Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A Poet from Portugal


A church in Tavira, Portugal.

I'm off on my travels again, shortly. So I thought I should update you on where I've been recently. I know you're all busting a GUT to find out.

I spent six days in Tavira, Portugal. As I have said before I didn't do much there, apart from potter around town, lean over the sunny bridge and look at the fish, chat with the internet cafe owner in (my) appalling Spanish, and drink thick red Dao wine. Occasionally I did write a thousand words of my memoirs.

It was, in a word, bliss. I could get used to this itinerant writer's lifestlye, be like a latter-day Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene - only with more use of the word 'clusterfuck'.

That said, I did do one more thing in Tavira. As assiduous toffeewomblers may recall, while I was there I read the Book of Disquiet, a 'diary' by the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Who he?

Fernando Pessoa was the weirdest chap. He spent his whole life working in the insurance offices of 20s Lisbon. He never married; he had no kids; he was involved in no great political activity or cultural ferment. Yet, in his evenings and days off, he managed to revolutionise Portuguese poetry and indeed all modernist poetry, by inventing what he called 'heteronyms', four discrete identities, four noms de plume, four alternative personalities - in each of which he composed some wryly gorgeous lyrics.

How weird is that? Most poets would be happy writing great poetry in one style, one voice, under one name. Pessoa did it four times over.

The Book of Disquiet, his one great prose work, is also extremely lovely, in its meandering way. In fact the tenor of the book reminded me curiously of the green languorous river that just about flows through Tavira: clear, slow, wistful, yearning...

How to give you a flavour of the 'Book of Disquiet'? Difficult. Short passages taken out of context sound absurd and pompous, or downright screwy; but the overall effect, the rising carol of the whole thing, is moving and profound, in a bittersweet way.

Sod it. Here's a passage:

'All I've ever done is dream. That, and only that, has been the meaning of my existence. The only thing I've ever really cared about is my inner life. My greatest griefs faded to nothing the moment I opened the window onto my inner self and lost myself in watching.
I never tried to be anything other than a dreamer. I never paid any attention to people who told me to go out and live. I belonged always to whatever was far from me and to whatever I could never be. Anything that was not mine, however base, always seemed to be full of poetry. The only thing I ever loved was pure nothingness. I only ever desired what was beyond my imaginings. All I ever asked of life was that it should pass me by without my even noticing it. Of love I demanded that it never be anything more than a distant dream...'

No, I don't know what the hell it really means either. And the bits I do understand are, on analysis, either trite or vacuous. Yet the overall effect I find mesmerising - the rolling cadence, the wistful repetition, the monastic chanting of the words 'I' and 'never' and 'dream'. It's even better if you combine it with a nice glass of red Dao, as you watch the hot Algarve sun go down.

The Book of Disquiet is also full of intriguing stories and allusions. Here's one:

'There's a story they tell of Sigismund, King of Rome, who, having made a grammatical error in a public speech, said to the person who pointed this out to him: 'I am King of Rome and therefore above grammar. And history tells that he was known thereafter as Sigismund Supragrammaticam.'

OK, maybe I was really drunk when I read that one,

There's a poignant little coda to my Pessoa rhapsody. The great poet himself died alone and utterly unknown. Hardly anyone was aware of his gifts, he was totally anonymous, to many he was just that quiet guy in Accounts who never got laid. His career was about as unsuccessful as it gets.

And you know what? The plane I flew home on was called the 'Fernando Pessoa'.

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2 comments:

Blithering Bunny said...

How are you funding this enviable lifestyle, Sean? Just through writing articles?

Every time I go travelling I end up spending more in a day than I normally spend in a month.

sean said...

I live incredibly cheaply in London: no car, no kids, no room in my flat for any decent furniture. Or even much furniture at all.
Plus I do a lot of travel journalism!