Portuguese American Journal

Book: Jorge de Sena & João Gaspar Simões Correspondência 1943-1977 – Review

By George Monteiro (*)

It was singularly fitting, from my perspective, that this book had its launching at Lisbon’s  Grémio Literário, that venerable institution founded, it is said, by Eça de Queiroz.  Over forty years ago, in the summer of 1980, to be exact, I was the luncheon guest of João Gaspar Simões, whom I had met three years earlier in Providence, Rhode Island, when he was a featured speaker at Brown University’s “International Symposium on Fernando Pessoa, held October 7th and 8th. We dined almost by ourselves in the club’s good sized dining hall.  He was apologetic about the sparseness.  Shortly thereafter, on July 15, to be exact, I sought to characterize the event in a few lines titled “Rua Ivens, Nº. 35”:

Rua Ivens, Nº. 35

The Grémio Literário, I’m told,
drips with old associations;
and the painting in the bar,
showing forth its handful
of founders (with keyed
indications of the discretely
placed entities) amply
testifies to its initiation,
its durability.  It’s famous,
too, for Eça and others.
“But the writers don’t come
here anymore, only I,” says
João Gaspar Simões.  “I
don’t know where they go
these days.”  He suits up.

Dining room at Grémio Literário in Lisbon

If the Grémio was still facing lean times six years after the 1974 revolution, so, pretty much, was that last of the Mohicans, Gaspar Simões.  Both were seen by many as vestiges of a past better forgotten or at least ignored.  Nevertheless, both soldiered on.  Gaspar Simões held true to the dictates of his long since self-assumed mission in the service of Portuguese culture, especially literature.  In this regard, there is his role in the publication, for the first time, of Fernando Pessoa’s translation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  When, on a subsequent visit to Lisbon, while ferreting around in the Pessoa collection of papers at the Biblioteca Nacional, I came upon the typescript of Pessoa’s translation, the first person I told about my find was Gaspar Simões, whom I telephoned immediately to ask if he knew about the existence of this translation.  He said that he did not, but that it definitely should be published.  He called back a short time later to tell me that he had already telephoned the publisher Dom Quixote to tell them of my discovery and that they were very much interested in publishing the work.  I was to call them, he advised, and I did so.  The rest is history, as they say, for the book was published in 1988, and is still in print.

Gaspar Simões first visited the United States in 1977 to participate as one of the featured speakers at the international symposium on Pessoa at the invitation of Brown University’s Center for the Portuguese and Brazilian Studies.  I long believed that it was on this occasion that he and Jorge de Sena met after many years of estrangement.  (Several times in this book this long period, those “anos de afastamento” are recalled [128, 132, 153]).  It now turns out, as the book under review tells us, that first meeting took place in Coimbra some four months earlier at the commemorative ceremonies for the journal Presença, fifty years after its inception.  Following the Pessoa symposium in Providence, Gaspar Simões visited the West coast, where he spoke, by invitation engineered by Sena, at several universities, including the University of California at Santa Barbara, where Sena was serving as chair of two or three departments or programs.  It was their last meeting.  Sena died on June 4, 1978.

