Friday, May 11, 2012

The Portuguese Literature Challenge signoff with many thank-yous

Cruges, after a silence, shrugged and muttered:

“Even if I wrote a good opera, who would put it on?”

“And if Ega wrote a fine book, who would read it?”

The maestro concluded:  “This country is simply impossible.  I think I’ll have a coffee too.”  (The Maias, Ch. VIII, 192)

Now just hang on a minute, pal!  What have I been doing since August if not reading the finest Portuguese books?

When I launched the Portuguese Literature Challenge, I guessed that I would be sick of it all by the end of April.  Pretty close.  Know thyself.  So this is a wrap-up.  I do not have any original insights into Portugal or Brazil or their literatures but I did read a lot of good books in good company.

Although I wandered around plenty, three authors took up most of my time, as they should have.  I have written so much about them that I will limit myself to notes and thank yous.

Machado de Assis.  Shelf Love Jenny joined me for The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas.  The last five novels of Machado (I only got to four of them) are uniquely odd and inventive.  My greatest surprise, though, was discovering Machado’s accomplishment as a short story writer.  I came across a critic who credited Machado with “at least sixty world-class masterpieces” of short fiction, which is absurd, but a couple dozen, now that is not absurd at all.  And how often does Machado show up in short story anthologies?  So I understand the special pleading.  I had no idea.  Rise and mel u wrote about Machado’s short stories, and mel’s post has links to posts about some other Brazilian short stories.

Eça de Queirós.  “[E]verything he wrote was enjoyable” says Borges, and with nine of his books behind me I will agree.  His character work is especially good.  Please see Richard and litlove, who both have interesting things to say about The Crime of Father Amaro, and Scott Bailey on The Illustrious House of Ramires.

As good as Eça typically is, though, his best book is clearly The Maias.  Also his longest, by far, sorry, but the length is part of what makes it the best.  The Maias has no more story or plot or characters than Amaro or Cousin Basilio, for example.  Very similar, actually, which likely frustrates some readers.  So the novel is not "epic Eça."  For whatever reason, Eça chose this particular book as his masterpiece and worked on it more.  It has a more complex, multi-layered pattern than the other books.  I am not sure that it is more meaningful than his other novels, but it is more intricate.  It has a higher thread count than his other tapestries.  Not everyone, I know, thinks this means "best."

Fernando Pessoa.  An original, an endless source of puzzles and ideas.  You do not even have to read his work for him to generate ideas, but just read about him and his system of heteronyms.   Please see seraillon for a recent post on The Book of Disquiet and a piece about Antonio Tabucchi and Pessoa.

I also want to thank Miguel of St. Orberose, whose blog and comments here pointed me in all sorts of useful directions.

What should I do next?  Austria, Italy?  19th century plays?  The 1890s?  Maybe too big, that one.  The late 1890s?  19th century literary criticism – but who would want to read along with that?  Mountaineering books?  Old timey kiddie lit?  Ideas welcome.

And thanks again for everyone’s assistance, participation, spurs to thought, and generally enthusiastic attitude.


  1. Adventure books! You can start with Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. I haven't read it yet, but it sits and stares balefully at me from the shelf. And there are all those volumes of Shipton and Muir and that cranky old Messner, and Herzog's hagiography of himself on Annapurna! It could be fun. Though 19th-century children's lit would be interesting and you could probably do it justice.

  2. My concern with an adventure book project is that I would become sated much too quickly. The structure of the books would often be so similar, however different the content. Spread out - a couple a year - it does not matter so much.

    But the content would be awfully varied, even given my usual restriction (so Annapurna and Messner would be much too late). Alps, Arctic, Antarctic, Africa, Arabia. Burton, Bird, Bingham, Nansen, I dunno, Teddy Roosevelt. Mark Twain. Worst Journey, definitely. Lotta variety.

    What tempts me most about the kiddie lit is that in a certain mood I will pick a children's book as the greatest novel of the 19th century (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).

    1. Thanks for the Portuguese challenge, Tom--loads of fun even though I'm still behind on that disquieting Pessoa tome (as usual). An Austrian challenge sounds great although I think everything else will be a letdown after I finally finish Musil's The Man Without Qualities (almost there, almost there). Most of your other ideas interest me, too, and I can personally vouch for The Worst Journey in the World at least. One of the best non-fiction works I've ever read both for the story and for the way the story's told.

  3. I would read you reading Alice. I might read along; it's been years.

  4. An Alice readalong would be an easy one, wouldn't it? Popular. Except I never see anyone reading the Alice books, much less anything else of Carroll's. Hmmm.

    I think you would find some peers for Musil, Richard, somewhere in the Austrian canon. Stifter! No, sorry, Kafka, I mean Kafka! Or Rilke. Or Karl Kraus - he would make a great followup to Musil.

