Friday, January 21, 2011

Five Great Writers You've Never Heard Of:

Coming In At Number One: Fernando Pessoa, Author of Numerous Great Works.

Despite his recent fame, the Portuguese poet and novelist received little to no recognition during his lifetime. Pessoa was a Portuguese poet, writer, literary critic and translator, one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest poets of all time. The critic Harold Bloom has referred to him in the book The Western Canon as the most representative poet of the 20th century, along with Pablo Neruda. He was trilingual in Portuguese, English, and in French.
On 13 July 1893, when Pessoa was five, his father, Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa, died of tuberculosis. The following year, on 2 January, his younger brother Jorge, aged only one, also died. His mother Maria Madalena Pinheiro Nogueira married again in December 1895. In the beginning of 1896, he moved with his mother to Durban, capital of the former British Colony of Natal, where his stepfather João Miguel dos Santos Rosa, a military officer, had been appointed Portuguese consul. The young Pessoa received his early education at St. Joseph Convent School, a Catholic school run by Irish and French nuns. He moved to Durban High School in April, 1899, becoming fluent in English and developing an appreciation for English literature. During the "Matriculation Examination," held at the time by the then University of the Cape of Good Hope, forerunner of the University of Cape Town, in November 1903, he was awarded the recently-created "Queen Victoria Memorial Prize" for best paper in English. While preparing to enter university, he also attended the Durban Commercial School during one year, in the evening shift. Meanwhile he started writing short stories in English, some under the name of David Merrick, many of which he left unfinished [1].

Durban City Hall.
At the age of sixteen, The Natal Mercury (July 6, 1904 edition) published his poem "Hillier did first usurp the realms of rhyme...", under the name of Charles Robert Anon, along with a small introductory text: "I read with great amusement...". In December, The Durban High School Magazine published his essay Macaulay [2]. From February to June, 1905, in the section "The Man in the Moon," The Natal Mercury also published at least four sonnets by Fernando Pessoa: "Joseph Chamberlain", "To England I", "To England II" and "Liberty" [3]. His poems often carried humorous versions of Anon as the author's name.
Ten years after his arrival, he sailed for Lisbon via the Suez Canal on board the "Herzog", leaving Durban for good at the age of seventeen. This journey inspired the poems "Opiário" (dedicated to his friend, the poet and writer Mário de Sá-Carneiro) published in March, 1915, in Orpheu nr.1 [4] and "Ode Marítima" (dedicated to the futurist painter Santa Rita Pintor) published in June, 1915, in Orpheu nr.2 [5] by his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.

If Franz Kafka is the writer of Prague, Fernando Pessoa is certainly the writer of Lisbon. After his return to Portugal, when he was seventeen, Pessoa barely left his beloved city, which inspired the poems "Lisbon Revisited" (1923 and 1926), by his heteronym Álvaro de Campos. From 1905 to 1921, when his family returned from Pretoria after the death of his stepfather, he lived in fifteen different places around the city[9], moving from a rented room to another according to his financial troubles and the troubles of the young Portuguese Republic.

Coffee house «A Brasileira», established in 1905, the year Pessoa returned to Lisbon.
Pessoa had the flâneur's regard, namely through the eyes of Bernardo Soares, another of his heteronyms [10]. This character was supposedly an accountant, working at an office in Douradores Street, where Vasques was the boss, and living in the same downtown street, a world that Pessoa knew quite well due to his long career as free lance correspondence translator. In fact, from 1907 until his death, in 1935, Pessoa worked in twenty one firms located in Lisbon's downtown, sometimes in two or three of them simultaneously [11]. In The Book of Disquiet, Bernardo Soares describes some of those typical places and its "atmosphere".
Pessoa was a frequent customer at Martinho da Arcada, a centennial coffeehouse downtown, almost an "office" for his private business and literary concerns, where he used to meet friends in the 1920s. He also frequented other coffee shops, pubs and restaurants, a number of which no longer exist. The statue of Fernando Pessoa (above) can be seen outside A Brasileira, one of the preferred places of the young writers and artists of the group of orpheu during the 1910s. This coffeehouse, in the aristocratic district of Chiado, is quite close to Pessoa's birthplace: 4, Largo de São Carlos (in front of the Opera House) [12], one of the most elegant neighborhoods of Lisbon [13]. In 1925, Pessoa wrote in English a guidebook to Lisbon but it remained unpublished until 1992 [14].
[edit] Writing a lifetime
He looked about thirty, thin, rather above average height, exaggeratedly bent over when seated but less so when he stood up, dressed with a certain negligence, which was not entirely negligence. On his pale, uninteresting face an air of suffering did not stir interest, although it was difficult to define what kind of suffering that air –- it seemed to suggest several kinds: privation, anguish, and a suffering born from the indifference of having suffered a great deal.
Fernando Pessoa,
from The Book of Disquiet, tr. by Alfred Mac Adam.

