In case you have missed it, read the first part of the interview here.
The Untranslated: Your blog St. Orberose contains lots of long, detailed, information-rich essays on obscure writers English-speaking readers have never heard about. Being a blogger myself, I know that those types of posts, albeit requiring plenty of time and effort, are usually the least popular. Moreover, they are rarely read from start to finish (you can find it out by inserting a link closer to the end of the post and then checking how many clicks there have been). What you did seems to me a rather Quixotic enterprise. What windmills were you fighting against?
Miguel: Well, I’m far less idealistic than Don Quixote, so I never saw it as fighting windmills. I just wrote what I wanted, what gave me joy. That’s what kept me going for 3 years. My blog didn’t start with a precise identity or purpose. One day I came across Tom’s Wuthering Expectations, while he had this Portuguese Literature Challenge going; he had posted a text about Eça de Queiroz, my favorite novelist, and I felt an impetus to contribute with something. Provincial as this may sound, being from a small country with a systematically neglected literature, I feel gratitude and a sense of debt to a gesture as simple as writing about it in a blog. So I cobbled together a few tidbits about Eça and set up a blog, posted it and then sent the link to Tom. Poor Eça, it was such a clumsy and superficial article; later I tried to redeem myself with a better series of posts.
Writing about Portuguese writers wasn’t a mission for me, and I was quite happy blogging about others. Actually one of my favorite posts wasn’t even about fiction but a book by Salvador Dalí. But they were available, they were different, and I figured they could help my blog stand out from the others. Normally you don’t see non-English native speakers blogging in English; they quite sensibly blog in their mother tongues, but I’ve always liked the Anglo-American world; my first reads were American comics – first Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, later superheroes; I have a graduate degree in English Literature; my discovery of prose coincides with discovering classics like Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson in my teens. As early as the 1870s Eça was complaining about the lack of a good literature for young readers in Portugal – tell me about it! Either I read brain-dead kids’ books or I read tedious stuff like Agustina Bessa-Luís and Vergílio Ferreira, novelists I never enjoyed that much and certainly not what I wanted at the age of 13. When so much of your childhood is dedicated to rereading the Avengers being nearly massacred by Korvac, you sort of expect fiction to be more interesting than ordinary people moping about aimlessly in the countryside about God, death and the meaning of life. I solved most of my existentialist problems at an early age. In fact I’ve been thinking about this for some time now: if there’s a reason I love big, maximalist novels full of erudition and obscure allusions and non-linear storytelling it’s because I’m trying to relieve the excitement I had in my early twenties reading Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Coover, Theroux, Gaddis, Pynchon are the closest things I can find to the mind-bending thrills of complex comics like From Hell, Swamp Thing, Animal Man, Promethea, Doom Patrol and The Invisibles. These comics introduced me to beautiful loons like Robert Anton Wilson, who in an essay could combine quantum physics, Aleister Crowley, George Carlin, general semantics, monetary theory, conspiracy theories and make it all cohere. Maximalist fiction was inevitable, but that came later. Traditional Anglo-American fiction gave me the thrills I craved, so for many years I turned my back on Portuguese fiction, without regrets. I didn’t actually finish reading The Maias until after I finished university. And I only returned to Eça because Borges loved The Mandarin; my Borges fever was at its anabasis so that was akin to a commandment to go read Eça. Then I discovered he was hilarious. I re-read him almost every year now. Many writers I now worship were late acquisitions. I know I already read and loved Saramago during university – I looked with amusement at the teachers who despised him; there were two who had been students of Vergílio Ferreira, who had had an open feud with Saramago about the number of translations. Ferreira had once said that only bad writers were translated (something I see myself agreeing with more and more); Saramago’s counterargument boiled down to, “You ever heard of Dostoevsky?” Ferreira was an intelligent man, but that was not his finest hour. I discovered Aquilino Ribeiro because Saramago praised him in The Notebook, and that too at the time was like an order from God to me.
