Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An impression of excess passed only fleetingly through us - jolly sexual confusion with the decadent Sá-Carneiro

A wild-eyed loon today, Mario de Sá-Carneiro, Portuguese decadent, pal of Pessoa, self-poisoned at age 25, poor sap.  I have read his short novel Lucio’s Confession (1913),  and there is also a book of short stories, both translated by the overworked Margaret Jull Costa.

I am afraid that “Portuguese decadent” is almost sufficient to describe Sá-Carneiro’s novel.  Any real ideas are recycled from the French, some dating back 60 years to Baudelaire.  But what adult reads decadent literature for the ideas?  Decadence, sincere or fake, gives an artist freedom.  So gimme your best stuff, Mario, the weirdest nonsense you can imagine.

Lucio’s Confession is inventive.  The central conceit is convoluted, but amusingly absurd.  A handsome young poet materializes his repressed homosexual attraction for his friends in the form of a wife, Marta.  The wife, you understand, is a product of the poet’s imagination, yet real.  She can have affairs with the poet’s friends while he works on his book.

The novel is narrated by one of the writers, Lucio, who sleeps with Marta.  He is completely nuts – unreliable and then some – so another interpretation is that the narrator is the one repressing his homosexuality.  He either has an affair with the poet’s actual wife as a form of sublimation, or he imagines he has an affair with the actual woman, or he imagines he has an affair with an imaginary woman.  Or something like that – maybe he has an actual affair with an imaginary woman – and then everything ends in violence,  and thus Lucio confesses in the pages in front of me – “I wanted to write an honest account of my strange adventure, keeping it as simple as possible” (120).  Mm hmm.

Colors and light give the book its coherence:

Her face was truly lovely, it had a vigorous beauty, as if carved out of gold. (61)

His reddish-blond hair, parted in the middle, fell gracefully over his forehead and his golden-shadowed eyes never left Marta, or so I was to remember in retrospect. (62)

Until at last, mysteriously, the fire faded into gold and her dead body floated, heraldic, upon the gilded waters – now calm and dead as well.  (35)

Gold and red, fire and light.  “Heraldic” even – “the gold coat of arms danced wildly before my eyes” (114).

In the first chapter of the novel an aristocratic Lesbian demonstrates her theories of sexualized light in a decadent Parisian extravaganza, “an orgy of flesh distilled into gold!” (31).  It’s a wonderful crazy scene:

Her tunic was color gone mad. (30, italics courtesy of Sá-Carneiro)

A mysterious breeze blew through it, a grey breeze blotched with yellow (31, italics ditto)

Her legs, knotted with muscles, were hard, masculine and aroused in everyone present the violent urge to bite them. (33)

The line I put in the title is from the same scene.  I assume I am reading all of this in the right spirit.  I hate to think that poor Sá-Carneiro meant any of it too seriously, that it is much more than literary playfulness.


  1. Meh, I'm not sure I'm as interested in getting hold of now as I was before.

  2. It is not anything, or not much, that you haven't read elsewhere.