“Aphorisms for somnambulists” – The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

A novel which is not a novel, published 47 years after the death of its author, Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet in a fashion can been described as being a collection of aphorisms for somnambulists. But this is being over simplistic and in no way does justice to one of the great works of the 20th century.

The background story to this is as fascinating and as intriguing as the book itself. Discovered in a trunk and comprising of fragments written in the form of diary entries, the first fragment of The Book of Disquiet was begun in 1913 and concluded in 1920. There the novel remained and Pessoa waited 10 years, until 1930, before recommencing his magnum opus.

As is the case throughout the book, in retrospect I’m wary of calling it a novel, contrasts and contradictions are evident, celebrated and justified. The first part is written by Vicente Guedes a bookkeeper and loner who dines by himself and is described as being one of those people who “are but a series of marginal notes in the book of life.”

Guedes is a contradictory figure. He can be described as a bachelor who dispenses advice on love or a dreamer who castigates the mere idea of action. Early on he says:

“All effort is a crime because every gesture is but a bad dream.”

As an example of his contractions here he is dispensing advice to an imaginary lover.

“Nothing is worthwhile my distant love, except knowing how sweet it is to know nothing is worthwhile…”

Here inertia is the order of the day. Guedes can at times be infuriating and at times compelling. He resembles an individual whom you are drawn too despite your better judgment. He’ll do you more harm but is happy to observe and may just want someone to listen to him and perhaps just perhaps you may learn something.

In contrast the second fragment of the book is composed by Bernando Soares. Like Guedes, Soares is a bookkeeper. But whereas Guedes was content to ruminate in Lisbon’s cafes and bars Soares rambles about the city. He talks about the streets, the office in which he works, the falling rain and the squeaking of Lisbon’s trams.  In short he is a flaneur of the city’s back streets and empty squares.

The Book of Disquiet is written in a quietly lyrical style. Throughout, each sentence sings gracefully in its own silences. Each page is filled with quotes full of sparkling whit and originally.

“The person standing apart in the corner of the room dances with all the dancers.”

Or,

“The outside world exists like an actor on a stage: it’s there but it’s pretending to be something else.”

Fernando Pessoa was born in Portugal in 1888 and during his adult years was employed as a translator for several commercial enterprises. He was well considered among the literary circles in which he moved, though very little of his work was published during his lifetime. He is perhaps best known for his heteronyms of which he had over 70, among which the best known are Alvaro de Campos and Bernando Soares, one of the two imagined authors of The Book of Disquiet.

There have been several versions of The Book of Disquiet since its initial publication with the suggestion that the reader can pick it up at any point and commence reading. For this edition it is recommended to begin at fragment one and read on from there. This edition is translated by Margaret Jill Costa and is a fine example of an artist at the height of their craft.

Any Cop?: The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa is a book to be digested slowly, piece by piece, midnight by midnight, in order to appreciate its true luminosity.

 

Joe Phelan

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