[21 August 2007]
The Book of Disquiet
Author: Fernando Pessoa
December 2002, 544 pages, $16.00
Have you ever finished a book and then gone back to the beginning to read it all over again because you can’t bear to let it go? I did that for the first time a few days ago when I came to the end of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’d make a terrible, skewed reviewer right now: my thoughts are all superlatives. The main one is: “This is the only true book I have ever read.” That keeps going through my mind: This is the only true book I have ever read.
It seems truer than non-fiction because it is openly subjective. If you removed the author’s right to his ‘I’ then the book wouldn’t exist. Disquiet takes the form of a diary without dates and without a narrative connection between the days. The diarist does not, for example, meet a woman one week and then chart a course of love with her across the months, ending in triumphant dating by the climax. There is no climax. The order of the entries is more or less arbitrary. No one knows the order Pessoa wrote them in, or how he meant them to be arranged. Like most of his writing, the Book went unpublished during his lifetime. It was assembled from his unfinished notes after he died. (Some of the entries begin or end in ellipses, or hint at supportive paragraphs that he never got around to writing. Small squares have been drawn in places where his handwriting became too illegible to decipher.) The edition of the book that I’m reading—Richard Zenith’s translation from the original Portuguese, published by Penguin in 2001—comprises 481 of these notes, and ends with a Disquiet Anthology of pieces that could potentially have made it into the main body of the Book, but, in the end, didn’t.
The cumulative power of these scraps is something like that of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but Pessoa’s research was all inward, a hermetic brooding over his own emotions and ideas, where Benjamin liked looking up quotes at the library. Questions roll around in the diarist’s head. Who am I? What am I? How can I tell? How should I spend my life? Some of the entries are a page or more long, others are the written equivalent of idle doodles. “Faith is the instinct of action,” is one of those doodles. Another one: “Who am I to myself? Just another one of my sensations.” And: “To speak is to show too much consideration for others. It’s when they open their mouths that fish, and Oscar Wilde, are fatally hooked.”
Outwardly the diarist does very little. He goes to work, comes home, eats his meals in the same restaurant, and often looks out of his window. “Wise is the man who monotonises his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel,” he remarks. “A hunter of lions feels no adventure after the third lion.” Pessoa names him Bernardo Soares. Soares lives in four rooms, doesn’t travel, is unmarried, ungirlfriended, childless, unsociable, not handsome, not famous. He is what his author called a semi-heteronym, an imaginary person who is almost-but-not-quite Pessoa himself. Most of Pessoa’s other writing was done by heteronyms. “A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be,” he explained. His heteronyms had their own names and biographies. One was a suicidal aristocrat, another was an anti-Christian Englishman, a third was a Portuguese “nature-poet” named Alberto Caeiro: others were dying women, men who did the crosswords, bisexual dandies. Soares refers to them as freely as if they were real; he refers to real writers as if they were real as well.
This common, imaginary bookkeeper’s brain is extraordinary rich—one of the effects of this book has been to make me aware of the wrongness of the word ‘extraordinary’ in this sentence. “I’ve had great ambitions and boundless dreams, but so has the delivery boy or the seamstress, because everyone has dreams,” Soares writes. “I differ from them only in knowing how to write. Yes, writing is an act, a personal circumstance that distinguishes me from them. But in my soul I’m their equal.”
Dreaming is essential, he decides, or, at any rate, it is all we’re fit for. “Dreaming is the one thing we have that’s really ours.” A daydream is the place where the human being is most free. All other freedoms are only the appearance of freedom. Even a king is not rich unless he is free in this way. (Saying this, he comes a little too close to the poor-little-rich boy idea embodied by those Hollywood comedies in which moneyed, staid people blossom anew thanks to housekeepers, bag ladies, chancers, thieves, kidnappers, carjackers, prostitutes, ethnic stereotypes, etc, although Soares doesn’t push it that far himself. Sometimes, when he goes to extremes, he can sound defensive or merely tongue-in-cheek: “[T]here are contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely and more turbulently than those who live externally,” he asserts, without evidence. “A dream can tire us out as much as physical labour.” Tell it to a labourer.)
Soares doesn’t make friends with people and he doesn’t woo women. It’s richer, he thinks, to drowse over them, to anticipate them as dream-figures inside his head, much as Pessoa imagined his heteronyms, independent thinkers yet dependent on him, their creator. At bottom, no one knows what they are, why they are here—religion doesn’t cover it, nothing covers it. The Book of Disquiet spirals around this unanswerable mystery and decides that it is unanswerable. There is no narrative to us: we live, we die, that much is certain. This is not a comforting realisation, but it is an honest one. That’s why The Book of Disquiet feels like the only true book I have ever read.