Author Richard Zenith – Photo: HANMIN
Author Richard Zenith – Photo: HANMIN

A modern man in Tavira

Since 2015, Tela Leão from the Partilha Alternativa Associação has brought together local and international artists.

The aim is to create in the city of Tavira a repertoire to celebrate the work of Fernando Pessoa – and Álvaro de Campos, a heteronym (see below for definition) who wanted to experience everything.

The Birthday Party for Álvaro de Campos will be from October 15 to November 30, but this year there is a Preparatory Event. Richard Zenith, a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in biography, will visit Tavira on Saturday, June 11.

His book, Pessoa, An Experimental Life, is currently number one on the best-seller list in Portugal. When asked why English speakers should be interested in Pessoa and Álvaro de Campos, Zenith said:

“Pessoa is one of the great writers of the 20th century. He is a world-class writer well worth reading who has a lot in common with modernist writers. In my book, I compare his writing to such modernist writers as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf. Thanks to Pessoa and his friends, it is curious how Portuguese modernism coincided with modernist writing in the UK.

“Pessoa owned copies of the modernist magazine, published in 1914, called Blast, edited by Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. He had a rigorous English education in Durban, South Africa. You can sense some of Pessoa’s English syntax in his writing, such as in ‘The Book of Disquiet’.

“As a modernist, he was vocal and believed in freedom of expression, defining himself as an English-style conservative. What he meant was he defended individual liberty.

“He explored major religions but was especially interested in the occult, Rosicrucianism, The Kabala and The Knights Templar. He had an effervescent mind, an active imagination.”

It is arguable that Pessoa is relevant today and wrote for the future. Indeed, Richard Zenith notes that Pessoa wrote an essay called Erostratus, where he argues what makes for literary immortality. “A writer is always ahead of their time, and contemporaries may not be able to appreciate a writer’s true genius. It is only future readers who will be able to appreciate the work. The fact that Pessoa was not appreciated in his lifetime was a sign that he would be, hopefully, in the future.”

Tela Leão said: “Of course, it is important to have an audience, but the connections made locally and internationally are also important. The Birthday Party provides space for local artists to develop their work, get to know colleagues from elsewhere, and share their working processes. With Richard Zenith coming in June, artists will gain a deeper understanding of Pessoa’s work, not least through reading his wonderful book but also by engaging with the writer. This opportunity will benefit artists and inspire the creation of a range of work about Pessoa and Álvaro de Campos for the autumn.”

A modern man in Tavira

There will be two sessions by Richard Zenith with separate aims on Saturday, June 11, in Tavira library. The English session will be from 2.30am to 4.30pm and is primarily for local artists from Artesis gallery and must be pre-booked. Email partilha.alternativa@gmail.com for one of the limited seats.

The second event in Portuguese will be in the library from 6pm to 7pm. Pessoa, An Experimental Life was released in Portuguese in May 2022. This session is an opportunity for local people to talk to the author during the signing of the Portuguese version of the book. Booking is not required for this session.

  • The English edition is published by Penguin and the title is Pessoa, An Experimental Life.
  • The American edition is published by Liveright/Norton and title is Pessoa, A Biography.
  • The Portuguese edition is published by Quetzal and the title is Pessoa, Uma Biografia.

What is a heteronym?

“Pessoa created dozens of fictional authors who peopled his written world and even, in a certain way, his very life. Some of them were enduring presences and dubbed ‘heteronyms’, while others quickly faded from the scene.”

Zenith, Richard. Pessoa (p. vii). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

Pessoa called them “heteronyms”, and in a “Bibliographical Summary” of his works published in 1928, he explained the conceptual distinction:

“Pseudonymous’ works are by the author in his own person, except in the name he signs; heteronymous’ works are by the author outside his own person. They proceed from a full-fledged individual created by him, like the lines spoken by a character in a drama he might write.”

Zenith, Richard. Pessoa (p. xviii). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

Unlike some of his other heteronyms, Pessoa, in creating Álvaro de Campos, gave him an entire life. Zenith says:

“The liveliest, most opinionated, and most prolific of the heteronyms, Álvaro de Campos emerged in 1914. Born on October 15, 1890, in Tavira, the town in the Algarve where Pessoa’s paternal relatives were concentrated, Campos studied engineering in Scotland, journeyed to the Far East, lived for a time in London, worked as a naval engineer in northern England, and eventually settled in Lisbon. He was sexually attracted to men as well as women, and complained that no matter how much he saw, felt, and tasted, he needed to see, feel, and taste still more.”

Zenith, Richard. Pessoa (p. viii). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

“When the ever elusive Fernando Pessoa died in Lisbon, in the fall of 1935, few people in Portugal realized what a great writer they had lost. None of them had any idea what the world was going to gain: one of the richest and strangest bodies of literature produced in the twentieth century.”

Zenith, Richard. Pessoa (p. xvii). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. 

Birthday – Álvaro de Campos

In the days when they celebrated my birthday,
I was happy and no one was dead.
In the old house, even my birthday was a centuries-old tradition,
And everybody’s joy, and my own, were certain like some religion or other.
In the days when they celebrated my birthday,
I was healthy enough not to understand anything,
To be the smart one within the family,
And to not have the hopes that others had for me.
When I came to have hopes, I no longer knew how to hope.
When I came to look at life, I had lost all of life’s meaning.
Yes, what I supposed to be myself,
What I was of heart and kinship,
What I was of mid-province evenings,
What I was of being loved and being a little boy.
What I was – ah my God! What only today I know I was …
How far away! …
(I can’t find it…)
In the days when they celebrated my birthday!
What I am today is like the humidity in the corridor at the end of the house,
Mould sprouting on the walls …
What I am today (and the house of those who loved me trembles through my tears),
What I am today is that they sold the house.
And they are all dead,
And it is me myself surviving like a spent match …
In the days when they celebrated my birthday
My love, like a person, this time!
A physical desire of the soul to meet there again,
For a metaphysical and carnal journey,
With a duality of myself for myself …
Wolfing down the past like bread in a famine, without time for the butter to touch the teeth!
I see everything again with a sharpness that blinds me to what there is here …
The table set with more places, with finer designs on the crockery, with more glasses,
The sideboard loaded with many things – sweets, fruit, the rest in shadow under the overhang –,
The old aunts, the different cousins, and it was all because of me,
In the days when they celebrated my birthday…
Stop, my heart!
Do not think! Leave thinking to the head!
Oh my God, my God, my God!
These days I don’t celebrate my birthday any more
I go on.
I count my days.
I will be old when I am old.
Nothing else.
I’m furious with myself for not having kept the stolen past in my pocket! …
In the days when they celebrated my birthday.

October 15, 1929

(Translation by J.Coston and T.Leão)

By SUE HALL