Aug 29, 2017

Fernando Pessoa, the Gay Poet, Novelist, and Flaneur of 1920s Lisbon

If you're like me, you know Spanish literature inside-and-out, but Portuguese is an undiscovered country.

Maybe you've heard of Jorge Amado, and  Luis de Camoes, who wrote the first epic poem in Portuguese.  But not Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), even though he is lauded as the greatest novelist in modern Portugal.

Born in Lisbon, Pessoa grew up in South Africa, where his stepfather was a diplomat.  He began writing poetry at age six ("To My Beloved Mother"), and published short stories in English while still in high school.

In 1905 he returned to Lisbon and immersed himself in the modernist movement, the new world of literary and artistic experimentation spearheaded by James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Ruben Dario, and Miguel de Unamuno.  He published literary magazines and literary criticism, translated English novels and poetry, and produced 25,000 pages of his own creative work.

A short, slight, sickly-looking person who didn't draw much attention in the gay bars and bathhouses of 1920s Lisbon, Pessoa had no romantic relationships during his life, and may not have had sex with anyone; a friend noted that he was embarrassed by the smallness of his penis.  Yet he immersed himself in the gay subculture; he had many gay friends, and published the works of two of them, Raul Leal and Antonio Botto (author of the first explicit homoerotic verse in Portuguese).

And he created a lively interior world of men, mostly gay men, who established strong same-sex bonds through art.

Heteronoms are fictional characters who write their own stories, poems, and essays, using their distinctive backgrounds and voices, and who interact with each other and comment each other's works.  By the end of his life, Pessoa had developed more than 70 characters with complicated geneologies and relationships to each other:

Albert Caiero, author of O guardador de Rebanhos, is critiqued by Ricardo Reis, whose brother Federico writes about him.

Claude Pasteur comments on Cadernos de reconstrução pagã, written by Antonio Mora, a student of Caiero.

Pero Botelho creates a character, Abilio Quaresma, who writes stories of his own.

Dr. Gaudencio Turnips edits a journal, O Palrador, which publishes the work of José Rodrigues do Valle, Dr. Caloiro, Gabriel Keene, and Diablo Azul.

A mysterious being named Ibis accompanied Pessoa through his life, and published poems of its own.

The voluminous interrelations of the many different people living in his head were mostly for the benefit of Pessoa and his friends; during his lifetime he published only four books in English and one in Portuguese, a symbolist poetic epic called Mensagem (The Message).

Many more books have been gleaned from his manuscripts since. The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego), published in 1985 (English translation 1991), is a semi-autobiographical novel/diary/ commonplace book by heteronom Bernardo Soares, a compendium of life in 1920s Lisbon by a gay man writing in the voice of another gay man.


  1. Dear Jeff,

    As a matter of fact, FERNANDO PESSOA (1888-1935), is, at least in the Portuguese speaking world, simply HUGE! He is, by all criteria (popularity, number of editions, academic quotations and studies etc.) the most known and appreciated poet who has ever expressed himself in Portuguese [sometimes in English, too, as you know]. And as long as his homosexuality every careful reader is quite aware of that, too. What can anyone deduce from verses like these:


    The rain outside was cold in Hadrian’s soul.

    The boy lay dead
    On the low couch, on whose denuded whole,
    To Hadrian’s eyes, whose sorrow was a dread,
    The shadowy light of Death’s eclipse was shed.

    The boy lay dead, and the day seemed a night
    Outside. The rain fell like a sick affright
    Of Nature at her work in killing him.
    Memory of what he was gave no delight,
    Delight at what he was was dead and dim.

    O hands that once had clasped Hadrian’s warm hands,
    Whose cold now found them cold!
    O hair bound erstwhile with the pressing bands!
    O eyes half-diffidently bold!
    O bare female male-body such
    As a god’s likeness to humanity!
    O lips whose opening redness erst could touch
    Lust's seats with a live art's variety!
    O fingers skilled in things not to be told!
    O tongue which, counter-tongued, made the blood bold!
    O complete regency of lust throned on
    Raged consciousness’s spilled suspension!
    Antinous is dead, is dead for ever,
    Is dead for ever and all loves lament.
    Venus herself, that was Adonis’ lover,
    Seeing him, that newly lived, now dead again,
    Lends her old grief’s renewal to be blent
    With Hadrian’s pain.
    ….......................... »[1908, from his “English Poems”]

    Or this in the original Portuguese:
    «….............(Freddie, eu chamava-te Baby, porque tu eras louro, branco e eu amava-te,
    Quantas imperatrizes por reinar e princesas destronadas tu foste para mim!)
    Mary, com quem eu lia Burns em dias tristes como sentir-se viver,
    Mary, mal tu sabes quantos casais honestos, quantas famílias felizes,
    Viveram em ti os meus olhos e o meu braço cingido e a minha consciência incerta,
    A sua vida pacata, as suas casas suburbanas com jardim,
    Os seus half-holidays inesperados...
    Mary, eu sou infeliz...
    Freddie, eu sou infeliz...
    Oh, vós todos, todos vós, casuais, demorados,
    Quantas vezes tereis pensado em pensar em mim, sem que o fósseis,
    Ah, quão pouco eu fui no que sois, quão pouco, quão pouco —
    Sim, e o que tenho eu sido, o meu subjetivo universo,
    Ó meu sol, meu luar, minhas estrelas, meu momento,
    Ó parte externa de mim perdida em labirintos de Deus….
    [excerpt from PASSAGEM DAS HORAS by Fernando Pessoa (Álvaro de Campos)]

    Or these:

    « Olha, Daisy, quando eu morrer tu hás-de
    Dizer aos meus amigos ai de Londres,
    Que embora não o sintas, tu escondes
    A grande dor da minha morte. Irás de
    Londres p’ra York, onde nasceste (dizes —
    Que eu nada que tu digas acredito...)
    Contar àquele pobre rapazito
    Que me deu tantas horas tão felizes
    (Embora não o saibas) que morri.
    Mesmo ele, a quem eu tanto julguei amar,
    Nada se importará. Depois vai dar
    A notícia a essa estranha Cecily
    Que acreditava que eu seria grande.
    Raios partam a vida e quem lá ande! »
    [Fernando Pessoa (Álvaro de Campos), Sonnet III]

    I think you have by now gotten the nick ot it, haven't you? And so every minimal illustrated reader of his.

    Yours sincerely,

    Joaquim Dantas
    from Recife-PE, Brazil

  2. Dear Jeff, I think you should try to read the "Bom Crioulo" (1895) by Adolfo Caminha (1867-1897) perhaps the first ever modern western litterary overtly gay themed novel since Antiquity. This is what is said about it in the English speaking Wikipedia article: Bom-Crioulo: The Black Man and the Cabin Boy (Portuguese: Bom-Crioulo) is a novel by the Brazilian writer Adolfo Caminha, first published in 1895. An English translation by E.A. Lacey was published in 1982 by Gay Sunshine.The novel was the first major literary work on homosexuality to be published in Brazil, and one of the first to have a black person as its hero. The novel caused a stir upon its publication but was almost forgotten in the first half of the 20th century. In the second half of the 20th century, the novel has been republished several times in Brazil and translated into English, Spanish, German, French and Italian.". Maybe afterwards you could even write an article about it. Yours sincerely, Joaquim Dantas, from Recife-PE, Brazil.


No comments that use abusive or vulgar language or point out that a character is Not Wearing a Sign.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...