Let all such fancies, illusive and destructive, be banished henceforward from your thoughts for ever. Resolve, and keep your resolution; choose, and pursue your choice. If you spend this day in study, you will find yourself still more able to study to-morrow; not that you are to expect that you shall at once obtain a complete victory. Depravity is not very easily overcome. Resolution will sometimes relax, and diligence will sometimes be interrupted; but let no accidental surprise or deviation, whether short or long, dispose you to despondency. Consider these failings as incident to all mankind. Begin again where you left off, and endeavour to avoid the seducements that prevailed over you before.
— Samuel Johnson to James Boswell (1763), quoted in Boswell’s Life of Johnson
Pigeons perch on statues
And are turned to stone.2
- I found this image via the Persephone Post, but they persist in reorganizing their archives and breaking links – a laudable pastime, but one which prevents me from giving them credit as directly as I would like. [↩]
- From Paris: a Poem. [↩]
There are books which are too powerful, or which are too powerfully effective. I was reading such a book just a few minutes ago – but I won’t name it – about miserable people, leading miserable aimless lives in a gray and dismal country thousands of miles away. It is sunny here, and warm, as though we had skipped spring and gone straight to a gentle haziness of summer. After reading some of these stories, though, the sky – still blue and bright – seemed grayer than it had been, as though it were threatening rain.1 My life, satisfactory until thirteen pages ago, seemed pointless, weary, a waste, directionless; the lives of my friends had no space in them for me any longer – as indeed why should they have room for anything so completely useless.
I was about to settle well in to my wretchedness (which I had no doubt soundly deserved), and picked up the book for another installment of misery, hoping to raise my spirits. The book seemed lighter than before. Happier almost. As though it took joy in trapping me into a dark and squalid corner of my life that I had not known existed. I put the book down and felt instantly better. I write this to you now as a warning. Don’t trust the book. I haven’t time to say more – I must dispose of the book, after all – but don’t trust it. Keep away from it if you can. Please.
- Which, despite the apparent warmth of the day, would have fallen as snow. [↩]
Please, he said, don’t abandon me to all these people who are so certain about everything, they’re dreadful. You don’t need me, I said, don’t talk nonsense, the whole world admires you, I was the one who needed you, but now it’s time to stop, that’s all. (99)
An odd book, not quite a lament for Lisbon, for Pessoa, for the narrator’s own youth, but something else. A dreamlike ramble through the uncertain geography of a town that somehow suggests the smell of sun and fish and vines. Our narrator wanders streets, in and out of buildings connected with his own life, with the life of his friend – who I am told is meant to suggest Pessoa, though I am not learned enough to see the similarity. There’s always the suggestion that the narrator is moving without legs, drifting, as in a dream, from one place to another with no attention to the distance between them.1
It is curious that Tabucchi decided to write Requiem in Portuguese. In one of my moments of lesser attention, I had thought that the writer was Portuguese (after all the title page said: ‘translated from the Portuguese’), and was surprised at how similar it felt not to Pessoa or Saramago, but to Dino Buzzati (an excerpt from whose eerie Poem Strip is pictured to the left) or Stefano Benni. What makes the difference? A more frenetic quality, a deeper sense of the absurd, a quickness; it is pointless to continue this train of adjectives, because I won’t be able to justify what was and is merely an intuitive impression, perhaps suggested not by the style (muffled as such things are by translation) but by the author’s name or something else that refuses to present itself to my mind at the present moment. Of course Pessoa wrote in languages not his own, and perhaps the choice is meant to suggest that, to present the author and his muse/idol on equal footing.2 Requiem refuses this as a handle for understanding, at least to me. Perhaps others will have better luck with it.
- Am I going to avoid mentioning the food that the narrator eats? Even though it forms such an oddly essential and probably suggestive part of the narrative? Yes, I think I am. [↩]
- I think I’d like to see an account of literature written in non-native languages. Not translations, but direct compositions. One would need to include Conrad and Nabokov and Pessoa and Beckett and really how far would one need to go? Should one include early modern writers writing in Latin? How is one to determine what makes a non-native language? One will muddle oneself with too much thinking. [↩]
I am a scholar of towns, let God commend that. To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angles or virtues – who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.
– Anne Carson
(‘The Life of Towns’
in Plainwater, p. 93)