Pessoa means “person” in Portuguese and Fernando Pessoa seems to have played every conceivable variation on his name: he was a person; he was not a person; he wrote books under the names of several persons; he unraveled the notion of personality; reconstituted it; became someone, as he says of a mythological figure in one of his poems, because he was no one.

We are used to being told that personality is a fiction, that each of us is a multitude, a “prolixity of selves,” in Pessoa’s phrase, that our biography is merely the story of someone we might have been. The thought is both frightening and attractive, and probably an exaggeration—as one of Pessoa’s characters suggests, we no doubt resemble ourselves more than we like to confess. Pessoa however acted on the thought with astonishing literalness, making himself not one but four poets.

He was, first and last, Fernando Pessoa, born in Lisbon in 1888, educated in South Africa. He returned to Portugal in 1905, abandoned his university studies, made a living as a commercial clerk and translator, published essays and poems in magazines, two slim books of verse in English, but no volume in Portuguese until Mensagem in 1934. He had however already been hailed as a “master” of the new Portuguese poetry. He died in 1935. But he was also three other poets, and his mastery was a complicated affair. He wrote as the austere and calm Alberto Caeiro, the classically minded Ricardo Reis, the futurist Alvaro de Campos; and invented biographies to back these performances up.

Caeiro, a frail, modest man, had only an elementary education, lived in the country, died of tuberculosis; Reis, educated by the Jesuits, was a doctor and a monarchist, emigrated to Brazil in 1919 after the failure of a royalist uprising; Campos was a naval engineer with a degree from Glasgow and had traveled in the East. Pessoa saw these figures as if he knew them: Caeiro was blond, medium height, had blue eyes; Reis was shorter, dark-complexioned; Campos was tall, thin, tended to slouch, wore a monocle. It is important to remember that the poems came first, that the biographies are a form of sober mischief, fragments of the novel that Pessoa was turning his life into. But the names are not pseudonyms, mere disguises for the writer Pessoa. Pessoa called them heteronyms, reacted to them as contrasting, even rival personalities, rather than as extensions of himself. He produced their works but in them was writing not under another name but in another person, outra pessoa.

The Book of Disquiet has a chronology that inserts the fictional births of these poets among the events of Pessoa’s life: 1889, birth of heteronym Alberto Caeiro; 1891, Sá-Carneiro, poet and friend of Pessoa, born; also birth of heteronym Alvaro de Campos; 1893, the poet’s father dies, etc. This playful gesture helps to confirm the “reality” of the imaginary poets, but may baffle the reader, particularly since Ricardo Reis’s birthdate is given as 1912. This would make him two years old when he writes his first poem and seven when he emigrates to Brazil. What has happened is that two senses of “birth” have been conflated, and Pessoa’s first attempt at the creation of Reis, which did occur in 1912, is confused with Reis’s notional birthday, which was in 1887.

Pessoa described the arrival of his fictional peers, which was also his arrival at the mature poetry he wrote in his own name, in a letter of 1935. The event itself took place in 1914, and is an amazing modern, indeed modernist, moment. It is as if Eliot’s impersonal poets, Pound’s personae, Yeats’s masks, the shadowy fictions of Rilke and Valéry had found their most gifted adept, a sort of sorcerer’s apprentice who took them more seriously than they themselves dreamed possible. Pessoa begins where those other doctrines end, their ideal (impossible) result becomes his actual point of departure. Personality vanishes as a burden, returns as a liberation, an unmistakable voice; as several voices:

I went over to a high desk and, taking a sheet of paper, began to write, standing, as I always write when I can. And I wrote thirty-odd poems straight off, in a kind of ecstasy whose nature I cannot define. It was the triumphal day of my life, and I shall never be able to have another like it. I started with a title—“The Keeper of Sheep.” And what followed was the apparition of somebody in me, to whom I at once gave the name Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me the absurdity of the phrase: my master had appeared in me.

Pessoa then took up another sheet of paper and immediately wrote six poems which seemed to him his own.

It was the return of Fernando Pessoa Alberto Caeiro to Fernando Pessoa himself alone. Or better, it was the reaction of Fernando Pessoa against his own non-existence as Alberto Caeiro.

His own non-existence. What has produced Pessoa as a poet is not a flight into an unreal personality but something like the actual experience of being the poet he cannot be. Variants of this paradox recur all over Pessoa’s work, like the footsteps heard in Eliot down the passage which we did not take. Pessoa’s master is not a teacher or a model but a vision of simplicity and repose. “To think is to fail to understand,” Caeiro writes. “I don’t have a philosophy: I have senses.” “My mysticism is not wanting to know.” He is an artist, though, and even as he disclaims complexity he introduces graceful shaping into his lines and into his argument:


Graças a Deus que as pedras são só pedras,
É que os rios não são senão rios,
E que as flores são apenas flores.

