“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
“Words are not the things they name: they are the bridges we extend between things and ourselves. The poet is the conscience of the words, that is, the nostalgia for the actual reality of things. True, words were also things before they were the names of things. They were things in the myth of the innocent poet, that is, before language, the glimpsed paradisal accord. Innocent speech: silence in which nothing is said because everything is said, everything is saying itself. The poet’s language feeds upon that silence which is innocent speech.”
Octavio Paz, Unknown to Himself
I’m back from my travels, and circumscribing Pessoa like a terrier trying to find a way into a rathole. I’ve also caught up on some stimulating blog posts in the alt-lit neighbourhood:
Have you read Lampedusa? I’ve owned the Everyman edition of The Leopard for 15 years but never read beyond 100 pages, though I enjoyed each one of them. This post at Anecdotal Evidence links to an excellent essay by Javier Marías, in which he writes:
“The few people who knew him well were astonished at his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history, on both of which subjects he possessed a vast library. He had not only read all the important and essential writers, but also the second-rate and the mediocre, whom, especially as regards the novel, he considered to be as necessary as the greats: `One has to learn how to be bored,’ he used to say, and he read bad literature with interest and patience. Buying books was almost his sole expense and sole luxury.”
Isabella at Magnificent Octopus is documenting her reading of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. Of course, I immediately want to reread Lispector’s elusive work that pushes at the extreme possibilities of language.
Pykk is unpacking Arno Schmidt’s Collected Stories, 1996, and his longer School for Atheists: a Novella = Comedy in 6 Acts, 1972.
Joe at roughghosts is discovering the wonder that is Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief, which a dear friend introduced to me some years ago.
Scott W. at seraillon writes compellingly about Emilio’s Carnival and makes it likely I’ll get to Svevo’s work sooner than later.
In Eugénio Lisboa’s elegant preface to Carcanet’s A Centenary Pessoa, Lisboa captures Pessoa’s distinctive way of looking at the world. There is much in this description that also accounts, I believe, for Rachel Cusk’s acuity. The two writers are more alike than would seem immediately obvious.
“Fernando Pessoa soon became aware of his acute foreignness, of his being the incurable outsider at the very centre of life, of an excruciating inability really to feel ‘the pains of happy people or the pains of people who live and complain.
Wounded by lucidity, by frigidity, by a sense of distance from living, this same distance, this omnipresent perspective, made his inquisitive mind see things in a clearer or, at the least, in a different way. People like Pessoa learn early in life that the country most of us inhabit, made comfortable by familiar presumptions, is forbidden to them. But the awkward exclusion, an embarrassment in everyday living, this disability that amounts at times to a disease, can prove a fertile dis-ease. Unable to integrate with the habitual, forbidden from happy absorption, unable to see evidence as evident and the obvious as obvious, gazing in always from outside, wondering about ‘facts’ and ‘things’ that others accept without question – such an affliction can lead to a productive amazement.”
Detail from a fresco in the ‘Tomb of the Diver’, c. 470 BC, at Paestum in what is now Italy.
Schubert, Four Impromptus D 935 (op. 142)
These four Impromptus may not have the dazzle of the Impromptus D 899, but to my imperfect ear the first of the set is one of the most stunning pieces in the entirety of piano literature. Despite a little briskness, Brendel brings both fire and poetry to the piece.
Fernando Pessoa has the intellect and passion of Schubert, and, like the composer, was a richly complicated man that wrote with great simplicity.
“Believing in nothing firmly and therefore accepting as equally valid, in principle (which is as far as they go), all opinions, and considering that a theory is worth only as much as the theorist, an emotion as much as the emotion’s expresser, I could never take seriously the literary dogma that consists in the use of a personality. Personality is a form of belief and, like all belief, impossible for the reasoner.
It’s a short step from believing in outer truth to believing in inner truth, from accepting a concept of the world as true to accepting a concept of our self as true. I don’t affirm that everything is fluid, since that would be an affirmation, but to our understanding everything is indeed fluid, and the truth, unfolding for us into various truths, disappears, since it cannot be multiple.”
“All of this is dream and phantasmagoria, and it matters little whether the dream be of ledger entries or of well-crafted prose. Does dreaming of princesses serve a better purpose than dreaming of the front door to the office? All that we know is our own impression, and all that we are is an exterior impression, a melodrama in which we, the self-aware actors, are also our own spectators, our own gods by permission of some department or other at City Hall.” p. 22
“What I write, bad as it is, may provide some hurt or sad soul a few moments of distraction from something worse. That’s enough for me, or it isn’t enough, but it serves some purpose, and so it is with all of life.” p. 22
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
“What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. What I confess is unimportant because everything is unimportant.”
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, (trans. Richard Zenith). Penguin, 2002.
There is much worth contemplating in Lars Iyer’s responses to these questions on Full Stop, beyond the title: The Situation in American Writing, particularly this point, which is arguably hyperbolic but contains many truths.
As for the audience for serious American writing — I don’t know anyone who reads it, really. America seems to be everywhere; we are living in an American reality. Which makes me want to read anything but American fiction, however ignorant this sounds. I admit to having very little interest in British fiction, either. It seems to me that everything that is alive in fiction today comes via translation.
This idea that it is the omnipresence of American lifestyle that ends up subverting our appetite for American intellectual achievements is recognisable, and compelling.
This excerpt also gave me much pleasure:
You ask whether online criticism has made literature into a more or less isolated cult. Not really. I think literature itself was already becoming an isolated cult. Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s heteronym in The Book of Disquiet, writes, ‘I am today an ascetic in my own religion. A cup of coffee, a cigarette, and my dreams can easily replace the sky and its stars, work, love and even the beauty of glory. I have, so to speak, no need of stimulants. My opium I find in my soul’. When it comes to literature, many of us have their own cult, their own religion, their own literary sky and stars. But there is a sadness to this, I think. Our stars are toy stars, like the ones which glow on a child’s bedroom ceiling. We are isolated; we read on separate islands. And reading, for us, is a hobby, a pastime, and little more than that, even if it once meant much more than that.
It’s a close-run competition but London’s finest bookshop is John Sandoe in Chelsea. Tucked away on a side street to the ghastly blandness that is the Kings Road, this is literary heaven. The stock is impeccable, featuring a fine and serious selection including a spread imported books from the US. The staff are erudite and immensely helpful. The ethos is to recommend and suggest books based upon an acquired knowledge of your literary taste.
The spoils of today’s raid on Sandoes:
Michael Foucault – The Order of Things
Cyril Connolly – Enemies of Promise
Terry Eagleton – Literary Theory
J.M.G. Le Clézio – The Flood
Fernando Pessoa – A Centenary Pessoa
Thomas Pynchon – Against The Day