Mouth of Hell

Pessoa (possibly) and Crowley

A few weeks ago my daughter and I were in Portugal, primarily to learn more about Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing and life. We visited Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais. I was amused to learn that Aleister Crowley was there too in 1930. He had been invited by the eccentric poet, Fernando Pessoa, whose work I once liked very much. Crowley, mystic, Satanist, fascinated me for a brief period when I was a teenager when, via Jung, I was drawn to the occult.

We saw in Cascais a chasm below a high, overhanging cliff, known locally as Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell), a favourite place for suicides. It was here, appropriately, that Crowley staged a suicide, leaving a note, weighted down by a cigarette case, recorded in his diary as: ‘I cannot live without you. The other Boca do Inferno will get me—it won’t be as hot as yours.’ In reality he had left Portugal and rejoined his lover, Hanna Jaeger, in Berlin. Pessoa played along, writing about Crowley’s ‘mysterious disappearance’ for local newspapers, even claiming to have seen Crowley’s ghost a day or two later.

Easter Sunday

Yesterday, a superb day, though already unpleasantly warm. For the second time I go to the Bonnard exhibition. This morning I found my notebook entry from 14 February 1998 about the last Bonnard exposition in London. I was more easily satisfied then. I find pleasure in the high-key broken colour palette, but unlike twenty years ago, it is now the gracefully decomposing still-lives I find most mesmerising.

Looking through my photographs of Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Lisbon library I spotted Stefan Zweig’s Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book. I’ve read little of Zweig, deterred mostly by the scale of his oeuvre. Being a completist I have an irrational nervousness about being drawn to writers with monstrous bodies of work, also an idea that if he wrote so much, a lot of it must be mediocre. Surely? I read enough of the Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky book online to be compelled to reread Le Père Goriot (Dr. Krailsheimer’s ‘generally accurate’ translation) until 4:00 A.M. Devoted to Balzac in my twenties, and on my fourth or fifth reading of Goriot, it fascinates me how my reading of Balzac has changed since my youth; how much more real his creations seem now I’ve met such ambitious, venal people outside of literature.

Good Friday

In the Isabella Plantation, I read Mircea Eliade’s Journal I, 1945 – 1955 (translated by Mac Linscott Ricketts). Sitting on the bench in the sunshine, in this quiet woodland garden, surrounded by the first flowering of the Japanese azaleas, sensing for the first time the imminence of another summer. Where is it that Dostoevsky writes of the possibility of our realising a form of existence which one could consider “heaven” on earth? Later I looked it up, but at the time I was pleased not to have brought my mobile, and given in to the urge to follow my train of thought online. I stayed in the moment and was able to spot a Kirin, the pale, pink flower within a flower.

Mircea Eliade’s Journal is mainly a series of everyday reflections on books, artists, memories of Romania and observations on life in Paris during the post war days. They are intelligent and precise, and I’d like to read all four volumes, and perhaps his autobiography, being interested to know more about his time in Asia. If you know Eliade’s work, perhaps you could suggest what of his work is worth reading. I realise that I’ve lost interest in stories, preferring fragmented narratives, journals, works of philosophy and poetry.

Thoughts on Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

What is it of Mathias Énard’s prose that is so beguiling? The latest to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, is made up of straightforward declarative sentences, smoothly plotted and without the tortured density of novels like Zone or Compass.

I’d been reluctant to read this latest, despite being bewitched by each of the three previous novels published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, disliking historical fiction by instinct with its strained effort to recreate period. Énard’s story is more of a mood piece, avoiding the tedium of historical documentation. There is a quiet immensity to his story; though crammed with impressions, Énard imposes a form on his material that heavily filters his research through a mediating intelligence.

What I am left with is a dark vitality, a sequence of quiet passages that celebrate the reticent beauty of Istanbul (Constantinople), and an artist’s endeavours. Énard makes the period and city palpable because, as in the other novels, he writes so effectively about distance—those distances between lovers and would-be lovers, achievement and ambition, and that between pride and humility.

