Thursday, 4 September 2014

From time to time António Lobo Antunes likes other writers

We all know that António Lobo Antunes decided to become a writer at the age of seven. He insists that he’s been writing manically since that age: he wrote through his medical course and the war in Angola. And yet it this was a sickness to him, an urge he couldn’t resist and that left him with a feeling of guilt whenever he ignored it, reading for him was always a pleasure. It was not of course a propitious environment the one he grew into: if it’s true that his parents enjoyed culture and nurtured his reading habits, it was also true that his “friends saw me as an idiot because I was reading all day.” His class, moneyed and aristocratic, cared only about making more money and defending its privileges. But the conditions of his class did not damage the exceptional way he took to reading. “I wrote to Louis-Ferdinand Céline when I was a boy, I was fifteen, and he replied and I kept the envelope all these years, because deep down the greatest joy for me wasn’t so much the later as seeing my name written by him on the envelope.”

So what were the first books this correspondent of Céline read? “When I was twelve or thirteen I started by reading Salgari, Jules Verne… amusing and passionate reads, but a bit later the surprises came: my immense amazement at what could be done with words.” As a kid he wrote simple tales of “automobile pilots, boxers, or things like that.” Then he discovered poets and his “literary disquiet” began. “Early on, aged fifteen, language started to interest me.” But we’re getting ahead of us: next time we’ll deal with his approach to writing; now we just want to list the writers he admires and loathes. The poets are certainly important and a procession of old names runs through the interviews: Alexandre Machado, Federico García Lorca, Francisco de Quevedo, San Juan de la Cruz, Gabriel Celaya, Blas de Otero, Carlos Barral, Carlos Bousonõ, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Ana Maria Moix, Pere Gimferrer, Rosalía Castro, Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Luis Cernuda, Vicente Aleixandre, Rafael Alberti, that’s a lot of Spanish poets, from the Siglo de Oro, from the ’27 Generation, from Galicia. Also Luiz de Camões, Cavafy, Dylan Thomas and Eugénio de Andrade, Alexandre O’Neill and José Tolentino Mendonça. And Max Jacob and Apollinaire, “poets who did juggling with words, things I was incapable of doing.” And he tried, he wrote poetry until he was nineteen, then accepted he was awful at it and gave up.

But what about novelists? He’s only famous for his novels. There are also the names of many novelists, some surprising, and so are his positions on some famous ones. One thing can be said of Lobo Antunes, he doesn’t kowtow to popular views. Does he like Franz Kafka? “Not much. But what I know is the plot of his oeuvre, his work on language perhaps I don’t know so well because I read it in translations. Said work is enjoyed when you read in the original.” Well, obviously not only because everyone discovers Kafka via translations. But what about one of Kafka’s famous translators? “Certain gods like Borges… Borges doesn’t interest me personally. I don’t like what he wrote. He’s very intelligent but has little blood. He doesn’t carry me over. He’s a man who can handle words with a great mastery, but his poetry doesn’t It’s possible that it’s my fault, but he doesn’t enthuse me.” His poetry? Who cares about his poetry! Tells us what you think about his short-stories. At least tell me you like his essays. “His articles on writers are luminous intelligent, but when he talks, he’s not.” So he doesn’t care about two pillars of modern literature; surely he won’t start knocking down more gods. For instance Vladimir Nabokov, a writer with so much attention to detail and language and metaphor like Lobo Antunes will surely have a compliment for him. “He was a charming man” – aha! – “although in my opinion he was too delicate to be a great novelist, too intelligent… There’s so much attention to detail in his prose that sometimes it precludes us from seeing the whole, but it’s magnificent.” What about Eça de Queiroz, Portugal’s greatest novelist? “Eça de Queiroz is not a great novelist, he’s a great prose writer, in my opinion. His characters are always caricatural. They don’t have thickness, nor flesh, nor blood.” Is there at least one writer I don’t like that you don’t like either? “Paul Auster, Raymond Carver, I don’t like them, but perhaps I’m not right and I don’t understand them.” He also assures us he met Claude Simon once in Sweden and didn’t like him, the fact he’s often compared to him probably had nothing to do with it. Of course for people like me who love to follow the great soap opera of pettiness and jealousy that is the minuscule Portuguese literary community, the pièce de résistance is his hatred of José Saramago, which the good Nobel laureate often reciprocated. “I remember when I was in Brazil, at the beginning of the eighties, with other Portuguese writers and the woman Saramago then had [writer Isabel da Nóbrega] used to come in morning to say, ‘José, you had twelve lines, that one nine, the other eight…’ She counted the lines the press dedicated to each one. And spent the mornings underlining the newspapers, not just what they said about him, but what they said about the others. As if a compliment to another were an attack against him. It’s a very strange thing.” Lobo Antunes obviously doesn’t suffer from that kind of jealousy. I still hope one day to understand when and why they started hating each other, not that I mind the fine moments of comedy such hatred has generated. In a 2008 interview – not from this book – Lobo Antunes stated that once someone had shown him a picture of Saramago throwing one of his books on the ground. When confronted, Saramago categorically denied demanding proof.

