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16 May 2009

Pessoa and Co

I'll need to brush up my Portuguese, as it seems that Fernando Pessoa embodies many of the things that are interesting me in literature at the moment. The wikipedia entry is really rather poor (and the Portuguese entry is no better) but it gives enough of the facts to realise how interesting his life and work are.

On the question of authorship, for example, Pessoa - perhaps inspired by his own name - created several heteronyms: imaginary poets, each with his own life-story and character, who therefore wrote individually. I'm not sure anyone else has done that in quite that way. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine and Iain (M) Banks use different names for different types of books; I don't think they intend to create a different author. In Pessoa's case, the work creates the author.

Then translation. Pessoa was fluent in English, and wrote two books of English poetry. I'm reading The Book of Disquiet. One of my first thoughts was how much of an influence it's had on Saramago. Or is the fact that it's the same translator at work (the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa)? Also, the book does nothing to hide that it's a translation. It has a translator's preface, and footnotes. Here's one: the Rotunda was the name given by lisboetas (natives of Lisbon) to the Praça Marqès de Pombal.

That footnote alone could be the basis for my dissertation. First of all, we don't know if there was a footnote in the original. Probably not. Why lisboetas? That actually seems to be adding something.

And finally, there's the question of comparative literature. Portugal has an imperial history similar to Britain's: an essentially peripheral European state got lucky overseas. Portugal's decline preceded Britain's. Its literature is undervalued internationally, I think, but there seems to be a pretty clear line of development, and some great names: Camoes, Queiroz for two. Not to mention Brazilian and other lusophone literatures.

But at present my Portuguese is not quite up to it, particularly not for the critical literature. So that's my immediate aim: to be able to read fluently from Camoes to Saramago. Off to Grant & Cutler this afternoon, then.

30/5/09 Edit (as comments aren't working for some reason): Good old Evri threw up this link. Briefly, Pessoa was a friend of Aleister Crowley, to the extent of helping him fake his death. "He even earnestly explained how he had seen Crowley's ghost the next day."

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