BOOK REVIEW / All four of me

A CENTENARY PESSOA ed Eugenio Lisboa, Carcanet pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
HAROLD BLOOM's The Western Canon, that definitive guide to the world's literary toffs, lists 26 indispensable authors without whom we would all surely die a slow spiritual death. One of these is the Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa, whose works remain virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.

Despite this, Pessoa is a writer whose acquaintance could be enjoyed by any lover of Svevo or Joyce - and one who had a healthy appetite for the ridiculous. He would, for example, have enjoyed the absurdity of the title of this book. Whose centenary, exactly, is being celebrated in this generous selection from his poetry and prose? Not Pessoa's own certainly, because he was born in 1888 and died in 1935. Perhaps some other person's, then...? And, looked at in a certain semi-obscure light, that could seem entirely appropriate: "Pessoa" means person in Portuguese, and Pessoa was himself Portuguese - and a person, moreover, with a very unstable sense of his own identity.

But this is not the only absurdity that has attached itself to his name. When The Book of Disquietude (a meandering prose journey through a tenebrous, fragmented interior landscape) was published in 1991, no fewer than three different editions of the book, each one newly translated, each with its own separate publisher, became available within a few months of each other, effectively killing each other off from a commercial point of view. Pessoa would have enjoyed that.

But what of the man himself? Until the age of six he lived in Lisbon. The family then moved to Durban, where his stepfather had been appointed Portuguese consul. The young Fernando gradually let go of his Portuguese and became an English speaker. Just before he was due to matriculate at the University of Capetown at the age of 17, he had to return to Portugal. Two years later, and after dropping out of Lisbon University, he set up a printing works. It failed. He then started work as a freelance translator of commercial correspondence, toiling at this for most of his life. Some part of him was always hoping for better things - an academic post, perhaps - but when such a post seemed a possibility, he drew back, for mixed reasons of timidity and disdain. In 1932, three years before his death, he applied for a job as an archivist, and was rejected. Thus ended a life of productive failure as a professional man.

The greater part of his later life was spent in Lisbon, living, on and off, with relatives - some mad, others sane (or, at least, partly so); or in temporary accommodation; or drinking alone in taverns, discreetly alcoholic. In 1920, he almost fell in love with an office girl but broke off the liaison before he had finally hazarded himself. "My destiny," he wrote to her, "belongs to a different law, whose existence some do not even suspect."

Throughout his life, Pessoa's creative energies ebbed and flowed - from indolence to frenetic activity and back again. He would spend inordinate amounts of time making exhaustive lists of works that he would never write. The decisive year was 1913, in which he discovered the energising power of Futurism, and in that same year were born three of his heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro and two of his disciples, the futurist poet Alviro de Campos and the chaste neoclassicist Ricardo Reia. Works by these three poets (a poet called Fernando Pessoa is the fourth) make up the first half of this book.

Each of the poets has a distinct voice, and a distinct biography. Alberto Cieiro (b. Lisbon, 1889; d. Lisbon 1915) is the author of The Keeper of Flocks (1911-1912) and The Amorous Shepherd: Uncollected Poems (1913-15). This poet is a man fully reconciled with Nature, a bucolic, pagan voice. His poetry is the speech of an innocent - the polar opposite, in fact, of the sophisticated Pessoa. Alvaro de Campos is quite different. Bad- tempered, monocle-affecting, a widely travelled man of Jewish ancestry, he lives in the frenetic Now of Futurism, lauding the idea of the Machine.

There is no simple relationship between these heteronyms and Fernando Pessoa himself. The various personalities are not noms de plume; neither are they masks. He seems possessed by each of them in turn. They judge him; they even condescend to him. The final impression is that he was a poet who created several bodies of work written by other poets. Such was the extravagant scope of this strange man's self-estrangement; and at his death, most of his work, poetry and prose alike, remained unpublished.