Pessoa: An Experimental Life
Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 2021, 1,088pp, £40
For a small country, Portugal has many major claims to fame – medieval navigations, rich imperial history, the Lisbon Earthquake, sweetly-melancholic fado folk-music, and, of course, port-wine. We hear less about Portuguese poetry, despite practitioners ranging from Lusiads author Luis Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580) to PEN-prize winning Luis Quintais (born 1968). Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) added more to this littoral literature than most, writing so well under four noms-de-plume, and in four different styles, that Richard Zenith concludes, “One could say that Portugal’s four greatest poets from the twentieth century were Fernando Pessoa.”
Pessoa was reserved in demeanour, respectably bespectacled and bow-tied, known to his friends as an elegant, if little published, writer on culture and current affairs. It was only after he died it was realised how prolific he had been, when a trunk was discovered containing, among much else, hundreds of never-published poems, under his own name, but also the heteronyms Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos.
Pessoa relished mystification. He used almost a hundred noms-de-plume, many with fictional back-stories, for endlessly diverse articles, often arguing with his other avatars. This makes his career complicated to follow, and any unifying style difficult to distinguish. Pessoa means ‘person’, but it can be difficult to identify any individual at all amongst all his alter-egos.
He also left things unfinished, bedevilled by alcoholism, indecision, self-doubt, and superstition – his tense type summed up in the title of the work by which he is best known to Anglophone audiences, The Book of Disquiet (1982, written under the name of ‘Bernardo Soares’). “I’m suffering from a headache and the universe”, was one of his most famous lines. He never married, probably died a virgin, and was furthermore “fanatically private” (Zenith), all of which makes this compendious biography all the more impressive.
Pessoa claimed aristocratic and Jewish antecedents. Although nominally Catholic, he was interested in occultism, and escorted Aleister Crowley around Lisbon. Happily, his parents encouraged their delicate offspring’s precocious interest in literature. Between 1893 and 1905, the family lived in Durban, where Pessoa became fluent in English.
Although later often reactionary, he wrote revolutionary poems in his teens, while ‘Álvaro de Campos’ was Portugal’s first Futurist. Although he supported the republic, he wanted it to be elitist, and radicals came to assault him. Although generally supportive of Salazar, even being awarded a government prize for poetry of “nationalist exaltation”, he also celebrated rootlessness, and defended persecuted Freemasons and homosexuals. All his life he experimented and explored, a Magellan of the mind. Anglophones are lucky this endlessly inventive bundle of anomalies has now found so assiduous an analyst, revealing a too little-known writer in whose Angst and irony we can see so many aspects of ourselves.
This review first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission