I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
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The Brazilian novelist and short story writer Lygia Fagundes Telles and the Portuguese writer Manuel Alegre met each other at the Book Biennial in Rio de Janeiro, which took place last September. Alegre is renowned in Portugal as a novelist, poet, and public figure with a long engagement in politics, from his early days as a law student opposing the 40-year dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveria Salazar (1933–74) to his imprisonment and exile in Algiers, to his running for president in the 2006 Portuguese elections. Alegre traveled to Brazil to participate in the launching of his book Cão como nós (A Dog Like Us), a lyrical memoir featuring his family’s relationship with Kurica, an epagneul breton, their companion over many years.
Fagundes Telles, one of Brazil’s most beloved authors and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, won the 2005 Camões Prize, the most important literary prize in the Portuguese language. She launched her book of essays Conspiração de nuvens (Conspiracy of Clouds) at the book fair. Fagundes Telles’s first book, the story collection Praia viva (Living Beach) was published in 1944. Since then, she has published more than 22 books, among them the groundbreaking novel The Girl in the Photograph (1973).
After being on a panel together at the Biennial, where they laughed, were moved, and moved the public, she and Alegre had the opportunity to meet again at her home in São Paulo for an informal and rich conversation that ranged back and forth in time and between cultures, Portugal and Brazil, and other newly discovered affinities.
Manuel Alegre The poet Fernando Pessoa [1888–1935] used to say that he belonged to a certain type of Portuguese people who became unemployed after the discovery of India. In fact, with the navigations, the Portuguese brought about the first globalization. But I do not agree with Pessoa. There are always things to be discovered. The inland India, as the Portuguese poet Miguel Torga [1907–1995] used to say. I have written that it is necessary to find Portugal in Portugal. There are always new journeys. In the sea, in writing, in life. I, for example, have just discovered Brazil again, and Lygia, who is a wonder. Some descendents of the old navigators now have their attention turned only to business. A certain aristocracy has become bourgeois. Or it has entered into an alliance with the industrial and financial bourgeoisie. As in Lampedusa’s (and Visconti’s) The Leopard. You know, I think a certain aristocratic behavior is missing.
Lygia Fagundes Telles It is.
MA There is in society a crisis of values, of sociability, of affection. Elegance itself, knowing how to be at the table, not being a brat, not being aggressive, being contained. My father was like this.
LFT Not falling prey to the vulgarity that has grown in these difficult times. Resisting the temptation of hypocritical malice, of low humor…. I believe that my aversion to this foolishness goes all the way back to my roots, over there in the cauldron of my origins where there exists a Portuguese navigator with his weapons, Álvares Fagundes, and where there is my grandfather Henrique Benevenuto de Azevedo Fagundes, a Colonel in the National Guard of the Emperor, married to Petrina, a lady from Perugia. There in that cauldron there is also another Portuguese, the backlander João Ramalho, who was part of explorer Martim Alfonso de Souza’s 1530 armada, and who married the native Brazilian Bartyra…. Anyway, I know that during my tempestuous adolescence my father consoled me with this very old saying: “A wealthy grandfather, a doctor son (he was the son) and vagabond grandchildren.” I was the grandchild who had entered the University of Largo São Francisco, which used to be an old Franciscan convent. The monks left in the nineteenth century and the students entered with their black capes like—
MA Like it’s done in Coimbra. I am a product of the Coimbra law School.
LFT I was in Coimbra with a group of writers in the ’90s. What a beautiful university [the oldest in Portugal]. There we sang Brazilian songs to the sound of guitars played by the university’s students, what a joy….
MA In the nineteenth century many Brazilians from good families went to study Law in Coimbra.
LFT Yes, some important poets from our Romantic school had gone to study in Coimbra and among them, Gonçalves Dias [1823–1864], who, in a fit of homesickness, wrote this verse in 1843: “My homeland has many palm-trees and the thrush-song fills the air; no bird here can sing as well as the birds sing over there.” Many of our Romantic poets died young—Drummond baptized them as members of the Early Death School—and some of them were law students. Romanticism in Portugal coincided with our Brazilian Romanticism, which perhaps preceded it.
