It was whilst wandering the endless alluring aisles of Oxford’s late Borders, perhaps attempting a look of quirky sophistication, that I first noticed Pessoa. Life-defining. One of those fateful moments that shapes you surreptitiously into a slightly different person, without ever knowing the alternative.
I was Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, my future irrevocably transformed by one tiny, seemingly insignificant moment: discovering this long-dead Portuguese poet. Maybe the comparison isn’t that apt. Yet Pessoa has certainly changed my view of prose poetry, and remains the finest example of this genre I’ve ever encountered.
“Perhaps my destiny is to remain forever a book-keeper, with poetry or literature as a butterfly that alights on my head, making me look ridiculous to the extent it looks beautiful.”
His Book of Disquiet is fronted, in the Penguin edition, with a photograph that intrigued me somehow. The two men are faceless and uncertain in a cobbled street, one thrown back in an unnatural pose, away from sunlight. I retreated to a quiet corner, thumbed through the pages, and felt lost in a history that was not my own. Pessoa’s “factless autobiography” quickly earned a place in my pocket. Or at least it would’ve done if I had oddly large trousers; my bag would suffice.
One of the most influential Portuguese poets of the twentieth century, Fernando Pessoa receives relatively little attention today. Ideally, I’d attain a grasp of Portuguese and read Pessoa undiluted, but until this intellectual pinnacle is reached, potential readers should be wary of choosing the right translation. For example, Edwin Honig’s edition to me seems flat and clunky, but Richard Zenith’s Penguin translation is excellent, and captures the gravity of Pessoa’s fine craftsmanship.
Perhaps it would be fair to preface my praise with a warning: this is rarely an uplifting read. Take this charming vignette: “Should you ask me if I’m happy, I’ll answer that I’m not.” Published posthumously in 1987, 47 years after Pessoa’s death, The Book of Disquiet was discovered as a tussle of pages inside one large envelope, completely unedited, but with appendixes detailing the proposed structure which can still be found in some editions. Pessoa’s work has been compiled and debated in a manner akin to a mysterious historical artefact, and should be treated with such gravity.
Essentially, the collection is assigned to what Pessoa termed a heteronym, Bernando Soares. Unlike other pseudonymous writing, Pessoa developed an intricate biography and unique poetic idiom for each individual he reared. Soares’ potential similarities to Pessoa have proved a subject of varied critical debate, but, to summarise: Bernando is a solitary chap, he lives in Lisbon and works for the banal Sehnor Vasques in a bookshop, somewhere along the Rua Dos Douradores. In the streets he is both spectator and flâneur, contemplating the futility of existence, and derisively condemning those who do not. All from “the fourth-floor…overlooking infinity”.
As it reads, there are two main sections. The first, “A Factless Autobiography”, is comprised of nearly 500 excerpts of detached existential contemplation. The latter, “A Disquiet Anthology”, is much shorter and itemised in succinct, appropriately despairing fragments: ‘A Voyage I Never Made’, ‘Symphony of the Restless Night’, and even ‘Advice for Unhappily Married Women’. The latter helpfully contains three sections.
Passages of subtly-crafted poetic prose trickle into morose, meandering contemplations of humanity’s existential crises, which are often abruptly severed with “anonymous, unending and unintelligible” prowess. Interspersed are maxims that a theorist might spend a few gleeful hours unpacking, but provide anyone else with a few moments of calm deliberation. His delicate unerring medley of idioms and insights short-circuits melancholic despair, but pauses occasionally for a breath to contemplate a sunset, or the certainty of seasons. Darkness certainly envelopes this work, but somewhere in this bleak landscape lies a glimmer of sentiment that resembles hope. Pessoa’s concise desolation and triumphant declaration of his work’s failures can stretch out a papery hand to anyone in their hours of misery, and paint visions of a universe that may often be tinged with sadness, but always contains beauty.
“Today I was struck by an absurd but valid sensation. I realised, in an inner flash, that I am no one.”
What has sustained my appetite for Bernando’s melancholia? His is more of an unplanned wilderness of collections than a linear progression. Disquiet can be dipped in and out of like in an anthology, but feels less than regimental in its formation. Habitually he baffles me, perhaps he baffles himself. Maybe it’s all an elaborate government hoax to depress the population. But some tugging inclination suggests he breathes out truth in these lines. Kaleidoscopic arrays of philosophical, literary, and basic human scrutiny will leave me blinded by life as it was for Soares, mainly by realising he often captures life as it is today.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a window seat, take to it at once and open this book. For others, a floor will be adequate, though preferably one with a view out onto a bustling street. Candlelight is optional but may add a priceless rusticity to the experience. Dip into The Book of Disquiet, you might find Bernando becomes quite personable after a while.