But actually it was writing for my blog that forced me to know Portuguese literature better and deeper. I never presumed to be an expert, but I had access to the books so I read them and blogged about them. And showing new, fresh, unusual things was also a drive for me. Most blogs are so repetitive, so generic. The blogs that matter the most to me are the ones that think outside the box, that give me more than The New York Times’ best books of the year. Just the other day Scott from Seraillon e-mailed me about an Italian called Giorgio Manganelli; I’m dying to read him. There’s something I admire about Anglo-American blogs, a spirit of celebrating the unknown, the underdog. I see many fine bloggers with a militant approach to divulging obscure, poorly-talked writers; I wanted to be part of that. America translates a lot, in spite of its bad reputation, quite unfair to me; the real problem is the deep-rooted prejudice at reading them. I was always happy when someone told me he had picked up Saramago or Eça because of what I wrote – that was what I wanted, to let them know they existed. I’m not sure how many were honest or just being nice, but perhaps I did introduce them to a few readers who took a chance on them. I hope so. I then believed there was value (and valor) in blogging about the unknown, and although it was never very popular (I received a Liebster Award though!) it brought me closer to a remarkable bunch of bloggers who’ve enriched my reading life.
Although it is just a blog, I forced myself to put some effort into writing. I learned that writing for others is the best way of educating myself; because I was so afraid of getting things wrong – I blush at so many of the superficial, impressionistic things I wrote – I told myself I had to read more, understand more, spread out: poetry, essays, letters, novels, short-stories, biographies, history books, memoirs, essays, anything I could fatten my posts with to make them more informative, to give things a proper context, which is usually lacking in translations; you get a novel, you don’t get the history around it. Sure, you can read Detective Story, but what do you know about Hungarian literature in 1975? I wanted to understand things, put the pieces together. One writer leads you into another. You read Eça, then you want to read Brandão to understand the rupture he caused; then you want to go back to Camilo Castelo Branco (1825-1890), whom the poet José Régio (1901-1969) (I’ve been dipping into a collection of texts he wrote about Eça for several newspapers) considered superior. Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote insightful pages on Portuguese culture, loved Camilo too. Eça’s sect, a bunch of fanatics who believed Naturalism was the final stage in the evolution of Literature, were constantly attacking the old Romantic. Camilo, who was the first Portuguese novelist to live from his own writing, in turn was quite nice to Eça. So I read Camilo to see what he was like. By the way, there is a gorgeous movie based on his novel, Mysteries of Lisbon. I have that novel at home to read. I moved back and forth and crossways and started connecting the dots the best I could. I went to bookstores and thought to myself, “Hey, a book by Jorge de Sena about America; wouldn’t Americans like to know what Sena thought about them?” The correct answer is, No, they wouldn’t. But I bought it and blogged about it. I read Ricardo Reis because I had already blogged about Alberto Caeiro and Álvaro de Campos, and I wanted to have the three heteronyms in there. And it just escalated: one day I thought, let’s try Brazil now; next let’s try African literature. It was always in the interest of keeping the blog fresh. And that’s how I slowly learned about Portuguese Literature. However I have so many embarrassing lacunae.
I never presumed my blog would make a difference, and it certainly didn’t. But it thrills me that between the time I blogged and now some books have become available. I wrote about Eça’s The Mystery of the Sintra Road, and then it came out; I translated bits of Húmus, and now Raul Brandão is coming out. Around the time I dedicated a month to Saramago I learned that Raised from the Ground, my favorite novel by him, was finally coming out in English. Even Borges’ two-volume collection of conversations with Osvaldo Ferrari is out now. If you look at my posts you’ll notice I actually kept returning to the same writers: Pessoa, Eça, Saramago, later on Lobo Antunes, because they were in English; it wasn’t about telling people to translate, but to go read what was already translated. Once in a while of course I wrote about others unavailable because I didn’t want to make the blog too repetitive; when I write fiction I hate using the same word twice, for me it’s a sign of failure; I guess it’s the “Aquilino Theroux” in me (Kundera would have disapproved).