Immediately after her husband’s death Mécia de Sena willingly took on the unbelievably enormous task of keeping alive and vibrant the memory of Sena and his polymath contributions to Portuguese literature, culture and history.  There were unpublished books and manuscripts to bring out, along with new editions of his poetry, fiction, and essays.   “[E]stou em Londres para fazer o mesmo que fazia em Santa Barbara,” she explained to Gaspar Simões in March 1980, “ou seja, dedicar-me, inteiramente à publicação da obra do Jorge agora num ambiente, em certos aspectos, mais estimulante.  Há seis ou sete livros no prelo (já em provas) pelo que a presença do Jorge será constante ainda por muitos anos futuros, uma vez que uns outros tantos, pelo menos, estão já em esquema preparatório.  E está longe de ser tudo, mesmo sem infindável arca.  Assim eu tenha vida, saúde e lucidez para realizar esta monstruosa tarefa” (168-69).  The oblique reference to Pessoa’s famous arca of literary remains notwithstanding, as Mécia de Sena had a plan to enrich Jorge de Sena’s contribution to Portuguese literature and culture.  Following the example of scholars in the Anglo-Saxon world, she would prepare and publish neither a selective volume nor a collective edition of her husband’s letters, but a series of correspondence volumes, in which she would present the correspondence exchanged between Sena and the most significant literary and cultural figures of the times.  Always convinced of their literary and historical value, Sena followed religiously the habit of keeping copies of letters he wrote.  Writing to Gaspar Simões in May 1977, he explains that not having found him at home when he telephoned was a bit of luck, for it now enabled him to write this letter.  “E foi melhor assim: porque, em lugar de, grata e comovidamente, lhe agradecer o seu artigo de viva voz, tenho oportunidade de o fazer nos escritos que ficam (quando não vão parar ao lixo por mão dos nossos herdeiros)” (139).  Carbon paper may have sometimes caused him problems with making such copies, but there was no chance that his heirs—at least Mécia—would throw anything away.  In fact, she would increase the holdings.  “Tenho andado a recolher a correspondência do Jorge em vista a uma publicação futura,” she informed Gaspar Simões, “não sei quando, mas pelo menos no intuito de a preservar e preparar em diálogo, como entendo que deve ser.  Não me lembro bem e não tenho comigo os arquivos, qual a extensão desta correspondência consigo, por isso lhe pergunto: tem cartas do Jorge?  Quantas?  Importa-se de me dar cópias xerox delas?” (179-80)

The volume under review is not, strictly speaking, one of the volumes in Mécia’s series.  It is no surprise, given the years of their estrangement following 1952, it seems, during which time there was no commerce between them, there could not have been nearly enough to make a volume substantial enough for book publication.  Thus, to make his book Filipe Delfim Santos has added to the extant correspondence exchanged between his two principals, several well-chosen reviews of Sena’s work by Gaspar Simões, a handful of letters from Mécia de Sena (as well as a personal statement), a Rui Knopfli letter, a letter from Sena to the present reviewer, along with a bit of testimony, “Speech, After Long Silence,” again by the present reviewer. The book opens with the editor’s “Estudo Introdutório,” an essay on the Jorge de Sena—João Gaspar Simões relationship. It runs to twenty-nine pages.  This description of its contents does not do adequate justice to the book as a successful contribution to the scholarship on Sena, as well as Gaspar Simões.

Jorge de Sena’s sustained view of himself was that of a man beset, an Ishmael, whose hand was “against every man, and every man’s against him” (Genesis, 16:12).  His watchfulness and his acrimony toward his enemies knew few bounds.  His behavior towards Gaspar Simões, during the years when he considered him to be as bitter an antagonist as he was himself, was no exception.  He expresses his acrimonious feelings in different, sometimes small but always telling ways.  For example, consider his diary entry for September 5, 1968, in which he notes with cool satisfaction that has just heard from his fellow writer José Rodrigues Miguéis the gossip tid-bit that Gaspar Simões’s “companheira” (as the editor chooses to characterize her) had left him for José Saramago “pasmou-me e fez-me rir” (102).[ii]  More malicious than this private comment, however, is Sena’s poem, “Aviso à Circulação,” the composition of which is dated by Sena as “13 Dez.o 70,” but which remained unpublished until 1991, well after the deaths of Sena and Gaspar Simões.

Aviso à Circulação

Se de um poeta dos últimos cinquenta anos
o Gaspar Simões escreve um elogio,
e eu estimo esse poeta, quedo logo
numa aflição por ele (o poeta):
que defeito haverá nessa poesia
para o Simões gostar tanto assim dela?

Forgotten, apparently, were the judiciously generous reviews of Sena’s work, beginning with a substantial notice of Perseguição, his first book of poems, in the Diário de Lisboa in 1942, and continuing intermittently for the next several decades.  And this was no easy task, for Sena, even when his work was being praised and responsibly criticized, would take (one imagines) great delight in “correcting” the reviewer on some large or small point that the reviewer had missed or, in the opinion of the author, mishandled.  It is no wonder, that even Adolfo Casais Monteiro, Sena’s friend, would sigh: “é muito dificil fazer crítica a um livro do Sena”[iv]—a wry lament that Filipe Delfim Santos has chosen to employ as an epigraph to the book under review.

