour him with an official funeral. Cossery was a skeptic who didn’t belief in the 18th century ideal of social progress. Idealists in his novels exist only to be mocked or to meet disappointments. Cossery reserves his good will for the dregs of society: the prostitutes, the bohemian, the madmen, the thieves like Ossama.

It is when the young pickpocket relieves a man of his wallet that the story in effect begins. Unknowingly Ossama gets his hands on the wallet of one Atef Suleyman, a construction company manager, infamous in newspapers because one of his poorly-constructed buildings collapsed and killed fifty people under its debris. In the wallet Ossama discovers a letter that implicates the brother of a minister in the affairs of Suleyman - and Ossama spends part of the time thinking how to use this explosive discovery. It should be noted that the thief has no interest in making money out of it. Ossama is not obsessed with material possessions – like most Cossery heroes, his hedonism is more intellectual than material – but he loves public scandals; he loves disorder and to see the masses agitated. Scandals cheer him up because they help bring out the stupidity in people with more clarity, and nothing pleases him more than watching stupidity unfold.

In order to find a solution for this complicated endeavour, he meets his former teacher, the notorious Nimr, a master thief. But Nimr, anxious to exploit this discovery too, lacks the required imagination. Nimr is not like Ossama - he remains too close to the old ways of thieves; he chastises Ossama for his innovative method of dressing up like a rich man, which reduces the risk in his work. "There's nothing more immoral than stealing without risks," he claims. "It's risk that sets us apart from bankers and their imitators who practise legalised theft with the protection of the government." It's not difficult to see why this wise man reached the position of teacher.

But the well-connected Nimr introduces Ossama to Karamallah, a former journalist who's fallen in disgrace because he dared to accuse a foreign chief of state of imbecility. Causing an unpleasant international crisis, Karamallah was arrested by his country's authorities, tortured and forbidden of ever publishing anything again. When they meet this second wise man, he's living in a cemetery, inside his family's mausoleum, the only possession he still owns. Karamallah, like Ossama, loves disorder and social unrest. Like Ossama Karamallah hates the ruling class but also despises the servile working class. No, Karamallah argues, a scandal will do no good: either people, already burned with their personal problems, won't care or it'll just be suppressed by the government. The best way of having fun with the letter is calling Suleyman and having a nice chat with him in a café, so that they can discover new dimensions of infamy. The outcome is obviously hilarious.

Like every other novel I’ve read by Cossery, The Color of Infamy is written in straightforward prose: short, clear sentences, long dialogues. Cossery did not have the spirit of an experimentalist, he was more storyteller than prose stylist. The novel flows nicely thanks to the caustic humour, the unpredictable and slightly over the top, but instantly likeable, characters. Cossery wasn’t as talented as the great novelists of the 20th century, but like Saki, that great comic writer, he had a natural talent for irony and the elegant witticism, making his writings easily quotable:  

"Let it be known that honour is an abstract notion, invented as always by the caste of dominators so that the poorest of the poor can be proud of owning it. It's a ghost possession that costs nothing to someone."

"Truth has no future, whereas lying is the bearer of great hopes."

"Crime in the high spheres of society is an endeavour admitted in all the nations of the world. The people are used to it and even applaud such feats."

Although Albert Cossery is dead, his work is becoming more and more available and now is the ideal moment to discover him. He deserves to stop being one of world literature’s best kept secrets.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Aquilino Ribeiro Revisited


Some writers I can’t get enough of, and some writers I can only read between long stretches of time. Some days ago I finished my annual Aquilino Ribeiro novel, and it left me more exhausted than if I had read three António Lobo Antunes novels in a row. Aquilino is a novelist I’m reluctant to say I don’t like because of all the hours and effort I’ve invested in him, but he’s complicated, he’s hard work. According to my archives I read my first Aquilino in 2008, and since then five more novels. For the reader’s edification I shall write a brief commentary on all of them: A Via Sinuosa (The Sinuous Path, 1918) was his first novel and it’s a coming-of-age story about a humble but intelligent boy whose education for priesthood is secured by a rich family, rather common at the time; unfortunately at the university he gets involved with the Republicans and other revolutionaries opposing the monarchy and he ends up expelled; destitute, without family or friends, he enters the world of adulthood alone and with many doubts. It’s a harsh, unsentimental novel, and it sets the tone of Aquilino’s oeuvre. I don’t remember a lot from Terras do Demo (The Devil’s Lands, 1919), save it’s a bizarre novel split in two narratives, and I vaguely think one of them is about a family obsessed with a fortune the ancient matriarch may or may not be hiding. Next came Andam Faunos pelos Bosques (There are Fauns in the Woods, 1926), possibly the strangest thing I’ve read by him, a borderline magical realist novel about a mysterious creature (maybe supernatural or not) going about the woods molesting women in the countryside; it was the first novel I read by him: I admired the vocabulary and the syntax, but like most Aquilino novels it left me bored. This was followed by O Homem que Matou o Diabo (The Man who Killed the Devil, 1930), the story of a poor but love-struck artisan who undertakes an epic journey, across the Iberian Peninsula, from his small village to Paris to find a French actress he met when she vacationed there. When The Wolves Howl (1958) was reviewed by me exactly one year ago and it’s an excellent novel about power and freedom. It was my second novel, perhaps the most lucid thing I've read by him so far.

That leaves us with A Batalha sem Fim (The Never-ending Battle, 1932), which I finished earlier this month. A Batalha Sem Fim is about a man, José Algodres, son of a dead fisherman, who believes there’s a hidden treasure in the dunes of a nearby beach. He wastes his money and life looking for it and even manages to persuade a few people to join him in his mad endeavour. And obviously the novel ends after he’s suffered considerable misery, none the richer or better off.

