Friday, 13 June 2014

Notes on building a Fernando Pessoa Library

Today is Fernando Pessoa’s birthday. He was born in Lisbon on June 13, 1888. This date is a municipal holiday in Lisbon in honour of Saint Anthony, a 13th century Franciscan priest and the patron saint of Lisbon. Curiously, Saint Anthony’s first name was Fernando. I don’t know if the poet’s parents baptized him with this name because of that. But I dare say that Pessoa, a man who held a life-long passion for the occult and the spiritual, would have found this quite amusing and significant.

Fernando Pessoa is probably Portugal’s most studied, edited, translated and read writer in the world. There are dozens of thousands of books and essays on him, and several thousands just in Portugal, and a few hundred of those were by Pessoa himself: he was his best exegete and compiler. In fact he did such a good job of storing everything he wrote in one single place, that upon his death a chest was discovered containing some 25,000 texts that have kept scholars busy and happy since 1935. As Pessoa fans know, when they discover him they become hooked to him forever. For many studying his life and work, piercing the mystery of his thought, trying to build a philosophical system around him, or just gaining fame by unearthing a relevant fragment, becomes a task that consumes one’s entire existence. By 1971 this mania for Pessoa had reached such dimensions that João Gaspar Simões, one of the fathers of Pessoa Studies, complained: “Fernando Pessoa continues to feed the torrent of energetic criticism – both national and international, we could say, especially in Brazil – without any loss of vitality on the part of those who interpret him, study him, analyse him, decompose his thoughts and work. As a pioneer of this enterprise, I have nothing against this pilgrimage which in a way I started, unless this surge of critical sorcery of which the author of Message is being victim turn into fanaticism and end up determining, around the great poet, an excursion like those at the hermitages of certain miracle workers whose miracles have completely disappeared from the memory of those visiting pilgrims.” Gaspar Simões was mostly railing against the new trend to publish everything Pessoa had written, regardless of actual aesthetic merit, and trying to extract tremendous insights about his genius and personality from them. His warnings went ignored and the Pessoa industry has bloomed in the past 40 years. So much so that it’s virtually impossible not to find a book about Pessoa and a given topic. His political ideas? His sexuality? His relationship with English Literature? His stance on feminism? His job as an office clerk? His personal library? His esoteric studies? His hobbies? There’s a book for each of these, and more. The last great editorial event occurred in 1982 with the publication of The Book of Disquiet; since then his critics have mostly been writing around his work, ballooning our knowledge of him with the most bizarre and amusing of trivia. So much is known about him anyone can be an expert on him.

In order to celebrate his anniversary I decided to form a list of books by and on Fernando Pessoa. Reading about Pessoa is also reading some of the finest thinkers that Portugal produced in the 20th century; so the fan is always in good hands. It’s an unattainable list for most readers, but imagine that you can read Portuguese, have respectable funds, want to build your personal Fernando Pessoa library and take a few days to visit Lisbon. This is how you could get started:

1 Fernando Pessoa: Poesia 1902-1917; Poesia 1918-1930; Poesia 1930-1935

We must start with Pessoa’s poetry written by himself. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s his best work. I think Alberto Caeiro and Álvaro de Campos were better poets. But no library would be complete without it. At the moment his poems are collected in three massive volumes, published by Assírio & Alvim.

2 Fernando Pessoa: Mensagem

It is customary for this epic poem to be published in a separate volume. This was the only book he published in life. It synthesises two important strains of his work: his nationalism and his mysticism. The Message is a hymn to Portugal’s glorious past, that is, the Age of Discoveries, and a prophecy that assigns to Portugal a crucial role in the future of the world. Portugal has always been a nation of mystics, messiahs and prophets, no doubt the result of the three religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – having converged here, leading to a hodgepodge of beliefs, concepts and insane philosophical systems. There are lots of editions in the market, but I recommend a recent one: É a Hora! A mensagem da Mensagem de Fernando Pessoa contains the poem and extensive notes by Paulo Borges, an expert on esotericism with published work on several of our more metaphysical-minded poets like Antero de Quental and Teixeira de Pascoaes.