The list of novelists he writes, however, is considerable: Miguel de Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Henry Melville, or at least Moby Dick, John dos Passos, Truman Capote, J.R.R. Tolkien, but perhaps only in his youth, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe when he’s cooling off. Playwright Eugene O’Neill also receives his blessing. And some more outré tastes. “As a reader I like books with lots of pages. I bought Thomas Pynchon. A thousand pages!, but it gives me the impression that it's written very quickly, not like William Gaddis, for example, who seems to chisel the words, or Scott Fitzgerald, who when he passed away was transforming Tender is the Night, which is a fantastic title.” The one that really caught me by surprise was Gaddis, a novelist I’m ambivalent about: he’s the only Portuguese novelist I know who’s ever mentioned him by name. In fact here’s another quote from the same 2008 interview: “There’s a writer I like a lot: William Gaddis. He died a while ago. He’s a writer who continues to be very controversial. [George] Steiner, who has been so generous to me, completely crucifies him. Qualifies him as unreadable. He has four books, huge. Published ten, fifteen, twenty years between each other.”

And what about the great Modernist Holy Trinity: William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway… and Paulo Coelho? “Faulkner and Hemingway, in Faulkner all the technique is there and it’s very seductive for someone starting, on the contrary in Hemingway all the work is interior, it seems very simple prose, but it’s very laboured. There are so many good books! But I don’t want to undervalue readers who buy Paulo Coelho and writers like that. I understand they buy them, they work so many hours, then they arrive home and there’s the family, there’s the TV set… they need escape books.” He’s a tolerant man, except with Saramago.

What else? The man is gaga over the Spaniards and the Latin-Americans. The whole boom he practically discovered while he was serving in Angola. “My wife sent me all the books that were coming out at the time: Lezema's Paradiso, I remember the tremendous joy it was to receive it: the joy Cortázar gave me; Cabrera Infante, Ernesto Sabato... I met there the whole of Latin-American literature. It was when I started reading Cortázar, Lezama Lima, Cabrera Infante, Sabato, Vargas Llosa, García Márquez, Bioy Casares, whom I like more than Borges.” In another part of the interview he corrects that he used to like Sabato more than he does now [2000-2001], and And specifies that he likes Cortázar’s short-stories but not the famous Hopscotch. And what about the gentleman who won the Nobel Prize in 2010? “I also like Vargas Llosa’s first novels a lot, they’re very good: Conversation in the Cathedral, The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service… What he wrote afterwards I enjoy less.” And the boom’s poster boy? “García Márquez, yes sir, he’s a writer. You can point at him all the limitations you want, [Who does? What limitations?], but he’s a great writer. I don’t like him, but I know he’s very good.” It’s a relief to know he received your seal of approval.

And from Spain? He likes the Spaniards a lot, apparently more than he does the Portuguese. But he's being interviewed by a Spanish journalist for a book that was originally published in Spain, so maybe he was was trying to flatter the readers. Or maybe he really thinks that. Once he famously said that Portugal didn’t deserve the Nobel Prize because we didn’t have great writers. Two years later Saramago proved him wrong, not that he believes he’s a great writer or an indication that Portugal has great novelists, himself excluded of course; no, “I wish there were a Marsé, a Marías, a Villa-Matas here, but there isn’t.” But not to end this post on a sour note, here’s another one of his backhanded compliments, this time to my current obsession, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: “We can point all the limitations we want at him [what, again?], but he’s a good narrator, a classic writer, we can’t say he’s invented anything, but he’s good. Or, for instance, Camilo José Cela.” Yes, Cela also knows his stuff so he’s in the clear.

Of course, a few good modern writers aside, nothing really compares with the golden 19th century. “In the previous century you had at least thirty great writers working at the same time: In Russia: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev… In England: Jane Austen, Dickens, Emily Brönte… In France: Stendhal, Flaubert… It’s amazing what went on in the previous century, it didn’t repeat itself, there wasn’t another moment like that, I don’t know why. It was a special time.” As was the time I took to read this book. A final note: let’s never forget these opinions reflect only his state of mind in 2000 and 2001; in other interviews his tastes are slightly different, as is to be expected.

Next: matters of ars poetica! What the titles of his novels mean! And why there’s no writer like him in the world!


  1. I haven't read Antunes, but I'll try not to think of his dismissiveness towards de Queiroz and Saramago when I do.

    By the way, I'm mere pages from finishing the Torrente Ballester book, thank you. It's been a great joy, but a great frustration as well in knowing that the more substantial stuff isn't available in English. I would really like to read more.

    1. Now that I've converted you to GTB I have to convert you to ALA; he's really a nice man when he's not hating my favourite writers.

      You must find a way of buying GTB's French translations; and then the real fun will start.

    2. The intro to The King Amaz'd notes that many readers of La saga/fuga de J.B. notoriously give up around page 60. I'm afraid that in French I might not make it 30. But I'll get it nonetheless. And yes, Antunes is on the list - thanks!

    3. There's no reason to stop at page 60; the novel grips you immediately. As for ALA, I recommend Fado Alexandrino, An Explanation of the Birds, Act of the Damned and The Return of the Caravels.