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The Observer in the Tall Black Hat

Courtesy of the Bridgeman Art Library

It has been said that if the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) had not existed, Jorge Luis Borges would have been obliged to invent him. No less an authority than George Steiner has suggested that March 8, 1914, the day Pessoa composed some 30-odd poems in voices so divergent that he ascribed them to different authors, may be “the most extraordinary date in modern literature.” Not only did Pessoa compose six poems of his own that day, he also gave mental birth to three entirely fictional poets, each with his own biography, style and preoccupations: Alberto Caeiro, a Zen-like nature poet; Ricardo Reis, a neoclassicist in the mode of Horace; and Alvaro de Campos, an exuberantly Whitmanian and occasionally futurist poet.

Imagine if, some day back in the 1950s, an American poet named John Ashbery had not only written a few of his own highly original poems, but in an ecstasy of creative surfeit, had invented three other poets — Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler — and then, over the years, proceeded to write poems as them, even entire books. It sounds fantastic, but it is what Pessoa actually did. Nor was it just a whimsical creative exercise. In The
Western Canon
, that ultimate literary proving ground, Harold Bloom named Caiero and de Campos as “great poets” in their own right, “wholly different from each other and from Pessoa,” while deeming Reis to be “an interesting minor poet.” All in all, Pessoa would eventually produce 72 alternate literary selves — or “heteronyms,” as he termed them — including Bernardo Soares, the “author” of Pessoa’s best-known work, the melancholy prose
journal The Book of Disquiet.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Pessoa’s actual work is sometimes in danger of being overshadowed by the
circumstances that produced it. Though he is frequently compared to such fellow modernists as Franz Kafka and Constantine Cavafy, Pessoa has a reputation that has grown relatively slowly, at least outside his native Portugal. In part, this is because he published little during his lifetime. Most of his work was discovered only after his death, in a trunk containing some 27,543 documents. Sifting through all those papers, many hand-written and virtually indecipherable, has taken decades. The Lisbon-based Richard Zenith, editor and translator of the new book The Selected Prose of Fernando Pessoa (a companion volume to his earlier Fernando Pessoa & Co.: Selected Poems), is one of several scholars who has dedicated his life to making sense of that vast and chaotic archive.

So who was Fernando Pessoa? As depicted by Zenith, who usefully weaves biographical and critical essays between selections of the prose, Pessoa was an archetypical modernist, intellectual, rootless and urban, for whom the act of writing was a replacement for the much more problematic act of living. The type was well caught by Lawrence Durrell in a poem (“Je est un Autre”) about the fragmentation of the self:

He is the man who makes notes,

The observer in the tall black hat,

Face hidden in the brim:

In three European cities

He has watched me watching him.

 

Pessoa, who was a compulsive note-taker and did indeed wear a black hat, was a genial but solitary man who formed few close friendships and spent the majority of his life alone in rented rooms. Born in Lisbon, he lived in South Africa from the age of 7 to 17, and his first poems were written in English. (One of his heteronyms, Alexander Search, was an English poet whose sonnets were reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement.) After returning to Lisbon, he attended university without completing his studies, then clerked in an office (shades of Cavafy and Kafka), writing and translating business letters for a Lisbon firm until his death at age 47. All in all, he doesn’t seem to have minded doing so. (“I arrive at my desk as at a bulwark against life,” he once wrote.)

A heavy drinker and smoker, Pessoa was a homosexual in essence if not in act, whose one romantic relationship — amounting to little more than a few stolen kisses, and soon broken off — was with a 19-year-old girl, Ophelia Queiroz, who worked in his office. Some of his letters to Ophelia are printed in Zenith’s book, and they make for fascinating and occasionally hilarious reading, particularly when Pessoa has one of his heteronyms write to Ophelia as well. At one point in the correspondence, Alvaro de Campos jumps in to warn her off Pessoa (“Dear Miss Ophelia Queiroz, An abject and sorry individual named Fernando Pessoa, my dear and special friend, has asked me to communicate to you — since his mental state prevents him from communicating anything, even to a split pea . . .”). Understandably baffled and alarmed, Ophelia nevertheless proved a good sport. Knowing full well that de Campos didn’t exist, she replied to his letter anyway, c/o Pessoa. (Nor is she the only person to have treated one of Pessoa’s heteronyms as fact. In 1984, Jose Saramago, Portugal’s Nobel laureate, published an entire novel whose hero was none other than Ricardo Reis.)

Since Pessoa was primarily a poet, a selection of his prose obviously provides a limited portrait of the man. Furthermore, only a fraction of his major prose work, The Book of Disquiet, is represented. (It’s available, in a variety of translations, as a separate volume.) So what we have instead is a smattering of fiction, manifestoes, correspondence, diatribes, essays, astrological musings, aphorisms, jokes, and even critical essays, by de Campos and Reis, on the poetry of their fellow heteronym Caeiro.

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

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