81 Pen Names, a Faked Suicide and 25,000 Unpublished Pages? Oh, Yes
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because those who avoid notice are the ones it sometimes makes the most sense to notice.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, since sitting in a café in Portugal, drinking port, fittingly enough, it made perfect sense that someone would toss over a novel called The Book of Disquiet. “It was written by this guy named Pessoa,” said the tosser, Andre Mendes. “He was a 47-year-old accountant who died, and when they were throwing out his stuff, they found a trunk full of his writing and it was the greatest thing people had ever read. Now he’s a national hero.”
Part truth, part fiction — Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa would have had it no other way. And the way that Mendes had it was a perfect lead-in to the fact that Pessoa, whose name means person in Portuguese, had by some estimates 81 pen names. Not just pen names, but personalities and job descriptions to go with them. Not that common in 1905, when he got back to Lisbon after he spent the 10 previous years of his youth in South Africa, courtesy of a stepfather’s job.
So while he did die at 47 in 1935 — too typically, for a writer, from cirrhosis of the liver — Pessoa was anything and everything other than an accountant. But what he was, most assuredly, was a writer. And not a particularly unsung, that is unpublished, one either. Ever since he could hold a pen, he was writing — poems, stories, longer-form stuff, eventually translations — under his own name occasionally, and often under one of the 81 others. All told: 25,574 unpublished pages.
Moreover, while the names changed, the prose and poems did not so much. They were uniformly brilliant and were often about nothing but that brilliance, as he could hold forth on a whole lot of nothing — life as an accountant, for example — so believably and so well that, yeah, people thought he had been one. Simple, direct and completely enveloping. Pessoa was a giant who was largely blind to being a giant, and while being politically inconsistent in a time when this could have been dangerous (he actively opposed Catholicism, communism, fascism and socialism while supporting military dictatorships before he stopped supporting them), it was clear that nothing interested him more than writing. Astrology came close. As did his more than serious flirtation with Aleister Crowley, whose presence in Lisbon at one point caused Pessoa to fake a suicide to avoid meeting him.
But writing was, in true monomaniacal fashion, his wife and his life, to paraphrase Lou Reed. And the absence of the former in any reports of his life, and therefore the absence of offspring, makes this more understandable than not.
“There are metaphors more real than the people who walk in the street. There are images tucked away in books that live more vividly than many men and women. There are phrases from literary works that have a positively human personality. There are passages from my own writing that chill me with fright, so distinctly do I feel them as people, so sharply outlined do they appear against the walls of my room, at night, in shadows,” said Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet. “I’ve written sentences whose sound, read out loud or silently (impossible to hide their sound), can only be of something that acquired absolute exteriority and a full-fledged soul.”
Or to hear Lydia Lunch, writer and literary monster in her own right, tell it, “Pessoa … a hilarious pessimist. Second only to E.M. Cioran.”