What is the never-ending battle? The toil of the fishermen working out at sea, facing the deadly waves for their keep? The poor people’s daily struggle against death? Or the delusion José believes in with quasi-religious faith? Most likely a combination of all three possibilities. Aquilino wrote about the wretched, more so than José Saramago. He understood their language, their thinking, their customs and behaviour, which he captures with the eye of an anthropologist. For clarification, when I mean the wretched I mean workers, farmers, fishermen, peasants and artisans outside the big urban centres of Lisbon and Porto; Aquilino usually set his novels in the countryside, around the region he was born in. The Portuguese have a long and rich tradition of writing about the countryside, mostly because the country was underdeveloped for many centuries and still is considerably rural. Lisbon in fact didn’t give birth to many great novelists: writers like Aquilino, Miguel Torga, Manuel da Fonseca, Raul Brandão, José Saramago, Vergílio Ferreira, Alves Redol, José Cardoso Pires were all men from villages and small towns, and their earliest rural experiences were visible in their writings. Aquilino, for instance, uses the fishermen from the Beira region as material for this novel and the narrative is prodigious with his understanding of the faina, that is, the work a ship’s crew does; I don’t think there’s a word for it in English. As a historical document detailing a bygone Portugal this novel is invaluable.

The novel opens with fishermen being told not to go to sea because the legendary Pedro Algodres has just died. Pedro was a remarkable man: fearless and adventurous, he also owned a fishing company. Admired and loved by all because of his courage and generosity, this is how one of his friends remembers him:

His bravery turned everyone brave. Be mistaken whoever finds the seaman audacious as a rule. More than land critters he has occasion to be courageous and necessarily is so. In the human species, however, there is no one more prone to the contagion of fear and order. A coward, if he’s given an anchor, converts a whole crew into a band of capons; a brave man takes it with him, heroic and fearless, into the bowels of hell. With Algodres aboard, one was at sea as pleasantly as on dry land.

His son, José, who inherits his company, has none of his mythical skills or his heroism. Furthermore he’s not a seaman and he hates the sea, has no interest in it and doesn’t want to spend his live being a poor master to fishermen. His father leaves debts and José doesn’t care about them or about working honourably to pay them. Besides brave, his father was a big spender and was always ready to loan money to his men, which made him die almost without a cent. José plans to get rich quickly. He sells the company in order to finance the excavation of a treasure that was allegedly hidden when Junot, one of Napoleon’s generals, invaded Portugal at the turn of the 19th century. According to a legend José reads in a history book, the treasure was hidden by three priests:

It is told that on the night the three servants of St. Bento were martyred by the barbaric enemy, one of them revealed himself in a dream to the prior and spoke to him: the treasure is hidden in the sands, in a huge forest, by the ocean. The Lord is sending us to keep it over under the form of three kites until the man comes with a pure heart, hands and feet cleaned in salt water, with neither father nor mother, nothing to call his own, to unbury it. And there it is and no one will reach it until God wills it.

An omen makes José believe the treasure is hidden in the Pinhal do Urso, a vast pine tree forest famous for having provided the wood to build the ships that sailed in the historic Discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries. José spends every cent he has pursuing this chimera, and once he runs out of money he seduces gullible investors with promises of a partnership. In no time word of mouth attracts dozens of workers to the place to open up the dunes. Still months pass and the treasure remains elusive. José is so desperate that the prophecy be true that he burns down his father’s house, in order to truly be a man of no possessions, as the man who’ll find the treasure is fabled to be:

He came to find a corpse that seemed to still look affectionately at him by the two front windows, black like gouged pupils, and by the completely open door, off its hinges. It had been like a second breast for his flesh and it hurt him to see it dead and mutilated. But why did he let bitterness take over him when it was written and it was clear: neither father nor mother, nothing to call his own?

As a study of obsession and human stupidity this novel is extraordinary. What sets Aquilino apart from other Portuguese writers who wrote about the poor and exploited, is that he didn’t romanticise poverty. In the late ‘30s a group of writers started a trend, or movement, called Neorealism. It was ideological in principle and closely connected to the Portuguese Communist Party, a necessary reaction against the dictatorship. It was really proletarian fiction about class warfare, the rich and evil versus the miserable and saintly. It was no doubt important in the historical context of the time, when Portugal lived in a right-wing dictatorship, but its anti-literary and anti-aesthetic position never won me over. The neorealists valued message over style, content over talent. Their books to me are crude, raw and aesthetically ugly. It’s literature I have difficulty reading because it doesn’t feel like literature at all. With Aquilino, the difficulty is the opposite: he’s the epitome of style, of careful prose, of lexical richness. He's lyrical and coarse at the same time. He criticizes power and politics without ever losing sight of good writing. This is one of the few writers of the Portuguese language who could bend it in whatever shape he desired, no less than Eça, Saramago or Lobo Antunes could.

