Wandering Through Literary Lisbon in Search of Pessoa’s Disquiet

Thomas Swick on the Unlikely Success of a Summer Writing Program

The Disquiet International Literary Program was originally scheduled for this week in Lisbon. 

*

Fernando Pessoa gazed out from the wall of the airport metro station—the only caricature I recognized in the gallery of Portuguese notables. At the Parque station, a quotation of his joined those of other thinkers on the tiles: Dói-me a cabeça e o universo (“My head and the whole universe ache.”) It was a line from his masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, and an empathetic message for commuters.

I had arrived in Lisbon for the last four days of the Disquiet International Literary Program, so I had Pessoa on my mind. But even tourists who miss the initial introduction, fogged by jetlag or squeezed into Ubers, will at some point in their stay run across the great modernist writer. His spirit pervades Lisbon as deeply as Joyce’s suffuses Dublin, another word-drunk, salt-aired capital of a country forever in its neighbor’s shadow. Bookstores place his books in their windows, as if he were the latest thing, and on tables inside, The Book of Disquiet sits next to his poetry and his guide to Lisbon. There is a guesthouse, The Pessoa, in a building where he lived for a time, and his bespectacled form—in fedora and overcoat—shadows the window of one of the rooms.

On the Praça do Comércio, the café/restaurant Martinho da Arcada honors its most famous regular with a plaque on its wall, and a tobacconist on Rua Nova do Almada displays a tall black-and-white photograph of the writer walking along a busy street, in his trademark glasses and hat, with the bilingual caption: “The writer Fernando Pessoa during his life attended Tabacaria ‘Boa Hora.’” The statue of him adjacent to Café A Brasileira, sitting at a table forever awaiting his order, is renewed throughout the day by people plopping down in the vacant chair and posing for pictures. (If there is a positive in the maelstrom of tourists to Lisbon, which swirls most forcefully around the café, it is that many of them hear for the first time about Pessoa.) And every summer for the last nine years the city has hosted a literary program whose name is derived from his most famous work.

*

In the late afternoon I joined a small group outside the Centro Nacional de Cultura, the headquarters of the Disquiet program, on Rua António Maria Cardoso. It was made up primarily of Americans, most of them young, many in MFA programs back home. Carl Hiaasen once explained crime in South Florida by asking: If you’re a car thief, would you rather be a car thief in Detroit or a car thief in Miami? Similarly, I thought: If you’re a creative writing student, would you rather be a creative writing student in Syracuse or a creative writing student in Lisbon? Even if it’s only for two weeks.

We were soon joined by Francisco Vilhena, a soft-spoken, soft-bearded editor at Granta who had grown up in Lisbon. He explained that the street we were standing on had housed, along with the National Cultural Center, the offices of the secret police in the years of the dictatorship. During the revolution on April 25, 1974, four people were killed “at the end of this street.” Our literary walking tour was starting out on a political note.

“In Portugal we say to have a complete life you must do three things: plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. I must write a book.”

We made our way up the street to Praça Luís de Camões, with its columned statue of the author of Os Lusíadas, and then walked down to the less elevated statue of his less renowned contemporary, António Ribeiro (the universal fate of satirists). This put us on Rua Garrett, named for the 19th-century writer Almeida Garrett, and opposite A Brasileira, the Art Nouveau café where Pessoa and other writers, artists and intellectuals met—and Pessoa now resides into perpetuity. This public patch of literary remembrance (perhaps the world’s densest) is further distinguished by being a perfect urban space, with streetcars, plazas, churches, cafes, and—the master stroke—black-and-white mosaics underfoot connecting the statuary.

As we headed down to Baixa, weaving past the summer tourists, I struck up a conversation with Maria, an actor and writer who had returned to Portugal after living most of her life abroad. She was taking one of the fiction workshops.

Vilhena halted us in front of Café Gelo, another historic watering hole, and read an erotic poem in Portuguese. A man in bifocals sidled up behind him, listened for a few seconds, and then nodded his head in approval before moving on.

Strolling the length of the Praça do Rossio, I noted how the wavy patterns of the paving stones made the surface look three-dimensional. “I never noticed it before,” said Maria. “But I don’t come here very often.”

We marched south to Martinho da Arcada, bypassing Rua dos Douradores, the address of an office that appears periodically in The Book of Disquiet. Then we headed east to Casa dos Bicos, which Vilhena translated as “the spikey house.” The façade was studded with rows of diamond-shaped protrusions, which gave the place a slightly fortified look. It had survived the Great Earthquake of 1755 and was now home to the Fundação José Saramago.

