Fernando Pessoa – Portugal – #EU27Project

It’s impossible to read The Book of Disquiet in one go, or to attempt to review it in any coherent way. It’s a book of reminiscing, musing, poetic flights of fancy, philosophical fragments, a writer’s diary, the journal of an anonymous little clerk, descriptions of Lisbon, it’s nothing and everything at once, and he scribbled in this ‘notebook’ practically every day from 1912 until his death in 1935. Pessoa is now considered one of the foremost Portuguese poets, part of the modernist movement, but during his lifetime he wrote mainly for himself, and most of his work was published posthumously. To make matters even more complicated, he also wrote as numerous other ‘people’, created persona as easily as I create carrot cake (and then consume it). The Book of Disquiet is a collation of his manuscripts, an approximation of what he intended, since many notebooks or pieces of paper were undatable. So the editors and translators have chosen to group things roughly by themes.

I read a few pages at a time, and I underline almost every second paragraph. It’s the kind of book you want to use as inspiration for your own writing, a way to push forward your own thinking. There are many riffs on the anguished soul of an artist, which will appeal especially to writers. It reminds me of Kafka, but with a more dramatic Latin flavour, when he talks about his ‘paper-thin skin stretched over nerves too near the surface, notes playing scales on the awful, inner piano of memory.’  Let me just share some quotes with you, to give you a flavour:

My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddlestrings and harps, drums and tambours I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.

That is the central error of the literary imagination: the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us. Fortunately for humanity, each man is only himself and only the genius is given the ability to be others as well.

The moment I find myself, I am lost; if I believe, I doubt; I grasp hold of something but hold nothing in my hand. I go to sleep as if I were going for a walk, but I’m awake. I wake as if I slept and I am not myself. Life, after all, is but one great insomnia and there is a lucid half-awakeness about everything we think or do.

Statue of Pessoa outside his favourite cafe in Lisbon, from levoyageur.net

Yes, we will all pass, everything will pass. Nothing will remain of the person who put on feelings and gloves, who talked about death and local politics. The same light falls on the faces of saints and the gaiters of passers-by, and the dying of that same light will leave in darkness the utter nothingness that will be all that remains of the fact that some were saints and others wearers of gaiters.

Now, as many times before, I am troubled by my own experience of my feelings, by my anguish simply to be feeling something, my disquiet simply at being here, my nostalgia for something never known, the setting of the sun on all emotions, this fading, in my external consciousness of myself, from yellow into grey sadness.

It sounds a bit like a highly condensed version of Virginia Woolf’s diaries without all the social gossip and updates on her printing. However, it’s not all self-centred musing and philosophical speculation. There are some wonderful descriptions of the city at dawn and at sunset, observations of passengers on the trams, characters on the street and in the office. There are literary references and political anger, but above all an attempt to display ‘an aesthetic of indifference’.

For this is what I found in these diaries (and what appealed to someone living through the current period): an expression of tedium and malaise, almost nihilism, as befits the times he was living in. Even though he never witnessed the Second World War, he did live through several years of the Portuguese military dictatorship and developed a sense that the world belonged to ‘the stupid, the insensitive and the disturbed’ and that the only ones who succeeded were the ones equipped with ‘amorality, hypomania and an incapacity for thought.’

I can’t say I’ve finished reading this book. The despair and darkness is only occasionally balanced by wonder at the beauty of nature or alleviated by a humorous aside. There are many who believe that the Portuguese concept of saudade, a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent loved something or someone, is untranslatable. But in Romanian we have the very same concept dor. So there is something that instinctively speaks to me in Pessoa’s work (and yes, he has been translated into Romanian and is a bit of a cult figure there).  It’s a book I will dip into again and again, certain in the belief that I will always find something new which will incite me to explore my own beliefs and thoughts.

In fact, the recent attempt by an independent publisher to present these random jottings in a medium that more closely mirrors the intent of the original, on recycled pieces of paper and in a box, is probably the best way to read them (see above). If you can’t afford that, then Serpent’s Tail has a lovely new complete edition.



24 thoughts on “Fernando Pessoa – Portugal – #EU27Project”

  1. Such an eloquent review! Interesting that he’s a cult figure in Romania. I feel I should at least dip into this given that Lisbon is one of my favourite cities – it’s the faded, crumbling grandeur that attracts me. Portugal is a shadow of its once-powerful self which perhaps explains the concept of saudade.