MA Garrett [1799–1854] and Herculano [1810–1877] not only introduced Romanticism to Portugal, but also brought about the liberal revolution. But there is a pre-Romanticism embodied by the great Dona Leonor de Almeida Portugal, the Marquise of Alorna [1750–1839], about whom feminists in Portugal don’t speak. It’s absurd because she was exiled and lived in a school, as great noble women would at the time. The school is still there today, the Fronteira Palace. The Marquis of Fronteira engraved Camões’s The Lusiads , read poets, and hosted poetry readings. Lygia, if you are in Lisbon you have to go there because it is a very beautiful house. The literary salon at the palace was attended by Boccaccio and Filinto Elíseo, who was later persecuted and died in exile. So, there was a pre-Romantic school even though the poetic language at that stage was very dated. Truly, the founders of Romanticism are Garrett and Herculano, who after being in exile returned to Portugal with weapons in their hands in order to oust the absolutist emperor Dom Miguel. They came with Dom Pedro in 1832 and disembarked in Mindelo. They come from the Azores. They were active in the Porto circle, it is in that Portuguese city that Garrett wrote his masterpiece romance O Arco de Sant’Ana.
LFT In 1998 the Salon du livre in France paid homage to Brazil. The keynote speakers stayed at the Bedford Hotel, in Paris, and in the lobby was a portrait of Dom Pedro II, the emperor of Brazil who lived here. Then we drank to the emperor and his long white beard, “Viva Dom Pedro!” He loved Brazil. Before he died he asked that they fill the pillow in his coffin with Brazilian soil. An excellent biography about him, written by José Murilo de Carvalho, has just been published here in Brazil—I’m going to send you a copy. He used to say that he was destined for literature, for thought—he didn’t like power. He liked Brazil, however, with its past of backwardness and misery. Brazil avoids looking at this past. I think that there should be more solidarity now in our Latin America, that it should be more united not only on paper but also in the heart—so much rivalry…. One time, in Buenos Aires, a saleswoman was so aggressive with me and other Brazilians—she called us los macaquitos! (the little monkeys). Later my father gave me the key: they never had a court—it was pure envy. With all of our ups and downs and messes, we had what Argentines always wanted: the Crown! (laughter)
MA You know that Garrett in his youth was part of a secret society that among other things demanded the independence of Brazil. Even before the liberal revolution. One of the consequences of the liberal revolution in Portugal was an independent Brazil. And, when Brazil was independent, Garrett wrote an ode to the liberated country. He said that the freedom of Brazil increased Portugal’s freedom. It is a very beautiful thing. Those of us in Brazil who were against the war that Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal waged against Africa were considered traitors to the country. At that time, we would cite Garrett a lot. I also think that Mozambican and Angolan freedom increase the freedom of Portugal. Garrett was a character; his biography is fantastic. He disembarked with a weapon in his hand and proceeded to write the main Portuguese laws on education and the first law about authorial rights. He is still considered today a major parliamentarian of his time. He was both the minister of foreign affairs and the creator of Romanticism. He also founded modern Portuguese prose with Travels in My Homeland, a very beautiful book that also talks about the liberal revolution.
LFT Brazil loves both the Portuguese Eça de Queiros [1845–1900] and Fernando Pessoa. Our popular music has so many lyrics with his verses—the passion for Pessoa….
MA He is the greatest Portuguese poet of the twentieth century, if not one of the greatest of all times and literature. But there was a time in Portugal when historian Vasco Pulido Valente said that to be Pessoan was to want a public job. Later a trend developed that was damaging to the poet. In 1934 the still unpublished Pessoa submitted Mensagem (Message) to a literary prize given by the Salazar’s Secretariat for National Propaganda, but he didn’t win. The prizewinner was a certain Vasco Reis, about whom no one knows anything. Antonio Ferro, who was head of the secretariat but nonetheless a very intelligent man [and former collaborator with Pessoa on the magazine Orfeu, arranged for Pessoa’s book to receive a honorable mention. I got to meet Ferro’s wife, Fernanda de Castro.
LFT I saw both of them in Lisbon, a sweet memory.