What can I say about Aquilino Ribeiro? That he’s the Cormac McCarthy of Portuguese letters in the vastness of the vocabulary and the bleakness of the worldview? Aquilino’s novels always have a harshness of feelings that I love, an instinctive conception of human nature as primitive, tawdry, and violent. He wasn’t insensitive to class warfare (no one who has ever read When the Wolves Howl could claim that), and A Batalha sem Fim has a very powerful scene that carefully demonstrates the gulf between the rich and poor. Right after someone shouts as a hoax that the treasure has been discovered, a crowd of workers runs in frenzy to the site. In their greed they start fighting amongst each other and a man ends up dead from a blow to the head. The culprits are taken to Lisbon to be tried. This excerpt is taken from the judge’s appraisal of the killer and it’s filled with understated irony:

Such immense and knife-life hands he had never seen. They caused fright. Predetermined for crime, for sure; still shaped to tame the waves like albatrosses’ feet. They matched the huskiness and the large-fronted and rounded head, between bull and rock. Poor beast, once in the claws of justice it had surrendered itself more submissively than a lamb going for shearing. Neither denials nor subterfuges. He struck against Vermoil as if against a tempestuous sea. There he showed himself impervious to remorse, impervious even in his nature to the gaol’s mephitic air, his skin stronger than arras, toughened by icicles and frosts. The crime had passed without leaving a mark on his consciousness, unfit to suffer the smallest filtering of moral and religion. A man from thousands of years ago, anterior to Christ. Dangerous, sovereignly dangerous, because he only had the rein of nature governing his instinct. Here they were, worked upon by the ambition of rescuing themselves from the law of misery, the future soldiers of Bolchevism, the ones who in dreams emptied his pipes and gnawed the meat of his piglets. A watchful eye over them!

It has everything: out-dated phrenology, the fear of a communist revolution, the lack of sympathy for the poor, who obviously are poor only because they want to be poor, and because of the laws of misery.

The difference between Aquilino and the Neorealists is that Aquilino understood evil is human, regardless of class. For him the poor were not the salt of the earth, they were not saints. They were humans first and foremost and thus vulnerable to pettiness, lust, greed, violence and barbarism. Whereas the Neorealists saw everything from the perspective of their ideology, Aquilino saw wider and deeper. His themes were less topical and more timeless, universal even, although he never stopped writing about his village. Thinking about it, I’d say that his main theme was the impossibility of happiness. Again and again, his protagonists go through harrowing ordeals for nothing. José loses his money chasing a dream. He loses the woman he loves because of his sickening obsession. In the end he becomes the local madman, a sympathetic fool turning to begging and living on the kindness of locals who take pity on him.

Aquilino Ribeiro is nowadays under-read, I fear. His vocabulary is arcane, his sentences are baroque, his characters are dry, the incidents aren’t exciting, his action is languid, still, and the narrative is elliptical. These are not attributes that will keep a writer popular. But it’s worth mentioning that one of the last posts José Saramago wrote in his blog was in praise of Aquilino Ribeiro, urging readers to rediscover his fictional worlds.  Saramago considered him a writer of immense talent. I have no reason to disagree.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

St Orberose's First Anniversary


Exactly one year ago St. Orberose came to life. I had created other blogs before, on diverse topics, but none lasted too long and they no longer exist. I wasn’t comfortable with them and the results never met my expectations. I have always loved thinking and writing about books and literature, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to start another blog since I was never satisfied with the way they turned out. Then I discovered Wuthering Expectations’ Portuguese Reading Challenge, and I think that was a great motivation to make one more attempt. As someone who comes from an endangered literature, I’m always sensitive and thankful to those who take the time to read it. And Tom had written some excellent posts that I enjoyed reading; we both shared a love for Eça de Queiroz, and he inspired me to write a short biography of this great novelist with brief commentary about all his novels. And this is how St. Orberose’s first post was born. Since then this blog has been a serene place where I post whatever I want about books and related topics. I never had an overarching plan for it.

It comes as no surprise that Portuguese literature has become a major part of the blog’s identity. In this age of specialization, of niches and obscure tastes, everyone tries to leave a mark by their difference. So some people review Spanish-language books; others have a penchant for French literature; some are into African literature; still others have made the 19th century their playground. For my sins, I realized Portuguese literature was the only unique thing I had to offer. So several posts about Eça followed after the first one, and I had a great time writing about him and sharing my findings – in some cases facts I was recently discovering – with the readers. Another writer I also liked writing about was Fernando Pessoa: my writing for the blog coincided with my reading of the three heteronyms; I had previously sampled them here and there, but for the first time I read them from cover to cover, and I shared my opinions in three posts. I also loved writing about Raul Brandão’s Húmus; he was a writer I discovered the previous year and the novel left a lasting impression. The novel is one of the few I truly regret my readers can’t read since I think it’s one of the best things ever written. My five posts were really nothing more than translations of passages with brief commentaries tacked on. Perhaps the apex of all this writing about Portuguese literature was the José Saramago month in November. I had never done anything like it before, and I think the final result was rather good. Writing about my favourite writer is a pleasure and reward in itself, but I’m glad to know that here and there some readers were seduced to try him out too, and that makes me very proud and thankful.

Ironically, Portuguese literature is but a small part of what I read every year; in fact I probably read more of it in 2012 exactly to keep the blog fresh with unknown books. Most of my favourite writers are outside Portugal, all over the world, and St. Orberose has been nothing but a mirror of my interests: Dario Fo, Philip Roth, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka are amongst the authors I wrote most about, and they form a reliable picture of my literary tastes. Obviously they’ll continue to be part of the blog in 2013.

Thanks to St. Orberose I also had the pleasure of discovering and becoming part of a community of fascinating and intelligent book blogs that have enriched my life and reading habits with their sensible reviews, discussions and recommendations for my ever-growing TBR lists. Almost every day I discover a remarkable new blog that teaches me something new about books. Some even got me to join a few challenges along the way: the African Reading Challenge, the European Reading Challenge, and the German Literature Month – it was very good being part of them. I like to think I have established good relationships with a few of these bloggers.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll keep doing this, how much longer I’ll continue to have the will and the time to write about books, if my personal life in the future will permit me. But I plan to keep going as long as possible.

