Pessoa: An Experimental Life review – a portrait with bags of personality

In the centre of Lisbon, on a hill that serves as a municipal Parnassus, a short stroll takes you on a trip through national literary history. In a square named after him, Camões, the one-eyed epic bard who celebrated Portugal’s maritime discoveries, looks down from his monument at what remains of the country’s empire; a little way off, the frock-coated 19th-century novelist Eça de Queiroz embraces a flagrantly bare-breasted muse; and in a nearby shopping street the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, cast in bronze, sits at a table outside a cafe, conducting the empty air with a suspended hand.

The metallic Pessoa looks abstracted, perhaps undecided about which of his personae he should pretend to be. Though Pessoa in Portuguese means “person”, he chose, as he said, to “depersonalise” himself. While dreaming of literary immortality, he adopted the jokey anglicised nickname Ferdinand Sumwan to announce that he was no one in particular. He spent his adolescence in South Africa, then returned to Lisbon and nerdily toiled at unworthy office jobs until he died in 1935, never travelling abroad. Without sexual attachments, he indulged instead, as Richard Zenith puts it, in orgies of “self-fertilisation”: the brain of this shy, innocuous man housed a thronging “para-universe”, an “invisible world of made-up characters” who wrote in English, French and Portuguese as Pessoa’s deputies or surrogates and collectively created “one of the richest and strangest bodies of literature in the 20th century”.

Rimbaud first pointed beyond the egotism of romantic poetry by announcing that a writer’s “I” is someone else, an invented stranger. Following that logic, Pessoa multiplied himself exponentially: él tuvo 50 identities, indexed at the start of Zenith’s massive critical biography, and he supplied each of these “heteronyms” with an elaborate backstory. One was a swashbuckling baron who fought duels, another sold horoscopes, a third was a toga-clad neo-pagan who resided, conveniently, in a madhouse. A hunchbacked, arthritic girl, the only female in this cranky convocation, sat at her window wistfully ogling a virile passerby. A disembodied revenant from the 17th century sent Pessoa an astral order to stop masturbating, while a maleficent spirit called Voodooist schemed to snatch his tremulous soul.

Three heteronyms in particular enabled Pessoa to work through the history of poetry. Impersonating a simple shepherd called Alberto Caeiro, he wrote naive pastoral lyrics; as the refined classicist Ricardo Reis, he composed Latinate homages to the gods; giving voice to the futurist Álvaro de Campos, supposedly an engineer by trade, he celebrated mechanised urban modernity. Commuting between these aliases was like metempsychosis or perhaps, as Pessoa confessed to a critic, like changing sex. His alter egos had extra-literary uses too. To extricate himself from a flirtation with a clingy young woman, Pessoa made Campos write a letter warning her off and when she telephoned in the hope of making a date he answered the call as Reis and informed her that Fernando was not available.

It would be easy to diagnose this manifold “self-othering” as a psychiatric ailment, but Pessoa’s “quasi-human props” helped him accomplish a global variety of tasks. One of his projected books was aptly entitled A Total Literature and he wrote cycles of Shakespearean sonnets, planned a national epic to rival the Lusiads of Camões and sketched a sequel to Goethe’s Faust. His version of De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom envisioned an erotomaniac future in which the blood of raped and murdered children is recycled as washing-up liquid and a school for girls called Institut Sans Hymen gives lessons in lechery. All too often, these experiments remained incomplete and Pessoa’s scattered, disconnected texts amount, as Zenith says, to “a quintessential non-book”, a chaos that corresponds to the “ontological instability” of the writer.

Zenith fills Pessoa’s humdrum, routine-bound life out with bulky accounts of the political convulsions he lived through and the wide-ranging cultural forays that left him, as he said, resembling a relic “conserved in an abandoned museum”. A little embarrassed by Pessoa’s wackier philosophical frolics, Zenith argues that his interest in Rosicrucianism, alchemy and the sadistic black magic of Aleister Crowley offered him a way of studying the motions of his own inscrutable heart; he is also relieved to report that Pessoa, who propounded a “mystic nationalism” close to that of Hitler and Mussolini and allowed one of his heteronyms to translate the infamous antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, finally denounced the Portuguese dictator Salazar as a humourless statistician whose regime suppressed larky human individuality.

The biography is best when treating Pessoa as a tragicomic oddity, almost a holy fool. Zenith likens the heteronyms to “particles in a quantum field”, though I’d say they were closer to imaginary playmates, refugees from a lost childhood. A “poor little boy exiled in his manliness”, Pessoa often endearingly impersonated an ibis stranded in a Lisbon street, balanced on a single leg with one hand poked behind him as a tail and the other stuck out in front as a beak. He must have looked, as his handwriting did, like an Egyptian hieroglyph.

Pessoa died as discreetly as he lived, leaving only bills and a trunk stuffed with papers that editors are still toiling to decipher and assemble. Yet in 1985 his body was exhumed and installed beside those of Camões and Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos monastery, where Portugal entombs its national heroes. Less solemnly, the statue outside the Lisbon cafe anchors this neurasthenic non-person in an alien reality. To replace the ghostly avatars who wrote his poems, tourists now crowd around Pessoa’s table and perch on his angular knee to take selfies. Ignoring them, he stares into the void, as if wondering whether immortality is really preferable to the silence and solitude of outright extinction.

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