Will the real Pessoa step forward?

Fernando Pessoa was a one-man literary coterie, whose 72 authorial alter egos, each with his own history and opinions, included three of the century's greatest poets. Kevin Jackson unmasks a strange kind of genius

Largely unnoticed by Britain and the rest of the Anglophone world, Portugal has quietly gone about producing three of the century's great poets. The members of this accomplished trio have, on the face of it, little in common beyond the accident of nationality. Alberto Caeiro (b 1889), a nature poet who has been compared to Wordsworth and the Zen masters of Japan, had little education and no recognisable profession, and he lived in rural seclusion until his early death in 1915; Ricardo Reis (b 1887), an elegant, elegiac neo-classicist reminiscent of Horace, was trained as a doctor and spent much of his life in Brazil; Alvaro de Campos (b 1890), a formal experimenter strongly influenced by Whitman and the Italian Futurists, trained as a naval engineer in Glasgow but drifted into unemployment on his return to Lisbon. Despite their many superficial distinctions, however, all three men share one supremely important quality. They did not exist.

Or rather, they existed in much the same way as Falstaff, Don Quixote or Mr Pickwick exist. Messrs Caeiro, Reis and De Campos were the creations of one teeming and melancholic brain, that of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), who also published poems under his true name, and spoke of himself and his fictitious colleagues as an "inexistent coterie". The poetry of these writers, together with the prose of a similarly "inexistent" fifth, Bernardo Soares, have now been newly translated into English for the celebratory volume A Centenary Pessoa (Carcanet Press), which also contains reproductions of the many paintings, drawings and sculptures Pessoa has inspired in generations of Portuguese artists.

It has often been said of Pessoa that if he had not existed, Jorge Luis Borges would have been obliged to dream him up, since his career is without precedent or peer anywhere in literary history. It is not simply that Pessoa wrote sublimely under many pseudonyms, nor even that he used these pseudonyms to write the kinds of thing that would not have been publishable under his own name; such ploys have often been adopted by writers - most recently by our own Julian Barnes and Doris Lessing, for example. Pessoa's literary masks were less pseudonyms than - his own term - heteronyms, fully grown personae with lives and opinions quite distinct from those of their creator. (Names may sometimes be fate: the Portuguese word pessoa means "person", and is derived from the Latin persona, an actor's mask.) One simple way of regarding Pessoa is as a dramatist for the page instead of the stage. Rather than do the obvious and write a Hamlet, he chose to write the poems that the morbid Prince might have composed and presented them to the world directly, shorn of any surrounding drama.

And yet it is hard not to feel that the heteronyms were more than a literary conceit, or hypertrophied elaboration of the Browningesque dramatic monologue. They appeared to answer some psychic need in the man, and there are times when Pessoa's autobiographical statements resemble one of those case histories of multiple personality disorder that Hollywood once found so appealing (The Three Faces of Eve and so on). On Pessoa's own account, the first major heteronym, Caeiro, simply manifested himself unbidden on the morning of 8 March 1914: "I wrote 30-odd poems in one go, in a kind of trance whose nature I cannot define... What followed was the appearance of someone in me, to whom I at once gave the name Alberto Caeiro. Forgive me the absurdity of this sentence: my master had appeared inside me."

Those of an occultist turn of mind may prefer to believe that Pessoa was acting as a medium for unusually gifted entities. Pessoa himself, who had a lifelong interest in spiritualism, magic and the Western hermetic tradition (one of the major poems he published under his own name was At the Tomb of Christian Rosencreutz, a homage to the legendary, or perhaps one should say "inexistent" founder of Rosicrucianism), once found himself in trouble with the police thanks to a brief if vivid association with the Black Magician Alastair Crowley.

No matter the soil from which the heteronyms sprang, there is an informed consensus that all of these writers were supremely gifted. In his recent, much-publicised study The Western Canon, Professor Harold Bloom proposed that the entire central tradition of occidental literature came from the pens of just 26 authors: Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy... and Pessoa. The reviewer for Time magazine had never heard of this guy, and assumed that Bloom was just swanking as usual, which goes to show that Britain has no monopoly on parochialism.

