Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Work Ethics of António Lobo Antunes

“I think to the question of why write each person can give fifteen or twenty true answers, although none is certainly sincere, because the truth is that no one knows why. It's as if we asked an apple tree why it gives apples. We do not know the profound reason for writing, what we know is that writing is a necessity.” António Lobo Antunes likes natural metaphors to explain his obsession with writing: he doesn’t know why, he just knows he has to. Failure to obey the inner commands of his vocation results in dire consequences. “If I live a day without writing I feel as if I had put my clothes on without taking a shower. If I don't write I'm invaded by a sensation of absence and profound emptiness. If I don't write I'm assaulted by a feeling of enormous guilt that I've never stopped feeling.” As he admits to María Luisa Blanco, he hardly exists as a citizen: he doesn’t have an opinion on anything, he doesn’t give many interviews, he’s seldom seen on television. He has kept this posture since an early age: when he enrolled in Medicine, Portuguese universities were ablaze with violent student protests that usually ended with the police invading campuses. By his own admission, he never cared about fighting the regime. It’s not fear or conformity that inhibits him; I’m coming to the opinion that he’s a literary organism in its purest and most evolved form: he cares only about reading and writing, like a Borges, a Pessoa or a Nabokov.

This subjection to writing shows itself in tiny little details he shares with Blanco: he writes 12 hours per day; when he travels to promote books he writes at night; he can wherever he wants, so long as he has pen and paper. Fortunately he doesn’t have rituals that hide procrastination. Now fans of Lobo Antunes know that his work is divided into two sets of texts: his novels and his newspaper writings; he’s been writing a biweekly article for Visão magazine for decades now, so far totalling five thick collections. For all that he doesn’t take them seriously, considers them more of an entertainment and the simpler form of writing that the masses like to read. “I don’t consider literature.” This by itself doesn’t mean anything since he doesn’t consider most literature literature. He’s also prejudiced against trying the short-story. “It’s a problem of inspiration, when inspiration is too big it’s not possible to fit in such a small tale. After reading Chekov, Cortázar, Katherine Mansfield, what can one write after reading that? They have a concision I don’t have.” Lobo Antunes is especially complimentary of Chekov, “That man who said everything, you find everything in his tales.”

What he’s obviously known for is novels. And today we’re taking some time to learn more about his relentless pursuit of perfect novels. Lobo Antunes likes to talk about writing novels, and he likes to read about writing novels. In fact he laments there aren’t more books about it. “I miss books on writers and literature, books that help me understand an author. I think there are too many novels, too much poetry, they should make more books like that.” Well, in that case I’ll write a few lines that might help understand some things about particular Lobo Antunes novels: in Portugal The Return of the Caravels is called As Naus (The Ships) because the title was copyrighted already, although translations were allowed to use it; The Natural Order of Things, which talks about the death of his father’s sister, an aunt he loved very much, receives its title from the answer his parents gave little António when he asked questions; Fado Alexandrino, a novel divided in three books, each section subdivided into twelve chapters, takes its name from one of four types of fado music, well, that’s what he says, there is more than four types and I don’t know any called alexandrino, but I do know the alexandrine verse composed of twelve syllables. Still apropos of Fado Alexandrino, Lobo Antunes defines himself as a puritan who doesn’t write sex scenes, I think he forgot two from this novel. Blanco comments that his novels are always sad, a perception the author doesn’t share. “I couldn’t live so long with a novel if it were sad. Cardoso Pires also told me he didn’t understand why they say my novels are sad, because for him they were full of joy and humour, and I also think that, I don’t understand why that feeling lingers.” What else does this book teach us about his novels? What about his characters? “I don’t describe characters, just with a bit of detail, hair, hands, something like that, because description constrains me. The reader has to imagine the characters. I don’t even like to give them names because from a literary and narrative point of view it seems constraining to me too. What happens is that I have to give them names otherwise the reader mistakes them, and me too; I don’t know which one I’m working with.” Apropos of control he’s learned to relax: “In my first books, in order to protect myself, I worked with a plan wherein each chapter was predetermined. Not anymore, but at the time I didn’t understand yet that a good novel is like an organism that lives under its own laws.” Given his propensity for autobiography, Blanco asks him if he writes for catharsis; he replies that “writing protects one from suffering,” which is a marvellous answer. But the rest of it helps us segue into the next part of this post: “With my first books it was like that, no doubt about it, but progressively I grew more interested in style, the depuration of form and words. Each word is achieved like a stone I remove from a well.”