Thanks to everyone who followed St. Orberose during the previous year!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The real modern poem is life without poems: the poetry of Álvaro de Campos



After writing about Alberto Caeiro and Ricardo Reis, I believe I owe my readers a post about the last of Fernando Pessoa’s three poetic heteronyms, the urban pessimist Álvaro de Campos. There are certain characteristics that distinguish Campos from the other two: he was the only heteronym that moved through different styles – whereas Caeiro remained always a singer of Nature and Reis never stopped preaching fatalistic philosophy through his poetry, Campos changed from a young decadent to a futurist, to finally end up as a nihilistic observer of the quotidian. Campos was also Pessoa’s longest-living heteronym: the other two were bright but transient flashes of genius, whose fulgor, after the initial stage, became hard for the author to recapture. Campos, on the other hand, accompanied the author from the 1910s to his final year in 1935. Campos also had the distinction of being the only heteronym Pessoa published in the seminal modernist magazine he co-founded, Orpheu. It has been said that Campos was the heteronym whom most resembled Pessoa in temperament and worldviews, and that the author had a particular affinity for this alter ego. What is certain is that Campos produced more poetry than Caeiro and Reis put together.

Like the other heteronyms, Campos has a biography. He was born in Tavira, on October 15, 1890. He studied in the lyceum and then was sent to the Glasgow to study naval engineering. He’s 1,75 meters high (my age), slim and clean-shaven. He wears a monocle. His poetic career starts aboard a ship en route to the Orient, circa 1913. At this point he’s unemployed and his earliest poems, written while at sea, speak of his feeling of tedium, his lack of interest in life, and a debilitating sense of futility. Then on a poem dated March 1914, Campos, having arrived in the Suez Canal, reveals his genius with his first great poem, “Opiarium”, dedicated to Pessoa’s poet friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro.

“Opiarium” is one of the most famous Portuguese poems and the first stanza begins like this:

It is before the opium that my soul is sick.
Feeling life makes one recuperates and atrophy
And I’m seeking in the consoling opium
An Orient to the orient of the Orient.

That’s right, Campos was an acid head. These first lines already contain many of his poems’ marks: decadence, the search for new sensations, sadness with life. The poem continues:

I cannot be in any single place. My
Country is where I’m not. I’m sickly and weak
The steward is crooked.
He saw me with the Swedish woman… and he can guess the rest.

Campos has a very negative outlook and is perhaps the most down-to-earth of the heteronyms. Reis was a classicist and even Caeiro, in spite of his anti-intellectualism, had a lofty way about himself. But Campos is concerned with the tawdry: the intrigues, the gossip, the urban bustle, lunch. Maybe it’s because he’s also the one most concerned with the physical sensations, the human senses, and the one who most uses poetry to talk about himself. He’s the only one who would worry about a steward misunderstanding his sex life. Still for the one seems to experience life the most, he’s the most fatalistic of the three:

I belong to a type of Portuguese
Who after India was discovered
Was left without work. Death’s certain.
I’ve thought about it many times.

Campos thinks Portugal has reached the twilight of its history after the great 15th and 16th century discoveries, and he may be right, and so for him there’s nothing else to dream or do. What is certain is that he’s fed up with life and is seeking an escape from it, that orient to the Orient, a mythical place away from everyone, but that most likely doesn’t exist. This poem is too extensive to be fully transcribed here, but it’s a remarkable piece of literature.

I wrote Campos is the most self-analytical of the three heteronyms. He turns his poetry into a mirror of his inner life, and the reflection is detestable to himself:

BARROW-ON-FURNESS

I

I’m vile, I’m petty, like everyone else,
I have no ideals, but nobody does.
Whoever says he has them is like me, but lies.
Whoever says he’s searching is because he lacks them.

It is with imagination that I love goodness.
My low being however doesn’t permit me.
I pass, phantom of my present being,
Drunk, through intervals of a Beyond.

Like everybody I don’t believe in what I believe.
Perhaps I can die for that ideal.
But, while I don’t die, I speak and read.

Justify myself? I’m who everybody is…
Change myself? Into my equal?...
“Put an end to that, o heart!”

This is another lengthy poem – of the three heteronyms, he wrote the longest poems – but this excerpt encapsulates his disenchantment with life and his sense of worthlessness. As do these two lines:

River water, running dirty and cold,
I pass like you, without being worth more…

But this was the first phase of his poetic life. Then Campos read Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto and abandoned his decadent poetry to celebrate the modern world. The poem that marks this stylistic shift is the magisterial “Triumphant Ode,” a panegyric to modernity. This was his first Ode, dedicated to progress, speed, industry, science, sound – it’s full of onomatopoeias – movement, and it’s as unpoetic as possible. It’s a poem that goes beyond merely admiring cars or trains. It’s a true love letter to the spirit of the age, its filth, its squalor, its violence, its wars. One of my favourite passages starts like this:

The wonderful beauty of political corruptions,
Delicious diplomatic and financial scandals,
Political beatings on the streets,
And once in a while the comet of a regicide
Which lights up with Prodigy and Fanfare the
Common and lucid skies of quotidian Civilization!

