sexta-feira, Setembro 12, 2014

A moment in life


Recently, a post on the facebook page of A Máquina da Arte - a site created by young Portuguese artists I recommend - reminded of a brief encounter I once had with Mário Botas. I was 16, and out Portuguese teacher took our class to the National Library to see an exhibition of drawings inspired by Fernando Pessoa and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, and the painter, Mário Botas, was there to show us around.


I was captivated and charmed by the drawings - small compositions, soft and delicate colors, of a kind of dreamy, fantastic and childlike nature. They were strange and enticing. The artist, a tall young man (I have a terrible memory for faces) went around with us, occasionally making vague remarks about a drawing, like "I was thinking of Mário de Sá-Carneiro at the time..." or "I kept listening this line in my head..." (this was about the first line of a poem by Pessoa, Antinous: The rain outside was cold in Hadrian's soul, written in a drawing - it was the first time I read it, and it has also haunted me ever since).


At some point, in front of a particular surreal drawing, somebody asked him: "Yes, but was does it mean?" "What do you mean by that?" "Yes, this figure, what is it? And who is this guy, and why is he flying?". He looked at us with an attentive and slightly puzzled expression through his thick round glasses, and answered very seriously, not at all condescendingly (we were after all a bunch of teenagers, and only a few were paying attention): "What does it mean?... Well... I wouldn't know... I know what I felt when I painted them, but I didn't plan them. I painted what I felt was right... Then sometimes a friend sees something, another something else. I myself see different things at different times when I look at them, you might call them meanings, but don't know if it's that... You know, after I finish it, I really don't feel it belongs to me; someone may see something, or other... I really couldn't say it means this or that."


I remember listening and being fascinated by his words, it felt like something was finally making sense. I knew nothing about Surrealism at the time, didn't know Klee, Kandinsky or Pollock, but the question of the meaning of works of art was a frequent subject of conversation with a group of older friends I used to hang out with at the time, around cuba libres in bars; I was the kid and looked up to them, and the subject came up usually about the meaning of poems or more or less abstruse rock lyrics, not painting. They used to say: if the author says it means this, then it's what it definitely means, you don't have to look further; but that statement somehow never satisfied me (how I wish I would have known then what Neil Young said about the purported meaning of the lyrics of After the Gold Rush: "I think I wrote each line under a different drug, how am I supposed to give it a meaning?"). And now, here I was listening to the real thing, a real artist telling what I suspected but never had been able to put in words. Somehow, I remember this casual encounter as a defining moment in my relation to art; maybe it's silly to attach importance (meaning?) to these small things, but I somehow believe our views in life, our life actually, is actually shaped by these kinds of moments, that often seem quite insignificant at the time.


Our teacher commented a few days later that Mário Botas was very ill, and in effect he died a few months later from leukemia, barely 30 years old. I think it was a great loss, he was an excellent artist and seemed genuinely a very nice guy. I remember I read Almeida Faria's books because the covers were designed by him. And I still feel grateful for having helped to shape me in some, even if modest, way.


(Note - This teacher - I was in 11th grade - was by far the best Portuguese teacher I had; I owe him the discovery of the beauty of the Troubadours' poetry, that I still love, and of Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro. He was a passionate and talented teacher, he even made Almeida Garrett look interesting!)

(Second note - I couldn't copy the drawing with the Pessoa line, but it's on the Mário Botas foundation website - very worth a visit.)

quarta-feira, Setembro 10, 2014

An admirable woman

One of the thing I most enjoy about my job is some of the people I get to know. For instance, there's this woman, about my age, whose doctor I have been for a few months. She has been a renal patient since childhood, was on peritoneal dialysis by 10, went through two renal transplants and is on hemodialysis for a year. She looks much older than her chronological age, she's not beautiful, and a cushingoid body bears witness to years of corticosteroid therapy. But every time I talk to her I just feel... awed. I can't imagine how hard her life must have been, being so ill from such an early age. But then she manages to be the opposite of a negative person. She grew up with her illness, but never let it defeat her. She studied, graduated as a language teacher, she has always ben working and her conversation is bright and intelligent. She doesn't complain about the health system, just the opposite: "People are always complaining about it, saying it's better abroad. I've lived in Switzerland and France and can attest that it's no better there at all". She's not bitter about her life. Her skin is prematurely wrinkled, but her smile comes easily and her face is deeply tanned by the beach sun, and when she speaks and smiles it's like the good weather fills the room. One can see she enjoys life. She discusses politics, the financial crisis, literature, languages, Latin etimology, the education system. She's so different from the average Portuguese patient - or the average Portuguese person actually - and always leave our appointments with a smile and a bittersweet sense of envy. Some people are endowed with this capacity for happiness, this talent for life. I can only admire them, and feel grateful and privileged to get to know them.

sexta-feira, Setembro 05, 2014

Augustus - a novel, by John Williams

I had never heard about this book - or the author - until I recently read about it on the New York Review of Books, and it made me curious to read it. I always liked historical fiction, and always found the period treated particularly interesting.

