a brief skylight on Portugal

In the course of our married life (forty years plus) my wife Jane and I have had a series of holidays at the western edge of Europe – from the Orkneys in the north, southward through Sky, Mull and Iona (but not Lewis and Harris, and little of Ireland), the Highlands, Galloway, the Lake District, Formby, the Llŷn Peninsula and West Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Galicia – and in 2017, Portugal (continental and Madeira).  Variety but also similarities – the pounding waves and the prevailing south west winds, often bearing rain.

So, Portugal, albeit visited in its own right, fitted into this life story.  It did not disappoint.

One of the striking things about Portugal is the fact (going back several hundred years) is that it is not Spain.  (Small countries endeavour to retain their identity vis-à-vis big neighbours.)  Similarly, Portuguese is not the same as Spanish.  (Jane and I love Spanish.)  A second truism is that one can try to read written Portuguese but to speak it and to understand the spoken language require much knowledge and practice.

We went around an informative museum in Funchal about the history of Madeira.  The exhibits were well labelled – in four languages – Portuguese, English, French and German – but not Spanish.

I learnt some basic phrases, in order to communicate with the people we met, and to show respect, but I was reluctant to use Spanish.

In the Middle Ages, the Portuguese and Galician languages were similar – “o” for masculine “the” and “a” for feminine “the” – and they still retain this feature (contrast Spanish “el” and “la”).  But a superficial look (mine) inclines one (me) to think that they have drifted apart, because of the longstanding political division.

To fortify my appreciation of Portugal, I dipped into its literature – in particular, the epic of Luís de Camões, Os Lusíados, based upon early Portuguese explorations of Africa and India (read in translation), and also the early novel of José Saramago, Claraboia [Skylight], about the residents (ordinary people) of a block of flats in Lisbon in the early 1950s.  (Recommended.)  (We visited the Saramago Foundation in Lisbon.)

Saramago’s characters are distinct and clearly drawn.  They are human, and they suffer the ups and downs (especially downs) of life.  Happy and unhappy couples feature, and poor widows, and hopeful young women; one woman is “kept” as the mistress of a businessman; another is abused by her husband.

One wife (Carmen) is from Galicia in Spain, and she has not fully mastered Portuguese, after many years of residence in Portugal.  She regrets her marriage to her husband and thinks back to a better offer she had back home.  (At the end of the novel, Carmen returns to Galicia to see her family (with her husband’s permission, as required!); and the reader is let into her thoughts about taking advantage of the opportunity not to return to her husband.)

Silvestre, the shoemaker (usually portrayed in a positive light), describes Carmen, unflatteringly, in these terms:

Ela é que é uma víbora.  E galega, aind por cima….Mas bem conhece o ditado: “De Espanha, nem bom vento, nem bom casamento.”

[Chapter XII]

She’s a real viper, though, and Spanish too boot…You know what they say: “From Spain expect only cold winds and cold wives.”

[translated by M J Costa, Vintage, 2015]

Do European countries (and regions) remain both friends and rivals to this day?

 

 

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Patriarchy and feminism in Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’ – the case of Marcela

In the introduction to his translation of Don Quixote (Spanish: Don Quijote), first published by Penguin in 1950, Mr J M Cohen comments on the patriarchy of the Spain of 1600, as reflected in the work.  After condemning the “pastoral convention” of “too eloquent” shepherds and goatherds, which Cervantes appears to accept, the translator goes on to say:

Another feature of our book which takes the contemporary reader aback is what we may call its sexual morality.  This is based on a crude scale of values by which honour is preserved so long as any seduction, is covered up by marriage.

Mr Cohen refers (appropriately) to Don Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea, and his abandonment of her, followed by his abduction of Luscinda, in love with Cardenio.  (This story takes up several chapters of Book One.)

But there is more variation and depth in the work that Mr Cohen allows.  Take the case of Marcela (also in Book One).

On his travels, Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza hear the tale of the death of the shepherd Grisóstomo: allegedly, he has died of a broken heart, because the beautiful Marcela has rejected his suit.

Grisóstomo’s friends (and the man himself, in the long poem he leaves behind) go so far as to accuse Marcela of cruelty.

Marcela herself suddenly appears, and she states her case both to the dead man’s friends and to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Marcela accepts that Heaven has made her beautiful; but she argues, forcefully and eloquently, that she is in no way to blame for the shepherd’s death:

Yo conozco, con el natural entendimiento que Dios me ha dado, que todo lo hermoso es amable; mas no alcanzo que, por razón de ser amado, esté obligado lo que es amado por hermoso a amar a quien le ama….Y, según de yo he oído decir, el verdader amor…ha de ser voluntario, y no forzoso.  Siendo así, como yo creo que lo es, ¿por qué queréis que rinda mi voluntad por fuerza, obligada no más de que decís que me queries bien?  Si no, decidme: si como el cielo me hizo hermosa me hiciera fea, ¿fuera justo que me quejara de vosotros porque no me amábades?  Cuanto más, que habéis de considerer que yo no escogí la hermosura….

