Lisbon: A Portrait And A Guide

Eça de Queiroz and Fernando Pessoa

Eça de Queiroz
What I am talking about when I speak of the Chiado and its immediate environs is fashionable Lisbon. And it is just as fashionable now as it was when it was the show place for the janoto, the dandy, of the world of Eça de Queiroz. I cannot pass through this district without thinking of Eça. All these streets, from the Baixa up to the Chiado and the Bairro Alto, and down to the river, make up the Lisbon of the books of Queiroz. The street names evoke those encounters the novelist so frequently arranged for his characters with devastating poignancy or intolerable angst, accidentally on the pavement. In a way, Eça did for Lisbon what James Joyce did for Dublin. He brought to life and defined a whole world. His prose is very like the early Joyce in character. It is clean, hard, and real, with a capacity for romantic and sensuous evocation. His spare but moving use of place names is also similar. This will mean nothing to the English reader, however, for Eça still awaits a translator of genius. It is certainly not good enough to suggest, as I have heard Eng. Lit. gents do, that he is a poor man's Flaubert. Although this is not the place, maybe, for disquisition on the work of Queiroz, it must be remarked that it would be impossible, or utterly blind, to treat Lisbon and not bring in his work at some point. It is possible that there can be no real understanding of the Portuguese character without reference to this writer. Nor is this any accident. His influence has been vast. It is unlikely that any interesting writer in Portuguese has escaped the shadow of his satirical yet wise and comprehensive vision. He re-created the conscience of the race (to use Joyce's phrase) to such a degree that in a certain sense his work is Portugal.
Dealing specifically with Lisbon his novels cover a truly Shakespearean range of life. In Os Maias, for instance, we find a picture of the rich and noble, the sensitive successful hero with all the upper-class background of the period; in Cousin Bazílio the scene is the world of the moderate professional middle class of the time with vivid scenes of low Lisbon too. In A Capital — for me one of the most fascinating books as far as the portrait of the city goes — we see the world of the cafés, the newspapers and journalists, the political underworld, Socialists and Royalists, fanatics and spongers, poets and tarts, the fashionable salon and the low hotel.
The book moves through all the levels of Lisbon life in the late nineteenth century. Eça with brilliant, sometimes savage, comic strokes takes his hero (or anti-hero) through the gamut of experience, starting with the innocent excitement of the provincial would-be writer arriving with his small inheritance to conquer the literary world of Lisbon to the brutal end of real vision. Personally I can never walk down the Rua do Século past the gloomy façade of the newspaper of the same name without seeing the ghost of the wretched Artur seeking out the depraved and the outrageous Melchior, the hack journalist who has ruthlessly sponged off him, looking for his fare back to the country and his dying aunt. It is not that Eça has endowed the town with character, it is that his vision sharpens the eye and adds a new dimension.
The fact that Lisbon is physically much the same today as it was then is important. Unlike London, where the transformations are so drastic that it is becoming futile to look for those places hallowed in literature (even modern literature — Pound's Kensington, or Eliot's City for instance), Lisbon can still offer almost intact the stage on which Eça's characters are made to act out their tragi-comic roles. This is a privilege we can enjoy in Lisbon.
It was the conscious aim of Eça de Queiroz to create a full-scale portrait of Portuguese life. In letters to his publisher he sketched out such a scheme. And he had the attitude of a modern artist: there would be no digression, he said, nor declamation nor philosophy, 'something you will read in a night but will impress you for a week' he added modestly. In a way, although he never fulfilled his scheme and the Portuguese comédie humaine was never published, his complete work does add up to the sort of portrait of which he spoke. It is a comic vision that understood the passion, the gloom, the tragedy of the race. Having read him, one can never again be happy with the superficial, the trite and picturesque view of the Portuguese, found so repeatedly in English travel writing about the country from the eighteenth century onwards.
But as I have remarked earlier, it is the fact that so much of old Lisbon has survived intact into our day that allows us to enjoy these insights. And this applies to other eras and other parts of the old town aside from the world of Eça.
It is remarkable given the rate at which the city has expanded in the last twenty years, that so much has been preserved. It is also encouraging to notice that in spite of the pressures of big business there is a high degree of awareness of the value of the city's heritage. A typical example of this is a recently published book by one of the country's leading architects, Francisco Keil Amaral, surveying the dilemma of a rapidly expanding metropolis: Lisboa: Uma Cidade Em Transformação (Lisbon: A City in Transformation). This writer draws attention early on in his book to an interesting aspect of life in a city not yet overwhelmed by the demands of modern mass-housing and concomitant problems. People in Lisbon, he points out, were Portuguese and Lisboners in a special way. In a concrete and real manner were inhabitants of Alfama, of Madragoa, of Bairro Alto, of Campo Ourique, of Poço do Bispo, of Alcântara, of Belém ... or in a more concrete way still, of certain patios, streets, or sectors of these quarters. The customs of the neighbourhood, habits and communal interests — whether of hate or love — moulded the district into a real community: a situation where even the football clubs – Benfica, Sporting, or Oriental – were basically clubs of the quarter, the bairro, supported by local enthusiasm and expressing a local cohesion. Much of this is passing under modern pressures. But for those of us who visit Lisbon, coming from places where this process is so much more advanced, where nothing, or nearly nothing, has escaped brutal levelling progress, Lisbon still presents a picture of how more pleasant life can be when the scale is not utterly shattered, wherein human beings can converse, communicate and care for each other.
