As he grew older, Fernando Pessoa became less visible, as though he were inexorably being subsumed by dreams and shadows. The French translator and scholar Pierre Hourcade, who visited Lisbon in 1933, remembered leaving a café with Pessoa, and walking with him for a few blocks. Hourcade had, Richard Zenith writes, ‘this uncanny sensation: that the poet, as soon as he disappeared around the corner of a downtown street, had really disappeared, and would be nowhere in sight were he to run after him’.
In 1934, a year before his death, Pessoa began a poem: ‘In this world where we forget,/We are shadows of who we are.’ Two months later, he registered the slow, disquieting crumbling of an identity:
I have in me like a haze
Which holds and which is nothing
A nostalgia for nothing at all,
The desire for something vague.
In another poem, he wrote of ‘man’ as ‘a postponed corpse that breeds’. He had been toying for a long time with the notion that he, like others, or perhaps unlike them, was not entirely real. Invited to add something to a friend’s autograph book in 1914, he wrote: ‘All of us, in our human and realised life, are but the caricatures of our soul. We are always less than what we are. We are always a grotesque translation of what we wished to be, of what we inwardly and truly are.’
The poem about man as ‘a postponed corpse’ was included in Pessoa’s only full-length book to appear in his lifetime. In 1934 his friends convinced him to publish Mensagem in order to be eligible for a prize funded by the Salazar government for work that would exalt the national spirit. António Ferro, one of Pessoa’s old friends, had become the director of the Secretariat for National Propaganda and assured Pessoa, who was always broke, that his book would win.
Mensagem included explorations of Portugal’s glorious past and evocations of its maritime heroes, including Prince Henry the Navigator, the poem about whom ends: ‘Lord, we still must win Portugal.’ The next poem claims that ‘The limitless sea is Portuguese.’ But, despite its patriotic tone, Pessoa’s book did not win the prize. Since his yearning for fame was more fragile than his yearning for obscurity, he took a pale satisfaction in his disappointment. It was the yearning itself that kept him going. In ‘Time’s Passage’, he wrote:
I always become, sooner or later,
The thing I feel kinship with, be it a stone or a yearning,
A flower or an abstract idea,
A multitude or a way of understanding God.
And in ‘I Leaned Back in the Deck Chair and Closed My Eyes’:
Ah, all of me yearns
For that moment of no importance
In my life.
All of me yearns for that as for other analogous moments
It is not wholly accurate, however, to say that Pessoa wrote these two poems. They must be ascribed to the poet and naval engineer Álvaro de Campo, who was not a pseudonym for Pessoa but what his creator called a ‘heteronym’, a writer whose mind Pessoa imagined and brought into being, but whose voice and sensibility were distinct from those of their begetter. Altogether, Pessoa had 136 of these heteronyms, many of whom survived on paper only for a short while. Álvaro de Campos was two years younger than Pessoa and slightly taller. He may have been Jewish. He was a dandy who drank absinthe and smoked opium. In an early poem he expressed a desire to ‘eat the universe’, but as he grew older he became more melancholy (‘it would have been better not to be born,/For no matter how interesting it is at every moment,/Life sometimes hurts, jades, cuts, bruises, grates’).
Nine and a half hours before Pessoa was conceived, according to one of his astrological charts, the poet Ricardo Reis, another heteronym, was born in Porto. He lived in South America and taught Latin in a school. His work was indebted to the poetry of Horace. His themes were, according to Zenith, ‘the brevity of life, the vanity of wealth and struggle, the joy of simple pleasures, patience in time of trouble, and avoidance of extremes’. In a way, he outlived Pessoa, since the novelist José Saramago carried him on in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, in which he returns to Lisbon after Pessoa’s death.
