Fernando Pessoa: multiplicity in Lisbon

In January we spent a few days in Lisbon. Fabulous place, a million miles from anything even vaguely Nordic. On the lookout for connections, it was no real surprise to discover that global traveller HC Andersen visited in 1866, publishing Et Besøg i Portugal in 1868. Rather more surprising was the link to Denmark’s other 19th century literary titan; like Kierkegaard, poet Fernando Pessoa was a prime exponent of the use of the the heteronym in his writing.

Now feeling like an old friend, prior to our trip to Lisbon I had never heard of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Portugal’s modernist poet, writer, translator, philosopher – and anointed flâneur. How can that be? A lifelong Anglophile, Pessoa lived in Durban from the age of seven to 17, attending Durban High School, from which he matriculated with a prize in English. His earliest works were written in English, he translated a number of books from Portuguese into English (and vice versa), and in 1925 he even wrote a guidebook to Lisbon in English (Lisbon: what the tourist should see, unpublished until 1992).

The word pessoa means person in Portuguese, deriving from the Latin persona, the mask worn by Roman actors; just one of the small details which make the man so intriguing. An outsider’s outsider, for most of his life Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator while contributing poetry and essays to journals and newspapers. He was interested in theosophy, spiritualism and the occult, corresponding with Aleister Crowley, and helped him to stage a fake suicide in Lisbon in 1930. A keen amateur astrologist, Pessoa made horoscopes of his clients and friends, as well as of his heteronyms and even of literary journals. All this had a strong influence on his writing; he felt “sometimes suddenly being owned by something else”.

In 1915 as part of a group of artists and poets, including close friends José de Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa created the literary magazine Orpheu, which introduced modernist literature and art to Portugal, if in only two issues.

From 1905 to 1920 he lived in 15 different locations in Lisbon, while from 1907 until his death he worked in 21 firms in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in more than one at the same time. Two favourite haunts were A Brasileira, the preferred café of the Orpheu group, and Martinho da Arcada on Praça do Comércio, his ‘office’ during the 1920s and 1930s. Given all that it’s not surprising that there is a full Pessoa audio tour and map experience.

Pessoa created over 70 heteronyms, imaginary characters allowing him to write in different styles. The best known are:

  • Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the ‘master’ of the other heteronyms and even Pessoa himself, a rural, uneducated poet of ideas who wrote in free verse (Complete poems and more | Uncollected poems)
  • Álvaro de Campos (1890- ), a well-travelled naval engineer who returned to Lisbon to stay in the fateful year of 1926; influenced by Futurism (poems inc Lisbon revisited, from visits in 1923 and 1926)
  • Ricardo Reis (1887- ), a doctor who composed Horatian odes; as a Royalist Reis fled to Brazil in 1910
  • Bernardo Soares, bookkeeper and flâneur, a ‘semi-heteronym’ who wrote mainly in prose; pages from his journal were found in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment and published in English in 1991 as The book of disquiet

De Campos and Reis discussed the work of Caeiro in essays and with each other, rejecting the interpretation of their publisher, Pessoa. Pessoa-himself gradually becomes another heteronym, another mask.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist,” wrote Álvaro de Campos, sparing the author the trouble of living a ‘real’ life.

José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, paid the ultimate tribute to this dazzling and sustained feat of the imagination in his novel, The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which sees Reis return to Lisbon on hearing of the death of Pessoa.

It’s difficult to gauge the true significance of all this to Portugal’s cultural life, however the man himself is pretty unavoidable in the cityscape and seems to have attained iconic status, in a similar way to James Joyce in Dublin. We made tracks to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a house museum-cum-shrine and the city’s premiere literary location, the site of Pessoa’s last home from 1920 until his death.

On the ground floor was an exhibition of some of the numerous representations of Pessoa in art, while the second floor houses a reconstruction of Pessoa’s flat, with memorabilia including his school report in a glass case, his glasses and a rather functional bookcase – if not the trunk/s where he stored his writing. After his death 25,574 items were inventoried.

The museum is also custodian of Pessoa’s personal library of 1200 books (no Kierkegaard).

a Pessoa collage

Top right is a portrait by Almada Negreiros, but the most common image of Pessoa on the street is that seen in the cutout bottom right, taken from a photo of yer man striding (definitely not strolling) through town. A shot of him enjoying a glass of port comes a close second. In a 1931 photo, deep in conversation in the Café Martinho, he looks like a small amiable owl.

