When the ever elusive Fernando Pessoa died in Lisbon, in the fall of 1935, few people in Portugal realized what a great writer they had lost. None of them had any idea what the world was going to gain: one of the richest and strangest bodies of literature produced in the twentieth century. Although Pessoa lived to write and aspired, like poets from Ovid to Walt Whitman, to literary immortality, he kept his ambitions in the closet, along with the larger part of his literary universe. He had published only one book of his Portuguese poetry, Mensagem (Message), with forty-four poems, in 1934. It won a dubious prize from António Salazar’s autocratic regime, for poetic works denoting “a lofty sense of nationalist exaltation,” and dominated his literary résumé at the time of his death.
Some of Pessoa’s admirers—other poets, mostly—were baffled by the publication of Message, whose mystical vision of Portugal’s history and destiny seemed to rise up out of nowhere. In periodicals he had published other, very different kinds of poems, over half of which were signed by one of three alter egos, all of whom came into being in 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The first to emerge was Alberto Caeiro, an unlettered but philosophically minded man who lived in a simple white house in the country, where he wrote free-verse poems proclaiming that things must be seen for what they are, without interpretation. Ricardo Reis, a trained medical doctor and an ardent classicist, composed Horace-inspired odes recommending stoical acceptance of whatever the gods give us. A third bundle of force and feeling took shape as Álvaro de Campos, a dandyish naval engineer who traveled around the world, was charmed by young men as easily as by women, aspired to live to the extreme, and signed unbridled poems that vented his exalted sensations but betrayed, at the same time, his melancholy awareness that life, no matter how intensely he lived it, was never enough. Campos, the most restless of the three alter egos, could not be contained by the poetry section of magazines and newspapers. In interviews, articles, manifestos, and letters to the editor, he commented on politics and culture with caustic brio and took special delight in contradicting the logically laid out opinions of Fernando Pessoa, whom he mocked for his “mania of supposing that things can be proven.”
Despite his assertive personality, Campos deferentially acknowledged Alberto Caeiro, the sublimely serene poet of nature, as his master. So did Dr. Reis. And so did Fernando Pessoa, who invented the prodigious trio, providing them all with biographies, individualized psychologies, religious and political points of view, and distinctive literary styles. Too radically different from him to be considered simple pseudonyms, as if only their names had changed, Pessoa called them “heteronyms,” and in a “Bibliographical Summary” of his works published in 1928 he explained the conceptual distinction: “Pseudonymous works are by the author in his own person, except in the name he signs; heteronymous works are by the author outside 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.”
Apart from his writer friends, hardly anyone had noticed the extraordinary diversity of Pessoa’s published poetry in Portuguese, most of which had appeared in literary journals with small print runs. And not even his friends, with one or two exceptions, had read his self-published chapbooks of poetry written in English. Pessoa, who was born in Lisbon in 1888 but spent nine years of his childhood and received most of his schooling in the British-governed town of Durban, South Africa, originally aspired to be an English poet, and his 35 Sonnets and Antinous: A Poem, both issued in 1918, garnered a favorable review in The Times Literary Supplement. The reviewer warned, however, that most English readers would deplore the subject matter of “Antinous,” in which the Emperor Hadrian fondly recalls the sensual love of his young male companion, who drowned in the Nile. The warning was unnecessary, since neither of the chapbooks was distributed in the United Kingdom, and they were ignored in Portugal, where the cultural elite read French, not English, as a second language.
Pessoa was also an occasional writer of literary criticism and opinion pieces on political and social issues. Quite a few people, at the time of his death, had never read any of his poems but knew his name very well, since he had caused a stir earlier that year with an audacious front-page article opposing a bill to ban Freemasonry, which Salazar’s puppet assembly would unanimously pass into law. And yet Pessoa, just one month before publishing his article, had won a government-sponsored prize for his book of “nationalist” poems. Whose side was he on? Nobody seemed to know for sure.
Even among his friends, whom he habitually met in Lisbon’s cafés, Pessoa, a resolute bachelor, was a bit of a mystery. He loved talking about literature, philosophy, politics, and religion, but about his personal life he was not forthcoming. Rarely did he invite anyone to his apartment, where he was rumored to have a large wooden trunk full of hundreds, maybe thousands, of unpublished poems and prose pieces.
