The strange and sad tale of Fernando Pessoa

First, some music. This one is somewhat different to my usual stuff. This is an instrumental piece I composed for the soundtrack to a short film. Click below and have a listen, while I tell you the strange and sad tale of Fernando Pessoa.

A few years ago, I visited the city of Porto in Portugal. Wandering around the city, I stumbled upon a bookstore that has to be a contender for the title of ‘Coolest Bookshop Ever’. I’ll let you feast your eyes on the photograph below for a moment.

Right? So, as I wandered around the store, I noticed a lot of books by a Portuguese writer I’d never heard of called Fernando Pessoa. I found out later that Pessoa is something of a national treasure in Portugal. He’s a bit like their versions of James Joyce. Indeed, he has a look of Joyce about him, as you can see from the photograph of him below:

Pessoa (prononuced pesh-wa) led a solitary – and somewhat sad life. He never married, lived alone in various rented apartments in Lisbon, and died young at the age of forty seven, with only one book published. But, probably because of his solitary existence, he left behind a prodigious output. After he died, he left a trunk containing 25,426 items – comprised of poems, fragments, letters, and journals, all ascribed to different writers. And this is where it get’s interesting.

Pessoa invented these different writers and called them ‘heteronyms’. These ‘heteronyms’ were almost like split personalities; they were autobiographical or semi-autobiographical characters who supposedly wrote his books. But he didn’t just invent these characters; he gave each one their own personality, biography, and so on. As Wikipedia tells us, “The heteronyms possess distinct biographies, temperaments, philosophies, appearances and writing styles”. It’s estimated that – in all – he created seventy-two ‘heteronyms’.

Many authors have written under pseudonyms or created alter-egos for themselves in their books (Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus or Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski) But this was more than just creating a character who’s in a book or coming up with a pseudonym; these weren’t just pseudonyms because it wasn’t simply an author writing under an assumed name, it was an author writing under an assumed personality, indeed, numerous assumed personalities. Pessoa treated these characters as if they were real people. In fact, at one stage, he sent letters to his girlfriend as one of these people, and she – getting in on the joke – corresponded with him.

But this was more than a joke or a game to Pessoa. He believed that we all have these different fractured parts of our psyche – different aspects of ourselves – and he chose to name them, and give them life. I find the idea fascinating. I don’t think there are many of us who would have the time – let alone the stamina – to come up with “distinct biographies, philosophies, appearances and writing styles” for seventy-two pseudonyms. Nonetheless, you’ve got to admire the sheer audacity of somebody who did.


(Images: Click on pic for credit)


20 thoughts on “The strange and sad tale of Fernando Pessoa

  1. Really interesting post, Derek. I think inventing 72 different personalities and going through the lengths to name them and give them all life is more than a little nuts. The thought makes my head spin; it’s like he had multiple personality disorder, but controlled them…or something. I’ll have to go read up on him when I get on the laptop…and listen to the song then too. 🙂

    1. I think that’s what Pessoa was getting at, Krystal, that he had these multiple personalities. Don’t know if he’d have called it a disorder though. Although, he was terrified all his life of going insane. But then, I think a lot of the most interesting writers are a bit mad, aren’t they? 🙂

  2. Oh I was intrigued from beginning to end – actually rather speechless, which is a first for me. I do believe when you are writing, to have to have the ability to become someone else, to own that character – but fascinating man for sure. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Yeah, he was definitely an interesting one. A lot of his writing was fragments and journal entires and such. I think he thought because he had these fragmented selves, that his writing should be fragmented as well. In that, he was ahead of his time because that idea is very much a 20th century postmodern idea.

  3. Wow–what a fascinating man! That’s what we try to do when writing…get really deep into the character’s head…a sort of “method acting” way of writing. =)
    He was pretty amazing at it…something to aspire to. ;o)

    Thanks for the great post…I love the music…& you’re right, that bookstore is SO cool! =)

    xox, Shannon

    1. Hi Shannon. Thanks for stopping by and subscribing. Glad you liked the music. Did you hear the other songs? They’re slightly different to what I posted today 🙂 I post a new song every Monday.

  4. Yes–I listened to them all & really liked them! You have a great voice. =)
    I love to sing (for fun!) and I actually had to write a few lyrics for a scene in my book…it was tough! =/
    78k words in my novel and those 70 were the hardest! lol

  5. Reading this made me look him up at Wikipedia. This in particular caught my eye:

    ‘Walking on these streets, until the night falls, my life feels to me like the life they have. By day they’re full of meaningless activity; by night, they’re full of meaningless lack of it. By day I am nothing, and by night I am I. There is no difference between me and these streets, save they being streets and I a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things.’

    Fernando Pessoa, from “A Factless Autobiography”
    in The Book of Disquiet, tr. by Richard Zenith.

    Fascinating. Thanks for bringing him to our attention.

    1. I have ‘The Book of Disquiet’, actually. It’s an interesting book. It’s very fragmentary, which I think is because it was assembled from different disparate pieces of writing. But as you can see in the passage you quoted, he can certainly write.

  6. Derek, this was riveting! And, of course, I have a question. 🙂 Have you read the work of the heteronyms, and is it as good as the book that bears his actual name? I would surmise that, while we all have many facets to our personality, it is our essential core of who we are that ties them all together; the best writing comes from that core, in my opinion. Great post, and I thank you for giving me something so unusual to muse on today!

    1. Sandy, you know I love your questions. You’re like my own personal Charlie Rose 🙂 As I said above, the only book of his I’ve read is ‘The Book of Disquiet’, which is attributed to him. So I don’t know whether the works written by his 72 heteronyms are any good. ‘Disquiet’ reads more like a journal than a novel. Diconnected but very lyrical passages.

    1. Glad you liked the music, Al. It’s a little different to my usual style. I compose instrumental music for ads and short films, etc. and it’s nice to be able to put them up here.

    1. You”re the first person who’s heard of him, Hektor. Glad I was able to bring him to other people’s attention. I think his works are hard to find in translation, that’s probably why he’s not better-known.

  7. 72!!!! What an interesting man, I agree with you Derek, where did he get the time. I was in Portugal there a few months ago, would have loved to have gone into the book shop, love the look of it.

  8. It does indeed take stamina to come up with 72 different personalities and imbue them with life, however, we all do this to some extent in the digital age. Think about your facebook profile or Twitter posts, or any avatars you might have. For most people, these digital images of themselves are not entirely true to their core personalities but are built from aspects of them. People end up creating and controlling personalities that are merely based on themselves, just like Pessoa did, and like Pessoa’s characters, they leave behind the evidence of their existence.

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