Pessoa: An Experimental Life, by Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 1,055pp, £40, ISBN: 978-0241534137
In his just-published book Autobibliography, the Irish writer Rob Doyle offers a brief self-portrait, in which he notes that “I have little interest in telling stories – or reading them – as an end in itself.” An honourable stance of course, and one with a long and noble history (something like “a lack of interest in story as an end in itself” is often what we mean when we talk about Modernism). The sceptics of story have, for about a century now, enjoyed great intellectual, if not necessarily popular, esteem. But encountered in the work of a near-exact contemporary of mine (hey, Rob!), this statement struck me afresh – because it so precisely describes the opposite of my own aesthetic sympathies. Let me come out of the closet: I love stories. Indeed, I love stories as ends in themselves.
One of the great joys of becoming a parent, for me, has been the unavoidable immersion in stories: Goldilocks, the Brothers Grimm, Disney films, The Tiger Who Came to Tea … But of course I was immersed in stories anyway. Get a narrative going, no matter the subject, and you will have me hooked. If the TV in the corner is broadcasting a soap opera while we’re talking, you will not have my full attention – not because I like soap operas as such, but because the sheer fact of a story being told nearby will have activated some key part of my brain and claimed its energies. I have happily watched films I knew to be abysmal – a recent example: Zack Snyder’s Justice League – in search of a fix of story (and have been, even in the case of Justice League, generally satisfied – oh, the shame). My admiration for certain great works of literature – Lolita, The Turn of the Screw, The Secret Agent – rests not primarily on the brilliance of their prose or the sophistication of their psychological insights but on their perfect organisation as stories. Conversely, my dislike of certain canonical writers – Dostoyevsky; DH Lawrence – derives from my sense of their incapacity as storytellers (was there ever a story as poorly constructed as The Idiot?).
In search of my story fix I happily read thrillers, space operas, historical romances, fairy tales … even, occasionally, contemporary literary fiction, though increasingly I find little narrative sustenance in those particular precincts. Since, let’s say, 1922 (when Modernism entered unignorably into its pomp), it has been a mark of intellectual sophistication to disdain “mere” story; to observe, as if it were a clinching criticism of something or other, that life is not a story; to assert that stories falsify reality. For a hundred years, therefore, ambitious literary fiction has been negotiating uneasily with story – handling it with the careful tweezers of irony (the American metafictionists), or jettisoning it altogether (Natalie Sarraute, Thomas Bernhard, et. al.), or simply half-assing it on the whole business of story (almost all contemporary literary novels, with their loose narrative ends, their slackly structured middles, their dying-fall conclusions).
As of this writing, the literary novel appears to have arranged a couple of unhappy truces with story. There is autofiction, and there is its cousin, the Sebaldian essay-slash-peripatetic-travelogue-novel. Yes, there’s a story; but it’s the story of my life, or it’s drawn from history, so it really happened; therefore my book can claim both dramatic interest and intellectual credibility. Literary novelists who unashamedly tell fictional stories – like, let’s say, Jonathan Franzen – tend to be greeted with contempt by the guardians of intellectual respectability (although non-intellectual readers, that is the people we might think of as “readers”, seem to like them).
My own feeling about autofiction – and, indeed, about experimental fiction more generally – might be distilled thus: Why would I be seduced by a writer who says “Let’s take everything fun out of the novel and see what’s left over?” Because stories are fun. They are great sources of pleasure. People who scorn pleasure in the name of a higher truth are always with us, of course: Puritans of one stripe or another. Savonarola burned “vanities”, also known as “the fun stuff”, also known as “the things that make life worth living”: books, musical instruments, jewellery … More recently, the writer Olivia Collette contributed a piece to RogerEbert.com in which she opined that “Looking back on a lot of art that came before, say, 2016 is consistently disappointing” – because, of course, art made in those benighted pre-2016 times often doesn’t do what truly matters, that is embody up-to-date left-wing political values.
Story, of course, is a slippery thing. A story can embody all kinds of values; story itself is value-neutral, a frame onto which all sorts of things can be woven. Pauline Kael, reviewing Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in 1971, observed that it was a story superbly told – “a structured vision of life on film”. She also observed that it was “the first American film that is a fascist work of art”. That stories are capable of carrying moral lessons is a truth we learn as children (“What’s the moral of the story?”); that attending uncritically to the moral of the story might mislead us about the nature of reality is an insight that tends to occur to us in late youth; and this, it seems to me, is often where people get stuck, distrusting stories, claiming loudly that Life isn’t like a story, that “Stories”, as one Tweeter put it recently, “are necessarily false.”
