The bardling of Berea

As the Nobel Prize brings attention to Portuguese literature, Stephen Gray looks at a poet with a South African connection

Ten years ago in these pages, Carmel Rickard reported from downtown Durban on the unveiling of a plaque in honour of the centenary of Fernando Pessoa’s birth. This, in turn, was at the foot of the fine statue erected three years before, among the foliage of the old flower-sellers’ triangle on Soldiers’ Way, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death – the first public monument anywhere put up in his memory.

That Homburged, bespectacled, moustachioed James Joyce lookalike in bronze represents one of the century’s greatest jokesmiths: a lonely Portuguese poet who left behind a trunkful of so many masterworks (more than 27 000 items) that his Complete Works is still being edited. In acknowledgement of his greatness as a European modernist, at the recent Poetry Africa festival, all we participants willingly fell in at his feet for souvenir snaps: our provoker, nowadays our familiar.

Although there have been several introductory translations of his poems, including a few by Roy Campbell, Pessoa has at last arrived more substantially in English, thanks to Carcanet in Manchester. As part of their Aspects of Portugal series, which includes reprints of two Campbell versions of the novelist Ea da Queirs, they have now hefted out two representative Pessoa paperbacks which should stay around.

One is Pessoa’s roiling novel, if it is a novel, The Book of Disquietude. This first appeared in English only in 1991, when there was such a rush on him that no less than four different translations came out. The new Carcanet one by Richard Zenith refurbishes his own version up to double the size (532 fragments of an unfinished jigsaw).

The scene is commercial and waterfront Lisbon, where the clerk-author – so- called Bernardo Soares – timidly endures. Disaffected, diffident, this was another Pessoa who began publishing excerpts in 1913 and on till his demise under the gloomy Salazar dictatorship. Perhaps the problem with The Book of Disquietude was the random condition in which it was left abandoned (Pessoa miscalculated his horoscope and cirrhosis of the liver got him two years earlier than he expected). But in fact Pessoa was intransigent to the end: simply unco-optative, an argonaut of the contemporary imagination going his own, proliferating way.

When information about Pessoa’s oddities trickles down, generally it is to do with his strange system of heteronyms: the coping device he perfected, of living within his private theatre in a polyphony of impersonations. For the record, Pessoa did split into no less than 72 other people; in medicine this happening is known as multiple personality disorder. There were literary predecessors, however: Immanuel Kant and Stendhal had had little crowds of writers writing for them.

The other work from Carcanet, the immense Centenary Pessoa, edited by Eugenio Lisboa, is a good guide to this genial game of personal fission. There the major spin-offs – Alberto Caeiro the classicist, Alvaro de Campos the decadent and Ricardo Reis, the dear Brazilian doctor and bucolic – have whole books of their own included. Like Buffon before him, Pessoa wished to demonstrate that style really is the man, that modes of literature have lives of their own. How else to escape his melancholy fate as a translator of business-letters in a once-glorious city?

The only other backwater Pessoa functioned in, from 1896 to 1905, happens to have been Durban, where his stepfather was dispatched as consul. To its credit, Durban has always celebrated its chance prodigy, documentation about his boyhood there being readily to hand. At Durban High School he took on the sporty sons of sugar-daddies, in three years learning English and still coming out on top. In retaliation for the Oxbridge classroom drill of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, he devised a Natal Tatler to be staffed by all of 11 busy versions of himself.

Under the cover of “Tagus”, “Charles Robert Anon” and “Alexander Search”, at the age of 14 he contributed almost weekly to The Natal Mercury for pocket- money, keeping up the rate of publication for the rest of his days. Alexander Search, of course, developed an impressive career of his own, passing himself off in The Times as a sporty British aesthete and boy-lover.

The young Pessoa is locally famous for, out of 899 candidates, winning the Queen Victoria Memorial Essay Prize for 1903. For this he submitted no less than one and not more than two pages on Irony Forms Perhaps the Largest Constituent of Humour. (Alternative titles were The Idea of a Well-Educated Man and, believe it or not, Gardening in South Africa.) Less known is that the prize was funded by new immigrants – the Jewish Boys and Girls of South Africa, in respectful memory of the late queen – all hoping for a future in clubby British South Africa.

Although Pessoa won first place to be admitted to the University of the Cape of Good Hope as well, family complications recalled him to Portugal. There he would soon become notorious for finding the Blessed Virgin Mary no more interesting than a suitcase. His Anglomania continued to produce some astounding pieces: an erotic reworking of Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper, and probably the most acid Boer War poem ever – a rewrite of Thomas Hardy’s Drummer Hodge, in which the mother’s boy shot on the veld is now worth no more than his cigarette-case.

Often Pessoa referred saucily to his “antenatal” period, when he was “happy and a child”. As yet no biography of all of Pessoa (the real one) exists in English, despite there being two in Portuguese, one in Spanish and now one in French (the other languages in which he wrote fluently). George Monteiro, the Camoens specialist, has just published The Presence of Pessoa: English, American and Southern African Literary Responses (with Kentucky University Press) and recent novels, out in English translation, by both Antonio Tabucchi and this year’s Nobel Prize-winner Jos Saramago (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) feature Pessoan alter egos as actual characters in playful postmodern inventions. Zbigniew Kotowicz in Voices of a Nomadic Soul (Menard) has recently summarised the entire sprawl.

What else to report on this natty drunk, coming into his own 110 years after his birth? That he kept his bowtie knotted, was nostalgic for the last outpost? Or that – as the Bardling of Berea – he just grew so stupefyingly bored with it all he decided there and then to reinvent the Western canon?

Stephen Gray’s new collection of poems, Gabriel’s Exhibition, is published by Mayibuye

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