Poetic injustice

Unlike sporting heroes, great writers like Patrick White and Portugal's Fernando Pessoa leave behind little in the way of memorabilia. Their magnificent ideas are their legacy, writes Jorge Sitorios


Belem's imposing Cultural Centre is 15 minutes by rickety tram from the heart of Lisbon. Its roomy concert halls and extensive art galleries give some idea of high culture's importance to the nation. Completed in 1992, the centre is a showcase of Portugal's renewed spirit, blending the modern with the traditional, capitalising on the city's extensive cultural capital.

Recently, it hosted a much-anticipated auction. The archive of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa brought out the cognoscenti, media, smart investors and IT personnel to bid online for his estate. All done under the watchful eye of Pessoa's youngest heir, a niece in her late 70s.

The 70 items on offer, displayed in a glossy brochure, included poems written on a clunky typewriter, an illustrated horoscope, a lease to Pessoa's apartment in the heart of historic Lisbon, letters to occultist Aleister Crowley, even the odd "military exemption" form. Handled by white-gloved assistants, prices soared. The famous mahogany trunk with "turned wooden feet" which once contained 25,000 pages of Pessoa magic, including The Book of Disquiet, was going for a steal between 50,000 and 100,000 euros. About 140 of the poet's books and 2300 documents were up for grabs, and from what I could tell, they went quickly.

As with any auction, competing interests were at stake. A tug of war ensued between Lisbon City Council and the Portuguese Government with both aiming "to safeguard the nation's cultural patrimony". Added to this tussle was legal wrangling between the heir and the Portuguese National Library. Should the nation be the custodian of the original documents or would the heir allow photocopies only, to gain a better price from her uncle's legacy?

Pessoa might have been amused at the fuss. Misunderstood, maligned and unappreciated in life, a gracious nation now exploits his name. His death in 1935 went largely unnoticed. But over time, Pessoa became a brand and commodity. Photographs selling for between 10 and 100 euros depicted a slight figure, with books under his arm walking on cobblestone streets. He had a bohemian air, mixed with that of a humdrum clerk.

It is interesting that Pessoa should be so esteemed. His bow-tied statue outside the Art Deco Café Brasileira is polished to perfection daily. But think of other celebrated poet-clerks: Cavafy in Alexandria and Kafka in Prague, whose homes have been preserved as shrines to creativity. Then there is Patrick White.

Ever since reading White's Flaws in the Glass, I have been intrigued by his Sydney home. White, Australia's only Nobel Laureate in Literature, wrote about "Highbury", his 1914 bungalow at Martin Road, which possessed large rooms, a double garage and bricked up fireplaces. You wouldn't know it today, but leafy Centennial Park was once an unfashionable address. In 1964, White bought the house for £17,500. Forty years later, it fetched $3.5 million. But it's not just the price that is shocking. The big question is why it was sold at all.

After White's death in September 1990, his partner, Manoly Lascaris, believed he would inherit the bungalow. That didn't turn out to be the case. White's estate, valued at $6.5 million in 1990, was not left to his widower. After Lascaris' death in 2003, the property and its furnishings were sold off and the proceeds dispersed among White's beneficiaries, including the Art Gallery of NSW, the State Library, the Smith Family and NAISDA Dance College. The NSW Government, University of NSW and Historic Houses Trust were all keen to maintain an ongoing role for the house, transforming it into a museum and writers' retreat. However, the political will failed when the NSW government decided to revoke its earlier decision, withdrawing funds in 2004.

White wrote his later novels at Martin Road. If preserved, devotees could have absorbed the sound of cicadas and crickets and the scent of jasmine, grasping the creative and contemplative ambience that inspired White's writing. Even the interior furnishings were sold off. Historic Houses Trust director Peter Watts recalls paraphernalia tossed aside at the auction: suitcases from the time White travelled overseas, tickets stubs from the 1940s, even pot plants from the decaying garden.

One can visit Martin Road today and sense what might have been. But if we rationalise the loss, we would have to admit that White and Centennial Park are part of a bigger picture. It was, after all, in Castle Hill at "Dogswoods", where White penned his masterpieces Voss and The Tree of Man. And why should White be especially privileged? Where are the tributes to Christina Stead's home in Hurstville, Kenneth Slessor's in Kings Cross or Henry Lawson's "seedy cottage" in Abbotsford?

Writers leave behind little of the shaman's magic. Pens, paper and desk are banal placed beside artists' brushes or sporting heroes' baggy greens. And one can't imagine any writer worth their ink wanting government-built memorials, or corporate sponsors promoting their work. Writers should not be easily co-opted. Remaining a thorn in the side of the system is not a bad legacy.

Whether Pessoa or White, one thing they would agree on is that the library is the writer's true memorial.