A few pages later the poem continues in this triumphant tone to celebrate mediocrity and vulgarity:

Ah, and the ordinary and filthy people, who always look the same,
Who use swear words as if they were normal words,
Whose children steal at the doors of grocery shops,
And whose daughters aged eight – and I find this beautiful and love it! –
Masturbate men of decent aspect in the staircases.
The rabble that moves on scaffolds and then goes home
Through almost unreal byways of narrowness and rottenness.
Wonderful human people who live like dogs,
Who are above all moral systems,
For whom no religion was made,
No art created,
No policy destined for them!
How I love all of you, for you’re like that,
Neither immoral for being as low as you are, nor good nor bad,
Unreachable by all progresses,
Wonderful fauna from the bottom of the sea of life!

Campos’ poetry is ugly, scatological, insulting, petty – in his ‘salutation’ to Whitman he calls him ‘God’s faggot’ – and completely disgusted with everyday life, no matter how much he claims to love it. In a poem he even implies that the modern world has rendered poetry outdated:

The real modern poem is life without poems,
It’s the real train and not the verses that sing it,
It’s the rails’ iron, the hot rails, the wheels’ iron, their turning,
And not my poems speaking of rails and wheels without them.

And yet his poetry, in spite or because of its rage and contempt, continues to be fascinating in this new world he dedicates it to:

Poetry has lost nothing. And now there are also machines
With their poetry too, and the whole new type of commercial,
Mundane, intellectual, sentimental life,
Which the era of the machine has brought to our souls.
Travels now are as beautiful as they were before
And a ship will always be beautiful, only because it’s a ship.
Travelling is still travelling and the faraway is where it’s always been –
Nowhere, thank God!

Thankfully for us, Campos doesn’t give up poetry and continues to rediscover the nuances of life in unexpectedly original language. Like Marinetti, who considered wars hygienic, Campos celebrates them in his “Martial Ode,” but he finishes it with one of the most moving passages in his entire oeuvre, when he addresses the mother of a soldier fallen in World War I:

You still have his cradle in a corner, at home…
You still keep his little clothes, from when he was smaller…
You still have in some drawer a few broken toys…
Now, yes, now, go look at them and cry over them…
You don’t know where your son’s burial place is…
He was nr. something of regiment one whatever,
He died over there in Marne in some place… He died…
The son you had in your arms, whom you suckled and raised…
Who turned in your womb…
The young man who said jokes and you laughed so…
Now he’s rot… All it took on the German line
Was a piece of lead, the size of a nail, and your life is sad…
You’ll receive a prize from the State. They’ll say your son was a hero…
(No one knows, in any event, if he was a hero or not)
He’s an anonymous unto history…
“20 thousand men died in such and such battle…” He was one of them…
And your mother’s heart has bled so much for that hero history will say nothing of…
The war’s most important event for you was that one…

In his “Salutation to Walt Whitman,” a poem written between admiration, envy and hatred of the American poet, Campos, who was obviously inspired by him, claims:

I’m one of yours, look at me, there from God you can see me the other way round:
From the inside out… My body is what you guess, you see my soul –
That one you can see yourself and through its eyes my body –
Look at me: you know that I, Álvaro de Campos, engineer,
Sensationist poet,
Am not your disciple, am not your friend, am not your singer,
You know I am You and you’re happy with that!

This Futurist phase is perhaps his loudest one, where he’s being as scandalous and unpleasant as possible.

Then his poetry changed again and into something more contemplative, more reserved but also darker and more cynical. His final, misanthropic phase is really my favourite one. His disgust for the world is equal only to his devastating self-criticism. How can one not love a poet who feels “nausea of being contemporary of myself”? The fact is this third period puts his enthusiasm with life and progress behind and turns into a sort of masochist game:

POEM IN STRAIGHT LINE

I never met anybody who took a beating.
All my acquaintances have been champions at everything.

And I, so many times petty, so many times dirty, some many times vile,
I so many times unanswerably parasitic,
Indefensibly filthy,
I, who so many times haven’t had patience to take a bath,
I, who so many times have been ridiculous, absurd,
Who have publicly rolled up my feet on the mats of etiquette,
Who have been grotesque, miserly, submissive and arrogant,
Who have endured abuses in silence,
Who when I haven’t been silent have been even more ridiculous;
I, who have been comical to hotel maids,
I, who have felt busboys’ eyes blinking at me,
I, who have made financial embarrassments, borrowed money without paying,
I, who, when the punching time arrived, stooped
Away from the possibility of a punch;
I, who have suffered the anguish of small ridiculous things,
I realize I have no equal in all of this in the whole world.

Everyone I know and speaks to me
Never made a ridiculous gesture, never suffered an abuse,
Was never but a prince – all of them princes – in life…

I wish I heard from someone the human voice
That confessed not a sin, but an infamy;
That told, not a violence, but a funk!
No, they’re all Ideal, if I hear them and they speak.
Who exists in this wide world that confesses he was once vile?
O princes, my brothers,
Damn it, I’m sick of demigods!
Where is there people in the world?

So am I the only one who is vile and mistaken on this earth?

The women may not have loved them,
They may have been betrayed – but ridiculous never!
And I, who have been ridiculous without having been betrayed,
How can I speak to my superiors without stuttering?
I, who have been vile, literally vile,
Vile in the petty and infamous sense of vileness.

The man who once wanted to feel all things and sensations is now exhausted with life:

No: I don’t want anything.
I’ve said I don’t want anything.

Don’t give me conclusions!
The only conclusion is dying.

Don’t bring me aesthetics!
Don’t speak to me of morals!
Get that metaphysics away from me!
Don’t preach complete systems to me, don’t list to me the conquests
Of the sciences (the sciences, my God, the sciences!) –
Of the sciences, the arts, modern civilization!

