Sunday, 29 June 2014

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire




Back in January I asked readers to vote for 10 books for me to read from my book pile. As I read through the list I posted my impressions on them. Recently I finished this challenge by reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I deliberately postponed it until the end because I wanted to savour the bittersweet anxiety of returning to the author of Ada or Ardor. There was also apprehension involved because I feared he could not repeat the virtuosity of that novel. But Nabokov corrected me with zest and aplomb! It is premature to declare it, but I have no doubts Pale Fire is the best book I read in 2014.

There exist many pleasures to be picked from this novel but first I must essay a rudimentary explanation of the plot. On the surface, the novel is an extended commentary written by one Charles Kinbote, professor of American Literature at a small college town, about the poem “Pale Fire,” whose author, John Shade, is his friend, neighbour and college colleague. Kinbote guides the reader through the apparently autobiographical poem and unveils the subtextual celebration the small European kingdom of Zembla, from where Kinbote hails and which recently suffered a Soviet-backed coup d’état that deposed its beloved monarch, King Charles II. That’s one interpretation; the other is that Kinbote may be the deposed king, hiding in America from revolutionary assassins and that it was his intimacy with the Shade that inspired the poet to write a poem about Zembla, or so the king thinks, because the poem doesn’t mention Zembla save in one or two instances. So it’s possible that King Charles, if he be Kinbote, is actually insane and is misunderstanding the poem. Or it may be that Kinbote is in fact an insane Russian émigré-cum-college professor called V. Botkin who thinks he’s Charles Kinbote, who thinks he’s King Charles, who may have his own mental instabilities. But it’s also possible that Zembla, Kinbote et al are figments of Shade’s imagination (the least interesting interpretation to me). Basically the reader can choose whichever plot he fancies the most and ferret out clues from the text to support his reading, which is essentially what Kinbote is doing when he insists that Shade “was reassembling my Zembla!”

Since I’m a fan of mono-linear plots, I have to stick to one course of interpretation, and my preference goes to the most obvious one: Charles Kinbote is King Charles pretending to be Charles Kinbote. It is quite obvious that the reader is in the hands of a madman. But he’s an entertaining madman with talents a real reader is trained to admire. The fact that Kinbote is well-spoken and pathetically endearing hides the fact that he’s a callous and selfish person. But he writes alliterative sentences and uses word puns, and sprinkles the text with foreign words, and so the reader is disarmed because he wishes he were that clever with words. And so, like children, we’re led by the hand by this dangerous narrator. His friendship with the Shades today would be called stalking: he ingratiates himself with the Shades for ulterior motives, spies on them, obsesses over them, and exaggerates his friendship with Shade. Although there’s a wide cognitive dissonance between what he says and the way Shade treats him, he believes “John Shade valued my society above that of all other people,” which incites academic jealousy against him. The man is clearly paranoid. At least one colleague calls him “insane,” behaviour he attributes to the “venom of envy.” Another person drops a note in his pocket accusing him of suffering hallucinations. In an article included in the commentary the College shows concern about the fate of the manuscript, since it’s in the hands of a “deranged mind.” And this envy leads to an obituary containing “not one reference to the glorious friendship that brightened the last month of John’s life.” Kinbote himself claims that “[p]ersonally I have not known any lunatics.” But the text is constantly bringing up the topic of insanity, and it’s from here that we realize that Kinbote may be one Botkin thinking he’s Kinbote thinking he’s King Charles.

According to Kinbote, he moved next to the Shades on February 5, 1959 (like the best of madmen he’s nothing but methodical and precise). Although Kinbote knew Shade “only a few months,” he considered him a “very dear friend” because “there exist friendships which develop their own inner duration, their own eons of transparent time, independent of rotating, malicious music.” Kinbote’s foreword to the poem and the commentary is dated October, 19, 1959, by which time Shade is dead. So a few months indeed (and we find out that in five months he’s only invited to their “table exactly three times”). Tragedy has struck Shade: a gunman assassinated him, and Kinbote retrieved the manuscript of the poem in order to publish it, apparently out of respect to him. Kinbote believes he contains in himself the best of virtues, fairness and generosity included. “Immediately after my dear friend’s death I prevailed on his distraught widow to forelay and defeat the commercial passions and academic intrigues that were bound to come swirling around her husband’s manuscript (transferred by me to a safe spot even before his body had reached the grave) by signing an agreement to the effect that he had turned over the manuscript to me; that I would have it published without delay, with my commentary, by a firm of my choice; that all profits, except the publisher’s percentage, would accrue to her; and that on publication day the manuscript would be handed over to the Library of Congress for permanent preservation. I defy any serious critic to find this contract unfair.” Yes, well, the problem is that he obtains Shade’s poem because he happens to die right next to him, victim of a deranged man, and so he runs away with the 80 cards inside a manila envelope that constituted the poem, hiding himself in a remote place to write his notes. Furthermore, in due time we also realize that Kinbote harbours hostility towards Mrs. Shade, Sybil, the “misguided widow,” as he calls her, which may be attributed to his likely homosexuality.

We don’t have to wonder too much because Kinbote; in a totally deadpan, un-ironic way he describes himself as the most horrible of creatures, totally oblivious to his sinister personality. He routinely spies on John Shade, his neighbour, especially in the backyard, where he burns drafts of his poem. Kinbote’s conceited and thinks Shade would have asked for his opinion. “And perhaps, let me add in all modesty, he intended to ask my advice after reading his poem to me as I know he planned to do.” But the fact is that Shade writes his poem without his input. Kinbote, a native of Zembla, thinks that Shade used their brief encounters to create a paean to his faraway, unreachable, mourned land. The hilarious bulk of the novel is the misinterpretation of the poem. Kinbote prides himself on his “placid scholarship” even though he’s explosive and highly emotive. He’s constantly using the word “modest” about himself, but modesty is something he lacks. And his exegesis is totally disproportionate. Two words in a verse – “my bedroom, line 80” – leads to a note that goes from page 90 to 94. Just two words. In a verse that speaks of “that crystal land,” Kinbote sees a possible “allusion to Zembla, my dear country.” Although Kinbote maintains that Shade is writing about Zembla, its name doesn’t figure at all in the final version, only the draft cards, save for one verse:

And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla’s fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose.

Needless to say Kinbote is not amused by this paucity. The commentary section, which segues from the long unfinished poem (the final verse was left unwritten), is a brilliant example of critical misreading, an example of an apophenic mind finding symbols and references that don’t exist in the text, the critic annihilating the author, overwhelming him with his narrow-minded, obtuse, egocentric interpretation, seeing in the text only what he wants to see. In other words, a warning about and a parody of literary criticism.

Kinbote has an explanation for the absence of Zembla: Sybil’s hostility towards him. In his theory, after Shade read his verses to her, “she made him tone down or remove from his Fair Copy everything connected with the magnificent Zemblan theme with which I kept furnishing him and which, without knowing much about the growing work, I fondly believed would become the main rich thread in its weave!” (As I cobble my notes from the novel, I realize this is the novel where a re-read is much necessary to appreciate all the intricateness of its architecture.). Like paranoid people, Kinbote is an expert at rationalizing away everything that threatens to wrinkle the smooth silk of his insanity. The fact that Kinbote hates Sybil, and women in general, may be due to the fact the king is gay; throughout the novel he shows no interest in women; and indeed Kinbote expels a roomer after he catches him entertaining a “fiery-haired whore from Eton.” Which must beg the question, does Kinbote love Shade?