Aleister Crowley and Pessoa in Lisbon, September 1930.

In his early years, Pessoa was influenced by major English classic poets as Shakespeare, Milton or Spenser and romantics like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. Later, he was also influenced by French symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, mainly by Portuguese poets as Antero de Quental, Gomes Leal, Camilo Pessanha, Cesário Verde, António Nobre or Teixeira de Pascoaes, and modernists as Yeats, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, among many other writers [1].

Astrological chart of the heteronym Ricardo Reis by Fernando Pessoa.
During World War I, Pessoa wrote to a number of British publishers in order to print his collection of English verse The Mad Fiddler (unpublished during his lifetime), but it was refused. However, in 1920, the prestigious literary review Athenaeum included one of those poems [15]. Since the British publication failed, in 1918 Pessoa published in Lisbon two slim volumes of English verse: Antinous [16] and 35 Sonnets [17], received by the British literary press without enthusiasm [18]. Along with two associates, he founded another publishing house, Olisipo, which published in 1921 a further two English poetry volumes: English Poems I-II and English Poems III by Fernando Pessoa.
Pessoa translated into English some Portuguese books and from English the poems "The Raven", "Annabel Lee" and "Ulalume"[19] by Edgar Allan Poe which, along with Walt Whitman, strongly influenced him. He also translated into Portuguese a number of esoteric books by leading Theosophists such as C. W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant [20].
Pessoa was influenced by occultism and developed an interest in spiritism and astrology. He was an amateur astrologue, elaborating astral charts for friends and even for himself and the heteronyms. His interest in occultism led Pessoa to correspond with Aleister Crowley. Later he helped Crowley plan an elaborate fake suicide when he visited Portugal in 1930 [21]. Pessoa translated Crowley's poem "Hymn To Pan" into Portuguese, and the catalogue of Pessoa's library shows that he possessed copies of Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice and Confessions. Pessoa also wrote on Crowley's doctrine of Thelema in several fragments, including Moral [22].

Pessoa's tomb in Lisbon, at the cloister of the Hieronymites Monastery since 1988.
Politically, Pessoa referred to himself as a 'mystical nationalist' and was conservative in many of his views. He was an outspoken elitist, anti-democratic, and aligned himself against communism, socialism, and Catholicism. He supported the military coups of 1917 and 1926, and wrote a pamphlet in 1928 initially supportive of the Salazar dictatorship, but by the mid-1930s, Pessoa had become disenchanted with the regime.[23]
Pessoa died of cirrhosis in 1935, at the age of forty-seven, with only one book published in Portuguese: "Mensagem" (Message). However, he left a lifetime of unpublished and unfinished work (over 25,000 pages manuscript and typed that have been housed in the Portuguese National Library since 1988). The heavy burden of editing this huge work is still in progress. In 1988 (the centenary of his birth), Pessoa's remains were moved to the Hieronymites Monastery, in Lisbon, where Vasco da Gama, Luís de Camões, and Alexandre Herculano are also buried. Pessoa's portrait was on the 100-escudo banknote.
[edit] Heteronyms

Pessoa's statue outside Lisbon's famous coffee house «A Brasileira».
Pessoa's earliest heteronym, at the age of six, was the Chevalier de Pas. Other childhood heteronyms included Dr. Pancrácio and David Merrick, followed by Charles Robert Anon and Alexander Search, succeeded by others. Translator Richard Zenith notes that Pessoa eventually established at least seventy-two heteronyms [24]. According to Pessoa himself, there were three main heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis. The heteronyms possess distinct biographies, temperaments, philosophies, appearances and writing styles [25].
Fernando Pessoa on the heteronyms
«How do I write in the name of these three? Caeiro, through sheer and unexpected inspiration, without knowing or even suspecting that I’m going to write in his name. Ricardo Reis, after an abstract meditation, which suddenly takes concrete shape in an ode. Campos, when I feel a sudden impulse to write and don’t know what. (My semi-heteronym Bernardo Soares, who in many ways resembles Álvaro de Campos, always appears when I'm sleepy or drowsy, so that my qualities of inhibition and rational thought are suspended; his prose is an endless reverie. He’s a semi-heteronym because his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it. He’s me without my rationalism and emotions. His prose is the same as mine, except for certain formal restraint that reason imposes on my own writing, and his Portuguese is exactly the same – whereas Caeiro writes bad Portuguese, Campos writes it reasonably well but with mistakes such as "me myself" instead of "I myself", etc.., and Reis writes better than I, but with a purism I find excessive...)»[26].
George Steiner on Fernando Pessoa: «A man of many parts»
«Pseudonymous writing is not rare in literature or philosophy (Kierkegaard provides a celebrated instance). 'Heteronyms', as Pessoa called and defined them, are something different and exceedingly strange. For each of his 'voices', Pessoa conceived a highly distinctive poetic idiom and technique, a complex biography, a context of literary influence and polemics and, most arrestingly of all, subtle interrelations and reciprocities of awareness. Octavio Paz defines Caeiro as 'everything that Pessoa is not and more'.
He is a man magnificently at home in nature, a virtuoso of pre-Christian innocence, almost a Portuguese teacher of Zen. Reis is a stoic Horatian, a pagan believer in fate, a player with classical myths less original than Caeiro, but more representative of modern symbolism. De Campos emerges as a Whitmanesque futurist, a dreamer in drunkenness, the Dionysian singer of what is oceanic and windswept in Lisbon. None of this triad resembles the metaphysical solitude, the sense of being an occultist medium which characterise Pessoa's 'own' intimate verse.» [27]