3 Alberto Caeiro: Poesia

After this we start getting into his heteronyms. Alberto Caeiro, the un-metaphysical observer of nature, was the first of his major three heteronyms. The current Assírio & Alvim edition collects all his poetry as well as all his known prose, namely an interview that he gave to Alexander Search (another heteronym, an English poet who writes in English) and some texts by other heteronyms about him. This is where it Pessoa’s game starts becoming entertaining.

4 Ricardo Reis: Poesia

Ricardo Reis is a monarchist (Reis is plural for king) who flees to Brazil after the Republican revolution overthrew King D. Manual. A classicist by style, and self-declared follower of Alberto Caeiro, he specializes in odes celebrating carpe diem, even though his emotional inertia and intellectual coldness are the complete opposite of sizing the day.

5 Álvaro de Campos: Poesia

A naval engineer by education, he was the most active and long-lived of the three main poetic heteronyms. A decadent sensualist and a poet of the vanguards, his life is a frantic rush to try out all the modern fads: drugs, speed and technology, and Futurism; he even creates his own short-lived movement called sensationism, and later develops a pessimistic view of life.

6 Bernardo Soares: O Livro do Desassossego

Perhaps his most famous work abroad, The Book of Disquiet is a collection of prose fragments attributed to a semi-heteronym called Bernardo Soares and put together only decades after Pessoa’s death, following a few notes he left behind on how to structure the book. No one knows for sure how Pessoa envisioned the finished project, which he never completed, for he never completed anything. No one agrees if all the fragments that currently make up the Book were meant to be in it, or if are there solely because of thematic echoes. Nevertheless it is one of the greatest achievements of prose of the 20th century. Teresa Sobral Cunha, Maria Aliete Galhoz and Jacinto do Prado Coelho published the first edition in 1982 for Ática. The most complete, I believe, is Richard Zenith’s for Assírio & Alvim (1998). But INCM has an edition full of critical apparatuses and preserves Pessoa’s original Latin-heavy spelling, before several spelling reforms mutilated it.

And the cover is better
7 Ricardo Reis: Prosa

After his essential fiction we start getting into the specifics and we must try not to lose ourselves in the labyrinths his heteronyms left behind. Reis produced a lot of prose, some 200 pages. I haven’t read it yet, but my edition’s table of contents informs me that there are texts about Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, paganism, science, and a defence of Milton over Shakespeare. I only know the Assírio & Alvim edition.

8 Álvaro de Campos: Prosa

In 2012 Campos’ prose, most of it unknown and unpublished until then, was finally collected in a single edition, some 400 pages of it. I’ve never even browsed its contents. There’s only one edition in the market and it’s published by Ática. Just to clarify: there are two major publishers that specialize in Pessoa and Pessoa Studies: Assírio & Alvim, which for a few years, because of some legal problems related to author rights and public domain dates, held the monopoly on his work; and Ática, the first to publish Pessoa’s works systematically in the 1940s. Ever since Pessoa’s texts fell in the public domain Ática has again become a major publisher to be reckoned with regarding critical editions and original criticism.

9 Fernando Pessoa: Correspondência 1905-1922; Correspondência 1923-1935

Assírio & Alvim has his complete letters in two volumes. Obviously they are for completists. But if you’re building a Fernando Pessoa library, you probably are anyway.

10 Fernando Pessoa: Cartas de Amor de Fernando Pessoa e Ofélia Queiroz

Then there are more specific editions of his letters that have added value because they contain letters sent to Pessoa. This book is a very recent acquisition of mine and collects the correspondence between Pessoa and Ofélia Queiroz, a lady with whom he kept a romantic but platonic relationship with for over a decade. Assírio & Alvim’s current edition is an improvement on Ática’s edition from the 1970s that contained only Pessoa’s side. I’ve had great fun browsing the book and reading random bits; some letters are embarrassingly sweet.

