Mask and You Shall Receive

Pessoa: A Biography by richard zenith. new york: liveright. 1088 pages. $40.

The cover of Pessoa: A Biography

WHAT’S COMMONLY KNOWN ABOUT THE PORTUGUESE WRITER FERNANDO PESSOA is that he died young-ish at the age of forty-seven in 1935, drank heavily, and assigned authorship of his work to over a hundred “heteronyms,” pen names that carry more biographical heft than the average alias. Pessoa died having published only one book of poetry in Portuguese (Mensagem) and two self-published chapbooks of English-language poetry. The lion’s share of his work was found in a trunk containing about 25,000 pages of writings. Without much of a public record of his life as he lived it, celebrating Pessoa and researching Pessoa have always been roughly the same thing. Few have done as much of that work as Richard Zenith, an American who has translated a chunk of the Pessoa oeuvre and put in more than ten years writing an extremely definitive biography of a shape-shifting weirdo his country adores. When I was in Lisbon in 2018, a cab driver, unprompted, recited one of his poems to me on our way to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a museum and historical site. More officially, Pessoa’s face was on the 100 escudo note before the euro fully replaced it in 2002. His mutating nationalism might be what made him a candidate for Portuguese pride, though his politics were hardly consistent.

Zenith has provided a careful and robust description of Pessoa in this biography, one that makes the author’s decision to publish fitfully less surprising. Seeing Pessoa’s heteronyms as a literary exercise obscures the concrete nature of his self-generated community, 136 members strong, by one count. As Pessoa wrote, “Given the dearth of people he can get along with, what can a man of sensibility do but invent his own friends, or at least his intellectual companions?” The heteronyms published inside of Pessoa’s life, working as a full-blooded cohort that both helped Pessoa and demanded things of him. At the practical level, the heteronyms were bylines, but ultimately they served as Pessoa’s nervous system. They were less his work than simply Pessoa himself, and the trunk was more about safety than hiding. Unlike his cousins on the beach and everyone else out there in real life who wanted something that he didn’t understand, the heteronyms understood him. Seen this way, it seems logical that Pessoa kept all of them, like a valued cloak or prosthetic limb, in a trunk.

The heteronyms started publishing in the real world when Pessoa was still a teen, entering newspaper contests and writing light humorous verse. When he moved, still a teen, from Durban back to Lisbon, Pessoa activated a heteronym called Dr. Faustino Antunes, a psychiatrist. Antunes wrote to Clifford Geerdts, who had gone to school with Pessoa, and “claimed to be treating his former classmate for a serious mental disorder,” Zenith says. Antunes wanted to know if Pessoa was prone to “sexual excesses.” Call it catfishing version 1.0. Pessoa learned that his peer thought him “pale and thin,” with a “peculiar walk.”

In a less empathic biographer, Pessoa could be painted as pathological, maybe even criminal. But Zenith can understand Pessoa without lapsing into lionization, obfuscation, or psychological summaries. Pessoa was unpredictable and selfish, and inordinately talented from the moment he started writing. It is a tricky assignment to properly convey how odd Pessoa was while also acknowledging his gift. As concrete as Pessoa’s heteronyms were for him, there is no single explanation for why they became his way of writing for himself, and to himself. It may have been least reductive for Zenith to begin with the fact that Pessoa started with this strategy and never stopped, that the heteronyms may simply have encouraged more heteronyms. Everyone wants to live with people just like them, right?

Early on, Pessoa experienced two significant deaths. When he was five, his father died of tuberculosis. A music critic and civil servant with the Ministry of Justice, Pessoa’s father serves mostly as a warm shadow for him, tied to an idea of lost joy: “Back when they used to celebrate my birthday / I was happy and no one was dead,” he wrote in a poem. A younger brother died the following year, in 1894, weeks short of his first birthday. A fellow student in Durban described Pessoa as “a little fellow with a big head. He was brilliantly clever but quite mad.” Pessoa put it this way, writing in the margin of his algebra textbook while still a high school student in Durban: “Common things are disagreeable to me. I long for much not material.”

Pessoa’s life had not been unusually punishing, aside from his proximity to death, but he found ways to make it precarious. His stepfather was a lieutenant captain in the navy who became Portugal’s consul in Durban, and when Pessoa returned from Durban to Lisbon (never to travel abroad again), he lived largely on loans from friends while working sporadically as a translator and clerk. The demands on Pessoa were largely his own: a state of constant debt and a rigorous practice of writing and reading. He had always excelled as a student and started publishing his own newspaper, The Tattler, when he was fourteen. Pessoa’s heteronyms filled the pages of The Tattler with poems and puzzles, sometimes writing letters to each other. Being an eternal student in dialogue with himself was more or less the model for the rest of his life.

