Fernando Pessoa — Heteronym — Riff

The days between Christmas and New Year is time to read all that has piled up over the year. Some reading is done, but time always gets the better of me. I have been digesting and making my way through three books of poetry by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) until now. For such a complex and fragmented poet, it only seems right that, with a nod and deep bow to Biblioklept, this is a riff.

  1. How well is Pessoa known in the Anglosphere? As a multilingual from an often monolingual culture, this worries me. I have never asked much about what more literary friends know about Pessoa (if anything), but his European contemporaries, Rilke, Cavafy, Lorca and the like, come up with an irregular frequency in conversation, on blogs I read or podcasts I listen to. Pessoa never. The Poetry Foundation (only) has six poems on its website, books are available in translation, but who knows? Is it the heteronyms putting people off?
  2. Or is it the “problematic” way he published so little during his lifetime (he seems to have been quite evasive with publishers) and most of his work ended up on paper in a trunk when Pessoa died in 1935? For any writer, this would be a difficult task: for an author with multiple writing personae like Pessoa, even more so. For example, the first Portuguese edition of The Book of Disquiet was published in 1982; the edition I’ve read not until 1998. And even today, the “critical version” of key texts is disputed—in the back of one of these books is a fierce afterword explaining why the Critical Edition “mutilates” and using a “patchwork quilt technique”.
  3. The poems or prose in all the Pessoa books I’ve read are numbered. These numbers are probably interchangeable.
  4. I first read Pessoa a decade ago in London. In The Book of Disquiet Pessoa comes close to the novel, through a sequence of unlinked first-person prose pieces (it could be a sequence prose poems, but lets not complicate things by making them more esoteric) about the melancholy life of an office clerk/flâneur in Lisbon. I won’t describe it more, you should read it.
  5. I was reading The Book of Disquiet one evening on a suburban train home and another traveller called across to me from the other side of the aisle: he had read it, wanted me to know how much he had enjoyed it and nothing more. This happened, and never before or since to me in London. This is a book that moves.
  6. I had just signed the lease for my apartment in Rio and visited a friend who had helped me buy a fridge. I mentioned that her apartment—part of a complex of buildings from the 1930’s—looked like a mental image from The Book of Disquiet (I don’t know Lisbon). She searched out the book, picked a passage at random and read it. It fitted perfectly. Perhaps this is the best way of rereading the book, like someone might pick a passage at random from the Bible, Quran or Hafiz’s Divan. This is a book that moves.
  7. I have been dancing around the heteronyms. Pessoa created the concept of the heteronym, as a writer with a fictional biography and different writing styles. In this blog, there are four: Bernardo Soares, the author of The Book of Disquiet and three poets: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos. Pessoa also wrote in his own name and describes this multiple fakery in “Autopsychography”:
    The poet is a man who feigns
    And feigns so thoroughly, at last
    He manages to feign the pain
    The pain he really feels,
  8. Alberto Caeiro is a pseudo-ingénu, a “neopagan” shepherd, an influence on Reis and Campos. Reis a Luso-Greek Horace, according to Pessoa. Campos an intense sensationist and performance poet ante litteram. But does concentrating on the individual styles or biographies of these heteronyms distract from the poetry for whoever might be new to Pessoa? Perhaps, but without prematurely shutting Pessoa off as a “difficult writer”.
  9. Yes, at their most extreme, each heteronym is easily told apart, but it is (physically) the same poet writing in different, contradictory directions. And then again, each volume has an appendix of poems on the borders between one heteronym and another.
  10. But the enigma of who is writing shouldn’t distract from the actual writing (easier said that done). Here are a few links to some English translations:
    Alberto Caeiro: The Herdsman and Discontinuous Poems
    Ricardo Reis: Two Odes
    Álvaro de Campos (the first one is quite long): Triumphal Ode and Lisbon Revisited
  11. Heteronymity blows apart the contemporary poetic concept of “voice”. Pessoa does not restrict himself to one: a quick look at Wikipedia will tell you that he created as many as he wanted—and especially through Campos goes in all directions at the same time, from ironic sonnets to wanting to be sexually possessed by machines in the Triumphal Ode—or in the Maritime Ode, where he fantasizes being the male and female victims of a pirate attack. Caeiro and Reis work within more contained specific poetic directions, but there is no “Masochism through machines” in the meticulous language of Reis exhorting his Lydia to carpe diem (or perhaps terrorizing her with the concept).
  12. As with other Modernist writers, Pessoa has a wide range of influences: the influence of Stoicism on the philosophy of Caeiro and Reis reminded me of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (not a favourite book) or the little of what I know about Epicureanism; Campos has an obvious influence from Walt Whitman.
  13. Parts of the poetry seem to prefigure things today: the desire in Caeiro for an unmediated relationship to nature has echoes of contemporary ecopoetry; there is a Campos poem that begins: “In my engineer’s cubicle, I plot, alone, the plan, / Develop a project, isolated here, / Remote even from who I am.” Anyone who has worked in an office cubicle will understand immediately.
  14. Heteronymity also ties up biographical readings in knots. The heteronym is scrapes away the biography of the physical poet, but the poetry (prose too) creates its own fictional biographies. When poetry is the medium of (auto-)biography, it is difficult to parse that out again and concentrate on the words. But even that fake autobiography is a conscious fiction: Caeiro dies in 1915, but Pessoa continues to write poems in his name into the 1930’s. It is perhaps this psychological unpicking that Pessoa invites that is one of the most rewarding things whirring in the background as you read.
  15. Yes, Pessoa is a complex writer, but that’s half the enjoyment.

2 Responses to Fernando Pessoa — Heteronym — Riff

  1. Rob,
    Thanks for this great post.

    Pessoa sounds an interesting writer. I have only heard of The Book of Disquiet before and have been tempted in the past to read it. Perhaps now I should take the plunge.

    One of the things that prevented me previously was which translation: there seemed to be several English versions, none of them complete. Also do I really want to read another tricksy writer? Sometimes you just long for good involving stories without having to bother about the games the writer is playing. I say this as a long standing admirer of Nabokov!


    • Rob Packer says:

      Hi Peter,
      In the Book of Disquiet, I’m not sure I’d describe Pessoa as a tricsky writer. But you should/must take the plunge! OK, so there is no complete version, but that’s the point really and what makes it so rewarding to read. Try just dipping into it.
      It’s indescribable and an absolute joy.

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