FERNANDO PESSOA & THE C.I.A.
(a brief note, with several postscripts)
When it was decided to call the book of essays on Fernando Pessoa, The Man Who Never Was (1982), I certainly did not foresee that the title would cause anyone any difficulty. Nor did I anticipate that it would mislead anyone. After all, I had merely taken over the title from someone who, in turn, had taken it over from someone else. The practice is common enough. There had recently been on Broadway a play called The Real Thing and it had nothing whatsoever to do with the famous short story by Henry James bearing the same title. To take a second example, John Philip Sousa, the American March King, and the well-known writer Shirley Hazard both entitled novels Transit of Venus, books that were published sixty years apart. Examples are legion.
Now I had not seen anything wrong with it when Jorge de Sena had decided to call his major address at the First International Symposium on Fernando Pessoa in 1977 “The Man Who Never Was.” It was clear, as it must have been to some of those in attendance, that Sena was consciously playing, in this title, with the notion that the several poetic selves created by the Portuguese poet (Fernando Pessoa himself called them his “heteronyms,” of course) were fully characterized personae created to live the several lives that the poet himself could not in fact live out, and that Sena would, in this essay, seek to define the self of the man who had, in a real and (even) poignant sense, never lived. It was also clear that Sena had deliberately borrowed his title from a book first published in Great Britain in 1954. That English book deals with a real-life episode of wartime espionage and counter-espionage in which there is created an elaborate identity and rather complicated past and projected literary (as a courier carrying highly revealing letters) for a cadaver destined to be “planted” in the sea off the coast of Spain. The book detailing all this (and revealing it publicly for the first time) was written by the officer in British Intelligence, one Ewen Montagu, who concocted the plot in the first place. I happened to have read (and enjoyed) the book when it was first published in the United States the year I graduated from college. In fact, I thought it clever of Jorge de Sena to have appropriated for his own essay about the man who had made central to his life and art the creation of such “identities” the title of a book which, had it appeared during Pessoa’s lifetime, would certainly have cause the poet’s attention and engaged his interest. And I thought further, when the time came, that it would be a clever stroke to assign the title Sena shared with Montagu to the book of essays on Pessoa (including Sena’s own) that would subsequently appear under my editorship.
That book of essays on Pessoa appeared late in 1982. A year later there appeared a brief notice of the existence of the book in a journal devoted to serious scholarship on matters Portuguese. The notice was the work of the journal’s editor (a full review by another hand appeared elsewhere in the same issue of the journal), who limited himself to complaining that the editor of The Man Who Never Was: Essays on Fernando Pessoa was guilty, at best, of an error in taste in deciding to take over a title from a real-life spy thriller published years earlier. He suggested as well that my having duplicated such a title might well confuse and annoy students of Pessoa’s work.
Now there are several things that could have been said in my defense. First, I seriously doubted that any perceptive student of Pessoa’s life and work would find such a title inappropriate, alluding as it does to a classic instance of deception on that grand scale the Portuguese poet could only dream of. Secondly, the first writer to apply the title to Pessoa was, of course, Jorge de Sena himself, one of the most profoundly committed students of everything having to do with Pessoa. Could anyone doubt that Sena knew full well what he was doing in choosing to appropriate Montagu’s title (thereby revitalizing it) or that he was, in so levying on it, guilty of a lapse in taste? The questions, one ventures, are rhetorical.
Yet, after is said and done, I must admit that my judgmental friend, a historian, had a point. He was right about one thing. At least in one case the title The Man Who Never Was has caused confusion. A few months ago, at the publisher’s office, there appeared a purchase order for one copy of the book-paperbound. The envelope carried a Commonwealth of Virginia postmark, and the order it contained came from the headquarters of the C.I.A., an outfit that is purported to know a thing or two about espionage and counter-espionage. The book was shipped out, and in due course a check for the amount due arrived in the mail. Case closed. Except, that is, that neither the book’s publisher nor its editor had any way of knowing why the C.I.A. should evince an interest in a book of essays on Fernando Pessoa. But we have our suspicions. What we suspect, of course, is that some eagle-eyed spy at the C.I.A. made a mistake. Thinking that our 1982 book might have something to do with “Operation Mincemeat” (as the British called their escapade against the Axis Powers), they dutifully put through an order. On the other hand, it might well be that, like many other individuals who, to their sorrow, have learned differently, the C. I.A.-knowing exactly what they are up to-have now turned their attention to the legacy of modern Portugal’s great trickster poet.
Postscript. Subsequently, copies of Gávea-Brown Publications’ The Man Who Never Was were purchased by direct order for the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, the United States Army in South Korea, and a third military outfit-I cannot recall, at the moment, which one-located in Maryland or Virginia. None of these copies has been returned.
Second postscript. On July 31, 1985, there arrived at Gávea-Brown Publications a letter from one Laurent Weichberger asking to buy a copy of The Man Who Never Was. He had read about Ewen Montagu’s life and times in the Sunday New York Times for July 21st and had, as a result, tried to buy a copy of Montagu’s book in New York City but had not been successful. Upon checking the Times for that date, I discovered that the article was actually an obituary entitled “Ewen Montagu, 84; Briton Led a Mission That Deceived Nazis” (p. 28). It described the events of that mission and mentioned the book-The Man Who Never Was (1953)-that narrated them. Mr. Weichberger was dutifully informed that Gávea-Brown’s book has nothing whatsoever to do with the late Ewen Montagu’s wonderful account of his World War II exploits.
Third postscript. And orders for The Man Who Never Was that was not published by Gávea-Brown continue to come in. In the summer of 1988 the Military Bookstore of Leavenworth, Kansas, tried to place an order for twenty copies (we telephoned them to suggest that it was not our book that they really wanted) and Aztec Shops at San Diego State University ordered fifteen copies to be used, as a phone call uncovered, as a text in History 410A-United States History for Teachers. The same week there was a call from a woman who identified herself only as a secretary at Citibank, New York City, who had been directed by her boss (also a woman) to get her a copy of The Man Who Never Was-“that book about the C.I.A.” The beat goes on.
Fourth postscript. In the early months of 2009, given the near collapse of the financial giant Citi Corps, one wonders about that order for The Man Who Never Was. Does the beat still go on?
George Monteiro is a lifelong student and teacher of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature, contributing to the scholarship on numerous writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. His latest book is Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A Poetic Career Transformed (McFarland, 2012).