Portugal is the theme of this year's Frankfurt book fair but it has produced few writers of significance. C A R Hills explains how the work of Fernando Pessoa has sparked a Portuguese renaissanceby CAR Hills / October 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Portuguese is one of the great languages of the world. From its small country of origin, it has spread through half the South American continent. It is also widely spoken in Africa, and was formerly a lingua franca in Asia. As we approach the millennium, it has almost 200m native speakers. Because of the growing population of Brazil, it has a potential for expansion shared by no other languages save Spanish and English.
But this hold on the world has not been matched by a corresponding literary or cultural impact. “The Portuguese language is the graveyard of thought,” wrote the early Romantic, Alexandre Herculano; the following two centuries seem to have proved him right. There have been no Nobel prizes for literature in Portuguese.
One or two writers have been on the edge of breaking through: E?a de Queiroz, the late 19th-century novelist, and Machado de Assis, his “modernist” Brazilian contemporary. But the boom in Latin American literature in the 1960s omitted Brazil.
In the last decade, however, one Portuguese-language writer has emerged as a world figure. He is the poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), whose surname is the Portuguese word for “person.” In him, Portuguese culture has found its Mr Person, unknown during his lifetime, yet of startling originality.
In his Western Canon, Harold Bloom named Pessoa as one of the 26 most significant western writers since the middle ages. Bloom says that what links the 26 writers is, above all, strangeness, “a mode of originality which either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” This indeed applies to Pessoa.
Pessoa was born into the Portuguese elite, but the circumstances of his life conspired to turn him into an outsider. His father died when he was still a child, his mother remarried, and the family went to live in South Africa. Pessoa’s education was thus entirely in English, and it has been said of him that he combines an Anglo-Saxon intellect with a Portuguese sensibility. Although a brilliant student, he had few friends at Durban High School, and at the age of 17 returned alone to Lisbon, rarely to leave it again.
His university studies foundered, a publishing venture failed, and he settled down as a commercial translator from English and French. It was not prestigious work, but it allowed him a certain freedom. Those who knew him remembered him, beneath his humour and politeness, as frighteningly cold. He looked like a typical clerk: small moustache, round spectacles, fedora hat, neat suit or raincoat.
After changing addresses many times, he lived in his later years largely with his mother or aunts, smoked and drank heavily, spent a lot of time in caf?s, and had one faltering attachment to a woman, although he was probably gay. He died before he turned 50, having lived, in so far as he did, in the imagination.
He published extensively during his lifetime, but almost entirely in small literary magazines. Portugal in his time, poor and decadent as it was, and slipping into dictatorship, had a flourishing literary culture. This had been established during the 19th century, when the country had a more developed literature than Spain. The air was thick with writers and movements, but they had to work in the virtual absence of a reading public.
The life of a writer was often exceptionally tough: Antonio Gomes Leal, whose career dated back to the 1860s, finished up in the early 1920s sleeping on the benches of Lisbon’s central avenue; Ant?nio Botto, the first openly gay Portuguese poet, lost his government job in middle age and went to Brazil, where he died in poverty and squalor; the brilliant young M?rio de S?-Carneiro, and the leading female poet, Florbela Espanca, both committed suicide.
The literary magazines did not usually get beyond their second issue; books designed for binding, paid for by the author and distributed free to his friends, often remained uncut within their fast-yellowing, stiff paper covers; Pessoa accumulated most of his writings in a large trunk, opened only after his death.
Pessoa’s work, discovered in the trunk, challenged the idea of the self, of the authorial personality; it was thus peculiarly modern. His so-called heteronyms were more than mere pseudonyms. He was writing from within the voices of other people. Other writers have used this device-it is similar to the Yeatsian persona, or mask-but none so systematically as Pessoa, and none to explore the modern concern with alienation so thoroughly.
Of course, poetry of this kind risks alienating the reader. It often strips away language to reach an agonised statement of the inexpressible, rather than working through suggestion, emotion or imagery, as would be more familiar in the English tradition. If you compare Pessoa with Cavafy-his Alexandrian Greek contemporary whose life resembles Pessoa’s, but who was more quickly absorbed into the canon-you find in Cavafy a human wisdom and sense of affirmation which is alien to Pessoa. Cavafy often writes poems about encounters with boys, which Pessoa would never have dared or wished to do. His adventuring was internal. A literary friend once said to me that she thought Cavafy the better poet and Pessoa the more important. Cavafy is certainly easier to assimilate.