There are two Pessoa statues in town. The one in familiar kitschy style outside A Brasileira (not in fact his favourite café), was even in January a prime selfie spot; Pessoa would surely prefer the rather more surrealistic representation round the corner outside the house he was born in.

The 1925 Lisbon guidebook is available in at least three editions (2008 | 2011 | 2015), and I’m pretty sure I spotted a coffee table version in the airport bookshop. There’s even a graphic novel, Another side of Pessoa by João Viegas.

What of his writing? The consensus (Gdn | Geoff Nicholson | Alfred MacAdam) seems to be that The book of disquiet is for sleepless nights, something to dip into at random, something to be reread rather than read…in the same way it feels more in the spirit of the man to take him a poem at a time:

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me…That’s me. Period.

For more poetry see the Poetry Foundation and Poetry International, or one of the many published collections by Richard Zenith (other translators are available).

The trunk and the fable, by Emília Nadal

Sources: Exploring Lisbon with Pessoa | Fernando Pessoa: an Englishly Portuguese, endlessly multiple poet (64 min vid with transcript) | Fernando Pessoa and the multiple faces we show on the netFernando Pessoa’s disappearing act | Inside ourselves | An interview with Richard ZenithLooking for Mr Person (Parnassus 24(1) 1999; via Questia) | ‘Oh Lisbon, my home!’

More? MultiPessoa | Pessoa’s trunk | Wuthering Expectations

Updates: more Pessoa spotting (“maybe more cities than I know use once-obscure Modernist writers as their mascot, as their brand”)…the Lisbon edition of Vide Verden, a Danish cultural travel book series, has a chapter on Pessoa by Dan Ringgard, plus one on HCA by Henrik Wivel…Literary Tourist reports on a HCA tour

On Pessoa, DR inevitably traces the parallels with Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms, his daily walks in a small European capital, his one brief platonic relationship, his writing process standing at a desk and wandering from one manuscript to another, from one pseudonym to another; his idea that we choose who we are, responded to by Pessoa in multiples, ending up as a shadow.

Henrik Wivel retraced HCA’s 1866 journey as part of the 2o0th anniversary celebrations of his birth in 2005, resulting in the travel book Det jordiske Paradis. Wivel visited the O’Neill family, descendants of the family visited by HCA 150 years earlier, an Irish-German family who emigrated to Portugal in the 18th century and exported wares to the rest of Europe, including Denmark. HCA got to know the three O’Neill brothers nearly forty years earlier when they lived in Copenhagen, and diligently paid each one a lengthy visit. The home of the oldest, then Denmark’s general consul, now belongs to the American Embassy and can be visited with prior notice.

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Vestegnens Kulturuge 2017: digital art, mindfulness and poetry

2018 update: this year’s thing seems to be nests

Vestegnens Kulturuge (FB; programmeprevious years) is usually almost exclusively family oriented, but this year it turned up some ‘high’ culture in the shape of a subset of events around 1980s poet Michael Strunge amidst the broader theme of PÅ ELEKTRISK GRUND (sic; FB).

Sadly though much of the week was a wash-out, grey and chilly with prolonged rain and some slushy hail to finish. Two events were cancelled: Mosensdag in Vallensbæk, due to the bog/marsh, which acts as a flood basin leading water away from nearby houses, being completely under water, and Copenhagen Art Run in Ishøj Strandpark, deemed unsafe due to the conditions.

Where last year there were giants, this year there was Tryllebundet (Spellbound), six exhibits in containers showing the latest in digital art, coordinated by Vallensbæk’s DIAS Kunsthal. As well as the works themselves DIAS put together a number of accompanying activities and a Google Map of the area’s public art – now that is handy!

Forstadsmuseet had a Hvidovre-based game (with notebook and pencil; update: got my hands on this analogue artefact, developed in conjunction with Play Agency – looks very impressive), plus re-runs of some of its walks, while Rødovre opened up its bunker, a kommunale kommandocentral under Arne Jacobsen’s library, who knew, as part of its Cold War project.

Each of the six kommuner had its special day, largely unrelated to the overall theme, made up of events organised by local foreninger with the communal culture centre as venue. Hvidovre, perhaps making up for the lack of a shiny culture centre while we wait for the new bymidte, mounted two special days, pushing the boat out on the second Saturday of the ‘week’ in Hvidovre C with a range of events including a 12 hour mindfulness themed soveconcert (Sleep Concert), from GoSlow and sound artist Karsten Pflum. Gosh.