The real Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. His father died when he was five; three years later his mother remarried a ship’s captain who became Portuguese consul in Durban, the capital of Natal, a British colony. She had three more children. Early in 1896, Pessoa travelled to Durban with his mother, where he lived until he returned to Lisbon in 1905 to attend university. He never left Portugal again (‘Travel,’ his heteronym Bernardo Soares writes in The Book of Disquiet, ‘is for those who cannot feel’). Zenith had believed Pessoa to have been a lonely, dreamy adolescent in Durban, and was surprised to come across, in an archive still owned by the family, his correspondence from that time with a large circle of unconventional friends. He slowly realised that their unconventionality ‘reached the supreme extent of their not even existing’. The friends, the letters, were all invented.
In a real letter from 1935, Pessoa tried to describe the impulse to invent: ‘It has been my tendency to create around me a fictitious world, to surround myself with friends and acquaintances who never existed. (I cannot be sure, of course, if they really never existed, or if it is me who does not exist. In this matter, as in any other, we should not be dogmatic.)’ He worked hard at finding new ways to explore the paradox of non-being, the poetics of becoming somebody else. ‘I live aesthetically as someone else,’ he wrote in The Book of Disquiet. ‘I’ve sculpted my life like a statue made of matter that’s foreign to my being. Having employed my self-awareness in such a purely artistic way, and having become so completely external to myself, I sometimes no longer recognise myself. Who am I behind this unreality? I don’t know. I must be someone.’
In 1907, aged nineteen, Pessoa wrote some brief autobiographical confessions in English, one of them exploring his isolation: ‘I have no one in whom to confide … I have no really intimate friends, and even were there one intimate, in world’s ways, yet he were not intimate in the way I understand intimacy. I am shy and unwilling to make known my woes. No temperament fits me.’ The world he created was close to the one he inhabited: in neither was there much interest in women. ‘The women of Dickens,’ Pessoa wrote, ‘are cardboard and sawdust to pack his men to us on the voyage from the spaces of dreams. The joy and zest of life does not include woman, and the old Greeks, who created pederasty as an institution of social joy, knew this to the final end.’ None of Pessoa’s inventions ever married. Zenith unearths an unpublished note, written in English: ‘What is, for the man, all married life? A stepping from the brothel to the nuptial bed and thence back to the brothel – not literally but metaphorically, yet truly by making a brothel of that marriage bed.’
Lisbon was not a city in which young writers found an audience or settled down to a comfortable domestic life. Some members of Pessoa’s all-male literary club ended badly. His closest friend, the poet Mário de Sá-Carneiro, committed suicide in a Paris hotel in 1916. Others spent time in mental hospitals, one of them ‘composing what was probably the most vertiginously metaphysical, least comprehensible prose he ever wrote’. Another ‘lost all sense of proportion’ and became ‘a religious fanatic’. When, in 1935, Orpheu, a magazine on which Pessoa had worked, celebrated its twentieth anniversary, six of the twelve contributors were already dead: none of them had reached the age of fifty. Pessoa himself died a few months later, aged 47.
He must have been aware that his readers, if they were ever to materialise, would know that his name meant ‘Person’, as though, since he was ‘the helpless slave of his self-multiplication’, the fact of his being an actual person needed to be spelled out. Most of his inventions knew one another and influenced one another’s work. Ricardo Reis had never written any poetry until he met Alberto Caeiro, a sort of sheepless shepherd, when he was 25. Álvaro de Campos had written only a handful of poems before he encountered Caeiro in 1914. Zenith describes one of their dialogues: ‘One day, when attempting to talk metaphysics with Alberto, a frustrated Álvaro finally said, “Just tell me one thing. What are you to yourself?” To which the quasi-shepherd answered, “I’m one of my sensations.”’
Pessoa and Caeiro met, so to speak, for the first time in March 1914. Pessoa was overwhelmed by Caeiro’s poetry, which acted like a ‘vaccine against the stupidity of the intelligent’. Caeiro had a great deal to say about things on which he had no pressing opinions:
What’s my idea about matter?
What’s my opinion about causes and effects?
What are my thoughts on God and the soul
And the creation of the world?
