- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 2, 2001

THE SELECTED PROSE OF FERNANDO PESSOA
Edited and translated by Richard Zenith
Grove Press, $24, 342 pages
REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN


"Pessoa" is the Portuguese word for "person": a fact evidently noted by both the gods who watch over literature and its makers and the celebrated author widely regarded as his country's greatest modern writer — at least prior to the appearance of Portugal's recent Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.
Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was born in Lisbon, but grew up in South Africa (his widowed young mother having married the Portuguese consul based there), where he began writing poetry and prose in English. Returning to Lisbon as a teenager, he spent the rest of his brief life initiating (literally) hundreds of literary projects (composed in English, French, and Portuguese) that would not (with few exceptions) be published within his lifetime, while supporting himself as a translator of business correspondence for several Lisbon firms.
Pessoa's death was followed by the discovery of a trunk filled with more than 2,000 manuscript pages: miscellaneous works both completed and in progress, many (thought not at all all) of which have been subsequently edited, assembled, and published.
Those sketchy facts suggest a "double life" in several senses, but the fragmentation of Pessoa's sensibility was far more complicated and elusive than that. Consider, for example, the opinion of the dandyish surrealist poet Alvaro de Campos, who declared that "Pessoa, strictly speaking, does not exist." Then consider the fact that Alvaro was a character dreamed up by Pessoa.
In a 1935 letter written to his literary friend Adolfo Casais Montero (who , so far as we know, really did exist), Pessoa made one of the few unambiguous factual statements to be found anywhere in his oeuvre: "Ever since I was a child, it has been my tendency to create around me a fictitious world, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances that never existed." That sentence alludes to Pessoa's unique contribution to literature: the creation of numerous "heteronyms" (a word he seems to have coined), or alternate literary selves, to whom most of his works would be attributed, and among whom there developed a lively ongoing debate, primarily about poetic and other principles and their own rival claims upon posterity.
Though the idea is scarcely a fully original one (think of Chaucer's Host, or Proust's Marcel, or Joyce's Stephen Dedalus), the extent to which the fabrication was carried out has no real parallel in any known literature.
The major heteronyms are (besides Pessoa himself, their "orthonym"): pagan Buddhist pastoral poet Alberto Caiero (a "natural" writer possessed of "no ethics except simplicity," and author of the legendary volume "The Keeper of Sheep"); the aforementioned Alvaro de Campos, a former naval engineer, educated in Glasgow, whose critical intellect has made him an unregenerate cynic and misanthrope; and Horatian classicist Ricardo Reis (who would be memorialized decades later in Mr. Saramago's brilliant novel "A Year in the Death of Ricardo Reis").
There were numerous other heteronyms, such as the scholarly Britons Alexander Search and Charles Robert Anon, French rationalist Jean Seul (whose scientifically grounded writings give off an occasional whiff of the Marquis de Sade); Antonia Mora, a disciple of Alberto Caiero's, who preached the gospel of "Neopaganism"; and the ill-tempered Baron of Teive, a blocked writer and skeptical enemy of all governments, religions, and sciences ("I don't believe in the Virgin Mary, and I don't believe in electricity").
All these imaginary persons and others (including Pessoa's only known female heteronym, lovelorn hunchback Maria Jose) have their say in this delightful collection of brief prose texts, introductions and prefaces (to books he'd never live to publish), and excerpts from longer works. It's a wonderful companion volume to its industrious editor-translator Richard Zenith's earlier "Fernando Pessoa. & Co.: Selected Poems."
Several of its selections relate to the various literary movements Pessoa invented or imagined: notably, "Paulismo" (from the Portuguese word for "swamp"), which features unintelligible verbal combinations and illogical visual images; "Intersectionism," which blends acknowledged literary influences with individual variations and innovations; and "Sensationism," which can refer to either plain renderings of things as they are (as in Alberto Caiero's poetry) or recordings of their author's own "sensations."
Pessoa's love of reworking traditional materials is shown by his early play, "The Mariner" (1913), in which three women keeping a funeral vigil exchange sonorous declarations about life, death, and the condition of being "lost" (like a mariner at sea) in an indifferent universe.
This self-declared "static drama" drew from Alvaro de Campos the following quotation and commentary: "'Why are we still talking ?' / Exactly what I wanted / To ask those women … "
Other surpassingly urbane pleasures include Alvaro's confrontational "Ultimatum" addressed to World War I's warring nations and the intellectuals who supported them (e.g., "Kipling, you poetry pragmatist and junk heap imperialist"); an impishly satirical "Essay on Poetry" ("… in this age of motorcars and of art for the sake of art, there is no restriction as to the length of a line in poetry"); and substantial excerpts from Pessoa's (of course) unfinished masterpiece, "The Book of Disquiet" (begun in 1913), an inimitable work of self-revelation and self-scrutiny, precisely described by Mr. Zenith as "a diary, not of things seen and done, but of things thought and felt, the author's Confessions, his 'factless autobiography.'"
But don't trust me (how, after all, do you know who I am, or whether I exist); sample Pessoa for yourself. He's the modernist's modernist: an inspired amalgam of Lewis Carroll, Aristophanes, Erasmus, Voltaire ("& Co.," if you will), whose exquisite mixed praises of human and literary folly create a polyphony unlike any other prose music you've ever heard.

Bruce Allen is a writer and critic in Maine.



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