And I wasn’t obsessed with Portugal in my blog; it was just a circumstance: the books were available. I had as much fun writing about Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, an amazing novelist, Dario Fo, Edward Albee, the greatest living playwright, Philip Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tolstoy, Albert Cossery.
The Untranslated: Quite often, readers become writers when they cannot find the book they would like to read, and the only way to fulfil this desire is to write such a book themselves. Why did you start writing? What kind of book is missing in Portuguese literature?
Miguel: You make it sound as if I’ve published something. I’m nothing, Andrei, and there are good chances I’ll remain nothing forever. But since you want to read me talking about my writing, I’ll oblige you.
I didn’t intend to fill lacunae. Writing has interested me since I learned to write, but low self-esteem kept me from pursuing it for a long time. Around 2012 my life had hit rock bottom in terms of expectations and I began writing poetry to cope with my woe. Thankfully my poetic delusions didn’t last long, but they gave me confidence to take a stab at a novel, something I had entertained for a while. I had pretty low criteria for it; I settled with not making the world a dumber place because of it. I thought it was going to be quick, I even began working part time because I was sure it’d only take three months at most. I began in September 2013. But it consumed nearly 2 years. Technically it’s finished, but since no one wants it I still tweak it from to time.
I’m not sure there’s anything missing in Portuguese literature. We have many great books like The Maias, The Book of Disquiet, Fado Alexandrino, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I’d like to see more encyclopaedic novels, but David Soares is taking care of that with aplomb. I wish I could say I attempted a maximalist novel because we have none, but in truth the concept didn’t mean anything to me at the start. I know my first draft was a tedious realistic thriller in plain prose. Disappointed with myself, in my second draft I began applying techniques from Saramago and Torrente Ballester, particularly his incredible Fragmentos de Apocalipsis. With them I found the voice I wanted to tell my book with. I used to think I was writing a Saramago novel, but now I actually think it’s a stew of Húmus and Viagens na Minha Terra. Around the same time I discovered guys like Barth, Coover, Gass, Theroux; they were especially useful in keeping my standards high in terms of style and research; I read them to keep myself so embarrassed of myself that I kept pushing myself harder and harder.
When I sent the novel to publishers, I had trouble making a synopsis because I didn’t know what to focus on. The story itself is unspectacular. It has two interpolated narratives, reflecting each other. The first one starts in 1937 with a Portuguese painter living in exile in Paris, a rich aristocrat in the middle of Bohemian lifestyle. But he hates Bohemia; he’s essentially an austere classicist, he could have been a tremendous painter in the 16th century but he was born too late, he detests the vanguards and has trouble fitting in. He prefers staying in his studio grinding pigments and building stretchers. I wanted to avoid the whole Bohemian cliché; a no-nonsense hermit, like Blake or Michelangelo, forced to live in an absurd world that doesn’t give a fuck about that sort of devotion to normative art anymore. And it continues with his leaving France because of the war, his years in New York bemoaning the rise of Abstract Expressionism, which he viscerally detests, his returning to Paris, his realizing he’ll never be the great painter he thinks he should be, and his wasting away his life working on a multi-volume critique of contemporary art, (think De Chirico’s “il ritorno al mestiere”), believing it’ll be such an authoritative attack it’ll put art back on the right track of technique, craft, the Old Masters – the poor deluded fool.
The second narrative starts in 2009, before our economic crisis, and follows his grandson, who inherits his talent, his love for painting, his atavistic ways and the legacy of the pointless book. It continues several years into the future with him failing at starting a career, working as an art restorer in Italy, going a bit crazy from working on the book, and finally accepting the only way a painter with his talent can thrive in an age of mediocrity is by making art forgeries, by being as good as the masters no one realizes they’re fakes. If you think you’re the greatest painter in the world, you won’t have fun forging Malevich’s monochromatic painting; obviously you want to copy the really intricate artists down to their minute details. And things escalate from that, with him being chased by the police, a right-wing French organization smuggling all French art back into France, and a terrorist organization that targets art objects (this was before the news about Daesh destroying ancient relics in Syria; I thought I was just being clever.)
