The spirit of Fernando Pessoa permeates modern Portugal like a watermark a sheet of letter-paper.
His features – as instantly recognisable as those of his contemporary, Charlie Chaplin – appear on postcards and coffee mugs, tourist brochures and literary reviews, matchboxes and ceramic tiles everywhere one looks. With his Fedora hat, trim moustache and circular spectacles, he is as susceptible to caricature as Don Quixote himself – a distinctly Portuguese and very unwarlike Knight of the Long Countenance, his entire existence, his entire significance, capable of encapsulation by means of a handful of well-chosen lines.
A curious fate for a man who wrote in the form of more than fifty heteronyms, or alternative personalities, and whose 25,000 pages of published and unpublished writings are still being edited by literary scholars more than seventy-five years after his death.
Born in Lisbon in 1880, Fernando António Nogueira de Seabra Pessoa was one of those writers who have the ability to knock on the door of the next century and define it with the quality of their tap. Like the equally rooted and isolated Franz Kafka, like the contrastingly itinerant and isolated Rainer Maria Rilke, Pessoa had the ability to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and create lines of thought along which subsequent generations would travel for lifetimes in search of themselves. He wrote lines so simple and resonant that most authors would sign away their entire bibliography to have penned them: “My past is everything I failed to be”; “Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily”; “I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me”. And yet Pessoa published only one work in his native Portuguese in his entire life – Mensagem [Message] (1934), along with two in English, his pseudo-native tongue – Antinous and 35 Sonnets (published together in 1918). None of these titles were enthusiastically received.
Pessoa brought out stories, poems, essays and translations in a number of avant-garde contemporary magazines, but the works for which he is known today – the collections of poetry and the Book of Disquiet – were unknown to his contemporaries.
A freelance translator for most of his life, Pessoa lived precariously on the continuing commercial activities of a nation whose empire had been lost and whose political system imploded while he was still a student, obliging him to abandon his university studies and live from high dreams and lowly translation commissions for the rest of his existence. An inheritance into which he came in his early twenties was squandered in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a publishing house. Other of his projects – a guidebook to his native Lisbon, for instance, or a plan for a revolutionary Anglo-Portuguese institution that would promote the cultures and economies of both nations to their mutual benefit – never saw the light of day. He is the doyen of the pocketbook, the borrowed sheet of letterhead paper, the envelope-back: he is the Grand Master of abandonment, the uncontested genius of the art of non-completion.
And so he lives on – mascot of a Portugal suspended still between an impossibly distant past and an impossibly distant future, the weight of the Golden Age of Exploration bearing down on his shoulders, the hammering of vast new factories quickening his footsteps, the mist of the near and far Atlantic Ocean fogging up his indispensable spectacles.
He lives on – unlike the father who died when Pessoa was five, or the one-year-old brother who was to follow the father to the grave six months later. He lives on, haunting us with the memories of the ghosts of which he never speaks, the descriptions of lives that were never lived, the intimate reflections of characters who were born to die before they could ever be known.
Small wonder that Pessoa hangs on the air of Portugal like a half-remembered song. He is the high priest of mourning in an age that distrusts its priests and has entirely forgotten how to mourn. His image lives on for us, as essentially true and essentially false as a brilliant line, read many years ago and never quite forgotten, that one is spontaneously attempting to quote from memory.