Friday, 12 September 2014

Lobo Antunes is so good no one can keep up with him




I reserve this final post on António Lobo Antunes for… I’m not really sure what; I guess something about his perception of his place in the world, how he measures his success, his egotism, the exact age when writers’ brains start rotting, etc. I’ve tried to build each post around a theme, but this one suffers from disjointedness since I just have a hodgepodge of loose quotes left that, like Pound’s Cantos, can’t cohere. So just go with the flow: if the previous posts prove anything, is that there’s never a dull moment in his interviews.

Although Lobo Antunes pegged as a difficult writer (for the record, he doesn’t share that impression) he’s been a bestselling author in Portugal since his first novel, Memória de Elefante (1979). It was an overnight success. “I think it had a big impact in Portugal because it was the first to talk about things that weren’t talked about: the war, relations with women…” Yes, well, the women relations bit is quite a stretch, we’re not all castratos here, but the war part is probably true: the war had only ended in 1974 and was something of a taboo; then along comes this war veteran who spills out all its traumas and horrors. I can imagine the appeal. It was of course a rather new way of writing, he introduced certain influences that hadn’t been explored yet, like Faulkner, Dos Passos, Thomas Bernhard and Céline: never forget that Portugal has always been a Francophile country that tends to shun most things English. This new way of writing novels, which he calls polyphonic novel (nothing to do with the sense Mikhail Bakhtine and Milan Kundera give it), is still pretty unusual around here. In spite of that he claims that young readers tend to understand him better than old readers. His parents sort of confirm that. “I can’t read António’s books, I lack the patience for it,” confesses his father. “I read his books, but I don’t enjoy them because it’s all very sad,” his mother adds, it’s just tragedies… These characters don’t belong to our society. It’s not people we mingled with. I don’t understand it because, in his childhood, António was very happy.”

Fame was all a bit unreal for Lobo Antunes. He used to go to bookstores at night to watch the books in the shop windows. Sales pleased him but he insists they were never his objective, and considering the manuscripts had to be pried from his fingers that’s probably true. “You can’t write thinking about success, I don’t do it, but I’m afraid of writing a bad novel.” And he also dislikes bad novels. “I get sent many manuscripts to give my opinion about, and I’m astonished because these kids want to be read on Monday, published on Tuesday, have an amazing hit on Wednesday and be translated all over the world on Thursday. They’re not writers because they have an appetite for immediate success and that attitude stops them from growing literarily. If they want success so badly they should devote themselves to other things. I think nowadays too many books are published and with too scarce a literary ambition, they don’t even have pages, they’re too short. On the other hand, critics get frequently drunk very easily and the writer, since he was successful with a formula, uses it again like an automaton. He always repeats the same for fear of losing his success.”

I fully subscribe to this diatribe, but ironically he was describing his own meteoric rise to world fame in a couple of years. When The Land at the End of the World came out months after the first novel it seemed unlikely that he could ever write one of those bad books he fears; the Nobel Prize even seemed already in the bag: the secretary of the Swedish Academy, according to Lobo Antunes, declared that, “Finally an extraordinary writer has arrived.” Unfortunately the rest of the Academy has continued to disagree. The reader of these interviews must have a high level of tolerance for smugness. Lobo Antunes also wants to make it clear that the critics weren’t keen on his way of writing in spite of his success. “My way of writing, of making novels, was a very new way which people weren’t used to, I can’t explain it better, but here you didn’t write like this.” Well, there were precursors like Vergílio Ferreira and Maria Gabriela Llansol, but let’s not turn this into a comparative literature class.

Lobo Antunes cultivated from an early age a bad boy attitude. To Blanco he says that, “It’d be very difficult for me to talk about literature in Portugal,” but that’s because he had said everything, mostly negative, before meeting her. In his early interviews, which I happen to own in book form, he enjoyed disparaging his peers and to ridicule the quality of Portuguese literature. The dead, the living, they were all valid targets: Eça de Queiroz, Raul Brandão, Fernando Pessoa, Agustina Bessa-Luís, Vergílio Ferreira, José Saramago of course. “I didn’t like what was being written in Portugal when I started publishing and I said it, but it was very badly received. I was very naïve in those first interviews.” The apotheosis arrived in 1996 when he declared that Portugal didn’t deserve a Nobel Prize because it didn’t have worthy writers. Two years later Saramago received it. He continues to insist on this point (2001) but at least he opens an exception for poets. At the time of Blanco’s interviews, however, he had mellowed out a bit: “There are no bad books for me, a book deserves respect. There’s so much hope, sometimes suffering and even the author’s health…” This is quite considerate, as is: “Maybe people make books that we think are bad, but they worked so hard and did the best they could. But I don’t judge novels publicly anymore, I can talk about it with a friend, but in public I’m more and more reserved. Precisely because I know it hurts.” Alas such lines take on a whole new sense of irony after you read him abusing several writers in the exact same interview.

