A Writer Who Invented Selves
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Published in: March-April 2022 issue.


PESSOA:  A Biography
by Richard Zenith
Liveright. 1,055 pages, $40.



A NEW BIOGRAPHY of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) runs over a thousand pages, which sounds extreme. However, explains the author, it is really the biography of multiple figures. Readers of Pessoa’s poetry already know in what sense this is true, but others may not be familiar with the poet who was called “the writer of a hundred selves.”

            In the opening pages of Richard Zenith’s life of Pessoa, we’re shown an uncaptioned and undated photograph of its subject, whom I would guess to be nine or ten years old. The picture, carefully staged and showing a sweet-faced boy wearing a smart midshipman-style outfit, was taken in 1897, a few years after the boy and his widowed mother had gone to Durban, Natal (the British colony that’s now part of South Africa), where her second husband, formerly a sea captain, had been appointed Portuguese Consul. Nothing in the boy’s appearance suggests that he would grow up to be Portugal’s most acclaimed 20th-century poet. Nor would anyone have predicted that as an adult he would live a life of both whimsy and dejection as an insolvent alcoholic, a man psychologically but not in practice gay, a passionate person who never fell in love, a martyr to art constantly writing but seldom publishing what he wrote under his own name.

            The boy’s midshipman’s costume was no doubt a small-scale allusion to Portugal’s history, both glorious and infamous, in maritime exploration and colonization. Figures like Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama began sailing to Africa in the 15th century. The story of da Gama’s voyages is the celebratory substance of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), the Portuguese national epic, which was written in the 16th century by Luís Vaz de Camões. This astonishing work is regarded as the fountainhead for all subsequent Portuguese literature and can still be sincerely admired so long as we ignore the negative outcomes of those expeditions—colonialism and the slave trade.

            Given Africa’s prominence in Portuguese history, Pessoa may have felt it was fully plausible for him to live there. But administration and education in Durban were conducted in English, so the geographical displacement was followed by a linguistic one. Still, the boy became fluent in English and even began composing texts in it; and, because French was part of the curriculum, he soon gained proficiency in that language as well. It was in this period that he began inventing alternate selves: fictional beings who peopled his imaginary universe and manifested their identities by producing letters, stories, and poems. They were forerunners of the fictive authors whose works Pessoa would go on to write and publish under their names rather than his own. He began designating these characters as “heteronyms.” The word was his own coinage, but possibly it was suggested to him by the new adjectives “homosexual” and “heterosexual,” which had only recently come into circulation.

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Alfred Corn is the author of eleven books of poems, two novels, and three collections of essays. His new version of Rilke’s Duino Elegies was published last year by Norton.