[Book 1, Chapter 14, Academies’ edition, 2004]

With the natural understanding that God has given me, I recognize that what is beautiful is worthy of love.  But what I don’t understand is that just because a woman is loved because of her beauty, she’s obliged to reciprocate this love….And according to what I’ve heard, true love…must be voluntary and not forced.  If that’s true, and I believe it is, why do you want to force me yield my free will simply because you say love me?  Tell me – what if Heaven, which made me beautiful, had made me ugly instead?  Would it be right for me to complain because you didn’t love me?  What’s more, consider this: I didn’t choose to be beautiful….

[translated by T Lathrop, Alam Classics (Richmond, Surrey), 2014]

And Marcela goes on to remind her listeners that beauty is only skin deep – it is inner purity that matters.  She finishes by saying that she values her own freedom above all.

Good for her!

Marcela’s arguments are persuasive; and Don Quixote himself is persuaded.  He sticks up for Marcela, and he says:

Ninguna persona, de cualquier estado y condición que sea, se atreva a seguir a la Hermosa Marcela, so pena de caer en la furiosa indignación mía.  Ella ha mostrado con claras y suficientes razones la poca o ninguna culpa que ha tenido en la muerte de Grisóstomo y cuán ajena vive de condescender con los deseos de ninguno de sus amantes; a cuya causa es juso que, en lugar de ser seguida y perseguida, sea honrada y estimada de todos los buenos del mundo, pues muestra que en él ella es sola la que con tan honesta intención vive.

Let no one [of] whatsoever [estate or condition] dare to pursue the beautiful Marcela, under the penalty of incurring my furious wrath.  She’s shown with clear words and solid reasons that she has had little or no blame in the death of Grisóstomo, and how distant she is from yielding to the desires of any of her suitors.  Far from being pursued, she should be honoured and revered by all good people in the world, since she shows that she’s the only one who lives by such virtuous intentions.

[tr T Lathrop, modified by DRH]

Good for him!

And, after the burial has been completed, the parties go their separate ways.

 

Finding your tongue – anthologies of Welsh literature

When, at the 2006 National Eisteddfod, I picked up a copy of Welsh Women’s Poetry 1461-2001 (edited by Katie Granich and Catherine Brennan and first published by Honno Press of Aberystwyth in 2003), I found I could not put it down.  My copy suffered from the rain as I read it on my way to the public transport that would take me home.

There is a wealth of material.  There is poetry in both English and Welsh, and the Welsh pieces are accompanied by translations, so it can be appreciated very widely.

Until the 21st century (arguably), literature has been dominated by men and women have largely been invisible (with a few exceptions, eg some great English female novelists).

My 2017 treat to myself is a new compendium of Welsh language poetry and prose, from the first millennium to the present day: The Old Red Tongue – An Anthology of Welsh Literature, edited by Gwyn Griffiths and Meic Stephens and published by Francis Boutle (London) – nearly a thousand pages, for £30.

Unlike the Honno anthology, very nearly all the originals are in Welsh, but like the Honno one, they are accompanied by English translations.  This is excellent, as medieval Welsh is in places difficult to follow for the inexpert.  (So too sometimes is dialect.)

Many of the translations have been made by the renowned Anthony Conran and Joseph P Clancy.  Some pieces have been translated for the first time.

There is are useful introductions both to historical periods and also to individual writers.

I’ll take the liberty of quoting from the publisher’s blurb, which describes the volume as an “anthology of over 300 texts – poems, plays, memoirs, essays, extracts from novels and short stories, hymns, eulogies, elegies, medieval prose, political and theological commentaries – from nearly 200 writers”.

The book does what it says on the cover – the net is cast wide.

In the last hundred years or so, fortunately, women’s voices have come to be heard, whereas in earlier times men dominated.  The female writers are: Gwerful Mechain, Ann Griffiths, Eluned Morgan, Kate Roberts, Marion Eames, Jane Edwards, Eigra Lewis Roberts, Nesta Wyn Jones, Manon Rhys, Menna Elfyn, Christine James, Angharad Tomos, Gwyneth Lewis, Sonia Edwards, Elin ap Hywel, Mererid Hopwood and Meleri Wyn James.  (Still a small minority, but growing.)

There is an extensive bibliography at the end, useful for further reading.

I should add that The Old Red Tongue is one of a “lesser used languages of Europe” series, which includes anthologies of literature in Breton, Manx, Galician, Channel Islands Norman French, Esperanto, Maltese and Occitan.  A worthy enterprise.

(One English language anthology is: Poetry 1900 – 2000 – one hundred poets from Wales, edited by Meic Stephens, first published by Parthian, Cardigan, in 2007.)

Here are feasts for those who love literature and for those who love Wales.