One of his favourite victims is José Saramago. In a 2008 interview Lobo Antunes feigned surprise at the fact that their names are so often paired up, like Tom and Jerry. The following lines help explain how that came to be: “Saramago is the big reference [in the intellectual wing of the Portuguese Communist Party] and he chose the party’s hard line, he violently criticised his comrades who argued for openness. But he only showed this side recently. Because he was always very careful with his statements. In Spanish newspapers he says he’s a political expat, a political expat of nothing, because here we live in a democracy. Before the Revolution he was never in prison and those who were never forgave him for that.” He forgot to mention that Saramago’s arrest was scheduled for a few days after the revolution, which happened in the meantime impeding him from adding prison time to his freedom fighter CV. Which is still more impressive than Lobo Antunes’, whose writings were never censored during the regime like his nemesis’. But I only add this in the interest of those who like these petty squabbles. The funny thing about the mutual hatred between these two men is that Lobo Antunes tries to pretend it doesn’t exist when everything he says about Saramago screams otherwise. “Literarily for me he’s not competition. He has more presence in Spain and in Brazil, but not in the rest of the world.” This was said after the Nobel Prize. Lobo Antunes likes to pretend that Saramago is a regional phenomenon whereas he’s a world-renowned name. I fear he doesn’t hang around in the same book forums I do where no one ever heard of him.

But there’s no doubt that his success was unique and sudden. “The first translation showed up in the USA in 1981.” As I’ve explained before, US literary agent Tom Colchie got in touch with him bent on representing him. This was quite unusual for a Portuguese author, being translated into English. Lobo Antunes doesn’t ignore the importance this event had. “When you have a good review in Europe, it’s relatively important, but if it’s in the United States and if we show up in the big newspapers, what happens has nothing to do with what happens in Europe, we’re literally overwhelmed. You get requests from all places.” That meant France, Germany, the rest of Europe and the whole world in general. But although he got rave reviews he didn’t seem to sell as well as in Portugal. His real triumph, however, according to him finally comes with Fado Alexandrino (1983), his best novel, in my opinion one of the best novels of the 20th century. Suddenly everyone wanted to publish him. Except Spain. In 2001 he’s still a bit resentful that Spain took so long to understand this world genius that had conquered the interest of book lovers with a penchant for obscure books. Publisher Siruela was the first one to take a chance on him. “They said that I was very bad, that there were more important writers. I didn’t understand, I thought that attitude was weird, especially in Spain.” He never explains why, it’s like he just took for granted his genius and everyone had to do the same. “They didn’t want me in France either, because they said my novels were very complicated, very strange. A novel isn’t like that, the editors said, they’re too difficult, they won’t sell.” Now that’s a bizarre thing for editors to say in the country of Derrida and Baudrillard.

But now he’s super-famous, a condition that astonishes him. “A poet friend of mine, Eugénio de Andrade, told me that he didn’t understand my success, because in order to read my books you have to know about literature and it’s not normal to sell so much. I think he’s right, but the last book I published in October [2001] had been on the top ten for four weeks now.” Still he’s wisely careful to consider himself a best-selling author. “In any event, I don’t think I can be a best-seller because what I do is very hard. My literature is not easily digestible. It’s normal for me that García Márquez sell so much, because his writing is very tasty, very pleasant.” But he doesn’t want to be tasty or pleasant, he just doesn’t want to write bad novels, and he’s certain he hasn’t because no one writes bad reviews of him anymore. “I don’t have them, I no longer have bad reviews and that is very distressing. Because if what I do is so good, then I’m ahead of my time and not everybody can keep up with me.” Holy cow, this is the most smug, pretentious, arrogant crap I’ve ever read in a literary interview! Of course he has bad reviews. What Can I do When Everything's on Fire? received mixed reviews when it came out in English. And he receives his share of bad reviews in Portugal, he just pretends they don’t exist. A few years ago there was a small ruckus when he was interview over a bad review, and Lobo Antunes just claimed not to know the reviewer, in the sense that he was too insignificant to be noticed; the reviewer, who is rather famous and popular, wrote back an angry post in his blog making a convincing case that Lobo Antunes had personally known him and autographed his poetry books. So the man’s a liar and touchy; aren’t we all?