Whether or not Pessoa deserves his place above the salt at Bloom's Olympian feast, he has seldom lacked admirers anywhere in the West. The poet Roy Campbell called him "the greatest literary figure of modern times", George Steiner considers him an "evident giant", and Roman Jakobson felt that he belonged in the company of Stravinsky, Picasso and Le Corbusier as a defining presence of modernism. (It may therefore come as some surprise to learn that one of Pessoa's earliest English translators was John Betjeman.) Unlike those imposing figures, Pessoa's achievement went largely unrecognised in his own time. While poems by all of the heteronyms appeared in many fly-by-night journals - there are grounds for thinking that the "Fernando Pessoa" who appears on the page is actually another heteronym who merely happens to share a name with his creator - and while he even won a minor literary prize with his one proper book, Mensagem (1934), the bulk of his work was only published posthumously, when his friends began to dip into the huge chest of writings that he left behind in his lodgings. This cache proved to be so varied and complex that it has still not been sorted into a proper Collected Works, for all that the Portuguese now acknowledge Pessoa as their most important writer since Camoens. Or, perhaps, as 72 of their most important writers, since that is the total number of major and minor heteronyms into which he split himself en route to the grave.

In this respect, and in others, there are ways in which Pessoa may look like a spiritual brother of Kafka. Both writers share a demeanour marked by courtesy, reticence and doggedness, both had mousy bachelor lives that were outwardly placid but inwardly intense, and both wrote their enduring works in the margins of unspectacular office jobs - Pessoa, who was educated in South Africa and wrote easily in English, worked as a translator of business documents. Among their few significant temperamental divergences was Pessoa's appetite for tobacco and wine: he smoked like a champion, and died, after years of discreet alcoholism, of cirrhosis.

The self-multiplying nature of Pessoa's work makes it almost impossible to quote him fairly, and to infer some sense of what he and Caeiro and Reis and De Campos and Soares were about, the only option is to read him, or them, in bulk. But a brief taste of Keith Bosley's translation from Pessoa may offer an oblique apologia for the activities of this strangely gifted group of writers:

And just as things dispersed

Are splinters of the real

I break my soul in bits

And each by name I call;

And if I see my soul

From other points of view

I wonder if this brings

A chance to judge anew

n 'A Centenary Pessoa', edited by Eugenio Lisboa and L C Taylor, is published by Carcanet at pounds 25. An exhibition of photographs and documents from Pessoa's life continues at the Barbican, London until 9 June

FIVE FACES OF FERNANDO PESSOA

Alberto Caeiro

Born in Lisbon, 1889. A semi-educated and somewhat reclusive nature poet, sometimes suspected of harbouring Zen tendencies, Caeiro died - still in Lisbon - in 1915. Author of The Keeper of the Flocks and The Amorous Shepherd: Uncollected Poems. Pessoa acknowledged him as "my master".

Ricardo Reis

A self-consciously Mediterranean neo-classicist, given to somewhat precious musings on the pleasures of the ephemeral, but also responsible for scathing critical demolitions of his fellow "heteronyms". His general intellectual smoothness crystallises in the dictum "I hate a lie because it is an inexactness".

Alvaro de Campos

A Whitmanesque writer whose Futurist faith in technology may explain his training (in Glasgow) as a naval engineer. Best known for Triumphal Ode, envisaging a factory as a "tropical landscape". His sense of alienation may relate to his long-term unemployment, or to a sneaking suspicion of his fictional status.

Fernando Pessoa

Born 1888, raised in South Africa, before returning to Lisbon at the age of 17. "Be plural like the universe!" he wrote, on the way to becoming Portugal's greatest poet(s) - his spontaneous creation of alternative identities gave issue to some 72 "heteronyms", and at least as many increasingly disorientated scholars. He died in 1935.

Bernardo Soares

One of the few prose writers in Pessoa's extensive but "inexistent" family. Best known for The Book of Disquietude, a long but gnomic literary identity crisis, which includes the penetrating but unhelpful observation: "Every sincerity is an intolerance. There are no sincere liberal minds. There are, for that matter, no liberal minds."

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