Kinbote, like I already mentioned, also seeks to obliterate the author from the text and to insert himself on it. “Let me state that without my notes Shade’s text simply has no human reality at all since the human reality of such a poem as his (being too skittish and reticent for an autobiographical work), with the omission of many pithy lines carelessly rejected by him, has to depend entirely on the reality of its author his surroundings, attachments and so forth, a reality that only my notes can provide.” More disturbing is his sense of possession of Shade, it’s always “my good-natured poet” or “my poet.” He thinks he owns Shade; and since he couldn’t own him in life he now owns the interpretation of the text. Like he writes in the foreword, “for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the last word.” Indeed! The fact that the Shades don’t give him much consideration leads him to be always anxious to visit them, under whatever pretexts. “What I would not have given for the poet’s suffering another heart attack (see line 691 and note) leading to my being called over to their house, all windows ablaze, in the middle of the night, in a great warm burst of sympathy, coffee, telephone calls, Zemblan herbal receipts (they work wonders!), and a resurrected Shade weeping in my arms (“There, there, John”). But on those March nights their house was as black as a coffin.” Like I said, the man is sinister under his fancy talk. So you can imagine that Shade’s death doesn’t bother him as much as it excites him with the prospect of giving him absolute freedom over his text. He even considers himself “the main, if only potential, victim” of the murder attempt, because it left his Zembla poem unfinished. His indifference to Shade’s death and his concern for the poem are the apogee of his ruthlessness. He even demeans the tragic death of Shade’s daughter, Hazel, an important presence in the poem, by saying that she “resembles me in certain aspects.” There are no depths he won’t sink to. And so he continues until the end of the novel.

Then there’s the subplot of the king. Ignoring Shade’s autobiography, he sees in the poem a hidden narrative about the flight of the King of Zembla. It’s a great narrative, full of derring-do and last minute escapes, chases and disguises, evasions and hiding in woods. It’s also possibly fully fictional, a mere invention of a man who thinks he’s a Zemblan King. Does it matter? No, it’s aesthetically rewarding. It’s no more false than any other narrative, it just tells you it’s probably false. Indeed it’s unlikely that Shade was ever interested in the king, for in a discussion he called him an “appalling king.” In this thread from this labyrinthine novel, King Charles is fleeing from an assassin named Gradus, who searches for him in Europe before tracking him down in America, leading to the tragic murder of John Shade. Gradus is the typical extremist. “He worshipped general ideas and did so with pedantic aplomb. The generality was godly, the specific diabolical. If one person was poor and the other wealthy it did not matter what precisely had ruined one or made the other rich; the difference itself was unfair; and the poor man who did not denounce it was as wicked as the rich one who ignored it. People who knew too much, scientists, writers, mathematicians, crystallographers and so forth, were no better than kings or priests: they all held an unfair share of power of which others were cheated. A plain decent fellow should constantly be on the watch for some piece of clever knavery on the part of nature and neighbour.” This narrative is hilarious and over-the-top, and its light touch is all the more amazing after I discovered Nabokov’s father had been assassinated in similar circumstances by a Soviet henchman. The ability to transform such a personal tragedy into such comical literary fuel is remarkable and a sign of Nabokov’s good-humour as a novelist.

Now I’m of course one of those readers who just wants a funny, entertaining plot, I dispense the highfalutin stuff, but even so this novel has many treasures for those who want a deeper interaction with the text. Nabokov was a fan of meta-fiction and that’s evident from the name of his possible madman, Professor V. Botkin, a Russian college professor, much like Nabokov, and indeed V. Botkin seems to have been scrambled from letters of his own name. Already in Ada or Ardor he had created an alter ego called Vivian Darkbloom. This segues into the intertextuality of his book, which includes references to his other novels, Lolita and Pnin. Readers of Nabokov must surely extract fun from that. Alas, I can’t yet.

And then for the lovers of language there’s the vast vocabulary: parhelia, to forelay, pudibundity, stillicide, speluncar, turfy, springy, nictitation, apograph, perlustration, alternating between Latinate, arcane and just plain goofy words. Finally, though, we have Nabokov’s gift for alliteration, internal rhymes and consonance. A few examples:

1) “I wanted to know if he did not mind being taken the longer way, with a stop at Community Center where I wanted to buy some chocolate-coated cookies and a little caviar.” (I’m signalling only the stressed syllables)

2) “(…) black bendlet of a branch.”

3) “every tree top plotted its dotted line (…)”

4) “well do I recall seeing him from my porch, on a brilliant morning, burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator before which he stood with bent head like an official mourner among the wind-borne black butterflies of that backyard auto-da-.”

5) “poor beady baubles and bits of nacre became microscopic soldiers swarming in desperate battle.”

6) “testicles they crave to twist and tear with their talons.” You almost wish to give the English language a dressing down for not having a synonym starting with t for crave. Bad language, bad, go to your room!

This novel is complete: it amuses the seeker of comedy, it’s full of adventure and incidents, it is a cerebral challenge for readers who like difficult books, and it’s a marvel of aesthesis. Nabokov’s imagination extends into every domain it touches, including a long rumination about suicide methods, transforming it. Here we are in the hands of a man who could take hold of reality and recreate it to his whim and fancy in the most delectable and ludic of ways.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Jane Austen’s Horrid Novel




Northanger Abbey. If I hadn’t read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I wouldn’t have minded letting this one climb up to the first spot of my best reads of 2014. Read in the same intense binge that found me devouring the Nabokov novel, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’ La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, and Cervante’s Don Quixote, Austen’s novel forms one of the faces of an unplanned polyptych (screw you, word corrector! The word exists!) of meta-fictional novels. The novel is a satisfying, if predictable, narrative about growing up, falling in love, discovering autonomy and learning to separate fantasy from reality, which for someone like the heroine, Catherine Morland, a young lady, it meant marrying a man with a firm income, with the added benefit that he’s the man she actually loves. In less capable hands, in a less twisted mind, this would have been a corny novel, full of sickening sentimentality and odious Romantic excesses, but Austen looked at things from a prism all her own and infused everything a decidedly bizarre aura. I think her trick is that this is a very ironic, very self-conscious novel. If I wished to simplify, and I do!, I could say that Northanger Abbey does for the Gothic novel what Don Quixote did for the chivalric romance. Austen uses the Gothic genre as her novel’s skeleton (a not unintended pun) in order to mock that very same genre. If Don Quixote endures the physical travails of knight errantry, Catherine faces the dangers of ruining her perfect match when her hyperactive imagination, engorged on Anne Radcliffe and Horace Walpole, suspects her beau’s father of being a murderer.

One day someone will explain (or I’ll bother looking it up for it probably exists) why comedy and meta-fiction go hand in hand so often – the theatre of Aristophanes and Luigi Pirandello (and Tom at Wuthering Expectations has unearthed the Danish missing link between the two), Don Quixote and the ghastly Tristram Shandy, the movie Airplane. I presume it’s because comedy subverts reality and authority, and meta-fiction is fiction aware of its unreality. Tragedy and drama thrive on the illusion of verisimilitude. That’s why it’s common for comedy to break the fourth wall in movies; if The Wolf of Wall Street were a tragedy, Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t spend the whole movie talking to the viewer, to gloat about his greed and perversions; that self-aware smug tone just doesn’t fit tragedy. You want a tragic Wall Street movie, you watch Wall Street. A seriousness of tone depends on the permanence of values and the fact that sacred ideas and concepts exist, made sacred by the inscrutable authority of tradition. But comedy is acid thought corroding assumptions and emptying ideas and concepts of the splendour of their traditions. I like how Milan Kundera somewhere argues that the “grandeur of tragedy” is a “consolation” for tragic protagonists: to be overwhelmed by Fate, to become noble through suffering; there is something beautiful about succumbing to tragedy, because it shows man failing under something stronger than him, something that permeates the cosmos and is like an order unto itself.