Both Cavafy and Pessoa were great patriots, for their language as much as their people, but Pessoa had an ambiguous relationship with literature in Portuguese. “There is only one great period of creation in our literary history,” he wrote, “and it hasn’t happened yet.” He tended to disparage the writer normally considered to have Portugal’s greatest claim on posterity, the 16th-century Lu?-z de Cam?es, who wrote the nation’s epic poem, Os Lus?-adas. Pessoa’s own pantheon was mainly foreign, and he knew that, to foreigners, Portuguese literature was largely a void. His achievement was to write directly from that void, a poet overwhelmed by the voices of others, yet speaking with miraculous virtuosity, variety and freedom from illusion. Many of his countrymen dislike him. “Muito Pessoa enjoa,” they sometimes say, “too much Pessoa makes you ill.” Nevertheless, he turned their historically derived inferiority complex into wholly unsentimental art.
So how has his reputation been achieved? Of all the great moderns-Eliot, Joyce, Proust, Kafka-Pessoa is the only one whose fame considerably postdates his own lifetime. But the foundations were laid during that period. In his final years, in the late 1920s, he was taken up by the students at Coimbra University who had founded Presen?a, a magazine which lasted longer than most. Several of the students associated with the magazine went on to become the leading Portuguese writers of their day. For them, Pessoa was both an inspiration and a bone of contention. These students combined a commitment to the avant-garde with an art-for-art’s-sake philosophy. They included the recently deceased Miguel Torga, who split the group by criticising Pessoa; Branquinho da Fonseca, the author of the novella The Baron (the latter knew Cyril Connolly, who himself became interested in Pessoa later in his life); and Jo?o Gaspar Sim?es, Portugal’s foremost critic, who sifted through the papers in the trunk after Pessoa’s death and began preparing the first volume of Pessoa’s collected works, which appeared in Lisbon in 1942.
The process of publication was gradual; even now it is not entirely complete. The immense range of Pessoa’s work-poetry in French and English as well as Portuguese, literary essays, philosophy, esoterica, short stories, even detective stories-combined with the disorder in which Pessoa had left the 27,543 items in his trunk, were largely responsible for this delay. But by the 1950s, Pessoa was established as one of the leading poets in Portugal and Brazil, and his fame was being spread abroad by such writers as Roy Campbell, who had followed him at Durban High School. In the Latin American world, a key role has been played by Octavio Paz, Mexico’s most famous contemporary poet, who discovered Pessoa while in Paris in 1958, and has propagated his work ever since.
In Britain, a breakthrough was achieved not by Pessoa the poet but, in the late 1980s, by his major work of prose, O Livro do Desassossego, or The Book of Disquiet. Pessoa worked on it throughout his adult life, but it remains fragmentary. It is the work of one of his heteronyms, the clerk Bernardo Soares, a mixture of personal diary with meditations. Soares is much closer to Pessoa himself than are the poetic heteronyms; it is in this work that the author seems to address us most directly, and to give us the most haunting evocation of his native city (in the guidebook to Lisbon which Pessoa wrote for the English market, he seems oddly unfamiliar with the place). Paradoxically, the reputation of this poet may rest with his work of prose.
Because of the difficulty in collating the book, a complete edition of The Book of Disquiet was not published in Lisbon until 1982. It was then quickly translated into Spanish and other European languages. Its appearance in Britain was delayed, but in 1991 three versions of all or part of the work were published (as well as another in the US), a strange case of overkill, when most Portuguese-language writers of significance have not been translated into English at all. (The unique 600-year alliance between Britain and Portugal has remained strictly political and economic.)
In the mid-1990s, however, following the publication of The Book of Disquiet, there were further translations from Portuguese. The English translation by the late Giovanni Pontiero of Jos? Saramago’s novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a meditation on the legacy of Pessoa to Portugal, won the short-lived Independent prize for best translation of foreign fiction in 1993. After the mid-1990s, the spate of books from Portugal dried up, but May and June 1997 saw the publication in Britain of no less than 11 translations from Brazilian authors.
In Portugal itself, the legacy of Pessoa lies behind much of the country’s vibrant modern literature and art, which have developed since the revolution of 1974. It is estimated that around 60 novelists have made their names since then, half of them women. They are perhaps too influenced by the fashionable currents of world literature, and the Portuguese are still infinitely less interested in reading than football. But it is a hopeful picture.