A wild slim alien


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Rua dos Douradores

‘Dawn in the countryside just exists; dawn in the city overflows with promise. One makes you live and the other makes you think. And, along with all the other great unfortunates, I’ve always believed it better to think than to live.’ – Fernando Pessoa, The book of disquiet

 

* The Antiga Casa Pessoa was a restaurant on Rua dos Douradores. The name is coincidental; there was no link to the family of Fernando Pessoa. But while working as a translator in the Baixa, no doubt drawn by the coincidence, Pessoa would often take his lunch there.

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Lisbon moonlit, and in the sunlight

‘I love the Tagus because of the great city on its banks. I enjoy the sky because I see it from a fourth floor window in a street in the Baixa. Nothing in the countryside or in nature can give me anything to equal the ragged majesty of the calm moonlit city seen from Graça or São Pedro de Alcântara. For me no flowers can match the endlessly varied colours of Lisbon in the sunlight.’ – Fernando Pessoa, The book of disquiet


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The visitors’ book: Fernando Pessoa, Bernardo Soares and The book of disquiet

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‘Everything depends on what we are and, in the diversity of time, how those who come after us perceive the world will depend on how intensely we have imagined it, that is, on how intensely we, fantasy and flesh made one, have truly been it. … We are all novelists and we narrate what we see because, like everything else, seeing is a complex matter.’

Sometimes it requires many more people than the author to make a book. Take the Serpent’s Tail edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The book of disquiet. It’s a version of the text edited by Maria José de Lancastre and translated from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Three earlier Pessoa scholars undertook the original work of deciphering the handwritten notebooks and scraps of paper from which the text was derived and put into some sort of order. Then there’s the infrastructure a publisher requires to put a book in the line of sight of potential readers – the commissioning and copy editors, the marketing and administrative staff, not to mention those responsible for its look and feel, like the graphic designer. And (assuming we are not talking about a solely virtual edition) let’s not forget the printer, who brings the book into physical being. It’s not often that we think of these last two roles as having an equivalence to the intellectual effort of editor or translator. But with the Half Pint Press’ boxed, letterpress edition of The book of disquiet, I think it’s only fair that we elevate Tim Hopkins to the level of de Lancastre and Jull Costa, despite (knowing Tim) his inevitable protestations as we try to do so.

Pessoa began writing what has come to be known as The book of disquiet in 1912, and continued adding to it fragment by fragment until his death in 1935. Tim has spent very nearly as long bringing his singular vision and version of the text into being, printing a selection of the individual portions of Pessoa’s words on paper ephemera – a roll of bus tickets, a portion of a map, a menu, pages from a ledger, gift tags, raffle tickets, a playing card, a postage stamp – but also on a variety of other materials which can take ink – a photographic slide, a book of matches, a wooden tongue depressor, a drinks mat, pieces of cloth and jigsaw puzzle, and even along the sides of a pencil. It’s been a labour of love, in the truest sense, just as Pessoa’s writing of his texts was in the first place, seemingly without hope of them ever being published. This artful and soulful recreation of the trunk in which the fragments of writing that form The book of disquiet were found brings alive both the ordinariness of the imagined life lived by Bernardo Soares, and Pessoa’s extraordinary rendering of his interior. If you add to this the extensive ferreting about which has taken place to source materials in sufficient quantities; the sheer variety of those materials; the ingenuity with which the individual printing challenges have been met; and the bloody-minded determination to keep going, strike by laborious strike of the manual press – I am as in awe of it as I am of Pessoa’s sentences. And what Tim’s efforts inevitably lead us back to are those.

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In one of the several hundred fragments of which The book of disquiet is comprised, Pessoa, writing in the guise of Soares, compares life to an inn in which he must stay until ‘the carriage from the abyss’ comes to pick him up. Soares says:

‘If what I leave written in the visitors’ book is one day read by others and entertains them on their journey, that’s fine. If no-one reads it or is entertained by it, that’s fine too.’