The old self-contained quarters of Lisbon are a joy. In one district we will find ourselves in an atmosphere belonging to a certain era: in the Bairro Alto, for example, we are in the seventeenth century. Down below, it is all eighteenth century, Pombal’s Lisbon. This is very much French influenced; while now very lisboeta to us, it was a foreign intrusion when first built. To the east the rising hillside of Castelo de S. Jorge brings us back to ancient Lisbon, to the world as it existed before the disaster of the earthquake. Baixa in that pre-earthquake period was also a dense mass of alleyways and lanes — becos in Portuguese — very much in the style of the Alfama. It is hard to imagine how it must have been: a maze of antique buildings, all on different levels. But that venerable monument of Lisbon, the lift which will take you up from the Rua Santa Justa to the Carmo, gives a clear view of the great drop between the Alfama and Castelo de S. Jorge on the one side and the Bairro Alto on the other. Where now there is a flat bed, with its straight streets criss-crossing in orderly fashion there was a mass of unruly detail. There was the heart of ancient Lisbon. This included in its time the Jewish bairro, Judiaria Grande, with its synagogues, and its extension the Judiaria Pequena. The river covered much of what is now the Praça do Comércio. At that time the palace (from which the square gets its other name Terreiro do Paço) did not reach more than half-way down the length of the present space.
Looking on this cityscape from Eiffel’s lift at Santa Justa, one is presented with a paradox — a curiosity of town architecture that must be among the most fascinating of its kind. Here is a perfectly self-contained and largely untouched expression of the eighteenth century stuck artificially in between two almost equally untouched sections of a medieval city. The one is an elegant exercise in logical reasoned town planning. The others express the organic growth of a city over its centuries of existence, the natural higgledy-piggledy charm of an unplanned conglomerate obeying laws and embodying a personality not susceptible to the operations of the ruler and drawing board.
The intrusion of the eighteenth-century logic on such a drastic scale into the character of the city also symbolises the powerful effect of foreign influence in Portugal at that time and subsequently. Somehow the older city holds more of the soul of the true Portuguese. I do not find the spirit of Portugal in the Baixa.
There is some confirmation of these notions in the writing of many of the nineteenth-century generation of Portuguese poets and philosophers, who found that the national identity was being undermined by essentially French influences, and who were responsible for what can properly be called a Portuguese renaissance. Men like Teófilo Braga, Antero do Quental, Oliveira Martins, Leite de Vasconcelos, Alberto Sampaio and not least of all, Eça De Queiroz himself. The latter gave fairly strong expression to the sort of dilemma this generation felt when he wrote in an essay entitled O ‘Francesismo’: ‘I have been accused with bitterness in the periodicals, or in those pieces of printed paper that in Portugal pass for periodicals, of being turned foreign, of being Frenchified, and more, by my writing and by my example trying to de-portugalise Portugal. But this is an error of the salon…Far from being guilty of de-nationalisation, I was one of the melancholy products of it. No sooner born, hardly having taken my first steps, still wearing little crochet boots than I began to breathe France. All around me was France only…All my generation with the exception of some superior spirits like Antero do Quental or Oliveira Martins, we have all turned fatally French in the midst of a society which was frenchifying itself and which throughout every part from the creation of the State down to the taste of the individual had broken with the national tradition, divesting itself of all its Portuguese clothes in order to put on — in thinking, legislation, writing, teaching, living, cooking — rags brought from France.’
Eça played his role, of course, in the re-creation of the national image. And although he may have exaggerated in this essay he does express the dilemma — essentially a dilemma of identity — that preoccupied his generation, and most Portuguese writers since. I feel that Eça left out of account the degree to which the Portuguese can absorb foreign influence and make it their own. A great and obvious example is the Italian architect Nazzoni, the master of the Portuguese baroque in the north of Portugal. And one of the sculptors of the Jerónimos was a Frenchman, Nicolau Chanterene.
These writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century in Portugal (even the more journalistic of them like Ramalho Ortigão were brilliant and witty writers) introduced in an acute way the whole question of what ultimately was Portugal and where Portugal was going. It was a sort of nationalist renaissance comparable to the Irish literary revival of a slightly later date.

