#217. FERNANDO PESSOA, EDMUND WILSON, YEHUDA AMICHAI. The Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is an easy darling to everyone who writes about literature, because he’s got such a great and vivid story. He wrote poetry (and diaries, journalism, essays, proverbs, charades, detective stories and every other damned thing you can think of) under a variety of pseudonyms—heteronyms, he called them, that came to be invested with personalities, careers, addresses and family histories. Whitman in the most untroubled way contained multitudes, but Pessoa eventually fragmented himself into some forty-odd different personae, each being a kind of partial, circus-mirror version of himself. At his death in 1935, he left behind cratefuls of equally fragmented works, most of which are still being pieced together and put into print. In 1998, Richard Zenith translated the first large selection of Pessoa’s verse into English, appropriately titled Pessoa & Co. (Grove Press), which introduced not just Pessoa but Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos, three of Pessoa’s most prolific side-identities. (The selection was updated and enlarged in 2006 and published by Penguin as A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems.) The poems cluster themselves around a kind of housebound melancholy; I was constantly put in mind of Mallarme’s lines, “La chair est triste, helas! et j’ai lu tous les livres.” (“The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books.”) Personally, a little bit of this has always gone a long way with me, and, as skilled as the poems undoubtedly are, after a whole book of them the other phrase that unkindly came to my mind was “Hard cheese, old chap!”—George Orwell’s mocking response to A. E. Housman’s incessant doom-mongering. The heteronym business I find far less impressive than I’m told I should, and I found the poems plagued by a sense of mimicry, as if Pessoa was imitating his voices rather than speaking in them. Perhaps the hope of finding sincerity in a poem, of getting a sense of the author’s true feelings, is illusory; modern criticism certainly tells us it is. But Pessoa’s multiplication of selves had only the effect for me of distancing him, of lessening the poems’ power of conviction. It was like hearing four different voices in a room and then turning around and finding that there’s nobody there.
In 2017, Margaret Jull Costa translated the first full edition of The Book of Disquiet, the most famous prose work of Pessoa’s—or of Vicente Guedes, or Bernardo Soares, depending on the day of the week and what time zone you’re in. This is a diary of aphorisms and ruminations—maunderings, I am tempted to call them, a 468-page pillbox of the defeated, the mournful, the bitterly ironic—a kind of miserable twee, like being trapped for hours in a room where someone is staring out the window and sighing over their wasted life. If you act, you will fail; if you dream, you will accomplish nothing. If you read a book, it will disappoint. If you travel to a foreign city, it won’t be as good as you hoped. “Let us, O silent one, cover the stiff dead profile of our Imperfection with a fine linen sheet.” “What a grand funeral for hope in the still-golden silence of the lifeless skies.” “All I asked of life was that life ask nothing of me.” “We are born dead, we live dead, and we enter death already dead.” The last line of the book: “The only pain I feel is that of having once felt pain.” 468 pages of this. I mean, Jesus H. Christ.
I suppose I can at least thank Pessoa for leading me to reread Edmund Wilson’s book Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930 (Scribner’s, 1931), in which Wilson discusses the Symbolist poets, Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Stein and, finally, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s dramatic poem in prose, “Axel,” and Arthur Rimbaud. Wilson is a bit out of fashion right now, and the book wears its age (at publication only the first chapters of Finnegans Wake had been published), but he was learned in a practical and matter-of-fact manner, assumed the intelligence of the common reader, and was widely and intelligently well-read in the literature of his topic. He chooses “Axel” as a penultimate focal point and sees in its hero’s withdrawing from life, his feeling that life will never live up to his imagining, as connecting to the authors he studies, finding in them “a sullenness, a lethargy…a leaden acquiescence in defeat,” with a lack of curiosity about life, a relentless and immobilizing interiority. (Wilson, apropos of Finnegans Wake, speaks of “Joyce’s new hero who surpasses even the feats of sleeping of Proust’s narrator…by remaining asleep through an entire novel.”) This is not the whole picture of the period, nor all of its writers; but once you read Wilson’s characterization it’s impossible for it not to become a very convincing lens on the time and its creations. And once I noticed how its descriptions fell over Pessoa like a neatly-fitting glove, it explained my vagrant urge to push the Pessoas—all of him—out a fourth-story window. Wilson is right to end with Rimbaud, who exploded all this. There is all the world of difference between Pessoa’s bemoanings about his fragmented personality and Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”); Pessoa is sighing, Rimbaud is like a dog snarling in a cage. Stuck in his mother’s house between attempts at running away, this adolescent boy wrote his teacher: “I am decomposing in dullness.” Like Pessoa, like many of the authors in Wilson’s study, Rimbaud too, finally, was defeated: but he went down like a comet across the sky, and he got all the way to Africa before the gangrene took him out.
I happened to read the poems of the Israeli Hebrew-language poet Yehuda Amichai at the same time I was reading Pessoa, and the contrast was immediate and obvious. Robert Alter has edited the 2015 collection The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (Farrar Strauss), which represents, in 500 pages, maybe a third of Amichai’s work; as with Eliot Weinberger’s edition of Octavio Paz, Alter as editor has included the translations of some dozen different poets, including Ted Hughes, Stephen Mitchell, and Amichai himself. The prefatory biography concentrates in part on Amichai’s military service (he was on the front lines in the Israeli War of Indpendence and again in the Negev) and his “alacrity for falling in love,” which may in part account for the poems’ sharply functioning sense of reality and their specific gravity. Amichai’s visual sense is sharp, and turns quickly to a plenitude of metaphor; remembering and forgetting are his poles.
A collection of ritual objects in the museum: spice boxes
with little flags on top like festive troops
and many fragrant generations of sacrifice,
and the memory of many Sabbath nights that did not end in death.
And happy menorahs and weepy menorahs and oil lamps
with the pouting beaks of chicks like children singing,
their mouths wide open in desire and love.
Amichai was, Alter writes, “what one would have to call a secular Jew,” and I think many readers will recognize his feisty relationship with the tradition he grew up in. A Jewish friend of mine described the Bible to me as “the book that won’t leave Jews alone,” and in his late work Amichai quotes and alludes to it hardly less than the characters in Sholem Aleichem; but the tradition leaves his hands subtly, sometimes radically altered.
Sometimes Jerusalem is a city of knives.
Even the hopes for peace are sharp, to cut through
the hard reality. After a while, they grow blunt or brittle.
Church bells keep trying to ring out a calm round tone
but they grow heavy, like a pestle in a mortar pounding
artillery shells—muffled, leaden, trampling sounds.
The cantor and the muezzin want to sweeten their tune
but in the end, a piercing wail cuts through the din:
The Lord God of us all, the Lord is
one, one, one.
In the final poem of the collection, he evokes again a fragment of stone from a Jewish grave that has figured in earlier poems, which has only the word “Amen” carved on it, and that seems at last to carry Amichai’s faith, his tradition, his distance from it and his immersion in it:
It is the touchstone no one touches, more philosophical
than any philosopher’s stone, broken stone from a broken tomb
more whole than any wholeness,
a stone of witness to what has always been
and what will always be, a stone of amen and love.
Amen, amen, and may it come to pass.