Fernando Pessoa; painting by Anna Bak-Kvapil

Fernando Pessoa; painting by Anna Bak-Kvapil

Even among the eccentric annals of poets who talked to God, angels, tutelary spirits, and disincorporated souls, Fernando Pessoa is a special case. The architect of Portuguese modernism, Pessoa invented as many as 136 independent aliases, or, to use his word, heteronyms, to which he attributed much of his work. There’s nothing unusual about publishing under a name that’s not your own. But Pessoa—a self-described medium and amateur astrologer—treated his alter egos as actually existing contemporaries, past lives he was living in real time. He gave them distinct literary styles and cast their birth charts.

These surrogates were prolific. When Pessoa died in 1935, he left behind only a smattering of writing bearing his signature. He did, however, leave 25,000 manuscript sheets of poems, essays, short stories, plays, literary criticism, philosophical and political treatises, horoscopes, and disaggregated bits of a work in prose called The Book of Disquiet—almost none of it “his.” The writer Mário de Carvalho, contemplating the vastness of Pessoa’s oeuvre, said, “Tanto Pessoa já enjoa” (So much Pessoa you’ll puke). This all raises a question: What does it mean to be a fan of Fernando Pessoa, or simply to read him? To whom did his language, and his life, belong?

Let’s not mince words: when he wrote as himself, Pessoa wrote badly. Mensagem (Message, 1934), a sequence of fantastical poems on Portugal’s past and future, got a nod of approval from the Salazar regime but has even less to recommend it than the endorsement suggests. Some English-language sonnets published in 1918 are at once bizarre and profoundly conventional, their labored Shakespearian posturing (“As a bad orator, badly o’er-book-skilled,/Doth overflow his purpose with made heat”) more caricature than successful impersonation. A few good things came out posthumously, but Pessoa hit his highest notes as the man behind the curtain.

What’s notable about the heteronyms, besides their number, is that each one writes so differently from the others. Liking Alberto Caeiro by no means guarantees liking Álvaro de Campos, and this too makes it hard to speak of Pessoa in unitary terms. I might prefer Caeiro’s austere lucidity while you are knocked flat by Campos’s devastating self-assessments, evident in his manic hymns to the big city or the aching, elegiac “Birthday”:

Back when they used to celebrate my birthday
I was happy and no one was dead….

The person I am today is like the damp in the hall at the back of the house
That makes the walls mildew…
What I am today (and the house of those who loved me trembles through my tears)—

What I am today is their having sold the house,
It’s all of them having died,
It’s I having survived myself like a spent match.

Or perhaps you’re partial to the high school Latin teacher Ricardo Reis and his classical odes, and baffled by my enthusiasm for The Book of Disquiet, an autobiography of someone who never existed that was begun in 1914 by Vicente Guedes but finished by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper who took up the project after Guedes disappeared in the 1920s. Perhaps you pore over a single lovelorn document by the kyphotic teenager Maria José, dying from tuberculosis in a Lisbon apartment, while I chuckle at the satires of Sidney Parkinson Stool and Dr. Gaudêncio Nabos, both of whom belonged to a literary society founded by their friend F.A.N. Pessoa, the organizer of many phantom cricket matches at the nonexistent Cato Lodge Cricket Club in Durban, South Africa. And we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Remarkably, no one seems to think Pessoa was in anything but his right mind. Critics have collectively acceded to the fiction that what he called his “drama in people” was in some sense real, as if through this biographical legerdemain—in which heteronyms could write each other letters, praise or attack one another in print, even play sports together—Pessoa’s alternates left their actual fingerprints on the world. To be sure, he is not the only artist to exploit the vagaries of personal identity, but few have been so humored. When David Bowie died, newspapers did not run separate obituaries for Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke. Entire volumes, however, have been published by the heteronyms, and among the authors in the 2015 anthology 28 Portuguese Poets, four of them are Pessoa.

“Being a poet,” Caeiro declares, is “my way of being alone,” and here it seems safe to say that he was speaking not just for himself. If anything unifies the characters and their creator, it’s that all of Pessoa’s writing seems to be an attempt to disappear, to become absent from his own life. This is especially vivid in the three most significant heteronyms—Caeiro, Campos, and Reis—who, for all their stylistic differences, each teeter between psychological nihilism and nirvana, in the Zen sense of a quenching of the heartburn of personality. And yet theirs is also a poetry indisputably in love with “the astonishing reality of things,” in which the world—from the soft wobble of rocks underwater to the “great modern noises” of Lisbon during World War I—is a stubborn, sensuous counterweight to the desire to leave it behind.