“He didn’t live here, did he?” I asked Maria.

“No,” she said, somewhat surprised. “He was a communist.”

*

The next day I returned to the Casa dos Bicos for a Disquiet panel on travel writing. It was a strange experience participating in an event I was writing about, but the confusion of roles, the mixing of identities, had a certain Pessoan quality, for in his work Pessoa created a number of “heteronyms,” which differed from pseudonyms by being invented characters as opposed to just names. The most famous—the “author” of The Book of Disquiet, and the “clerk” who worked on Rua dos Douradores—was Bernardo Soares.

*

In the evening I took an Uber with David to a reading in Lapa. At 71, David was the oldest student in the Disquiet program, and the most loyal, having attended every year since its inception. He had met the director, Jeff Parker, when Parker had helped run Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. A Florida friend, David is a talented and fearless writer, regularly submitting his work to the critiques of students nearly half a century younger than he is.

Our driver took us past villas and embassies before coming to a stop in front of the royal fuchsia building of the Luso-American Development Foundation. Inside, three writers sat before an audience of about 25 students and staff.

The special quality of light in Lisbon is due not just to the reflections from the river, the wide-flowing Tagus as it nears the ocean, but also those off the city’s tiles.

The first, Chris Feliciano Arnold, read about traveling from Oregon to Brazil to meet his birth mother. The second, Jarita Davis, read poems about the Cape Verdean experience in the United States. The third, Afonso Reis Cabral, prefaced his reading by saying “How wonderful it is to see American writers interested in Portugal.”

During the Q&A, Parker asked them all what kinds of things they were seeing in the workshops.

“A lot of intimacy,” Arnold said, “and honesty, and risk taking—in the forms they’re using to tell their stories.”

There was agreement between the Americans that the diaspora community was “making connections between places” and that, while they were “not all hitting the same note,” there was a certain harmonization.

Asked about trends in contemporary Portuguese fiction, Reis Cabral answered quickly, “writing in first person.” He added that there was a new sense that writing is something that can be learned. “Here we used to think it was just a gift. You have it, the other person doesn’t. Let it be.”

Leaving, I told David that Isaac Bashevis Singer, after taking a job teaching writing at the University of Miami, was asked by a friend what he was doing at the school. “I am teaching,” Singer replied, “that which cannot be taught.”

“I was in his class,” David said. “The first day he walked into the room and put his hat on his chair. Then he sat on it.”

*

Thursday, before the afternoon panel on publishing at the Livraria Ferin, I looked for an interesting place for lunch. O Cerveirense, just down the street from the bookstore, had packed tables under a framed landscape in tiles, bustling waiters in white short-sleeved shirts, and a menu entirely in Portuguese. I stood inside the entrance for a few minutes, and then took a vacated seat at the bar. I ordered the item I had the least trouble translating—rice with octopus—and a beer that came in a tulip-shaped glass. (What I would later learn is called a “tulipa.”)

My neighbors at the bar looked like office workers who, I suspected, relished the fact that their favorite lunch spot had escaped infiltration from tourists. Until today. The thought soured a little my delight at having found the place. Travel writers, in their search for the authentic, make themselves even more out of place—and sometimes resented.

A deep crock of rice and tentacles appeared. After about the third forkful, a man two seats down passed a bottle of hot sauce my way. He watched with interest as I sprinkled the sauce over my plate and took my first bite, then he smiled with satisfaction as I gave a thumbs up. It was the latest in a catalog of small moments in Portugal (this was my fifth visit), moments that initially had made Pessoa a challenge. Instead of disquiet, I have always felt a sense of well-being in the country.

*

A large crowd sat under the low vaulted ceiling of the Livraria basement. Four editors, including Vilhena, sat at a table in the front, a wall of antique maps behind them.

John Hennessy, poetry editor of The Common, detailed what he looked for in a poem. The list was long and demanding enough to discourage any amateurs. Emily Nemens, editor of The Paris Review, stated that she wanted “ambitious, well-executed work.” Vilhena revealed that so far this year, Granta had received 8,000 submissions.

If you teach them, they will submit.

Pedro Mexia, director of Granta in the Portuguese language, described his publication as “a place where you can write what you couldn’t write elsewhere in Portugal.” He gave as an example the personal essay. “There is a lot of suspicion about these kinds of texts,” he explained. “Being too personal is a bit embarrassing. People who write personal essays are thought to be arrogant.”

“The first year,” she said, “when I heard English-speakers in the street, I assumed they were with Disquiet.”