What saves this poetry from being hopelessly bleak is that even Campos at his most nihilistic can find the right balance between lament and irony, and a habit of always turning everything upside down in the last verse:

I’m nothing.
I’ll never be anything.
I can’t want to be anything.
Apart from that, I have in me all the dreams of the world.

He says he has ‘failed at everything’ and criticises his own genius:

What do I know what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am?
To be what I think? But I think of being so many things!
And there are so many who think of being the same thing that there can’t be so      
                                                                                                                           many!
Geniuses? Right now
A hundred thousand brains are conceiving themselves in genius dreams like me,
And history won’t mark, who knows?, not even one,
There will be but manure from so many future conquests.
No, I don’t believe in myself.

And after having wrestled with the shadow of Whitman in the past, now he aims even higher:

To use time!
But what is time, for me to use it?
To use time?
No day without a line…
Honest and superior work…
Work a la Virgil or Milton…
But it’s so hard being honest or being superior!
And so highly unlikely to be Milton or to be Virgil!

In his final phase his poetry becomes very interested in the act itself of writing, it becomes his Ars Poetica. It’s a fascinating invitation into his own way of thinking about his work. And of course it’s filled with a sense of inactivity. “All verses are always written the next day,” he writes. And in another poem judges his poetry in these terms:

I have written more verses than verity.
I have written mostly
Because others have written.
If there had never been poets in the world,
Would I be capable of being the first?
Never!
I’d be a perfectly compliant individual,
I’d have my own house and moral.
Miss Gertrudes!
You cleaned up this room badly:
Get these ideas away from there!

After writing about machines and ships, Campos starts retreating into the world of dream more and more:

Ah, open up another reality for me!
I want to have, like Blake, the contiguity of angels,
And have visions for lunch.
I want to find fairies in the street!
I want to unimagine myself from this world made with claws,
Of this civilization made with nails,
I want to live, like a flag in the wind,
Symbol of something up on the top of something!

When he writes about the quotidian, it’s always with a sense of repulsion:

I pay the ticket through the gaps,
And the driver passes through me as if I were the Critique of Pure Reason…
I paid the ticket. I did my duty. I’m vulgar.
And those are all things not even suicide cures.

Perhaps no other poem of this period captures the intensity of his hatred for mankind than this poem:

I know everything is natural
But I still have a heart…
Good night and shit!
(Crackle, my heart!)
(Fuck all mankind!)

In the house of the mother of the son who was run over,
Everybody laughs, everybody plays.
And there’s a great racket of horns totally unheard of

They received the compensation:
Baby equals X,
They’re enjoying the X right now,
They eat and drink the dead baby,
Hurray! They’re people!
Hurray! They’re humanity!
Hurray: they’re all the fathers and all the mothers
Who have sons that can be run over!
How everyone forgets when there’s money,
Baby equals X.

With that a house was wallpapered.
With that the last instalment on the furniture was paid.
Poor baby!
But, if he hadn’t been run over to death, what would happen to the bills?

Yes, he was loved,
Yes, he was beloved
But he died.
Patience, he died!
What a pity, he died!
But he left something to pay bills with
And that’s something.
(Of course it was a disgrace)
But now the bills are paid.
(Of course that poor little body
Was wrecked)
But now, at least, there’s no debt in the grocery shop.
(It’s a pity, yes, but there’s always a relief.)

The baby died, but what there is are ten contos. (1)
That, ten contos.
You can do a lot (poor baby) with ten contos.
Pay many debts (beloved little baby)
With ten contos.
Settle many things
(Beautiful baby who died) with ten contos.
We know it’s sad
(Ten contos)
One of our children run over
(Ten contos)
But the sight of the refurbished house
(Ten contos)
Of a rebuilt home
(Ten contos)
Makes many things be forgotten (how we cried him!)
Ten contos!
It seems he got them for God
(Those ten contos)
Poor wrecked baby!
Ten contos. (103)

Curiously, one of his final poems was a strange and unusually emotional and honest poem about love letters:

All love letters are
Ridiculous.
They wouldn’t be love letters if they weren’t
Ridiculous.

I also wrote in my time love letters.
Like the others,
Ridiculous.

Love letters, if there’s love,
Have to be
Ridiculous.

But, after all,
Only the creatures who never wrote
Love letters
Are
Ridiculous.

I wish I were in the time when I wrote
Without noticing it
Love letters that were
Ridiculous.

The truth is that nowadays
My memoirs
Of those love letters
Are the ones that are
Ridiculous.

(All proparoxytone words,
Like all proparoxytone feelings,
Are naturally
Ridiculous.)

This was quite strange considering he doesn’t even speak of love or women in his poetry.

Álvaro de Campos was, for me, the funniest, darkest, strangest, most complex and most ambitious of the three heteronyms. When I think about the work of Fernando Pessoa, I’m amazed at the scope of his work. Any poet would gladly sacrifice something valuable to have the talent of just one of them. That Pessoa was able to be all three, and still himself, at the same time is one of the most remarkable events of modern poetry.

1 conto: an old type of Portuguese monetary unit.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

On The Suicide Of A Stoic



I’m aware that my unique position as a native speaker of Portuguese makes me the appropriate candidate to write about Portuguese literature. Nevertheless I’ve always tried not to bother the reader with too obscure subjects. I tend to favour reviews of accessible writers like José Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa or António Lobo Antunes. If I write too much about unreachable or arcane writers and books, then I run the risk of looking like I’m just bragging about my solitary knowledge of minutia. Sometimes I may write about an untranslated writer, like Raul Brandão, but that is done with the conviction that if he’s not famous abroad, at least he’s of importance in Portugal and worth knowing about, even if only via a humble blog post.