Any writer who is not widely read during the course of his or her lifetime might well need to think like this to be able to continue to believe in the effort of writing without a sense of the futility of that effort overwhelming and undoing them. But Pessoa’s subject was so often the futility of effort of any kind, and his writing about it so tenacious, that it becomes hard to believe it of him. Certain fragments towards the end of the Serpent’s Tail edition of The book of disquiet reveal that he was shrewd enough to guess that the trunk of texts and poems left behind when he finally caught the carriage to the abyss would sooner or later be discovered and disseminated. The visitors’ book was in fact a treasure chest of untold, unparalleled, gem-like literary fragments, and perhaps it was enough for Pessoa while he lived to know in both his heart, and in his astutely philosophical mind, that he was ahead of his time.

The translation by Margaret Jull Costa, one of at least four there have been into English, follows the thematic selection edited by Maria José de Lancastre, which while it promotes an element of repetition, makes the whole less random and unstructured. (Tim’s boxed version of the book reverses this process, which arguably makes it truer to what Pessoa had in mind himself: ‘I re-read some of the pages which, when put together, will make up my book of random impressions. And there rises from them, like a familiar smell, an arid sense of monotony.’) Themes – such as tedium, weariness, office life, solitude, dreams, love, writing – do recur and overlap, but there is more of a sense of accumulation than repetition as over the years Pessoa/Soares writes his way into and through these themes from ever-varying angles.

If you gauge a book by a desire to annotate the text or capture and save quotes from it, then The book of disquiet has few equals. When I read it, I find that the quotableness varies only according to my own receptivity and sensitivity. On a day when my mind has a greater or lesser number of cares which are distracting it, then Pessoa’s sentences can drift by me as light and free – or as insubstantial – as blown bubbles, evaporating with a silent pop almost before I’ve finished reading them. But on a day when I am, say, luxuriating in the bath, and the doors and windows of the inner apartment of my relaxed mind are fully open, then the words I read in my well-thumbed and wrinkled copy of The book of disquiet blow through that apartment like a freshening breeze, and I find myself wanting to capture between quote marks nearly every sentence he writes. Here are just a few of those:

‘Each of us is intoxicated by different things. There’s intoxication enough for me in just living. Drunk on feeling I drift but never stray. If it’s time to go back to work, I go to the office just like everyone else. If not, I go down to the river to stare at the waters, again just like everyone else. I’m just the same. But behind this sameness, I secretly scatter my personal firmament with stars and therein create my own infinity.’

‘Down the steps of my dreams and my weariness, descend from your unreality, descend and be my substitute for the world.’

‘One should abandon all duties, even those not demanded of us, reject all cosy hearths, even those that are not our own, live on what is vague and vestigial, amongst the extravagant purples of madness and the false lace of imagined majesties… To be something that does not feel the weight of the rain outside, or the pain of inner emptiness… To wander with no soul, no thoughts, just pure impersonal sensation, along winding mountain roads, through valleys hidden amongst steep hills, distant, absorbed, ill-fated… To lose oneself in landscapes like paintings. To be nothing in distance and in colours…’

‘The sentence was the only truth. Once the sentence was formed everything was done; the rest was the sand it always had been.’

‘I’m like a being from another existence who passes, endlessly curious, through this one to which I am in every way alien. A sheet of glass stands between it and me. I always try to keep that glass as clean as possible so I can examine this other existence without smudges or smears spoiling my view; but I choose to keep that glass between us.’

‘What is there in all this but myself? Ah, but in that and only that lies tedium. It’s the fact that in all this – sky, earth, world – there is never anything but myself!’

Sometimes when you read a fragment, it is true that you feel yourself succumbing to the same kind of tedium that Pessoa/Soares is describing – but then he hits you with a turn of phrase so beautifully crafted and so lucid in its perceptiveness that it leaves you as stunned as if the sun had suddenly penetrated a thick blanket of grey-white cloud.

I suspect many writers feel the way that Bernardo Soares feels. The difference may be that they are waiting with a greater or lesser degree of confidence for the torpor to pass, or for the muse to sing, and the story to emerge from the song; from what is initially a fog of shapeless forms within their minds. Pessoa remains or chooses to remain in that foggy state, and makes the tedium, torpor and solitariness the story. In so doing, ‘using my soul as ink’, he performs the alchemical transformation of which Soares believes himself incapable.