In 1909, at the age of twenty-one, Pessoa came into his full inheritance and spent a fourth of it on a printing press for his own publishing house, Ibis. It would not be a stretch to say that Pessoa was an early iteration of the extremely online writer: narcissistic, lazy, prone to exaggeration, gifted, and more than a bit detached from the rude demands of self-support. While waiting for his printing press to be dismantled and shipped to Lisbon, Pessoa wrote to his friend, as Zenith reports: “He complained of ‘hyper-boredom’ and of ‘ultra-get-tired-of-everythingness,’ yet he was ‘unable to summon energy’ to read a book he’d found.” In less than a year, his inheritance was gone and Ibis had folded.

Bernhard Zimmer, Faces 45 (detail), 2014, oil and mixed media on canvas, 40 x 47". Courtesy Bernhard Zimmer/Artspace Warehouse.
Bernhard Zimmer, Faces 45 (detail), 2014, oil and mixed media on canvas, 40 x 47″. Courtesy Bernhard Zimmer/Artspace Warehouse.

Pessoa’s early passion, first seen in Durban, was a form of Anglophilia, channeling Romantic poets and Carlyle, mastering poetic forms and inserting himself into a literary tradition, feeling its reality. In a posthumous note found at the opening of a collection he assembled of his poems by Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, António Mora, Álvaro de Campos, and Vicente Guedes, Pessoa wrote, “Each of their personalities—remember—is complete unto itself, and where their work is ordered chronologically, as is the case with Caeiro and Álvaro de Campos, the moral and intellectual evolution of the writer is perfectly defined.” Guedes is the heteronym who began The Book of Disquiet, which Zenith describes as a “heap of beautiful fragments, forever unstitched.” That said, Zenith is right to call it “the most expansive and potent of all his works,” and it is the book that brought Pessoa into posthumous acclaim. (Without it, there would likely be no cult of Pessoa. As much as I love The Book of Disquiet, in my impatient moments, Pessoa feels like a collaboration between the American publishing industry and the Portuguese government. The minor work is genuinely minor.) Zenith describes The Book of Disquiet as “an experiment in how far a man can be psychologically and affectively self-sufficient, living only off of his dreams and imagination.” When Zenith says the book was an “extreme, monomaniacal version of Pessoa’s own, essentially imaginative way of living life,” he is showing us how Pessoa’s trunk was a deliberate and specific way of both containing and representing a life he didn’t know how to live in public.

Zenith characterizes Pessoa as “prudish, paternalistic, and elitist,” and this helps explain how Pessoa’s disparate engagements with the world (sort of) hang together. Pessoa was constantly looking for pathologies and essentialist states that would explain everything that terrified him: dictators, women, his own sexuality. He was forever in search of some kind of scientific foundation for his aloneness. Pessoa did have at least one full-fledged friendship, with writer Mário de Sá-Carneiro, “an exuberant but troubled soul,” Zenith says. In 1915, Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro helped launch Orpheu, a magazine that played a major role in establishing modernism in Portugal and Brazil. At age twenty-six, Pessoa was experiencing what Zenith calls his “glorious coming-out as a creative writer.” Pessoa had published two poems in 1914 in a “one-shot magazine that attracted nobody’s attention,” but now his writing took up a third of the first issue of Orpheu, which, Zenith writes, “would become the most talked-about literary publication in Portugal.”

This kind of event is key to establishing Pessoa accurately for a modern reader. Pessoa was central to the literary development of his country, even without a major publishing footprint during his life. Later that year, Pessoa became a player in a political hubbub that pushed Orpheu further into general recognition. Following the May 14 Revolt, Afonso Costa’s Portuguese Republican Party—which Pessoa called the “Feces of the Republic”—was reelected. Pessoa had turned twenty-seven, the second issue of Orpheu was on the stands, and Costa found some random trouble while traveling on a streetcar. After hitting a short circuit that produced a loud noise, his streetcar stopped suddenly. Costa, fearing an assassination attempt, leapt through a window and cracked his skull. Pessoa, pleased by this, brought Álvaro de Campos into play and had him write a letter to the pro-Costa newspaper, A Capital. The journal told readers that Costa was recovering but in “precarious” shape, while an unrelated article on the same page called the writers behind Orpheu a “group of harmless futurists.” Pessoa couldn’t resist sandwiching two concerns together and letting Campos bring havoc. He wrote another letter stating that “it would be in bad taste to repudiate links to the futurists at such a deliciously mechanical moment in which even Divine Providence avails itself of streetcars to convey its lofty lessons.” In response, the paper called the Orpheu staff “Malicious Individuals” on the front page, requiring Sá-Carneiro to write his own letter to A Capital, distancing the magazine from Campos, which he revealed as one of Pessoa’s pseudonyms. Pessoa admitted to his friends that he was drunk when he wrote the letter. The next year, Sá-Carneiro committed suicide at the age of twenty-five by drinking five vials of strychnine. There was never a third issue of Orpheu.