But not every book I read is important and not every writer has a firm place in the history of literature. One such case is a curious literary document written by one Álvaro Coelho de Athayde, the 14th Baron of Teive. Read a history of Portuguese literature and you won’t find a mention of him. He left no oeuvre, he initiated no school or movement, he influenced no one. A single known text is attributed to him, a fragmentary, disjointed suicide note explaining his inability to create a body of literature and the motives of his suicide. The short book, titled The Education of the Stoic, is all that remains of this singular figure who lives in the margins of Portuguese literature. If it weren’t my taste for the bizarre and for searching books outside the conventional routes, I wouldn’t be writing about him today.

On July 12, 1920, the newspaper Diário de Notícias reported to its shocked Lisbon readers that the Baron, a known public figure, had killed himself the previous day. Of his books nothing was salvaged save but the ashes he turned them into. And this long note, tucked away in a drawer, several pages long, detailing his intimate life, his beliefs – the Baron was a modern day Stoic – and the temperament that made it impossible for him to become a man of letters, an eccentric man who penned his suicide note “not to fulfil the work I could never fulfil, but to at least say with simplicity the reasons I didn’t fulfil it.”

But what do we know about this man? Sadly a good part of his life remains elusive, and a biography is in urgent need of being written in order to shed more light on the life of this fascinating individual. But until someone takes up the challenge, all we know about him comes mainly from his suicide note. We know he was the only child of a noble couple. He was an educated man, with a college degree. His mother died when he was a man already and it was a traumatic event for him. He spent most of his life on an estate outside Lisbon, served by maids and leading a carefree life trying to start a literary career. We also know that he was a shy man who had difficulty in establishing relationships with women. He travelled, to Paris at least, where he fought a duel. We also know a tragic accident cost him his left leg.

A freakish curiosity, it’s hard to know just what the Baron’s books could have been since he refused to dwell on their content in this surviving text. He preferred to speak about his personality, his beliefs, his Stoicism, and even his literary pet hatreds. We get the picture of a perhaps brilliant but also arrogant, petty and ironic man. Every era has writers that don’t quite fit in – a Blake, a De Nerval, a Lautréamont or a Jarry, or a Kerouac. The Baron was one such indefinable figure, and his readers would have no doubt been those who dare to read outside the confines of respectability.

One thing we can be sure about the Baron: he had a unique talent for self-scrutiny, and was fearlessly honest about himself. As he remarks, the note was intended as an “intellectual memory of my life, an inner portrait of what I was.” His ability to analyse himself, to lay his soul bare, reveals a man of unique sensibility which would have made him an excellent writer of psychological novels, perhaps not inferior to a Dostoevsky. We’ll never know. Also remarkable is his refusal for self-aggrandizement. “It has fallen upon us the most profound and deadliest of droughts in centuries – the intimate knowledge of the vacuity of all efforts and the vanity of all purposes,” commences the note, making it clear we’re going to be in the presence of a man who is unafraid of peering into his own life and seeing the mediocrity in it.

About his literary work, he’s absolute. “In the past days I occupied my time burning, one by one – and it lasted two days because, sometimes, I re-read them – all my manuscripts, the notes for my dead thoughts, the annotations, sometimes already complete passages for the works I would never write.” No remorse, no complaint, no attachment, no attempt at explaining. A simple statement. They burned, and that is that. “I don’t regret I burnt the sketch of all my works. I have nothing else to bequeath to the world than that,” writes the man who is anxious to make the ultimate rupture with mankind.

What sort of man was the Baron? He was a man who entertained the idea of being a creator, but lacked the willpower to execute his creative urge. According to himself, his problem was one of temperament. “There’s no greater tragedy than equal intensity, in the same soul or the same man, in intellectual sentiment and moral sentiment. In order for a man to be distinctively and absolutely moral, he has to be a bit stupid. In order for a man to be absolutely intellectual, he has to be a bit immoral. I don’t know what game or irony in things condemns man to the impossibility of these two dualities in great order. For my sins, it occurs in me. Therefore, for having these two virtues, I was never to be able to do anything of myself. It wasn’t the excess of a quality, but the excess of two, that killed myself to life.”

The Baron, in his view, then, didn’t suffer from a lack of genius or talent, but from an excess of it, which, making him such a sensitive and exceptional individual, paralysed his efforts. This explanation, witty as it may sound, is not as convincing, however, as other explanations he provides. “Every time, in anything, I had a rival or the possibility of a rival, immediately I abdicated without hesitating.” This is more credible, the Baron was tormented by the idea of losing to others, of participating in the great and fierce competition of literature whose supreme goal is posthumous immortality. “Pride never allowed me to compete with someone else, with the heinous possibility of defeat,” he says; and adds, “I always lost with rancour and contempt.”

Describing himself as a recluse who “always kept the world and life at bay,” the reader also gets the impression quotidian activities, the mere act of living, were to him a huge burden. “The scruple of precision, the intensity of the effort to be perfect – far from being stimuli to act, are intimate faculties for neglect. It’s better to dream than being. It’s so easy to see everything accomplished in dream!” This seems like a variation of De Nerval’s sentence "Our dreams are a second life." The creative process is at the same time a means of controlling. One can speculate that for this man, indifferent to the active life and preferring the dream life, creating was a way of obtaining control over something. And yet even his power over his work was impossible because he lacked the power to start it, to finish it. “I feel close, because I myself want to feel it close, the end of my life,” he says because death is the only thing he can truly control. His lack of will, his inactivity was felt in him and he deplored it. “Only those have a part in the real life of the world who have more will than intelligence, or more impulsivity than reason.”