But to say that stories qua stories are “false” is surely a category error. If story is a frame, or a vessel, into which we can put anything we like, then it makes no sense to describe that frame or vessel as “false”. Is a cup “true” or “false”? When I say “I love stories”, what I mean is that I love the frame itself: the given shape, with its many uses. To those who say that it is precisely this frame that falsifies reality I respond: without the frame, we cannot really see anything at all. Craig Raine: “We need art so that we can see what we are seeing.”
This would appear to be a temperamental bias – a deep dislike, stemming from who knows what originary trauma, of the unpatterned, the haphazard, the contingent. At some point in my childhood I seem to have decided that unstoried reality simply would not do, and needed urgently to be improved upon. (A writer – at least, a certain kind of writer – was born.) Stories, I understood, were the thing that temporarily repaired reality so that it made sense. That stories ended, and that they returned you, when they were over, to the quotidian world, was what made them moving, and precious. When I say I love stories as ends in themselves, this is what I mean.
This temperamental bias – against contingency, in favour of patterned artifice – is what the aesthete and the popular storyteller have in common. As Truman Capote, who was both of these things, once put it: “Art is life’s compensation for the flawed delights of living.” This, or something like it, appears to be the temperament I am stuck with – as a reader, as a writer.
It follows from all of this that I should be more or less reflexively hostile to “experimental fiction”, particularly to the anti-narrative or non-narrative kind: fiction produced by writers of a temperament antithetical to my own. Life is not a story, say these writers, implicitly, so I will not tell you a story. Indeed, only children need stories; and we are not children. The urge to disenchant others is common in early maturity, when we feel most acutely disenchanted ourselves. On the other hand, the disenchantment of the Moderns was no mere developmental phase. It arose for good historical reasons and led to an overdue critique of the kinds of stories that “civilisation” had been telling about itself and its works; and eventually to a critique of story itself. For a century now literary writers have been grappling with this critique; have, if they are intellectually ambitious, approached story (sometimes called plot) in a spirit of irony, or of outright deconstructive hostility. Jean-Paul Sartre, speaking for many twentieth and twenty-first century writers and critics, approved of Nathalie Sarraute’s interest in making “use of the novel in order to challenge the novel, to destroy it before our very eyes while seeming to construct it, to write the novel of a novel unwritten and unwriteable …”
This remains the intellectually respectable view. And the opposing view – that stories qua stories are fun, that they repair reality temporarily, and that these are sufficient reasons for them to exist – remains disreputable. But there are those of us who suspect that “a novel unwritten and unwriteable” will also tend to be unreadable, and that sacrificing the pleasure of story is almost always too high a price to pay for intellectual respectability. Then again, as I get older, I get less and less interested in intellectual respectability. “Why push on?” asked Norman Mailer in 1967, listing all of the short story writers he didn’t care about (because he thought only the novel really mattered): “It is evident we are confronting the taste of a mucker.” Norman, c’est moi.
All of the above is a way of explaining why I am not the ideal person to review Richard Zenith’s new biography of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. I took on the assignment precisely because I did not know Pessoa’s work and wanted to learn about him. As Louis Menand observes in his recent book The Free World, “doing your homework” is “always a healthy motive for writing”. I have often approached a hitherto-unknown-to-me writer by reading a biography. This is, I think, an underrated but important function of literary biographies: they usher us gently, via an appealing combination of gossip and criticism, into the imaginative world of a writer new to us. They are especially useful if the writer is difficult or “experimental” (how many of us have come to proper grips with Joyce largely thanks to Richard Ellmann?). I imagined that Zenith’s life of Pessoa, which has been, as they say, warmly received, would open up Pessoa’s books to me – would anchor my reading of work that I knew to be in some ways “difficult”.
