Fernando Pessoa was the great Portuguese poet of modernism. To be the great Portuguese poet of any era is, by the swirl patterns of cultural hydrology, to be unknown in this country. (Question: In 10 words, who was Camoens? Answer, in 10 words: Celebrated 16th Century epic poet whom I have not read.)
Yet, Pessoa is placed by the eminent critic Roman Jakobson on a level with other, more effectively swirled modernist artists such as Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce and Braque. Octavio Paz rates him with Apollinaire and Mayakovsky.
Early 20th-Century modernism played hell with the "I," that erect, self-confident pronoun that did so well for itself during the 19th Century. It blurred this "I"; it sprouted branches that went every which way, but mostly drooped under a variety of odd fruits, some poisonous. And what better place to mildew the "I" than Portugal, out there at the end of Europe?
Pessoa might have been made for the job. He was raised in South Africa, where he was a brilliant English student. He could have gone to the English university; instead, he chose to return to Portugal, to give up his passion and talent for writing in English, and to take up, instead, a language that the rest of Europe ignored.
It was a heroic gesture, but Pessoa did not think of himself that way. It was an instinctive turning away from the affirmations of the bustling positivist European world of the times; a deliberate choice of the obscure, the remote, the fog-shrouded.
His name helped. Pessoa means "person"; to be called "person" is like being called "anyone." One of his devices was to create half a dozen invented figures--heteronyms, he called them--as the authors of different segments of his poetry. Each had a different voice, all of the voices were his, none of them were.
Of the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," with its cheerful, one-beat philosophy, Pessoa writes: "Omar had a personality; I, for better or for worse, do not." He compares "someone like Omar, who is who he is," with himself, "who is not who he is." He continues: "I have in me the very philosophies I criticize, as if they were souls. Omar could reject them all because they were alien to him. I cannot reject them because they are who I am."
These lines come from "The Book of Disquiet," edited, and translated for the first time in English, by Alfred MacAdam. It is a book of reflection, compiled by Pessoa from 1915 to the time of his death in 1935. It is written in the "voice" of a heteronym, Bernardo Soares; much as Rilke did in "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge," and the Spanish poet Antonio Machado in his reflective notebook, "Juan de Mairena."
Soares is Pessoa, of course; even biographically, to a large extent. Like his creator, he works as a bookkeeper, he writes and dreams of fame--while rejecting it at the same time--and he asserts his existence by doubting it.
Soares/Pessoa glories in his modest and reclusive existence. Like Thoreau, he rejects ambition and praises simplicity: "The assistant bookkeeper can dream of being emperor of Rome. The king of England is deprived of being, in dreams, any other king but the one he is." Pessoa's little world is not a rural pond, but Lisbon itself.
He walks the streets, he praises the glow of yellow bananas in a basket on a gray day, he draws pleasures out of the routines of the street. The cook at his restaurant comes to the door to watch a quarrel taking place outside. The cook gets more excitement from this, Pessoa writes, than the lion hunter gets after about the first three lions. Travelers are bored; there is nothing more boring than a continual succession of new things.
Although he goes to cafes and hangs out with other writers, he declares that he finds more richness in the monotony of his office. (Monotony is a word that occurs over and over; so do rain, dreams, inert, sadness and banality.) "If out of sentiment we must give our love, it's just as worthwhile giving it to the small element that is my inkwell as it is to bestow it on the grand indifference of the stars." He tells of his affection for his fellow clerks, for the office boy, for the office cat. At the same time, he is miffed to find that in an office photograph, he comes out indistinguishable from the others. Not to be recognized as extraordinary, he admits, is his "hairshirt."
"The Book of Disquiet" can be hard going. Pessoa's prose is often opaque, as if his need to be hidden extended to his writing. Some of his epigrams misfire; perhaps the excessive privacy of his imagination cuts off the oxygen necessary to detonate them. His themes are limited and they repeat. And he lacks specificity.
His Lisbon--unlike Dublin in "Ulysses," to which it has been compared--is a city of generalized ghosts, not of unmistakable individuals. Even the steak he eats is a ghost-steak. On the other hand, he gives a splendid description of a hurricane. He is generally splendid on weather and light--as if these were aspects of his own soul.
MacAdam suggests that Pessoa's book is better for dipping into at random and repeatedly, than for reading straight through. " 'The Book of Disquiet,' unlike most books, cannot be read but only reread," he writes. It is a nice phrase and true, in a way. There are sparks of lightning in Pessoa's clouds and cloudiness; it is a matter of placing ourselves beside the book and waiting, with some patience, to be struck. One will be.
Next: Judith Freeman reviews "The Diamond Lane" by Karen Karbo (Putnam's) .