Pessoa: An Experimental Life by Richard Zenith - review by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel

Strange Case of Dr Nabos & Mr Reis

Pessoa: An Experimental Life

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Allen Lane 1,088pp £40 order from our bookshop
 

The art of biography (which Kipling called ‘higher cannibalism’) involves being remarkably picky. Even when the whole of the subject’s body is laid on the table for consumption, one biographer goes for the heart, the other for the head, a third for the guts or the feet. Few biographies offer a full-course meal because a truly comprehensive representation of any one person is almost impossible. That very impossibility is largely what makes Richard Zenith’s thousand-page biography of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa so remarkable. This is especially so because Pessoa (his name in Portuguese means ‘person’) was not one single person but a multitude of individuals; Pessoa: An Experimental Life is the interwoven biographies of many different writers and thinkers, of which only one could boast (though he didn’t) of having flesh and blood. They were all the brain children of Pessoa, but they were not pseudonyms of the author. Pessoa himself defined them as heteronyms, other beings who, though born from his imagination, acquired lives of their own and therefore became possible fodder for biographers. Pessoa gave most of them birth dates, occupations, bibliographies and physical and psychological characteristics. In Pessoa’s case, Rimbaud’s Je est un autre became astonishingly plural.

Fernando Pessoa was born on 13 June 1888 in Lisbon. Eight years later, after the early death of his father from tuberculosis, he moved with his mother to South Africa, where her second husband had been appointed Portuguese consul in Durban. Fernando attended Durban High School, where he

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