Past Present

By Cravens, Gwyneth | The Nation, November 13, 1989 | Go to article overview
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Past Present


Cravens, Gwyneth, The Nation


Past Present

"Since the present is very ancient, because everything, when it existed, was the present, I harbor for things, because they belong to the present, the affections of an antiquariam preceded by the passions of a collector." So wrote the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in his journal in 1914. Pessoa, who died in Lisbon in 1935 at the age of 47, remains one of the greatest and most enigmatic figures in twentieth-century literature. He created for himself a number of different writing personalities, which he called heteronyms, and he sometimes sent them into literary and philosophical debates with one another in print. And why not? He remarked, "Everything is different from us, and that's why everything exists" and "The universe doesn't agree with itself because it passes. Life doesn't agree with itself because it dies. Paradox is the typical formula of Nature. That's why all truth has a paradoxical form." He confessed that he found deep meaning "in a matchbox lying in the gutter, in two dirty papers which, on a windy day, will roll and chase each other down the street. For poetry is astonishment, admiration, as of a being fallen from the skies taking full consciousness of his fall, astonished about things." It's hard to stop at just a few quotes, because his words, fresh and clear, seem to have just been uttered.

It amazes me that I discovered Pessoa's work purely by chance. If I had not been present at a lecture given by the Chilean poet David Rosenmann-Taub about Pessoa, and if Edwin Honig had not chosen to translate Pessoa into English, and if City Lights Books had not recently published a selection Honig made of Pessoa's prose in a book called Always Astonished, and if my local independent bookseller had not been eclectic enough to order it, Pessoa's "ancient present" might never have become a part of my own. By happenstance, I have been given a glimpse into an extraordinary mind.

This series will be dedicated to reducing such fortuities in the quest for excellent books. And what is "excellent"? Whatever has outlasted its original audience, along with trends and fashions and schools, and retained its vitality. Many of the best books I've read have not been those taught in college (although, to be sure, the college canon is a useful if predictable one), and they have not been those celebrated on the front pages of book-review supplements; rather, they've been introduced to me as if they were people my friends were eager for me to meet. For example, in this way I have become acquainted with the works of Wladyslaw Reymont, Johannes V. Jensen, Halldor Laxness, F.E. Silanpaa, Roger Martin du Gard, Grazia Deledda and Miguel Asturias (all these writers happen to be Nobel Prize winners), as well as authors like Robert Walser, Martin Andersen Nexo, Giovanni Papini, Dino Buzzati and Horacio Quiroga. As a novelist, I have a bias toward literature, but I've also been delighted to discover those books on art, history, psychology, philosophy, mythology, anthropology and travel that, with their firm, gracious prose, riveting peculiarities or attention to detail, have held up over the decades. Lin Yu-T'Ang's anthology The Wisdom of China and India, Count Hermann Keyserling's The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, Henri Bergson's Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Henry Savage and A. Landor's In the Forbidden Land, the essays of Ludwig Wittgenstein collected in Culture and Value, Henri Frederic Amiel's Fragments of an Intimate Journal and J. Christopher Herold's biography of Madame de Stael, Mistress to an Age, come promptly to mind. Some of these treasures have turned up in libraries and secondhand bookstores, and others have reached me through friends for whom the pursuit of old books of good quality amounts to a vice.

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