The previous Saturday was centred around Hvidovre town hall at the opposite end of the kommune. This included readings in Risbjerggård from personal fave Søren Ulrik Thomsen, a contemporary of Michael Strunge, and Caspar Eric, very much inspired by him.

Other Strunge related events included several riffs on the title of his 1984 collection Væbnet med vinger:

Michael Strunge (1958-86) was born in a clinic in Rødovre (venue of Denmark’s first punk gig by Sods in 1977) and grew up in Hvidovre, specifically in Berners Vænge, on the modernist Bredalsparken estate. He went to Sønderkærskolen (reminiscences) before attending Vestre Borgerdyd Gymnasium on Sjælør Boulevard in Valby.

Between 1978 and 1985 he published 11 collections of poetry, most of it written in a flat he shared with his girlfriend in Hvidovre. He died in 1986 at the age of 27, like his heroes Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, jumping out of a window at Webersgade 17 in Østerbro (plaque), and is buried in Assistens Kirkegård.

A figurehead for his generation and usually dubbed a ‘punk’ poet, but we’re not really talking John Cooper Clarke here:

Søren Ulrik Thomsen was born in Kalundborg and spent most of his childhood in Stevns, but at the reading admitted to living on Arnold Nielsens Boulevard from the age of 2-6, in one of the red and white blocks at the Hvidovrevej end. He knew Strunge well, although was careful to stress that they were very different in personality.

Fondly known as Hvidovre’s tourist bureau, SUT cited the “rigtig smukt forstadsbyggeri” Berners Vænge in Politiken’s Riv byen ned series. A poem in his latest collection has the title I Hvidovre, på novemberdage (translation by Susanna Nied, p19), while a recent essay includes the indispensable quote:

og jeg ser for mig, Hvidovre for fyrre år siden, som med små selvbyggerhuse og lys og luft mellem boligblokkene vel både historisk og geografisk var “den første forstad”, med alt, hvad det indbefattede af søde drømme om en lille sort folkevogn og et tv-apparat og i det hele taget et bedre liv end det, der levedes f.eks. på Vesterbro, som Hvidovre må være udflytning af

[and I see before me the Hvidovre of forty years ago, which with its small self-built houses and open spaces between the tower blocks was probably the first suburb, both historically and geographically, with all that entails: sweet dreams of a little black Beetle and a television and all in all a better life than that lived for example in Vesterbro, which Hvidovre may be a relocation of]

Perhaps the suburbs still have an authenticity of time and place, less found in today’s Happy CPH. In København con amore (2006), the product of trips to the outer reaches of CPH with photographer Jokum Rohde, SUT presents photos of two very local spots, Hvidovrevejens Partyslagter at Hvidovrevej 277 (now Pangs Smørrebrød), while Lis’s Kaffebar at 340 C is now occupied by Hot & Cool and French Chicken. Things are changing, even in Hvidovre.

Back to Strunge with Vestegnens KulturCast, an enthusiastic effort from Vallensbæk Kultur- og Borgerhus, with two dedicated episodes plus full interviews with Anne Marie Mai and Jørgen Aabenhus. The second episode has readings from Asger Schnack in Taastrup Bibliotek and from school students in the 9th class in Vallensbæk. All well worth a listen.

In 1985 AMM and MS published Mai Strunge, a book of their conversations and letters. She followed this up in 2008 with an anthology, En bog om Michael Strunge, on what would have been his 50th birthday, co-edited with JA. In her interview she stated that MS was an ‘anarkistisk kameleon’, unconstrained by fashions/styles in poetry and uninterested in socially engaged poems with a message.

JA examined MS’s relationship with life in the suburbs, not least as reflected in his 1981 poem COMA, observing people waiting at a bus stop on Hvidovrevej. At that time Hvidovre was very homogeneous, middelmådig and småborgelig, a poster child for the velfærdssamfund – and a prime case for teenage rebellion. There’s a tension here with hygge, of which I’m guessing MS wasn’t a big fan, but as JA pointed out hygge is more likely to be found in the home than at a bus stop.

By way of contrast, when asked a brace of Vestegnen residents named the slower tempo of life, which you notice as soon as you get off said bus, vs too much traffic, too many people and the lack of greenery in the city, as the advantages of living in the suburbs today.

More Strunge? see Litteratursiden, which also has a recent feature on 1980s literature, and biographies by Knud Munck (2oo1) and Peter Rewers (2015). For more SUT, see People vs place in Copenhagen.

Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place

Updates, June 2017: PMcG interview in CounterText | extract from The future of nostalgia (another | Notting Hill Editions comp)

Last summer I discovered Patrick McGuinness and read his Bucharest set novel The last hundred days – see Belgitude in Bucharest. Now it’s time for the book which set the whole thing off: Other people’s countries (reviews: Amazon | Guardian | Observer | Independent | Literary Review | Spectator | Caught by the river).

Disarming, eloquent and illuminating, this meditation on place, time and memory, could only have been written by a poet, or a novelist, or a professor. Happily, Patrick McGuinness is all three, and Other People’s Countries is a marvel: a stunning piece of lyrical writing, rich in narrative and character – full of fresh ways of looking at how we grow up, how we start to make sense of the world.

A very special book of short, Proustian pieces on childhood and how the places of our childhood are embedded in us.

It’s a truly lovely thing made up of 50+ short sketches, or dare I say drifts, some from McGuinness’ two previous books of poetry. The book includes those twin devices beloved of curating readers – a dramatis personae and a map of the Walloon town of Bouillon, but no index (another project?). The list of personae includes visitors, tourists and passers-through (“everyone passed through, not many stayed”), including, intriguingly, Gordon Jackson, James Robertson Justice and Jack Warner – I’m sensing war film. We’ll see. In the afterword McGuinness cautions about “things you tell yourself, that you invoke and perform for yourself in order to be and to remain yourself…I misremember all this so vividly it’s as if it only happened yesterday”.

We’re in memory country again, and partly a stranger in a strange land, although less so than Gorra. And memory is tied to place:

When I’m asked about events in my childhood, about my childhood at all, I think mostly of rooms. I think of times as places, with walls and windows and doors.

As for most people, “plenty of nothing” happened, a childhood characterised by Essence of indoors, “that sublimate of all that’s gone”. The family house itself “is now empty most of the year, and sits marinading in its past”.

The cover of the hardback edition (above) shows an owl flying out from a wallpaper of green leaves and flowers, characterising the Ardennais fondness for animal parts, “not just for eating but for home decoration”. The cover for the paperback edition is a stock image of keys, tied up in a metaphor for how you remember the past:

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you could make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite so well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.

More musings in My suits, a two page meditation on the nature of anticipation: ” I could already imagine myself gone, so that everywhere I went I could only think about what it would be like without me there”, putting a “black border” around days: “even as you live them forwards, you’re looking at them from behind, seeing them as they would be if they were over.” And as an aside:

I think every child tries that experiment where, faced with a date in the future they dread, and believing the old adage about time going faster when you’re busy or having fun, they slow down and avoid enjoying things too much, hoping to put the brakes on Time. This in turn means they don’t enjoy the present, which gives them another thing, other than its pastness, to regret about the past.”

Some sketches are more factual, but with a twist in the tail:

  • Corbion: the art of “composing sweepingly universal rules from minuscule amounts of unrepresentative data”, Corbion is a town where the inhabitants “were reputed to be unable to gender their nouns”, while the population of Paliseul is sensitive to the cold
  • Triage: “my parents often misused ready-made expressions not only in each other’s languages but, by the end, in their own…by dint of living with the other, each became gradually unmoored from their native tongues”, and for their children, “an exhilirating world of malapropism and cross-purposes”
  • Centenarian: “an old school photograph keeps turning up in Le Cercle d’Histoire de Bouillon, where the same photographs and reminiscences keep turning up anyway (this is why we keep reading it, for the sameness laid over change)”

The tone is not donnish, taking unexpected turns on places, feeling at first misplaced but then more personal. References are also made forward to other sketches, giving the book a dynamism not often found in writing in this style.

Growing up with two countries is different from moving to another, although there is clearly much in common, not least a feeling of being adrift, of superimposing time and place. Bouillon is the home of McGuinness’ parallel Belgian self, it is someone else’s country. In Naturalisation he quotes Simenon: “there was no reason for me to be born Belgian”, seeing this as “a refreshing antidote to the usual stridences of belonging”. And Belgian writer William Cliff, not Belgian but “from Belgium”.

What of Gordon Jackson and friends? McGuinness retells the story of Against the wind, a 1946 film, “as it was felt, in that hybrid long-finished but real-time-unfolding present tense that reflects the inside of our lives far better than those three stooges, the past, present and future”.

