‘Pessoa’ Is the Definitive and Sublime Life of a Genius and His Many Alternate Selves

Does genius know itself?

Adrienne Rich thought so. She held that Emily Dickinson selected seclusion not out of eccentricity however as a sensible measure: to lock her focus and preserve distraction at bay. As an artist, Dickinson “was determined to survive,” Rich wrote, “to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.”

Does genius concern itself?

Another determine stumbles into view now, in customary camouflage — darkish swimsuit, face obscured beneath owlish glasses and thick mustache — one other virtuoso of the essential economies that enable the creativeness to flourish. It is the nonpareil Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, critic, translator, mystic and large of modernism.

He printed a few books that went principally unnoticed, however there have been rumors of a trunk in his room stuffed along with his true life’s work. After his demise in 1935, the trunk was found, brimming with notes and jottings on calling playing cards and envelopes, no matter paper seemed to be useful. They had been authored not solely by Pessoa however by a flock of his personas (“heteronyms,” he known as them): a physician, a classicist, a bisexual poet, a monk, a lovesick teenage lady. Among his writings was a sheaf of papers that might turn into his masterpiece: “The Book of Disquiet,” a mock confession in sly, despairing aphorisms and false begins — “The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides.” In complete, Pessoa created dozens of heteronyms, most full with biographies, our bodies of work, critiques and correspondence. He was awed, and a little afraid of his thoughts, its “overabundance.” What relation did it bear to a household historical past of nervous instability?

Mammoth, definitive and chic, Richard Zenith’s new biography, “Pessoa,” provides us a group portrait of the author and his forged of alternate selves — together with a perceptive studying of what it meant for Pessoa to multiply (or did he fracture?) like this. What issues did it clear up — and invite? Zenith has written the solely type of biography of Pessoa really permissible, an account of a life that plucks at the very borders and burdens of the notion of a self. Was “Fernando Pessoa” the unique heteronym?

Richard Zenith, the creator of “Pessoa: A Biography.”Credit…Hanmin Kim

If we settle for that biography, as Julian Barnes as soon as wrote, is, at greatest, “a collection of holes tied together with string,” how does one go about writing a biography of a particular person allergic to personhood? That Pessoa’s identify is Portuguese for “person” should have given him perverse satisfaction, he who wrote the phrase “me” in citation 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 had been hooked on their obscurity, useless about their privateness and pained when pressured to “publish” their work. It’s the self conceived as a lump of sugar; it have to be dissolved to be tasted.

As a little one, Pessoa professed hatred for “decisive acts” and “definite thoughts.” His biggest book-length work was, actually, “a quintessential nonbook,” as Zenith describes it, having translated one version: “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 would possibly as nicely lasso a cloud. But Pessoa has loved a blissful afterlife, and been lucky in his translators — by no means extra so than with Zenith (one other apt identify). When we reward biographies, we frequently reward stamina and thoroughness, a type of density of element — the topic appears to dwell once more. In studying “Pessoa,” it was the necessity of a sure type of tact that struck me. Zenith reconstructs a life with supple scholarship and simply the proper of proportion, making use of the correct amount of stress on these formative experiences of childhood, grief, sexual anxiousness and humiliation, early ecstatic encounters with artwork — by no means shedding sight of the proven fact that Pessoa’s actual life occurred elsewhere, as for a lot of writers, alone and at his desk.

His delivery was front-page information, testomony to the reputation of his younger dad and mom in Lisbon society. Words had been early playthings — he delighted in road indicators — and he was severe, preternaturally personal and dignified, at the same time as a little one. Tragedy got here swiftly. His father and brother died of tuberculosis when he was a boy — and very disconcertingly, six months into mourning, his mom fell in love. She married and moved to South Africa, taking Pessoa along with her. He would return to Lisbon for extra education, have interaction in an epistolary flirtation with a younger girl who appeared to supply in him extra agitation than need. He remained, Zenith writes, “almost certainly a virgin.” He co-founded an influential literary journal. He drank. He died, in 1935, of cirrhosis.

Such a abstract tells us so little about Pessoa’s actual life, which unfurled in his creativeness. “To say things! To know how to say things!” he as soon as wrote.“To know how to exist through the written voice and the intellectual image! That’s what life is about: The rest is just men and women, imagined loves and fictitious vanities, excuses born of poor digestion and forgetting, people squirming beneath the great abstract boulder of a meaningless blue sky, the way insects do when you lift a stone.”

Infatuated with nullity and with embodying the world, he transmuted all of life into literary expertise, of the purest type. He created personas to argue with each other (and to deflate his personal certainties); he scattered riddles for his biographers, and for readers left a imaginative and prescient of the world as “a great open book,” as he wrote, “that smiles at me in an unknown tongue.”