11 Mário de Sá-Carneiro: Cartas de Mário de Sá-Carneiro a Fernando Pessoa

Sá-Carneiro was one of Pessoa’s best friends and collaborator in the Modernist adventure that was the literary magazine Orpheu. A poet too, an amazing one in fact, he moved to Paris where he committed suicide, making Pessoa his executor. Unfortunately only the letters he sent to Pessoa exist; Pessoa, who was so obsessive-compulsive about keeping every little piece of paper, strangely didn’t preserve a single one.

12 Fernando Pessoa: Cartas entre Fernando Pessoa e os Directores da Presença

This collection of letters allows the reader to understand the relationship between Pessoa and the editors of the literary magazine Presença – José Régio, Adolfo Casais Monteiro and the curmudgeon João Gaspar Simões. The fathers of the second wave of Modernism in Portugal, inspired by the feats the Orpheu circle achieved a decade before, these three men were the first compilers, scholars and publishers of Pessoa and were instrumental in revealing his genius to the world. In Pessoa’s final years he kept a close relation with them and even contributed to their legendary magazine. After his death, Gaspar Simões, beginning in 1942, started to actively publish his work through the seminal Ática. This edition is by Enrico Martines for INCM.

13 Fernando Pessoa: Quaresma, Decifrador; Contos de um Raciocionador

Pessoa loved to read detective fiction and also ambitioned to write them. There are two volumes collecting his detective fiction, both available at Assírio & Alvim. I’ve read one of them, and it’s certainly of interest for completists. As you may imagine, Pessoa didn’t finish a single tale, which makes them rather frustrating to read. Although perhaps that was the plan all along.

14 Fernando Pessoa: Ibéria - Introdução a um Imperialismo Futuro

As we leave behind his most important and revolutionary work and start dealing with the phantoms in the chest, we begin finding weirder and weirder excuses for books. This book collects texts on a topic that is dear to Portuguese thinkers, what we call Iberismo, that is, the proposal that Portugal and Spain should form a federation within the Iberian Peninsula. Remarkably, considering that Pessoa was deeply nationalist, he was in favour of this federation, which makes this book quite interesting at least in order to understand his contradictory positions. Published by Ática.

15 Fernando Pessoa: Sebastianismo e Quinto Império

Speaking of Pessoa’s nationalism, there’s nothing more Portuguese than the belief in the myth of Sebastianismo. Pessoa, like many lunatic thinkers before him, especially our extraordinary mystics and occultists, believed that Portugal was fated to create the future Fifth Empire, which would lead the world to a new Golden Era. This book contains 400 pages of such gobbledygook. Another jewel from Ática.

16 Fernando Pessoa: A Língua Portuguesa

The thing about Pessoa is that he wrote so much and about so many things that you can virtually edit several dozen new books on a diverse range of topics. This one, which I recently purchased, is devoted to the Portuguese language. In 1911 the Republic decided to carry out a spelling reform to standardize it. Pessoa, a classical liberal, opposed this on the grounds that a government should not legislate spelling. In spite of his abhorrence for the new spelling (he continued to use the old one until his death), most books, like this one, do not respect his position, making this book particularly ironic. That’s also why I prefer Ática’s editions, they do maintain the original spelling.

17 Fernando Pessoa: Obras de António Mora

This INCM edition collects the works from one of the most mysterious and wondrous heteronyms invented. António Mora is a neo-paganist philosopher in the vein of Ricardo Reis, with whom he shares some similarities. Mora has written extensively about ancient gods and foresees a recrudescence of paganism in the modern world.

18 Fernando Pessoa: Contos Completos

The title is misleading. It’s not really the Complete Short-Fiction. It’s literarily the short-fiction that Pessoa completed in life. Pessoa left behind many unfinished short-stories. However the editor, Zetho Cunha Gonçalves, selected only the short-stories that were indeed finished. At least that’s what he told me when I met him last week.

