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.
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.