And indeed it did: let me say at once that Zenith’s account of Pessoa’s life is illuminating, surprising, intimate, and very obviously a labour of love. It is always a relief to discover, after the first few hesitant pages have stumbled by, that a biographer has fallen in love with his or her subject – to the point, in this case, of a fruitful over-identification. The point of literary biography isn’t really to examine the outer life of a writer dispassionately, but rather to recreate the inner life, insofar as such a thing can be done. In this, Zenith superbly succeeds. His labours among Pessoa’s chaotic literary remains have been Herculean. His sense of the man, to this neophyte at least, is acute – at any rate, he creates a vivid and compelling portrait of someone who lived almost entirely in his imagination. Such is the depth of Zenith’s immersion in Pessoa’s inner life that his book stretches to 937 pages, excluding paratextual matter: this is especially remarkable considering that Pessoa hardly ever left Lisbon, the city where he was born in 1888, save for eight years spent in the South African city of Durban as an adolescent. It was a life lived almost programmatically without external events. He had “no love life” to speak of. In early adolescence, instead of actually playing football or cricket, he imagined and recorded whole matches, whole leagues, on paper.
To a degree unusual even for a writer, Pessoa was a creature of paper, and of pen and ink. Or, rather, he was many such creatures. There are two striking things about Pessoa’s literary career. The first is that he did not have a literary career, in the conventional sense: he published only one book during his lifetime, a volume of poetry called Message (1934); although pieces and poems appeared in literary journals, the majority of his work – a vast trunkful, awaiting posthumous examination – remained unpublished while he was alive. The second is that he wrote most often not as Fernando Pessoa, but as one of myriad “heteronyms”: so-called because they were not pseudonyms in the conventional sense but rather alternative personae, with their own biographies, CVs, character traits, political opinions …
There were forty-seven “formal” and “informal” heteronyms. The ones that Pessoa deployed most often were the “Zennish shepherd” Alberto Caeiro, the “classicist” Ricardo Reis, the “world traveller” Alvaro de Campos. These were, by and large, poets. There was also the Lisbon accountant (and supposed author of Pessoa’s prose magnum opus The Book of Disquiet) Bernardo Soares. But Pessoa also wrote, or imagined or projected, whole bodies of work for imaginary English detective novelists, French aphorists, miscellaneous journalists, poets, travel writers … His prose and poetry are therefore ventriloquised, in the most unique way. Most of us are, internally, parliamentary democracies, with unstable coalitions in power. Pessoa was a variety show, or a pantomime: he contained multitudes. Or perhaps he was simply the stage on which such shows were performed. In The Book of Disquiet he wrote: “I’m the naked stage where various actors act out various plays.” With such an inner life, who needs travel or love? (With such an inner life, who would know what to do with them?)
His creation of autonomous (or autonomous-seeming) alter egos began in childhood, when he would write letters to himself in the persona of “the Chevalier de Pas”, an imaginary aristocrat. By his teenage years, Pessoa’s heteronymous interiority was in full flower. He seemed unable to write unless he had decided which alter ego was at that moment holding the pen. At first, this meant that he had a series of alibis for his juvenilia: he was, as Zenith convincingly argues, astonishingly precocious in his technical command of Portuguese and English prose and verse, although his early poems, quoted here, are as bad as everyone else’s early poems. Later, he recognised the liberating potential of the heteronyms. They permitted him to contradict himself, to write in a virtually unlimited range of modes, styles, moods, genres, forms. This, in a way, was the point. Most writers are condemned to be just one writer: themselves. Pessoa wanted to be many writers, all at once.
He was – to boil it down – a Modernist. He distrusted the Cartesian cogito, the idea of a coherent self, the attractions of narrative. His preferred form – or perhaps the form he was, by his nature, condemned to work in – was the fragment. He rarely finished anything. As Zenith points out in his introduction to his Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa’s prose masterpiece does not even exist in the usual sense: “the more he prepared it, the more unfinished it became. Unfinished and unfinishable. Without a plot or plan to follow, but as disquiet as a literary work can be.” (Presumably Zenith means “disquieting” or “disquieted” here.) In each of its published versions, The Book of Disquiet is a work of editorial prestidigitation, assembled from hundreds of fragments that Pessoa composed over many years and linked, in manuscript, often by nothing except a note: “L do D” (Livro do Desassossego). There is not even a clear order in which these fragments are supposed to be presented.
In the published versions, The Book of Disquiet is a numbered series of over five hundred short sections (aphorisms, brief essays, prose poems, journal or diary entries) ostensibly written by Bernardo Soares, an accountant whose office and home occupy the same Lisbon street, the Rua dos Douradores. Like Pessoa, Soares has no interest in actual travel; he lives largely without human company. He nurtures his inner life, compulsively. And that’s it: the book as it stands, and perhaps as Pessoa intended it, is a non-narrative record of Soares’s inner life: “my haphazard book of musings”.