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Coming In At Number Two: Gordon Honeycombe, Author of Neither the Sea Nor the Sand:

Neither The Sea Nor The Sand

Pan, London, 1971
first published Hutchinson & Co, 1969
(price: 30p; 224 pages)

dedication: To the memory of my mother and father

The blurb on the back:

'Horror in the best Poe tradition ... Compulsive reading for the hours of daylight. After that, you are on your own' - Birmingham Evening Post

When obsessive love animates a no-longer-living body, the result can be gruesome beyond human believing...
In this wholly original novel, mind-chilling terror is the fruit of a passion that survives beyond the grave.

'Told with a fine macabre flourish by an author well known alike as an ITV newscaster and a BBC dramatist' - Daily Mail
Gordon Honeycombe 'comes menacingly near frightening us rigid' - The Scotsman

opening lines:
'Hugh!' She called his name up the slope of the hill to the sky, against the swooping downrush of the wind. 'I can't go on.'

This is an extraordinary book.

Just to clear up the authorship for younger readers: Gordon Honeycombe was a newsreader, who worked for ITN between 1965 and 1977 and in the 1980s for TV-AM. In case that doesn't sound too impressive in a world where 'TV news' refers to the likes of Sky News and the neutered remains of post-deregulation ITN, do remember that things were better then: Honeycombe was a broadcaster of impressive integrity as well as authority. His departure from ITN, for example, was occasioned by a dispute between him and his employers over the coverage of the momentous fire-fighters' strike - he supported the strikers, they (as ever) did not. So he left and became a full-time writer.

Our Gordon
Gordon Honeycombe

By that stage he was already a published author, and amongst his work was this phenomenal piece. The set-up is deceptively simple: a couple fall in love and decide to celebrate their union by having a 'honeymoon' (they're not actually married) in the wilds around Cape Wrath, the far North-Western tip of Scotland. He has a heart-attack on holiday and is pronounced dead, so she takes the body back to their home in Jersey. The twist, of course, is that in the meantime he's come back to life. Well, not exactly life: he doesn't breathe, has no heartbeat and can't speak, but he can walk and follow her instructions as though he can hear her. He is, in short, some kind of zombie, kept animated simply by the power and ferocity of her love.

The close observation of human behaviour is immensely impressive and, despite the comments on the back about Poe and the like, this is not really a true piece of horror, so much as a Gothic love story. Both literate and literary, it's a slow-paced slow-burning tale that sucks you deep into its intense, oppressive atmosphere, and reveals Mr Honeycombe to be a very fine writer:

About herself and her childhood she talked readily and with little reserve. This he could not do, and even when talking about what he knew and what intrigued him he spoke with the slight awkwardness of someone unused to making long statements. But he had none the less a command of language and expression that never rested on clichés. He was conscious of this, and proud of his carefully acquired knowledge and its ordered integrity. (pp.26-27)

He could be writing about his own style.

Mr Honeycombe and Rosemary Davies later adapted the story for a 1972 movie from Tigon starring Susan Hampshire, Frank Finlay, Michael Petrovitch and Tony Blair's dad-in-law, Tony Booth. I really wish I'd seen it so I could enthuse, but I haven't, so instead I'll steal the comments of the Radio Times Guide to Films, which calls it 'a genuine oddity that was sadly overlooked at the time'. Sounds good to me, and faithful to a book that's also a genuine oddity, but it's so obscure that it doesn't even get mentioned in Halliwell's Film Guide. It was also known as The Exorcism Of Hugh.