That’s not Northanger Abbey. Austen’s novel is inconsequential insofar as it concerns the human condition. It’s a novel of small problems for which the solutions are always just around the corner. It’s a novel about a 17-year-old girl who goes to Bath with Mrs. Allen in what becomes her adventure of maturation. She attends balls, sort of debuts into society, makes friends with vapid people and falls in love with a nice, handsome boy who reciprocates. Now, the important thing is the way these mundane events are told. This novel is, first and foremost, a triumph of style. Jane Austen is a master of comedy and the humour in Northanger Abbey never subsides. Austen owes a huge debt to Cervantes. I read Don Quixote after this novel and that helped me put into perspective its influence, but it also showed me the great strides the novel had taken since his time. Yes, Austen’s parody comes straight from Cervantes, but she has more material to mock since his time: in the two centuries separating the two lots of novels showed, and she’s not just aware of Gothic clichés, she’s also conscious of the tropes of the respectable novel (insofar as the novel was respectable at the time), that is, the more serious, more realistic novels of Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding. In fact the book opens with Austen collecting tropes as if she were a scalp-hunter. In order to prove that, I want to transcribe the entire first paragraph (with my italics), a masterpiece of comedy: “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard—and he had never been handsome. He had a considerable independence besides two good livings—and he was not in the least addicted to locking up his daughters. Her mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on—lived to have six children more—to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself. A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number; but the Morlands had little other right to the word, for they were in general very plain, and Catherine, for many years of her life, as plain as any. She had a thin awkward figure, a sallow skin without colour, dark lank hair, and strong features—so much for her person; and not less unpropitious for heroism seemed her mind. She was fond of all boy's plays, and greatly preferred cricket not merely to dolls, but to the more heroic enjoyments of infancy, nursing a dormouse, feeding a canary-bird, or watering a rose-bush. Indeed she had no taste for a garden; and if she gathered flowers at all, it was chiefly for the pleasure of mischief—at least so it was conjectured from her always preferring those which she was forbidden to take. Such were her propensities—her abilities were quite as extraordinary. She never could learn or understand anything before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive, and occasionally stupid. Her mother was three months in teaching her only to repeat the "Beggar's Petition"; and after all, her next sister, Sally, could say it better than she did. Not that Catherine was always stupid—by no means; she learnt the fable of "The Hare and Many Friends" as quickly as any girl in England. Her mother wished her to learn music; and Catherine was sure she should like it, for she was very fond of tinkling the keys of the old forlorn spinnet; so, at eight years old she began. She learnt a year, and could not bear it; and Mrs. Morland, who did not insist on her daughters being accomplished in spite of incapacity or distaste, allowed her to leave off. The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's life. Her taste for drawing was not superior; though whenever she could obtain the outside of a letter from her mother or seize upon any other odd piece of paper, she did what she could in that way, by drawing houses and trees, hens and chickens, all very much like one another. Writing and accounts she was taught by her father; French by her mother: her proficiency in either was not remarkable, and she shirked her lessons in both whenever she could. What a strange, unaccountable character!—for with all these symptoms of profligacy at ten years old, she had neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome, and very kind to the little ones, with few interruptions of tyranny; she was moreover noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.”

Catherine is not very pretty, she’s not very feminine, she’s not interested in boys save to play their games. Hardly made from the same cloth as the sassy but angelic Sophia Western from Tom Jones, the ideal heroine. Austen is writing against type, fully aware of the codes that a type of character as such. Then there are the jabs at conventions: the mother who does not die at birth (heroines always seem brought up by fathers and governesses, don’t they?), the father who does not lock her up (Squire Western from Tom Jones?). But Austen is aware of her readership and she adapts accordingly; Catherine starts falling into character at the age of fifteen, but by seventeen she’s still lacking an amorous affair, having no luck to live next to a male protagonist. “She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintance who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door—not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.” No mysterious waifs, no Tom Jones, no Heathcliff (who was created some forty years later, that’s how persistent this convention was). This fiction refuses to play by the rules. Beautiful. And then comes the bow to Cervantes: “from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.” Catherine does not grow up thinking she’s a heroine in a Gothic novel, but she does grow awfully fond of them, building her expectations of the world on how things would pan out in Ann Radcliffe’s shockers.

Fortunately for her initiation into heroism, Mr Allen must go to Bath for his gout and so Mrs Allen “probably aware that if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad, invited her to go with them.” And so departs Catherine to find the world, or at least Bath, “her mind about as ignorant and uninformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is.” The jokes on tropes continue for more pages, but we can stop here. In their own good time – and the novel is quick on action and change of settings – Catherine and Mrs Allen find themselves navigating the unknown waters of Bath society, utterly alone, as the novel turns into a comedy of manners:

"How uncomfortable it is," whispered Catherine, "not to have a single acquaintance here!"
"Yes, my dear," replied Mrs. Allen, with perfect serenity, "it is very uncomfortable indeed."
"What shall we do? The gentlemen and ladies at this table look as if they wondered why we came here—we seem forcing ourselves into their party."
"Aye, so we do. That is very disagreeable. I wish we had a large acquaintance here."
"I wish we had any—it would be somebody to go to."

And also a novel about growing up, and in this case about Catherine learning to be a lady, that is, learning to enjoy being looked at by men and praised for her beauty. And like a girl at her age she just wants to hear praise. When two young man call her a pretty girl, she’s riveted. “Such words had their due effect; she immediately thought the evening pleasanter than she had found it before—her humble vanity was contented—she felt more obliged to the two young men for this simple praise than a true-quality heroine would have been for fifteen sonnets in celebration of her charms, and went to her chair in good humour with everybody, and perfectly satisfied with her share of public attention.” Of course the self-consciousness never stops; when she meets a gallant young man, Mr. Tilney, their dialogue turns upside down the rules of romantic meetings:

“Were you never here before, madam?"
"Never, sir."
"Indeed! Have you yet honoured the Upper Rooms?"
"Yes, sir, I was there last Monday."
"Have you been to the theatre?"
"Yes, sir, I was at the play on Tuesday."
"To the concert?"
"Yes, sir, on Wednesday."
"And are you altogether pleased with Bath?"
"Yes—I like it very well."
"Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again." Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. "I see what you think of me," said he gravely—"I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow."
"My journal!"
"Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense."
"Indeed I shall say no such thing."
"Shall I tell you what you ought to say?"
"If you please."
"I danced with a very agreeable young man, introduced by Mr. King; had a great deal of conversation with him—seems a most extraordinary genius—hope I may know more of him. That, madam, is what I wish you to say."
"But, perhaps, I keep no journal."
"Perhaps you are not sitting in this room, and I am not sitting by you. These are points in which a doubt is equally possible. Not keep a journal! How are your absent cousins to understand the tenour of your life in Bath without one? How are the civilities and compliments of every day to be related as they ought to be, unless noted down every evening in a journal? How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal? My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies' ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journaling which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal."

