When we think of Modernism, we tend to think of T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Marcel Proust or Miguel de Unamuno might come to mind, if we are familiar with Modernism in French and Spanish contexts. What is perhaps less well known is that Modernism thrived in Portugal, the most famous writer to fall into this category being Fernando Pessoa, about whom much has been written and debated.
Alongside Pessoa, there existed a small but prolific network of writers and artists, known popularly as the Orpheu Generation, committed to reworking and revoking nineteenth-century received wisdoms about cultural and literary convention and practice. One such writer was Mário de Sá-Carneiro who, though still celebrated in his country of birth, has today a relatively small, if devoted, readership beyond its borders.
Sá-Carneiro was born in 1890, as Europe looked towards the arrival of a new century. With the death of his mother coming when he was just two years old, Sá-Carneiro was raised by his grandparents at their home near the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. By all accounts, he was a precocious young man; by the time he was a teenager, he was translating works by authors including Victor Hugo and Goethe into Portuguese.
From there, he went to study Law at Coimbra University, Portugal’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institution. He left, however, without taking a degree. At that point, he decided to travel to Paris, then a beacon for intellectuals and creatives from all over the world, where he attended lectures at the Sorbonne. He returned to Portugal, where he met a man called Fernando Pessoa and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sá-Carneiro and Pessoa struck up a very close friendship, writing to each other constantly up until the former’s death by suicide at the tender age of 26. They wrote to each other about their work, and most probably read parts of it before it was published. And it was during this period, in the early 1910s, that the bulk of Sá-Carneiro’s literary output was published. Said literary output comprises one novella, A Confissão de Lúcio (‘Lucio’s Confession’), published in 1913, and a collection of short stories Céu em Fogo (which, translated into English, means ‘Sky Ablaze’), published in 1915, as well as some poetry.
His writing shows influences of Decadence and Symbolism, two movements which flour- ished towards the end of the nineteenth-century but had started to fade as the new century dawned. Modernist principles, such as explorations of the unconscious and the concept of the city, are also evident. His characters deviate from the social, sexual and cultural norms of the period and have urges to discover three key realms: the realm of the otherworldly, and the realms and experiences of the ‘Other’ and non-normative desire.
In Céu em Fogo, the reader encounters a plethora of characters who think, quite simply, that life is not enough. As the depressed protagonist of the short story ‘The Fixer of Moments’ declares: “You cannot touch life, it is all glitter, a fleeting image”. He is far from the only character in these stories who is desperate to venture beyond the boundaries of life and the living, to experience the otherworldly, even death. As one character in ‘The Man of Dreams’ states, “For me there are always new panoramas to explore”. He narrates his journey to an “extraordinary place” whose beauty, he repeats, cannot be expressed in words, because “what I saw was the darkness.” Decadence’s emphasis on social and moral degeneration is clearly at work in this particular short story.
Equally important for Sá-Carneiro’s curious characters is their urge to explore life as other. We experience moments and emotions as we experience them; what many of Sá-Carneiro’s characters seem determined to find out is what it is, or would be, like to inhabit the body and mind of another human being. Chief among these characters is the protagonist of the short story Eu-Próprio o Outro (‘I Myself the Other’), whose title alone indicates the importance of the juxtaposition and interrelatedness of self and other to its plot.
In it, the protagonist experiences what can only be described as an overwhelming existential crisis after meeting a stranger, who quickly becomes an object of painful fascination for him. He exclaims, “I have run aground inside myself” and, later, “I am too much for myself”, with the image of him overflowing his bodily borders suggesting that his understanding of the self is not compatible with society’s. The short story ends with the protagonist, terrified, claiming that “I am another…I am the other…The Other!”. Just as before, it could be argued that the influence of fin-de-siècle literature, and specifically its fixation with foreignness – exemplified in such works as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – has found a place in Sá-Carneiro’s text.
The third and final urge on the part of this array of characters is their desire to explore and experience non-normative forms of love and lust, gender and sexuality. What the feminist poet and critic Adrienne Rich famously described as “compulsory heterosexuality” is railed against in Sá-Carneiro’s work, especially in ‘Lucio’s Confession’, in which the eponymous protagonist narrates the story of how he ended up serving a jail sentence for murder. His best friend, Ricardo, returns from Paris married, but Lucio soon notices that Ricardo and his wife, Marta, are rarely, to be found in the same room together at the same time, if at all. Lucio commences an affair with Marta, which is discovered by Ricardo who, in a fit of rage, shoots Marta dead in front of Lucio. At this point, the climax of the novella, Lucio tells us that before him lay the bodies of Ricardo and Marta; in shooting Marta, Ricardo shoots himself. Whilst he thought he was having an affair with Marta, it becomes clear to Lucio that he was actually having one with Ricardo, introducing the possibility of queer readings of the novella. Through a variety of guises, it’s clear not only that Sá-Carneiro’s characters seek to satisfy their urges, bodily as much as psychological, but also that the influences of a range of literary movements can be found in his writing. In many ways reflecting the urges of Modernism to break the creative mould, the Portuguese modernist’s presentation of queer subjectivities and his questioning of socially-sanctioned desires is surely as bold now as it was in the 1910s.