BY Jerome-Boyd Maunsell in Frieze | 10 OCT 01
Featured in
Issue 62

The man of a thousand faces

The literary enigma of Fernando Pessoa

BY Jerome-Boyd Maunsell in Frieze | 10 OCT 01

In Lisbon, it’s hard to avoid an encounter with the likeness of Fernando Pessoa, ‘The Man Who Never Was’. There are statues of him on street corners; his face peers out from the 100 escudo banknote; there’s a mural of his literary creations in one of the subway stations. His house is a museum; there are streets, and even a university named after him. Not bad for a writer who insistently claimed throughout his works that he had no personality, and who seemed to feel that most of the time he was just a figment of his own imagination.

Perhaps no one embodies (or rather, disembodies) Oscar Wilde’s comment in De Profundis (18??) that ‘most people are other people’. When Pessoa died in 1935 from cirrhosis of the liver (at the age of 47), he left behind a now-mythical wooden trunk packed with over 25,000 original texts: poetry, drama, novels, short stories, and prose on philosophy, politics, religion, sociology, astrology and literary criticism. But most of this extraordinary output wasn’t what he would call his own work: it was the product of his cast of ‘heteronyms’ – different personae who would visit Pessoa whenever they felt like it. His job was merely to faithfully transcribe what they had to say.

Whereas many writers have used pseudonyms, Pessoa’s ‘heteronyms’ are a different entity altogether: imaginary poets with very distinct idioms, characters and biographies. Pessoa claimed no mastery over his various voices. He wasn’t in charge of their comings and goings; sometimes, when they disappeared for a while, he even began to miss them. During his life, he made the acquaintance of some 75 different characters, although only around 17 figure as major players. Among many others, there were English poets (Alexander Search, C. R. Anon), existential French essayists (Jean Seul) and Portuguese aristocrats (Baron of Teive). At times Pessoa hosted arguments between them while they criticised each other’s work.
Three ‘heteronyms’ tower over the others. Apparently, they all appeared one triumphant day in 1914 when Pessoa ‘wrote 30-odd poems in one go, in a kind of trance whose nature I cannot define’. Alberto Caeiro, ‘Nature’s poet’, whiles away his days attaining a Zen-like state among non-existent flocks of sheep. Ricardo Reis, described by Pessoa as ‘a Greek Horace who writes in Portuguese’, is a doctor, monarchist and exile in Brazil (perhaps), who composes short, stoic odes. Meanwhile Alvaro de Campos, the bisexual, opium-smoking, absinthe-drinking dandy who studied engineering in Glasgow, tends to burst in on the scene with loud, dazzling hymns to Modernity in vivacious free verse.

In ‘real’ life, Pessoa prided himself on having an almost entirely event-free existence. Working in Lisbon (he rarely left the city) as a translator into English and Portuguese for firms with business abroad, he appears to have had almost no social or romantic life. One of his closest correspondents was his alter-ego Bernardo Soares, an assistant book-keeper. Rather than a different personality, Soares was described by Pessoa as a mutilated version of his own psyche, and was the author of Pessoa’s longest prose work. This was an eternally evolving, forever unfinished (and unfinishable) ‘factless autobiography’ called The Book of Disquiet (19??).

Recently edited and translated by Richard Zenith (whose name sounds strangely like yet another Pessoan persona, but, we are assured, isn’t ) from hundreds of orderless scrawls, The Book of Disquiet is perhaps the best entry into Pessoa’s (or Soares’) world for English-speakers. Pessoa worked on the book throughout his life, writing diary-like entries in notebooks, on loose sheets and any other blank scraps of paper that came to hand, and simply labelled the fragments ‘B of D’. He gathered everything together in an envelope before his death but never managed to assemble it into any kind of publishable shape. As Zenith writes in the introduction: ‘what we have here isn’t a book, but its subversion and negation … the rooms and windows to build a book but no floor plan and no floor’.

The best way to read this accumulation of fragments is to dip into it at random, even though the temptation is simply to plough on as though it were a linear narrative. Despite Soares’ repeated proclamations that he has nothing to say, The Book of Disquiet is extraordinarily concentrated, and best taken in small doses. There are descriptive pieces, thoughts on the weather, revelatory moments in the office, uneventful encounters, paeans to the impossible, and lofty flights of theology and philosophy.

At its heart, The Book of Disquiet is an unbelievably sustained, microscopically detailed account of one man’s belief that ‘dreaming is more practical than living’, and the manifestation of his attempt to turn himself into ‘an ultra-sensitive photographic plate’ on which his feelings slowly, intricately unfurl. And as Pessoa/Soares takes himself apart, he uncovers new, hidden corners ‘in the vast colony of our being’. The Beat writer Alexander Trocchi once memorably proclaimed himself to be a ‘cosmonaut of inner space’. It’s a title of which Pessoa – perhaps the finest 20th-century chronicler of all the nooks and crannies of consciousness, dreams, and identity – is far more deserving.