The trunk indeed existed, and some ten years after Pessoa’s death more than three hundred of the poems it contained found their way into a handsome edition of his poetry, with separate volumes for Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Since each of the three heteronyms boasted a large and exquisite body of work stylistically unlike the poetry of his fellow heteronyms or of Pessoa himself, one could say that Portugal’s four greatest poets from the twentieth century were Fernando Pessoa. But while some people were duly impressed by Pessoa’s feat of poetic self-division, or self-multiplication, his work was still not widely read. And the superabundant poet was a more mysterious figure than ever. Pessoa’s last name happens to be the Portuguese word for “person,” but there seemed to be no person there, just poems and personae.
A vivid picture of Pessoa the man finally materialized in 1950, in Portuguese, with the publication of a seven-hundred-page biography by João Gaspar Simões, a critic and former co-editor of the magazine Presença, where Pessoa had published several of his greatest poems, including “The Tobacco Shop” and “Autopsychography.” Gaspar Simões’s undertaking took readers by surprise, for it was still not clear to most of them that the poet merited such attention. In the book they learned for the first time about Pessoa’s turbulent childhood, marked by the deaths of his father and little brother, his mother’s second marriage, and the years he spent in South Africa; about his aborted career as a college student in Lisbon, his failed attempt to start a publishing house, and his freelance work drafting business correspondence in English and French; about his only sweetheart, Ophelia Queiroz, a secretary at one of the offices where he worked; about his interest in the occult and his meeting with Aleister Crowley, an English magus reviled in his home country as a minister of Satan; and about his literary life and friends.
Gaspar Simões also discussed Pessoa’s literary work, viewing it through a Freudian lens, and devoted separate chapters to each of the three heteronyms. Despite admiring their poetry, he deemed them symptomatic of the author’s inability or unwillingness to concentrate his entire self in the act of writing. The heteronyms, in his view, were a kind of subterfuge, or a gimmick. Ingenious instruments for producing some undeniably seductive literature, they were ultimately a sign of the author’s limitations. Perhaps this is a defensible thesis, but if the heteronyms were a gimmick, then Pessoa’s very personality was defined by gimmickry. What the poet lacked was not concentration but any notion of a cohesive, unified self. This was the “problem,” of which his heteronyms were the most glaring evidence.
After Rimbaud famously and ungrammatically announced “Je est un autre” (“I is another”), he went on to compare himself, a still emerging poet, to a piece of wood transformed by destiny into a violin. Fernando Pessoa, who might have said “I are many others,” described himself as a “secret orchestra” made up of numerous instruments—strings, harps, cymbals, drums. The history of literature contains some faint parallels to his performance of multiple authorship. William Butler Yeats created Michael Robartes and Owen Hearne, a duo of “collaborators” with contrasting personalities. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875–1939) also signed some of his poems and prose pieces with the names of two alter egos: Juan de Mairena and Abel Martín, who was Mairena’s “master.” But no writer can rival Pessoa’s achievement of configuring, through his heteronyms, radically different poetic and philosophical attitudes that formed a glorious if not always harmonious musical ensemble.
Pessoa’s first biographer had not dug deeply or thoroughly into the famous trunk, which is understandable, since to do so would have taken him the rest of his life, and he wasn’t wealthy, he needed to earn a living. Some of the more than 25,000 papers left by Pessoa—most of which are now at the National Library of Portugal—were well organized and neatly written or typed, but many others were taken up by half-formed, fragmentary, or hard-to-decipher texts. Pessoa was a volcanic writer, and when the words started flowing, he used whatever sort of paper was close to hand—loose sheets, notebook paper, stationery from the cafés he frequented, pages ripped from agendas or calendars, the backs of comic strips and flyers, book jackets, calling cards, envelopes, and the margins of manuscripts drafted a few days or a few years earlier. All of which he deposited in the large wooden trunk, his legacy to the world. It would take decades of dedicated labor by scholars and librarians for that textual trove to be inventoried and extensively published, astonishing us with its quantity, quality, and heterogeneity. Besides his many poems, his plays, short stories, and detective fiction, Pessoa produced translations, political commentary, history texts, sociological treatises, philosophical studies, linguistic theory, economic theory, essays on religion and on psychology, self-analyses, automatic writing, and hundreds of astrological charts.
