Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A reading list for Portugal - The shape of those books explained everything about contemporary Portugal.

A reading list for Portugal.  I remind Portuguese literary patriots of my easily correctable ignorance.

The Lusiads of Luis de Camões (or Camoens) is the Portuguese national poem, the foundation stone of Portuguese literature.  A world traveler himself, Camões turns Vasco de Gama’s voyage of discovery around Africa to India into a ten canto Virgilian epic.  The poem is highly learned, allusive, and complex, a monument to early modern scholarship, imagination, and imitatio.  It is amazing; it requires real effort.  I wonder how it is taught in Portugal.

Early modern Portuguese poetry is similarly interesting but similarly demanding.  Books with titles like 113 Galician Portuguese Troubador Poems perhaps hint at the problem.  A number of early modern chronicles have also made at least a partial entry into English.  The 15th and 16th century playwright Gil Vicente sounds good, and a surprising number of his plays have been translated, but I know little about him.

If Camões stands at the beginning of Portuguese literature, he also marks the end for almost three centuries.  A Canonical Gap appears, which I will blithely blame on the Counter-Reformation.

Portugal served as a battlefield during the Napoleonic Peninsular War, and was left under the dominance of English commerce and French ideas – the latter are most relevant for my purposes.  One might try the single Romantic Portuguese novel that I know  has been Englished, Almeida Garrett’s 1846 Travels in My Homeland, or one of the many Romantic and otherwise Frenchified poets about whom I am fruitlessly curious.  Please see Cesario Verde’s “The Feeling of the Westerner,” the consensus Greatest 19th Century Portuguese Poem.  Please translate a volume of his poems for me.

No, the Portuguese literature of the 19th century is available in English in scraps, with one extraordinary exception, the novels of José Maria Eça de Queirós (1845-1900). The stout-hearted Margaret Jull Costa has been pulling his entire shelf of books into English – a new one is coming out in November (this time by Gregory Rabassa)!  Having read a long one and a short one, I can see why.  Eça de Queirós published five novels:

The Crime of Father Amaro (1875)
Cousin Basilio (1878)
The Mandarin (1880 – this is the short one, a sharp Voltaire-like satirical novella)
The Relic (1887, and please see Dwight)
The Maias (1888, please see Dwight again)

The confidence and imaginativeness completeness of The Maias astounded me.  The novel is often described as Flaubert-like, which is true if I think of A Sentimental Education rather than Madame Bovary.  Eça de Queirós called himself a Naturalist, like Zola, but I have yet to see how that label is anything but a nuisance.  I will write about The Maias next week, I think.  It is a poor Challenge book because it is enormous.  I am excited about reading the remaining three, more ordinarily thick novels.

The oddest thing about  Eça de Queirós is that a new shelf of books began to appear with his death.  He had stopped publishing, but not writing: The Illustrious House of Ramires, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes (this is the one coming in November), The City and the Mountains, The Yellow Sofa, The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers.  These have all been translated – there may be more.  I know one thing* about them – they are significantly shorter than the novels published during the author’s lifetime, so easy to take a chance on.

Finally, Fernando Pessoa, the primary reason I wanted to run the Portuguese Challenge.  The quantity and variety of Pessoa’s work that has been translated into English is daunting.  The pseudo-novel The Book of Disquiet (1980, written much earlier) has had at least four translations.  Numerous collections of the poems and miscellaneous prose are extant.  I want to explore.

I actually spent four days secretly writing about Pessoa’s poems earlier this year.  The hidden challenge of that week was to avoid the P-word, to discuss Alberto Caeiro ("the most influential Portuguese poet of the 20th century," I called him) and Ricardo Reis and Pessoa’s other heteronyms as if they were real authors.  Pessoa’s solution to all sorts of technical and aesthetic problems was to simply invent new poets, sometimes with detailed biographies and personalities, to write different kinds of poems.  Pessoa himself was just one poet in the stable.  These poets would interpret and criticize each other – all except Caeiro, who unfortunately died young, soon after writing the poems in The Keeper of Sheep.

See, I have fallen right back into the game.  However this all worked on the page, it may be the most original literary performance of the 20th century.  I hope to spend a lot of time with Pessoa and his imaginary peers.

As tempting as Pessoa’s poems are, I will remind readers of poetry that I will be reading later poets as well.

Tomorrow, Brazil.

Nymeth of Things Mean a Lot is Portuguese and has written her own list.

My subtitle is from the last chapter of The Maias, except I substituted "books" for "boots."

* Update: Sort of. Mostly. In a manner of speaking. See comments.


  1. Your grasp of Portuguese literature is astonishing.

  2. Thanks for the notes.

    The Maias reminded me of Galdos while I was reading it, although a) my Galdos reading is limited to an n=1, and b) the whole decline of Portugal thing. Not to give the game away...