19 João Gaspar Simões: Vida e Obra de Fernando Pessoa

I could continue to add more books by Pessoa. The man who only published one book before his death has some 50 books to his name at the moment. But it’s time we move on to the critics. This was the first biography of Fernando Pessoa, published in 1950. I never read it and I’m not sure I want to. From what I understand it’s dated badly and Gaspar Simões relied heavily on Freud to psychoanalyse Pessoa, who, truth be said, is a very psychoanalyseable poet. But it remains in print and is often referred to, so it must have value still. It’s published by Lello Editores.

20 José Régio: Ensaios de Interpretação Crítica

This is a collection of literary essays by José Régio. The whole book is not about Pessoa, but it includes what may be the first critical study about his poetry. In 1925, before founding Presença, Régio defended his doctorate’s thesis with a concise history of modern Portuguese poetry, from the 19th century to the present. The final chapter, not by chance, was devoted to Pessoa, inventing Pessoa Studies.

21 Adolfo Casais Monteiro: Poesia de Fernando Pessoa

Gaspar Simões was not the only one organizing and publishing Pessoa’s poetry after his death. Casais Monteiro, my favourite critic of the Holy Trinity, made his own selection and published it in 1945 (this, by the way, was the edition José Saramago would read in his early adulthood inspiring him decades later to write The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), divulging through it the now-famous letter Pessoa sent him explaining the creation of the heteronyms. Casais Monteiro was, as far as I know, the one who wrote the least about Pessoa, but the introduction he penned for this anthology continues to have importance. It is currently available at Presença (no relation).

22 Jorge de Sena: Fernando Pessoa & Co. Heterónima

Sena, after Pessoa, is my favourite Portuguese poet. He’s also the best literary critic we ever had. Sena could write intelligent criticism about anything. Pick up any of his twenty or so books of criticism and you’ll marvel at the vastness of his readings and insight. Needless to say he also made tremendous contributions to Pessoa Studies. This big tome collects what he wrote on him from 1940 to 1978. And it has amazing texts: Pessoa and English poets (Sena was an expert on Anglo-American Literature), his relationship with Aleister Crowley (the first person to write about it; at the time some even doubted Crowley existed), the poems he penned in English, and even a 60-page-long introduction for The Book of Disquiet. Sena was the first critic to tackle the great beast. As early as 1962 he had mentioned in a letter to Sophia de Mello Breyner that he was working on it. Ática hired him and he got started in 1964, with help from Casais Monteiro. Unfortunately at the time both were exiled in Brazil and had difficulty obtaining all the fragments necessary. So Sena gave up in 1969, paving the way for Richard Zenith’s monumental edition.

23 Eduardo Lourenço: Pessoa Revisitado; Fernando Pessoa, Rei da nossa Baviera; O Lugar do Anjo

Lourenço is Portugal’s greatest living philosopher and an aficionado of Pessoa. He’s devoted decades of his life to studying and has contributed many volumes of essays to the corpus. In fact I wouldn’t recommend studying Pessoa without first reading the brief itinerary he wrote. All his books are available at Gradiva.

24 José Gil: O Devir-Eu de Fernando Pessoa; Fernando Pessoa ou a Metafisica das Sensações; Diferença e Negação na Poesia de Fernando Pessoa

Gil is Portugal’s second greatest living philosopher. Like Lourenço, a darling of the French, he’s written extensively about Pessoa from a philosophical and aesthetic perspective. The most curious of his book is perhaps the first I list, an attempt at explaining why Pessoa exerts such a fascination on the people who discover him.

25 Dalila Pereira da Costa: O Esoterismo de Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa Studies have always poked around the esoteric aspects of Pessoa’s life and poetry. But Dalila’s book, published in 1971, was a landmark publication because it was the first to fully address this matter with authority. Dalila was a poet, a philosopher and an expert on the occult herself and penned many books on the subject.