That phrase, “the astonishing reality of things,” is also Caeiro’s. His neo-pastoral meditations, which might be said to brood over what the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus called haecceity, or thisness, are generally regarded as Pessoa’s greatest achievements. That’s an impression Pessoa encouraged: both Reis and Campos, whose voices are more seasoned and urbane, publicly acknowledged Caeiro as their master, and his origin story was central to Pessoa’s representation of the whole heteronymic project. On March 8, 1914, Caeiro appeared “in” Pessoa (as Pessoa put it), an auspicious episode of demonic possession that moved him to write “thirty-some poems at one go.” Collected under the title The Keeper of Sheep, those poems are at once utterly destitute of sentimentality and yet gleaming with passion, sometimes for a lover but more often for “the natural egotism” of nature itself: “Unwittingly preoccupied/Only with flowering and flowing.”

Caeiro’s arcadian simplicity is, of course, more practiced than it claims. For every show of uncomplicated affection for things as they are (“Sometimes I start looking at a stone./I don’t start thinking about whether it exists”) and every swipe at the unnecessary aggravations of science and philosophy, the master drops a canny koan about poetry and its craft. “I don’t know what Nature is,” Caeiro explains: “I sing it.” Elsewhere he says his task is to “clean and tidy up Matter” in his own immaculate lines:

To put back all the things people cluttered up
Because they didn’t understand what they were for…
To straighten, like a diligent housekeeper of Reality,
The curtains on the windows of Feeling
And the mats before the doors of Perception…
To sweep the rooms of observation
And to dust off simple ideas…
That’s my life, verse by verse.

Capturing Pessoa’s uncluttered quality in translation takes discipline. These are deceptively simple poems whose force scatters with unnecessary embellishment. It’s easy to paint a wink on his poker face, to make his lines fussier, more figurative, and thus to betray his desire to reimagine what poetry is: a ritual of self-nullification that turns anonymity into a style. When the ritual finds its way onto the page, it is in the form of a highly concentrated asceticism, at once potent and unobtrusive. “I want,” writes Campos, in a litany of ecstatic erasure, “to become someone else’s aching possession,/To be dumped out of garbage cans,/To be tossed into the sea.”

Pessoa has had many English-language interpreters but none better than Richard Zenith, whose edition of his selected poems, jovially titled Fernando Pessoa & Co. (1998), won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. An American by birth, Zenith began studying Portuguese as a senior in college. He has since taken on everyone from Luís de Camões to the contemporary feminist poet Adília Lopes (see her extraordinary free-verse poem “Eu quero foder foder,” or “I want to fuck to fuck”). His versatility as a translator makes him a good fit for the mercurial Pessoa, who inhabited so many different modes, genres, registers, and forms. Of special note are Zenith’s versions of The Book of Disquiet, which puts the text’s fragments into a loose narrative order, and Campos’s “Triumphal Ode,” a big futurist bang of “transmission belts and pistons and flywheels,/Roaring, grinding, thumping, humming, rattling” that solders metal to song.

After years decoding Pessoa’s phantom selves, Zenith now takes aim at the man himself—such as he is. At over a thousand pages, Pessoa: A Biography has ample room to coax into Technicolor a life determined to be lived in grayscale. Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa spent his days working as a clerk in the offices of import-export firms. He had no love affairs or sex scandals, never joined a political movement or threw a bomb. After a childhood in Durban, where he received a traditional English education, he returned to his birthplace of Lisbon and never left, dying at forty-seven. In The Book of Disquiet, Bernardo Soares describes his life as “a statue made of matter that’s foreign to my being,” a prosthetic existence with no real flesh-and-blood self inside it. What kind of history could be written about such a person? Where would the truth of its subject be found?

The success of Pessoa lies in Zenith’s panoramic approach and his skill in setting Pessoa’s orderly, insular way of life against the riotous backdrop of the early twentieth century. Although the book advertises itself as a biography, it functions just as well as a history of literary modernism, with Lisbon—instead of London, Paris, New York, or Moscow—at its center. As Zenith is careful to note, all of modernism’s metropoles were literally bankrolled by colonial enterprise and by the ongoing catastrophe of racial exploitation. Although “the legally sanctioned enslavement of Africans,” he observes, was by that point roundly condemned in Europe and the United States, “foreign control of African lands and resources was acceptable and even commendable, insofar as it meant ‘developing’ and ‘civilizing’” parts of the world strategically labeled as backward.


It is no secret that modern art, with its embrace of so-called primitivist motifs and simultaneous idealization and disparagement of non-European cultures, also profited from the ravages of global capitalism. Pessoa’s poetry was no exception. By placing Pessoa in this larger setting, Zenith makes his urgent abdications of identity as much a response to world-historical events as a private psychological compulsion.

