Diary: David Leavitt on the Lisbon novel, a small genre

Is it an oddity of mine that sometimes I will read a novel just to spend some time in the city where it’s set? Looking back, I’m struck by how often this impulse has driven my reading decisions. Paris—Jean Rhys’s Quartet, Mavis Gallant’s A Fairly Good Time, and about a thousand others. London— Rachel Cusk’s Transit, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, and about a thousand others. New York—where do I begin? (Well, actually, I know exactly where to begin, with Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.)

Occasionally I’ve gone one step further and read a novel in the city where it is set. In 2009, for instance, I had the pleasure of reading José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in Lisbon—specifically at the York House, an old hotel frequented by Allied spies during World War II. I’d gone to Lisbon to research a novel I was writing, the novel that would eventually become The Two Hotel Francforts. At first I had not intended for it to be set in Lisbon; I had envisioned it as a road novel, following an expatriate American couple (the wife Jewish) as they made their way from Paris back to New York in the summer of 1940, in the wake of the German occupation. As I originally planned it, the story would take the couple to Bordeaux (where they would obtain visas for Spain and Portugal), over the International Bridge into Spain, and across Spain and Portugal to Lisbon, where they would pause only to await the ship (the Manhattan) that the State Department was sending to rescue them and other stranded Americans. Lisbon was meant to have taken up at most a chapter, only once I got my couple there I couldn’t get them out. Lisbon held them firm. It held me firm.

Lisbon has many distinctions. For one thing, it is the westernmost port in Europe. It is also the capital of the only country except Switzerland to remain neutral throughout the war, hence the only city from which, in the war years, ships were still sailing and planes flying to New York. This made Lisbon at the time an extraordinarily interesting place, filled to the rafters with refugees and would-be émigrés who would spend their days waiting in lines at embassies and travel agencies, and their nights—if they had the money—feasting on lobster and duck (there were no food shortages in Portugal) and driving out to Estoril to play Baccarat at the casino.

So here I was, stuck in Lisbon, as were my protagonists, only I had never been there. When I went in 2009, it was for the first time, and it was specifically to set my novel there—which, as it happens, is exactly the same reason the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina went to Lisbon for the first time, so that he could set a novel there (Winter in Lisbon)—a visit he describes in hallucinatory detail in a more recent novel, Like a Fading Shadow.

Like a Fading Shadow—which I consider to be among the finest examples of that comparatively small genre, the Lisbon novel—has two narrative strands. The first is the story of the eight or so days in 1968 that James Earl Ray, on the lam after killing Martin Luther King, spent in Lisbon, from which he had traveled on a fraudulent Canadian passport that gave his name as Ramon Sneya. The second is the story of the period in Munoz Molina’s life when he was living in Grenada and working on a novel that he decided, for reasons not entirely clear to him, had to be set in Lisbon, and so went to Lisbon so that he could know the city well enough to set his novel there. And from the moment he arrived, and not entirely to his own surprise, he found that he was besotted with Lisbon, its sobriety and humidity and greyness, its flat center and the vertiginous slopes that rise from it, up which funiculars climb. For Lisbon is a city full of fascinating ways of going up and down vertiginous slopes, of which the most fascinating is its outdoor elevator, the Santa Justa Elevator, which carries you from Baixa, the sea-level portion of the city, up to Chiado, one of its hilly regions, and which Munoz Molina describes as resembling a miniature Eiffel Tower, which is apposite, given that the elevator’s architect, Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, reputedly studied in Paris with Gustave Eiffel.

So there I was, in Lisbon, in 2009, staying at the York House and trying to get to know the city—not well, but as well as my protagonists, who had never been there before either, and would remain for only ten days. I spent my days walking, and looking at old newspapers in the city’s hemeroteca, or newspaper library, and at old shipping records in the archives of the marina. And then in the evenings, after a dinner of lobster with rice or duck with rice, I would sit in the lobby of the York House and read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which is probably the best-known of all Lisbon novels. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is set in 1935, which is in fact the year of the death of the poet Fernando Pessoa, who is in Lisbon a figure of extraordinary importance, much more importance than Saramago. Except for Kafka in Prague, I can think of no writer who has attained, in his home city, the status that Pessoa has attained in Lisbon, where he is a sort of mascot. That is to say, at news kiosks and tourist shops, you can buy postcards of Pessoa, T-shirts of Pessoa. You can buy mugs and tea cups of Pessoa. In front of the Café A Brasileira in Chiado (Pessoa was an inveterate café writer) there is even a bronze monument to the writer consisting of a bronze café table and two bronze chairs, in one of which a bronze statue of Pessoa, wearing his trademark homburg, sits, legs crossed, and in the other of which tourists pose for photographs, as if having coffee with him.

Perhaps the most remarked-upon aspect of Pessoa is his reliance on what he called heteronyms—alternate selves, each with a name and a biography and a distinct prose style, to whom he attributed many of his poems, essays, and other writings, and even these, the heteronyms, have been subjected to a certain mascotting impulse. (For instance, while in Lisbon I bought a set of coffee cups depicting Pessoa and his principal heteronyms.) And so it will come as no surprise that Ricardo Reis, the hero of Saramago’s novel, was one of Pessoa’s heteronyms. Yet in the novel he is real. In the novel it is 1935, and Pessoa is dead, and Ricardo Reis has returned to Lisbon from Brazil, whence he has emigrated, to visit the grave of Pessoa, with whose ghost he proceeds to take a series of long walks through Lisbon that, as I read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis at the York House, I traced on a map and later took myself.

These novels show how a city can draw a person into its ambience, its aura, how a place can wield a kind of authority. Another novel that does this is Antonio Tabucchi’s Sostiene Pereira, which Tabucchi wrote in his native Italian, though he lived in Lisbon and wrote several books in Portuguese. The title poses a big problem for the English translator. In one of its English editions, Sostiene Pereira is rendered as Pereira Declares, in another Pereira Maintains. (If I ran the zoo, I’d call it According to Pereira. Michael Hofmann has suggested Pereira Avers.) Sostiene Pereira is a political novel, the story of a modest man, a journalist, who gets caught up, unwittingly, in the machinery of the Salazar dictatorship, against which he ends up committing an act of brave and imaginative rebellion. It is told in an arresting way that I have never seen used anywhere else: the unnamed narrator constantly reminds us that the story he is telling is one that Pereira has just told him by inserting the phrase (in the most recent English translation) “Pereira maintains.” “On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea-breeze off the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such a blue as never was seen, Pereira maintains, and of a clarity almost painful to the eyes, he started to think about death.” “That Saturday morning, on the dot of midday, Pereira maintains, the telephone rang.” “He pondered a moment, then said all he wanted was a lemonade. And he ordered it really cold, packed with ice, he maintains.” The novel goes on, and as it goes on Pereira maintains and maintains and maintains, or declares and declares and declares, or avers and avers and avers, and then eventually he does something remarkably heroic. And that is why, of all the Lisbon novels that I love, this is the one I love the most—because it concludes with an act of unexpected heroism, and how often, these days, in novels, do we get that? Not often enough. Not often enough.


David Leavitt’s most recent books are the novels The Indian Clerk and The Two Hotel Francforts. He will be teaching this summer in Lisbon in the Disquiet International Literary Program.

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