‘These pages are the doodles of my intellectual unconsciousness of myself,’ he writes. If so, why should we bother to be interested? Because the end results are not mere doodles, they are finely wrought and rendered fragments of Pessoa’s thought, passed through the medium of Soares, and sitting on top of a bed of submerged feelings and dreams. The fragments are ahead of time reports on the state of our twenty-first century minds and souls, full of acuity and insight about our atomisation and the relationship we have with our own selves. By some hundred years, and through his use of heteronyms, of which Bernardo Soares is but one of seventy or eighty Pessoa used during the course of his writing life, he anticipates the taking of multiple online identities in order to present facets of one’s self to the world. Perhaps inevitably this comes at a cost; from Soares himself, we hear the plaintive cry of someone within whom multiple personalities have run wild:

‘Who is this person I attend on? How many people am I? Who is me? What is this gap that exists between me and myself?’

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Some writers – the best perhaps, though that’s not always recognised in their own time – are the advanced guard in terms of the evolution of how human beings think and feel. They report to us how they perceive the world, and allow those ways of perceiving to develop and take hold, until what once was strange and solitary becomes understood, a part of the collective consciousness. It pulls you up short when Pessoa himself addresses this notion directly. It’s as though he is present in the (bath)room with you in some ghostly way, beyond what has normally been the case as you read him:

‘One day, perhaps, they will understand that I carried out, as did no other, my inborn duty as interpreter of one particular period of our century; and when they do, they will write that I was misunderstood in my own time; they will write that, sadly, I lived surrounded by coldness and indifference, and that it is a pity it should have been so. And the person writing, in whatever future epoch he or she may live, will be as mystified by my equivalent in that future time as are those around me now.’

In writing about The book of disquiet, I’ve come to realise that it is next to impossible to sum it up concisely, in any satisfactory, meaningful way. There is too much going on in the Bernardo Soares compartment of Fernando Pessoa’s mind; it would require a book of similar length to the book itself to do it justice. And you would surely only want to read such a book after you have read Pessoa himself, and have had the chance to make up your own mind. Because your book of disquiet will not be my book of disquiet, or indeed, Tim Hopkins’, de Lancastre’s or Jull Costa’s. Any one reader will navigate through its mosaic of thoughts, feelings, ideas and dreams using a different route, and be struck along the way by differing sentences and paragraphs within those fragments. And yet at the end of the book, all those readers who have been beguiled into investing themselves in his sentences will have a strong, perhaps even fraternal sense of Fernando Pessoa; all will have discovered the Bernardo Soares in themselves.


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I dreamt I was a butterfly

 

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things.

– Zhuangzi (c.369 BC – c.286 BC), as translated by Lin Yutang. Speckled wood butterfly, Porlock, Somerset, August 2016 by awildslimalien.

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come, butterfly
it’s late ―
we’ve miles to go together

– Matsuo Bashō, On Love and barley: haiku of Bashō. Painted lady butterfly, Hampshire, August 2016 by awildslimalien.


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A butterfly passes in front of me

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A butterfly passes in front of me
And for the first time in the universe I notice
That butterflies don’t have colour or movement,
Just like flowers don’t have perfume or colour.
Colour is what has colour in a butterfly’s wings.
In a butterfly’s movement the movement is what moves.
Perfume is what has perfume in a flower’s perfume.
A butterfly is only a butterfly
And a flower is only a flower.
(5/7/1914)

– Poem XL by Alberto Caeiro (heteronym of Fernando Pessoa), sourced from Fernando Pessoa: Alberto Caeiro: Complete Poems.

Peacock butterfly perching on buddleia, Norwich, August 2016 by awildslimalien.

Previous encounters with peacock butterflies are here and here.


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Cities and signs

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‘Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something — who knows what? — has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses). From the doors of the temples the gods’ statues are seen, each portrayed with his attributes — the cornucopia, the hourglass, the medusa — so that the worshipper can recognize them and address his prayers correctly. If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


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Cities and memory

‘As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ ― Italo Calvino, Invisible CitiesIMG_1612 IMG_1621 IMG_1643 IMG_1664 IMG_1678 IMG_1690 IMG_1830 IMG_1844 IMG_1849 IMG_1850 IMG_1854 IMG_1925


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The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

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‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.’ – Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The shadow of the wind

For a time I worked in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Founded between the wars, it was housed in a skylit attic room of a central library in one of this country’s smaller cities.  From the outside, with its sheer cliffs of ashlar and aggressively jutting bow-oriels, the building was one which managed the trick of looking both ancient and modern.  Its interior was more a mix of the ancient and the institutional.

