existence

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 Only at night and all alone, withdrawn, forgotten and lost, with no connection to anything real or useful — only then do I find myself and feel comforted.”

The Book of Disquiet was penned by Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper and unpublished poet and writer.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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AUTOPORTRAIT BY EDOUARD LEVE

I have read a lot of French novels in my lifetime, many of which I consider to be amongst my favourites. Two of these French novels were written by Edouard Levé. I have never had a sexually transmitted disease. I once thought that I might have one, but the test result was negative. I own a cat, but I prefer dogs. I believe that my cat and I are too similar in terms of our personalities. I often think about giving up reading. This would of course mean that I would not read any more French novels, including those written by Edouard Levé. It is a fantasy of mine that I will do more with my life than just read. I once spent a day with a beautiful Russian girl from Sochi who gave me a 100 rouble note to remember her by. I keep it in my wallet. People frequently accuse me of being aloof and distant. I am scared of spiders, but not scared of rats or snakes. It is rare that I enjoy writing about books. I decided to write about Autoportrait in this way out of laziness, and because I do not have a lot to say about it. I am not very generous with money. The company and conversation of most people bores me, including many of my friends. As a child, I once threw away all of my mother’s make up because I thought it might have been tested on animals. I have a tendency to focus on my character flaws, even though outwardly I appear confident and sure of myself. Generally speaking, I am not attracted to white English women. The prospect of my own death terrifies me. One thing I can say about Autoportrait is that it is composed of a series of banal, apparently factual, statements. This is itself a banal factual statement. I do not own a TV. I once let a spider live in my room because it appeared to flinch when I went to kill it. It is possible that I later killed it believing it to be a different spider. I lost my virginity at eighteen. I once drank a pint of tequila and almost died. As a result, I did not drink tequila for years, until a Czech girl ordered it for me in a nightclub in Prague. I do not speak Czech, and therefore I could not communicate to her my aversion to that particular drink. I am convinced that if I met myself I would despise me. I do not believe in God, but I often pray to him and ask favours of him. I do not know how to spell bureaucracy. As a child, I once fell in a river and had to be pulled out by my hair. I found reading Autoportrait an emotional experience. Although individually many of the sentences are uninspired, when taken as a whole Levé’s novel gives you a sense of a real man. It may be the only novel in existence that does this. Having read the book I feel as though I simultaneously know a lot about Edouard Levé and nothing at all. I have never cheated on a partner, although I have been accused of it numerous times. I am left-handed. I know all the words to Stickwitu by The Pussycat Dolls. If asked to sum up Autoportrait I would perhaps say that it is a kind of autobiography with all the important events, all the drama, edited out. I feel as though I consistently punch above my weight in terms of the women I date. I have never kissed a man, and have no desire to do so. I cannot whistle. I have never cried at a funeral. The idea behind Autoportrait is a great one, but I usually find this kind of ‘gimmicky’ literature tedious to read. I am addicted to cigarettes. I smoke cigarettes even though I hated the smell of cigarette smoke as a child. I smoke cigarettes even though I am terrified of death. I did not smoke a cigarette until I was twenty-two. Edouard Levé sniffed the books he was reading, but I do not. However, I did sniff Autoportrait in preparation for this review. It doesn’t smell of anything, except perhaps cigarette smoke. I smoke a lot while I am reading. I was once locked in a bathroom when the handle of the bathroom door came off in my hand as I attempted to exit. I seriously considered jumping out of the window, even though, being far from the ground, I would likely have badly injured myself. I masturbate every day. When I masturbate I usually think about receiving oral sex. Autoportrait is not one of my favourite novels, although I certainly enjoyed it. I once had sex in a photobooth in Paddington station. I brush my teeth three times a day. My favourite Kraftwerk album is Computer World. I find the minutiae of human existence moving. I am 5’9″ tall. I am 5’9″ tall, in the right kind of shoes. My waist is 26″. I do not enjoy live music. I find the posturing of most musicians ridiculous. I have never wanted to play the guitar. I have eight tattoos. I want my hands tattooing, but I am concerned that it would harm my job prospects. I regularly fantasise about winning the lottery. I do not play the lottery. Autoportrait occasionally made me laugh, but most frequently it made me smile. I have never smoked marijuana. I do not like the idea of a drug that would make me sit around on my arse all day laughing like an idiot. I like to dance. I am not shy, I am just unfriendly. I believe that I may be Autistic. My ex-grilfriend’s nickname for me was Rainman. After reading two of his books I am still undecided as to whether Edouard Levé was a genuinely talented writer, or merely a clever one. I consider myself to be unlucky. I find the fetishisation of books, and the cult of reading, extremely tiresome and, quite frankly, weird. I have never wanted to meet a famous person. If I had been offered the opportunity to meet Edouard Levé, I would have turned it down. I read Autoportrait cover-to-cover. I do not own a single photograph showing me with any of my friends or ex-partners. It is not true to say that Autoportrait is a random series of sentences in no discernible order. The final sentence, for example, strikes me as having been carefully chosen. I won an award at the age of sixteen for a short story I had written. I did not go to the ceremony to collect the award. I am more excited by the idea that Autoportrait could be entirely fictional, rather than factual or autobiographical. I would not describe the book as confessional, although my review of it perhaps is. I do not enjoy making other people unhappy. I often find that I enjoy my memory of experiences more than the experiences themselves. I have never seen the Lord of the Rings films. I frequently burn pizza. At some point I intend to review Autoportrait in a more conventional manner, but I probably never will. I have fired a gun. I intensely dislike my brother. My mother loves me, but does not like me very much. I believe that I write better book reviews than anyone else. I do not think that I am especially talented, simply that other writers and reviewers are less talented than me. I do, however, acknowledge that this review is particularly poor, and am prepared to accept that numerous other people will have reviewed Autoportrait better than I.