Mr. Tilney is a charming, eccentric, kind-hearted man and in due time he’ll marry Catherine. In the meantime she must escape a few trolls that threaten to turn her into a disagreeable, false person. Mrs. Allen meets Mrs. Thorpe and Catherine meets her children, Isabella and John. She immediately strikes a friendship with Isabella, a fatuous young lady who’s looking for a rich suitor. Catherine, a poor judge of character, strikes a friendship with because they both share the pleasures of shutting themselves up to read novels, not just Gothic novels, but novels in general. And this prompts another meta-fictional moment, a passionate defence of the novel against its evil detractors: “Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss—?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

One of the trolls Catherine must triumph against is precisely one of these novel-haters, Isabella’s brother (incidentally, is there anything to the fact that Isabella is an Italian name and several of Radcliffe’s novels take place in Italy? There has to be!) But for now let us witness the young ladies’ love for Gothic novels in another extended dialogue. And I have to add that I love Austen’s dialogues, they’re sublime in a surreal sort of way:

 “Have you gone on with Udolpho?"
"Yes, I have been reading it ever since I woke; and I am got to the black veil."
"Are you, indeed? How delightful! Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are not you wild to know?"
"Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina's skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world."
"Dear creature! How much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read the Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you."
"Have you, indeed! How glad I am! What are they all?"
"I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocketbook. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time."
"Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?"

Austen forms lines I never expected were logically or sensibly possible in a novel. But she keeps disproving me. Let’s have another example:

“While I have Udolpho to read, I feel as if nobody could make me miserable. Oh! The dreadful black veil! My dear Isabella, I am sure there must be Laurentina's skeleton behind it."
"It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels."
"No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way."
"Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume."
"It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining."
"Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.”

The downside of Isabella’s friendship (the first anyway) is the fact that Catherine meets her bully of a brother, John Thorpe, a vulgar rack with designs on her. And he ridicules novel reading. For that reason he’s the closest thing to a villain:

"Have you ever read Udolpho, Mr. Thorpe?"
"Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do."
Catherine, humbled and ashamed, was going to apologize for her question, but he prevented her by saying, "Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except The Monk; I read that t'other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation."
"I think you must like Udolpho, if you were to read it; it is so very interesting."
"Not I, faith! No, if I read any, it shall be Mrs. Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them."
"Udolpho was written by Mrs. Radcliffe," said Catherine, with some hesitation, from the fear of mortifying him.
"No sure; was it? Aye, I remember, so it was; I was thinking of that other stupid book, written by that woman they make such a fuss about, she who married the French emigrant."
"I suppose you mean Camilla?"
"Yes, that's the book; such unnatural stuff! An old man playing at see-saw, I took up the first volume once and looked it over, but I soon found it would not do; indeed I guessed what sort of stuff it must be before I saw it: as soon as I heard she had married an emigrant, I was sure I should never be able to get through it."
"I have never read it."
"You had no loss, I assure you; it is the horridest nonsense you can imagine; there is nothing in the world in it but an old man's playing at see-saw and learning Latin; upon my soul there is not."

Once again I have to emphasize the surreal qualities of the dialogue. Honestly, what are they talking about? This sounds like a Monty Python script. Mr. Tilney has the excellent quality of being a friend of novels, which endears him both to Catherine and to me:

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time."
"Yes," added Miss Tilney, "and I remember that you undertook to read it aloud to me, and that when I was called away for only five minutes to answer a note, instead of waiting for me, you took the volume into the Hermitage Walk, and I was obliged to stay till you had finished it."
"Thank you, Eleanor—a most honourable testimony. You see, Miss Morland, the injustice of your suspicions. Here was I, in my eagerness to get on, refusing to wait only five minutes for my sister, breaking the promise I had made of reading it aloud, and keeping her in suspense at a most interesting part, by running away with the volume, which, you are to observe, was her own, particularly her own. I am proud when I reflect on it, and I think it must establish me in your good opinion."
"I am very glad to hear it indeed, and now I shall never be ashamed of liking Udolpho myself. But I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly."
"It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do—for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of 'Have you read this?' and 'Have you read that?' I shall soon leave you as far behind me as—what shall I say?—I want an appropriate simile.—as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy. Consider how many years I have had the start of you. I had entered on my studies at Oxford, while you were a good little girl working your sampler at home!"
"Not very good, I am afraid. But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?"
"The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding."
"Henry," said Miss Tilney, "you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word 'nicest,' as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way."
"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?"

But amusing as a novel full of obscure references to novels no one reads anymore may be, Northanger Abbey dares to be more than that! At the heart of this tangle of relationships is Catherine’s losing her innocence and maturing. She wants to live in a Gothic world, but at the same time she’s growing up and discovering boys. She’s torn, even though it’s not a choice of Sartrean complexity to make. At Bath she continues to see Mr. Tilney and his sister, Eleanor, realizing she likes to be with them. They even arrange to have a little walk together. Unfortunately this occurs on the same day Mr. Thorpe is planning a trip to Blaize Castle. Oh no, what will Catherine do?

"Blaize Castle!" cried Catherine. "What is that?"
"The finest place in England—worth going fifty miles at any time to see."
"What, is it really a castle, an old castle?"
"The oldest in the kingdom."
"But is it like what one reads of?"
"Exactly—the very same."
"But now really—are there towers and long galleries?"
"By dozens."
"Then I should like to see it; but I cannot—I cannot go."

She cannot go in order to hold her earlier commitment with the Tilneys; but vile Thorpe tricks her into going, much to her vexation and to her feelings, for she begins to realize she prefers Tilney to Thorpe, learning that important lesson that it’s better to be with those we care for. Everyone around her is expecting, and forcing, her to end up in Thorpe’s arms, bur she’ll have none of that and starts thinking for herself, fighting for her independence, showing the feistiness of Fielding’s Sophia. In modern parlance she’s what we call a strong female character, strong of spirit rather than physique. Catherine’s bid for freedom culminates with her voyage to Northanger Abbey, far from Mrs. Allen and the Thorpes, although she has one final obstacle to overcome: her fascination with Gothic novels. At the thought of spending a few days in an actual old abbey, she goes hoping for an adventure, but gets another one instead. “Northanger turned up an abbey, and she was to be its inhabitant. Its long, damp passages, its narrow cells and ruined chapel, were to be within her daily reach, and she could not entirely subdue the hope of some traditional legends, some awful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun.” Yes, yes, but it’s at the abbey that she discovers that social standing, money and breeding are more important than novels, sadly. Mr. Tilney’s father, General Tilney, is perhaps a villain (although that’s too harsh a word) but not of the sort she thinks. Her naivety starts simply. A cabinet piques her curiosity and she hopes to find a manuscript in it: “Catherine's heart beat quick, but her courage did not fail her. With a cheek flushed by hope, and an eye straining with curiosity, her fingers grasped the handle of a drawer and drew it forth. It was entirely empty. With less alarm and greater eagerness she seized a second, a third, a fourth; each was equally empty. Not one was left unsearched, and in not one was anything found.” She’s not to be discouraged, a place like that invites certain ideas and she believes that General Tilney murdered his wife. When she learns that her mother’s portrait hangs in Tilney’s bedroom, not wanted by his father, that only excites her imagination. “Here was another proof. A portrait—very like—of a departed wife, not valued by the husband! He must have been dreadfully cruel to her!” The fact that she hears him walking about at night makes her conjure even more sinister theories. “There must be some deeper cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown, and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed.” After all, faking a corpse is easy. “Were she even to descend into the family vault where her ashes were supposed to slumber, were she to behold the coffin in which they were said to be enclosed—what could it avail in such a case? Catherine had read too much not to be perfectly aware of the ease with which a waxen figure might be introduced, and a supposititious funeral carried on.” You can’t beat genre logic. Catherine is a fool, and Austen is not generous to her; she shows just how foolish she is. In the end there’s no mystery, but nevertheless General Tilney is not a nice person and she discovers that he doesn’t want Tilney marrying Catherine because she’s not as rich as he thought. But love conquers everything and the two lovers marry. About the ending I can only add that this is one of those novels where I wanted a happy ending, where a happy ending was a necessity, even a natural extension of the spirit of the novel and perfectly fitting in tone. Essentially Austen has written about a character undergoing a genre transfer, from Gothic to novel of manners. I’ve been very lucky to read many good novels this year: Don Quixote, Pale Fire, Middle C, La Isla de los Jacintos Cortados, but none was as special as this one. This one has an aura of joyous hilarity that is unique and must be savoured and treasured. 