When Pessoa moved to South Africa at the age of seven, following the death of his father and his mother’s precipitous marriage to a former captain in the Portuguese navy, Durban was a small, racially segregated city under British rule. The population was a mix of European, Indian, and native Zulu inhabitants, the latter mostly male and employed as manual laborers. When the Anglo-Boer War erupted in 1899, thousands of refugees poured into the city, followed by what Zenith memorably describes as “large numbers of bedraggled POWs…passing through Durban’s port on their way to overseas prisons.” Eight miles south lay the Merebank concentration camp; the largest built during the war, it was divided into three sections, each named after a body of water in England’s Lake District (including Wordsworth’s beloved Grasmere). By the end of the war, 28,000 Boer women and children in those camps and between 15,000 and 20,000 Black prisoners had died of starvation or diseases like typhoid, measles, and dysentery.

At once cosmopolitan and violently inequitable, Durban was a case study in the contradictions of the twentieth century. For all the purely private reasons Pessoa might have wanted to escape his life—the deaths of his father and baby brother (both from tuberculosis), persistent anxieties around sex, a self-diagnosis as a “hysterical neurasthenic” predisposed (in his words) to “depersonalization,” “common lying,” “overactive thinking,” and “a powerlessness to act and to decide”—early exposure to the horrors of war, colonialism, and racial stratification seem just as likely incitements. Not for nothing, Zenith says, did Pessoa idealize Gandhi, whose time in Durban overlapped with his and whose asceticism had special appeal for someone who had learned, if only secondhand, how dangerous it can be to have an identity. Nor is it a coincidence that Pessoa’s first significant heteronym was an Englishman named Charles Robert Anon who openly criticized the British Empire.

Pessoa, then, was not quite the amoral fingidor (faker) he claimed to be. As Nick Burns points out in a recent, meticulous essay in the New Left Review, Pessoa wrote reams of political commentary (some of it even as himself) despite falling afoul of Portugal’s state censors.* A staunch supporter of the republican cause, he took a sympathetic view of the men who assassinated Portugal’s King Carlos and Crown Prince Luís Felipe in 1908. Still, he was suspicious of anything vaguely resembling a mass movement. As a result, he managed to reject the worst ideological tendencies of his era along with the best. He liked the aesthetics of futurism but shared none of its fascist leanings, and dipped into the pseudosciences of criminology and phrenology without being seduced by eugenics. Large-scale utopian or emancipatory projects likewise held no appeal. As Zenith puts it, both “radical and reactionary attitudes were, to his way of thinking, antisocial ‘pathologies’” that threatened his own idiosyncratic sociability.

A successful biography will have to do at least one of two things: present new information about its subject or cast well-established facts in a new light. Pessoa does both, in elegant, engaging prose that has the propulsive energy of a historical novel fueled by the occasional jolt of surrealism: some poems by Pessoa are described as “passing through each other the way Superman passes through walls,” while his contemporary C.P. Cavafy is a “master jeweler” who set his “one-night stands in elegantly simple, historicizing lines of verse that made them stand out as stunning, memorialistic solitaries.” Zenith is staggeringly well and widely read, and even when he goofs—John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10 (“Death be not proud”) is attributed to John Dryden—his commitment to linking Pessoa to Shakespeare, Keats, Browning, Kafka, T.S. Eliot, and dozens of other luminaries produces unaffected insights about the poet’s place in global literary history.

Zenith has also done considerable work translating unpublished documents and recovering the stories behind Pessoa’s failed magazine projects. A picaresque account of Pessoa traveling six hours to a border town to nab a used printing press goes some way toward showing his determination to build Portuguese modernism from the ground up, as does an unsent letter to William Butler Yeats asking for advice on how to suture nationalist sentiment to the “literary and extraliterary future of Europe.” Most provocatively, Zenith has swerved from the narrowly psychoanalytic models of previous biographers, whom he faults for leaning too heavily on Freud when it comes to both the heteronyms and Pessoa’s sexuality.

These two strands of Pessoa’s existence—self-desertion and sexual desire—were linked from the start. In 1907 a handful of his acquaintances in Durban received letters from Dr. Faustino Antunes, who claimed to be treating Pessoa for some kind of erotic psychosis. The doctor asked frank questions about his patient’s habits only to come up short: Pessoa, his friends and former teachers insisted, was downright meek, his enthusiasm reserved for soccer and the distinctly unlecherous prose of Thomas Carlyle.

Antunes, of course, was a fiction, one of the very first heteronyms, and not the only one Pessoa would use as a screen for his own anxieties and obsessions. Take—for one particularly explosive example—Jean Seul, author of the futuristic Sadean satire La France en 1950, which imagines the nation at midcentury as a place where semen smoothies are all the rage and pedophilia is taught in public school.

If Pessoa entertained fantasies of this kind he does not appear to have acted on them. Nor, for that matter, does he appear ever to have had an intimate relationship with another human being. A chaste romance with a coworker named Ophelia Queiroz was sabotaged by Campos, who inserted himself into the letters Pessoa sent to his increasingly distressed girlfriend and even showed up as Campos on dates. Queiroz arguably surfaces, a few years after their breakup, in the form of Maria José, the disabled teen in love with a Lisbon metalworker who doesn’t know she exists.

