Complete edition of a haunted autobiographical novel—or is it a fictionalized autobiography?—that has emerged as an existentialist classic in the 80-plus years since its author’s death.
Born in Lisbon in 1888, Pessoa might have taught J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon a thing or two about anonymity. He wrote prolifically in three languages but published relatively little, and he hid behind assumed names and identities, some 75 of them in all, which he called “heteronyms.” The present volume is a case in point, written over the course of many years in the person of two such assumed names, Vicente Guedes and, later, Bernardo Soares. As for Guedes, Pessoa opens, “This book is not by him, it is him”: it is a catalog of Kierkegaard-ian moods, of fears and loathings and the constant presence of death in a fundamentally tragic world. “I failed life even before I had lived it, because even as I dreamed it, I failed to see its appeal,” writes Pessoa, and he proceeds to make sun-splashed Lisbon a gray and gloomy place. Though often somber, Pessoa is rarely tiresome; he reflects interestingly on such things as the development of science and aesthetics, the pleasures of wasting time (“For those subtle connoisseurs of sensations, there is a kind of handbook on inertia, which includes recipes for every kind of lucidity”), and, always, mortality: “We are born dead, we live dead, and we enter death already dead.” Readers with a liking for Walter Benjamin and Miguel de Unamuno, Pessoa’s intellectual kin, will find much of interest in Pessoa’s pages, which add up to a sort of philosophical journal more than a storyline as such. And readers already familiar with Pessoa’s poetry will appreciate the care of his language, although some of its fluency is better captured in the Penguin translation of 2001.
Cheerlessly brilliant and full of memorable observations (“Life is an experimental journey undertaken involuntarily”): just the thing for the young goth in the family and a fine introduction to a writer deserving more attention.