So let’s move away from the concrete to the abstract. Reading the man talk about the creative process is fascinating, frustrating and sometimes just plain bizarre. He says things that make sense and yet you don’t think they apply to himself; he castigates writers you’d expect him to uphold; he defends practices he doesn’t practice. We can start with his admiration of poetry. The same way he admires the concision of short-story writers, he admires what poets do with a single verse. “And sometimes I ask myself why write 500 pages if some manage such a moving result in a sentence. The problem is how to structure emotions, a poem is like an orgasm, but it's impossible for a reader to have an orgasm during 400 pages, because the orgasm after a certain while starts being painful and the pleasure is lost.” Later he states that “the best verse is the unexpected one, including for the poet. The problem is to do that in a novel.” Lobo Antunes presents himself as a hardworking novelist who is always in control. “I’m very conscious of Bach’s music, I have to be implacably efficient, of an almost mathematical precision.” But that control and hard work can’t transpire into the act of reading: the writing must seem natural to the reader. “The problem is to achieve that efficiency with maximum simplicity. I’m very worried when I’m told my books are hard to read.”

Perhaps like all budding writers, Lobo Antunes started thinking writing was about making up stories. When he was a boy he wrote about boxers and pirates, but “the feeling of the text’s importance, the concern over words, understanding that what mattered was the way of writing and not the story being told, that came later, to me it especially came much, much later.” Nowadays he’s capable of getting a bit upset when an interviewer asks him about his novels’ stories and plots. That’s irrelevant to him. “The writer works with language and this is naturally the most important thing, but you have to structure language, it has to be at the service of what you want to tell.” I think it’s more the reverse in his case: the shadow of a plot is just there for him to pile up lots of words into brilliant sentences and similes and metaphors. Bizarrely Lobo Antunes in recent novels has sort of forsaken his gift for metaphors. “I just want my writing to be efficient in the sense Tolstoy said, for whom a good writer was the one who didn't sacrifice the implacability of his narrative to the temptation of a pirouette, of a metaphor or of an adjective.” In English the only novel that I think shows the style he’s been practicing for over a decade now is What Can I do When Everything's on Fire? I confess I don’t know his style after 1994.

His position on the craft results in his butting heads with several great novelists. It’s not every novelists who has the courage to lambast Ulysses:

Yesterday I was reading Joyce's Ulysses and I consider it a fantastic novel from the perspective of its verbal richness, but at the same time I was bothered a bit because I didn't understand what that extraordinary verbal ostentation was in the service of. The pirouette for pirouette's sake, the fantastic showcase of an immense capacity of verbal invention, it stays a bit in the void because it doesn't help the story in the sense of narrative efficiency.

On the one hand, it’s important to master language, words, but I’d be restless if it were just that because, in the end, you realize that’s not the most important thing.

What’s important is for the book to write itself, that it have its own existence and that it can stand on its own, and not that someone wrote it. With Joyce we’re always feeling his craftsmanship, his expertise as a writer is imposed on us and we’re noticing all the time that it’s him, Joyce himself, who’s behind everything. That reminds me whenever I talk with some Frenchmen. I always have the impression they’re telling me: ‘Look how clever I am.’

You don’t have to be clever, it’s the book that has to be.

And yet I don’t know any case of a dictionary spontaneously turning into a novel without the help of one of those clever writes. This reminds me of a Theory of Literature class I once had on the Russian Formalists. I don’t who said it, but one of them argued that if Alexander Pushkin had never existed, someone else would have written Eugene Onegin. The actual consciousness behind the novel is irrelevant to the process of its creation. But the problem with this view is that we had to wait for Pushkin’s particular consciousness to exist for Eugene Onegin to be written. I never really understood this providential view of writing, as if an independent spirit acted through writers. It’s almost like a form of low self-esteem that renders the figure of the author totally insignificant. For my part I side with Northanger Abbey’s view of the novel as a vehicle for “greatest powers of the mind are displayed.” I think everyone knows I detest Ulysses, but if Joyce likes pirouettes and verbal ostentation, why shouldn’t he displayed his talent to the best of his capabilities? Well, because “efficiency lies especially on not giving in to the temptation of a beautiful metaphor. A beautiful image, a beautiful verbal pirouette can damage a novel.” But that’s everything I like in your novels!