I only wanted to write a crime thriller set in the art world. But somehow it derailed into something else. I was going through a bad phase in my life and I just wanted to fight loneliness and depression; I wrote mostly to entertain myself. My objective was to fill pages with things that I found interesting, one page at a time. After a few drafts I realised I was more interested in language and digressive flights of fancy than psychological realism or telling a story. But if I had to say there’s a theme in the novel, it’s about wasting your life devoting it to art to the point it dehumanizes you. I can also assure you you’ll never look at a painting the same way again after reading it.
My problem with the synopsis, though, is that what makes it so unusual, to my mind, is the way it’s told.
I once blogged about Torrente Ballester’s Fragmentos de Apocalipsis; the narrator-author just invents a singing dragon because he feels like it, and takes his girlfriend to meet him, and they just fly over there like Superman and Lois Lane. It’s a metafictional novel and he wants to show that the author is god, yada yada yada. But it’s sheer whimsy, it’s so cute. And I wanted to be that whimsical and unconstrained, to have total freedom to write whatever I wanted. My most repeated question was, “Why not try this?” I remember putting the Muses in a scene mocking a character because I thought it was funny; writing from a paranoid dog’s POV; I put 15th and 16th century real-life characters in hell discussing Portuguese politics, and to make it harder I did it in a pastiche of 15th century Portuguese vocabulary, spelling and syntax; I put a character reflecting about his life in a long sentence composed of mostly neo-realist book titles; I anthropomorphized a character’s cerebellum; I had my character ambling inside the Sistine Chapel describing its history in a 17,000-word sentence (interpolated with those sentences in Russian you so kindly translated for me). I filled a chapter in diary form with dates about things happening in painting in America during WWII.
Making lists was my favorite part: of techniques to forge art; of techniques to spot art forgeries; of methods to repair damaged paintings; of damaged or destroyed real-life art works; lists of colors and tools and ingredients. As an homage to Aquilino, I spent months making a glossary of regionalisms and then dumped them all into a section: when I didn’t have a scene for a word, I just invented a new scene.
I had a character invented just to kill him, a downtrodden painter committing suicide from poison because he considers himself a failure. But I felt bad about this: if I was only giving him this one scene I might as well send him off in the best prose I could; so a short scene became several pages of poetic, alliterative prose, describing as beautifully as I could many horrible feelings. Concinnity is not a priority for me. Somewhere I put a paragraph which, if you put the words together in verse, it becomes a decasyllabic sonnet. No particular reason.
You know that voice of good taste telling you not to do something because it’s in poor taste? If I have such a thing as a style, 80% of it is ignoring that voice. My life seemed to be at the end of it, and I wanted to project some freedom into the pages at least. Now I think it was all a waste of time, but I had fun while it lasted.
The novel is split in 6 “books” and when I put them together in a single .doc file for the final draft(s), I checked the word count. I don’t remember the number but I went looking for comparison to calculate its size; and I realized that it had more words than the English translation of Crime and Punishment. That freaked me out. I just thought to myself: “I didn’t write a 600-page novel!” Well, it was 600 then; it must be about 800 now. I rewrite like the hydra: I cut one thing and two new things are born in its place. That’s when I realized I was probably never going to have it published.