MA She was a good poet. And he, Antonio, arranged for an honorable mention for Pessoa: it is only in the ’50s that Pessoa’s work began to be known. Only then does he become a national poet. Pessoa had a bone to pick with Camões [1524–1580]. In Mensagem, he speaks of all the great figures in the history of Portugal, which he considered “the future of the past.” He thought of his book as the new epic poem, a reply to The Lusiads. But there’s nothing there about Camões. Later in the book he prophesies the arrival of a superior Camões, himself probably. But I don’t think so, because there isn’t anyone superior to Camões. The language we speak and write today is the language that Camões founded and wrote.
LFT Of course, insurmountable.
MA One day someone asked the poet Eugénio de Andrade what was the most modern book of poems. He answered that it would have to be a book of sonnets by Camões to be edited by him. And he made the book, in modern spelling. It’s a luminous Portuguese, very clear, with no complications—it’s a pleasure to read. I always evoke that song in which Camões says “e se te perguntassem canção como não morro, tu dirias canção que porque morro” (and if someone should ask you, song, how I exist, you can reply it is because I exist; Landeg White’s translation). Here are two terrible words, “que” and “porque,” and he joins them together and makes music, poetry in a pure state. No one else does this. The Lusiads is, up to a certain point, a confessional poem, because the poet himself also made the journey of the Portuguese explorers led by Vasco de Gama—he spent 17 years in Asia. He traveled in poverty, lost his book. One of the few documents that exist about Camões certifies that he was indeed shipwrecked in the mouth of the Mekong River and was able to save the manuscript of The Lusiads. He had to negotiate The Lusiads with the Inquisition. Now, the language he created with The Lusiads and with his lyrical poems is insurmountable.
LFT You knew Miguel Torga spent time in Brazil, didn’t you?
MA Of course. Torga wrote The Creation of the World, which is, in the end, about his life. He came from a very humble family, his house was very beautiful. I had a very special affection for Torga.
LFT I liked him a lot and I think he liked me, too.
MA Ah, he had a great love for Lygia, as he used to say all the time!
LFT Tales from the Mountain, an extremely beautiful book.
MA In The Creation of the World he tells this story: he went to the seminary, then he was a servant for rich boys in Porto, and he had an uncle who brought him to Brazil. His aunt, he says, was a mean person, but this uncle paid for his studies and he was able to become a doctor. Now they are celebrating 100 years of Torga. And in Portugal there is São Martinho de Anta, his birthplace, which is a mystical place today. He used to say that “the universe is a place without walls.” It is a very beautiful expression.
LFT Another Portuguese writer that I admire a lot is Vergílio Ferreira [1916–1966]. We participated in a writer’s conference at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, I don’t remember the date. Everything was so pleasant. I was staying with the Marly de Oliveira [1938–2007] at the Tivoli Hotel. Later she married João Cabral de Melo Neto [1920–1999], you see, they admired each other so much! But it seems to me that they were not happy. Three great Brazilian female poets have already died: Cecília Meireles in 1964, Hilda Hilst in 2004, and now this muse Marly de Oliveira.
MA I hadn’t heard of de Oliveira. I met João Cabral and spent time with him when he was Brazilian consul in Porto.
LFT It was in Porto that I met Cabral as well, who then was still married to Estela. Estela died and he married Marly.
MA But Marly de Oliveria was not known. We met many times with Sophia de Mello Breyner, who was close friends with João Cabral, but he didn’t have a wife then. It was probably before he remarried. João Cabral wrote about Spain like no Spaniard has. The book Sevilha andando (Walking Seville) is a fabulous thing.
LFT I believe he was part of Brazil’s great poetry trinity, along with Manuel Bandeira and Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
MA Brazilian poet Alberto da Costa e Silva has said something that I think is true, that Bandeira was for us a big revelation at that time, but that he actually has a lot in common with our Portuguese poet António Nobre [1867–1900]. We can see this in Bandeira’s Disenchantment, for example.
LFT and MA
I write poems as one who weeps
from dejection….from disenchantment….
Close my book, if, for now
You have no reasons for tears.
