Pessoa: A Biography

Liveright: Norton. Jul. 2021. 992p. ISBN 9780871404718. $40. BIOG
Zenith, through his translations and dedication to the work of writers like Fernando Pessoa, João Cabral de Melo Neto, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, has become an English-language authority on Portuguese poetry. He now offers Anglophone readers an exhaustive biography of Pessoa (1888–1935), a poet best known for his intellectual style and use of heteronyms (literary personalities created with unique styles). Making use of personal interviews, correspondence, Pessoa’s published and unpublished works, and, most notably, over 25,000 papers left by Pessoa in a wooden trunk that’s now in the care of the National Library of Portugal, Zenith fastens a mysterious literary figure to history. His careful account does not exempt Pessoa from the bigotry of the early 20th century, but instead details how Pessoa’s firsthand observations of European imperialism, young democracy, and the Great War influenced his work. In this extensively researched biography, Zenith’s candid and questioning tone is refreshing and necessary to recognize moments of considerable uncertainty about Pessoa. Blending research with literary analysis, Zenith is quick to acknowledge when archives offer limited information.
VERDICT Essential to academic collections, this biography is also accessible to general audiences interested in the potential of art that does not imitate life.
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