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.


(Image: Click the pic for credits)


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

  1. Wow. What a cool bookstore and interesting story. We writers always joke about having unmedicated multiple personality disorders. Pessoa took this to a new level!


  2. Hi D. Myself and the second years, yes those second years !! read this, looked up the wikipedia link, pics of James Joyce – (had never heard of him) – and learned three new words – Heteronyms, pseudonyms and Alter-ego. They all say Hi !!! and thought it was really interesting. Pic of bookshop is ‘Epic’ parrently….. \o/

  3. Fascinating. Made me think of that famous “Sibyl” case which I believe is now thought to have been a rather sad case of psychoanalysis having been the creative force which induced multiple personalities. I’d much rather have a gifted writer create alter egos the way Pessoa did.

    1. I remember the film of that case, Ash. But the interesting thing about Pessoa is he invented all these literary multiple personalities and gave them extensive backstories! Astonishing really.

  4. lovely library indeed, I live in Porto and never get enough of it. I loved your blog, your post about Fernando Pessoa (this one), who was a genius, and your stories about musicians and writers.


  5. That bookshop is way beyond cool. What’s it called? I can go to Lisbon, go there and then settle down with a Pessoa book, a coffee and a custard tart. Interesting to hear about him. We’re missing out on a lot of interesting authors because they don’t write in English.

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