Whoever reads this blog in search of lessons on Portuguese Literature may feel the experience of looking at a moth-eaten tapestry full of holes that interrupt the pretty patterns and motifs. There’s nothing systematic about the way I wrote about it, and it’s not even a major interest for me. Whenever I write about it I do so mainly because I want to illustrate or illuminate or expand something about a writer I love a lot: José Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Fernando Pessoa, António Lobo Antunes, Jorge de Sena. If I get someone to read The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto, that leaves me deeply honoured; if I can direct someone to a French translation of Raul Brandão, that makes my day. If I happen to educate some people in the process, I don’t complain.
But I know I don’t do a very good job at it. The truth is there are lots of literary critics and historians and essayists who can and do mend the holes in the tapestry a lot better than me. Most people just don’t have access to them, because of the language barrier and of a logistic inability to obtain their books. There’s nothing I can do about the language, but about getting the books I recently discovered a remarkable resource to understanding everything you ever wanted to know about Portuguese Literature.
A few weeks ago I discovered that the Instituto Camões has made available free and legal .pdf copies of a bygone book collection called Biblioteca Breve. Initiated in 1977, under the aegis of the Instituto Camões, with respected men and women of culture and letters at its helm, for almost two decades it published short but informative books written for laymen on every conceivable literary, film, historical, musical, architectural subject, penned by well-known experts on these areas. I read my first one a few months ago and the collection’s index left me astonished. Since then I’ve been slowly collecting them, buying them of online booksellers. They’re all available online, but I’m a physical book person and I love receiving them on my mail box. There are over 100 books and each title is deeply enticing. Here are a few I recommend
1 A Originalidade da Literatura Portuguesa, by Jacinto do Prado Coelho: the collection started with a book by one of the best critics of the time. In about 60 pages he takes the reader through the many facets of Portuguese Literature, trying to understand what makes it unique, what its characteristics are. He addresses everything: the lack of a novelistic and theatrical tradition; the weight of lyrical poetry and sentimentalism; the role the Inquisition had in shaping it; its fatalism and love for tragedy; the Baroque tradition (whose rhetorical tricks can be seen in Saramago, for instance), etc. It’s not a flattering book, but it’s even-handed and honest. The reader finishes this book thinking it’s a very bizarre, uneven, hysterical literature, and probably it is.
4 A Geração de 70 – Uma Revolução Cultural e Literária, by Álvaro Manuel Machado: The Generation of ’70 is the name given to the authors whose careers started in the 1870s: Eça de Queiroz, Antero de Quental, Oliveira Martins, Ramalho Ortigão, Teófilo Braga. Eça, the great proponent of Realism in Portugal, is the most famous of the bunch, but this little book explains succinctly how important they were and how they revolutionised Portuguese literature and society.
9 O Segundo Modernismo em Portugal, by Eugénio Lisboa: Portugal’s first Modernism started around 1915 when Fernando Pessoa and friends like Mário de Sá-Carneiro and Almada Negreiros created a short-lived but radical magazine called Orpheu. Although they failed in kicking Portuguese society out of its indolence and slid back to obscurity, they left some seeds growing, and in the 1920s a new generation of modernists coalesced around a magazine called presença: their most important achievement was rescuing Pessoa’s generation from oblivion. I never tire of praising the names of José Régio, João Gaspar Simões and Adolfo Casais Monteiro – if it weren’t for them, no one would know the creator of heteronyms. This excellent book is a fine introduction to their work, ambitions and successes.
32 O Horror na Literatura Portuguesa, by Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa: Portugal does not have a fecund tradition of horror and fantasy. The reason has to do with the implementation of the Inquisition, which suppressed imagination and confiscated all foreign books that were deemed lurid, obscene, offensive to dogma. Writers like Cervantes and Voltaire, Gothic novels, messed up Germans like Tieck and Hoffmann were all forbidden, so there wasn’t any incentive to foster a lively national literature within those genres. Even so this writer has long been fascinated with them and has written the definitive history of horror in Portuguese literature. No, it’s not this book, this is more of an appetizer for her 400-page masterpiece.
41 Os Relatos de Naufrágios na Literatura Portuguesa dos séculos XVII e XVIII, Giulia Lanciani: Portuguese Literature is such an heterogeneous, oddball thing that we even include narratives of real-life shipwrecks amongst our classics. The definitive source is Bernardo Gomes de Brito’s The Tragic History of the Sea, which is a 18th century compilation of narratives published in the 16th and 17th, remarkable for their realism, rawness and overwhelming sense of gloom. Some have seen them as Portugal’s answer to Spain’s picaresque novels. Giulia Lanciani, an Italian scholar, analyses this genre and its importance for literature. It pervades everything, from Luiz de Camões to António Lobo Antunes, and it’s undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of our literary production.
54 Breve História da Censura Literária em Portugal, by Graça Almeida Rodrigues: This is the best book on Portuguese Literature ever written! Sure, you can read the 1000+ pages of the interminable A História da Literatura Portuguesa, but that book only explains who’s who and who wrote what, which is an easy thing to do. But Graça Almeida Rodrigues’ book, which is roughly translated as A Short History of Literary Censorship in Portugal, explains in 100 pages why thousands of books were never written. Read as a complement to Maria Leonor Machado de Sousa, it shows why censorship stopped Portugal from having a vibrant novelistic culture up until the 19th century, with the victory of the constitutional monarchy, why the great 16th century theatre died and disappeared for centuries, why literary production up until the end of the 18th century was mainly limited to poetry, and only a handful of poets at that. The reader also learns that Portuguese Inquisition was the most ferocious and restrictive ever to exist, so renowned for its practice of prohibiting, controlling and confiscating books that Pope Paul IV called a monk called Francisco Foreiro to head the Council of Trent commission dedicated to creating the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum. I think that says everything.
57 Fernão Mendes Pinto – Sátira e Anti-Cruzada na Peregrinação, by Rebecca Catz: In case you have forgotten, this is the translator of The Travels of Fernão Mendes Pinto. Catz is an American scholar who for the past decades has tried to convince people that Mendes Pinto deserves to be ranked amongst great writers like Rabelais, Swift and Cervantes. That’s a noble goal and I wish her luck. Catz has an interesting theory about his 1614 book: instead of an autobiography, she sees it as a pioneering critique of imperialism which satirizes European’s conquering ambitions. Perhaps she’s right, Mendes Pinto is not extremely kind to his countrymen and exposes the Discoveries for what they are: unrestrained greed and Christian hypocrisy. However amongst 16th Portuguese writers he’s hardly a solitary voice.
59 Do Pícaro na Literatura Portuguesa, by João Palma-Ferreira: This is one of the best things I’ve read lately. Because of the Inquisition we never had picaresque novels, even Cervantes was forbidden, but the author explores the way traces of this genre seeped into some of our classics, many of them nowadays forgotten, many belonging to popular literature and so a bit clandestine and not palatable to the erudite tastes of our elites. But he writes so passionately about them that I’ve started tracking them down. I was marvelled to find out that a Portuguese noblemen had written a third volume of ’s Guzmán de Alfarache (in fact I was marvelled to discover Guzmán de Alfarache existed), and that Luis Velez de Guevara’s El Diabo Cojuelo had influenced a book called O Diabinho da Mão Furada. I have lots of new books to buy in December.
This is just a sample of what this rich collection has to offer. So if you happen to read Portuguese, here’s a resource for you to explore.