 Read for the 2014 Women Challenge.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Defeated by Dante




Few books send me into a state of aporia. I pride myself on my ability to write intelligently about anything I read. For sure, I don’t practice the real art of criticism, which is the art of teaching the reader to read in a better way, to discover and understand something about a literary text that he did not know or that was fuzzy to him. All I know is putting together a handful of superficial ideas in a cogent manner, without great flashes of perspicacity. But I can write about anything. It’s easier to write about something I like, but sometimes writing about what I detest also yields great results. My negative reviews can be virulent or, the way I prefer them, jocose. But I’m never silenced. But I read The Divine Comedy and I don’t know what to write about it.

I tried to be jocose about it, but the poem’s solemnity defeated me. And I’m trying not to be virulent. I’m just baffled. It’s funny, it’s such a famous poem this was one of those cases I thought I knew everything about it before I read it. Indeed, it’s impossible not to know the gist of the poem, which has kept me amazed for years: the odyssey of a poet, Dante, the author himself, through Inferno and Purgatorio up to Paradiso, where he meets his muse, Beatrice, the dead woman he loved. Guided by Virgil, he crosses rivers and cities and bridges and circles and stairs, and holds many conversations with many figures from the past and mythology. In theory it sounds extraordinary. I read The Divine Comedy and I never expected to dislike it so much. But I try to squeeze something out of it to write but my imagination doesn’t cooperate. Do you know who I admire? I admire Himadri from The Argumentative Old Git. Himadri can write about The Divine Comedy and make it sound remarkable and enthralling.

I have the impression – more of a certainty than a feeling – that I miss several many keys to understand this poem: historical, political, mythological, scientific, theological and literary. Dante and Virgil descend through Inferno and then ascend to Paradiso through Purgatorio, but in fact they’re moving through a patchwork of a fabled landscape built from the total sum of knowledge an erudite man could amass in the 14th century. I don’t understand the allusions, I don’t understand the political war between the Guelph and Ghibelline, I don’t understand what Dante’s life has to do with it. There’s something I’m genuinely interested in knowing: the poem is also autobiographical; was this the West’s first first-person epic poem? The same way Saint Agustine’s Confessions is considered the West’s first autobiography?

Clueless, I read the poem with my mind in a haze, and since I didn’t understand anything my apathy started stretching all perceived flaws out of proportion. First of all, it was the speed of the journey. Every episode seemed too small for many of the figures and their predicaments. There are famous episodes in the poem – Ulysses, Paolo and Francesca, Count Ugolino – but I barely noticed them, they nearly sublime into anonymity, a blink and they were missed. Then the footnotes, no doubt against the commentator’s intention, made me wonder at the pettiness of the mind behind the poem. The Divine Comedy is revenge poetry, according to the innocent footnotes, which constantly inform me that such and such was an enemy of Dante’s faction or betrayed it, so in essence the poet turned hell into a personal menagerie for his enemies. Several others are consigned to hell by Dante under criteria scrutable only to himself. Not only does the poem constantly revel in a pettiness of spirit, a chronic rush to judge others and a penchant for Puritanism and intolerance, it also requires a college degree in Italian medieval history to understand why Dante loathes all these people I have absolutely no reason to detest.

What really impressed me, in a negative way, was the poetry itself. I trudged through the three parts under the impression the poem was almost devoid of poetic elements. I searched for a long time before finding an attention-grabbing metaphor or simile; and the imagery, particularly the descriptions in hell that have inspired the adjective Dantesque, is not as interesting as legend would have me believe. People talk a lot about poetic prose these days, but this was prosaic poetry to me, it has a vulgar, everyday form to it that is full of ugliness. I could pick up any segment, like the final verses of Canto XXVI, Ulysses’ description of a shipwreck:

With these few words I sharpen'd for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them.  To the dawn
Our poop we turn'd, and for the witless flight
Made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.
Each star of the' other pole night now beheld,
And ours so low, that from the ocean-floor
It rose not.  Five times re-illum'd, as oft
Vanish'd the light from underneath the moon
Since the deep way we enter'd, when from far
Appear'd a mountain dim, loftiest methought
Of all I e'er beheld.  Joy seiz'd us straight,
But soon to mourning changed.  From the new land
A whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel.  Thrice it whirl'd her round
With all the waves, the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow clos'd.

(Translated by H. F. Cary)

And turn it into a chunk of prose:

700 BC

Morning

With these few words I sharpened for the voyage the mind of my associates, that I then could scarcely have withheld them.  To the dawn our poop we turned, and for the witless flight made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.

Each star of the' other pole night now beheld, and ours so low, that from the ocean-floor it rose not.  Five times re-illumed, as oft vanished the light from underneath the moon since the deep way we entered, when from far appeared a mountain dim, loftiest methought of all I ever beheld.  

Evening

Joy seized us straight, but soon to mourning changed.  From the new land a whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side did strike the vessel.  Thrice it whirled her round with all the waves, the fourth time lifted up the poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed: and over us the booming billow closed.

The language is so technical and common; it’s we did this, we did that, this happened, that happened, and ever so straightforward. Where’s the heightened language? Where are the figures of speech? Where’s the poetry? Now, I know the same can be said easily of Homer’s epics, but at least they had people killing each other, a proven recourse to hiding any book’s flaws. Here’s an example of poetry to me:

Say first—for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,
Nor the deep tract of Hell—say first what cause
Moved our grand parents, in that happy state,
Favoured of Heaven so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his will
For one restraint, lords of the World besides.
Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?
  Th' infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind, what time his pride
Had cast him out from Heaven, with all his host
Of rebel Angels, by whose aid, aspiring
To set himself in glory above his peers,
He trusted to have equalled the Most High,
If he opposed, and with ambitious aim
Against the throne and monarchy of God,
Raised impious war in Heaven and battle proud,
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.

This, as everybody knows, is from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This sounds like poetry; it looks like poetry, it’s weird, it’s convoluted, it has arcane vocabulary, the syntax is all twisty, it’s biblical in tone. Probably I just failed to adjust my mind for what Dante was doing and tried to see him through the perspective of other poets. For all that, I’m not sure I want to read him in the right perspective.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Notes on building a Fernando Pessoa Library


Today is Fernando Pessoa’s birthday. He was born in Lisbon on June 13, 1888. This date is a municipal holiday in Lisbon in honour of Saint Anthony, a 13th century Franciscan priest and the patron saint of Lisbon. Curiously, Saint Anthony’s first name was Fernando. I don’t know if the poet’s parents baptized him with this name because of that. But I dare say that Pessoa, a man who held a life-long passion for the occult and the spiritual, would have found this quite amusing and significant.

