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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography


Richard Zenith

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To purchase Pessoa

Title: Pessoa
Author: Richard Zenith
Genre: Biography
Written: 2021
Length: 950 pages
Availability: Pessoa - US
Pessoa - UK
Pessoa - Canada
  • US subtitle: A Biography
  • UK subtitle: An Experimental Life
  • With numerous photographs, maps, and Pessoa's maternal family tree, as well as a Chronology

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Our Assessment:

A : pretty much everything you could ask for in a biography -- and great subject-matter

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 30/7/2021 Boyd Tonkin
The Guardian . 2/8/2021 Peter Conrad
Literary Review . 8/2021 Alberto Manguel
London Rev. of Books . 12/8/2021 Colm Tóibín
New Statesman A+ 18/8/2021 John Gray
The NY Rev. of Books A 7/10/2021 Anahid Nersessian
The NY Times . 14/7/2021 Parul Sehgal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 15/8/2021 Benjamin Moser
Sunday Times . 1/8/2021 David Sexton

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Over these thousand-odd pages, Zenith mimics his subject’s flair for “self-multiplication” to become historical scene-painter, literary critic, archival sleuth. He aligns Pessoa’s work with kindred visionaries -- Yeats, Blake, Whitman, Wilde, Kierkegaard -- who split the self into a crowd of personae. He maps the murky labyrinth of Portuguese politics. (...) Erudite, sensitive and entertaining, this multi-faceted portrait pays its giant homage to a man who wasn’t there." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Zenith fills Pessoa’s humdrum, routine-bound life out with bulky accounts of the political convulsions he lived through and the wide-ranging cultural forays (.....) The biography is best when treating Pessoa as a tragicomic oddity, almost a holy fool." - Peter Conrad, The Guardian

  • "The marvel of Zenith’s biography is that he has managed to follow the tracks of them all, with their many detours, changes and evolutions, physical as well as philosophical, in a maddening kaleidoscope of identities where no one has the final word. Sometimes these individuals are aware of their shared multiplicity; in other cases, they remain intriguingly ignorant of their dream-like condition." - Alberto Manguel, Literary Review

  • "The length can be explained by Zenith’s positioning of Pessoa in the context of what was happening in Lisbon at the time. The portrait of Pessoa that emerges is that of a solitary figure who was nonetheless intensely involved in literary cliques and movements, with magazines either planned or published. In a way, Zenith’s book makes Pessoa less self-generating and more a strange product of Portuguese life, his lassitude taking its bearings from a national inability to do much, his hidden energy having its source in something secret and powerful in the city of Lisbon itself. The biography also takes care to emphasise Pessoa’s deep engagement with politics. (...) Zenith’s biography makes clear, in painstaking detail, how random and haphazard Pessoa’s thinking was." - Colm Tóibín, London Review of Books

  • "Zenith's portrayal of Pessoa and his life is more than a masterpiece of literary biography. More than 1,000 pages long, not one of them wasted, it is a tour de force of cultural history." - John Gray, New Statesman

  • "The success of Pessoa lies in Zenith's panoramic approach and his skill in setting Pessoa's orderly, insular way of life against the riotous backdrop of the early twentieth century. Although the book advertises itself as a biography, it functions just as well as a history of literary modernism (.....) A successful biography will have to do at least one of two things: present new information about its subject or cast well-established facts in a new light. Pessoa does both, in elegant, engaging prose that has the propulsive energy of a historical novel fueled by the occasional jolt of surrealism" - Anahid Nersessian, The New York Review of Books

  • "Zenith has written the only kind of biography of Pessoa truly permissible, an account of a life that plucks at the very borders and burdens of the notion of a self. (...) Zenith reconstructs a life with supple scholarship and just the right kind of proportion, applying the right amount of pressure on those formative experiences of childhood, grief, sexual anxiety and humiliation, early ecstatic encounters with art -- never losing sight of the fact that Pessoa's real life happened elsewhere, as for many writers, alone and at his desk." - Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

