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 of Disquiet, the teenaged Pessoa moved back from Durban to Lisbon, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He was isolated and the city was daunting and new. He took to writing former teachers and at least one classmate under the name “Dr. Faustino Antunes” with requests for information about Fernando Pessoa, his troubled psychiatric patient. One replied with more detail than his correspondent might have wanted. Pessoa, he said, had been “pale and thin and appeared physically to be very imperfectly developed.” But even in English, his classmate remembered, “he had a splendid style.”
In these early years Pessoa immersed himself in Keats, the Brownings, and Edgar Allan Poe, whose poems he would later translate. He had a special affinity with the Poe responsible for such stories as “The Man of the Crowd,” in which the narrator—a convalescent with “a calm but inquisitive interest in everything”—spends a fall evening studying passersby through the window of a London coffeehouse. Out of the usual crush of clerks, pickpockets, dandies, gamblers, beggars, and “women of the town” he sees an old man whose face has such “absolute idiosyncrasy” that he gets off his perch, takes his hat, and resolves to follow the figure deeper into the crowd.
As the evening turns to night and its fog to rain he tracks the old man—whom he finds to be “short in stature, very thin, and apparently very feeble”—through alleys, a square, a bazaar, a dilapidated block of tenements, and finally a wretched gin-house, where the old man arrives just before it closes at daybreak. Then he makes his way back “to the heart of the mighty London,” where the narrator proceeds to follow him for the rest of the day. The man never stops; he seems to have no home but the crowd itself. The narrator convinces himself that this idiosyncratic figure is both criminal and utterly unknowable, his heart a book that “does not permit itself to be read.”
Poe’s story evidently made a deep impression on Pessoa. In an undated prose fragment, he rewrote it not from the perspective of Poe’s sickly narrator but from that of the elusive, unreadable urban wanderer he follows:
I became a man of the crowd. I never trusted myself alone. From night unto morn, and from morn unto night I elbowed speedily through crowds, clinging affrightedly to whom I could. Many thought me a thief. But I pressed my body against their bodies as a child clings to its mother during a thunderstorm. I tried to close up my mind’s eye as a child seeks to escape the sight of the lightning; I strove to close my mental ears, as a child seeks by burying its head in its mother’s lap to hear not the crash of the thunderbolt.
What troubles him most is the “firm, inexorable tread” of the figure following him—the man whose mind Poe had already laid open.
The voice Pessoa found here sounds not unlike the voices that fill The Book of Disquiet. The two heteronyms to whom he attributed the dark thoughts in this book—both “assistant bookkeepers” in Lisbon with stultifying office lives—are on better terms with solitude than his man in the crowd. But they identify especially strongly with aging, decrepit, and criminal men in the street; they too gravitate toward packed cities and obsess over the thunderstorms that disrupt them. (“I think of us,” one says about the burdens “the soul” acquires over a life, “as climates constantly threatened by storms that always break somewhere else.”) In some moods they resemble Poe’s man in the window, surveying Lisbon’s pedestrians with darkly comic deprecation. In others they become something closer to the man he follows: urban walkers whose perceptions of movement, people, weather, wind, light, and storms carry them between bliss and despair.
Most often, however, they play both these parts at once, splitting themselves so thoroughly in two that they can write themselves letters, be their own psychoanalytic patients, or stalk themselves through busy streets. Vicente Guedes, the earlier of the book’s two imagined authors, struggles to imagine, in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, “that I am simultaneously, separately, unconfusedly, the man and the woman on a walk that a man and woman are taking by the river.” The heteronym Bernardo Soares, on whom Pessoa eventually conferred authorship of The Book of Disquiet, often pits one aspect of his mercurial, moody sensibility against another. “I’m two people who mutually keep their distance,” he writes in a characteristic moment—“Siamese twins living separate lives.”
