In 1894, when he was six years old, Fernando Pessoa invented a French literary figure named Chevalier de Pas, “through whom”—he later remembered—“I wrote letters from him to myself.” His father had died of tuberculosis the previous year. He would soon leave his birthplace of Lisbon for colonial Durban, where his new stepfather was the Portuguese consul.
By thirteen, according to his translator Richard Zenith, Pessoa was assembling “elaborate, three-column” newspapers “containing real and invented news, poems, short stories, historical features, riddles, and jokes, signed by a gallery of writers with distinct interests and literary styles.” He was still a teenager when, in English, he created the first of his many “heteronyms”—the imagined authors to whom he attributed the voluminous collection of poems, essays, occult writings, dialogues, philosophical reflections, short stories, manifestoes, and enigmatic prose pieces that he left behind in manuscript when he died from cirrhosis at forty-seven, and on which his position as one of the central figures of European modernism now rests.
Of those prose pieces, more than four hundred ended up in The Book of Disquiet, an unfinished assemblage of brooding fragments Pessoa began under one heteronym in 1913, labored over for some seven years, dropped for nearly a decade, took back up under a fresh character’s name in 1929, and kept expanding until his death. The book that emerged from this long process has always had a strange place in Pessoa’s work. Most critics agree that it ranks among his major writings. But when they feel the need to justify his reputation, many of them—including Harold Bloom and Octavio Paz—concentrate on his poems instead. That the book was never finished heightens its mystery; it is a work, Paz wrote, “of which only fragments are known.” Its tone is still harder to account for. Bad-tempered, barely navigable, and filled with repudiations of its own usefulness and value, The Book of Disquiet always seems to be rejecting any suggestion that it might be important—or indeed worth reading at all.
And yet few have been able to stay away from it. In the early 1990s four translations of The Book of Disquiet appeared; since then it has remained one of Pessoa’s most widely read works in English. Its reluctance to accommodate the reader, the scorn it showers on such seemingly fundamental aspirations as romantic happiness and personal accomplishment, its prickliness and hostility: all these difficulties have if anything sharpened the book’s appeal. But the greater virtue of The Book of Disquiet might well be what it tells us about Pessoa himself. Its long gestation and ability to assume new shapes made it a kind of stage on which he could work out his ideas and find new ways of describing the streets and rooms in which he lived.
Eight years before he started The Book…
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