A Way with Words

A few years ago Jane and I, on holiday in Italy, based in Sirmione on Lake Garda, went on a day trip to Venice.  Among other things, I was keen to visit the Doge’s Palace, both because my parents had talked about it but also because Marcel Proust had written about it.  On the day, however, I found that it was possible only buy a composite ticket for four attractions: the price was high and time was short.  So we never got to see it.

 

Proust knew Venice well and he excels at evoking it.  His appreciation was stimulated by reading (and translating) John Ruskin’s writings on the city.

 

The passage below (in the original French and in English translation) comes from Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu, in particular, Du côté de chez Swann – the chapter, Un amour de Swann.  Here we see Charles Swann (friend of the first person narrator) arrive at a soirée, held by a friend, for the upper classes, in late 19th century Paris.  At this point, he commences his ascent of a magnificent staircase.  In his mind Swann compares it unfavourably with a narrow, smelly one in a poor apartment block, because this is where he sometimes meets his mistress (Odette). He cannot bring Odette to this high class soirée.  He misses her.

 

Proust is famous (or infamous) for his long sentences.  He packs a lot into them.  The parentheses and subordinate clauses adorn and embellish the main line of thought.  Below I have used ellipses to indicate my omissions.  Complete sentences are complex and rich; but the disadvantage is that the reader can easily lose the main thread.

 

The references to art and sculpture here are typical of Proust’s writings (and virtually all the arts receive a mention in the course of À la recherché).

 

Here we go!

 

À quelque pas, un grand gaillard en livrée rêvait, comme ce guerrier purement décoratif qu’on voit dans les tableaux les plus tumultueux de Mantegna, songer, appuyé sur son bouclier, tandis qu’on se précipite et qu’on s’égorge à côté de lui….Et les mèches de ses cheveux roux crespelés par la nature, mais collés par brillantine, étaient traitées comme elles sont dans la sculpture grecque qu’étudiait sans cesse le peintre de Mantoue [Mantegna]….

 

D’autres encore, colossaux aussi, se tenaient sur les degrés d’un escalier monumental que leur presence decorative et leur immobilité marmorénne auraient pu nommer celui du Palais ducal: “l’Escalier des Géants” et dans lequel Swann engagea avec la tristesse de penser qu’Odette ne l’avait jamais gravi.  Ah! avec joie au contraire il eût grimpé les étages noir, malodorants et casse-cou de la petite couturière retiree, dans le “cinquième” de laquelle il aurait été si heureux de payer plus cher q’une avant-scène hebdomadaire à l’Opéra le droit de passer la soirée quand Odette y venait, et même les autres jours, pour pouvoir parler d’elle, vivre avec les gens qu’elle avait l’habitude n’était pas là et qui à cause de cela lui paraissaient recéler, de la vie de sa maîtresse, quelque chose de plus réel, de plus inaccessible et de plus mystérieux.

 

[Du Côté de chez Swann, Paris: folio classique (1987) pp 318f]

 

A few steps away, a sturdy fellow in livery mused motionless, statuesque, useless, like the purely decorative warrior one sees in the most tumultuous paintings by Mantegna, lost in thought, leaning on his shield, while others beside him rush forward and slaughter one another….And the locks of his red hair, crimped by nature but glued by brilliantine, were treated broadly as they are in the Greek sculpture which the painter from Mantua [Mantegna] studied so constantly….

 

Still others, also colossal, stood on the steps of a monumental staircase to which their decorative presence and marmoreal immobility might have induced one to give the same name as the one in the Ducal Palace – ‘Staircase of the Giants’ – and which Swann began to climb with the sad thought that Odette had never ascended it.  Oh, with what joy by contrast would he have gone up the dark, evil-smelling and rickety flights to the little retired dressmaker’s, in whose ‘fifth floor’ he would have been so happy to pay more than the price of a weekly stage-box at the Opéra for the right to spend the evening when Odette came there, and even on the other days, so as to be able to talk about her, live among the people she was in the habit of seeing when he was not there and who because of that seemed to harbour something, of his mistress’s life, that was more real, more inaccessible and more mysterious.

 

[Lydia Davis (tr) (2003), The Way by Swann’s, London: Penguin, pp 326f]

 

Here Ms Davis follows the French very closely; but “auraient pu nommer celui de” (literally, “could have named the one of”) is turned into the longer “might have induced one to give the same name as”.

 

Ms Davis describes the challenges of reading, and of translating, Proust in the introduction to her translation.  She is a firm admirer:

 

The style in which Proust wrote was essentially natural and unaffected, free from preciosity, archaism and self-conscious elegance….Yet at the same time, he used a wealth of metaphorical imagery, layer upon layer of comparisons, and had a tendency to fill a sentence to its utmost capacity…Proust felt that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought.  [page xxx]

 

The short quotations above give an indication of Proust’s skill with words.  The whole scene at the soirée has a satirical flavour: the idiosyncrasies of the upper classes are exposed.  (But the tone changes when Swann becomes immersed in the music being performed, as it too brings Odette to mind – not very happily.)