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when the arc of his afterlife bent, suddenly and improbably, toward greatness, with the discovery of some 25,000 unpublished papers left in a large, wooden trunk. Drawing on this vast archive of sources as well as on unpublished family letters, and skillfully setting the poet’s life against the nationalist currents of twentieth-century European history, Zenith at last reveals the true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.
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.