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Period.”In his magnum opus, “The Book of Disquiet”—a collage of aphorisms and reflections couched in the form of a fictional diary, which he worked on for years but never finished, much less published—Pessoa returns to the same theme: “Through these deliberately unconnected impressions I am the indifferent narrator of my autobiography without events, of my history without a life.The ultimate futility of all accomplishment, the fascination of loneliness, the way sorrow colors our perception of the world: Pessoa’s insight into his favorite themes was purchased at a high price, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.For the rest of his life, he devoted himself to reading and writing while supporting himself as a freelance translator of business correspondence.He never married, and while biographers speculate about his sexuality—“I was never one who in love or friendship / Preferred one sex over the other,” he writes in one poem—it is possible that he died a virgin.In 1905, he moved back to Lisbon to study at the university there.
And then there is Caeiro, who is said to have died of tuberculosis in his mid-twenties.
If he was empty, as he liked to claim, it was not the emptiness of a void but of a stage, where these selves could meet and interact. In addition to the poems he signed with his own name, he wrote as Alberto Caeiro, an untutored child of nature; as Ricardo Reis, a melancholic doctor dedicated to classical forms and themes; and as Alvaro de Campos, a naval engineer and world traveller who was a devotee of Walt Whitman.
Each of these personae was assigned a date of birth within a few years of Pessoa’s own, and their mythologies were intertwined: Pessoa once wrote a passage in which Campos explains how Reis was fundamentally transformed by listening to a reading by Caeiro.
He was a familiar figure in Lisbon’s literary world, but when he died, in 1935, at the age of forty-seven, he had no major achievements to his name.
It might well have seemed that he had had “a history without a life.”But Pessoa was to have an extraordinary afterlife, as he prophesied in his poem “If I Die Young”: “roots may be hidden in the ground / But their flowers flower in the open air for all to see. Nothing can prevent it.” Among his belongings when he died was a large trunk, containing more than twenty-five thousand manuscript pages—the product of a lifetime of nearly graphomaniacal productivity.
They were fully fledged characters, endowed with their own biographies, philosophies, and literary styles.