Pessoa: An Experimental Life

Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 2021, 1,088pp, £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS applauds a comprehensive study of a complicated writer

If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity.

Pessoa claimed to be descended of ‘a mixture of aristocrats and Jews’ although neither predominated nor were proximate to him. His family was largely agnostic (or non-practising) Catholics, more devoted to music than God, who earned a living serving the state. His maternal grandfather was a civil servant and his paternal grandfather was a senior general. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa (1850-1893), the poet’s father, was a civil servant. He was an opera fanatic and (anonymously) wrote music criticism for a newspaper. In 1887, he wed Maria Madalena Nogueira (1861-1925), the Azorean-born daughter of a civil servant. She was intelligent, well-educated and a keen reader.

Fernando António Noguiera Pessoa (1888-1935) was born on 13 June 1888, in Lisbon. He was delicate, introverted and passionate about literature. He was a voracious reader and writer at a young age. He was encouraged by his cultured family. In 1893, his father died of tuberculosis. The following year, Pessoa’s infant brother died of a fever. In 1895, the widow Pessoa married João Miguel Rosa, another civil servant, this one a diplomat.

Rosa was appointed Portuguese Consul in Durban, South Africa; his new wife and stepson followed in 1896. They would stay (increasing the family with three surviving children) until 1905. They lived through the Boer War and saw rural refugees camped in Durban’s public spaces and outskirts. Pessoa’s schooling and first year of university were in English. The young Pessoa won prizes for English. Winning the Queen Victoria Memorial Prize in 1903 for an original essay (beating 898 other entrants) was one of his proudest achievements, something he cherished until his death. Although Pessoa’s English was fluent, it was unidiomatic and airy, influenced by his reading of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and the bookish Pessoa spent more time reading Carlyle and Keats than bantering on the school playing fields. Pessoa would use his English to good effect in later life and wrote verse and prose in both English and Portuguese.   

II

‘I am astounded whenever I finish anything. Astounded and distressed.’

– Pessoa writing as Bernardo Soares

When he was an adolescent, Pessoa began his own newspaper for his family, filling it with fictional news, jokes and poems. The authors were numerous and all pseudonyms. Over his lifetime, Pessoa published under multiple names and wrote under others, over 100 in all. The degree to which he actually inhabited these ‘heteronyms’ is debatable. It seems to have freed him creatively and allowed him licence to intellectually position himself outside of his life experience. There is the question of whether or not these Borgesian alter egos were part of a meta-fiction, additional to the text. Pessoa stated that these were the real authors of his writings. Each had a distinct style and character. Pessoa published verse under pen names Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, as well as under his own name, plus others. Like Kafka, who is a useful point of comparison, Pessoa published a fair amount of creative writing and non-fiction prose during his lifetime, but left a sizeable unpublished legacy. In his lifetime, he was best known as a political and cultural commentator. Only in the last year of his life was his stature as a poet generally realised. His unpublished manuscripts were found in a wooden trunk after his death.

‘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.’

Pessoa – and his alter egos – submitted poems, stories and criticism to publications in Portugal and Great Britain. Hungry for success and recognition – hence the decision to often write in English – Pessoa was afflicted with chronic doubt, lapses of confidence and changes of heart. In this biography and editions of Pessoa’s writing, the adjectives ‘unfinished’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘fragmentary’ are commonplace. One could conclude that Pessoa’s use of heteronymic personae is a double-edged sword. It permitted him freedom to develop diverse and distinct bodies of writing but it left him without a core body of writings. The decision to write short texts also allowed him the opportunity to drop projects unfinished without too much investment. Without the impetus to write a novel and publish it, Pessoa could afford to bounce between ideas. His only substantial book published in his lifetime was one year before his death and consisted of poems. Pessoa may have been temperamentally unsuited to write a novel but his propensity to write short, often and under different identities exacerbated his weaknesses of prevarication and detachment. His trunk was filled with unfinished plays, poems, stories, translations and letters.  

‘The human author of these books has no personality of his own. Whenever he feels a personality well up inside, he quickly realizes that this new being, though similar, is distinct from him – an intellectual son, perhaps, with inherited characteristics, but also with differences that make him someone else.’

It is possible that – with regard to the legion of heteronyms – readers will experience alternating intrigue and boredom. When Zenith devotes paragraphs to investigating the recurring signature of ‘Gaveston’ – remarking that this is the sole case of an alter ego appearing persistently over time in Pessoa’s jotting without being credited with a single text – how is one supposed to react? It is curious but is it a matter for curiosity for anyone other than a scholar who has spent countless hours poring over Pessoa’s manuscripts? It is a true fact and (presumably) a new fact, but does it mean anything and do we care? The principal heteronyms have bodies of work attached, some of it now published in English, but discussion of peripheral heteronyms (associated with mere jumbled fragments, inaccessible to all except researchers) is more distracting than illuminating.