Next I tried a book of short-stories; I wanted to make something smaller, more accessible and commercial; something I could publish to build a reputation and then I’d have better chances of publishing the novel. It didn’t pan out. I can’t write a straightforward sentence without making it stranger or more ornate next. The Spaniard Eugénio D’Ors argued the Baroque was born in Portugal; it sure thrives in me. I decided each story should have a different style, and that probably made the book more complex than my novel. Because I wrote several drafts of it in rather clumsy prose, before the influence of guys like Lobo Antunes, Aquilino, Theroux, Gass overwhelmed me, no amount of rewrites managed to weed out all the plainness, so it fluctuates a bit in style. But from the beginning I wrote the short-story book with a mission to make language the main character so I got a much more balanced book.
You’ve seen that short-story I sent you: since it’s a spin-off of The Lusiads I thought it’d be funny if it had the length of the 9th Canto; so I was set to write it in 760 decasyllabic rhyming verses first and then turn them into prose. But around the same time I discovered an Arab genre called the maqama, fiction fully written in rhyming prose – that sounded like something fun to try; so I mixed both ideas and wrote that short-story told in inner rhyming sentences from start to finish. One that almost drove me crazy was a short-story where each paragraph is a sestina (22 in all): it has 4 different types of sestinas; somewhere I read it’s the hardest poetic form to write – that sounded like a good challenge. It’s about an aging poet who loses his speech to aphasia; it was the contrast that enthralled me – a tale about speech loss told in superbly rich speech.
I wrote a short-story (really a prose poem) using mainly portmanteau words. I wrote an alliterative short-story: I found out the 1755 Earthquake killed Lisbon’s chief inquisitor; so I imagined his spirit wandering above the ruined city’s sky launching into a hateful diatribe against mankind, but in the most sumptuous prose possible. I just love the contrast between beautiful prose and ugly thoughts. I’ve told you about how Mário de Carvalho wrote his novel using just Latin-derived words: I found that so impressive I tried something similar with Arab-derived words: first of all because the setting called for it; but also because we’re living in dangerous times in Europe – people omit large chunks of history, nationalism is on the rise; and I wanted to remind people, at least by making palpable our linguistic debt to the Arabs, that they were here before Portugal even existed and that they left this rich lexical treasure for us to use. But since I can’t write without complicating things I figured I could also take advantage of its 11th century setting to fill it with words nobody understands anymore. Really, how often do you have an excuse to throw in obscure medieval conjunctions and adverbs? So by the time I finished this book I realized I had another unpublishable book.
While writing my novel I never stopped reading, and out of serendipity I kept discovering things that made me understand my process better. For instance I read Eça’s biography and came across this critic who detested The Relic, my favourite novel by him, and dismissed it as “A picaresque joke, with neither a cultural responsibility nor psychological verisimilitude.” I thought to myself, “He just described my novel!” So I went and read stuff about the Spanish picaro and noticed some similarities. It was also during this time I got acquainted with concepts like “maximalist fiction” and Edward Mendelson’s “encyclopaedic novel,” and I found similarities too. Much more useful was discovering “Menippean satire” in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism: it was funny because up to that point I had not actually read several of the authors said to belong in this genre like Rabelais and Petronius, but it was an incentive to do so. But it seems to me pretentious to include my bagatelle in their genre. I do think I wrote the way I wrote because I wanted to relive the excitement of reading Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Robert Anton Wilson in my late teens; they were sort of latent in my memory but sprang back to life during the writing. But if I had to describe my writing philosophy I’d have to turn to Laurence Sterne, whom I’m not even that crazy about: “All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, ‘to let people tell their stories their own way.’” That’s pretty much how I wrote; I didn’t think about results so long as I wrote it my way.
I sincerely believe I’ve written things no one’s attempted in 800 years of Portuguese literature. I don’t mean they’re aesthetically good, but my novel’s mixture of an unhinged voice, inventiveness, wordplay, erudition, plot and ambition just hasn’t been executed at this scale. I’d like to see it judged by others to see what I’m worth, but I’m slowly accepting I write solely for myself.
