On a recent trip to Lisbon, I stumbled across Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s most famous poet, translator, publisher, literary critic and philosopher. I’m not really one for poetry, and that wasn’t what captured my imagination. It was his story which fascinated me. Apart from writing great poetry, he was known for writing under several alter egos, or ‘heteronyms’ as he called them. He was a prolific writer, as himself and as at least (as far as academics can ascertain) seventy-five other personalities. He wrote in Portuguese, English and French.
If you purchase of any Pessoa’s collected works it will include poetry by a number of his heteronyms. The most famous of these are Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis and Bernardo Soares. I think it’s fair to say that had he been alive now, he might have been diagnosed with some form of multiple personality disorder. But at the time he was seen as an eccentric genius.
So what is interesting about one person writing under a number of different names? He’s hardly the only person to have done it. Well, each of the personalities writes in a different style, and in some cases a different language. Each character has his own personality, moral compass, outlook on life, writing style. Some wrote novels, others concentrated on poetry. Some wrote joyously, others controversially. Some wrote spiritually, others austerely. What I’m trying to say, is that each character wrote as if they were an entirely different person, not one writing as others. These weren’t pen names, he was that person whilst he was writing as them. Their characters inhabited his body.
I find this fascinating. I am already intrigued by the notion of voice, especially recently about ‘writing voices’. Over the past few months I have been involved in collating the 24 hours in my city feature for Ethos magazine (Ethos 8, out now!). I have been able to tap up friends from around the world, some of whom are writers by profession, but mostly not. For a feature that basically has the same structure, I have found it very interesting to see what the different writers have done with it. One was far more rambling than I expected, one filled me with warmth as I read it, another left me feeling very nostalgic, and another was very straight down the line and factual. I have been to all the different places featured so I’m aware that my feelings came into all of them, but still, it was so lovely to see people’s different voices coming through in their writing.
As someone who has recently been encouraged to write more, I am slowly starting to find my voice. I am in awe of the confidence of my colleagues in the different styles of writing that they are asked to do as part of their jobs, and I love when they are able to write in their own voice too. It’s part of the reason I so enjoy our newsletters, as these are written by us individually about things we want to write about and in our own voices.
I will leave you with the following video of Kim Noble. Kim is the artist’s version of Fernando Pessoa and is no less interesting for it. Enjoy.