Pseudonymous writing is not rare in literature or philosophy (Kierkegaard provides a celebrated instance). 'Heteronyms', as Pessoa called and defined them, are something different and exceedingly strange. For each of his 'voices', Pessoa conceived a highly distinctive poetic idiom and technique, a complex biography, a context of literary influence and polemics and, most arrestingly of all, subtle interrelations and reciprocities of awareness. Octavio Paz defines Caeiro as 'everything that Pessoa is not and more'.
He is a man magnificently at home in nature, a virtuoso of pre-Christian innocence, almost a Portuguese teacher of Zen. Reis is a stoic Horatian, a pagan believer in fate, a player with classical myths less original than Caeiro, but more representative of modern symbolism. De Campos emerges as a Whitmanesque futurist, a dreamer in drunkenness, the Dionysian singer of what is oceanic and windswept in Lisbon. None of this triad resembles the metaphysical solitude, the sense of being an occultist medium which characterise Pessoa's 'own' intimate verse.
Other masks followed, notably one 'Bernardo Soares'. At some complex generative level, Pessoa's genius as a polyglot underlies, is mirrored by, his self-dispersal into diverse and contrasting personae. He spent nine of his childhood years in Durban. His first writings were in English with a South African tincture. He turned to Portuguese only in 1910 (there are significant analogies with Borges).
Pessoa earned his living as a translator. His legacy, enormous and in large part unpublished, comports philosophy, literary criticism, linguistic theory, writings on politics in Portuguese, English and French. Like Borges, Beckett or Nabokov, Pessoa shows up the naive, malignant falsehood still current in certain Fenland English faculties whereby only the monoglot and native speaker is inward with style and literary insight.
The fragmentary, the incomplete is of the essence of Pessoa's spirit. The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies - wonderfully echoed in Saramago's great novel about Ricardo Reis - inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion. Hence the vast torso of Pessoa's Faust on which he laboured much of his life. Hence the fragmentary condition of The Book of Disquiet which contains material that predates 1913 and which Pessoa left open-ended at his death. As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.
It was to Bernardo Soares that Pessoa ascribed his The Book of Disquiet, first made available in English in a briefer version by Richard Zenith in 1991. The translation is at once penetrating and delicately observant of Pessoa's astute melancholy. What is this Livro do Desassossego? Neither 'commonplace book', nor 'sketchbook', nor 'florilegium' will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge's notebooks and marginalia, of Valery's philosophic diary and of Robert Musil's voluminous journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa's chronicle. Nor do we know what parts thereof, if any, he ever intended for publication in some revised format.
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