Zenith diligently hunts down seeds of heteronyms in the writings of past authors, great and forgotten alike. Pessoa’s favourite authors included Thomas Carlyle, Poe, Keats, Milton, Ruskin, Wilde and Baudelaire. A less obvious influence was Max Nordau’s Entartung (Degeneration) (1892), a book identifying and condemning degeneracy. According to this account, it was Nordau’s passages on mania and mental degeneration that fascinated Pessoa most. His grandmother had suffered from severe and atypical dementia, diagnosed as intermittent. He was worried that he too might come to be afflicted. (One also thinks here of Lovecraft’s narrators fearing for their sanity. Lovecraft lost his father to madness, albeit tertiary syphilis, with which Lovecraft himself was not infected.) ‘Pessoa’s fascination, it turns out, was restricted to the relationship that the writer posited between exceptional intellectual or creative activity and psychological deviation from the norm.’

‘It surprises us that Pessoa could have been so enthralled by Nordau – a fluent, effectual writer who was well read but intellectually rigid, priggishly moralistic, and aesthetically reactionary.’

Not at all. Just as Zenith points out that Pessoa had to wait until the end of the twentieth century for a receptive audience for his meta-textually ludic fiction; so Zenith should not be surprised that Pessoa then and others now search for the link between (on one hand) decadence, social atomisation and destruction of tradition and (on the other) liberalism, progressivism and materialism. Pessoa himself was not a traditionalist, but he was eager to understand the causes of social and personal decline. Nordau, Otto Weininger, Herbert Spencer, (later) Oswald Spengler and others advanced ideas that vary in insight and plausibility, but any intelligent open mind would have found such material to be thought-provoking, even if ultimately it disfavoured those authors’ conclusions. Decadence is appealing to vanguardists and the elite but it has characteristics of both pathology and poison.  

Images from NCultura.pt, with acknowledgements – https://ncultura.pt/15-fantasticas-curiosidades-sobre-fernando-pessoa/

III

Pessoa used his inheritance to establish Ibis Press in 1909, which would be a commercial printer but also published advanced literature (including Pessoa’s books). It folded almost immediately, due to debt and tough competition. He burned through his inheritance accrued debt in under a year. This put him at odds with his family, then still in South Africa, especially when he requested they pay off his debts whilst at the same time refusing to get a job. The most he would do was provide translations of poems for a giant library of world classics in Portuguese.

In 1914 Pessoa wrote as Álvaro de Campos, Portugal’s first Futurist poet. With author-friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa would act as shadow editor for the avant-garde literary journal Opheu. The journal was published in 1915 and lasted only two issues. Influenced by the Futurist Manifestoes and the British Vorticist Blast, Orpheu caused a sensation. Its radical sensibilities, taboo subject matter (sex) and Cubist collages, ignited debate in Portuguese cultural circles. Who were these madmen? At least three of them were Pessoa. Sá-Carneiro fled to Paris, where he committed suicide after a period of debauchery.  

Pessoa described himself as elitist, nationalist, imperialist (Portugal at this time still had a substantial empire) and (nominally) a republican, although one disillusioned with the corruption of the republican government established in 1910. He antagonised republicans in a newspaper letter and he had to evade a gang that came to assault him. It was one of the few physical escapades of this normally timid man. He was unenthusiastic about the Great War and critical of Portugal’s entrance into direct hostilities against the Central Powers on the continent, reasoning that war in France against the Germans did not contribute to protecting and ruling colonies in Africa. Pessoa’s unformed aspiration was the foundation of an aristocratic republic of Portugal, led by great men. He himself had no political aspirations. Zenith never mentions Pessoa delivering a public speech or broadcast.

At this time, Pessoa became involved with esoterica, mysticism, magic and spirit reading, all complementing an established commitment to astrological predictions. He was in the habit of gauging planetary alignments when submitting manuscripts to London publishers. The publishers were uniformly unreceptive to his submissions and proposals, though his chapbooks of poems won praise for the author’s accomplishment. He dabbled in secret societies, but (as a lover of mystery stories) Pessoa seemed more stimulated by the intrigue than the reality.