I don’t know. To think about such things would be to shut my eyes
And not think. It would be to close the curtains
Of my window (which, however, has no curtains).
He raised philosophical questions so that he could explore his indifference to them. (‘The mystery of things? What mystery?’ or ‘Metaphysics? What metaphysics do trees have?’) He loved deep questions so that he could make them shallow. (‘For the only hidden meaning of things/Is that they have no hidden meaning.’) He did not like anything to be what it was not; he saw no reason to speculate: ‘Things are really what they seem to be/And there’s nothing to understand.’
Pessoa did not merely invent Caeiro, he faked a story about how and when the poet came into being. On 8 March 1914,
I walked over to a high chest of drawers, took a sheet of paper, and began to write standing up, as I do whenever I can. And I wrote thirty-some poems at one go, in a kind of ecstasy I’m unable to describe. It was the triumphal day of my life, and I can never have another one like it. I began with a title, The Keeper of Sheep. This was followed by the appearance in me of someone whom I instantly named Alberto Caeiro. Excuse the absurdity of this statement: my master had appeared in me.
His archives tell a different story. The oldest Caeiro poems are dated 4 March 1914; a further three are dated 7 March. By mid-March, it seems, Pessoa had written half of the 49 poems from The Keeper of Sheep. Pessoa, one of whose poems begins ‘The poet is a feigner,’ would not have been bothered about being found out. And no one can be sure that he was not feigning for the precise purpose of being found doing so.
Since Pessoa’s most important prose work, The Book of Disquiet, contains musings on the nature of non-being, on dreaming and on strangeness, and since many of the poems written by Pessoa and his heteronyms deal with the tension between the visible and the imagined world, and since nothing of any interest ever happened to Pessoa, surely a biography of him should be brief. How, then, can Zenith justify writing a book that runs to over a thousand pages?
The length can be explained by Zenith’s positioning of Pessoa in the context of what was happening in Lisbon at the time. The portrait of Pessoa that emerges is that of a solitary figure who was nonetheless intensely involved in literary cliques and movements, with magazines either planned or published. In a way, Zenith’s book makes Pessoa less self-generating and more a strange product of Portuguese life, his lassitude taking its bearings from a national inability to do much, his hidden energy having its source in something secret and powerful in the city of Lisbon itself. The biography also takes care to emphasise Pessoa’s deep engagement with politics. He responded to current events in pamphlets, articles and essays. As a political thinker, he cannot be pinned down. He seems at one moment to be conservative and nationalist only to emerge a moment later as a liberal. But he always had a dream of Portugal and its destiny that was both preposterous and nourishing. It gave him a myth to demolish or re-create.
Part of the problem with this myth is that it begins with King Sebastião, whose death in battle in 1578 led to the end of what is called Portugal’s Golden Age and the annexation of the country by Spain in 1580. It ends with the rise of António de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968. The death of the king in 1578 led to a cult called Sebastianismo, which held that the king had not, in fact, died, and would soon return. No one ever felt like that about Salazar.
Pessoa’s mother and stepfather were royalists. When he returned to Lisbon at seventeen, he too was a royalist, but he soon became a republican and subsequently hoped for what he called a Fifth Empire. Early in 1906, according to Zenith, ‘he began writing anti-government poems in Portuguese … and in April he drew up plans for a pamphlet … a “revolutionary treatise” that was “to be couched in simple language” and distributed free of charge.’ But he completed only a small number of the poems and did not write the pamphlet. Instead, he wrote some poems in English and read Mallarmé, Verlaine and Rimbaud, and Whitman.
