Laureate of Lisbon

A new biography of one of Europe’s most overlooked modernists

Michaela Loheit (Flickr/michi_loheit)
Michaela Loheit (Flickr/michi_loheit)

Pessoa: A Biography by Richard Zenith; Liveright, 1,088 pp., $40

On sunny summer days in central Lisbon, you might witness a certain happening amid the umbrella tables in front of a popular café. Foreign tourists wait their turn to have a photo taken with the life-size bronze sculpture of a seated man. In a proper 1930s suit and fedora, the mustached figure is portrayed with legs casually crossed and a hand lifted as if to make a point in conversation while enjoying a drink he has just set down on the small table beside him. I suspect that by and large the tourists have no idea whom exactly the celebrates. More likely, they simply wish to have an offbeat souvenir of, well, sitting in a café themselves and hanging out

The scenario speaks to an underlying truth about the statue’s subject, Fernando Pessoa. Portugal’s most important modern writer and a major 20th-century literary personage, he often remains little known outside Portugal, where he is revered today. Pessoa has always had a rather cultlike following worldwide, though—however unfairly—nothing like the recognition given fellow modernists such as Joyce, Proust, and Eliot. In this meticulously researched biography, longtime Pessoa authority Richard Zenith offers a full account of the life of a man dedicated to the craft of poetry with an ascetic drive that denied him much else in his brief 47 years.

Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888 to comfortably bourgeois parents and spent the better part of his youth in Durban, South Africa, after his father died and his mother remarried a Portuguese diplomat. The precocious student—tall, nearsighted, unathletic—acquired English easily and published poems in Durban newspapers while still a teenager. At 17, he returned to Lisbon for university-level studies but soon dropped out, bored by the unchallenging curriculum. Poetry was foremost in mind.

A resolute bachelor (Zenith speculates respectfully about Pessoa’s sexuality, and there was an on-and-off girlfriend with the poetically apt name of Ophelia), Pessoa managed to support himself throughout his life with translating jobs, chiefly letters for business firms conducted in dim offices of ever-clacking typewriters; nevertheless, he was seldom free from debt. A host of imaginary friends during childhood gave way to his literary trademark of writing under different names, more than a hundred by Zenith’s estimate.

These weren’t mere pseudonyms. He called them heteronyms, and here is where the life story becomes psychologically complicated—or almost dizzying. Pessoa not only signed the poetry and essays he sporadically published in periodicals using the assorted tags, but he also went so far as to compose detailed minibiographies for some of them and once wrote letters to himself from an alter ego (interestingly, pessoa means “person” in Portuguese).

Pessoa has a telling line in his sequence of poems “Slanting Rain” that provides a good way of approaching this: “I don’t know who I dream I am.” Zenith doesn’t reference it, yet I’ve always thought the quotation succinctly gets at the impetus behind Pessoa’s use of heteronyms, among them his three principal and stylistically distinct poetry-writing pseudoselves: Alvaro de Campos (a naval engineer by trade with a lyrical bent), Alberto Caeiro (a rustic and believer in the essence of nature), and Ricardo Reis (a doctor who produced philosophical Horatian odes). And, true, in the poetry there is often the dreamlike element of being “the other,” a ghostly, untethered feeling marked by searingly honest searching.

Pessoa possessed the longing of an experimenter aspiring to metaphysical insight. His impulse sprang not from any religious sensibility but from an awareness of the diaphanousness of reality around him—maybe a seascape or Lisbon street scene. He used poetry to tune in on something larger, akin to a Blakean or Borgesian understanding, beyond words.

Reserved by nature, he passed long hours with a circle of literati in Lisbon cafés, including Café A Brasileira, where the statue holds court. He somewhat manically came up with (and quickly abandoned) new publishing and business schemes, dabbled in astrology, and despite a prolific output and paramount devotion to poetry, was able to publish only one book in Portuguese during his lifetime. The 1934 collection, titled Mensagem (Message), honored the storied history of Pessoa’s homeland, once an indisputable global maritime power. He hastily assembled the slim volume—far from his best work, as Zenith emphasizes—to fit the guidelines of a national poetry contest offering a cash prize he surely could use.

Pessoa’s health and spirits deteriorated as middle age approached, not helped by a fondness for wine and brandy indicating incipient alcoholism. He died in 1935, probably of an intestinal obstruction, according to Zenith’s close examination of archived medical reports. In the 1940s, friends and editors began sorting through his stacks of unpublished writing, which has gradually seen its way into print. This was highlighted by the 1982 publication of a prose project, The Book of Disquiet, the haunting, journal-style musings of its “author” Bernardo Soares, a solitary Lisbon “assistant bookkeeper” capable of weighing in with existential melancholy on nothing less than the bewildering mystery of life itself. Pessoa’s masterpiece and most widely read book, it was assembled from random pages discovered in a wooden trunk in his apartment. Its several hundred individual entries, presented in different order by various compilers, sometimes read like prose poems, sometimes more like epigrams:

“How tragic not to believe in human perfectibility! And how tragic to believe in it!”

Biographer Zenith writes wonderfully well, with a strong and intimate voice and, as engagingly, a wide-open curiosity that triggers asides ranging from the differences between Spanish and Portuguese bullfighting to the complexity of pre–World War II European fascism. The latter figures into Portugal’s slipping into the authoritarian Estado Novo (New State) regime of dictator Antonio Salazar, against which the usually conservative Pessoa took a risky stand in newspaper articles.

Very significantly, Zenith sets the record straight on Pessoa the man. He is maybe seen by even ardent fans as entirely like Bernardo Soares of The Book of Disquiet and leading Soares’s limited daily existence, invariably bleak. However, Zenith shows that the real Pessoa—and there was one—could be both politically concerned and entrepreneurial. Also, granting the regret and painful loneliness that at times bordered on despair, Pessoa experienced pleasant everyday moments with close family, especially nephews and nieces (the children delighted in watching him stand on one leg in a mime of a goofy ibis bird).

I have always been skeptical of the notion that someone gone from the wonders of this world can be posthumously lucky. But Pessoa has no doubt been so in the discovery and publication of the groundbreaking work he left behind. Lucky, too, in being the subject of this superb new biography. One can only hope that its release will bring about many more Pessoa readers—who knows, perhaps even some of those tourists having their fun with his bronze figure on any fine summer day in Lisbon, a city the poet loved so dearly.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Peter LaSalle, a novelist, teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is a collection of essays about literary travel, The World Is a Book, Indeed, which includes a piece on Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon.


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