  • "Zenith's book is long, though not much longer than the biography published 71 years ago, and if it includes facts that were already known as well as facts that have come to light, its real merits lie elsewhere. The first might be regarding Pessoa's ambition. (...) The second attainment of the book is the homosexualization of Pessoa. (...) Unlike so many writers, who built a nicely furnished house or even a neighborhood, Pessoa really did build an entire city. Incomplete -- hieratic -- chaotic: but a city nonetheless. It was a city that needed a guide. Thanks to Zenith, it has one at last." - Benjamin Moser, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Richard Zenith's mammoth Pessoa begins with a 'Dramatis Personae', brief descriptions of dozens of the fictional authors Fernando Pessoa "peopled his written world and even, in a certain way, his very life" with; it includes most (though not all) of the fictional authors then mentioned in the biography.
       As Zenith notes in his Prologue, all told:

Pessoa created more than one hundred fictitious authors in whose name he wrote or at least planned to write something. About thirty of these pseudo-authors signed at least one significant literary work, but there were only three full-fledged heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, and Álvaro de Campos.
       Pessoa is perhaps best known for the creation of these 'heteronyms' -- a term he differentiated from mere 'pseudonym', explaining:
Pseudonymous works are by the author in his own person, except in the name he signs; heteronymous works are by the author outside his own person. They proceed from a full-fledged individual created by him, like the lines spoken in a drama he might write.
       So also, Pessoa did not merely attribute different writings to different names, but rather imagined more and less full biographies for the purported authors. These included dates of birth (with Pessoa going so far as to cast astrological birth charts for some of his heteronyms) and -- often quite detailed -- backgrounds, and extended even to their individual signatures, which Pessoa practiced; in not a few cases he seems to have put more effort into conceiving an author than any of the author's actual writing (but then completing things, of any sort, was something Pessoa always had trouble with). Fictional and real worlds overlapped, with connections among his imagined littérateurs as well as with real-life figures (not least among them Fernando Pessoa) -- though the invented universe easily stretched further than the actual one, as, for example:
After inventing -- with his heteronyms -- a society of collaborating authors, critics, and translators, he then fabricated doctrines that they embodied, such as neo-paganism, and movements that they belonged to, such as sensationism.
       The heteronyms (using the term, as Zenith generally does, in its broadest definition to encompass all these alter-authors) include authors who wrote in three different languages -- English, Portuguese, and French --, interestingly, too:
Not a single one of his alter egos [...] was ever married, and not one of them had a mother or father, either because they had already died or simply because they are never mentioned.
       (Also: only a single one of the heteronyms in whose name he actually produced some work was female -- the doomed, hunchbacked nineteen-year-old Maria José, who suffered from tuberculosis and crippling arthritis .....)
       Ever overly ambitious, Pessoa bubbled over with ideas -- and authors; among the most amusing examples Zenith cites is that:
A list of "Publications to make money" from 1913 includes [...] three books by a fictitious Englishwoman, Olga Baker. Baker's works -- on the woman's toilette, on being a housewife, and on being a mother -- were supposed to be published in Portuguese, perhaps in translation by Fernando Pessoa. Despite his pathological unease around coquettish females and despite never showing any interest in motherly or housewifely occupations, Pessoa apparently deemed himself qualified to write for the expanding market in women's books. Unfortunately, none of his Baker books advanced beyond their titles.
       That Pessoa didn't get beyond the titles here is par for the course: though prolific, in any number of guises, from the first Pessoa had a great problem with follow-through, and his large output can be summed up as fragmentary disarray (though much of it turns out to be surprisingly and intricately systematic). Pessoa's vision was so much larger than himself, and multifarious, -- hence, perhaps, the need for other names under which to spread the varied work -- but also, ultimately, beyond him. He famously published relatively little during his lifetime, under his own or any other names, and his best-known work, The Book of Disquiet, was first published long after his 1935 death, in 1982 -- with Zenith noting:
