Fernando Pessoa: multiplicity in Lisbon

In January we spent a few days in Lisbon. Fabulous place, a million miles from anything even vaguely Nordic. On the lookout for connections, it was no real surprise to discover that global traveller HC Andersen visited in 1866, publishing Et Besøg i Portugal in 1868. Rather more surprising was the link to Denmark’s other 19th century literary titan; like Kierkegaard, poet Fernando Pessoa was a prime exponent of the use of the the heteronym in his writing.

Now feeling like an old friend, prior to our trip to Lisbon I had never heard of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), Portugal’s modernist poet, writer, translator, philosopher – and anointed flâneur. How can that be? A lifelong Anglophile, Pessoa lived in Durban from the age of seven to 17, attending Durban High School, from which he matriculated with a prize in English. His earliest works were written in English, he translated a number of books from Portuguese into English (and vice versa), and in 1925 he even wrote a guidebook to Lisbon in English (Lisbon: what the tourist should see, unpublished until 1992).

The word pessoa means person in Portuguese, deriving from the Latin persona, the mask worn by Roman actors; just one of the small details which make the man so intriguing. An outsider’s outsider, for most of his life Pessoa worked as a freelance commercial translator while contributing poetry and essays to journals and newspapers. He was interested in theosophy, spiritualism and the occult, corresponding with Aleister Crowley, and helped him to stage a fake suicide in Lisbon in 1930. A keen amateur astrologist, Pessoa made horoscopes of his clients and friends, as well as of his heteronyms and even of literary journals. All this had a strong influence on his writing; he felt “sometimes suddenly being owned by something else”.

In 1915 as part of a group of artists and poets, including close friends José de Almada Negreiros and Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa created the literary magazine Orpheu, which introduced modernist literature and art to Portugal, if in only two issues.

From 1905 to 1920 he lived in 15 different locations in Lisbon, while from 1907 until his death he worked in 21 firms in Lisbon’s downtown, sometimes in more than one at the same time. Two favourite haunts were A Brasileira, the preferred café of the Orpheu group, and Martinho da Arcada on Praça do Comércio, his ‘office’ during the 1920s and 1930s. Given all that it’s not surprising that there is a full Pessoa audio tour and map experience.

Pessoa created over 70 heteronyms, imaginary characters allowing him to write in different styles. The best known are:

  • Alberto Caeiro (1889-1915), the ‘master’ of the other heteronyms and even Pessoa himself, a rural, uneducated poet of ideas who wrote in free verse (Complete poems and more | Uncollected poems)
  • Álvaro de Campos (1890- ), a well-travelled naval engineer who returned to Lisbon to stay in the fateful year of 1926; influenced by Futurism (poems inc Lisbon revisited, from visits in 1923 and 1926)
  • Ricardo Reis (1887- ), a doctor who composed Horatian odes; as a Royalist Reis fled to Brazil in 1910
  • Bernardo Soares, bookkeeper and flâneur, a ‘semi-heteronym’ who wrote mainly in prose; pages from his journal were found in a trunk in Pessoa’s apartment and published in English in 1991 as The book of disquiet

De Campos and Reis discussed the work of Caeiro in essays and with each other, rejecting the interpretation of their publisher, Pessoa. Pessoa-himself gradually becomes another heteronym, another mask.

“Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist,” wrote Álvaro de Campos, sparing the author the trouble of living a ‘real’ life.

José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, paid the ultimate tribute to this dazzling and sustained feat of the imagination in his novel, The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, which sees Reis return to Lisbon on hearing of the death of Pessoa.

It’s difficult to gauge the true significance of all this to Portugal’s cultural life, however the man himself is pretty unavoidable in the cityscape and seems to have attained iconic status, in a similar way to James Joyce in Dublin. We made tracks to the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a house museum-cum-shrine and the city’s premiere literary location, the site of Pessoa’s last home from 1920 until his death.

On the ground floor was an exhibition of some of the numerous representations of Pessoa in art, while the second floor houses a reconstruction of Pessoa’s flat, with memorabilia including his school report in a glass case, his glasses and a rather functional bookcase – if not the trunk/s where he stored his writing. After his death 25,574 items were inventoried.

The museum is also custodian of Pessoa’s personal library of 1200 books (no Kierkegaard).

a Pessoa collage

Top right is a portrait by Almada Negreiros, but the most common image of Pessoa on the street is that seen in the cutout bottom right, taken from a photo of yer man striding (definitely not strolling) through town. A shot of him enjoying a glass of port comes a close second. In a 1931 photo, deep in conversation in the Café Martinho, he looks like a small amiable owl.

There are two Pessoa statues in town. The one in familiar kitschy style outside A Brasileira (not in fact his favourite café), was even in January a prime selfie spot; Pessoa would surely prefer the rather more surrealistic representation round the corner outside the house he was born in.

The 1925 Lisbon guidebook is available in at least three editions (2008 | 2011 | 2015), and I’m pretty sure I spotted a coffee table version in the airport bookshop. There’s even a graphic novel, Another side of Pessoa by João Viegas.

What of his writing? The consensus (Gdn | Alfred MacAdam) seems to be that The book of disquiet is for sleepless nights, something to dip into at random, something to be reread rather than read…in the same way it feels more in the spirit of the man to take him a poem at a time:

I’m beginning to know myself. I don’t exist. I’m the gap between what I’d like to be and what others have made of me…That’s me. Period.

For more poetry see the Poetry Foundation and Poetry International, or one of the many published collections by Richard Zenith (other translators are available). 2021 update: Zenith has now published his biography of Pessoa: an experimental life (Gdn; Spectator).

The trunk and the fable, by Emília Nadal

Sources: Exploring Lisbon with Pessoa | Fernando Pessoa: an Englishly Portuguese, endlessly multiple poet (64 min vid with transcript) | Fernando Pessoa and the multiple faces we show on the netFernando Pessoa’s disappearing act | Inside ourselves | An interview with Richard ZenithLooking for Mr Person (Parnassus 24(1) 1999; via Questia) | ‘Oh Lisbon, my home!’

More? MultiPessoa | Pessoa’s trunk | Wuthering Expectations

Updates: more Pessoa spotting (“maybe more cities than I know use once-obscure Modernist writers as their mascot, as their brand”)…the Lisbon edition of Vide Verden, a Danish cultural travel book series, has a chapter on Pessoa by Dan Ringgard, plus one on HCA by Henrik Wivel…Literary Tourist reports on a HCA tour…Pessoa at Eurovision: Portugal’s 2017 winner Salvador Sabral is lead singer in a band named Alexander Search (each member of the band adopts a different character when on stage, obv)…Nicholas Shakespeare on Barry Hatton’s Queen of the sea: a history of Lisbon

On Pessoa, DR inevitably traces the parallels with Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms, his daily walks in a small European capital, his one brief platonic relationship, his writing process standing at a desk and wandering from one manuscript to another, from one pseudonym to another; his idea that we choose who we are, responded to by Pessoa in multiples, ending up as a shadow.

Henrik Wivel retraced HCA’s 1866 journey as part of the 200th anniversary celebrations of his birth in 2005, resulting in the travel book Det jordiske Paradis. Wivel visited the O’Neill family, descendants of the family visited by HCA 150 years earlier, an Irish-German family who emigrated to Portugal in the 18th century and exported wares to the rest of Europe, including Denmark. HCA got to know the three O’Neill brothers nearly forty years earlier when they lived in Copenhagen, and diligently paid each one a lengthy visit. The home of the oldest, then Denmark’s general consul, now belongs to the American Embassy and can be visited with prior notice.

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