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99. Fernando Pessoa…

99. Fernando Pessoa…

Fernando Pessoa is the most famous Portuguese poet of the 20th century, one of the most popular Portuguese writers of all time, and was one of my all-time favourite writers before I even read a word of his works. He is famous throughout the Portuguese-speaking world, and is as synonymous with Lisbon as Kafka is with Prague, or Shakespeare is with Stratford-upon-Avon. Images of him, with his distinctive hat, John Lennon glasses, moustache, and tie/bow-tie combo are ubiquitous throughout the city, on postcards, notebooks, t-shirts, statues…you name it.

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Fernando Pessoa statue outside one of his regular haunts, ‘Café A Brasileira,’ Lisbon.
Erected on the 100th anniversary of his birth, 1988.

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So who was he, a man so famous he used to feature on the pre-Euro 100-escudo bank note in Portugal?

The basic facts: born Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa in Lisbon in 1888, taken to live in Durban, South Africa, when his military step-father was posted there at the age of seven, (Pessoa that is, not his step-father), returned to Lisbon in 1905 at the age of seventeen, and barely left the city of his birth again. He had several jobs around the town, but as a writer he only published one work under his name, ‘Mensagem‘, in 1934, a year before his death.

Pessoa in tile form, Alto dos Moinhos metro station, Lisboa

Pessoa in tile form,
Alto dos Moinhos metro station, Lisboa

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So far so simple. So what makes him so special?

Here’s what: Pessoa was writing as a critic and literary reviewer in the early 20th century, a fertile time for such work since there were poets popping up left, right and centre. And there was a reason for that: they were all him.

Pessoa took the idea of a pen-name one step further: whereas authors from Stephen King to J.K.Rowling have written under fake names, it could be said that Pessoa wrote under fake personalities. He invented what he called ‘heterónomos,’ or heteronyms, characters who became wildly famous and popular such as Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro and, most famously, Bernardo Soares and Álvaro de Campos.

The exact number of heteronyms is debatable, as you’ll understand when you hear that many scholars consider Fernando Pessoa itself a heteronym separate from Fernando Pessoa the author, but a recent count has the name of separate identities at 136.

Statue in front of the house of Pessoa's birth, São Carlos Square, Lisboa

Statue in front of the house of Pessoa’s birth, São Carlos Square, Lisboa

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And separate identities they were, each given their own place and date of birth and death, (some of them, having no date of death, could be said to have ‘outlived’ Pessoa himself!), not to mention personalities and styles all of their own. Caeiro, uneducated and living his short life in the countryside, wrote stunningly beautiful poetry about nature and the wonders of his village;  Campos on the other hand, as an engineering graduate in Glasgow, wrote praising the wonders of technology and travel. Furthermore, many of the fragments of Pessoa‘s personality also had their own astrological chart, and even their own signatures, and many of them wrote about places Pessoa himself had never even visited!

None of this was a secret during his lifetime: Pessoa openly discussed his alter-egos, whilst claiming that they were entirely independent of his own writing self. This led to the absurd situation of Pessoa the critic sometimes writing either complimentary introductions, or harsh criticisms of the others’ works.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, some of the writing itself is amongst the most beautiful I’ve read: the complex wrapped in the simple, the absurd and abstract represented by everyday observations and sweeping lyricism.

Here, for example, is the opening of Poem 22, by ‘Alberto Caeiro,’ the first I read and still possibly my favourite, on the glory of the River Tagus, the heart of Lisbon and the gateway from Portugal to the world:

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“O Tejo é mais belo que o rio que corre pela minha aldeia

Mas o Tejo não é mais belo que o rio que corre pela minha aldeia

Porque o Tejo não é o rio que corre pela minha aldeia…”

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“The Tagus is more beautiful than the river that runs through my village

But the Tagus is not more beautiful than the river that runs through my village

Because the Tagus is not the river that runs through my village…”

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Beautiful, não é?

All of this explains why the centre of Lisbon features a much-photographed statue of Pessoa in front of one ofhis regular café hangouts, the Café A Brasileira; a book-headed statue of perfect absurdist proportions in front of the house of his birth; a table preserved with his belongings in his favourite café and Lisbon’s oldest, Café-Restaurante Martinho da Alcada; tiled images of him in a metro station; and why they even sell a set of four expresso cups in his honour, each one featuring a slightly different image of the author with a different heteronym written below it. Genius for a genius.