No writer can rival Pessoa’s achievement of configuring radically different poetic and philosophical attitudes that formed a glorious if not always harmonious musical ensemble.
Even more startling than the copious writings exhumed from the trunk were the dozens of unknown alter egos who, after lurking there for years, suddenly stepped into the world as if awakened from an enchanted sleep. Some of them, such as the long-bearded astrologer and esoteric philosopher named Raphael Baldaya, were only hazily defined. Others, like the ultrarational Baron of Teive, whose insistence on living solely according to reason led him to commit suicide, were endowed with complex psychologies. Baldaya wrote a number of pages for pamphlets and treatises on astrology. The Baron of Teive left a long, diarylike meditation on why he had decided to take his own life. And António Mora, a philosopher and apologist of neo-paganism, left hundreds of pages for several book-length but unfinished works. The writing projects of numerous other personae failed to move forward, or the personae were simply not created to be ambitious writers. Maria José, a pathetic hunchback dying of tuberculosis and the only female alias generated by Pessoa, was the author of a single impassioned love letter addressed to a handsome metalworker who passed by her window on his way to work each day. Most of the literary personalities wrote in Portuguese; some wrote in English; lonely Jean Seul de Méluret wrote in French. All of them were projections, spin-offs, or metamorphoses of Fernando Pessoa himself.
Or did they control and define him? Should we take seriously his claim 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”? Was he indeed “less real” than his alter egos, “less substantial, less personal, and easily influenced by them all”? The short and apparently obvious answer to these questions is no. But while it no doubt made Pessoa giggle a little to imagine how we, his future readers, would react to his provocative assertions about who he was or wasn’t, we cannot dismiss his self-partitioning into subsidiary personalities as a mere literary hoax. It was a game, yes, but one that began in early childhood—as soon as he began writing—and persisted with increased vigor into adolescence and adulthood.
And the game was not only about literature. Pessoa staked his very identity on the heteronymous system. In so doing, he not only acknowledged the unsteady nature of who he was; he embraced and embodied, through language, that unsteadiness. He was able to give verbal substance and contours to his sense of self without falsifying its inherent uncertainty, since the heteronyms—like particles in a quantum field—existed in dynamic tension with one another. Running sometimes in parallel though more often than not in different directions, they complemented and contradicted and competed with each other. Through their contrasting poetries and occasionally heated prose exchanges, the heteronyms were in continual dialogue—with one another and with their maker.
Should we take seriously his claim 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”?
If we include his childhood riddlers and humorists, Pessoa created more than one hundred fictitious authors in whose name he wrote or at least planned to write something. About thirty of these pseudo-authors signed at least one significant literary work, but there were only three full-fledged heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos. This is an important distinction, and yet Pessoa, in a letter to a poet and magazine editor, stated that his “first heteronym” was the Chevalier de Pas, an imaginary knight in whose name he wrote letters to himself when he was just six years old. Authorized by Pessoa’s example, I will also use the word “heteronym” rather loosely in the pages that follow.
More important than the terminology used to designate Pessoa’s coterie of invented writers is the phenomenon of splintered authorship, which we find reflected in the jagged and disjointed nature of his writing. Before he could finish one thing, he was already on to something else, and in the trail of his restless pen he left thousands of alternate wordings, which scholars call “variants,” and they debate among themselves about how these should be handled in published editions. In defiance of his undisciplined personality and writing habits, Pessoa managed to produce a substantial number of perfect poems and prose pieces, but this biography will just as often be quoting from the rubble of his fragmentary and half-finished works, which in their ensemble form a kind of literary Pompeii, concealing an untold number of curious ideas, luminous observations, and unexpected confessions waiting to be discovered. Much of Pessoa’s prose and a number of his unfinished poems, eighty-five years after his human life ceased, have yet to be transcribed and published.