To say that this is a book for which no definitive edition is possible would be a flagrant understatement were it not a conceptually erroneous statement, since there is no ur-book begging for definition. What the author actually produced is a quintessential non-book: 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."
       While there were numerous scattered publications during his lifetime, the bulk of Pessoa's output remained unpublished until after his death, much of it famously collected in an actual trunk -- the basis of what is now the Pessoa Archive. Zenith notes the Archive now consists of some 26,000 individual pieces by Pessoa (as well as 2500 pieces not by him, but which he collected -- writings by others, newspaper clippings, etc.), as well as twenty-nine notebooks containing another 1500 "sheets with writing"; some of this material is now already freely accessible online, at Espólio Fernando Pessoa, with more to follow. Much has now been posthumously published -- the bibliography provides an extensive list --, and Zenith has clearly worked his way well through the available material, published and not, in writing this detailed biography. (Zenith not only translated The Book of Disquiet, but edited a Portuguese edition; he has also edited numerous other Portuguese editions of Pessoa's work, as well as translated several collections into English.) As the tens of thousands of pages of Pessoa's work can almost all be described as odds and ends, it's remarkable that Zenith has managed such an orderly presentation; Pessoa certainly did not make things easy for any prospective biographer -- not least with his habit of: "assigning fictional dates to some of his works, usually for the sake of his life and literary development".
       For the most part, Zenith proceeds methodically chronologically. Pessoa was born in 1888, with his father dying in 1893 and a younger brother in 1894; his mother re-married at the end of 1895 (in a ceremony by proxy), and then took the young boy with her to Durban, where new husband, João Miguel Rosa, has been appointed Portuguese consul. Pessoa's early schooling was in English, and his earliest efforts at creative writing were largely in English, too; he was an exceptionally good and successful student, though ultimately did not pursue his academic studies very far. From early on he was also convinced of his own genius.
       Still in his youth, he already had ambitions of becoming a poet -- in English. An early alter-ego, under whose name he wrote both poetry and prose, was 'Charles Robert Anon' -- with Pessoa going so far as to rubber-stamp the name on almost all the pages of his own diary, an early example, Zenith suggests, of Pessoa: "turning his life into a literary reality". By the age of twenty he was still mainly writing in English, though, as Zenith points out, his poems in that language always had a touch of the literary and stylized, emulating the masters rather than writing more naturally, as he then would and could in Portuguese. Two self-published -- in 1918 -- chapbooks of poetry were both in English, and even got some review attention in the UK (including a review in the Times Literary Supplement) but amounted to only a limited breakthrough; he would have (slightly) more success with his Portuguese work -- in no small part also because he was then much more present and active in the Portuguese literary scene than he could ever hope to be in the English one. (He made plans to travel to London several times but, unsurprisingly, never got around to it.) While he eventually turned largely to writing in Portuguese he also continued to produce work in English (and, occasionally, French) throughout his life.
       Returning to Portugal still in his teens, he did not pursue his studies very far. He had a decent inheritance coming to him when he was twenty-one, and planned to use the money for a publishing venture -- Empreza Ibis. He had a publishing plan -- including many works to be written under various heteronyms, as well as many classical works -- but not quite enough of a business plan: his failure was quick and complete, the publishing house that opened in 1909 collapsed only a few months later, without having published a single book -- or indeed printing much beyond its own stationery. Pessoa would continue to have business ambitions, but his difficulties in seeing anything through -- or, indeed, much beyond their outlines -- was mostly fatal in this regard, and none of his ambitious projects got off the ground. (For much of his life, Pessoa earned a basic income by translating business letters for local businesses into English and French, giving him considerable insight into the workings of business at the time, but he seemed incapable of putting any of that to good use in his personal ventures.) In 1920 he did open the "general agency" Olisipo, which also then functioned as a smaller-scale and at least slightly more successful publisher ("a niche publisher, but not in the way the tireless planner had imagined", Zenith notes).