Pessoa maintained a marginal dance for the rest of his life, engaging intensely with the public around political issues while funneling the majority of his work into an unseen pocket. Increasingly obsessed with both Shakespeare and Francis Bacon, Pessoa wrote to the editor of an astrology journal in London, trying to learn if there was some alignment of stars that made him who he was (which he saw as kin to Bacon). “I am an author,” Pessoa wrote, “and have always found it impossible to write in my own personality; I have always found myself, consciously or unconsciously, assuming the character of someone who does not exist, and through whose imagined agency I write.” He began to talk to his friends about a “Fifth Empire in which Portugal would overcome its political infighting and become a model of civilizational progress,” Zenith writes. Pessoa used his heteronym Dr. António Mora to call for Portugal to revive what Zenith calls “the best aspects of Greek civilization,” a typically Pessoan demand, and helpful in understanding the genuinely disjointed nature of Pessoa’s politics. If Pessoa exhibited some kind of native Portuguese pride, and he did, it was always filtered through an aspect of his scholarship and intellectual obsession. Insofar as there was no political party explicitly endorsing classical Greek philosophy, Pessoa’s claims were detached from the actual day-to-day grunt work of politics, something he had no interest in. His Portugal was as theoretical as his heteronyms were real, and it plays much better at home after his death. Alive, Pessoa was always happy to act as the antagonist to whoever was in front of him. The “letter to the editor” was, in many ways, the longest-running and most fruitful of Pessoa’s modes while he was alive. If he was not a politician, he was a correspondent in every sense of that word, even if he saw the citizens of his country as no more or less real as the members of his imagined football teams (whose matches he scored and reported on).

Pessoa’s stances began like this, but in his late twenties, his political commitments gathered steam, though not focus. He began calling for Portugal to engage with a “reconstructed paganism,” a mission he had few fellow-travelers in. His finances had become less solid in his mid-twenties, but he began an epistolary romance with Ofélia Queiroz, who worked with Pessoa at the import-export firm of Felix, Valladas & Freitas. Although he wrote a poem about the lips of another man, Queiroz was Pessoa’s one living and confirmed love object. Their relationship never led to sex, and this suspensed state of reality may have suited someone more comfortable on the page than in person. Their notes graduated to “stolen kisses” and then daily love letters in both directions. After several months, though, Pessoa complained of suffering under a “black wave,” which he suspected was the result of being “switched” with one of his heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos. He dismissed Queiroz with a high-handed letter, which blended the juvenile nihilism that mars much of his work. “We never love anyone,” as he wrote years later. Even a devoted Pessoa fan will be consistently frustrated by the transparency of his delusions, as Zenith records them here. Pessoa constantly retreated to the grandiosity of his inner worlds, looking for some kind of “pathology” he can assign someone, conveniently allowing him to avoid the hard work of human connection.

Over the years, Pessoa kept trying to find purchase in England for his poems, to no avail. It is hard to know what to make of these efforts, or his various business plans, each of which seemed, as one potential partner told him, “ingenious but flawed.” As Pessoa came closer to embracing homosexuality without ever practicing it, he let one of his heteronyms publish the poem that seemed closest to personal, if “personal” is a category that makes sense with Pessoa. In a 1923 poem, Campos writes:

You want me to be married, futile,

conventional and taxable?

You want me to be the opposite of this, the

opposite of anything?

If I were someone else, I’d go along with you


But since I’m what I am, lay off!

One of the few things that Pessoa returned to, without deviation or variation, was his fate after death. Over and over, from a frighteningly early age, Pessoa claims his true destiny will be found posthumously, which suggests his life and career were in many ways perfectly executed and organized. When Pessoa was thirty-one, a friend told him that it was a “crime” that Pessoa was not better known, and that he was not publishing enough of his work. As Zenith tells us: “‘Don’t worry,’ said Pessoa, ‘when I die I’ll leave boxfuls of it behind.’”

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village. He recently finished a memoir.