Doubt and low self-esteem are perhaps the Baron’s most prominent traits. “I put an end to a life that seemed able to me to contain all greatnesses, and I didn’t see it contain anything but the incapability of wanting them. If I had certainties, I always remember that all madmen had them bigger.” Another essential trait is his inability to feel any attachment to anything, his outsider status in his own era, his sense of loneliness. “I belong to a generation – assuming that generation is more people than me – that has equally lost faith in the gods of the old religions and faith in the gods of the modern unreligions. I can’t accept Jehovah, nor mankind. Christ and progress are for me myths of the same world. I don’t believe either in the Virgin Mary and electricity.” The ties that connected him to life were few and then were gone. “My mother’s death broke the last external rapports that connected me still to the sensibility of life.” Having a wife terrified him, and even the maids at his mansion embarrassed him and made him more acutely aware of his timidity. In spite of belonging to one of the oldest noble families of Portugal, his unhappiness was total. “I had all the conditions to be happy, except happiness. Conditions are disconnected one from another.”

Another factor that clashed with his literary creation was his own Stoicism. The Baron was a man out of his time, a man who refrained his emotions and preferred self-analysis and cultivating the intellect to the haphazard unleashing of his passions and sentiments in the form of confessional poetry. Aware that he would never accept to turn his frustrations, his tragedies, his life, into fiction, he realizes he has no place in the literature of his time. “To cry before the world – and the more beautiful the cry, the larger the world opens itself up to it and more public the shame -, there’s the final indignity that one beaten who doesn’t keep the sword for the soldier’s final act, can practice upon his intimate life.” For him there was nothing more insulting to his loyalty to reason than modern literature, with its emphasis on emotions and feelings. “There’s something sordid, and so sordid it’s ridiculous, that the weak have about turning into tragedies of the universe the sad comedies of their own tragedies.”

For this reason he poured his hatred on three particular poets: Giacomo Leopardi, Alfred Vigny and Antero de Quental – the “three great pessimistic poets of the last century” – because of their propensity, according to the Baron’s Freudian reading, for turning their sexual frustrations into material for poetry. He hates those who use their personal miseries as the source of poetry, for he expects decorum and dignity in aesthetics:

In what manner of seriousness can we take this argument, which is what is at the bottom of Leopardi’s work: “I’m shy with women, therefore God doesn’t exist”? How not to repel Antero’s conclusion: I’m sad I don’t have a woman who shows love, therefore pain is universal”? Will I accept without voluntary contempt Vigny’s attitude: “I’m not loved the way I want, therefore woman is a petty, vile being, contrasting with the kindness and nobility of man”? Absolute principles, and therefore false; ridiculous and therefore unaesthetic.

As a Stoic, he obviously believed in the control of passions and emotions, in simplicity, and not in the overflowing of sentiments. He too has problems with women but he prefers not to turn that into a public matter through poetry. “‘I am shy with women: therefore there is no God’ is highly unconvincing metaphysics,” he objects. “How can I face with seriousness and with pity the atheism of Leopardi if I know that that atheism could be cured with copulation?” he asks sarcastically. For him we lived in an age where dignity was absent from art and intellect. “The plebe doesn’t laugh at the Critique of Pure Reason” he rages in remembrance of the last great era of reason before the assault of the Romantics with their subjectivism.

Unfortunately the flavour of the age was this subjectivism, an aesthetic he can’t condone or adopt. “The romantic illusion consists in taking literally the Greek philosopher’s phrase that man is the measure of all things, or sentimentally the basic affirmation of the critical philosophy, that all the world is a concept of ours.” This idea of turning the external world into a reflection of our inner one was repugnant to this modern day Stoic. “I circumscribe to myself that tragedy that is mine. I suffer it, but I suffer it face to face, without metaphysics nor sociology. I confess myself beaten by life, however I don’t confess myself beaten down by it.”

Realizing that his life is no less tragic than of these other poets, the Baron nevertheless refuses to take their course in order to safeguard his dignity. His only solution then is death. “I have achieved, I believed, the full employment of reason. And that’s why I’m going to kill myself.”

In the final lines, however, the suicidal nobleman claims to himself one victory. “If the defeated is the one who dies and the winner the one who kills, with that, confessing myself beaten, I proclaim myself winner.”

I should remember the reader that his suicide note is a fragmentary text and that it’s impossible to make a coherent interpretation of its content. I have attempted as best as I could, after re-reading this book twice, to find a guiding line. But I couldn’t presume to be able to explain the complex life of this non-writer through these paragraphs. And even the Baron would be loath to be dogmatic and set out to establish a coherent system. “Teach nothing, for you still have everything to learn,” he counsels the reader in the book and one feels this is an advice he took to heart too. Perhaps this line best explains his difficulty – his living in an age of uncertainties, without the aid of religion or science; the author realizes there’s nothing anymore to communicate, all is noise. The great truths are gone, there is nothing to be said in this world that is as broken up as his paragraphs. Perhaps his destruction of his own work was his way of showing there is nothing to teach anymore. Perhaps this Baron of Teive was a prophet of a world without certainties, without conclusions, and his act of literary destruction was the only sane action a man could take in such an age. But those are mere speculations of mine.