THE BOOK OF DISQUIET BY FERNANDO PESSOA

My life outside of work has become a kind of work, full of duties and responsibilities from which I long to escape. I’m always speaking banally to someone, with a contrived smile on my face; I’m always out in the evenings doing something, the purpose of which eludes me. During the week-days I sit at my work desk and dream, but not as I once did, not about walking out of the familiar door and down the familiar street and into the familiar building that I call home, when, finally, I can retreat into the familiar self. I now dream of unknown doors and streets and buildings and selves. These dreams, which for some would be meaningless without the nail of reality upon which they can hang, are superior to any of my external experiences, because they are at least mine; they are made from me, from my wild, painful yearnings.

Before I made a begrudging commitment to the social world, I spent many frustrated hours with The Book of Disquiet. Even though I had never been able to finish it, I was sure, whenever I picked it up, that it would connect with me at last. I tried various translations, with no success. I tried indulging it, reading only two or three pages a day, as one is usually advised, but the lack of momentum irritated me and my mind – which, unlike my body, was agile and hyperactive – became sluggish. So I put the book aside, permanently I believed, satisfied that I had given it every opportunity. Then, last week I returned to it, and on this occasion my experience was different, because I am different, or at least my day-to-day existence is. In it, I met my old self again, the version of me who had the luxury of contemplation; but perhaps more importantly than that, I found that its slow pulse complimented the hectic rhythm of my life.

“I suffer from life and from other people. I can’t look at reality face to face. Even the sun discourages and depresses me. Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”

The Book of Disquiet was penned by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper and unpublished poet and writer. He is described by Pessoa in his introduction, which is the one of the few concessions to literary conventions in the book, as ‘in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unselfconscious negligence.’ More tellingly, there is said to be ‘suffering apparent in his pale, unremarkable features.’ What follows this introduction is Soares’ journal [of sorts]; yet he doesn’t narrate the events of his life, rather, he scrutinises himself, his thoughts and feelings, with the intensity of a jealous lover. It is, he states, ‘better to think than to live.’ And what one can glean about Soares’ activities from his writing proves that this isn’t simply a smart epigram. He is, as noted, only an assistant bookkeeper and is therefore not exactly prospering in his career. Moreover, on the few occasions he does look outside of himself, when he takes a walk for example, he is never with company. He appears not to have any friends, or even acquaintances, of note. He is, we’re told, a man who wants to be ignored, and his wish has evidently been granted.

However, there is an unrelenting atmosphere of disappointment, of fatalism, hanging over the book that is at odds with Soares’ assertion that he ‘rejects life because it is a prison sentence,’ as though it is a choice he has made happily and entirely on his own terms. So while he claims to be ‘sickened by others,’ he also admits to feeling a tenderness for the people he crosses paths with, especially those who work in the same office. In another significant entry he describes the moment when the office photographs are revealed and he is, rather comically, told that his, which he thinks makes him look like a ‘dull Jesuit,’ is a perfect likeness. This feeling of embarrassment, or shame, indicates to me that it does matter to him what others think, that he isn’t revelling in being a nothing, for if you don’t want to be a social being you would not care about your appearance.  The Book of Disquiet is not, therefore, a celebration of isolation and the pleasure of one’s own company, as some would have it. Soares is a frightened, sensitive, unhappy, and self-loathing individual, who, in my opinion, hasn’t confidently rejected life; if anything, it has rejected him.

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One of the issues with the book is that there are occasions when the entries seem less like profound soul searching and more like adolescent whining. Soares writes, for example, of the boring futility of each identical day, of feeling suffocated, of being sick of himself, and the self pity is so tangible that it can test one’s patience. It would be tempting to excuse Pessoa his lapses in the same way that some critics do with Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which is to argue that the bad is intentionally bad, but it seems like a stretch to me. Soares is, remember, a poet and a writer, and it is said that Pessoa made him such in order to explain his ability to write so impressively [for the greater part of the book]. However, one should not overlook the fact that The Book of Disquiet was never completed to the author’s satisfaction. It was, so legend has it, put together out of various bits and pieces of prose found in a trunk after his death, and therefore some of them may not have made the cut had Pessoa been in charge of proceedings.

What prevents The Book of Disquiet from being itself too suffocating is the beauty, and sometimes positivity, one encounters in Soares’ writings about the power, richness and scope of his own imagination. It is there, inside himself, that he is free. In fact, the ‘splendour’ of his inner life is not only in direct contrast to the tedium of his external experiences, it is, he claims, actually a consequence of it. It is his being a ‘nonentity’ that allows him to dream so extravagantly, because these dreams are ‘a negation of and a flight from’ the monotony of his daily existence. Often when people use the words ‘dream’ or ‘imagination’ they are referring to mere memory, to mental recreations of existent places, people and things. However, the paucity of Soares’ experiences, his lack of meaningful memories upon which to draw, allows, or encourages, him to create, rather than reproduce. ‘I have passed through more cities than were ever built,’ he writes, ‘and the great rivers of impossible worlds have flowed, absolute, beneath my contemplative gaze.’

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8 comments

  1. Really enjoyed your take on this. I dug out the Book of Disquiet a month or so back (maybe the third time) and started reading again and found myself laughing a lot. Of course, I didn’t finish reading all the fragments. I think your point about the book being a bunch of disparate pieces of prose arranged by others – pieces that may not have made the author’s cut – particularlly relevant. There seems to be among many, I think, a tendency to regard the book as a kind of hagiography of Pessoa and his ‘pessimistic’ vision of the world. I don’t think anybody can know what this book of fragments is. Every book is of course autobiographical but, Soares being one of many heteronyms, I find it hard to think ‘Ah, this is the real vision of Fernando Pessoa.’ I found it amusing how in this edition, the ordering of where the fragment is found in a previous addition is given in brackets. What came to mind alongside these reactions was that Pessoa is the man who helped Aleister Crowley stage his ‘death’ in Lisbon. I couldn’t imagine Soares staging a stunt like that. I like returning to the book from time to time. To the book of poems by his other heteronyms, too. Trying to imagine the guy’s life from the fragmentary anecdotes read here and there. Without getting all philosophical, he seems like someone who did the Nietzschean thing of ‘making his life a work of art,’ except not Nietzschean in that Pessoa was an astrologer and occultist, too. Being in Lisbon a few years ago, I could relate to how the environment of the city and its port could nurture a character like Pessoa.

    1. Thank you. Yeah there is certainly humour there, although not as much as I would have liked. I have wondered previously just how conventional a novel Pessoa would have fashioned from these fragments. Or perhaps he did have in mind something like what we have, just slightly more polished. I actually think the heteronym stuff is the most fascinating aspect of Pessoa’s writing. Soares cannot be strictly Pessoa, because it was acknowledged that each heteronyms is only one aspect of his personality, into which he breathed life. I absolutely agree with him that we are not one person but many, or certainly that’s how I see myself. There is no definite, overriding personality.

  2. Interesting and honest review. This is one of those books that everyone seems to show off and nod at without ever really addressing it. Or that’s how it seems to me. I have a copy as yet unopened, but I was thinking of tossing it in my bag when I travel next month. If I read it, I’ll admit to it, if not, no one will know.

    1. It’s one of a few books where I never see any criticism of it, it’s all effusive praise. The contrarian in me wanted to really pick it apart but I do like Pessoa’s writing so I decided against it. It’s probably a great book to travel with

  3. I read this years ago – I suspect I just made my way through its pages without much thought (what’s changed?)
    Seems like a new version is appearing this year (Margaret Jull Costa) so I might reacquaint myself with it.
    I also keep meaning to read his poetry.

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