I recently spent a few days in Lisbon, and felt completely at home in this charming city, with its steep hills accessed via picturesque, antiquated funiculars and creaky yellow trams.
When back in Cornwall I thought I’d read some Lisbon-set literature, so turned to my two copies (duplicated by mistake some time ago) of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet: the PMC paperback, with its striking monochrome cover photo, edited and translated by Richard Zenith, and one from Serpent’s Tail, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Unfortunately I started to flag after a few dozen pages, and gave up less than halfway through. It’s interesting, but an unremittingly bleak accumulation of short, fragmentary passages, rather like a depressive diary, about the sad, lonely life of a clerk in Lisbon in the period 1910 to the 1930s (the narrator is one of Pessoa’s ‘heteronyms’: Bernardo Soares, also a menial clerk in the Baixa commercial district of Lisbon). The MS was found in the form of hundreds of sheets of paper in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment after his death at the age of 47; most of it was unpublished in his disappointed lifetime. The two versions I dipped into differed considerably in length and content; any edition represents the best guesses of the editor as to how to sequence and present the randomly stashed fragments in the trunk. The PMC edition was double the length of the other, including excellent notes and appendixes – and hence contains twice the quantity of unhappy Soares’s musings on the futility of (his) existence. Not an uplifting read, though there are moments of lyric grace. Here are some samples from early in the Serpent’s Tail edition:
I reject life because it is a prison sentence, I reject dreams as being a vulgar form of escape. [entry 17]
By day I am nothing, by night I am myself. 
Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life. These are my Confessions and if I say nothing in them it’s because I have nothing to say. 
Both objectively and subjectively speaking, I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of everything, and of everything about everything. 
So I turned to two other novels: Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (which has nothing to do with Lisbon) and Antonio Tabucchi’s Pereira Maintains.
I bought the Swift after reading several positive reviews: it didn’t disappoint. The first half of this short novel – it’s only 132 pages long — is one of the most erotic passages I’ve read in a work of fiction, but it’s beautiful, not pornographic; the scene in which Jane watches her lover dress while she lies naked on his bed is breathtaking. Like William Boyd in some of his recent novels, Swift has a female narrator, and really convinces with the voice he constructs, and the experiences she relates.
From the outset we know that the young housemaid, a foundling given the name Jane Fairchild by the orphanage in which she grew up, in service in a 1920s country estate, will have to learn to survive her passionate affair with this young heir of a neighbouring estate: he’s about to marry an heiress, so this passionate liaison with Jane is doomed. But all is narrated from the perspective of the Jane’s recalling these events from the end of her very long life years later, after she’s become a best-selling novelist.
The second part of the novel I found less satisfying. Maybe fiction is better when dealing with adversity.
Tabucchi was an Italian academic who taught Portuguese studies; Pereira Maintains is the story (again a long novella or short novel) of an overweight Lisbon journalist who writes the culture pages for a second-rate Lisbon paper in 1938 under the fascist regime of Salazar. He’s still grieving for his wife, who died some time earlier – he talks to her photograph more than he does any living person, spending his time alone in his flat or eating endless omelettes and drinking sugary lemonade in his favourite restaurant. In temperament he resembles Pessoa’s existentially anguished Soares.
Into his life comes a radical leftist who writes obituaries of notable radical-artistic figures, which Pereira pays for but consigns to the bin: he’s too timorous to risk printing them in this era of oppression and state censorship. Gradually he comes to learn the importance of commitment and action; being a passive critic of a corrupt and brutal system isn’t enough.
It’s a slow-burning narrative written in a curiously deadpan, detached style. In effect it’s a transcript or testimonial, presumably conveyed by a court reporter who relates dispassionately what Pereira ‘maintains’. The refrain of the title, repeated at the end of every chapter, and frequently within each one, became intrusive and even tiresome, for me.
Pereira Maintains is perhaps more of a curiosity than a modern classic, but the final few chapters build to an intriguing and exciting climax, as we are left unsure which which course of action (or inaction) Pereira will choose as the vicious political system, in which he has lived with placid submissiveness for so long, breaks violently into his complacent world.
I can’t quote from the text because the copy I read was borrowed from a work colleague who’d bought it in a Lisbon bookshop while visiting the city, coincidentally, at the same time as me. I hadn’t known she was going there. I read the book in a few days and returned it to its owner. My picture shows a visiting friend’s natty little schnauzer, Caspar, snoozing on my bed as I took a break from reading.