He wrote his first two homoerotic poems not long after this, in 1912. He called one of them ‘Sonnet That Shouldn’t Have Been Written (but That Was Written in the Café A Brasileira on February 11, 1912)’. The poem, Zenith writes, ‘winces with guilt’: ‘I love you because I love you, loathing/Myself, and that loathing wounds my love.’ Zenith doesn’t know who the object of these poems might be, noting that Pessoa cited St Augustine’s remark ‘I was not yet in love, but I was in love with the idea of love’ in a poem signed Álvaro de Campos. He goes on: ‘But whereas Augustine, as we know from his famous book, lived a life of debauchery until becoming a devout believer, Pessoa, without believing, very probably died a virgin.’
His creation Campos, on the other hand, was bisexual, and ‘did not shrink’, Zenith writes, ‘from versifying his fantasies of being manhandled and possessed by savage pirates. Raw feeling – at turns euphoric, terrifying, violent, tender – welled out of him and took shape in poems that Pessoa could never have written under his own name.’ In ‘Maritime Ode’, Campos sought to outdo Whitman: ‘The arms of every athlete have squeezed my suddenly female self,/And the mere thought made me faint in imagined muscles.’ Soon, he was soaring in his song of himself:
I was every ascetic, every outcast, every forgotten man,
And every pederast – absolutely every last one of them.
Black and red rendezvous in the hell of my soul’s depths!
(Freddie, whom I called Baby, because you were blond, fair, and I loved you,
How many future empresses and dethroned princesses you were to me!)
In his ‘Salutation to Walt Whitman’, Campos went even further:
O masochistic, blood-spurting joy of life!
The sailors took me prisoner.
Their hands squeezed me in the darkness,
And I died for a moment when I felt this.
Then my soul licked the floor of my private jail.
Pessoa did write explicitly about sex under his own name, but chose to do so in English rather than Portuguese. In 1921, when ‘Epithalamium’ was published in the volume English Poems III, the Aberdeen Daily Journal wrote that the poem was ‘more disgustingly lascivious than was even Donne in his most voluptuous moments’. The groom ‘feels the battering ram grow large’ and then his ‘hairy legs and buttocks balled to split/White legs mid which they shift’. In a letter from 1930, Pessoa described ‘Epithalamium’ as ‘blatant and bestial’ and wondered why he had written it. He suffered from what he called ‘mild sexual inversion’:
It stops in my spirit. But whenever I’ve paused and thought about myself, I’ve felt uneasy, for I’ve never been sure, and I’m still not sure, that this inclination in my temperament might not one day descend to my body. I’m not saying I would practise the sexuality that corresponds to that impulse, but the desire would be enough to humiliate me. There have been many of us in this category down through history, and through artistic history in particular.
Pessoa was hired as a columnist for O Jornal, a Lisbon newspaper, in 1915. In his first opinion piece, he warned that ‘only superficial people have deep convictions’, and expressed the view that a modern intellectual ‘has the cerebral obligation to change opinion … several times in the same day’, being ‘a republican in the morning and a royalist at dusk’. In May that year an uprising in Lisbon attempted to depose the dictator, General Pimenta de Castro, and reclaim the republic for the people. Pessoa supported the idea of an aristocracy that ‘would reduce the proletariat as far as possible to the condition of slaves’. He believed that ‘the plebian class should be the instrument of the imperialists, the dominating caste’ and ‘linked to them through a community of national mysticism’. The role of the aristocracy was to educate the nation on how to dominate other countries. This brave new Portugal was to become an empire. As Zenith points out, this was ‘aggressive and extreme even in 1915’.
Nor did Pessoa hold back on the matter of Jewishness, writing in an unpublished essay in 1934 that ‘it is not the Jews, but the dregs of Jewry, that we meet everywhere in command of the practical world. For the really great Jews – the Portuguese and the Spanish Jews – the Rothschilds, the Rathenaus, the whole false lot with German and Polish names, are the dregs of their race and the infamy of their religion.’ At certain moments he seems abjectly, neurotically conservative and xenophobic, and, especially in unpublished pieces, verging on the insane. At other times he appears to be a campaigning humanitarian, as in his opposition to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. It was, he wrote, ‘the fate of all imperialist peoples that, by turning others into slaves, they turn themselves into slaves.’ He went on to say that ‘all of us, all people in this world whose lives are oppressed … what are we in this world if not Abyssinians?’