Thank God the stones are only stones,
And the rivers are nothing but rivers,
And the flowers are only just flowers.
(my translation)

The “only just,” apenas, is very delicate, and there is metaphor and meaning in the very denial of metaphor and meaning. Caeiro is the mild possessor of certainties that can’t be had, and Pessoa goes on to multiply poets in response to him: Reis, an educated, hedonistic aspirant to Caeiro’s calm; Campos, the tumultuous opposite of Reis. Pessoa continues to write as Pessoa too, a richer, more varied poet than the others, in part, as he himself might say, because he is a fiction but not only a fiction.

Even in his own name, though, Pessoa is, as he says, “serious about what is not,” sério do que não é. This is not a riddle or a ready-made phrase, but an attempt to articulate a full contradiction, what Empson would have classed as a seventh type of ambiguity. Absence is presence in such a perspective; what matters is what is not there. In one poem, a voice comes from the Blessed Islands but ceases when we listen; we can hear it only in our sleep, like the Emperor’s message in Kafka. In the following remarkable lines formality and simplicity combine to suggest a transparent mystery, a knowledge effortless, impossible, and lost:

São as formas sem forma
Que passam sem que a dor
As possa conhecer
Ou as sonhar o amor.

São como se a tristeza
Fosse árvore e, uma a uma,
Caíssem suas folhas
Entre o vestígio e a bruma.

They are the forms without form
That go by without pain
Being able to know
Or love to dream them.

They are as if sadness
Were a tree and, one by one,
Its leaves were falling
Between the trace and the mist.*

Pessoa then is a poet who signs himself Fernando Pessoa; the author of the works (now published in separate volumes) of Caeiro, Reis, and Campos; the creator of the supposed lives of these men; the composer of whatever counterpoint and interplay we find among the works of all four poets. His writing is not an escape from personality, as Eliot prescribed, but it is not a revelation of personality either, not even of plural personalities. It is a metaphor for what we might call the fertility of doubt, the suspicion that we can know ourselves, if at all, only through mirrors. “To know oneself,” Pessoa writes, “is to make a mistake…. Consciously not knowing yourself; that is the right road. Not knowing yourself conscientiously is the active exercise of irony.” Surprising yourself through projections and reflections, through figments and fragments of characters who are and are not you, would be a way of making the irony tell a story. “Only when I’m disguised,” the narrator says in The Book of Disquiet, “am I really myself.” “Ah,” he also cries, “it’s the nostalgia for that other man I might have been that scatters and horrifies me!” “I turned myself into the fiction of myself.”

The Book of Disquiet is a prose work written over the last twenty years of Pessoa’s career; an autobiography without facts, Pessoa says, a “history without life,” a set of “conversations with myself.” But the self in question is yet another mask. Bernardo Soares, the imaginary author of these “disconnected impressions,” has an early life different from Pessoa’s—his mother died when he was one year old, his father committed suicide when the boy was three, whereas Pessoa’s father died when the son was five, and his mother, remarried, lived to within ten years of Pessoa’s own death—but he has Pessoa’s job (“Assistant Bookkeeper in the City of Lisbon”), office, gloom, wit, and passion for prowling the streets watching people. Indeed, in the early pages of his book Soares meets someone who seems to be Pessoa himself, a man “dressed with a certain negligence, which was not entirely negligence,” whose “pale, uninteresting face” suggests suffering but not of a compelling or even identifiable kind. This casual mournful joke—isn’t all suffering supposed to be eloquent and interesting?—is one of the book’s many jabs at Romantic preconceptions. The two men timidly confess that they are both writers and pretty much friendless, but we never hear of their meeting again. Later, Soares speaks of his admiration for Alberto Caeiro, whose work momentarily “cleanse[s]” Soares of “all the metaphysics I spontaneously add to life.” Pessoa said Soares was only a “semi-heteronym because while he doesn’t actually have my personality, his personality is not different from mine, rather a simple mutilation of it. Me minus ratiocination and affection.”


Minus affection, certainly. Soares is stuffy and fastidious about the raw banality of the life around him, scared and scornful of women, unless they are idealized in a frantic retreat from disgust (“My horror of real women endowed with a sex is the road that led me to find you…”), eager to confess his lack of interest in anything other than his own perceptions. I’m not so sure about the ratiocination, since Soares does plenty of intellectual brooding, does almost nothing else in fact, but the crucial, endlessly repeated word is dreaming, which Soares defines as “the slow analysis of sensations.” This is a book of disquiet because everything shifts and nothing settles, because it concerns a mind which cannot rest, cannot even imagine rest; concerns what Soares himself calls “an impatience of the soul with itself.” Soares is so self-absorbed and self-pitying that it is quite hard to read him in large doses; but he is also a stylist, and the sheer grace of his complaints is often haunting:

I don’t want any more from life than to feel its loss in these unforeseen afternoons, to the sound of other people’s children playing in these gardens fenced in by the melancholy of the streets that surround them, leafy gardens beyond the high branches of the trees along the old sky where the stars begin once again.