MA This is an António Nobre thing! He had that other poem, in which the patient asks: “So, doctor, is it possible to perform a pneumothorax?” And the doctor says, “No. The only thing left to do is to play an Argentine tango.” This was a fantastic revolution of Bandeira! And Pasárgada:
I’m leaving for Pasárgada
There, I am friends with the king
There, I have any woman I want
In any bed that I choose.
LFT Now listen, in the end of 1968 my husband at the time Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes [1916–1977], who was a leading critic of Brazilian cinema, was invited to participate in the International Film Festival of Carthage, that is to say, Iran, ha! We were to travel around beautiful Persia with the still emperor Reza Pahlevi and Farah Diba. On a certain morning, our guide, in a French heavy with rrs informed us that we would visit “Basarrgada.” I was perplexed. Do you mean to say that Pasárgada was not a fantasy of the poet, that it actually existed? … There in the middle of the ruins was the tomb of King Cyrus, its founder.
MA I didn’t know that Pasárgada really existed. I thought it was an invention.
LFT Oh, it is so good to hear you saying that, I don’t feel so bad about my geographical knowledge.
MA We all feel, at times, like going to Pasárgada, which became a mystical place, a place for poems.
LFT When we went through Paris, Paulo Emílio and I bought an anthology of Bandeira’s poems and there it was, “Passárgada” in French, marvelous! We offered the book to the royal couple.
MA Here in your book Conspiração de nuvens I read that you two were in Tunisia and then went to Iran, where he was going to be a judge in the film festival.
LFT I also wrote a lecture about Carlos Drummond de Andrade that Paulo Emílio translated into French, which this guest—and not a friend of the king, as in the poem—read in a literary salon. Paulo Emílio wrote in Portuguese as well as in French; he had lived in Paris.
MA I also write in French, because I lived for 10 years in Algiers. It’s beautiful, but the French have frenchified Algiers a lot. The Kasbah is a beautiful thing, the color. And, perhaps, the most beautiful Roman ruins in the world are there. Tipasa, 30 miles from Algiers, was a Roman spa on the sea, it’s magnificent.
LFT I found out later that the fate of the imperial couple after they were deported was not good. Well, better to stick to poetry. I read in the newspaper Estado de São Pauloa harsh critique of our José Saramago. I disliked it. I have a lot of admiration for him.
MA He wrote little poetry. He has one book of poetry Os poemas possíveis (The Possible Poems). Saramago began writing late and began to be read when he was over 50. After his first marriage, Saramago met a Spanish woman, Pilar, who is herself an institution. This was very important in his life. And now, with this, Saramago wants Portugal to marry Spain also; he made an absurd declaration that Portugal has to integrate itself with Spain. I think that Portugal can disappear or drown in the sea, but to form a union with Spain—that will never happen.
LFT Saramago is much admired here in Brazil. Your Portuguese writers Fernando Namora [1919–1989] and Lobo Antunes also have a good readership.
MA I was friends with Namora, but he was not a writer of the same caliber. Lobo Antunes, who is a little younger than I, recently had surgery for something serious; he was very worried, but he’s okay now. He’s a doctor.
LFT He’s a good writer, no doubt.
MA He’s a provocateur. I think he read your The Girl in the Photograph very well, because like yours, his is a certain type of narrative in multiple voices, with characters unfolding.
LFT This novel, The Girl in the Photograph, gave me a lot of trouble.
MA Lobo Antunes really revolutionized Portuguese literature but he has broken the line of his previous novels. Perhaps the young people who use the Internet will be able to follow it…. His last book has a beautiful title, though, Ontem não te vi em Babilônia (I Didn’t See You in Babylon Today). An Israeli poet told him the story of a piece of broken pottery found with this expression on it, “ontem não te vi em Babilônia.” It is an extraordinary thing because it is a little bit of everyday life, isn’t it? And Lobo Antunes, without the phrase having any connection with his book, gave it this title. In Portugal younger people read him more than Saramago. In France they like him a lot as well; the French wanted him to win the Nobel prize.
LFT But here in Brazil Saramago is the loved one. Changing the topic, you know that in Porto, when I went to receive the Camões Prize, I saw your portrait on the streets?