This was interesting but not that surprising. The Portuguese had always impressed me as a modest and outward-looking people (often the case with citizens of small, understated countries), qualities that made traveling among them such a pleasure. But at the same time, I wondered if this dismissal of the personal was a reaction against Pessoa, a writer so self-reflective—“I think what creates in me the deep sense I have of living out of step with others is the fact that most people think with their feelings whereas I feel with my thoughts.”—that he needed to create a small army of alter egos to convey all his musings.

Or perhaps it was a safe way to avoid comparison.

The discussion moved into the practical realm of cover letters, and the infinitely relatable one of rejection.

“You have to get used to it right from the start,” Hennessy said about the latter. “An editor recently said to me, ‘John, there isn’t a poet in the country I haven’t rejected—and probably in the last year.’”

*

Afterwards, a fellow travel writing panelist and I walked with Scott Laughlin, co-founder of Disquiet, to Café No Chiado. We took seats on the terrace and ordered a bottle of white wine. A yellow streetcar passed a few feet from our table. I thought of Henry James, who said the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.”

“See the sign?” Laughlin asked, looking at the spot on the wall where the name of the Centro Nacional de Cultura was displayed. “The café is part of the cultural center.” He noted that the acronyms for both are the same.

Laughlin wore a cloth cap, dark glasses, and brown-and-white designer stubble. He had first come to Lisbon in 2007, to help with the estate of Alberto de Lacerda, who had been his professor at Boston University and later his friend. While bearing a Pessoan name, the program is dedicated to the memory of Lacerda, a peripatetic writer who grew up in Mozambique and lived in Portugal (briefly during the Salazar years), England (where he worked for the BBC), Brazil, and the United States, teaching at the University of Texas before moving to Boston.

“He was not an academic,” Laughlin said, remembering his college days. “He was a poet. It was rare to get in a class with a writer.”

The desire to study with writers took Laughlin to Summer Literary Seminars in Russia, where he met Parker. When that program closed, Parker approached Dzanc Books about the possibility of creating a similar program in Lisbon. He had taken an interest in Luso-American literature and thought the program might serve as a forum for writers from the Luso diaspora. He contacted Laughlin, knowing of his Portuguese experience, and the two men pitched the idea to the Centro Nacional de Cultura.

“We wanted to show off Portuguese culture, which is now more on the map but back then was pretty unknown,” Laughlin said.

They also demonstrated a prescience with regard to American literature, getting Colson Whitehead to participate in the inaugural program in 2011. “Jeff is really good at identifying writers just before they make it big,” said Laughlin. “He’s like Jerry West—he has a great eye.”

*

That evening’s reading was held at the São Luiz Teatro Municipal, just down the street from the cultural center. The two authors, Jenny Offill and Jacinto Lucas Pires, looked a little forlorn sitting side-by-side on the bare stage dwarfed by a mural of a Herculean battle with a centaur. Yet they read with conviction, Offill from a new work that was very much in the vein of her last novel, Dept. of Speculation, a book that—with its short, journal-like entries—is a kind of modern-day Book of Disquiet, though written by a woman with a sense of humor and narrative. Her reading was followed by something Pessoa never heard: the applause of adoring students and fans.

*

On the last morning of the program I stopped by the Centro Nacional de Cultura and talked to Teresa Tamen, a slim woman with a warm smile and shoulder-length brown hair. As director of activities at the center, Tamen has been involved with Disquiet from the beginning.

“The first year,” she said, “when I heard English-speakers in the street, I assumed they were with Disquiet.” Such was the paucity of tourists in Lisbon, even as little as a decade ago.

That year there were 60 participants in the program, she told me; this year there were 110. They had been chosen from over a thousand applicants.

Tamen got up and walked me down a “secret” passageway that connects the center to the building behind it, showing me a workshop, a computer room, a library. Then we descended a staircase and emerged into the interior of Café No Chiado. Without stepping outside, we had moved from the organizing CNC to the refreshing CNC.

I thanked her for her time and made a dash up to Rua Garrett, and then down Nova do Almada, for I was late for David Leavitt’s Memoir & Nonfiction workshop.

“A lot of intimacy,” Arnold said, “and honesty, and risk taking—in the forms they’re using to tell their stories.”

