This is a quick survey of the Portuguese literary culture from someone who had no exposure to it prior to arriving in Lisbon. The selected writers were chosen based on a book covers found in Bertrand Livreiros, some quick searches on Google, Wikipedia (links included with author snippets below), and a fair amount of walking up and down hills to a few of the many historic sites in the city. Though none of the writers are covered in any significant detail, the living ones are even less detailed.
From top left to right: Jose Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, Gonçalo M. Tavares, Fernando Pessoa, Luís de Camões, Florbela Espanca, Cesário Verde, Eça de Queirós, José Rodrigues dos Santos
From top left to right: Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Stéphane Mallarmé, Honoré de Balzac, William Faulkner, Homer, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Some Historical Context
According to Tim Lambert’s "A Short History of Portugal", humans have been inhabiting Portugal for over 30,000 years. For reference, scientists today estimate that modern humans migrated out of Africa being between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Over the course of history, multiple groups, including the Phoenicians, Celts, Romans, Suevi, Visigoths, and Moors are said to have entered the Iberian Peninsula (where modern day Portugal and Spain are located). For centuries the Moores and Visigoths ruled over the peninsula until Portugal emerges as Visigoth state in 1100.
By the time of the birth of the great early master of Portuguese poetry, Luís de Camões, in 1524, Portugal had already been ravished by the plague, formed and alliance with England, founded its first university and navigated extensively throughout the world.
Luís de Camões
A sixteenth century poet, considered by many to to be Portugal’s finest, Luis de Camões profoundly shaped the Portuguese literary landscape with his masterpiece Os Lusíadas (translated as The Lusiads). The epic work dramatizes contemporary maritime voyages in classical style, echoing Homer’s Odyssey. The impact of Os Lusiadas was so profound that some have dubbed Portuguese “the language of Camões”.
Camões sailed to Africa, where he lost an eye fighting the Moors, and later to India and East Asia.
“This is my blessed home, my earliest love,
Where, if Heaven allows my safe return
With this task at last accomplished,
I will be content to breathe my last.
She was named Lusitania, so it’s said
From Lusus or Lysa, thought to be
Bacchus’ sons, or members of his band
The very first to cultivate this land.
— trans. by Landeg White, 1997
It is interesting to note that his father is reported to have left the family while Luis was a young boy, the theme of parental loss being quite prevelant in the life of Portuguese writers. Camões died in 1580 in Lisbon at age 56 and is buried by Belem.
Notable works: Os Lusíadas
Eça de Queirós
25 November 1845–16 August 1900
The cinematic writing style of Eça de Queirós has led some to compare his works to those of Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy. Given the time period in which he was writing Vanity Fair of Victorian literature also comes to mind.
Born in Póvoa de Varzim, he was an illegitimate child, sharing the disruption of family ties at young age with several other Portuguese writers. He attended Coimbra and later traveled to Egypt. Later in life he would move to Paris where he would die at age 54.
"Let us depart instead for the fields of Dreams and wander those blue, romantic hills where stands the abandoned tower of the Supernatural, where cool mosses clothe the ruins of Idealism. Let us, in short, indulge in a little fantasy!"
Notable works: The Malas
25 February 1855–19 July 1886
Although relatively unknown outside Portugal, Cesário Verde is considered one of Portugal’s greatest poets. His reputation is bolstered by admiration from the likes of Portugal favorite Fernando Pessoa. Verde demonstrates multiple perspectives, writing sometimes of an idyllic countryside and alternately an urbanized, morally suspect industrial city. Portugal’s first realist, Verde brings light to the less advantaged layers of society.
Some noted influence of Verde include: Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and of course Luís de Camões (see above).
Today I’m cruel, frenetic, demanding;
I can not even tolerate the most bizarre books.
Incredible! I’ve already smoked three packets of cigarettes
My head aches. I hide some mute, desperate feelings:
So much depravation in the uses, in the habits!
I love, senselessly, the acids, the cutting edges
And the acute angles. -Contrarieties
Notable works: – The Book Of Cesário Verde
June 13, 1888 — November 30, 1935
Fernando Pessoa is so ominipresent in the Portuguese literary body and holds great influence among writers and readers of Portuguese literature. Much biographical and analytic material is available throughout the world.
Born in Portugal, Pessoa spent a good amount of time in South Africa (e.g. Durban High School). Like Camões, Pessoa lost his father at an early age. His adult life was based in Lisbon where he died in 1935 at age 47, likely from cirrhosis of the liver.
Pessoa is famous for his heteronyms (imaginary characters he created to write in various styles). He was also quite interested in esoteric ism and the occult, going so far as to align some of his major heteronym characters with fire, earth, water and air symbols of the zodiac. Other subjects include freemasonary, astrology, associative thinking/automatic writing, channeling, along with other mystic and spiritual concerns.
“My soul is impatient with itself, as with a bothersome child; its restlessness keeps growing and is forever the same. Everything interests me, but nothing holds me. I attend to everything, dreaming all the while. […]. I’m two, and both keep their distance — Siamese twins that aren’t attached.” ― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Some of Pessoa’s work is said to echo Walt Whitman.