MA The portrait of a candidate. I was a candidate for the presidency. My party, the Socialist Party, chose Mário Soares, who had been president twice already. This created a certain malaise. I began to receive messages and pleas to run. It created such an atmosphere that I felt obligated to step in. Without any support from the party, without PR agencies, without financial support. It was a risky, new, and pioneering experience. Under the motto “the power of the people,” a support system was generated throughout the country. I would arrive and people would distribute or sing my poems. In little more than two months I ended up getting 1.2 million votes, 20.7 percent, against 14.1 percent of Mário Soares. I was 29,000 votes short of the second round. It was a poetic political experience. Those who voted for me really wanted a poet as president.
LFT But it was such a discreet advertisement. The photos were not as big as they are here before an election.
MA I didn’t have money for pictures!
LFT Now I remember a certain Brazilian writer said in an interview that if Marcel Proust existed he saw no reason to read our Machado de Assis…. A weird declaration, no? I want to repeat what this extraordinary critic and professor that is António Candido said: that perhaps, compared to the more important literature of the first world, our literature might be weak, might be lesser, but it is what expresses us, it is what reveals us and conveys our message. If we don’t love it, who will?
MA But it is not weak at all! What world literatures, like that of the Portuguese language, have Camões, Pessoa, Mário de Sá Carneiro [1880–1916], and Sophia de Mello Breyner [1919–2004] from Portugal, and Lygia Fagundes Telles, Manuel Bandeira [1886–1968], Carlos Drummond de Andrade [1902–1987] from Brazil? You know, I began to read Drummond de Andrade in jail.
LFT My dear Manuel Alegre, you are so generous! What I have just heard makes my heart so happy. Speaking of generosity, Carlos Drummond de Andrade also lost his only daughter a long time before I lost my beloved son. When I found out, I immediately called the poet trying to say some consoling words to him, but I was not able to say anything, and you know what happened? It was he who ended up consoling me for his loss of Maria Julieta. Have you seen such a thing? Bandeira was another beloved friend. We were born on the 19th of April, under the sign of Aries. Then he wrote:
Save the day in which we two were born.
I, in the last century.
Lygia, a century later.
He informed me that our star was called Hamal, but no one knows this star. Anyway, it’s so cold and I remember the poet Hilda Hilst always insisted that we should provide a fireplace to heat up our old age.
MA There’s a problem with the fireplace: we begin to stare at the fire and do nothing else. We remain looking at the fire, the fire that changes, moves, feeds….
LFT A fireplace in an apartment? … You see, this last shelf here on the bookcase fell down yesterday; I arrived home and saw all the books on the floor. Thoughts are so heavy!
MA It’s true. They are heavy! Say more about The Girl in the Photograph, Lygia.
LFT With this novel I decided to change my style, like a revolution in form, you know? The narrative focus multiplies in the characters, each one with his time and place…. I confess that it was very difficult. Yes, it was original but it was necessary not to confuse the reader; the strategy needed to work in order to ensure the clarity of the three complicated characters. I confess that I was exhausted!
MA There’s a plurality of voices, isn’t there? It was the first time I saw this in Portuguese literature. Now, everyone tries to do it, in sometimes very artificial ways. You, in The Naked Hours, made a cat the narrator.
LFT Indeed the cat Raul also became a narrator. I know cats well, especially that Raul, who remembers a previous life in which he was a Roman tribune in toga and golden sandals, a proud memorialist. He sees himself in the past as if in a movie. Speaking about movies, the movie-maker Nelson Pereira do Santos is so talented—he’s making a movie about our Romantic poet Castro Alves [1847–1871], another member of the Early Death School, a beautiful young man, ardently and madly in love with the Portuguese actress Eugênia Câmera. I’m betting on this film. I used to talk about movies a lot (points to picture frame) with my son, the one I lost, Goffredo Telles Neto.
MA Wasn’t your son a filmmaker?