26 António Quadros: Fernando Pessoa. Vida, Personalidade e Génio

First published in 1981, this was another biographical contribution to the corpus, trying to get to the heart of Pessoa’s mystifying personality and private life. Quadros, like Dalila, was a member of a new generation of philosophers who emerged in the late ‘50s, a philosopher with a mystical bent, which made him the ideal person to write about Pessoa. Throughout the 1980s he edited and annotated many anthologies by the poet, ranging from poetry to political texts, from his esoteric writings to even a version of The Book of Disquiet in 1986.

27 Joel Serrão: Fernando Pessoa – Cidadão do Imaginário          

I just bought this book and I frankly don’t have a clear idea what it’s about. I can tell you it was published in 1981 and the table of contents tells me it deals with diverse stuff: Pessoa and the Republic (he hated it, of course), Pessoa and mysticism, etc. I don’t know what weight this book has in the vast bibliography about him. I just know that Serrão was one of the most intelligent essayists Portugal produced in the 20th century, an essayist in Portugal’s noble tradition of essayists who have the chutzpah to write about everything they feel like it, always with brio and insight. His book on Eça de Queiroz is a humbling example of superlative criticism and I’m sure this book is just as remarkable.

28 José Paulo Cavalcanti Filho: Fernando Pessoa: uma quase-autobiografia

If Gaspar Simões’ somewhat dated, Freudian biography doesn’t appeal to you, JPCF has written what is considered so far the most extensive and compete reconstruction of the poet’s life, thoroughly researched and persuasively documented. At 700 pages it will remain unchallenged for a few decades.

29 Patricio Ferrari & Jerónimo Pizarro: Eu Sou uma Antologia. 136 Autores Fictícios

The authors, an Italian and a Colombian, belong to the new generation of Pessoa scholars and both have produced many valuable works on him. This joint effort is an anthology cataloguing 136 heteronyms invented by Pessoa. It was published by Tinta da China in 2013.

30 Antonio Sáez Delgado & Jerónimo Pizarro: Fernando Pessoa em Espanha

When we start getting into contemporary critics and their contributions, we find out there’s a book about everything. This book, for instance, is about how Pessoa was perceived in Spain. Both writers, incidentally, hail from Spanish-speaking countries.

31 António Cardiello, J. Pizarro, & P. Ferrari: Os Objectos de Fernando Pessoa

After decades of exegesis, there’s not a lot more to find out about his work, so modern critics are turning to things around him. Literarily. This book is about the objects Pessoa left behind: his glasses, his cigarette case, his typing machine, even calling cards. Why did such an anti-social man even have calling cards?

32 A Cardiello, J. Pizarro & P. Ferrari: A Biblioteca Particular de Fernando Pessoa

And next they raided his library and wrote all about it.

33 João Rui de Sousa: Fernando Pessoa - Empregado de Escritório

This is a very specific book. As you all know, Pessoa worked most of his adult life at an export-import company translating correspondence into Portuguese. This book is about that, his life as an office clerk. There’s no stone they won’t leave unturned. Actually I’m quite anxious to read it.

34 António Mega Ferreira: Fernando Pessoa: Fazer Pela Vida

Pessoa didn’t get rich off his poetry, obviously. He wasn’t also a prosperous person. He lived as an office clerk all his adult life, in a precarious situation. And yet he was always dreaming up schemes to start businesses and companies, found publishing houses and get his books published abroad, ie. England. This book is a study of all his attempts at making a buck. In other words, it’s a book about failure.

35 José Barreto: Misoginia e Anti-Feminismo em Fernando Pessoa

Was Pessoa a misogynist and anti-feminist? This book contains texts written by Pessoa on the subject of women and the author tries to answer these questions. A recent book, it’s another addition to the corpus by Ática.

36 Pedro Sepúlveda: Os Livros de Fernando Pessoa

Pessoa also spent his career planning books he’d never finish or even write. He was obsessed with lists and editorial projects.  This book explains and analyses every idea he had for a book.

37 Paulo Cardoso: Cartas Astrológicas de Fernando Pessoa

And when you think it can’t get more bizarre, someone decides to write a book about Pessoa’s hobby: drawing astrological charts. In fact that’s how he lured Aleister Crowley to Lisbon, the crafty bastard. It is said that his charts accurately predicted the deaths of friends. I want to read this book to find out if that’s true.