And I was very pleasantly surprised with the book. The epistolary form is a clever way to present the events in a way to make them look as they could be happening anytime, including now, which it stresses the timelessness of the issues, as the author intended. I think by far the best part of the book, and the most accomplished, is the first one, describing the rise of Octavius to power. The last, the long letter to a friend in which Augustus sums up his life and tries to make sense of what it meant, has some very interesting and insightful parts, but, in my opinion, tries a little too much to give meaning to what doesn't have to have an inherent meaning in the way it means a purpose. Anyway, all in all a good book.

terça-feira, Agosto 26, 2014

O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis, de José Saramago

Como habitualmente, José Saramago parte de uma premissa interessante - o regresso a Portugal de Ricardo Reis, após a morte de Fernando Pessoa. A partir daí, traça um retrato do ano de 1936, focado no avanço do fascismo em Portugal e Espanha. Soberbamente escrito, num tom depressivo concordante com os acontecimentos narrados, e sempre extremamente fiel à caracterização de Ricardo Reis como o terá imaginado Pessoa.

Ricardo Reis é o heterónimo de Pessoa cuja poesia sempre me disse menos; a propósito desta leitura voltei a ler várias das suas odes, mas não mudei de opinião, continuo a preferir Pessoa ortónimo, a depressão apaixonada de Álvaro de Campos e o bucolismo de Alberto Caeiro.

domingo, Agosto 24, 2014

Patrick Leigh Fermor - an adventure, by Artemis Cooper

I first read A Time of Gifts years ago, and enjoyed it immensely; later I read Between the Woods and the Water, and recently The Broken Road. In the meantime, I also read Ill Met by Moonlight, by Stanley Moss, the narrative of the mission to abduct the German General Kreipe in Crete during WWII. When I knew about this biography I was naturally curious, and it didn't let my expectations down.

What kind of life could be better than his? Living in lots of different places, traveling incessantly always with a keen observant spirit and a never-ending capacity to enjoy it, meeting scores of interesting people, writing splendid books, settling in a beautiful house in Greece, and in the meantime being a war hero! One can't help feeling jealous and awed. His vitality was probably exasperating sometimes, but I admire how he lived life to the full on his own terms, and how he knew to look at places and people and write beautifully about them. I love that kind of travel writing, dilettante as I also like to be.

Just a detail to finish - as the house in Kardamyli was described, I felt a sense of familiarity, then I checked, and saw it was where the movie Before Midnight was shot.

sábado, Agosto 16, 2014

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

The third and final book about Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel on foot from Holland to Constantinople is a joy to read, just the first two - A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Written before the others, and not finished during the author's life, it feels a little more personal and emotional, and it's not the least worst for it. I reread the other books before starting this one, and it didn't look at all inferior to the others. Leigh Fermor was a passionate traveler and a passionate writer, his curiosity and enthusiasm are contagious, and he is never boring nor sounds condescending, his youthful naiveté is assumed and, as all optimistic travelers, he tends to see the good everywhere.

His descriptions are always enthralling, the dilletantish digressions interesting and engaging, and I'm left with an immense yearning to travel again, and to visit those places that I never went to - the Rhineland, Hungary, Transylvania, Rumania, Bulgaria, the Danube - and to go to Greece again to see the monasteries in Mount Athos and Meteora. And what more can one wish from a travel book?

quinta-feira, Julho 31, 2014

A Schoolboy's Diary, by Robert Walser


I didn't know Robert Walser, and I bought this book in Zurich when looking for Swiss authors. I wasn't very impressed at first - nice stories, elegant writing, but not really engaging. But as I read on there were a few I liked very much, so I think it is worth reading. There was particularly a small text that I found beautiful and I transcribe it here:

Morning and Night

Early in the morning, how good, how blindingly bright your mood was, how you peeked into life like a child and, no doubt, often enough acted downright fresh and improper. Enchanting, beautiful morning with golden light and pastel colors!
How different, though, at night - then tiring thoughts came to you, and solemnity looked at you in a way you had never imagined, and people walked beneath dark branches, and the moon moved behind clouds, and everything looked like a test of whether you too were firm of will and strong.
In such a way does good cheer constantly alternate with difficulty and trouble. Morning and night were like wanting to and needing to. One drove you out into vast immensity, the other pulled you back into modest smallness again.

Or this other piece, so immediately familiar to anyone who loves to read:

Reading

Reading is as productive as it is enjoyable. When I read, I am a harmless, nice and quiet person and I don't do anything stupid. Ardent readers are a breed of people with great inner peace as it were. The reader has his noble, deep, and long-lasting pleasure without being in anyone else's way or bothering anyone. Is that not glorious? I should think so! Anyone who reads is far from hatching evil schemes. An appealing and entertaining thing to read has the good quality of making us forget for a time that we are nasty, quarrelsome people who cannot leave each other in peace. Who could deny this clearly rather sad and melancholy-inducing sentence? No doubt books often also sidetrack us from useful and productive actions; still, all things considered, reading has to be commended as beneficial, since it seems to be utterly necessary to apply a restraint to our violent craving for belongings and a gentle anesthetic to our often ruthless thirst for action.[...]