Pessoa lamented the hesitation and incompletion that plagued so much of what he wrote, especially in his larger literary projects, but all he could do was keep writing. In notes recorded in English when he was twenty-one years old, he remarks on his instinctive hatred “for decisive acts, for definite thoughts.” As soon as anything crosses his mind, “ten thousand thoughts and ten thousand interassociations of those ten thousand thoughts arise, and I have no will to eliminate or to arrest them, nor to gather them into one central thought, where their unimportant but associated details might be lost.”
Pessoa’s most important prose work, The Book of Disquiet, magnificently illustrates the uncertainty principle that runs throughout his written universe. It is also the best example of the author’s ability to expand and surprise us in his afterlife. A semifictional diary consisting of some five hundred passages on diversified subjects and employing various stylistic and tonal registers, the inaugural edition in Portuguese was not published until 1982, forty-seven years after Pessoa’s death. It was based on about three hundred passages—typed, written, or quasi-illegibly scrawled on the most varied kinds of paper imaginable—that Pessoa himself had collected in a large envelope, as well as on dozens of additional passages that researchers ferreted out from his notoriously labyrinthine archives.
Subsequent editions, including my own, have added new material, but since the author did not always label his texts, editors disagree about what really belongs in The Book of Disquiet. Moreover, Pessoa left only vague and contradictory indications of how he might have ordered its contents, and the competing editions have arranged the passages in completely different ways. To say that this is a book for which no definitive edition is possible would be a flagrant understatement were it not a conceptually erroneous statement, since there is no ur-book begging for definition. What the author actually produced is a quintessential non-book: a large but uncertain quantity of discrete, 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.”
Pessoa lamented the hesitation and incompletion that plagued so much of what he wrote, especially in his larger literary projects, but all he could do was keep writing.
No other posthumous publication bearing the name of Fernando Pessoa has caused more of a sensation, radically altering our critical perception of this author and his place in the literary and cultural landscape of the twentieth century. Like much of his poetry but more directly so, The Book of Disquiet speaks to us with disarming candor about the most secret human thoughts and feelings. The courageous speaker is Bernardo Soares, the book’s purported author, whom Pessoa dubbed a “semiheteronym”—a variation on his own personality. But as we read the work, it almost seems that Fernando Pessoa, and even we ourselves, are variations on this invented self, who expresses with uncanny precision our unuttered feelings of disquiet and existential unsettledness, speaking not only to us but also for us. “The only way to be in agreement with life is to disagree with ourselves,” observes Bernardo Soares, who refuses to adapt to the world. He also, thankfully, refuses to indulge in self-pity, and he even jokes, a little grimly, about his condition: “I’m suffering from a headache and the universe.”
The Book of Disquiet bears comparison with another weirdly wonderful book of the twentieth century: Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, an unfinished novel whose first volume was published in 1930. Both of these unlikely masterpieces are powered by ideas rather than plot, and both of their respective protagonists are meticulous observers who lack the requisite willpower to be men of action. The nature of their passivity differs, however. “The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides,” quips Bernardo Soares, and it is the sort of comment that quality-deficient Ulrich might also make, but Musil’s antihero wants to be a great man, if he could only decide what a great man is, and his passivity is a function of his dithering. It is as if he and his many thoughts were forever waiting, in an antechamber whose name is Hesitation, for real and decisive life to begin. His reveries are a stumbling block. Soares, though a more solitary and melancholy figure, is self-satisfied and experiences moments of considerable euphoria. He is actively, militantly passive. Dreaming is not a vice that hinders him from accomplishing his goals; dreaming is what he lives for, and he organizes his existence accordingly. “Dreaming” includes the imaginative world of writing and also the spiritual imagination.
Ulrich and Bernardo Soares are equally ill suited to the task of living in modern society, but the Austrian mathematician makes some attempt to connect and to be someone in the real world. For Soares, an assistant bookkeeper by trade, not only would any such attempt be futile, it would be misguided. Reality, to his way of thinking, is what we imaginatively make of it. If external circumstances shape and determine Ulrich, they are mere fuel for the real life—the thinking and dreaming life—of Bernardo Soares and his progenitor, Fernando Pessoa. Far from being a lost soul in search of qualities that would define him, Pessoa, like his semiheteronym, was an abundance of qualities that did not cohere and would not settle into just one soul.
Excerpted from Pessoa: A Biography. Copyright (c) 2021 by Richard Zenith. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.