The tone is both querulous and elegant, as if Soares had turned into a hypochondriac aunt in Proust; the stars, beginning again, actually manage to seem both beautiful and tiresome.

It is also true that The Book of Disquiet, when you return to it, reveals a great variety of approaches, if not of themes. There are epigrams (“A sunset is an intellectual phenomenon,” “Seeing is having seen”), prose poems, meditations, dream narratives, what Soares himself calls Grand Passages. There are shrewd, even devastating insights: “I could be whatever I wanted. But I have to want whatever it is”; “We are all primordially accustomed to consider ourselves mental realities while we consider others physical realities.” There are brilliant miniature allegories: “I am the outskirts of a nonexistent town, a prolix commentary on an unwritten book”; “I am a kind of playing card, from an old, unknown deck, the only card left from that lost pack”; “I was the digression from what I wanted to be, my dream began in my will, my intention was always the first fiction of what I never was.” “I continue,” Soares writes, commenting on all of this, “uncertain and allegorical, sentient but unreal.” We may recognize hints of Baudelaire and Nerval here, perhaps touches of Poe and Wilde, but the delicate air of pastiche is Pessoa’s own, precisely what the impersonation of Soares allows him to bring off. Alfred Mac Adam’s translation, as these quotations suggest, is fluent and resourceful throughout.

Above all in this book, there is a puzzled, painful argument about writing, and there is a precise attempt at a specifiable history. Writing for Soares, as for Beckett, is pointless and endless; the fact that he writes well only reminds him that he doesn’t write better. He writes his name “in the dust of the necessary,” he writes because he has “nothing to say,” but also as a defense against tedium and the fictions of others:

Better and happier are those who recognize the fiction in everything and construct their novel before someone else does it for them, and, like Machiavelli, put on their finest garments when they sit down in secret to write.

At one point, telling a literal truth where he thinks he is making a metaphor, he says, “I am in large measure the very prose I write. I unfold in sentences and paragraphs, I punctuate myself…” The metaphor pictures a man reduced to writing, cut off from all other actions: he is his prose. The literal text not only under-cuts his claim—he is not in large measure the prose he writes, he is nothing but, or “only just,” as Alberto Caeiro might say—but also inverts the proposition, makes plain the recurring magic of the imagination: this prose is a man, we can even get angry at him for being so selfish, so unable to care for his unhappy compatriots. He has constructed his novel, but it tells us more about him than he probably intends. There is fiction in everything, but there is a trail of truth in fiction.

“What I do,” Soares says, “is not really literary work but a historian’s work.” In context he means he is inventing what people might or ought to have said, “the conversation they forgot to have,” a traditional defense of the historicity of fiction. But he does aspire to be “an interpreter of a part of our century,” and the historical ambition is clear even in the ordinary, direct sense of the term. There are several beginnings of a spiritual and intellectual autobiography in the book—but that of a European generation, not a person. “I was born in a time when most young men had lost their belief in God for the same reason their elders had retained it—not knowing why.” “When my generation was born, it found a world devoid of supports for those who had both a mind and a heart.” “I belong to a generation that inherited disbelief in the Christian faith and that created a disbelief in all other faiths.” The “only certainty” of this generation was “that there was none and the pain at there being no certainty.”

Soares later sees that the dilemma is deeper and more subtle than this. It is, alas, not certain that there is no certainty, doubt itself has to be doubted. “I don’t even know if I do know nothing,” Soares quotes one Francisco Sanches as saying—a distant cousin of Montaigne apparently, and a pretty close intellectual relative. Modernism, Soares is suggesting, didn’t recognize the possible upturn in thoroughgoing skepticism, but lingered in its helplessness and loss. It was a desperate but comfortable movement, one which constantly hid its distress from itself, took refuge in ironic lucidity. The great casualty was “unconscious life”; we converted everything to consciousness. This was a disaster, Soares suggests, because it alienates us from the heart: “If the heart could think, it would stop.”