Fernando Pessoa is probably Portugal’s most studied, edited, translated and read writer in the world. There are dozens of thousands of books and essays on him, and several thousands just in Portugal, and a few hundred of those were by Pessoa himself: he was his best exegete and compiler. In fact he did such a good job of storing everything he wrote in one single place, that upon his death a chest was discovered containing some 25,000 texts that have kept scholars busy and happy since 1935. As Pessoa fans know, when they discover him they become hooked to him forever. For many studying his life and work, piercing the mystery of his thought, trying to build a philosophical system around him, or just gaining fame by unearthing a relevant fragment, becomes a task that consumes one’s entire existence. By 1971 this mania for Pessoa had reached such dimensions that João Gaspar Simões, one of the fathers of Pessoa Studies, complained: “Fernando Pessoa continues to feed the torrent of energetic criticism – both national and international, we could say, especially in Brazil – without any loss of vitality on the part of those who interpret him, study him, analyse him, decompose his thoughts and work. As a pioneer of this enterprise, I have nothing against this pilgrimage which in a way I started, unless this surge of critical sorcery of which the author of Message is being victim turn into fanaticism and end up determining, around the great poet, an excursion like those at the hermitages of certain miracle workers whose miracles have completely disappeared from the memory of those visiting pilgrims.” Gaspar Simões was mostly railing against the new trend to publish everything Pessoa had written, regardless of actual aesthetic merit, and trying to extract tremendous insights about his genius and personality from them. His warnings went ignored and the Pessoa industry has bloomed in the past 40 years. So much so that it’s virtually impossible not to find a book about Pessoa and a given topic. His political ideas? His sexuality? His relationship with English Literature? His stance on feminism? His job as an office clerk? His personal library? His esoteric studies? His hobbies? There’s a book for each of these, and more. The last great editorial event occurred in 1982 with the publication of The Book of Disquiet; since then his critics have mostly been writing around his work, ballooning our knowledge of him with the most bizarre and amusing of trivia. So much is known about him anyone can be an expert on him.

In order to celebrate his anniversary I decided to form a list of books by and on Fernando Pessoa. Reading about Pessoa is also reading some of the finest thinkers that Portugal produced in the 20th century; so the fan is always in good hands. It’s an unattainable list for most readers, but imagine that you can read Portuguese, have respectable funds, want to build your personal Fernando Pessoa library and take a few days to visit Lisbon. This is how you could get started:

1 Fernando Pessoa: Poesia 1902-1917; Poesia 1918-1930; Poesia 1930-1935

We must start with Pessoa’s poetry written by himself. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his best work. I think Alberto Caeiro and Álvaro de Campos were better poets. But no library would be complete without it. At the moment his poems are collected in three massive volumes, published by Assírio & Alvim.

2 Fernando Pessoa: Mensagem

It is customary for this epic poem to be published in a separate volume. This was the only book he published in life. It synthesises two important strains of his work: his nationalism and his mysticism. The Message is a hymn to Portugal’s glorious past, that is, the Age of Discoveries, and a prophecy that assigns to Portugal a crucial role in the future of the world. Portugal has always been a nation of mystics, messiahs and prophets, no doubt the result of the three religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – having converged here, leading to a hodgepodge of beliefs, concepts and insane philosophical systems. There are lots of editions in the market, but I recommend a recent one: É a Hora! A mensagem da Mensagem de Fernando Pessoa contains the poem and extensive notes by Paulo Borges, an expert on esotericism with published work on several of our more metaphysical-minded poets like Antero de Quental and Teixeira de Pascoaes.

3 Alberto Caeiro: Poesia

After this we start getting into his heteronyms. Alberto Caeiro, the un-metaphysical observer of nature, was the first of his major three heteronyms. The current Assírio & Alvim edition collects all his poetry as well as all his known prose, namely an interview that he gave to Alexander Search (another heteronym, an English poet who writes in English) and some texts by other heteronyms about him. This is where it Pessoa’s game starts becoming entertaining.

4 Ricardo Reis: Poesia

Ricardo Reis is a monarchist (Reis is plural for king) who flees to Brazil after the Republican revolution overthrew King D. Manual. A classicist by style, and self-declared follower of Alberto Caeiro, he specializes in odes celebrating carpe diem, even though his emotional inertia and intellectual coldness are the complete opposite of sizing the day.

5 Álvaro de Campos: Poesia

A naval engineer by education, he was the most active and long-lived of the three main poetic heteronyms. A decadent sensualist and a poet of the vanguards, his life is a frantic rush to try out all the modern fads: drugs, speed and technology, and Futurism; he even creates his own short-lived movement called sensationism, and later develops a pessimistic view of life.

6 Bernardo Soares: O Livro do Desassossego

Perhaps his most famous work abroad, The Book of Disquiet is a collection of prose fragments attributed to a semi-heteronym called Bernardo Soares and put together only decades after Pessoa’s death, following a few notes he left behind on how to structure the book. No one knows for sure how Pessoa envisioned the finished project, which he never completed, for he never completed anything. No one agrees if all the fragments that currently make up the Book were meant to be in it, or if are there solely because of thematic echoes. Nevertheless it is one of the greatest achievements of prose of the 20th century. Teresa Sobral Cunha, Maria Aliete Galhoz and Jacinto do Prado Coelho published the first edition in 1982 for Ática. The most complete, I believe, is Richard Zenith’s for Assírio & Alvim (1998). But INCM has an edition full of critical apparatuses and preserves Pessoa’s original Latin-heavy spelling, before several spelling reforms mutilated it.

And the cover is better
7 Ricardo Reis: Prosa

After his essential fiction we start getting into the specifics and we must try not to lose ourselves in the labyrinths his heteronyms left behind. Reis produced a lot of prose, some 200 pages. I haven’t read it yet, but my edition’s table of contents informs me that there are texts about Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, paganism, science, and a defence of Milton over Shakespeare. I only know the Assírio & Alvim edition.

8 Álvaro de Campos: Prosa

In 2012 Campos’ prose, most of it unknown and unpublished until then, was finally collected in a single edition, some 400 pages of it. I’ve never even browsed its contents. There’s only one edition in the market and it’s published by Ática. Just to clarify: there are two major publishers that specialize in Pessoa and Pessoa Studies: Assírio & Alvim, which for a few years, because of some legal problems related to author rights and public domain dates, held the monopoly on his work; and Ática, the first to publish Pessoa’s works systematically in the 1940s. Ever since Pessoa’s texts fell in the public domain Ática has again become a major publisher to be reckoned with regarding critical editions and original criticism.

9 Fernando Pessoa: Correspondência 1905-1922; Correspondência 1923-1935

Assírio & Alvim has his complete letters in two volumes. Obviously they are for completists. But if you’re building a Fernando Pessoa library, you probably are anyway.

10 Fernando Pessoa: Cartas de Amor de Fernando Pessoa e Ofélia Queiroz

Then there are more specific editions of his letters that have added value because they contain letters sent to Pessoa. This book is a very recent acquisition of mine and collects the correspondence between Pessoa and Ofélia Queiroz, a lady with whom he kept a romantic but platonic relationship with for over a decade. Assírio & Alvim’s current edition is an improvement on Ática’s edition from the 1970s that contained only Pessoa’s side. I’ve had great fun browsing the book and reading random bits; some letters are embarrassingly sweet.