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Heteronymous coffee cups

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Pessoa is so important to modern Portuguese culture that he is buried in the 500-year-old Jerónimos Monastery, one of the most important buildings in all of Portugal, under a simple memorial which features three short poems from three of his many facets in a poignantly fitting tribute.

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Fernando Pessoa’s tomb in the Jerónimos Monastery, Belém, Lisboa

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‘Alberto Caeiro’ memorial

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‘Álvaro de Campo’ memorial

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‘Ricardo Reis’ memorial

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I leave you with his image on the now out of print 100-escudo bank note, which features a gorgeous reverse side showing a swirling pattern in which, ever so faintly, can be made out the names of some of the more famous heteronyms.

Enjoy looking out for his many, many works!

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Front of the old Portuguese 100-escudo bill

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Click me for a close-up!

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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63. ‘Working The Room,’ Geoff Dyer…

63. ‘Working The Room,’ Geoff Dyer…

Working The Room,’ Geoff Dyer

Once again breaking my ‘one author per blog entry until I have blogged on every single author in history’ rule, I am featuring Geoff Dyer for a second time after (briefly) reviewing his ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be yoga1Bothered Doing It’ back in entry 39. This was my fourth Dyer, (although technically my first, since I began it upon first moving to London back in February 2012, when it became my ‘bedside book,’ and, after a couple of chapters, sat by that bedside unread for most of last year). Since transplanting my London book collection back to my family home, the last few weeks before I left the UK for Guatemala was a chance for me to knock off these unfinished tomes, and I’m glad I did: this was the best Geoff so far.

Although let me qualify that: bits of this were the best Geoff so far, but as proven by the fact that the book sat so long unread by my bedside, the early sections were often hard going. This collection of essays, (which I appear to be partial to lately, enjoying Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and Jonathan Lethem in essay form over the previous few months, after hardly ever having dipped into them before), was divided into four thematic categories: ‘Visuals,’ ‘Verbals,’ ‘Variables’ and ‘Personals.’ Reading Dyer on obscure photographers and artists, (it’s possible they weren’t obscure: maybe I just don’t know enough photographers and artists!), had the effect of making me feel vaguely uncultured, but also convinced me that it’s often not that much fun reading about things you know almost nothing about.

Things picked up when he turned his critical skills on authors, (he was an Oxford English major, after all), drawn together from various articles and book introductions; but it is when he is free to write about himself, his life, and whatever he is thinking about in the final two, sadly shorter sections that his writing becomes electric, fascinating and, often, hilarious. (I was actually SOL’ing (Snorting Out Loud) in a coffee shop as I finished reading it).

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Perhaps this is because I identify with Dyer in a freakish amount of ways: from his quirks, (a phobia of responsibility and settling down and having children and sitting still), to his basic biography, (cruising through his Oxford degree, writing as a way not to have a real job, regularly ripping ankle tendons playing sports, enjoying collecting things, finding free time simultaneously the best thing in life and something to be filled, a vague obsession with the Burning Man festival, a belief in the importance of pastries, a love of Ryszard Kapuściński, having lived in France, Italy, London, etc). Not to mention his writing style: writing about anything he cares about, whether he knows anything much about it or not, and making his writing as much about his connection to the subject as the subject itself, (an example of a typical Dyer self-introduction coming in his essay on Rodin: “To be strictly accurate, it is not just the poem itself but the way I encountered it that makes it so pertinent…”)

But mainly, it’s because he has a lot to say, about a ridiculous variety of things, (see paragraph above), and an often wonderful way of saying them. By the end of ‘Working The Room‘ I found myself a feeling a little more intelligent, and a lot more like I don’t know nearly enough to become a writer, (a sensation I got ten-fold reading Rushdie, but that seemed to matter less, as Rushdie has always seemed to me to be someone from another planet, whereas Dyer seems like just another guy who loves writing).

Here begins the longest stretch of quotes featured in my blogs so far, an indication of both the breadth of Dyer‘s interests, and my interest in his interests. Beginning with his view on something close to my heart, Japanese tourists:

“At the risk of being racist, the Japanese – the ‘lens-faced Japanese’ in Martin Amis’ phrase – seem to take particular comfort in being photographed  in places where everyone else is being photographed…”

(I would say it’s more Martin Amis who has to worry…)

On the subject of art history and photography:

“Art history is the opposite of wilderness camping: you’re meant to leave a trace; that’s the point…”

“‘Anyone can take a great picture,’ [US photographer] Soth has said, ‘but very few people can put together a great collectino of pictures’…”

(This has always been one of my major quibbles with ‘photography’ as an art form: sometimes it seems like anyone can take a good photo, and sometimes it seems that professional photographers are only famous for taking several dozen photos of the same theme. This is the first time I have heard a definition: whether it’s a good one or not, I am still undecided).