A dozen students sat with the writer around a long table in the Livraria Ferin basement. (The Portuguese aversion to personal writing is alien to Americans.) One young woman was speaking at great length, and very articulately, about another’s story, while that woman listened with an expression of interest buoyed by an unwavering, beatific smile. When the analysis was over, Leavitt complimented the woman on the incisiveness of her points, and then added a few of his own. Other students voiced their own concerns and suggestions. The critiques were all made in a constructive, supportive fashion, with none of the meanness that one hears exists in some MFA programs. They were mostly about content and organization: what had been said—and what had not been said—and when it had been said, with little or nothing about how it had been said. Sentiments were questioned but never a word choice. (Except in the line edits, which Leavitt had sent me.) I agreed with him that “one of the hardest parts of writing is logistics,” but listening to the students, I missed a Jamesian sensitivity to language.

*

At the break I excused myself and headed off to a rendezvous at The Pessoa. The door on Rua da Trindade opened to reveal a tall, middle-aged man in jeans and blue-and-white striped dress shirt, the tail untucked. He introduced himself as Enrique Martinho and motioned for me to have a seat, while he plopped down in the row of red chairs that looked to have been salvaged from a movie theater. Pessoa, in a red bow tie, sat facing the door.

“It’s made from paper,” Martinho said of the sculpture, meaning I believe papier-mâché, “and ink. Layers of ink.” The clothes, he said, were real. Above the figure hung a poster that carried a line of Pessoa’s superimposed over a photo of Pessoa: “I’d woken up early, and I took a long time getting ready to exist.”

Martinho lived in the nearby Bairro Alto and had purchased this building a few years earlier. An Internet search of the address revealed that Pessoa had rented a room here in his early twenties. At one point, the offices of his cousin’s mining company had been housed in the building, so it’s possible, Martinho said, that Pessoa not only lived here but worked here, though probably not simultaneously.

“I thought he worked on Rua dos Douradores,” I said.

“That was Bernardo Soares,” Martinho corrected me, with a knowing look.

He handed me a 100-escudo bill, with a picture of Pessoa on the front, and explained that the play money got his guests breakfast at the café next door. “I want tourists to come to the guesthouse and learn about Lisbon—and also Pessoa.”

We left the lobby to look at the rooms, each of which was named for a Pessoa heteronym. The décor was somewhat surrealistic; I kept wanting to bend down and pick up the typewritten pages that had been glued and then laminated onto the floor. In the common room, overlooking the sunlit Largo do Carmo, an armless female mannequin stood wearing only a hat.

The atmosphere turned retro outside the Office, the room believed to have been Pessoa’s: a Royal 10 typewriter sat on a small wooden desk; two black hats hung on hooks fastened to wood frames on the smoked glass walls. The attention to detail was worthy of a museum. (The room is now available to guests, the only one in the place that comes with a bathroom.)

He handed me a 100-escudo bill, with a picture of Pessoa on the front, and explained that the play money got his guests breakfast at the café next door.

Martinho said he had read Pessoa in school but didn’t really get interested in him until he discovered this building. Now, thanks to Google Alert, he keeps track of every Pessoa-related development in the world. On his smartphone he called up an article by Adam Kirsch, from the September 4, 2017 issue of The New Yorker, and recommended I read it.

We made our way back to the believe-it-or-not lobby, where more typewritten pages decorated the pink-and-black checkerboard floor. I asked Martinho about his next act.

“In Portugal we say to have a complete life you must do three things: plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. I must write a book.” He said this in a voice that didn’t inspire confidence.

Leaving, I stopped by the poster on the wall outside and read the quote about The Book of Disquiet (from John Lanchester of the Daily Telegraph): “In a time which celebrates fame, success, stupidity, convenience and noise, here is the perfect antidote.”

*

I took an Uber to Lapa, my driver a jovial engineering student from Iran, and met my friend Ana at the Cristal cafe. We caught up on news, and then she told me something I had never heard: That the special quality of light in Lisbon is due not just to the reflections from the river, the wide-flowing Tagus as it nears the ocean, but also those off the city’s tiles.

The observation of a fine art restorer.

Ana walked me to the Luso-American Development Foundation, we said our goodbyes, and I sauntered into the Disquiet farewell reception, which was taking place in the garden. People chatted in the late afternoon sunshine, a palm tree feathered the cloudless sky, and, far below, the Tagus appeared as a deep blue band. Sipping my wine, I thought of the reminder Leavitt had given his students—“There is the lonely, solitary work,” he had said, “that makes your back hurt and makes you frustrated”—and of how, because of that truth, gatherings of writers can be a bright tonic.

Thomas Swick
Thomas Swick
Thomas Swick is the author of three books, the most recent being The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has appeared in six editions of The Best American Travel Writing.





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