    I think it was in the "imaginativeness completeness" you mention that lies the similarity. I could see Madrid with Galdos, I could see Lisbon and Portugal with Eça de Queirós.

  3. "I know one thing about them – they are significantly shorter than the novels published during the author’s lifetime, so easy to take a chance on."

    Shorter than The Maias, yes - but TIHOR is 309 pages, and TTOFSOF is 346, which makes them longer than Cousin Basilio and The Mandarin (I'm pretty sure). I've got 7 books by him, read 2. Next up was going to be The Relic, so there's a chance my reading might coincide. I really, really like Eca de Queiroz.

    I do find him more Zola than Flaubert, but a much brighter, sunsoaked Zola.

    I've got a lot of Machado de Assis as well.

    Try also Mario de Sa-Carneiro:

  4. My due diligence on Sa-Carneiro was less diligent, or less due, than I intended. I did not think there was anything in English outside of story anthologies, but I missed at least two books, Margaret Jull Costa productions: Lúcio's Confession and The Great Shadow and Other Stories. Recommended to fans of crazy stuff. Like me!

    And you are mostly right, too, obooki, about the lengths, in that The Relic is much shorter than I remembered. The Maias is huge, and Padre Amaro and Cousin Basilio are fairly fat (400+ pages), but nothing else is too long. 309 pages is a breeze!

    Brighter, sunsoaked - that's good. The word I kept thinking of but am holding in reserve is "elegant." My first encounter with E. de Q. has been tres positive.

    Dwight - up for a Perez Galdos project? I would love to see someone fight their way through him. Talk about a page count. It does not surprise me that he and E. de Q. are working on some of the same problems and influences.

    Nana, I am not so sure about my grasp, but list-making is at least a good step toward actual knowledge. Now I have to read some of the books!

  5. It turns out that one of my coworkers has just read Illustrious House of Ramires and will lend me his copy, so that's my contribution to this affair until I find the Portuguese Onegin. I may read more E. de Q. but only later; for now I still have those last 10 volumes of Chekhov to wallow in.

    ~scott bailey

  6. Another project? The heart says 'yes'. The head says 'you need help.'

  7. I missed buying Lucio's Confession for 1p on Amazon a few months ago, and am determined to wait till it reaches that point again - so I won't be joining you if you're reading it.

    I did though buy a Brazilian classic while I was looking, one I didn't previously think was available in English - but you'll have to wait till tomorrow to find out which one.

  8. Dwight - yes, we need to harass someone else to sort through Perez Galdos for us an reduce him to a core of his best three or four or forty books.

    Scott - Illustrious House of Ramires, very good.

    obooki - also very good. I do not have anything mysterious in store tomorrow, so I am ready to be surprised.

  9. Timely. I just wandered the 3-4 shelves of Portuguese lit in the library and came away with Sa-Carneiro's "The Great Shadow," primarily due to Margaret Jull Costa, but also found this, um, delightful 1972 translator's preface to "Dragon's Teeth," by Eca de Quieros:

    "In translating this graphic picture of Lisbon life to the American public, the translator has assumed the responsibility of softening here and there, and even at times of effacing, a line too sharply drawn, a light of a shadow too strongly marked to please a taste that has been largely formed on Puritanical models, convinced (without entering into the question of how far a want of literary reticence may be carried without violating the canons of true art) that while the interest of the story itself remains undiminished, the ethical purpose of the work will thereby be given wider scope."

    I won't be reading this one for the challenge!

  10. Yeah, that's hideous! Although it does contain a truth, that the sexual frankness of The Maias, for example, would get you run out of town if you put it in an 1888 English or US novel.

    Now, what is Dragon's Teeth? Ah, it is Cousin Basilio, which I just started.

  11. Okay, I'm all set for The Crime of Father Amaro. I must tell my colleague who wrote the book on de Queiros about this challenge. She teaches Portuguese (well, she IS the Portuguese department) at Cambridge and will be intrigued, and I should think, delighted.

  12. Great. And I do hope your colleague is at least amused. I would be happy to have an expert or two or three provide a little oversight. I know for a fact that Margaret Jull Costa is aware of the Challenge, too.

    I cannot vouch for Father Amaro yet, but having started Cousin Basilio I am again amazed at the no-fuss confidence of E. de Q.

  13. The Lusiadas is a great book and I loved when I study it in 9th grade, it's hard of course, but it's wonderfully written and I'm sorry for you guys that can't read it in Portuguese because reading a translated work is not the same as reading the original, especially in Portugal.
    Gil Vicente work is humorous and light. He is a skillful social critic and I adore his plays. To read is work, and fully appreciate it I think you should research a bit about the social background of 16th century Portugal.

