Relatively unknown in his lifetime, Pessoa was all but destined for literary oblivion when the arc of his afterlife bent, suddenly and improbably, toward greatness, with the discovery of some 25,000 unpublished papers left in a large, wooden trunk. Drawing on this vast archive of sources as well as on unpublished family letters, and skillfully setting the poet’s life against the nationalist currents of twentieth-century European history, Zenith at last reveals the true depths of Pessoa’s teeming imagination and literary genius.
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 Zenith has also done considerable work translating unpublished documents and recovering the stories behind Pessoa’s failed magazine projects ...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.
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.
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.