By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Though much of the material is fascinating, the book, it has to be said, can be pretty hard going. The short story “The Anarchist Banker,” for instance, yields some brilliant insights into the problem of revolutionary action but has no story to tell at all. Likewise, “The Mariner,” a “static drama” in one act, is just that — static — and “The Master and His Disciples,” a conversation between Pessoa and two of his heteronyms, is filled with philosophical disputes likely to strike a philosopher as amateurish and everyone else as abstruse.
What I found myself drawn to, as a reader relatively new to Pessoa, were the sections that touched on him personally. This is ironic, since in Pessoa’s opinion there was no “person” there. The lack of a sense of identity, of a dominant “I,” was a major theme in Pessoa’s work and evidently a torture to him in life. As he put it in a poem by Ricardo Reis:
Countless lives inhabit us.
I don’t know, when I think or feel,
Who it is that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.
Clearly there is something universally attractive about this lack of a sense of self — to the point where, one hears, Pessoa tourism in Lisbon threatens to outdo Kafka tourism in Prague. “For me the outer world is an inner reality,” he wrote in Disquiet. “I feel this not in some metaphysical way but with the senses normally used to grasp reality.” That open channel between inner and outer left Pessoa at the mercy of the world, and able to express, as few writers have been, the solitary soul’s sense of being overwhelmed by it. Zenith’s selection from Disquiet ends with a passage in which Pessoa learns of the death of a local barber. As much as a brief quotation can do, it gives a good sense both of the writer and of the man:
A chill swept over all my thoughts. I said nothing.
Nostalgia! I even feel it for people and things that were nothing to me, because time’s fleeing is for me an anguish, and life’s mystery is a torture. Faces I habitually see on my habitual streets — if I stop seeing them I become sad. And they were nothing to me, except perhaps the symbol of all of life.
The nondescript old man with dirty gaiters who often crossed my path at 9:30 in the morning . . . The crippled seller of lottery tickets who would pester me in vain . . . The pale tobacco shop owner . . . What has happened to them all, who because I regularly saw them were a part of my life? Tomorrow I too will vanish from the Rua da Prata . . . Tomorrow I too — I this soul that feels and thinks, this universe I am for myself — yes, tomorrow I too will be the one who no longer walks these streets, whom others will vaguely evoke with a “What’s become of him?” And everything I’ve done, everything I’ve felt and everything I’ve lived will amount merely to one less passerby on the everyday streets of some city or other.
THE SELECTED PROSE OF FERNANDO PESSOA | Edited and translated by RICHARD ZENITH | Grove Press | $24 hardcover | 342 pages