  14. I think other people should research 16th century etc.

    So how do Portuguese 9th grade teachers deal with The Lusiads? Do you read Virgil first, or study Greek and Roman mythology? Lots of maps? I fear that only a small proportion of American 9th graders would have any hope with this book.

  15. Lusiadas are studied by 9th grade students for several years now, my grandfather studied them as well, but I can only explain how Portuguese students learn this text based on my own experience as a student.
    When I stared to study the Lusiadas I got a big surprise because it was the hardest text I had studied until then. I remember that our teacher first explained to us a little bit about the ancient Greek texts (but without much detail) and about the structure of an epic. Then there's a lot of study of the renaissance , and a few revisions about what we had learned in History the previous year because it was very important for the historical social and economic background of the Lusiadas. And after that the teacher analyzed the selected parts with us. When I studied them my teacher created discussions, where we gave our opinion and tried to decipher the hidden meanings and the aesthetic structure of the poem, it was hard but fun. In some episodes I recall we did comparisons with other Greek texts like tragedies.
    I loved to study them I found it very fun, but I was the only one in 24.

  16. Thanks, that's interesting. Helpful, too - I think you are letting people know what to expect with The Lusiads.

    You have also made me depressed about U.S. schools, but that is another story.

  17. If Camões stands at the beginning of Portuguese literature, he also marks the end for almost three centuries. A Canonical Gap appears, which I will blithely blame on the Counter-Reformation.

    There are a couple of important names: seaman Fernão Mendes Pinto, whose non-fiction book of travels is, in its grim honesty about the greed that motivated the Discoveries, a nice counterpoint to the exaltation The Lusiads made of them.

    Francisco Rodrigues Lobo, poet and author of a series of dialogues about court life.

    Father António Vieira, of course.

    Bocage, famous for his erotic poetry.

    In the 19th century, besides Cesário Verde, there are also important poets like Antero de Quental, and Teixeira de Pascoaes, a friend of Pessoa.

  18. First, thanks a lot for the names and descriptions.

    Second, as you know, most of this is nowhere near ever appearing in English, although one can hope. A Quental collection from 1922 exists, at least. And to my outright shock, the Mendes Pinto book has been translated, and exists in two editions, complete and excerpts.

    Third, do the Portuguese use that Counter-Reformation story? I just stole it from Spanish literary history.

  19. Well, Portuguese literature between the 16th century and the 19th wasn't just a footnote, but the Inquisition certainly difficulted literary and artistic production. Don't worry, you didn't commit a faux pas :-)

  20. Just discovered another classic that's been translated by Gregory Rabassa: Bernardim Ribeiro's 16th century pastoral romance Maiden and Modest:

    Curious: Jull Costa seems to handle the contemporaries, and Rabassa tackles the classics.

  21. I'm going to have to keep an eye on Tagus Press.

    Rabassa is much older that Costa (he's almost 90!) so I would bet the potential commercial value is a consideration. Costa is still trying to make a living!

  22. "If Camões stands at the beginning of Portuguese literature"

    No, he doesn't.

    Camões is the beginning of the modern Portuguese language, if you like. The main source for the Epic too.

    There are important fiction books besides earlier troubador poetry, chronicles. and prose from the main convents: There's doutrinal, chivalry, moral and even sports literature way before the Dawn of modern times.

    Not to mention Garcia de Resende's Cancioneiro published in 1516, where it is obvious a national poetry is more than established.

    So you have poetry, theatre (Gil Vicente), romance (the quite important Menina e Moça, of Bernandim Ribeiro, like it was referenced before) established in the country before Camoes's epic.

    By the way, i don't think The Lusiads is about the voyage of da Gama itself or the exaltation of discoveries. That is a very superficial reading.

    One need to read it deeply - Camoes is first and above all a lyric poet. He created the epic and tries to to warn the king and the people about their time and the future, not about the past. The past is just an excuse.

    Camões then recounts the main aspects and names of the Portuguese History, Mythology, and so on, but ends up telling about much of known science of his time. There's a reason for that.

    I mean, bear in mind that when Camoes wrote the Lusiads, the Portuguese Empire in the East was slowly going down, and greed, corruption, decadence, selfishness, envy was everywhere.

    One of the keys to understand the epic is reading it like a message: the poet was saying "look, we now know the size of the world and the most of the universe too ["the machine of the world", hence the science] so let's make a new world out of love".

    For a reason Venus is protecting the navigators all the time and they end up in the Island of Lovers (their true main reward).

    Venus guides the navigators not only for the flesh-love but also the spiritual-love. Camões is truly looking forward to a new age: he sings about "Love" not "material achievements". So the voyage itself is a metaphor for a rebirth of Humanity: the human navigators are the new gods of a new age of wisdom (both in knowledge and behaviour).

  23. I believe you misunderstood the tone, purpose, and content of this post; nevertheless enjoyed your idea about The Lusiads. Thanks for stopping by.