In 1930, Pessoa was Aleister Crowley’s companion on a visit to Lisbon. Pessoa, a native of Lisbon, steeped in occult knowledge and fluent in Portuguese and English, was the ideal choice. Crowley’s reputation as an indefatigable fornicator, Satanist and drug fiend put Pessoa on edge before Crowley’s arrival by ship. Crowley wanted Pessoa to head the Portuguese chapter of his spiritualist society; Pessoa wanted Crowley to publish his writings in England. They both assumed the other was richer than he actually was, which entailed mutual disappointment. Crowley departed after staging a hoax suicide, which Pessoa partially corroborated. This is one of the most amusing passages in a biography that makes an intelligent and lively read.

IV

‘I’m suffering from a headache and the universe.’

– Pessoa

In 1919, Pessoa started work at an import-export firm, using his knowledge of English and French. This was where (in 1920) he met the only woman he courted, Ophelia Queiroz.

Pessoa was averse to sexual intimacy. There is plenty of evidence in Pessoa’s writings of sexual attraction but also physical repulsion, perhaps linked to venereal disease. Love arises in the poems in an abstracted sense, derived from his reading. Zenith has good reason for assuming Pessoa died a virgin. Zenith also finds ample examples of misogyny in Pessoa’s writing and marginalia, provoked by fear (and disgust) regarding female libido. There are a number of sensitive and passionate homoerotic love poems ascribed to heteronyms, though Zenith (and others) do not believe this ever translated into carnal fulfilment.   

Ophelia was nineteen years old and employed to act as a secretary. Pessoa was thirty-two but youthfully unattached, respected by colleagues as a great poet yet one unaccountably unrewarded. She was strongly attracted to Pessoa. Pessoa kindled to the affection and they carried on a romance of trysts, walks and love letters. It was imbalanced, with Ophelia taking the lead and wanting commitment. Pessoa was too detached and cautious for the relationship to develop straightforwardly. Unusually for Pessoa, their letters survive and are quoted in this account. Ophelia is insistent and puzzled by Pessoa’s reticence. Pessoa is playful and affectionate but unwilling to translate that into an engagement. (Him writing as his heteronyms was an augury of a poor outcome.) The impasse led to estrangement, though they did resume writing over the period 1929-30. By temperament and choice, Pessoa was determined to remain unencumbered by the emotional or domestic burden of partnership. Ophelia married the year after the poet’s death.

Pessoa’s apparent support for homosexual men as men and as writers comes as no surprise considering the poems he wrote. Even if Pessoa was not himself homosexual, he displays empathy and must have gained some pleasure from imagining himself as a homosexual poet, modelled on Walt Whitman. He publicly defended two homosexual writers whose work was banned. This attitude aligns with the idea of an aristocratic elite heading a nation founded on excellence and spurning the distractions of materialistic progress. In Pessoa’s vague imaginings, it was priest-scholars rather than Spartan warriors. Women in politics was anathema to him.

In 1921, Pessoa planned to publish The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Portuguese. He did not do so. Instead, he wrote an essay about what he saw as the malign influence of Jews. ‘Without any perceptible animus toward Jews, writing as a calm analyst who happened to be informed by reactionary ideas, he noted that the three hundred members of the oligarchy allegedly plotting to overthrow the world order were not all Jews but were imbued by the spirit of what he called “sub-Judaism,” characterized by crass materialism and support of democracy and humanitarian causes.’ Later, he wrote about Jews in less charged terms, assigning to races ‘characteristics, however, [that] were neither genetic not altogether static; they depended on a complex web of historical, geographical, and sociological circumstances.’ Interesting lines of thought for an author who claimed Christianised Jews in his lineage to take.

Zenith criticises Pessoa for not being an egalitarian (while admitting that such an attitude was not incompatible with the poet’s outlook) and condemns Pessoa for wearing blackface as a prank (‘the inherent offensiveness of blackface’). What, a reader may wonder, is gained by wagging the measuring stick of American morality of 2021 at a Portuguese who grew up in Victorian-era colonial Africa? For the most part, such presumptions are not too intrusive.

Pessoa was both an artistic Modernist and a political reactionary; he was empathetic towards certain minority groups, indifferent towards others. He approved of the suppression of Communists and Socialists but was hostile towards Italian Fascism. (Perhaps he discerned within Fascism a core of Socialism.) Zenith thinks, ‘The “real Fernando Pessoa” was always someone else.’ I disagree. I see Pessoa as perfectly consistently himself in his apparent contradictions; he was honest enough to fully inhabit contradictory ideas. We have the concept of cognitive dissonance. However, there is no dissonance when there is no urge to harmonise contradictory ideas. Pessoa never believed he had to hold a consistent position. It seems he realised that a human being without contradictions is an impossibility.