  5. Tom, what can I say? "Thanks!" is what I can say. I've immensely enjoyed your posts, the resulting comments, and being able to participate to some small extent (I've saved your Machado posts for later, when I eventually get to him). I regret that I posted nothing on Eça, but I'm entirely indebted to you for my getting to re-read The Maias and would almost certainly not have made it around to The City and the Mountains for some time without your comments on it. Both were just terrific, and among my very favorites among everything I've read since this thing started (somewhere I have a draft 1700 word post about the bookishness of those two books, but it is an unholy and irredeemable mess).

    As for your next project, I've no recommendations. I'd probably, by a narrow margin, take Italy over Austria in my current mood, kids' books over plays, maybe Hungary over all. But regardless of what you choose, I will certainly be tuning in - and hopefully turning on as well.

  6. Scott, there's more to come? I am patient.

    Italy would be a lot of fun. Giovanni Verga would get a lor of my attention. A return visit to Leopardi, certainly. Grazia Deledda and Gabrielle d'Annunzio sound interesting. A lot of good poets.

    Austrian literature of the period has the advantage of being more neurotic and outright nuts. Hungarian literature is a marvel, but I am afraid I would have to move too far out of the 19th century; a literature for later. Gyula Krúdy is early enough. Hmm, hmm.

  7. Will look forward to any theme you'll pursue. I'm not finished with this challenge (Disquiet, Rebellion in the Backlands) but I enjoyed participating in it.

  8. Wonderful, Rise. I actually feel the same way - I want to get to the Euclides some day, and that last Machado novel, and a new Eça translation should be headed my way this summer - but it is time for the pace and emphasis to shift.

    To France, for a while, I guess.

  9. Yes, thanks for the Portuguese info; I'll be heading for some of these soon...

    Alice is nice, but I'd rather see you tackle "Sylvie and Bruno."

    Other suggestions: Hasek's "Good Soldier Svejk" and Potocki's "Manuscript Found in Saragossa."

    I point to these three because they're all long, sprawling, uneven, brilliant, problematic, and full of surprises. In other words, there's a lot to say about them.

    Your Italian suggestion is intriguing,though; I haven't read much 19th century Italian.

  10. Those are all good ideas. I am as bad as everyone I am complaining about - I have never read the Sylvie and Bruno books either, despite carting The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll around for years.

  11. I'm sorry to see the challenge end. Although I never properly joined it, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Portuguese books and writers. Thanks a lot for bringing some attention to my country's literature.

    I'd like to see you tackle Italian literature, but I'm not sure I'd have the concentration to join you: I'm terrible at reading with a purpose. I like dispersed readings and never knowing what I'll read next.

  12. I've enjoyed following along with your Portuguese challenge, albeit in silence. I've even found some more books to read eventually (Eça de Quierós especially). Selfishly, I'm hoping you'll try Italian literature next, as I'm developing an interest in literature from Italy, but I'm sure whatever you decide upon will be interesting. And perhaps injurious to my TBR list!

  13. I wrote a whole article on the way the French surrealists re-appropriated Lewis Carroll. Louis Aragon translated The Hunting of the Snark into French. It's marvelous. Sylvie and Bruno, too, and of course, signally, Alice: all the rules to be obeyed, but mad rules.

    Thanks for the spur to read Machado de Assis!

  14. Well, Miguel, the beauty of a Scottish-rules Challenge is that I am the only one who has to keep up the concentration. I read thirty books, everyone else reads one. This is a good idea because of some reason I do not remember.

    The advantage of an Italian Challenge is that, if I were crazy enough, I could extend it back to the Quattrocento, or earlier, to Dante. Who is up for Ariosto & The Book of the Courtier? Good, good, good books.

    The 19th & early 20th century is plenty interesting, though. Amanda, I see: Pinocchio, Lampedusa, Calvino, Sciascia, Eco. I have read all of the Italian books on that list except for Eco. Good, good, good books.

    I am surprised, Jenny, that Carroll did not shame the Surrealists into silence. What could they do that had not been done? But they were shameless, as writers must be to get anything done. My pleasure regarding the Machado.

  15. Ho, ho, the Surrealists were always delightfully shameless. "Victor Hugo est surrealiste quand il n'est pas bete," try that on for size. And taking naps in cafes, to get access to the unconscious mind. I like their hijinks as well as their literature, most of the time.

  16. I almost agree about Victor Hugo. Those Futurist Brutalist whatever they are barricades in Les Mis, or, I don't know, the poet who falls in love not with a beautiful gypsy girl but with her goat. The guy was a kook!

    With some of these movements, the hijinks and anecdotes overshadow whatever anyone actually wrote.

  17. Because of your event, I was lead to read some very good older Brazilian short stories

  18. I doubt I would have read those non-Machado stories if you had not come across them.

  19. Yes that book was a lucky find