But, astonishingly, Sena, who always shot from the hip, could be unpleasant about others who had not said or written a word against him or his work.  Through Filipe Delfim Santos’s investigations, I can now attest to this personally.  Eight days after replying courteously to the December 1976 invitation to participate in the symposium on Pessoa, he wrote to Gaspar Simões:

E agora um outro assunto, acerca do qual ia escrever-lhe por curiosa coincidência, para lhe remeter a carta que, datada de 2 de Dezembro, recebera do Centro de Estudos Portugueses e Brasileiros da Brown University (o centro cheira-me a criação recente, para contrabater o crescimento dos meus estudos portugueses na Univ[ersidade] da Califórnia, mas isso é o menos), e a minha resposta datada de 7 do corrente, porque lhe diz pessoalmente respeito…. De ambas as coisas lhe remeto aqui cópias—e, no que se refere às entrelinhas da minha carta ao Dr. George Monteiro (que é, segundo os registos da Modern Language Association a que pertencemos mais ou menos todos os cerca de 28,000 professores universitários de inglês e línguas estrangeiras neste país, e da qual sou um dos dirigentes—1974-78—, catedrático de Inglês, o que tanto quer dizer que se dedica à lit[eratura] inglesa como à norte-americana ou a ambas), não preciso dar-lhe explicações nenhumas: à bon entendeur…  (114-15)

But complaining to Gaspar Simões was not enough, seemingly, for Sena goes on to tell him that he must report the matter elsewhere: “Como devo, por razões oficiais, escrever ao Dr. José Blanco, da Gulbenkian, que sempre tem sido meu amigo, não deixarei de mencionar, à minha inteira responsabilidade, o caso, já que sei que ele provavelmente virá aos Estados Unidos” (115).  He then refers to me, suggesting that an answer clearing up the uncertainty he expresses would be of some importance to him: “Monteiro (um luso-americano de não sei que geração)” (115).

But this was nothing compared to the overall bitterness he had toward his presumed enemies.  On September 3, 1977, just nine months before his death, in a letter to me (someone he was yet to meet) he wrote unreservedly:

It was most kind of you, in sending me the flier for your recent series, “Roads etc.”, to tell me that my person and my works were mentioned by several of your lecturers.  Apart from the fact of some subjects not allowing such mentions to be made, I know perfectly well who would and who would not mention me in such a list of names.  In general, scoundrels and mediocre people have always been my sworn enemies, not because I have hindered them (on the contrary, many of them even owe me the money that I do not have), but just because I exist as a kind of shadow of decency falling upon them all the time (and the shadow will remain, they know, even if I die, becoming even darker).[v]

Ishmael—to the very end, and beyond—with a continuing curse on his lips for those enemies destined to outlive him.


[i] The Coffee Exchange (Providence, RI: Gávea-Brown, 1982), p. 48.

[ii] See, however, the entry as it appears in Jorge de Sena, Diários, ed. Mécia de Sena (Porto: Caixotim, 2004): “De todos os can-cans com que o Miguéis me cansou antecipadamente de Lisboa, um pasmou-me e fez-me rir: a do G. Simões abandonou-o pelo… Saramago” (173). It is not known if the original entry differs from the transcription that appears in Diários.

[iii] “Seis Poemas Inéditos de ‘Dedicácias’,” Hífen, 6 (Feb. 1991): 88; collected in Jorge de Sena, Dedicácias (Lisbon: Três Sinais, 1999), p. 55.

[iv] Quoted in 1946 by Sena, Diários, 45.

[v] “First International Symposium on Fernando Pessoa / Seven unpublished letters by Jorge de Sena,” Pessoa Plural, no. 3 (Spring 2013): 132. http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Portuguese_Brazilian_Studies/ejph/pessoaplural/issues.html


Jorge de Sena / João Gaspar Simões Correspondência 1943-1977.  Org. Filipe Delfim Santos.  Lisbon: Guerra e Paz, 2013.  Pp. 261.  €18.


George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…