The book concludes, inevitably, with Déjà vu:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:

forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

opc

Belgitude in Bucharest: an adrift sense of belonging

Update, April 2015: see my post on Other people’s countries: the malady of time and place. It’s also nice to see that Patrick returned to Bucharest last summer.

I picked up on Patrick McGuinness via the Guardian review of Other people’s countries (Amazon; 2014), described as “the great book on Belgium, modern memory and modern being”. McGuinness is half Belgian – insert “which half” joke here:

Being only half-Belgian does not disqualify me from the slightly adrift sense of belonging that constitutes Belgitude, because all Belgians are only half-Belgian.

He’s half Walloon, while my partner is fully Flemish. In the poem Belgitude (audio), one of several in his first collection The Canals of Mars (2004) McGuinness writes: “Surveys showed that most Belgians questioned/ would have preferred to be from somewhere else”, while The Belgiad captures the nature of Belgian towns: “Caesarean state:/ every roadsign a mirror/ every town a suburb…All has that faint emphasis, as if the place were in italics,/ could look like elsewhere yet be nowhere else. ”

In A page in the life McGuinness is described as a “poet and novelist who is most at home elsewhere”, and in a reading at Villanova University he explores how our lives can be thought of as cities – roads turn out not to be there, while we inhabit several places at once and make maps of our lives and memories. This all strikes a chord with life as an ‘international’; see

The immigrant who arrives too late in life to adapt to his new country, but too early to survive on nostalgia for the old country, has to create a third, imagined country to live in.

I’ve started though with The last hundred days (Amazon; 2011), on the fall of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, which made the Booker longlist. Maybe I’m reading differently these days, but heck this is well written. The Independent review cites some of the “aperçus that have the reader reaching for a pencil”:

the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself”

As a bonus it turns out the book has a walking theme. The narrator’s rather lovely colleague Prof Leo O’Heix is writing a book called The city of lost walks:

Leo worked on his book about Bucharest…he could not keep up with the city’s obliteration. The place was coming down quicker than it could be described…it survived in guide books and memoirs, and in the trove of notes and photographs that lay heaped on Leo’s dining table, waiting to be turned into prose. The prose, meanwhile, went from topical to commemorative in a fraction of the time it usually took such transformations…Leo had begun writing a practical guidebook for a travel company, but finished up composing an urban elegy, a memorial to a place gone or going at very cobble and cornice.

Against the wall a metre-square map of Bucharest, stuck with lines and clusters of coloured pins, was attached to a cork board. ‘Red pins are the walks taken, blue pins are the walks yet to take. Black ones are the walks you can’t take any more – the lost walks’.

Leo’s apartment is full of books, paintings, icons salvaged from wrecked buildings, papered with photographs of the country’s destruction and home to scrapbooks and videos hidden in the boxes of action films – “his flat had become the city’s hidden visage, like a backwards portrait of Dorian Grey: as the place itself disappeared around us, so Leo’s apartment grew in compressed splendour”.

The last section of Jilted city (Amazon; reviews/quotes: Guardian | TLS | Tower Poetry), McGuinness’ 2010 volume of poetry, is a set of poems also called City of lost walks, allegedly written by Romanian poet Liviu Campanu (1932-1994) and translated by McGuinness. But Campanu is a fiction – he appears peripherally in The last hundred days as a pathologist. McGuinness describes him as “a late middle aged heavy smoking Romanian with big sad eyes and a penchant for reading Ovid”. The fictional Campanu “reversing the absurd process by which [Romania’s] real dissident authors were edited out” (Guardian), gives McGuinness “new ways to be myself”. (In the YouTube video below McGuinness says he used the device of Campanu to show that not all east European poets wrote dissident verse – see for example Leaving do.)

In a further twist our narrator helps the debonair Sergiu Trofim, a sidelined luminary of the pre-Ceausescu days, to restore an uncensored version of his memoirs. Trofim dictates to his official transcriber, “a grey-faced buzzard with a socialist-realist scowl”, who saves the papers to a disk for ‘editing’. When they return for proofreading transformed the narrator rescues the deleted files from the recycle bin and prints them at the British Embassy library to be smuggled abroad, with the result that Trofim becomes a celebrity dissident. (A quick shoutout to the official publication’s ghostwriter: Hadrian ‘The Wall’ Vintile.)

Quoting Mallarmé’:

The world already exists. What’s the point of describing it? Our job is to understand the connections.