THE TRAIN WAS ON TIME BY HEINRICH BOLL

I have spent much of my life, from around ten or eleven years old, looking for the answer, for something that would provide relief and allow me to, not exactly reconcile myself with The Fear, but at least be able to cope with those times when it sits on my chest and holds me down and pummels me in the face. Which is most days really. For years my relationship with The Fear – which for other people may mean a number of things but which for me is a fear of dying – has involved extreme panic attacks. During these attacks, which I would describe as being motivated by The Genuine Belief That One Day I Will Definitely Die, I will howl inhumanly, and tear at my hair, literally grab great chunks of hair and pull at them like an overzealous, inexperienced fisherman yanks at his rod when he sees his float disappear under the surface of the pond’s water. And I will scream, actually scream into the palms of my hands, and writhe and kick and squirm. When The Fear really takes hold, when I truly believe that at some point I am going to cease to exist – because it is a different thing to say it or know it than it is to truly believe it – it is like my head, my body, my Self, is going to suffer a kind of irrevocable breakdown, a Twin Towers-like collapse, and the writhing, the screaming, the kicking, etc, is a sort of existential battle for survival, is my Self trading blows with The Fear. If anyone was ever to see me in this state, which they wouldn’t of course because The Fear is a canny bastard who will only ever step to a guy when he is at his most alone and vulnerable, they’d think, understandably, that I was possessed.

All of which should go some way to explaining why Heinrich Böll’s The Train Was on Time, which is, on the most basic level, the story of a young man who is absolutely certain that the train he is on is taking him to his death, has been an uncomfortable, and yet at times strangely comforting, reading experience for me. The novel is set in 1943, and features a German infantryman, Andreas, who is bound for the Eastern front [specifically Poland]. In these circumstances, having a premonition of one’s death is not exactly a flight of fancy. Indeed, Andreas had already come close to the ultimate departure once before, in Amiens, France. Unfortunately for him, the situation, for the Germans, has significantly worsened since then, so that losing the war seems likely. One must bear in mind that one’s chances of survival when on the winning side are, at best, in the balance, but when on the losing side? Well…

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[German soldiers during WW2, waiting to board a train]

To be a soldier during wartime is to be in an extraordinary predicament, because, regardless of how that war is justified, whether it be in the name of freedom or democracy or whatever, for the people who are actively involved in it, it is literally a fight for life, a battle to stay alive; it is a state of affairs whereby death isn’t simply keeping an eye on you, it is aggressively stalking your heels. To spend weeks, months, years in such a situation must be horribly taxing. Therefore, it is no surprise that soldiers are often mentally damaged by the experience; and there is certainly evidence of that where Andreas is concerned. He is obsessively focussed on certain incidents, replaying them in his mind; he worries that he isn’t praying enough, and when he does pray it is often for the Jews; he frequently wants to cry but cannot; and, as already noted, he is convinced that his death is coming, yet not at some unspecified point in time, but on a specific day, in a specific place.