11 Mário de Sá-Carneiro: Cartas de Mário de Sá-Carneiro a Fernando Pessoa

Sá-Carneiro was one of Pessoa’s best friends and collaborator in the Modernist adventure that was the literary magazine Orpheu. A poet too, an amazing one in fact, he moved to Paris where he committed suicide, making Pessoa his executor. Unfortunately only the letters he sent to Pessoa exist; Pessoa, who was so obsessive-compulsive about keeping every little piece of paper, strangely didn’t preserve a single one.

12 Fernando Pessoa: Cartas entre Fernando Pessoa e os Directores da Presença

This collection of letters allows the reader to understand the relationship between Pessoa and the editors of the literary magazine Presença – José Régio, Adolfo Casais Monteiro and the curmudgeon João Gaspar Simões. The fathers of the second wave of Modernism in Portugal, inspired by the feats the Orpheu circle achieved a decade before, these three men were the first compilers, scholars and publishers of Pessoa and were instrumental in revealing his genius to the world. In Pessoa’s final years he kept a close relation with them and even contributed to their legendary magazine. After his death, Gaspar Simões, beginning in 1942, started to actively publish his work through the seminal Ática. This edition is by Enrico Martines for INCM.

13 Fernando Pessoa: Quaresma, Decifrador; Contos de um Raciocionador

Pessoa loved to read detective fiction and also ambitioned to write them. There are two volumes collecting his detective fiction, both available at Assírio & Alvim. I’ve read one of them, and it’s certainly of interest for completists. As you may imagine, Pessoa didn’t finish a single tale, which makes them rather frustrating to read. Although perhaps that was the plan all along.

14 Fernando Pessoa: Ibéria - Introdução a um Imperialismo Futuro

As we leave behind his most important and revolutionary work and start dealing with the phantoms in the chest, we begin finding weirder and weirder excuses for books. This book collects texts on a topic that is dear to Portuguese thinkers, what we call Iberismo, that is, the proposal that Portugal and Spain should form a federation within the Iberian Peninsula. Remarkably, considering that Pessoa was deeply nationalist, he was in favour of this federation, which makes this book quite interesting at least in order to understand his contradictory positions. Published by Ática.


15 Fernando Pessoa: Sebastianismo e Quinto Império

Speaking of Pessoa’s nationalism, there’s nothing more Portuguese than the belief in the myth of Sebastianismo. Pessoa, like many lunatic thinkers before him, especially our extraordinary mystics and occultists, believed that Portugal was fated to create the future Fifth Empire, which would lead the world to a new Golden Era. This book contains 400 pages of such gobbledygook. Another jewel from Ática.

16 Fernando Pessoa: A Língua Portuguesa

The thing about Pessoa is that he wrote so much and about so many things that you can virtually edit several dozen new books on a diverse range of topics. This one, which I recently purchased, is devoted to the Portuguese language. In 1911 the Republic decided to carry out a spelling reform to standardize it. Pessoa, a classical liberal, opposed this on the grounds that a government should not legislate spelling. In spite of his abhorrence for the new spelling (he continued to use the old one until his death), most books, like this one, do not respect his position, making this book particularly ironic. That’s also why I prefer Ática’s editions, they do maintain the original spelling.

17 Fernando Pessoa: Obras de António Mora

This INCM edition collects the works from one of the most mysterious and wondrous heteronyms invented. António Mora is a neo-paganist philosopher in the vein of Ricardo Reis, with whom he shares some similarities. Mora has written extensively about ancient gods and foresees a recrudescence of paganism in the modern world.

18 Fernando Pessoa: Contos Completos

The title is misleading. It’s not really the Complete Short-Fiction. It’s literarily the short-fiction that Pessoa completed in life. Pessoa left behind many unfinished short-stories. However the editor, Zetho Cunha Gonçalves, selected only the short-stories that were indeed finished. At least that’s what he told me when I met him last week.

19 João Gaspar Simões: Vida e Obra de Fernando Pessoa

I could continue to add more books by Pessoa. The man who only published one book before his death has some 50 books to his name at the moment. But it’s time we move on to the critics. This was the first biography of Fernando Pessoa, published in 1950. I never read it and I’m not sure I want to. From what I understand it’s dated badly and Gaspar Simões relied heavily on Freud to psychoanalyse Pessoa, who, truth be said, is a very psychoanalyseable poet. But it remains in print and is often referred to, so it must have value still. It’s published by Lello Editores.

20 José Régio: Ensaios de Interpretação Crítica

This is a collection of literary essays by José Régio. The whole book is not about Pessoa, but it includes what may be the first critical study about his poetry. In 1925, before founding Presença, Régio defended his doctorate’s thesis with a concise history of modern Portuguese poetry, from the 19th century to the present. The final chapter, not by chance, was devoted to Pessoa, inventing Pessoa Studies.

21 Adolfo Casais Monteiro: Poesia de Fernando Pessoa

Gaspar Simões was not the only one organizing and publishing Pessoa’s poetry after his death. Casais Monteiro, my favourite critic of the Holy Trinity, made his own selection and published it in 1945 (this, by the way, was the edition José Saramago would read in his early adulthood inspiring him decades later to write The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), divulging through it the now-famous letter Pessoa sent him explaining the creation of the heteronyms. Casais Monteiro was, as far as I know, the one who wrote the least about Pessoa, but the introduction he penned for this anthology continues to have importance. It is currently available at Presença (no relation).

22 Jorge de Sena: Fernando Pessoa & Co. Heterónima

Sena, after Pessoa, is my favourite Portuguese poet. He’s also the best literary critic we ever had. Sena could write intelligent criticism about anything. Pick up any of his twenty or so books of criticism and you’ll marvel at the vastness of his readings and insight. Needless to say he also made tremendous contributions to Pessoa Studies. This big tome collects what he wrote on him from 1940 to 1978. And it has amazing texts: Pessoa and English poets (Sena was an expert on Anglo-American Literature), his relationship with Aleister Crowley (the first person to write about it; at the time some even doubted Crowley existed), the poems he penned in English, and even a 60-page-long introduction for The Book of Disquiet. Sena was the first critic to tackle the great beast. As early as 1962 he had mentioned in a letter to Sophia de Mello Breyner that he was working on it. Ática hired him and he got started in 1964, with help from Casais Monteiro. Unfortunately at the time both were exiled in Brazil and had difficulty obtaining all the fragments necessary. So Sena gave up in 1969, paving the way for Richard Zenith’s monumental edition.


23 Eduardo Lourenço: Pessoa Revisitado; Fernando Pessoa, Rei da nossa Baviera; O Lugar do Anjo

Lourenço is Portugal’s greatest living philosopher and an aficionado of Pessoa. He’s devoted decades of his life to studying and has contributed many volumes of essays to the corpus. In fact I wouldn’t recommend studying Pessoa without first reading the brief itinerary he wrote. All his books are available at Gradiva.

24 José Gil: O Devir-Eu de Fernando Pessoa; Fernando Pessoa ou a Metafisica das Sensações; Diferença e Negação na Poesia de Fernando Pessoa

Gil is Portugal’s second greatest living philosopher. Like Lourenço, a darling of the French, he’s written extensively about Pessoa from a philosophical and aesthetic perspective. The most curious of his book is perhaps the first I list, an attempt at explaining why Pessoa exerts such a fascination on the people who discover him.