       Despite not publishing much, Pessoa did quite quickly establish himself as a significant and looked-up-to figure. His closest friendship was with Mário de Sá-Carneiro -- author of Lúcio's Confession --, including keeping up an intensive correspondence when Sá-Carneiro was in Paris, but Sá-Carneiro committed suicide in 1916. Still, Pessoa befriended many other writers -- and had his own heteronyms to keep him busy. Several magazine projects saw him (and his heteronyms) achieve more notoriety and renown -- though he would only publish one book of Portuguese poetry in his lifetime, in 1934.
       Despite also living in his own -- densely populated -- imagined world, Pessoa was extremely sociable, and also close to his large extended family, often living with relatives, well into adulthood. (Zenith does note that: "By the 1930s, Pessoa's cultivation of solitude was something of a legend among those who knew him or knew of him", but even in this time he seems to have spent much of his time in public places -- cafés -- rather than sequestering himself.) He borrowed money left and right, and was not very good about paying it back, though it caused him surprisingly few problems (though his sister Teca was considerably displeased by his (mis)handling of their mother's estate, when she found out about it).
       Zenith devotes considerable space to considering Pessoa's (lack of a) sex life -- noting that he presumably died without ever having had sex. Much of Pessoa's writing -- in his various guises -- nevertheless suggests a very strong preöccupation with the subject, and Pessoa's struggles with it. Complicating matters, Pessoa was clearly as much -- or more -- sexually attracted to men than women, made quite explicit in some of his writing (a good deal of which was quite strikingly explicit). Among the bizarre ways of confronting the problem are writings from heteronym Henry More, from Pessoa's automatic-writing phase, in which (Pessoa-writing-as-)More aggressively pushes Pessoa to act. Other writings suggest Pessoa was tempted, but couldn't bring himself to actually engage in the sexual act. For a while Pessoa was in an at least rudimentarily romantic relationship with a woman, Ophelia Queiroz, but he shied back from the closer relationship that she demanded; marriage, in particular, also seemed a step too far for him. (For all his confirmed bachelorhood, Pessoa surprisingly seems to have felt very comfortable with domestic family life -- apparently living happily in the bustling households of relatives, including at times with newborns in the house -- and even when he took his own apartment, he had a live-in household help, complete with her young daughter.)
       The one book by Pessoa published in his lifetime was the slim -- forty-four poems, printed: "in such a way that they would take up just over one hundred pages", to qualify for the more significant of two categories of a poetry prize -- Message. Zenith describes Pessoa as being somewhat ambivalent about its publication -- and then also disappointed that he didn't take the top prize among the state awards it was entered for. Its publication was not the career boost he might have hoped for, but certainly helped consolidate his already very solid reputation.
       Zenith frequently returns to Pessoa's most famous work, The Book of Disquiet, but its fragmentary nature, the bits and pieces written and collected over many years, make it difficult for him to give a good sense of its development (and the work as a whole); if Pessoa falls short, it is most obviously here, that work the hardest to fit in the chronological account. Zenith does note that the author The Book of Disquiet is ascribed to, Bernardo Soares, differs from most of Pessoa's invented writers:
He was an impersonation of Pessoa in his forties, an expressive though smaller-than-life replica, with the traits and features somewhat rearranged. Pessoa would later explain that Soares was not a true heteronym but a semiheteronym, not a different personality but a "mutilation" of his own personality.
       From his youth, when he had self-published newspapers, Pessoa showed interest beyond the mere literary, and Zenith is good in chronicling Pessoa's political positions and his commentary on some of the political issues of the day. As Zenith notes, he was already exposed to dramatic times in Durban -- with Gandhi among those living there in the same period -- and Portugal would also undergo drastic political changes over his lifetime, from the end of the monarchy to the rise of Salazar.
       Other obsessions include astrology -- where, naturally:
