The Literary Games of Fernando Pessoa

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The Literary Games of Fernando Pessoa


If ever a writer was fated to bear a particular name, it was Fernando Pessoa. In Portuguese the word pessoa means “person”; in Latin it means “mask” or “character.” Pessoa spent his life adopting personas, masks, and characters from almost the moment he began his writing career. These alternative personalities were still Pessoa, even when he signed his works under a pseudonym. Many of his alter egos were poets like himself, although only a few were Portuguese. One was an anti-Fascist Italian critic, another a psychiatrist, a third studied engineering; the others included monks, an assistant bookkeeper, a 19-year-old hunchbacked girl who suffered from tuberculosis, a translator of Portuguese literature into English, an inventor and solver of riddles, a French satirist, a toga-wearing lunatic obsessed with Greece who lived in an asylum, and even a Voodooist. As Pessoa explained in 1928, “Pseudonymous works are by the author in his own person, except in the name he signs.” His works were what he called “heteronymous”; they were “by the author” but “outside of his own person. They proceed from a full-fledged individual created by him, like the lines spoken by a character in a drama he might write.” Pessoa’s heteronyms were people with birthdays and deathdays; they had the whole gestalt—passions, fears, dreams, and clearly traced literary paths. As for him, he was a fingidor: a feigner, a pretender, an impostor who believed he could do “more in dreams than Napoleon.”

Did Pessoa truly control his alter egos? Or did his creations, in fact, control him? The layers of identities and personalities that make up Pessoa’s writing career are what draw readers in, and yet they also make it hard at times to have a sense of who he was and what kind of writer he aspired to be. The mystery of Pessoa is at the center of Richard Zenith’s magnanimous new biography, which charts the author’s life as well as the many lives he “performed” as he indulged in repeated “projections, spin-offs, or metamorphoses.” Should we take seriously Pessoa’s claim, which Zenith invites us to question, that “he had no personality of his own, that he was just a ‘medium’ for the many writers who welled up in him and whom he served as ‘literary executor’”? Or, Zenith asks, should we see all of these eccentric scribblers as manifestations of Pessoa and the writer he sought to be—a true “they” inhabiting the “he”?

While scores of writers, from William Butler Yeats to Jorge Luis Borges, used pseudonyms or noms de plume, or else made writers their protagonists or created characters that were manifestations of their alternative personalities, very few have done so to such a degree as Pessoa. His most developed heteronyms were Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos, followed by dozens of others like Raphael Baldaya, Vicente Guedes, William Jinks, Devid Merrick, António Mora, Dr. Gaudêncio Nabos, Frederico Reis, Alexander Search, Bernardo Soares, Baron of Teive, António Mora, and Maria José. (Only the last of these was female.) Some wrote in Portuguese, while others delivered their poems, stories, philosophical studies, linguistic theories, self-analysis, automatic writing, or astrological charts in English or French.

It is no secret that Pessoa’s work and that of his fictional writing partners are uneven. Some of his poems are superb. As a prose writer, he can write in a style that is luminous and hypnotizing, but not always. Part of the strangeness of Pessoa’s career is that very few of his writings were published while he was alive. Only one of his books of Portuguese poetry, Mensagem, was published during his lifetime, even if he published much of his English-language poems in chapbooks. His magnum opus, The Book of Disquiet, was published posthumously in 1982 and comprises a galaxy of existential vignettes; Pessoa had left the manuscript in a state of disorder, which was likely not an accident. “To say that this is a book for which no definitive edition is possible,” observes Zenith, who translated it in 2015, “would be a flagrant understatement were it not a conceptually erroneous statement, since there is no ur-book begging for definition.” Instead, what Pessoa had produced was “a quintessential non-book: a large but uncertain quantity of discreet, mostly undated texts left in no sequential order, such that every published edition—inevitably depending on massive editorial intervention—is necessarily untrue to the nonexistent ‘original.’” The same could be said of much of Pessoa’s work, whether poems, stories, philosophical essays, or works of fiction.

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