Magazine article The Spectator

A Man of Many and Curious Parts

Magazine article The Spectator

A Man of Many and Curious Parts

Article excerpt

Many of his compatriots would claim that Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was, with the exception of Camoens, the greatest of Portuguese poets. If, as he certainly deserved, he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, whom would the Swedish jury have summoned to Stockholm? Would it have been Alexander Search, who produced some 200 poems in English? Alberto Caeiro, billed as `Nature's poet', who lived with an old aunt in the country? The classicist and physician Ricardo Reis? Alvaro de Campos, cosmopolitan and bisexual smoker of opium and drinker of absinthe?

These were only the most prolific of the 75 and more 'heteronyms' through whom Pessoa found utterance. Each had both his own history and his own immediately identifiable style. Far more justifiably than Whitman, Pessoa could claim, 'I am large, I contain multitudes.'

Pessoa's life story has many parallels with that of his contemporary Cavafy. Both men spent their early years in an Anglophone environment, Cavafy in England and Pessoa in South Africa. Both, their families having slithered down the financial ladder, worked in humdrum jobs and lived with relatives or in shabby rented accommodation. Cavafy was a homosexual, and Pessoa, whom many believe to have died a virgin, was probably one. In adulthood, Cavafy rarely left Alexandria, just as Pessoa rarely left Lisbon. It was only after death that each received full recognition of his genius.

When hepatitis, the result of heavy drinking, killed Pessoa, he left behind him a large trunk stuffed, as the editor and translator Richard Zenith describes it in his brilliant introduction, with poetry, prose, plays, philosophy, criticism, translations, linguistic theory, political writings, horoscopes and assorted other texts, variously typed, hand-written or illegibly scrawled in Portuguese, English and French.

Such a legacy inevitably delighted scholars, as they set about scrabbling among its contents, much as, after a reclusive millionaire's death, his heirs set about ransacking the crowded attics of his mansion. Almost three-quarters of a century after Pessoa's death, the scholars are still at work.

Into his trunk Pessoa deposited, at random over a period of many years, the materials for what Zenith views as not a book but its subversion and negation `the ingredients for a book whose recipe is to keep shifting'. …

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