Mammoth, definitive and sublime, Richard Zenith’s new biography, “Pessoa,” gives us a group portrait of the writer and his cast of alternate selves — along with a perceptive reading of what it meant for Pessoa to multiply (or did he fracture?) like this. What problems did it solve — and invite? Zenith has written the only kind of biography of Pessoa truly permissible, an account of a life that plucks at the very borders and burdens of the notion of a self. Was “Fernando Pessoa” the original heteronym?
If we accept that biography, as Julian Barnes once wrote, is, at best, “a collection of holes tied together with string,” how does one go about writing a biography of a person allergic to personhood? That Pessoa’s name is Portuguese for “person” must have given him perverse satisfaction, he who wrote the word “me” in quotation marks. “I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist,” he wrote. “I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me.” Or he was “the naked stage where various actors act out various plays.” Or, he wrote in a poem, “merely the place / Where things are thought or felt.” His heteronyms were addicted to their obscurity, vain about their privacy and pained when forced to “publish” their work. It’s the self conceived as a lump of sugar; it must be dissolved to be tasted.
As a child, Pessoa professed hatred for “decisive acts” and “definite thoughts.” His greatest book-length work was, in fact, “a quintessential nonbook,” as Zenith describes it, having translated one edition: “a large but uncertain quantity of discrete, mostly undated texts left in no sequential order, such that every published edition — inevitably depending on massive editorial intervention — is necessarily untrue to the nonexistent ‘original.’”
You might as well lasso a cloud. But Pessoa has enjoyed a happy afterlife, and been fortunate in his translators — never more so than with Zenith (another apt name). When we praise biographies, we often praise stamina and thoroughness, a kind of density of detail — the subject seems to live again. In reading “Pessoa,” it was the necessity of a certain kind of tact that struck me. Zenith reconstructs a life with supple scholarship and just the right kind of proportion, applying the right amount of pressure on those formative experiences of childhood, grief, sexual anxiety and humiliation, early ecstatic encounters with art — never losing sight of the fact that Pessoa’s real life happened elsewhere, as for many writers, alone and at his desk.
His birth was front-page news, testament to the popularity of his young parents in Lisbon society. Words were early playthings — he delighted in street signs — and he was serious, preternaturally private and dignified, even as a child. Tragedy came swiftly. His father and brother died of tuberculosis when he was a boy — and very disconcertingly, six months into mourning, his mother fell in love. She married and moved to South Africa, taking Pessoa with her. He would return to Lisbon for more schooling, engage in an epistolary flirtation with a young woman who seemed to produce in him more agitation than desire. He remained, Zenith writes, “almost certainly a virgin.” He co-founded an influential literary magazine. He drank. He died, in 1935, of cirrhosis.