38 Salomó Dori: A Vida Sexual de Fernando Pessoa

The sex life of Fernando Pessoa. How amazing can it considering he probably died a virgin? Probably very amazing, because he was a complicated virgin.

39 Z. C. Gonçalves: Notícia do Maior Escândalo Erótico-Social do Século XX em Portugal

Speaking of sexuality, one day Pessoa’s buddy Raul Leal enraged Lisbon’s conservative hordes with an openly homosexual and obscene book. I must write about Sodoma Divinizada and the ruckus that caused. This book, edited by Zetho Cunha Gonçalves, an Angolan poet I had the pleasure of meeting a few days ago and who signed my copy, collects several texts written by the major players in the scandal, including a young Marcello Caetano, who decades later would replace Salazar as Portugal’s dictator. Several publishers balked at publishing this book, because of its content. Eventually the author had to go to Letra Livre, a second-hand bookstore that has its own imprint.

40 Manuel Ferreira Patrício: No Labirinto Messiânico de Fernando Pessoa

This book is also devoted to Pessoa’s occultism, but mainly from the perspective of his Messianic beliefs. I guess it’s a book chockfull of stuff about the Fifth Empire and D. Sebastião.

41 Fernando Cabral Martins: Dicionário de Fernando Pessoa e do Modernismo Português

An actual dictionary about Pessoa. Probably a very useful study tool, but I can’t see it as a great read.

42 Kenneth Krabbenhoft: Fernando Pessoa e as Doenças do Fim de Século

A book about Pessoa’s fascination with mental illness and psychological theories at the turn of the 20th century. If you want to know what Pessoa thought about psychologists, sociologists and criminologists from this period – Max Nordau, Jules Cotard, Cesare Lombroso - then this book is for you.

43 Maria Manuela Nogueira: Fernando Pessoa - Imagens de uma Vida

The author is Pessoa’s niece and this is an intimate book, more of a look into his personal life than a rigorous study, but certainly interesting in order to balance both worlds and shed light on each other.

44 Christopher Damien Auretta: Álvaro de Campos Autobiografia de uma odisseia moderna

There comes a time when Pessoa Studies descend into meta-fictional parody. This is an autobiography of Álvaro de Campos, in other words, a biography written by a real biographer using real fragments of a fictional life written by a real poet.

45 José Saramago: O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis

Fernando Pessoa’s life and work have provided fiction writers with ideas for novels, plays, poetry and short-stories. In my opinion, the best example is José Saramago’s masterful 1984, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

And I think I’ll stop here. I could go on, but my word processor tells me I’m on page 9 already and I doubt anyone’s gotten this far. If you only read the first paragraph, though, I hope you’ll spend the rest of the day celebrating Pessoa’s birthday. Go read a poem by him, or google excerpts from The Book, become hooked and discover what José Gil means that when people enter the poet’s life they can never get out again.


  1. Thank you for this. I've bookmarked for future reference. thus far I've only read 'The Book of Disquiet' and a selection of poems.

  2. A brilliant, meticulous and researched post. Marvellous

    1. Andrew, thanks. It's always good to have confirmation of Pessoa's fame abroad.

  3. Miguel, thanks. This will be a go-to resource for years to come. It already has me wanting to revisit Pessoa.

    1. Scott, good to know that, if this makes you want to revisit Pessoa, then I achieved my goal.

    2. I scarcely dare suggest additions to this list, since my familiarity with Pessoa is limited to The Book of Disquiet and some of the poems, but after commenting last night I thought about the several works by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi that explore Pessoa's world, both essays and fiction, among them: The Nostalgia of the Possible, Requiem: A Hallucination, and the semi-comical short story, The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa.

    3. Scott, it's only my bias towards Saramago that made him the sole representative of Pessoa fiction, but surely Tabucchi deserves a mention too, although I've read none of these books. I do have Requiem at home, though.