Realizing, it seems, that he could use an assistant to help him study, theorize, and put all he learned into practice, he invented a heteronymous astrologer, Raphael Baldaya, whose place and date of birth were never established but whom he endowed with a very long beard.
       Pessoa also corresponded with and met Aleister Crowley, though he wasn't quite up to following Crowley's more adventurous paths.
       Pessoa's life was not uninteresting, but it was all his grand plans, projects, and ambitions that really make for a fascinating story; one would almost wish for a catalogue of all of these, realized and not, with brief descriptions. The gamut runs from the board games he invented and hoped to sell (war games, as well: "Table-Cricket, Table-Football, and an astrological game he called Aspects") to an English-language travel guide to Lisbon for foreigners -- a project he actually completed, though, typically, did not see published (it was first published in 1992); Zenith notes that it does not rank among Pessoa's more impressive works, to say the least ("Many of the book's sentences read better, no doubt, when translated out of English"). Among other sideline-work was some advertising-copywriting -- with mixed results, Zenith suggesting that in one case, "Coca-Cola, thanks in part to Fernando Pessoa, would not be sold in Portugal for the next fifty years" (an underappreciated service to the nation if there ever was one ...).
       With his hopes of running a publishing house and general interest in literature, Zenith also chronicles much of Pessoa's reading-interest -- from Pessoa's interest in publishing The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to a rare case of his actually completing a project, his translating Anna Katharine Green's The Leavenworth Case. A nice detail: Pessoa purchased a two-volume edition of James Joyce's Ulysses in 1933 -- but: "Both volumes have come down to us in pristine condition, without so much as a fleeting pencil mark", as Pessoa doesn't seem to have immersed himself in the book after all.
       What is perhaps most fascinating about Pessoa is just how many ideas he had and how little he could bring himself to follow through on. He seems to have been well aware of the issue -- at one point claiming:
Yesterday I drew up five and complete projects, but I can no longer remember what they were, or why.
       Early on we already get a typical example, as he works on translations of works by Antero de Quental: Pessoa: "worked on English translations of more than thirty of Quental's sonnets, none of which he finished".
       Perhaps the best summing up comes in Zenith's description of Pessoa considering turning to a Paris institute for mesmerism as he looks for answers and help, describing himself as an "hysterical neurasthenic" in the letter he drafts:
My extreme emotionalism unsettles my will; my extreme rationalism -- fruit of an overly analytical and logical intelligence -- crushes and debilitates this will that my emotions had already unsettled. [...] I always want to do three or four things at once, but I ultimately do none of them and, what's more, don't want to do any of them.
     As we might expect, Pessoa's intention to seek out treatment for this problem was stymied by his inability to finish and post the letter.
       Pessoa is an impressive achievement, and easily qualifies as the definitive biography. Zenith covers Pessoa's life with impressive thoroughness and is particularly strong in tying in Pessoa's (and his heteronym's) poetry, as well as providing historical context for Pessoa's writings and ambitions; the backgrounds and social and political situations in Durban and then especially Portugal and Lisbon are also particularly well presented throughout the biography. Minor quibbles includes Zenith occasionally toying with speculation in some of his interpretations of events and writing -- most of these questions could be left up to the reader -- and the very occasional and completely superfluous personal interjection: no one needs to know that: "A chill ran down my spine when I first laid eyes on this document".
       At nearly a thousand pages, Pessoa is a long book, and Zenith tracks Pessoa's moves -- and writing -- very closely, making the exhaustive study also somewhat exhausting, but there's so much remarkable (and often quirky) detail -- it's a strange, fascinating life that's chronicled here -- that it does make for very good reading, beginning to end. It's certainly essential reading for anyone curious about Pessoa, but, given the unusual (life-)story, should also easily appeal to general readers as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 August 2021

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Pessoa: Reviews: Fernando Pessoa: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American writer and translator Richard Zenith was born in 1956.

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© 2021 the complete review

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