LFT He was an excellent filmmaker. I’m going to give you a documentary he directed, assisted by Paloma Rocha, the daughter of Glauber Rocha. In 1987 I assumed my seat at the Brazilian Academy of Letters and he filmed this ceremony but in such an original style. He was so young and just so courageous, so ironic…. In this video, Narrarte (To Narrate You), he even showed a standard-bearer from a samba school twirling the flag and who could not, logically, have been there….
MA The Academy of Sciences in Portugal has a section for literature. I was elected a corresponding member. I declined the post.
LFT My son was very handsome and charming, he had many girlfriends. Just the other day I received an invitation for a reading; the title of the book was As mulheres do meu pai (My Father’s Women) and my granddaughter said, “This is for me. I need to read this book.”
MA It’s by Agualusa, an Angolan writer.
LFT Mia Couto is much loved in Brazil.
MA Mia Couto has Portuguese ancestry, but he is Mozambican. He plays games with words.
LFT The first time I visited Portugal was when I published the novel The Marble Dance in 1954, a long time ago.
MA It showed over there as a soap opera.
LFT But they changed it a lot, I didn’t agree with the plot changes, but it was for the six o’clock slot so they had to censure it….
MA The first Brazilian soap operas created a revolution in Portugal. Now there are so very many that people lose track of the story, they don’t watch as often. But soap operas introduced new words and names into current Portuguese speech. People began to baptize their children with names from Brazilian soap operas.
LFT The bad thing about soap operas comes from the scripts in which, generally, there is none of the ambiguity so natural in human beings; the good characters are good and the cruel ones are cruel, without mixing them up. Then it becomes artificial, unreal.
MA This is imported from the United States.
LFT But here we go, the important thing is your dog. It made this book very successful! It’s so good!
MA It’s true. I am here thanks to Kurica. I wrote the book as a form of exorcism when he died. It is an exaltation of a rebellious, disobedient, unmanageable dog. A dog who did not want to be a dog and wanted to speak. It’s a book about love. Everyone has a dog even if they don’t own a dog. Perhaps this explains how, in a time of a crisis of affection, the book had such a large impact. More than a thousand readers in Portugal. And now it is launched in Brazil. In a certain way it is also a metaphor: a dog like us.
LFT I finished the novel The Girl in the Photograph while in my brother’s farmhouse, in Barra de São João, in Rio de Janeiro. A very beautiful place that has stopped in time. Everything is so simple! The ocean is wild sometimes, violent, the waves foamy, but I swim well; I took a physical education course while I went to law school.
MA I was a swimming champion in Portugal. And I also like the wild Atlantic. The Atlantic is our soul, our identity.
LFT I also used to like volleyball, I was aggressive, I even won a medal. Returning to the ocean, on the beach at Rio de Janeiro, even with all my experience, I almost drowned. I was swimming the crawl and all of a sudden, I was swimming frantically but was not moving. I was all the way at the bottom, and, exhausted, I tried Indian style and began to float. I didn’t notice that I was caught in the tide out of which I wasn’t getting. I was going to drown.
MA But the current goes around. It’s better not to resist it. In order to pierce the sea, you have to go in like a needle.
LFT Of course, but my mind wasn’t working and I was swallowing water. When the two lifeguards came and took me away, I had almost fainted. And the beachgoers booed me! You didn’t die? Then you get booed!
MA (Laughter) It was very nice to come and participate in that event with you at the Book Biennial.
LFT It was very nice to read your book and to meet you, Manuel Alegre! I didn’t go to the reading here in São Paulo because there was a homage to Paulo Emílio at the Cinemateca Brasileira, which he founded—it’s been thirty years since he died. By coincidence, on the same night—
MA The movie theater in Portugal, during the dictatorship, was a space and form of cultural resistance.
LFT During the years of our dictatorship, they were also important.
MA I like the story “Eu voltarei!” (I Will Return) in your new book a lot.
LFT That’s great! I dedicated a lot of effort to that part where the councilman wants to put an end to cemeteries, such an anti-hygienic thing, retrograde, no? The solution, then, would be for the dead to leave the land urgently, carrying their coffin on their head. Yes, the dead evicted and the victorious councilman before all that space thinking of building a cultural center or a beautiful parking lot.
Translated from the Portuguese by Yv Maciel.
Originally published in
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.