The last of our five new books for February 2012 is Pessoa in an Intertextual Web: Influence and Innovation, a collection edited by David Frier (Leeds). Pessoa is, in a mischievous way, a sort of cult icon for students of Portuguese poetry. That moustache, the round owlish glasses, the bowler hat. The cover of our book is, shall we say, a reconstruction — though Pessoa did read that very copy of Eliezer Kamenezky’s poetry book Alma Errante, probably in 1932, he quite likely never held the pages open in quite the way we show. Still, those actually are his bow tie and glasses, which David borrowed from the collection of the Casa Fernando Pessoa and the Museu da Cidade in Lisbon. So it’s not as if we faked the cover with props from a fancy-dress shop.
It’s easy to be beguiled by Pessoa’s gentle, somehow cuddly appearance, but that isn’t why he fascinates scholars. For one thing, it’s a pretty uncontentious statement that he was the greatest Portuguese poet of his century. But he also did two outstandingly interesting things. He disguised himself with multiple names, so that he arguably holds three or four slots at once on any listing of modern Portuguese poets, rather the way the Beatles used to be in the top ten several times over on any given week. And he not only read a great deal, he obligingly wrote, very neatly, in the margins of it. His opinions weren’t always breathtakingly fresh — he wrote “very good” next to the watcher-of-the-skies bit of Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer — but there’s a palpable sense of Pessoa drawing in his influences, on silk threads, from everywhere around him. He had mastery, and this was one of the ways he got it.