There is nothing wrong with this conceptually of course. And some of Soares’s aphorisms are excellent – serving, as the best aphorisms do, as nourishment for thought. “To express something is to conserve its virtue and remove its terror.” “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.” On the other hand, there is a very great deal of this sort of stuff: “Everything is what we are, and everything will be, for those who come after us in the diversity of time, what we will have intensely imagined – what we, that is, by embodying in our imagination, will have actually been.” I cannot make head nor tail of this – though perhaps I am not supposed to. Certainly I find maximally unappealing the prospect of reading five hundred pages composed largely in this woolly pseudo-philosophical register – and this is, alas, what much of The Book of Disquiet is about. I can appreciate, of course, that Soares is a quintessentially modern superfluous man, born into a belated world; without illusions, without even the comfort of the idea of the self, he strives to make the only kind of art that such a world can bring forth: “I carry my awareness of defeat like a banner of victory.” And so on. But there is only so much of stuff like this that I can really tolerate, as a reader in search of pleasure: “Only unhappiness is elevating. And the tedium that comes from unhappiness is heraldic, like being descended from ancient heroes.” Sure. Or not.
In other words, I read The Book of Disquiet and hated it, remaining all the while fully conscious that the readerly preferences I was bringing to bear on Pessoa’s anti-novel were fatally inappropriate. If my reaction to Soares’s musings was often boredom, it was equally often spontaneous derision. “Everything wearies me, including what doesn’t weary me. My happiness is as painful as my pain.” U ok hun?
Why push on? It is evident that we are confronting the taste of a mucker. Who is this guy? He wants a novel to have a story, or at the very least what John Gardner called profluence, forward motion. He thinks diary entries about unhappiness may be useful to write but are seldom much fun to read. He is clearly insensitive to many of the still-vital lessons of Modernism. His encounter with Pessoa has proved a temperamental mismatch. He is not qualified to write an essay about Pessoa in the usual way: finding what is valuable; venturing new conclusions about the life, the work. Unable to assess the work in its original language, interested in matters irrelevant to the author at hand, he has failed in his self-appointed task, and must now withdraw, leaving the critical explication of Pessoa’s work to others more temperamentally, and indeed linguistically, qualified.
Pessoa’s lifelong impulse, Zenith writes in his biography, was to “transgress the traditional rules and expectations of storytelling”. In his introduction to The Book of Disquiet, he suggests that “No other writer ever achieved such a direct transference of self to paper.” On the question of storytelling, I am afraid that my own readerly predilections serve Pessoa ill. Similarly, I do wonder about that “direct transference of self to paper”. If art were merely self-expression, we would all be able to publish our teenage diaries to general acclaim and satisfaction. The funny thing is, Pessoa was deeply interested in artifice: hence the heteronyms, the pastiches, the swerves in method and mood. He is, in The Book of Disquiet, precisely not expressing “himself” but the “self” of Bernardo Soares, imaginary depressed accountant – something Zenith is elsewhere at pains to point out. But Pessoa’s artifice was the artifice that seeks to expose artifice; to confront us with unstoried reality. He made his false selves as real as possible in order to demonstrate that there is no self. He spent years composing notebook entries for a plotless book in order to emphasise that narrative distorts our perceptions of the real. But to my mind, and despite Richard Zenith’s brilliant explications of Pessoa’s artistic practice, the heteronyms and The Book of Disquiet together present an arid intellectual puzzle-box: attractive to certain scholars and radicals; of limited interest to me, with my mucker’s taste.
Generally speaking, I applaud the noticeable presence of artifice in my art. I am not against fancy prose, or metafictional framing, or elaborately recomplicated plots – quite the reverse. But there is artifice and artifice. In the introduction to his biography, Zenith argues against any construal of Pessoa’s artistic practices as mere gimmickry: “if the heteronyms were a gimmick, then Pessoa’s very personality was defined by gimmickry”. I am tempted to say: yes, precisely. But then, I am a traditionalist, in my peculiar way. It comes down to this: I do not “get” Fernando Pessoa. I am almost certainly wrong not to get him; and can in rueful conclusion only offer my apologies, both to Pessoa himself and to Richard Zenith, his excellent, and excellently partisan, biographer.
Kevin Power’s novel White City is published by Scribner UK.