“He could no longer say, no longer even think: “I don’t want to die.” As often as he tried to form the sentence he thought: I’m going to die…soon.”

For me, Böll handles all this with great sensitivity, intelligence and skill. On the surface, the book is written in the third person, but large parts of it are actually given over to Andreas’ internal monologues. In the beginning, he is terribly afraid, he panics…it is an animal reaction, a feeling that goes beyond reason. He is tormented by the word ‘soon.’  Soon. Soon. Soon. Soon. “What a terrible word,” he thinks to himself. When is soon? Soon is uncertain, it is imprecise, it is a black hole, a nothing. Like death itself. And so, almost in order to comfort himself, to be able to get a handle on death, to make it concrete, to give himself something to hold onto, he convinces himself that his death will take place on a Sunday, between Lvov and Cernauti. He makes the uncertain certain. There is something, I think, in the unknown, in nothingness, that we simply cannot bear, because, I guess, we cannot comprehend it. I have been spending time with terminally ill people recently, and there is, in my limited experience, a kind of calmness that descends when death stops being this thing that might grab you unawares, and instead comes to sit beside you.

Once death is certain, and no longer soon, Andreas’ panic subsides somewhat [which is not, by the way, the same as saying that he becomes entirely reconciled to the fate that he believes is his] and he becomes wistful and melancholy, thinking about the places he has been unable to visit, about how he will never again see the girl who serves him coffee. In this way, The Train Was on Time, as with all worthwhile literature, is universal, because we all experience the transitory nature of existence, even if we do not always link that experience to death. Whenever I am on a train I will spend some time looking out of the window, and I am always struck by a painful feeling, an understanding that I will never again see what I am seeing, that even if I take the same train, at the same time, travelling the same route, the sights will not be exactly the same. No single second of your life can ever be repeated; to all intents and purposes, you die thousands of times a day.

“That’s something no one would ever be able to understand, why I don’t take the next train back to her… why don’t I? No one would ever be able to understand that. But I’m scared of that innocence… and I love her very much, and I’m going to die, and all she’ll ever get from me now will be an official letter saying: Fallen for Greater Germany…”

For a novel so preoccupied with death it is not surprising that there is a sense of wanting to escape running through it. In addition to Andreas, there are two other major characters, Willi and a blonde officer. The three men come together when Andreas is asked if he wants to play a game of cards. Of course, for the young infantryman the game, and the company, is not about avoiding boredom, as it might be for us, but about keeping busy, taking his mind off things, off, specifically, the fact that he is likely hurtling towards his final resting place. However, death itself is also a kind of escape, or it could be viewed in that way, especially if one’s life is intolerable. In the case of Willi and the blonde officer, they could be said to be running towards war, towards death, rather than away from it, as one struggles with the break up of his marriage and the other with having once been sexually abused. In fact, Willi drinks large quantities of alcohol, which, of course, also provides an escape from reality, albeit only in the short-term.

In conclusion, I seem to recall the translator and critic Michael Hofmann once writing disparagingly of Heinrich Böll, and I seldom see his work [Böll’s] in lists of great German novels. On this basis, he probably qualifies as underrated. I do not think he ever hit the heights of someone like, say, Thomas Mann or the Austrian Robert Musil, but I have yet to be disappointed with any of his books. However, I ought to point out that, in the early stages, the transitions between third person narrative and the internal monologue are a little clunky to say the least, and that I wasn’t won over by the opening scene in which Andreas speaks to a clergyman on the platform about his desire to avoid death, but these are minor quibbles overall. The Train Was on Time, which was Böll’s first published work, written when in his early thirties, is fascinating, and often beautiful and moving.