Pessoa et al.

Fernando Pessoa was born on this day in 1888. Though he published very little in his short lifetime, Portugal's most important twentieth-century poet is such an essential presence on the postmodern syllabus that, says John Hollander, "If Fernando Pessoa had never existed, Jorge Luis Borges might have had to invent him." Even without Borges, Pessoa exists in multiple reincarnations: after his death in 1935, over 25,000 poems, letters, and other bits were found in a trunk, written by Pessoa and his handful of "heteronyms" -- sustained fictitious personas, each with a distinct biography and writing style.

One of the heteronyms went on to become the title character of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a novel by Portugal's Nobel-winning José Saramago in which Reis, when he is not speaking to the spirit of Pessoa, spends much of his time reading a fictional novel by Borges's fictional author Herbert Quain -- that fictional novel, to ice the meta-level cake, titled The God of Labyrinth.



In a similar spirit is Pessoa's "factless autobiography" -- written by his semi-heteronym Bernard Soames and introduced by Pessoa himself -- titled The Book of Disquiet. This collection of fragmented observations is regarded as our best glimpse of the real Pessoa, the man of reclusive, legendary oddness sometimes glimpsed in the streets and cafés of Lisbon. Keeping in mind Pessoa's one overriding caution -- "Everything stated or expressed by man is a note in the margin of a completely erased text" -- here is a sampling of the disquietude, begun as a reflection upon having heard that an old friend was to have an operation:

My nostalgia for the normal man I never was enters the substance of my being. But it's still that and only that which I feel. I don't actually feel sorry for the friend who is going to be operated on. I don't actually feel sorry for all the people who are going to be operated on, for all those who suffer and grieve in this world. I only feel sorry for not knowing how to be someone who feels sorry. And a moment later I'm thinking about something else, inevitably, out of an impulse I can't identify. And then, as if I were delirious, what I didn't come to feel was mixed with what I couldn't be, a murmur of trees, a sound of water running to ponds, a nonexistent farm….

 


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.