There were no books in this part of the library, this Cemetery of Forgotten Books, at least not in the traditional sense. Just shelves and shelves of ancient, fat, stubby folders containing reams of bibliographic detail, together with the numerically coded location (or ‘loc’ in the verbal shorthand used by the cemetery’s staff) of where the book recorded on each slip was held in the region. We put readers in touch with the rare or obscure or forgotten books of previous centuries, and the unsuccessful novels and esoteric researches of the 20th.  Like the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The shadow of the wind, it was exactly the kind of repository which might have had – or at least have led you to – the single extant copy of each of Julián Carax’s lost novels.

The chief librarian was a tall, elegant woman who may secretly have felt that the attic in which she had ended up was a career cul-de-sac; both a metaphorical and a literal glass ceiling.  With her feather-cut hair and tailored jackets in light or pastel shades, she certainly seemed out of place, never quite right for the role.  The other librarians were more suited to the Cemetery, more in keeping with my notion that this clearing house for books ought actually to be presided over by some kind of patron saint of lost causes.  One was a giggly sort of stoic, always making a joke (if not the best) of what she felt was a perennially bad lot.  Another was bird-like, a wizened old raven with a pecking motion to her head and deep black rings around her eyes from a lack of sleep.  I was little more than a boy and she took me under her wing, guiding me through the bibliographic and procedural maze that was the Cemetery.  Perhaps she recognised something of herself in me; perhaps, undeclared, she was a writer too, dedicated to puncturing life’s absurdities, and the rings around her eyes came from late nights or early mornings trying to forge a work which would itself one day make its way into the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

It seemed to me that a book had a life outside of itself, if it was recorded in one of those ancient folders, that it could be pulled back from shelved obscurity or even extinction, to be given into the hands of its next reader.  I was one of the mediums who brought the soul of the book and the psyche of the reader together.  I wish I could have just one of the old folders in my hands again, so that I could quote at random a few of the titles of those forgotten books, but I feel certain that filed under ‘Bo-’ would have been this work, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand, 1778: The Travels Of Hildebrand Bowman, Esquire, Into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, And Audinante, In New-Zealand; And In The Powerful Kingdom Of Luxo-Voluptot. Written By Himself; Who Went On Shore In The Adventure’s Large Cutter; And Escaped Being Cut Off, And Devoured, With The Rest Of The Boat’s Crew, By Happening To Be A-Shooting In The Woods; Where He Was Afterwards, Unfortunately Left Behind By The Adventure.

Or perhaps a reader might have been after The life and adventures of Harvey Teasdale, the converted clown and man monkey. With his remarkable conversion in Wakefield prison published in Sheffield by the General Printing and Publishing Company, Limited, 1875.

Most likely it was more serious fare that was required, the encapsulation in book form of a lifetime’s study, the foundations of knowledge in a certain narrow corner of the Dewey Decimal classification, upon which all developments and adjustments in that field would subsequently be built.  A book wanted sufficiently by a reader that he or she was prepared to fill out a form and pay a small fee to request it.  And when we found the details of that very book printed upon one of the slithers of paper waiting for us in the folders, with a loc or locs pencilled at the foot of the slip, there was a small but not insignificant feeling of satisfaction that we were doing a good thing in bringing reader and book together.

By now the typewritten relics which together made up the index of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books will long since have been digitised. Rendered obsolete by new technology, the ancient folders will surely have been thrown away and the wafer-thin slips of paper they housed recycled.  I moved on well before the Cemetery got to the point that it was obliged to close its doors, but I like to think that the giggly stoic and the old raven – if not the chief librarian – will have smuggled out a folder each, which every now and again they take down in order to flick through its musty pages, the smell and the printed slips conjuring for a few moments the days of their working lives.

Perhaps I am guilty of judging a work by its cover, but no, the tall, elegant woman with the feather-cut hair was never quite right for the role of chief librarian in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Of late, thinking of Isaac Montfort, the aquiline custodian of the same in Zafón’s beautifully crafted novel, I’ve been imagining that it should have been someone rather like him; someone rather like the man I have since become.

Photograph of Shakespeare and Company – source unknown.