Sometimes he seems to be a liberal, a defender of free speech. In 1923, for example, a group of students, whose leader later became Salazar’s ambassador to the United States, announced a campaign against homosexuals, aiming to ‘bring into line these ambiguous gentlemen’ with their ‘feminine manners’. As a result, the police seized three recent books of poems by friends of Pessoa’s that celebrated homosexual love. Pessoa had Álvaro de Campos respond in a manifesto: ‘Have fun with women, if you like women; have fun in another way, if you prefer another way. It’s all fine and good, since it pertains only to the body of the one having fun.’ Pessoa himself then published a broadside against the students: ‘Whatever direction my life may take, I doubt I will ever feel more honoured than I feel now, for having [one of the poets] as my companion in this cultural adventure where we coincide, different and alone, under the scorn and derision of the mob.’
In 1935, Salazar made a speech proposing that Portuguese writers should observe ‘certain limitations’ and pay attention to guidelines defined by the state’s ‘moral and patriotic principles’. They should be ‘creators of civil and moral energies’ rather than ‘nostalgic dreamers of despondency and decadence’. He ended by suggesting that many of them would do well to write less. Pessoa was moderately supportive of Salazar in the early days of his rule. He thought he had been ‘something of a wizard’ as finance minister after the coup of 1926, but that he lacked human warmth: ‘For him the country is not the people who live in it but the statistics of those people.’ In an essay written in English he claimed the new regime was ‘liberal’ in contrast to the ‘strictly anti-liberal system’ of Hitler. He also excused Salazar’s censorship of the press as ‘not very harsh’.
Throughout his life, Pessoa was in debt, depending on loans from family and friends. On coming into a small inheritance at the age of 21, he decided to buy a printing press. He had many plans for books he might publish under the imprint Ibis, ‘from classical Portuguese literary works to his own poetry and prose, from plays by Aeschylus and Shakespeare’ to works by Robert Louis Stevenson and Machado de Assis. Since 70 per cent of the Portuguese population was illiterate, this was always going to be a struggle. Pessoa paid little attention to costs and ‘his creditors were pounding on the door, almost from the day the Ibis press opened for business.’ Ibis did not publish a single book.
Pessoa always had plans to make money, but dreaming took over, or poetry got in the way. One day in 1911, while sitting in a café, he saw an advert for a translator. He began a letter, but became distracted and instead wrote a sonnet complaining of ‘the miserly press of each day’s need’. With his friends, he invented and abandoned a number of literary movements, including Intersectionalism, Sensationism and Swampism, which was definable, according to Zenith, as an ‘exacerbated symbolism, with suggestion, uncertainty and mystery, enveloping extravagant images in a shadowy world without time or geography’. It was inspired by a poem Pessoa wrote in 1913 that begins: ‘Swamps of yearnings brushing against my gilded soul.’
Between 1914 and 1919 Pessoa moved house at least eight times, taking with him the wooden chest that housed his manuscripts. For a long time he inhabited a small, windowless bedroom in an apartment rented by his half-sister and her family. He moved about at night and was not tidy. ‘He had prohibited the housekeeper from entering his bedroom,’ Zenith writes, ‘since whenever she cleaned it she inevitably left his scattered papers out of their mysterious “order”.’
Even though he drank a lot, no one ever saw him drunk. He was every inch the besuited gentleman. He went to a barber every morning to be shaved. On Sundays, the barber ‘made a house call to service his most regular client’. On weekdays, he would move from office to office, writing business letters in English and French. (This was how he made his meagre living.) And, in between, he would visit cafés to talk about politics and poetry with his friends. Every evening, he stopped at a corner shop close to the apartment and bought some bread and ham and cheese, a pack of cigarettes and a pint and a half of cheap brandy. Some months before he died, he scribbled a couplet in English: ‘All our thoughts and gestures sink/In the universal drink.’ Soon afterwards, he wrote a poem called ‘D.T.’ which begins:
The other day indeed,
With my shoe, on the wall,
I killed a centipede
Which was not there at all.
