It is no secret that modern art, with its embrace of so-called primitivist motifs and simultaneous idealization and disparagement of non-European cultures, also profited from the ravages of global capitalism. Pessoa’s poetry was no exception. By placing Pessoa in this larger setting, Zenith makes his urgent abdications of identity as much a response to world-historical events as a private psychological compulsion ... 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 ... Zenith has also done considerable work translating unpublished documents and recovering the stories behind Pessoa’s failed magazine projects ... At its best, Zenith’s biography is an act of intellectual magic in exactly this sense. By giving Pessoa the kind of body he never really wanted—distinct, desiring, of the world and not merely surrounded by it—the book reconciles this singularly single being to his multiple selves.
Even now, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) remains, in the English-speaking world at least, one of the lesser-known of the truly great writers of the 20th century. This immense, magnificent biography by Richard Zenith is going to change that ... you finish wholly engrossed, not wanting the book one page shorter, despite all the Portuguese history and side biographies that bulk it up. And the reason for that is Pessoa’s own writing, so perfectly introduced, quoted and translated by Zenith throughout. It justifies all this demand on your attention: so direct and original, possessing throughout — despite Pessoa’s disbelief in there being any such thing as an essential self — the radical honesty that’s the mark of all great writing.
Mammoth, definitive and sublime, Richard Zenith’s new biography, Pessoa, gives us a group portrait of the writer and his cast of alternate selves — along with a perceptive reading of what it meant for Pessoa to multiply (or did he fracture?) like this. What problems did it solve — and invite? 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 ... When we praise biographies, we often praise stamina and thoroughness, a kind of density of detail — the subject seems to live again. In reading Pessoa, it was the necessity of a certain kind of tact that struck me. 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.
... monumental ... Pessoa, who had few intimates in life, is lucky to have found this posthumous friend. 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 ... Zenith brings a nuanced understanding to this question, and describes how the poet finally sublimated his erotic yearnings into a mystical chastity ... The poet’s struggles with his sexuality, his inability to finish projects, his swings between grandiosity and depression, his splintered sense of self: All of this sounds awfully familiar to anyone who has studied alcoholism. So, of course, does Pessoa’s death at 47, as an old man, his body wasted by drink. Yet in a book filled with so much highly informed psychological speculation, Zenith mostly steers clear of this aspect ... 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.
At intervals, this gargantuan yet graceful biography reminds you of its subject’s fabulous oddity ... Zenith, a distinguished editor and translator of Pessoa’s prose and verse, calls [The Book of Disquiet] 'a heap of beautiful fragments, forever unstitched'. As biographer, he weaves a broader cloth. He recasts Pessoa as an enterprising, all-round literary innovator rather than the icon of existential solitude encountered in Disquiet. Over these thousand-odd pages, Zenith mimics his subject’s flair for 'self-multiplication' to become historical scene-painter, literary critic, archival sleuth.
Uniting all four poetic personae are an ambivalent regard for consciousness and for identity, and a restrained anxiety about knowledge and reality, perhaps because, as Reis says, 'There are more I’s than I myself.' Zenith’s selection of Pessoa is a beautiful one-volume course in the soul of the twentieth century.
Zenith has delved more deeply...than any previous scholar, and he's also investigated Pessoa's life and times so exhaustively (his fine-print chapter notes run for dozens of pages and include some of the most fascinating details in the entire book; one hopes for a biographer's memoir at some point, although sheer exhaustion would be totally understandable in this case) that it's difficult to imagine a more comprehensive life of Pessoa in any language ... What really makes Pessoa: A Biography stand out is how infinitely, companionably readable it is in all its great length.
Zenith fastens a mysterious literary figure to history. His careful account does not exempt Pessoa from the bigotry of the early 20th century, but instead details how Pessoa’s firsthand observations of European imperialism, young democracy, and the Great War influenced his work. In this extensively researched biography, Zenith’s candid and questioning tone is refreshing and necessary to recognize moments of considerable uncertainty about Pessoa. Blending research with literary analysis, Zenith is quick to acknowledge when archives offer limited information ... Essential to academic collections, this biography is also accessible to general audiences interested in the potential of art that does not imitate life.
Even now, Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) remains, in the English-speaking world at least, one of the lesser-known of the truly great writers of the 20th century. This immense, magnificent biography by Richard Zenith is going to change that ... you finish wholly engrossed, not wanting the book one page shorter, despite all the Portuguese history and side biographies that bulk it up. And the reason for that is Pessoa’s own writing, so perfectly introduced, quoted and translated by Zenith throughout. It justifies all this demand on your attention: so direct and original, possessing throughout — despite Pessoa’s disbelief in there being any such thing as an essential self — the radical honesty that’s the mark of all great writing ... So for a previously casual reader, like me, who had done no more than glance at some of Pessoa’s poetry and intermittently browse his prose masterpiece The Book of Disquiet (although not in Zenith’s superb edition and translation), here is a revelation: a modern master to rank alongside Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, say. Such a revolutionary literary discovery seems unlikely to be on offer again. It’s that good ... Zenith is judiciously sympathetic about the extraordinary vagaries of Pessoa’s life ... Great writers can be recognised as such only by future generations, since true genius is always ahead of its time, Pessoa argued. With the publication of this terrific life, his time has come.
... gloriously labyrinthine ... Zenith elegantly conveys Pessoa’s eccentricity while making him an exemplar of the fragmented consciousness of a modernity that has 'disabused us of whatever harmonious wholes we once cherished.' Zenith’s dynamic prose, deep erudition, and incisive readings of Pessoa’s poetry make for a meticulous portrait of one artist’s brilliant and bewildering inner world.
... capacious, perceptive ... Zenith delivers careful readings of Pessoa’s works and examines with sensitivity his varied intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic proclivities as well as his longing for posthumous fame, which he amply accrued ... Impressive research and evident enthusiasm inform a definitive biography.