Campos, along with some of the other heteronyms, often expressed desire for men in his poetry, and biographers have long speculated that Pessoa’s shyness was a cover for his repressed homosexuality. Pessoa seems to have anticipated this reading. In a letter to the literary critic João Gaspar Simões, whose 1950 biography The Life and Work of Fernando Pessoa devoted a whole chapter to his frustrated hunger for “creatures of the same sex,” Pessoa worried that even Shakespeare’s reputation suffered an “instant debasement” whenever he was considered as a private individual with his own desires.

Without quite discounting this hypothesis, Zenith suggests that Pessoa’s erotic life had an essentially, even exclusively, literary character. For Pessoa, style was desire. Thus Campos’s “Salutation to Walt Whitman” is less a gay poem than a poem whose sexuality is Whitmanian. “I kiss your picture,” Campos tells the poet, and feels “an indirect, abstract erection in the depths of my soul.” The neo-pagan Reis was so overcome by the power of Caeiro’s verse that he felt “deflowered” by it and may have spontaneously changed sex in response.

If poetry could enflame, it could also put out the fire. Of two poems Pessoa wrote under his own name and in English—the very straight, very raunchy “Epithalamium” and the queer elegy “Antinous”—he said that they helped empty his mind of obscene elements “by the simple expedient of expressing them intensely.” Even his love poems are kept at a glacial temperature, as if he wanted at once to avoid contamination by strong feeling and to preserve the rapture of his own indifference:

Sleep while I watch…
Let me dream…
There is no laughter in me.
I want you for a dream,
Not to love you.

Your calm flesh
Cold in my desire,
My cravings are wearinesses.
I do not want my dream of your existence
In my arms.

If he were a less careful reader, Zenith might have left us just with an impression of Pessoa as a “lucid and loveless” man, most interested in other people when they didn’t exist. In the final section of Pessoa, however, Zenith offers a revelatory treatment of Pessoa’s interest in the occult, which gave him something for which he always seemed to have yearned: a world that could be absolutely real without existing in any usual sense. From a supernatural perspective, the heteronyms appear not as psychological phantasms or literary gimmicks but as thematic variations on a single being, as if Pessoa had transformed into Joseph Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces: just as Osiris is Buddha is Jesus, Caeiro is Reis is Campos, and Pessoa is his name.

Occult practices also offered an erotic outlet he never found in waking life. One of the spirits with whom he communicated was the astral imprint of someone who claimed to be his future wife, an Englishwoman named Margaret Mansel. Sensing his reluctance to consummate their relationship, she let loose a torrent of pornographic invective that Zenith says he “almost” blushed to transcribe. Taking sexual dictation from beyond the veil was something Yeats and his wife, Georgie, did as well, but Pessoa, true to form, kept his trysts on the purely visionary plane. They “played out,” Zenith writes, “like so many notes for an unwritten novel,” one never meant to be read or shared but nonetheless lived with an intensity to rival any more conventionally carnal affair.

While Pessoa’s childhood tethers him to a global modernism alert to the predations of empire, his esoteric enthusiasms help broaden the aesthetic category of the modern itself. There are clear similarities between Caeiro’s lyric economy and H.D.’s, between Campos’s whizbang hymns to the big city and the restless aggression of Marinetti and Wyndham Lewis; The Book of Disquiet is Portugal’s The Man Without Qualities. But Pessoa also shared the metaphysical temperament of Yeats, Hilma af Klint, Leonora Carrington, and Aleister Crowley, the English occultist, writer, and painter who had plans to tap Pessoa to lead a Lisbon branch of his Ordo Templi Orientis. There’s no evidence that Pessoa practiced Crowley’s brand of spectacle-driven sex magic, but both men exemplify a modernism far kookier, queerer, and more irreverent than any authorized history of the movement would suggest. It is a modernism that, in Pessoa’s words, “has taken up all the threads of tradition and woven them again into a pattern that tradition could not weave them into,” electrifying ancient wisdom to deliver the shock of the new.

In a draft of a letter to Crowley composed in 1930, Pessoa admitted that his heteronyms might seem, “at first sight, an elaborate joke of the imagination.” Really their creation was “a great act of intellectual magic, a magnum opus of the impersonal creative power.” At its best, Zenith’s biography is an act of intellectual magic in exactly this sense. By giving Pessoa the kind of body he never really wanted—distinct, desiring, of the world and not merely surrounded by it—the book reconciles this singularly single being to his multiple selves. The poet himself might not have appreciated the effort: he was, after all, determined to disappear. But his readers will be grateful for it, and as for his imaginary friends, who always seemed eager to rush the spotlight, they must be delighted.