The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

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The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: An existential, modernist masterpiece. A collection of random musings of a fiercely contemplative mind rather than a novel, it is best treated as you would a book of poetry to be dipped into rather than read right through.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: May 2010
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687358

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If you try to read The Book of Disquiet from cover to cover, it is almost oppressively melancholic. Nothing much happens, and what we have is a collection of reveries and thoughts - almost a diary, but not quite - of existential musings about life, loneliness and the human condition. It's so introspective that after a while the monotony of the writer's mundane existence starts to wear on the reader. But I would urge you not to read this book like that. Rather, dip into it at random and you will find a work of undeniable genius. It's quite simply a masterpiece of modernist writing.

It's a tremendously difficult book to try to explain. It is perhaps helpful to put this book into some kind of context. In fact, one of the strengths of this Serpent's Tail Classics edition is the brief introduction by William Boyd that does just that. Fernando Pessoa lived between 1888 and 1935 but during his life he avoided the literary world, and indeed much of society, but wrote a vast amount of poetry and prose much of which has been published posthumously. The Book of Disquiet contains much of his prose writing - of which this edition has around half of them. So far, so easy to follow.

Ironically for a man whose real name was Pessoa, which translates from Portuguese into English as 'person', he wrote in a variety of 'heteronyms'. More than simply pen names, each character had their own style, biography and personality. In his lifetime he used a staggering seventy two of these as well as publishing under his own name. Four were used more than others, and The Book of Disquiet is written by one of those, Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper in a textile company in Lisbon. Indeed we even get an introduction from Pessoa about when he 'met' this person. You either have to be a bit bonkers or a genius to carry off writing under seventy two different names.

Pessoa's works were found in a trunk after his death. The prose writings here were in no discernable order and largely undated. So how you put them together is doubtless a source of great debate for Pessoa academics. There is no 'right' order. Similarly the works have been translated into English by several people. The translation in this edition is by Margaret Jull Costa, widely accepted as the best translation and indeed it is remarkable how beautiful the writing is in places.

This edition, edited by Maria José de Lancastre, attempts to put 257 different pieces of writing into a rough order by subject matter. These appear logical although there's no clear marking of the apparent subject matter making it more difficult to relocate the quote you are looking for. It is also worth noting that this is a selection from the more than 500 pieces that exist. I was slightly saddened that the only Pessoa quote that I knew prior to reading this, a personal favourite, that to have touched the feet of Christ is no excuse for mistakes in punctuation finds no place in this collection.

So, back to the content. Sure enough at times Soares/Pessoa comes over as being a bit like Hamlet's more indecisive twin, but the use of language is often profound and frequently mesmerising. It's certainly on the heavy side of the reading scale, but it positively soars in its contemplation of life. It's like having a cold in the soul he says. How beautiful is that?

Some of the pieces are simply a single line, others a little longer but few more than a couple of pages. The ideas are often deep, but thanks to this superb translation, the language is far from impenetrable.

To give you another example, have you ever had trouble sleeping? How about this then: Anyone wanting to make a catalogue of monsters would need only to photograph the things the night brings to somnolent souls who cannot sleep.

I could go on picking these superb musings at random. The book is full of them. It's unlike anything else you will have read, and a book that I know that I will dip into frequently. It's a mystery why his work isn't more widely known. In trying to learn a little more about him, it came as no surprise to me to discover that The Smiths wordsmith Morrissey is apparently a Pessoa fan. Perhaps that is as useful a guide as I can give you as to what to expect.

If you are of a contemplative disposition, then this may well be one of those books that truly changes how you see things. It's stunning. I'll leave the last word to Pessoa, which sums up my feelings on this book: I stare out from the window of my room at the multitudes of stars; at multitudes of stars and nothing, but oh so many stars...

Our thanks to the good people at Serpent's Tail for sending us a copy of this beautiful and mind expanding book, which rightly sits in their Classics collection.

The uniqueness of this book makes it next to impossible to suggest other reading alternatives, but certainly Breakfast with Socrates by Robert Rowland Smith will provide more food for thought for the philosophically contemplative mind.

Buy The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa at Amazon.com.


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