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.

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.

 

All intertwined – Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Trilogy

It is reasonably rare, necessarily so, that a writer makes my senses quicken to a degree that I think about writing, reading, being, in ways that are interesting and useful. I’m reluctant to stop reading Maria Gabriela Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy, but must at some point to follow threads back to Woolf, Spinoza, Bergson and so forth.

Llansol’s writing is peopled with figures, ‘living entities, constructs, nodes inside the text that are not necessarily people, but patterns, templates, shapes, forms, and apparitions. The Llansolian text does not progress thematically, but by an association of several scenes of fulgor in which the figures are revealed.’ To read her writing is to appreciate that we are this unceasing stream of sensory phenomena, aware at some level of bodily existence, but with an embodied memory of everything we have read and thought. Llansol’s figures are her expression of Spinoza’s intuition that ‘nevertheless we feel and know by experience that we are eternal.’

On my third pass through the first book of Llansol’s trilogy, The Book of Communities, it became clear that it is something of a roadmap for how to read her writing, that she is not just experimenting with form, but thinking differently about reality. Her narrative is formed temporally, a complex realm where past, present and future, are all arranged on a single plane. This is of course brings to mind Woolf’s treatment of interior time in Mrs. Dalloway: ‘There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.’

Llansol extends Woolf’s notion that reality is powerfully shaped by our perceptions and associative memories. Her narrator and figures are an act of continual creation, mirroring the way her writing communes with the intellect of her readers during the act of reading. As Rilke put it in The Book of a Monk’s Life, ‘a hundred drinking roots, all intertwined.’

It is hard to believe that this trilogy represents Llansol’s literary debut, as well as her first work to be translated into English. I can hardly bear that the rest of her writing remains untranslated, so I’ve begun learning Portuguese.

Idées Fixes of the Week

St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroes (1445-50), Giovanni di Paolo

“Any number of autonomous intelligences traced their fate on the books she made and which were secondary, primal was the documentation of a thinking vibration reflected in a perfectly unknown place and material. Her effectiveness did not depend on memory, but on knowledge. Looking at the writers sitting around the table, she found that this term was empty, and that their images were defined, more than anything, by the position of their gaze, and their abandonment of the old way of reading and writing. Meditating on their fates she saw that nothingness was approaching, but it was powerless. The long narrative that was going to take place did not come from the interpreted description of the lives, but from the evolution of their interior transitions, which might converge, at some points, with the universal adventure, their experimentation and flight.”

—Maria Gabriela Llansol, In the House of July and August

(My impressions of Llansol—to date—mostly posted here and here.)

”                    Again is the sacred
word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by
coming back. More & more as we go deeper
I realise this aspect of hope, in the sense of
the future cashed in, the letter returned to sender.
How can I straighten the sure fact that
we do not do it, as we regret, trust, look
forward to etc? Since each time what
we have is increasingly the recall, not
the subject to which we have come. […]

I know I will go back
down & that it will not be the same though
I shall be sure it is so. and I shall be even
deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held
to what isn’t mine. […] [W]e
trifle with rhyme and again is the
sound of immortality.”

—J.H. Prynne

The Wonder of Reading

Maria Gabriela Llansol

Transitory mental representations recorded on off-white paper in black printing ink convey a sequence of ideas from one self to another. Though we can describe the pattern recognition that makes this complex act possible, it is no less extraordinary that our species evolved cortical space surely wired originally for an entirely different process. How much is lost in the translation between one self and another we can only speculate as so much of reading is shaped by associative memories, environmental encoding and personal experience. However eloquently we can describe the science of reading, the improbability of reading and its transformative potential never fails to fill me with something close to spiritual awe.

Despite modernist literature’s attempt to stimulate a less socially conservative form, prose fiction remains locked into realist, figurative linear narrative, a form perfected in the nineteenth-century novel. Although other art forms, with different degrees of success, have shaped and stimulated their audience’s curiosity, literature seems unable to move substantially away from books that are easy to understand and consume, works that function to confirm preexisting assumptions.

There won’t be a large audience for Maria Gabriela Llansol’s fiction. It belongs to an earlier attempt to find a more authentic way than linear narrative to represent those transitory mental impressions. It is structured more like the way our minds swerve this way and that, pursuing different recollections and allusions, blending together voices from what we’ve read and lived. The absence of a subjective ‘I’ is as unsettling as when we first appreciate how illusory is our own experience of self as an integrated, cohesive character. Oscar Wilde is aware of the challenge of art, writing, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” This propensity is asserted powerfully in the contemporary popularity of auto-fiction, embodying the narcissism that may be the hallmark of our age.

After a second reading, I’m reluctant to stop reading Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy, an exhilarating mental and sensual experience that compels the reader to use their own imaginative resource.