25 Dalila Pereira da Costa: O Esoterismo de Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa Studies have always poked around the esoteric aspects of Pessoa’s life and poetry. But Dalila’s book, published in 1971, was a landmark publication because it was the first to fully address this matter with authority. Dalila was a poet, a philosopher and an expert on the occult herself and penned many books on the subject.

26 António Quadros: Fernando Pessoa. Vida, Personalidade e Génio

First published in 1981, this was another biographical contribution to the corpus, trying to get to the heart of Pessoa’s mystifying personality and private life. Quadros, like Dalila, was a member of a new generation of philosophers who emerged in the late ‘50s, a philosopher with a mystical bent, which made him the ideal person to write about Pessoa. Throughout the 1980s he edited and annotated many anthologies by the poet, ranging from poetry to political texts, from his esoteric writings to even a version of The Book of Disquiet in 1986.

27 Joel Serrão: Fernando Pessoa – Cidadão do Imaginário          

I just bought this book and I frankly don’t have a clear idea what it’s about. I can tell you it was published in 1981 and the table of contents tells me it deals with diverse stuff: Pessoa and the Republic (he hated it, of course), Pessoa and mysticism, etc. I don’t know what weight this book has in the vast bibliography about him. I just know that Serrão was one of the most intelligent essayists Portugal produced in the 20th century, an essayist in Portugal’s noble tradition of essayists who have the chutzpah to write about everything they feel like it, always with brio and insight. His book on Eça de Queiroz is a humbling example of superlative criticism and I’m sure this book is just as remarkable.

28 José Paulo Cavalcanti Filho: Fernando Pessoa: uma quase-autobiografia

If Gaspar Simões’ somewhat dated, Freudian biography doesn’t appeal to you, JPCF has written what is considered so far the most extensive and compete reconstruction of the poet’s life, thoroughly researched and persuasively documented. At 700 pages it will remain unchallenged for a few decades.

29 Patricio Ferrari & Jerónimo Pizarro: Eu Sou uma Antologia. 136 Autores Fictícios

The authors, an Italian and a Colombian, belong to the new generation of Pessoa scholars and both have produced many valuable works on him. This joint effort is an anthology cataloguing 136 heteronyms invented by Pessoa. It was published by Tinta da China in 2013.

30 Antonio Sáez Delgado & Jerónimo Pizarro: Fernando Pessoa em Espanha

When we start getting into contemporary critics and their contributions, we find out there’s a book about everything. This book, for instance, is about how Pessoa was perceived in Spain. Both writers, incidentally, hail from Spanish-speaking countries.

31 António Cardiello, J. Pizarro, & P. Ferrari: Os Objectos de Fernando Pessoa

After decades of exegesis, there’s not a lot more to find out about his work, so modern critics are turning to things around him. Literarily. This book is about the objects Pessoa left behind: his glasses, his cigarette case, his typing machine, even calling cards. Why did such an anti-social man even have calling cards?

32 A Cardiello, J. Pizarro & P. Ferrari: A Biblioteca Particular de Fernando Pessoa

And next they raided his library and wrote all about it.

33 João Rui de Sousa: Fernando Pessoa - Empregado de Escritório

This is a very specific book. As you all know, Pessoa worked most of his adult life at an export-import company translating correspondence into Portuguese. This book is about that, his life as an office clerk. There’s no stone they won’t leave unturned. Actually I’m quite anxious to read it.


34 António Mega Ferreira: Fernando Pessoa: Fazer Pela Vida

Pessoa didn’t get rich off his poetry, obviously. He wasn’t also a prosperous person. He lived as an office clerk all his adult life, in a precarious situation. And yet he was always dreaming up schemes to start businesses and companies, found publishing houses and get his books published abroad, ie. England. This book is a study of all his attempts at making a buck. In other words, it’s a book about failure.

35 José Barreto: Misoginia e Anti-Feminismo em Fernando Pessoa

Was Pessoa a misogynist and anti-feminist? This book contains texts written by Pessoa on the subject of women and the author tries to answer these questions. A recent book, it’s another addition to the corpus by Ática.

36 Pedro Sepúlveda: Os Livros de Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa also spent his career planning books he’d never finish or even write. He was obsessed with lists and editorial projects.  This book explains and analyses every idea he had for a book.

37 Paulo Cardoso: Cartas Astrológicas de Fernando Pessoa

And when you think it can’t get more bizarre, someone decides to write a book about Pessoa’s hobby: drawing astrological charts. In fact that’s how he lured Aleister Crowley to Lisbon, the crafty bastard. It is said that his charts accurately predicted the deaths of friends. I want to read this book to find out if that’s true.

38 Salomó Dori: A Vida Sexual de Fernando Pessoa

The sex life of Fernando Pessoa. How amazing can it considering he probably died a virgin? Probably very amazing, because he was a complicated virgin.

39 Z. C. Gonçalves: Notícia do Maior Escândalo Erótico-Social do Século XX em Portugal

Speaking of sexuality, one day Pessoa’s buddy Raul Leal enraged Lisbon’s conservative hordes with an openly homosexual and obscene book. I must write about Sodoma Divinizada and the ruckus that caused. This book, edited by Zetho Cunha Gonçalves, an Angolan poet I had the pleasure of meeting a few days ago and who signed my copy, collects several texts written by the major players in the scandal, including a young Marcello Caetano, who decades later would replace Salazar as Portugal’s dictator. Several publishers balked at publishing this book, because of its content. Eventually the author had to go to Letra Livre, a second-hand bookstore that has its own imprint.


40 Manuel Ferreira Patrício: No Labirinto Messiânico de Fernando Pessoa

This book is also devoted to Pessoa’s occultism, but mainly from the perspective of his Messianic beliefs. I guess it’s a book chockfull of stuff about the Fifth Empire and D. Sebastião.

41 Fernando Cabral Martins: Dicionário de Fernando Pessoa e do Modernismo Português

An actual dictionary about Pessoa. Probably a very useful study tool, but I can’t see it as a great read.

42 Kenneth Krabbenhoft: Fernando Pessoa e as Doenças do Fim de Século

A book about Pessoa’s fascination with mental illness and psychological theories at the turn of the 20th century. If you want to know what Pessoa thought about psychologists, sociologists and criminologists from this period – Max Nordau, Jules Cotard, Cesare Lombroso - then this book is for you.

43 Maria Manuela Nogueira: Fernando Pessoa - Imagens de uma Vida

The author is Pessoa’s niece and this is an intimate book, more of a look into his personal life than a rigorous study, but certainly interesting in order to balance both worlds and shed light on each other.

44 Christopher Damien Auretta: Álvaro de Campos Autobiografia de uma odisseia moderna

There comes a time when Pessoa Studies descend into meta-fictional parody. This is an autobiography of Álvaro de Campos, in other words, a biography written by a real biographer using real fragments of a fictional life written by a real poet.

45 José Saramago: O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis

Fernando Pessoa’s life and work have provided fiction writers with ideas for novels, plays, poetry and short-stories. In my opinion, the best example is José Saramago’s masterful 1984, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.


And I think I’ll stop here. I could go on, but my word processor tells me I’m on page 9 already and I doubt anyone’s gotten this far. If you only read the first paragraph, though, I hope you’ll spend the rest of the day celebrating Pessoa’s birthday. Go read a poem by him, or google excerpts from The Book, become hooked and discover what José Gil means that when people enter the poet’s life they can never get out again.