A wonderfully phrased observation on Antipodean geography:

“Settlement in Australia is centrifugal. Cities cling to the rim of the island-continent…”

On fame:

“‘If you want to be famous,’ [Czech peeping tom photographer Miroslav Tichý] has said, ‘you have to be worse at something than everyone else in the world’…”

On the odds of love:

“I remember being crushed by the way the simple mathematics of desire refused to come out right: there were so many women in the world, how could it be so difficult to find one? The question contains its answer: it’s that tormenting and beckoning one, the chance in a million which non-mathematicians call love…”

On an author I now have to read more of:

[F.Scott] Fitzgerald …had a sufficiently subtle understanding of such moments to know that the characteristic of a turning point is that, as often as not, one fails to turn…”

“Fitzgerald was one of the first writers to grasp the enervating horror of infinite leisure…”

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On the Art of Writing:

“Asked if I am disciplined in my writing habits I always respond that I am actively hostile to the idea of writers lashing themselves to their desks for six hours a day, irrespective of how they feel…”

(Hearing this from someone who writes in a style, and indeed has a lifestyle, not a million miles from how I would like to write, (and live), was a great relief after years of reading interviews and hearing advice from innumerable authors, most recently J.K.Rowling, saying the exact opposite, and turning what, to me, is the joy of writing into essentially just another 9-to-5 job).

On an author I myself recently discovered, James Salter:

“…he is both underrated and occasionally over-praised…”

And Dyer quoting Salter quoting a renowned French film director, (if you can follow all that):

“There was a line of Jean Renoir that struck me: The only things that are important in life are those you remember…”

‘Protean’ English author Rebecca West is quoted by Dyer with this classic:

“‘Ibsen cried out for ideas for the same reason that men call out for water, because he had not got any’…”

On master of the short story form John Cheever, (whose complete works are sitting on my desk downstairs in my Guatemalan apartment, waiting to be read for the first time), Dyer charts the stages of his homosexual awakening to its conclusion, the:

“…realisation that real harm was not caused by one’s sexual nature but by ‘the force that was brought to crush these instincts and that exacerbated them beyond their natural importance’…”

(a finer definition of the dangers of Catholic-style sexual guilt you’ll go far to find).

Here, in this monster catalogue of quotes, I pause just to point out that the above quotes all came from the first 300-pages of the compilation: the following come from just the next 28. I really enjoyed these three essays!

On being a spoiled only-child:

“My mother often quoted with approval the maxim ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Unfortunately she thought this was intended as an exhortation rather than warning…”

At times, Dyer can make me remember and rethink my entire childhood with just three-and-a-half words:images

“My mother worked as a dinner lady – serving school dinners (i.e.lunches)…”

(How had I never before questioned why lunches were called school dinners?)

On wanting:

“Many times when I asked my dad if I could have something that had taken my eye in a shop, he responded by saying, ‘You don’t want that.’ To which I wanted to reply, ‘But I do.’ And then after a while I stopped wanting things. (I now wonder if my father was unconsciously using ‘want’ in an earlier, archaic sense of ‘lack,’ a distinction capitalism has since pledged all its energies to rendering obsolete…)”

Echoing a recent discovery I had made in Daniel Kahneman‘s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow‘, and which you can read about in more depth here:

“I spent years living on the dole, more than happy with the trade-off: little money, lots of time…”

On the dubious nature of parental advice:

“When I was trying to decide which (English school exam) A-levels to do my father said not to bother with History because it was all in the past. He also gave me another piece of advice that I have come particularly to cherish. ‘Never put anything in writing.’ From the age of about sixteen on, most of the advice my parents gave me was best ignored…”

On attempting to teach old dogs newer, healthier tricks and encountering stubborn parental logic:

“‘You know, you really shouldn’t be eating egg and chips the whole time,’ I say. ‘Well, we’ve been eating them for our whole lives and it’s never done us any harm,’ says my dad. ‘You don’t think the fact you had cancer of the rectum and have had a colostomy counts as harm?’ ‘Get away with you,’ says my dad. ‘That was nothing to do with that’…”

Echoing my own theory that, having once calculated how much my free time is worth to me, no-one can afford to hire me:

“London was exciting to me back then. There were many things I wanted to do – like going to Kensington market to buy clothes – and having a job seriously interfered with my ability to do these things…I realised that it was not for me, this world of work, that I was too selfish to do a job, that I actually valued my time – my life – so highly that I would rather waste it than work at a job…”

(And, as he goes on to clarify, whilst he may well have wasted whole swathes of his life, at least it was he who was wasting it, not a job he didn’t want to be doing).