Notable works: Many, including The Book of Disquiet, Mensagem
Mário de Sá-Carneiro
May 19, 1890 — April 26, 1916
Mário de Sá-Carneiro was born into a wealthy military family and grew up on farm outside of Lisbon in his childhood. He started writing during his childhood and would later meet Fernando Pessoa. Sá-Carneiro eventually moved to Paris, living a bohemian lifestyle and, with Pessao, would help form the Geração de Orpheu (Orpheus’s Generation) and write for Orpheu magazine.
In Paris he met Guilherme de Santa-Rita an “eccentric painter”, started dating a prostitute, and began a fatal battle with depression would would ultimately lead to his suicide in a Paris hotel room via a large does of strychnine.
It would be interesting to see what, if any, overlap existed between the “Orpheus’s Generation” and Hemmingway’s “Lost Generation”.
“…I did hate those people…those false artists whose work consists of the poses they strike: saying outrageous things, cultivating complicated tastes and appetites, being artificial, irritating, unbearable. People who, in fact, take from art only what is false and external…” ― Mário de Sá-Carneiro
Notable works: Amizade and A Confissão de Lúcio
Influences: Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Cesário Verde, and António Nobre
8 December 1894 — 8 December 1930
Florbela Espanca was known for her erotic and feminist writing. Fernando Pessoa would later call her his “twin soul”. Born in Vila Viçosa, Portugal, her mother also died early. At 19, she married and moved to Redondo, Portugal and became a teacher.
From 1915 to 1917, she collected all of her poems into a work entitled O livro D’el after which she moved to Lisbon. In 1919, Espanca had her second miscarriage in 1919 and around the same time, she began to show the first serious symptoms of mental illness. Espanca died by suicide on 8 December 1930, her 36th birthday, from an overdose of barbiturates.
Charneca em Flor was published a month later in January 1930. In 1931, Reliquiare, a title given by the Italian professor Guido Battelli, was published with the poems she wrote on a further version of Charneca em Flor
Sometimes I start looking at the mirror and examining myself, feature by feature: eyes, mouth, shape of the forehead, eyelids curve, the face line… And this vulgar and hideous-looking, grotesque and miserable amalgam, would it know how to do verses? Oh, no! There is something else … but what? After all, why think? To live is to not know that one is living… Why don’t I forget that I am living… to live? Diary (20 April, 1930), quoted in Afinado desconcerto (2002), p. 262
Notable works: Livro de Soror Saudade, As Máscaras do Destino, Charneca em Flor
16 November 1922–18 June 2010
Beyond his writing, Jose Saramago is famous for being was an outspoken critic of society and religion, joining the Communist Party, and offending the Portuguese government and the Vatican with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.
He also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, receiving acclaim:
“who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”.
His writing style was often experimental, featuring very long sentence and few periods, preferring commas. Later in life, he retired to inished life in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria off the coast of Africa. He died there in 2010. A museum was dedicated to him in Lisbon.
“Whether we like it or not, the one justification for the existence of all religions is death, they need death as much as we need bread to eat.” ― José Saramago, Death with Interruptions
Notable works: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Blindness
António Lobo Antunes
1 September 1942
António Lobo Antunes started out his professional career as a psychiatrist so it’s no wonder that he writes in memories, recollections with thoughts intertwined with dialogues
His style is considered to be very dense, heavily influenced by William Faulkner and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and his books are also tend to be on the longer side.
“Agitated on the inside by disgust but with nothing showing in their immobile features, absolutely still, as unmoving as those of landscapes, of photographs, of summer sunsets, nothing showing in their ever-horizontal features, decomposing silently in the Formica chairs.” ― António Lobo Antunes, Knowledge of Hell
Notable works: Memória de Elefante, What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?
José Rodrigues dos Santos
1 April 1964 –
José Rodrigues dos Santos started out as a journalist and has gone on to write The Einstein Enigma and Codex 632
“His worst nightmare had become real; life was no more than a fragile breath, a fleeting instant od light in the eternal darkness of time”
― José Rodrigues dos Santos, Codex 632
Notable works: The Einstein Enigma: A Novel, Codex 632
Gonçalo M. Tavares
Gonçalo M. Tavares was born in 1970 in Luanda, Angola and written several books including the critically acclaimed Jerusalem. Saramago has called him the greatest writer of a generation.
Tavares’s books convey an intricate set of ideas that are dispensed only gradually. Jerusalem, with its shards of memories and visions of the future, had a mind-altering effect on me — Bomb Magazine
Tavares’s influences are said to include philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein
If he could understand how History thought, if he treated it like an organism that had a brain, and if through documentation and research, he arrived at graphs and formulas explaining events throughout the centuries, Theodor would reach what thousands of men — great and small, violent or peaceful — had tried: to master History. Gonçalo M. Tavares, Jerusalem
Notable works: Jerusalem