There has never been—and in all likelihood never will be—a single definitive edition of the book these authors inhabited. A brief early entry “from The Book of Disquiet, in preparation” appeared in print in 1913 under Pessoa’s own name. He shifted the authorship to the heteronym of Guedes soon after and eventually to that of Soares. Eleven more short excerpts appeared in print some years after that initial notice; Pessoa kept the rest of the book’s hundreds of prose pieces in trunks with his other unpublished manuscripts, many handwritten in a barely legible scrawl. (In the case of the passages Pessoa didn’t explicitly designate for The Book of Disquiet, his assiduous editors and archivists continue to debate which belong to the book and which do not.) “It’s all fragments, fragments, fragments,” he wrote a friend despairingly in 1914.
When he took the book back up in the late 1920s and reattributed it to Soares, its problems multiplied. This new figure was a quite different heteronym from Guedes and less easy to distinguish from their mutual creator; in a 1935 letter, Pessoa called Soares a “semiheteronym” who “always appears when I’m sleepy or drowsy…. His prose is the same as mine, except for a certain formal restraint that reason imposes on my own.” And so Pessoa decided that the texts by Guedes he’d kept in reserve were “untrue to the psychology of Bernado Soares.” They would need to be edited, pruned, and subjected to “a general revision of style, without…losing the personal tone or the drifting, disconnected logic” they’d always had.
This work was never done, and the question of how to handle the Guedes material has troubled all the book’s editors ever since. Now the scholar Jerónimo Pizarro has produced an ambitious new edition of The Book of Disquiet—for which Jull Costa has substantially expanded and revised her abridged translation from the 1990s—that hews more closely than any of its precursors to the order in which the fragments were written, foregrounding the earlier material, marking off gaps in the writing with brackets, and emphasizing the changes Pessoa’s prose style underwent over the course of his life. Compared to earlier English renditions of the book, Pizarro and Jull Costa’s edition takes fewer liberties and risks more frustrations. It refuses to soften the difficulties that arise from what Pessoa wrote and from the disordered state in which he left it.
Many of the early, Vicente Guedes–attributed entries in The Book of Disquiet date from between 1913 and 1915. This was a formative period for Pessoa. By then he had started working as a freelance translator of business letters into French and English—a ready source of income for much of his adult life. He was meanwhile becoming a fixture of an energetic literary avant-garde in Lisbon that also included the poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro and the peripatetic artist Almada Negreiros.
In 1915 the three friends contributed to the sole two issues of a journal called Orpheu, which introduced Portuguese readers to a version of the Futurist sensibility—fevered, brash, hyperbolically stimulated by engines and steel—that had recently swept Italy and Russia. (When the first issue’s editor abdicated, Pessoa and Sá-Carneiro took over for the second.) Pessoa gave the debut issue a short play under his own name and a long free-verse poem called “Triumphal Ode,” which begins as a song of praise to technology and speed but before long turns into a sour parody of the Futurist vision on which the poem riffs: lines that celebrate “elevators of tall buildings” give way to ones that glorify “major cabinet reshufflings,” “great train disasters,” and “caved-in mineshafts.”
Pessoa attributed this mischievous performance to “Álvaro de Campos,” one of three members of what he called the “nonexistent coterie” of heteronymic poets he devised in 1914. The other two were Ricardo Reis, a retiring figure who wrote odes cautioning his readers against excessive ambition and urging them to find pleasure in the moment, and a visionary “keeper of sheep” named Alberto Caeiro, whose pastoral poems celebrated aloneness and passivity and warned against conscious thought. For Pessoa these three characters came to occupy a microcosmic literary world. (They were joined by an “orthonym” named “Fernando Pessoa,” a sort of doppelgänger their creator invoked to account for certain poems he wrote under his own name, but the point of the heteronyms was not exactly secrecy: Pessoa’s friends and collaborators, at the very least, would have known who was behind them.) He delegated other heteronyms as their critics and translators and set up elaborate patterns of inspiration among them. When he killed off Caeiro in 1915 he gave him a strong posthumous influence over the other heteronyms, including the two imagined authors of The Book of Disquiet.