    1. Hmm, but that explanation doesn’t work for the Romanian dor, since we were never powerful or an empire. I heard some Roman Empire experts arguing that on the edges of the Roman Empire they often sent the misfits and less desirable elements, and they were often more melancholic (nowadays one might argue that they were depressives or bipolar) than the rest of the Roman army. So Portugal and Romania are far gloomier than the Spanish or Italians, for example.

        1. My lips are sealed… And yes, apparently they all complained about the weather in Portugal and Romania (this must have been before they got sent to Britain).

  2. The fragments collection has sold out, and I’ve an early release of the “new” complete edition, which contains a number of facsimiles – like yourself, it’s an immersion but a few fragments at a time. I’d urge non converts to get a copy (either Serpents Tail or New Directions in the US have the rights for the new Margaret Jull Costa translation).

  3. I admit to giving up on this halfway through, though I now realise, from what others (and you) have said, that I should have dipped in, not tried to read in sequence. Funnily enough, when I looked through to see what I’d highlighted, I’d chosen the extract you quote, about ‘anguish’. I think it was the kind of entry just before that one that put me off, where in a few lines he talks of ‘tedium’ (twice), ‘nausea’ and ‘horror’, all in one paragraph. Yes, it’s beautifully poetic much of the time, but I found it pretentious. Maybe it was just too private for general consumption, or maybe I’m just grumpy…’Life sickens me like a dose of bad medicine’ (that’s Pessoa, not me). Btw, I believe this pseudonym of his means simply ‘person’ in Portuguese.

    1. There are moments when I thought: ‘Hmmm, pretentious’ and that it might have appealed more to my teenage self. But these are offset with moments of beauty and perception. Just like a rich cake, best to stick to small portions!

  4. This sounds fascinating, Marina Sofia. It’s not often that a book of musings like this gives such insights, but this one seems to do just that. It sounds like the sort of thing you digest bits at a time, and keep around for reflection.

      1. Yes it’s great. Better than the prose for me. But it is complicated with his several heteronyms or personae. I love the faux shepherd though I can’t remember his name.

  5. Wonderful review, Marina and I take heart from what you say because I’ve failed to read this and that may well be because I attacked in a linear way and not a bit at a time. I have an older version, though, and the complete version looks very appealing…. :s

    1. Was your older version still translated by Margaret Jull Costa? I don’t know if there are any earlier translations, but she says she just built on her initial 1992 or so translation, added to it (it was for a ‘selected’ version of text), but that the more she translated, the more her understanding of his work deepened.

      1. Yes, it’s a 2002 Serpents Tail edition but appears to be copyright 1991 so presumably her first version. Maybe that’s a good enough place to start. Although I would like to read the complete version.

  6. Fantastic review!
    I don’t know how, but I managed to read it all in a sequence. But you’re right, it’s better to dip in and out of it.
    Your definition of Saudade is spot on. It being untranslatable is a bit of a myth that many Portuguese like to believe in. Some authors saw it as a way to define a Portuguese identity after the loss of international power a long time ago.
    But nowadays I think it’s more related with the huge number of Portuguese people that live abroad. Many people had to leave the country during the dictatorship in the 60’s, both for economic reasons and in order not to being forced to fight in the colonial war. And more recently there was also huge number of people going to live abroad because of the economic crisis. If I’m not mistaken Portugal is the second country in the EU with the highest percentage of native-borns living abroad.

    1. Thank you for your clarifications, Susana – so good to know ‘natives’ who can set you right about things! The Romanian dor is also very much related to homesickness and nostalgia for your place of birth – and yes, Romanians are now also scattered all over the world! And yes, the untranslatability is likewise a bit of a myth here…
      Ah, well, where would we be culturally without a little bit of myth-making? As long as it’s not noxious and disrespectful of others, it’s fine!

  7. As others have said, a very eloquent review of what sounds like a very thought-provoking book. I do admire you for tackling this one. I’ve always found the prospect of reading it a little daunting, but I’m pleased to see that you got so much out of it.

  8. Pessoa, like many writings from Portugal, should be taken in small doses. Interesting that all that literary saudade and gloom are actually counterbalanced nowadays in the Portuguese soul by a healthy dose of realism/optimism and trust that things can only get better…

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