V

‘An original, typically Portuguese literature cannot be Portuguese, because the typical Portuguese are never Portuguese’

– Pessoa 

In 1928, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) was appointed finance minister and he would remain the directing force in the technocratic Portuguese government until a brain aneurysm in 1968. He would see out the last two years of his life as only the nominal (rather than actual) head of government of Portugal. His dryness – a devout Catholic, private, personally reserved, not given to rhetorical excess – and his competence as a director of the state finances won him widespread support. Pessoa supported Salazar’s measures, which stabilised Portugal’s finances and curbed the hedonistic excesses of Lisbon’s nightlife.

Almost a decade after their split, Ophelia and Pessoa reconnected during 1929-30. They resumed their correspondence and meetings. Again, they fell into the old pattern of conflict. Ophelia wanted marriage and companionship; Pessoa wanted to write. She was worried about his heavy drinking. It would leave him severely ill in the summer of 1932. He evidently enjoyed the excitement and experience of being desired but perhaps he felt guilty for giving Ophelia (about whom he evidently strongly cared) false hope of matrimony. Maybe he suspected he was not a writer in love but a writer researching love.

His Mensagem (Message) (1934) collection of poems won a prize from the government for its contribution to patriotic renewal. Pessoa was ambivalent, appreciating the recognition and the cash, but wary of official honours. The following year, Pessoa opposed a bill to outlaw secret societies, specifically the Freemasons. Pessoa had an affinity for societies so he took the legislation personally and wrote in the press strongly opposing the law. It was a futile effort because the parliament would rubberstamp the legislation. In his last months, he turned definitively against the regime for restricting personal freedom, especially freedom of artistic expression. His anti-Salazar poems could not be printed, but they apparently were circulated in a limited form. Zenith discloses that in his last months, Pessoa was writing an essay against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Also, he was weighing up the merits of equality and humanitarianism. Death – intestinal obstruction (or possibly pancreatitis) apparently caused by alcoholism – intervened. Pessoa died on 30 November 1935, in hospital.  

VI

‘Everlasting remembrance, how briefly you endure!’

– Pessoa

Over the subsequent years, volumes of the erroneously titled Complete Works of Pessoa were published by colleagues, amounting to a fraction of the slew of 25,000 sheets. The verses can be a little abstract and diffuse but often deploy pleasing irony, cutting humour and mordant insights. The best poem by Pessoa I have read is one of the longer ones, 1928’s ‘Tobacconist’s’ (written under the heteronym Álvaro de Campos) – one of his most involved and most concrete poems, featuring the poet’s thoughts upon watching a tobacconist and his store from across the street. It combines melancholy, levity and grandiosity.

The only lengthy work of fiction that Pessoa brought close to completion was The Book of Disquiet, which is assigned to Bernardo Soares. It consists of over 500 entries written over 1913-35, and was only published in 1982. It comprised hundreds of pages in an envelope. (One is put in mind of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969). His famous ‘book in a box’ is composed of individual sheets and sheaves.) The ordering and transcription are debated and since the first publication there have been new editions, some dramatically different. One English edition has been edited and translated by Zenith. The entries range from single sentences to passages of many pages. They are meditative, alternately detached and intensely personal, forming what Pessoa called a ‘factless autobiography’. It has a detached quality, splenetic humour and despairing melancholy that presages existentialist literature and the internal monologues of Beckett.

In an age of Borgesian meta-narratives and Post-Modern playfulness – as well as a (sadly) reduced capacity to concentrate on more involved lengthy prose – The Book of Disquiet and Pessoa’s heteronymic transformations have found warm appreciation. There is no doubt he was a serious, world-class writer and richly deserves this handsome biography.

Zenith is adept at sketching the situation of Portugal during the Belle Époque, republican and Salazar periods. He knows his subject matter inside out and speaks the languages of his subject. On balance, Zenith’s assertion that Pessoa’s heteronymic alter egos (at least, the major ones) are genuinely felt expressions of different intellects with unique voices, and not gimmicks, carries weight and is eloquently argued, with evidence. Once one grants Zenith his ethical and political interjections, even the most negative of critics is left with mere cavils. The biography hits the rare sweet spot of being as comprehensive as one might wish for while not lingering too long on any point. The amount and depth of research is humbling. Pessoa: An Experimental Life is a grand achievement – thorough, thoughtful, insightful and generally sympathetic, it does what all the best literary biographies do: inspire us to seek out the writings of its subject.

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