The philosophy of Alberto Caeiro reappears, offered now not as a self-sufficient credo, but as an instrument of cultural criticism. The historical question is what to do with the instrument, and whether we recognize the symptoms it reads. Is it, possible that we tried too hard to teach the heart to think, or taught it to think too brutally, or deprived it too thoroughly of the ability to take a break from thought? It is easy to become sentimental and anti-intellectual in these matters; but it is worth considering, as countless modern critics have tried to get us to do, the role of the intuitions, the motions of the heart, which it seems we can no longer place or trust because they don’t pass our smartest tests, measures of skepticism in the simpler mode, where we do know what we don’t know. What if we have lost, not unconscious life, but an old modesty of consciousness, the willingness to keep looking at what we cannot understand?

Or wanting what we cannot want. “One can be a monarchist,” a character says in José Saramago’s capacious, funny, threatening novel, “without clamoring for a king.” The man who speaks in this way has just arrived in Portugal after a long spell abroad, and earlier in the book has signed a hotel register: “Name, Ricardo Reis, age, forty-eight, place of birth, Oporto, marital status, bachelor, profession, doctor, last place of residence, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil….” “It reads,” the narrator comments, “like the beginning of a confession, an intimate autobiography, all that is hidden is contained in these handwritten lines, the only problem is to interpret them.” This is a problem, though. Reis, like Bernardo Soares and Fernando Pessoa, is given to thinking he is many people, indeed has written a poem saying so (“Innumerable people live within us…”), but who is he, apart from being a character in a novel by Saramago (born 1922), first published in Portuguese in 1984? He is a figment of Pessoa’s mind, a reaction to Alberto Caeiro, another figment; a gifted poet; and he is, in this book, alive when Pessoa is dead.

The time is late 1935, most of 1936, and Reis has returned from Brazil because he has received a telegram from Alvaro de Campos (“Fernando Pessoa has died Stop I am leaving for Glasgow Stop”). He meets and has regular conversations with the ghost of Pessoa, although when one man is dead and the other fictional it is perhaps wise, as Saramago suggests, to go easy on the question of real life.

But Reis also has relationships with flesh-and-blood women (that is, plausible women made of prose), begets a son, and his Lisbon is irredeemably, desperately historical. There is poverty in the streets, fear in the air. Salazar rules, there are Fascist rallies, described by Saramago with deceptive mildness, as if all that shrieking patriotism was harmless, as if black, brown, blue, and green shirts were just a matter of color combinations. Les beaux esprits se recontrent, Saramago says, pretending to admire the subtlety of the French proverb. It’s the equivalent of our “Great minds think alike,” but it’s funnier in French when applied to Ricardo Reis’s sharing a thought with Franco, and by extension with Salazar, Mussolini, and Hitler.

At the end of the novel, as the Spanish Civil War rages, and General Milán d’Astray makes his famous cry of Viva la muerte, Portuguese sailors revolt in favor of the Spanish Republic, and are killed. One of them is the brother of Reis’s mistress, but even without this connection he would know he had gone wrong, that the world was rougher and more complicated than anything his posture of classical stoicism could cope with. Reis is tailed by Salazar’s police as politically suspect, and the novel, in its affectionate and witty way, refutes pretty much everything Reis thought he stood for, and with it, much of Pessoa’s more heraldic and nostalgic thinking too, particularly his dreams of a Fifth Portuguese Empire, headed by King Sebastian, returned from the Blessed Isles as King Arthur was also supposed to return to England. Salazar is not Sebastian, but the dream of Sebastian may have helped Salazar to power.

Reis’s hedonism brings not peace or indifference but a muddled guilt, and Pessoa and Reis together articulate a new domain of doubt. The following sentences seem to be spoken alternately, with Reis going first, but as Saramago wryly says elsewhere, in these territories the question of who speaks may be meaningless. The initial reference is to a Pessoa poem which begins “O poeta é um fingidor,” and suggests that the poet even pretends that the pain he is really feeling is pain:

You yourself wrote that a poet is someone who pretends. We utter such intuitions without knowing how we arrive at them, unfortunately I died without discovering whether it is the poet who pretends to be a man or the man who pretends to be a poet. To pretend and to deceive oneself are not the same thing. Is that a statement or a question. It is a question. Of course they’re not the same….

This may all sound like an elaborate literary game, but the historical stakes are quite high, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is also a patient, old-fashioned novel full of dialogue and detail, mist, streets, squares, statues, meals, rooms, neighbors, life in a particular hotel of modest pretensions. So much “reality,” carefully documented, lovingly piled up. Can it be true, as the narrator suggests, that the “only real survivor” in detective stories is the reader, and that other stories are perhaps no different, since it is “as the one real survivor that every reader reads every story”? This may be what we tell ourselves, but the effect here is almost exactly the reverse. Nineteen-thirty-six seems nearer, and certainly more solid, than 1991. Pessoa and his companions, one defunct and the others invented, have already lived for more than half a century, and even their ghosts are sturdier than we are.

This Issue

October 24, 1991