In the same interview, Vila-Matas says, ‘I do not demand that the reader suspend their disbelief, because the attraction of reading the book comes not from the story that is told, but from the encounter with the world of its author.’ There is no more concise way to explain why I read, what Maria Gabriella Llansol described as ‘a living writing she could take for an encounter.’ As Beckett wrote of Joyce’s writing, ‘is not about something; it is something itself.’
Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque is that peak of imaginative writing when one can suspend oneself into the mind of another’s sensibility. Reading this interview and his recent book, Mac & His Problem, confirms the metafictional nature of his project. It is intertextual writing, following an ancient tradition of writing and interpreting a text in parallel. The screens between reading, writing and interpreting are removed, only to reveal their illusory nature. I like very much the quote in my last post, also from the interview. Was it Pessoa who said something like: the best kept secret of self-knowledge may be that there is no self?
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.
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.
“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)
“Mr Pickwick belongs to the sacred figures of the world’s history. Do not, please, claim that he has never existed: the same thing happens to most of the world’s sacred figures, and they have been living presences to a vast number of consoled wretches. So, if a mystic can claim a personal acquaintance and clear vision of Christ, a human man can claim personal acquaintance and a clear vision of Mr Pickwick.”
Fernando Pessoa, Charles Dickens
“He would have sacrificed ten years of his life, he once remarked, for the privilege of spending an hour with Sir John Falstaff.”
“He never left his house, recalled Licy, ‘without a copy of Shakespeare in his bag, with which he would console himself when he saw something disagreeable’; at his bedside he kept The Pickwick Papers to comfort him during sleepless nights.”
David Gilmour, Introduction to Lampedusa’s The Leopard
“Many men with no great claim even to mere wit could have made most of Shakespeare’s jokes, as jokes. It is in the creation of the figures who make those jokes that genius underlies wit; not what Falstaff says but what Falstaff is is great. The genius made the figure; the wit made it speak.”
Fernando Pessoa, ‘Erostratus’
- Lampedusa’s The Leopard
- David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa
- The Pickwick Papers
- Both parts of Henry IV
- Pessoa’s poems and prose