The Aura and Assurance of my Dreams

Self-portrait (Van Gogh, 1887).

There are times when my reading goes into a self-cancelling tail-spin, most often when a book sends me off tracking allusions and word origins. A single word can lead me to multiple volumes in the grip of excited etymologising.

Many curious words turn out be rather dull etymologically, but occasionally there are the thrills of the exotic. Fernando Pessoa writes, “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams.”

Although the etymology of aura is quite diverse, it commonly refers to the perceived halo surrounding an object or figure. Russian occultist, Madame Blavatsky, whose disciples included William Yeats, defined aura as a “subtle invisible essence or fluid that emanates from human and animal bodies and even things,” or, “a psychic effluvium.” Walter Benjamin used the word differently in his essays on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, writing of its protagonist, Prince Mishkin, “he is surrounded in a quite unobtrusive way by an aura of complete isolation.”

Surprisingly its origin is not from the Latin auris, from which we get aural, even though a less common use of aura is to describe the premonitory sensations that come before an epileptic fit, with occasional auditory hallucinations such as hearing music of words. Dostoevsky wrote of “ecstatic aurae” preceding his first epileptic seizure and recurring verbal and nonverbal auditory hallucinations, including the sound of someone snoring. (Freud controversially argued that Dostoevsky suffered not from epilepsy, but neurosis.) My OED asserts that aura is from Greek and Latin for breath and breeze. We could be said to breathe aura, to absorb it into our body, which is how Pessoa appears to embark on his walk, sustained by his dream aura.

The Roadside Inn

“I see life as a roadside inn where I have to wait around until the stagecoach from the abyss pulls up. I don’t know where it will take me, because I don’t know anything. I could view this inn as a prison, for I’m compelled to wait in it; I could view it as a social centre, for it’s here that I meet others. But I’m neither impatient nor common. I leave those who will to converse in the parlours, their songs and voices conveniently arriving at my post. I’m sitting at the door, feasting my eyes on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing — for myself alone — empty songs I compose while waiting.

Night will fall for us all and the stagecoach will pull up. I enjoy the breeze I’m given and the soul I was given it with, and I no longer inquire or seek. If what I wrote in the book of travellers can, when reread by others at some future date, also entertain them on their journey, then that’s fine by me. If they don’t read it, or are not entertained, then that’s fine too.”

—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude (t. Richard Zenith)

Sadly a Happy Woman

‘Yes, she felt a perfect animal inside her. The thought of one day setting this animal loose disgusted her. Perhaps for fear of lack of aesthetic. Or dreading a revelation …’ p.10

‘And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?’ p.23

‘The impression that if she could remain in the feeling for a few more instants she’d have a revelation—easily, like seeing the rest of the world just by leaning from the earth towards space. Eternity wasn’t just time, but something like the deeply rooted certainty that she couldn’t contain it in her body because of death; the impossibility of going beyond eternity was eternity; and a feeling in absolute, almost abstract purity was also eternal. What really gave her a sense of eternity was the impossibility of knowing how many human beings would succeed her body, which would one day be so far from the present with the speed of a shooting star.’ p.35

‘Eternity was not an infinitely great quantity that was worn down, but eternity was succession.’ p.36

‘From that day on, Joana felt voices. She understood them or didn’t understand them. No doubt at the end of her life, for each timbre heard a wave of her own reminiscences would surface to memory, she’d say: how many voices I’ve had …’ p. 66

‘Because the last ice cubes had melted and now she was sadly a happy woman.’ p.101

‘… in that same, strange, deceptive room where the dust had now won out over the shine.’ p.104

‘Sunday is something like Christmas trees …’ p.161

There are comparisons between Clarice Lispector’s and Maria Gabriela Llansol’s writing that I resisted as too easy. But they share Spinoza’s God and Nietzsche’s joyous, brooding presence. My second reading of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, translated by Alison Entrekin, richer and deeper than the first. Dorothy Richardson, in the early parts of Pilgrimage, is traversing similar plains.