So an author should abstain from metaphors and verbal pirouettes? Well, Lobo Antunes wouldn’t forbid you, since he’s a nice man, but he vehemently advises you not to. “It’s not the writer that has to show his technical capability, his craftsmanship or his challenges and difficulties. In a good book the author isn’t in it, he’s not noticed. When we’re reading like readers we feel that the writing is telling us: ‘Look how I do this, look how hard it is to solve this and how I solve it well.” Not only doesn’t the book work, but I believe you fall into a problem of poor taste. Those books can’t be good.” I think, however, that we can reply that if the writer put himself in such a hard situation perhaps he doesn’t think it’s hard at all. After all a writer can choose not to raise challenges and problems to himself; if he does perhaps it’s because he likes them. The problem with this type of mentality is that it can be applied to any writer we don’t like: pigeonholing an author as uppity clever just to make ourselves feel good with our inability to understand them is common behaviour. I do that all the time with Joyce, but the truth is I wish I were smart enough to understand Ulysses. This kind of behaviour can be applied to just about any good writer who demands a bit more from the reader: Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, his beloved Faulkner, Saramago, Gass, Gaddis, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes. In fact I think it’s amazing Lobo Antunes fails to realize this is precisely what the average reader thinks of his writing: “Why does he write all those long sentences full of temporal distortions and abrupt shifts in perspective in a single line? Does he think he’s being clever? The big show-off!”

Lobo Antunes’ solution for this authorial interference with abiogenetic texts is to remove the author’s name from books. In order for writers not to be the books’ protagonists, books should be published anonymously. Let’s put aside the fact he hasn’t put into practice his own suggestion: anonymous books would continue to be books written by someone, you’d just be failing to give credit where credit is due. Someone always writes the book. Ulysses without James Joyce on the cover continues to contain the same defects of design he complains about. But he’s not convinced and continues to insist in what to me resembles medieval mystical mumbo-jumbo: “It’s the text that builds itself independently of me.” How? Does Muse or the Holy Spirit inhabit you or something? “I had a teacher at the Faculty of Medicine who used to say: ‘Patients get better in spite of the doctor.’ And that happens many times with the book. Because you don’t have concrete plans; you start in one direction and it’s the book that takes us wherever it decides.” It’s no wonder Lobo Antunes could never consider Nabokov a great novelist, they’re absolute opposites. Nabokov is all about control and likens writing to running a galley-ship. Of course new ideas come to us when we’re writing, but in the end it’s always the writer who decides if he wants to go wherever the novel wants to take him. Still the medical analogy is utterly nonsensical in light of a cancer he had a few years ago that nearly killed him; he got better, not in spite of doctors, but thanks to the surgeon who operated him.

But notwithstanding these opinions that could get lots of ink running, what emerges is a writer fully committed to his craft and determined to change the way we understand novels. For all his spontaneous texts gibberish, the word he most often repeats is work, work, work. He’s never satisfied with what he writes and is aware that his ultimate goal may be unreachable. “I will never achieve the novel I want because, first of all, if I did why continue writing?” Nevertheless this acceptance of his failure does not preclude his search a perfection he knows does not exist: novels do not have beginnings and endings, you can never know when a novel is finished; you just stop when the text expels you from itself. “I never read proofs. Because if I read it again I know I’ll regret it, you can always change a novel.” The novels he publishes are just concessions he has made to his will to write the greatest novel ever. “What I intend is to change the art of the novel, the story is the least important, it’s a vehicle I use, what matters is transforming that art, and there are a thousand ways of doing it, but each one has to find his.” He’s not sure he’s found it yet and so toils on. “The bigger the experience and literary maturity, the more one understands the path one still has to walk. I’m never certain, doubts are always terrible, they grew evermore because I’m sure that my books could have been better if I had laboured more.” In fact he doesn’t forgive lazy writers. “I think writers in general don’t work on their books a lot, they don’t correct them. That’s a shame because sometimes it’s just one single word, but a single word that can be fundamental.” As it turns out, sometimes he begins reading a novel only to find himself correcting his peers. That could be great: an imprint devoted to famous novels rewritten by him.

António Lobo Antunes’s view of his own worth as a novelist fluctuates between modesty, insecurity and arrogance, sometimes he displays all three characteristics in a single quote. “Speaking with friendship and total honesty, I can tell you that I don’t think anyone writes like me when I’m writing well, when I work a lot. But that doesn’t give me any sensation of superiority, on the contrary, it fills me with dread. Because I know I pull it off because I work more than others.” It follows that if others worked harder, if they were less lazy, they’d surpass him. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I read pages by him and get stuck in a remarkable simile, an unexpected description of a feeling, an outstanding moment of absurdist humour, and I think to myself, “He’s the greatest living novelist.” Why can’t that be possible?

Next: how he conquered the world!

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