Well, the problem is that Lobo Antunes just keeps rising the bar. Blanco asks him if now that he’s famous people write like him in Portugal. “Now? Lots of people.” She doesn’t dare contest him. For what my opinion as a Portuguese citizen familiar with the book market is worth, this is absolutely delusional: no one even tries to write novels like him. But let’s not interrupt his fantasy. “Everywhere people write like António Lobo Antunes.” Wait, everywhere? In America, the UK, France, Australia, Germany, India, Russia, China, everywhere everywhere? “Lots of people do it, I think it’s even a fad to write like this. It’s incredible the number of disciples who showed up. Here and in other countries. Lots of people try to do the same I do… That makes me feel old.” Of course he doesn’t mention the names of those non-existing disciples. Lobo Antunes has a perception of his role in world literature that quite simply doesn’t align with reality. “For instance, in America, when you show up in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Washington Post, you have everything. In those newspapers I always get the first pages.” I beg you pardon?

With a temperament like this, it’s no wonder he considers himself the world’s best living writer. “Of course I like reviews and, above all, the love of readers and people I respect. And don’t you think they sometimes exaggerate with all those hyperboles and comparisons to great writers. I’m one of them.” Alright, this isn’t too bad, the man has a realistic view of his worth. But then he comes out with this: “I’m not insecure because I know nobody writes like me, I can seem vain but I say it because I feel it, I’m honest. Now that doesn’t fulfil me because I have to work hard to get it. Each page is a conquest and I always have a horrible fear of doing a bad job, especially now – he jokes – when I’m a star in Europe and in America, if I make a bad book, what will I do next?” The interviewer assumes he’s joking, but I’m pretty sure he’s being serious about his stardom.

He has everything: readers, translations, good reviews, lots of prizes, money. He just doesn’t have the Nobel Prize. A loss that in 2001 didn’t bother him anymore (of course not): “Now it’s indifferent to me that I didn’t get it, but yes, I wanted to have it for my first wife, the mother of my daughters. She was already dying, I lived with her all these months, the novel I’m writing now I started writing it by her bedside and she was happy, she had so much hope, so much faith in me, that it was a big disappointment. It was the only time I saw her crying.” Somewhere else he updated this story to say that he wished he had won the Nobel Prize while his father was still alive. Hopefully he’ll never run out of relatives who’ll keep him sad for not winning it for their sake. At peace with the duplicitous Swedes who gave him so many false hopes after his second novel, Lobo Antunes wrestles with one fear only: losing his skills. He was pushing sixties at the time and he decided to conjure this theory that good novelists don’t write anything good after they’re sixty. Blanco counter-argues with Victor Hugo. “Yes, of course, he wrote La Légende des Siècles at the age of 70, but it's an exception, you can't find anyone else. Poor Saramago... Torrente Ballester... you can't find one. Besides, most writers died before that. I think imagination starts atrophying and the mental processes too. I think I can write two or three more novels, no more. In the best case scenario it'll happen to me the same that happened to Thomas Hardy, a writer I like very, very much, who left the novel and started writing poetry and wrote 'till the age of 80, until his death. He never got the Nobel, Conrad didn't get it either.” Between 2001 and 2013 Lobo Antunes published a new novel every year, excepting 2002 and 2005. He’s currently 72. Hm, I wonder what he thinks of his last decade of work?

And that’s that. I hope you had a good time travelling inside António Lobo Antunes’ mind. And don’t forget: just because he’s incorrigibly full of himself doesn’t mean he’s not one of the world’s best living writers.

4 comments:

  1. These books of interviews are amazing. Great blog post fodder, certainly.

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    1. It really depends on the author: Saramago can't beat ALA at the interviews, he's too nice and austere to drift into this kind of mad territory.

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  2. How entertaining. Delusional or not, ALA is not a boring interviewee. He offers a glimpse of a kind of parallel world, confidently imagined and constructed.

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    1. Yeah, it's as impeccable as the architecture of his novels.

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