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Existential modernist masterpiece
on 4 May 2010
A collection of random musings of a fiercely contemplative mind rather than a novel. Indeed 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.
One of the strengths of this Serpent's Tail Classics edition is the brief introduction by William Boyd that puts Pessoa's life work into context. The Book of Disquiet is written by one of Pessoa's heteronyms, 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.
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 Serpent's Tail Classics 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..."