The Untranslated: Let’s indulge in a bit of tea leaf reading. The final question is about your vision of literature’s development in the decades to come. It looks like most of the important novels written in the new century have heavily relied on the older techniques and methods; nothing groundbreaking has been produced so far. Will there be any 21st century great literary breakthroughs? What will these works be about, and in what languages will they be written?
Miguel: I don’t see things that pessimistically.
Innovation obsesses some people too much. So many great 20th novels didn’t make any overwhelming formal breakthroughs. Wasn’t it Kundera who said geniuses innovate in small steps? What did Terra Nostra innovate? What did Thomas Pynchon bring that was that new? The silly names, the dirty songs, the low humour, the erudition, the wordplay, the big-hearted laughs, the paper-thin characters, the parody of ideas, that formula’s already in Gargantua and Pantagruel. The experts call him a post-modernist; I say he’s just a neo-Pantagruelist having fun writing novels like they were in the 16th century. Tom LeClair, in an excellent essay in The Art of Excess, showed how much Pynchon’s aesthetics derives from Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre. Not even Ulysses was “absolutely modern,” to quote Rimbaud. So much innovation involves rediscovering and pretending old things are novel. Innovation and amnesia tend to walk in step too much for me to get too comfortable about it. After reading Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History (whose introduction is another text I re-read for my sanity), I gained a better appreciation of how innovations always have a precursor somewhere. Although I welcome novelty and tried to make something new (not very successfully), I confess I prefer something well written according to my aesthetic expectations than something “innovative.” Tom-the-future-of-the-novel-McCarthy’s Remainder is allegedly “innovative” (about what I’m still trying to figure out), but it’s also as verbally imposing as a Times article. I prefer a traditional novelist like Aquilino who in every line shows an absolute mastery over language to a guy whose syntax is no more ingenious than what you find in a 8th grade school composition. Don’t make it new, make it complex, make it beautiful. Laura Warholic doesn’t innovate anything at all; it’s just a long list of some of the most sublime lines ever written in the history of English prose. If there’s no room in the future of the novel for that (and judging by Mrs. Zadie Smith’s anti-lyricism there isn’t), I sincerely don’t give two spits about innovation.
You ever noticed how the “make it new” motto mimics the mentality of consumerism? In the rare moments when I watch TV ads I’m always fascinated by the semantically coherent vocabulary used in their mantras: “be bold,” “be original,” “be unique,” “be special,” “be yourself.” Apparently you become unique by consuming what million others consume. But that’s not my point – those are the adjectives critics use to praise so-called innovative fiction. I don’t know about you, but I think there’s a problem when the same values are used to praise a book and a pair of jeans or a new cell phone model. No one tries to sell you vodka or novels with words like “effort,” “hard work,” “complexity,” “technique,” “perfectionism;” and that’s fine for vodka, but for novels it’s dire. “Novelty can hide a lot of flaws,” said the innovative Robert Coover. The “make it new” motto also underlies the process of obsolescence: producing shabby, crude things not made to last long; instilling a constant urge to replace them; mass producing without judiciousness; micro-managing fads; playing with people’s tedium; destroying their ability to commit themselves to things in the long term. Leave that for Apple. Innovation has been co-opted by PR companies to sell you toothpaste: don’t trust it.
I’m not too worried about the future: literature will be what it’s always been: many people will publish execrable books; many so-so books will be considered exceptional for a while before going away; and a few believers doing great work in the margins will be ignored, die unknown and be Melvilled back to life decades later. Translation will continue to reveal the worst a country’s literature has to offer, but a few honourable exceptions will sneak in and we’ll continue to discover many fine writers across the world. That’s how far I’ll go into predictions. Finally, I can’t complain since I have no difficulty finding excellent living writers to keep me ecstatic and feeling blessed.
Miguel Rosa was born in Portugal in 1984. He used to blog but doesn’t care about that anymore. He thinks he’s a fiction writer, but no one cares about that. He tried to impress people by translating Alexander Theroux into Portuguese, but no one cares about him in Portugal.