Fernando Pessoa
In modern times, a poet has demonstrated again that this is a basic concern with the thinking Portuguese. Fernando Pessoa was obsessed with the question of identity. He also shared the messianic character that repeatedly asserts itself in Portuguese literature and life. Pessoa was a major European poet. He was a complex personality to begin with. So much so that his own thought and work led him to an assertion of the impossibility of a simple identity. A man is now one thing and again another. One expression is as valid as the next, and there is no simple truth. He developed four separate personae for himself. Each a poet, publishing under his own name, each with a history, a profession and even a horoscope for himself. They not infrequently wrote critiques and introductions one for the other.
Without a knowledge of the poetry this sounds fairly crazy. But the world Pessoa created by this device is utterly convincing. In it, he can range from the romantic and heroic to the wry, satiric, and comic.
Pessoa applied his notions to the analysis of the Portuguese character in general and, for the purposes of the present remarks, this is where the interest lies for me: for Fernando Pessoa, like Eça, haunts Lisbon once one gets to know his work.
It is worth quoting some of his earliest statements on this problem of identity written in 1915, ‘I do not know who I am, what soul I have.’ ‘When I speak with sincerity I do not know with what sincerity I speak.’ ‘I feel myself multiple. I am like a room with innumerable mirrors that turn into false reflections a single anterior reality which is not in any one of them and in all of them.’
He wrote: ‘Being Portuguese it is as well to know what we are,
a) adaptability, which in things of the mind gives instability and therefore diversification of the individual within himself.
b) a predominance of emotion over passion. We are tender and little intense, the opposite to the Spanish – our absolute opposites – who are passionate and cold. Never do I feel myself more Portuguese than when I feel different from myself — Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, Fernando Pessoa.'
(The names of these various ‘personae’. N.B. his own name comes last)
It seems to me that Pessoa’s note on the national character here is enlightening. It even seems to me, too, that the city expresses this feeling: diverse, tender, poetic, rising in tiers of pastel shades from the warm hazy river where dark triangular silhouettes of sails move gently through the afternoon. This is one face of Lisbon.


Dublin Oil - Dublin Watercolour/ Ink - Italy - Oakridge/ Ashwell Watercolour - Oakridge/ Ashwell Oil - London Oil - London Watercolour/ Ink - France - Algarve Oil - Algarve Watercolour/ Ink - Self-Portraits - Trees - Portraits I - Portraits II - Porches Pottery - Books - Misc - Algarve Studio
Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality

By Swift
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All

About Swift
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All

By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh

Further Quotes
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About