Even in such company, the sensibility Pessoa gave Guedes seems strikingly counterintuitive and perverse. In the early texts that found a place in The Book of Disquiet, failure takes precedence over accomplishment, inaction over activity, contradiction over consistency, purity over vulgarity, and reverie over what might be called reality. Guedes calls himself a “creator of indifferences” and writes several fragments on “how to dream well,” one of which begins with an injunction to “take care to respect nothing and to believe in nothing.” He enjoys dreaming, he says, because “in dreams, you can enjoy the idea of effort without actually having to make any effort.” To act—to make an effort—strikes him as a kind of debasement. To him art, like dreams, is “beautiful…because it is useless,” whereas life is “ugly…because it is all aims and purposes and intentions.” He insists in a fragment from around 1914 that “some metaphors are more real than the people you see walking down the street.”
This sensibility is bracing and stimulating and ironic—but in how many different ways can it be expressed? “I feel that in describing all my different moods, I always use the same words,” Pessoa had Soares say in a much later fragment. “There rises from them, like a familiar smell, an arid sense of monotony.” This is rarely true of Soares, but it’s more often true of Guedes, who frequently became an outlet for some of Pessoa’s more maudlin and baroque language; one entry invokes a “swan of rhythmic disquiet, lyre of immortal hours, hesitant harp of mythical griefs.” The Guedes passages were written before Pessoa embarked on the one documented romance in his life: his circuitous exchanges of love letters with a typist named Ofélia Queiroz, for whom his pet names included “Ibis,” “Terrible Baby,” and “My Little Wasp.” Too often they evoke mystical dream-women who give the author a chance to affirm his chastity (“I can imagine you both a virgin and a mother because you are not of this world”). There are similar embarrassments in the unsubtly ironic pieces of “advice to unhappily married women” Pessoa wrote under Guedes’s name.
Concerns over the project’s wooliness and immaturity may have contributed to Pessoa’s decision around 1920 to put The Book of Disquiet aside. When he started adding again to the assemblage nine years later under Soares’s attribution, he reasserted his commitment to inaction. Soares is just as often flattened by tedium and hopelessness as was Guedes, and he takes his predecessor’s indifferences to even further extremes. (“If I found the tree more interesting,” he says, “I would grieve more over that tree being felled than over [a] man dying.”) But he lets those concerns become the background for a more colorful and varied performance. Passivity sharpens Soares’s senses rather than dulling them; it widens his ability to pick up on tiny variations in the smell of air, the movements of people, and shades of light. The fineness of his perception is made possible precisely by how empty he keeps his days: “the wise man,” he says, “makes his life monotonous, for then even the tiniest incident becomes something marvelous.” In one entry he spends a sleepless night describing “the false whiteness of the moon”:
If I were to get up out of bed and look through the cold windowpanes I know that, high up in the lonely air, the moonlight would be grayish-white with a bluish tinge of faded yellow; that on the various rooftops, in diverse degrees of blackness, it now gilds the submissive buildings with dark white and now floods with colorless color the chestnut red of the roof tiles. Down below in the quiet chasm of the street, on the irregular roundnesses of the bare cobblestones, its only color is a blue that emanates perhaps from the gray of the stones themselves. It will be almost dark blue on the distant horizon, but quite different from the blue-black depths of the sky, and dark yellow where it touches the glass of windowpanes.
The rhythms of city life in Lisbon, which Caeiro had shunned and Guedes blurred into an impressionistic wash, emerge here in high relief. To those who consider themselves “bereft of both hope and despair,” in Soares’s words, life has nothing more complete to offer than walking “random networks of ancient streets in odd parts of the city.” So he treats us to luxurious descriptions of a cool mist “dissolving into nebulous shreds” around the hills on Lisbon’s “outer edge”; of a woman on the tram whose “pale green dress” with “regularly irregular dark green edging” sends him on an imagined detour through “the factories and all the different jobs” that had a part in making it; or of “the fist of sound” that “with a slurred, dying whisper” descends on the city during a thunderstorm like the ones Pessoa’s man in the crowd fears.