Finally, summing up life on social security in 1980’s England, we get this gem of relativity:

“Mass unemployment might not be a desirable social or economic goal but it does man that there are plenty of other people to hang with in the afternoons…”

Thanks for making it through all of that: I hope you enjoyed Mr.Dyer’s mind as much as I did, and will check out his other books and essay collections, (as well as my other blogs on him, and everyone else). Don’t you feel a little more erudite now?

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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59. ‘Ingenious Pain’/’Pure,’ an Andrew Miller double-header…

59. ‘Ingenious Pain’/’Pure,’ an Andrew Miller double-header…

Ingenious Pain, Andrew Miller

The plot of English author Andrew Miller‘s award-winning debut novel, ‘Ingenious Pain‘, sounds like something out of a Bond movie, featuring as it does a protagonist, James Dyer, who is born without the ability to feel pain, (or, just as importantly, pleasure). Rather than leading a world revolution from a secret volcano lair, Dyer instead becomes a doctor, and the novel follows his life from an understandably difficult youth to a race through 18th century Russia on the orders of Empress Catherine of Russia.

Miller‘s style is simple, steady and often unremarkable: he summarises Dyer’s life in the first chapter, and has indeed created a protagonist with whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to relate to. But the novel was enjoyable, a minutely-researched peek into Georgian England and Russia, and did turn up a few beautiful quotes, one on our ability to turn any attribute, positive or negative, into a competition:

“Farmer Dyer, his blind daughter and lame son, are pitied. In the aristocracy of suffering, Farmer Dyer is a Lord…”

and another echoing one of my favourite authors, Alain de Botton, in his excellent ‘The Art Of Travel‘:

It is a mistake to travel in the hopes of solving one’s problems. One merely transports them and is forced to endure them amongst strangers…”

One haunting image (pun intended) on the Doctor performing surgery on himself with the aid of a mirror:

“He begins to sew up his head, drawing together the ragged lips of the gash, and with such swiftness, such unconcern, it is – as the Reverend later writes to Lady Hallam – as if he were sewing only the head in the glass…”

And finally, on the difficulty of endings, which is something which has always haunted me in my writing, and more often than not left me disappointed with others’ writing:

“‘Well,’ says Dido, ‘if I were to write a novel I think it is the ending that should give me most trouble. Perhaps it was the same for Laurence Sterne.’

‘You mean,’ says James, ‘ it was easier for him to die than to finish the book?’…”

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Pure,’ Andrew Miller

I happened to read Miller‘s latest book, the again-award winning ‘Pure,’ shortly after breaking my Miller cherry, and found a novel again intricately researched and paced to perfection. This time, we follow the life of up-and-coming French engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte in his attempts to make a name for himself by removing a cemetery from the central Parisian region of Les Halles. The important point is the year in which these events are taking place: 1786, a mere three years before the French revolution, and the coming social and political upheaval (familiar to anyone who has seen the recent remake of ‘Les Miserables‘ as I did this week), is a shadow excellently cast across the whole novel.

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A quote on love to whet your whistle:

“But it is hard, whatever you have endured, to give up on love. Hard to stop thinking of it as a home you might one day find again. More than hard…”

and one which seemed like it could have been lifted straight from Jon Ronson‘s excellent ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats,’ (if you haven’t read any Ronson, go find some: or at least rent the wonderfully bizarre Ewan McGregor and George Clooney-led film version of ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats‘):

“‘Buildings are mostly air,’ says the engineer, quoting the great Perronet. ‘Air and empty space…'”

Finally, I was introduced to Miller at a talk where the first question on everyone’s lips in the audience, (except mine, since I appeared to be the only one who hadn’t read the book yet), was: why does the cover of the novel depict a man in a gorgeous, pale blue jacket, when Baratte, specifically purchases a green one which becomes a focal point of the novel. The answer? Authors don’t have nearly as much control over the artistic side of publishing as you would have thought, (J.K.Rowling apparently being an exception).

So, I leave you with the lush, if considerably inaccurate, cover.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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