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The poet with many lives

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

Pessoa: An Experimental Life Richard Zenith

Allen Lane, pp.1055, 40

This is an ingenious and infuriating book about an ingenious and infuriating writer. I first encountered Fernando Pessoa in the wonderful and lamented Penguin International Poets series, and what intrigued me was that he was more than one person. There was his poetry, but also sections attributed to his heteronyms, or imaginary alter egos. Stylistically they were very different. There was the rustic naïf, Caeiro; the neo-classicist, Reis (later to be a subject for one of Portugal’s other major literary figures, José Saramago); and the loud-mouthed modernist, Alvaro de Campos, a naval engineer who apparently studied in Glasgow. Later, I bought a copy of The Book of Disquiet, a posthumous publication and the stuff of much mythology. Found in a trunk with many other papers, the melancholic musings of Bernardo Soares is a book which sits on one of my shelves alongside Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and other books that can only be classified as ‘unclassifiable’.

These were not the only identities Pessoa assumed. The earliest, it seems, was the Chevalier de Pas, whose name might have been the Knight of Nothing. He would adopt scores of personas — as a political commentator, a writer of business letters, an astrologer and adept of white magic, an editor, a publisher and a constant café presence, holding court but not saying much. In a late poem attributed to Reis, Pessoa wrote: ‘I have more than just one soul./ There are more I’s than I myself.’ The heteronyms had fully fledged biographies, and at one point Pessoa claimed he could provide photographs of these alternate selves.

Pessoa himself was reserved, probably died a virgin, and was quiet and obsessive, with his fantasies ranging from the mystical return of King Sebastian to the Fifth Empire, which Portugal would command. At the same time as Richard Zenith describes Pessoa’s ‘self-multiplication’, he captures the absence at the heart of things. ‘I no longer include myself in me,’ Pessoa wrote as Pessoa.

It would be easy to over-analyse the material here, and Zenith outlines the facts, albeit at some length, and lets the reader conclude. What influence did the early death of his father and that of his younger brother have on him? What did he make of his mother remarrying, with her brother-in-law standing in for the groom, who had been posted to South Africa? What did he make of his time there, kept in diplomatic seclusion from the likes of Gandhi? What was going on with the make-believe his uncle indulged in with him, where toy soldiers had real lives? Zenith, like Pessoa, mostly states what is known and allows the reader to piece together the puzzle.

Did Pessoa even have a sexuality? This is one of the most vexed questions in the book. He certainly wrote homo-erotic poetry, and certainly had a girlfriend; when things turned serious, he broke up with her, but they remained on good terms. His closest friend was the writer Mário de Sá-Carniero, who was plump, decadent and committed suicide, aged 25, but it was a platonic friendship. It seems Pessoa never got over the loss.

His girlfriend was called Ophelia and, given his fascination with Shakespeare, one wonders if her name was what attracted him most. The best part of the book is the ‘closing credits’, telling us what happened to everyone after Pessoa died at the age of 47. When Ophelia died, her bones were eventually placed, on Valentine’s Day, in the graveyard where Pessoa’s family was buried. But, as Zenith says: ‘In death, as in life, he eluded Ophelia.’ His own mortal remains had been taken to Lisbon’s equivalent of Poets’ Corner in the Hieronymites Monastery.

To write a biography where the constant refrains are ‘left unwritten’, ‘did not complete’ and ‘failed to finish’ is an unenviable task. ‘Fragments, fragments, fragments,’ as Pessoa said. This is a weighty book, running to more than 1,000 pages, and much of it is background for a life lived in the background. I now know more about Portuguese political history than I thought I needed to; and I found it tiresome to get cameos about the careers of the Romantic poets, Mussolini, colonialism and such like. There are odd errors: to call ‘Death be not proud’‘Drydenesque’ is peculiar, to say the least, since the poem was written by John Donne. Pessoa immersed himself in English literature, and Zenith might have done well to follow his example instead of dedicating so much time to the Pessoa archive.

I doubt whether this book will be of much interest to anyone who isn’t already fascinated by Pessoa. It has flashes of charm and wit, but there is much ado about not much at all. I will file it as an encyclopaedia book, which I will indubitably refer to. The ending, however, is the saddest, sweetest thing. Pessoa, an elitist, a pseudo-aristocrat and perpetually aloof, eventually transformed from being extraordinary to having sympathy with the ordinary. It may have been the Salazar regime which changed him, but having seen himself as a supremely individual being, and having frequently stated that we never know anyone else ever or at all, he suddenly becomes approachable. In a late poem he pleads with St Peter, deemed ‘heaven’s jailer’, to come down with his keys ‘to perform your greatest deed,/ Opening up for humanity/ The gates of Truth and Justice’. His final persona: a fellow human.

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