It is as if forgoing such goal-oriented behaviors as hope, ambition, activity, politics, love, seduction, and care for the well-being of others has narrowed Soares’s concern to what, in one fragment, he calls the only mission literature has: “to make life real.” To be made “real,” life and its settings have to be reimagined; a new language has to be found to take account of what it feels like to perceive the world through the eyes of an incoherent, unreconciled, and frequently unhappy self. This thought brings Soares to one of his most dramatic and startling outbursts:
To say things! To know how to say things! To know how to exist through the written voice and the intellectual image! That’s what life is about: the rest is just men and women, imagined loves and fictitious vanities, excuses born of poor digestion and forgetting, people squirming beneath the great abstract boulder of a meaningless blue sky, the way insects do when you lift a stone.
Not all the sections in The Book of Disquiet “make life real” equally well. Had Pessoa lived longer, he might well have gone back to the earlier material he’d set aside for the book and tried to bring it up to his later standard. But cultivating clutter, disorder, and contradiction was just as often Pessoa’s way of “knowing how to say things.” The chaos in which the book comes to us is both a sign of its incompleteness and a display of the kind of thinking it encouraged.
When Jull Costa undertook her first translation of The Book of Disquiet, in the early 1990s, it was for an edition edited by the scholar Maria José de Lancastre in which the entries were organized thematically rather than in the order of their composition. Richard Zenith, in the 2001 edition of his own translation for Penguin, likewise considered and rejected ordering the passages chronologically. The book’s “peculiar greatness,” in his view, was its “lack of a pre-established order”—or Pessoa’s failure to give it one. In the author’s files, Zenith reminds us, unusually long and developed passages were “mixed up with hundreds of other texts, large and small, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle without a discernable picture or pattern.” Zenith gave the fragments a provisional sequence (“since a loose-leaf edition is impractical”); relegated many of the less presentable early entries, including the advice for married women, to a seventy-page “Disquiet Anthology” in the back of the book; and urged his buyers to “read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order.”*
Pizarro is having none of this. “There is an unnecessary violence,” he writes in the foreword to his edition, “about bringing together texts written many years apart…or minimizing the importance of Vicente Guedes as coauthor.” Scholars and editors like Zenith and Lancastre, he seems to be suggesting, have avoided the most intuitive way of presenting the book: to organize it “as it emerged, rather than alternating the texts of the first phase with those from the second. There was a first and a second book—and several years passed between the two—and there is no need to make a thematic montage to unify what required no unification.”
Did it not require unification? There is little reason to think that Pessoa would have wanted the texts read in chronological order; in fact, his dissatisfaction with the Guedes material suggests that he doubted this arrangement would work. Readers who come to The Book of Disquiet for the first time in Pizarro’s edition and find themselves confronted immediately with two hundred pages of this earlier writing—often as gauche and cumbersome as it is ingenious—may wonder what all the fuss is about.
But Pizarro’s edition has its own attractions. Not only has it been a welcome occasion for Jull Costa to translate much more of the text, it’s also the first opportunity Pessoa’s English-language readers have had to follow, year by year, the drama of the book’s evolution from a cluster of Symbolist sketches to the profoundly strange and perceptive city symphony it eventually became. That we now have three such different versions in English of Pessoa’s prose testament suits his own refusal to choose between viewpoints—his compulsion to divide and pursue and contradict himself by turns. It seems never to have crossed his mind at any stage in the book’s composition that it would become a complete, impeccable literary product. “Were I to dream it,” he has Guedes say in an early fragment about The Book of Disquiet itself, “it would be perfection; the mere fact of writing makes it imperfect.” That, he says, “is why I am writing it.”
November 23, 2017
The Pity of It All
Poems from the Abyss
Earlier this year, Jull Costa observes, a heroic looseleaf edition of the book did appear. A letterpress artist named Tim Hopkins typeset sixty-one of his favorite entries from Jull Costa’s translation by hand, manually printed them on ephemeral items like matchbooks, bus tickets, receipt books, lollipop sticks, and vacation slides, and housed the resulting jumble of objects in handsome boxed anthologies that have, sadly, sold out. ↩