How can that be?
It’s very simple, you see –
Just the beginning of D.T.
Among the thirty thousand pieces of paper stored in trunks when Pessoa died lay the bones of his novel The Book of Disquiet. His half-sister became the guardian of his archive, which was bought by the Portuguese government in 1979 and transferred to the National Library, where it has been digitised. In an interview fifty years after her brother’s death she said that ‘he didn’t have a tragic air – in fact he was a cheerful sort – but it makes me sad to think of all those hours, so many hours, that he spent alone.’
One of the first manifestations of The Book of Disquiet is the single word desassossego (‘disquiet’), jotted down in large letters beside a poem in January 1913. In 1914, he wrote to a friend that ‘my state of mind compels me to work hard, against my will, on The Book of Disquiet. But it’s all fragments, fragments, fragments.’ The pages written in 1914 were the diary of Vicente Guedes, but that heteronym seems to have petered out by 1920. When the project was resumed in 1930, its author was a bookkeeper called Bernardo Soares. Soares was closer to the author himself than any of the poets Pessoa invented. In a letter written in the last year of his life, he wrote that Soares ‘always appears when I am sleepy or drowsy, such that my qualities of inhibition and logical reasoning are suspended; his prose is an endless reverie. He’s a semi-heteronym because his personality, although not my own, doesn’t differ from my own, but is a mere mutilation of it. He’s me without my rationalism and emotions.’
Pessoa began to date individual sections of the book, but this did not mean that he wanted the form of the book to follow the dates of composition. As late as the summer of 1934, a year before his death, Pessoa, Zenith writes, ‘still toyed with ideas on how to organise [the] disparate material [of the book], and he had hazy plans to revisit the older passages’. It was left ‘unfinished and unfinishable … in such a scattered state that it took almost fifty years for the first posthumous edition to see the light of day, in 1982’.
In a note to his edition of The Book of Disquiet, Zenith writes that ‘before his death Pessoa gathered together several hundred texts into a large envelope labelled “Livro do Desassossego” (Book of Disquiet) … but there are several hundred additional texts – scattered throughout the rest of the author’s papers – that are specifically labelled L. do D.’ He adds that Pessoa ‘planned to make a “rigorous” selection from among all the texts he had written’. But, since he never got around to doing so, the problem is this: in what order should these texts now be printed? Zenith wonders if ‘the best way to go’ would be ‘an edition of loose pieces, orderable according to each reader’s fancy, or according to how they happen to fall’.
Zenith’s biography makes clear, in painstaking detail, how random and haphazard Pessoa’s thinking was. Some of his writing is close to outburst, as are some of the poems, especially the ones about Portugal or sex. But The Book of Disquiet is different from his other prose writing. No matter in what order the short sections appear, the book has a strange coherence. It centres on a single idea – that nothing is as it seems, that thinking is not thinking, being is not being, dreaming is not dreaming – and it pursues the implications of all this in a semi-logical way. Its tone is concentrated and engaging, managing to combine a po-faced melancholy with dark laughter.
‘Wherever you dip, there are “rich hours” and teasing depths,’ George Steiner wrote, as if The Book of Disquiet was a series of vignettes. But its power comes from its cumulative effect, the idea that this demented bookkeeper simply will not stop wondering what reality does not mean. Every time Soares appears to have exhausted himself, he begins again, like a man walking in a city, turning corners, looking up at the sky, sitting on a bench, fondling a stray cat, setting off for home before thinking better of it. Reading The Book of Disquiet after reading Zenith’s biography allows us to see that the chaos and lassitude of Pessoa’s life had an undercurrent of discipline and rigour. He had no idea how to make a living; he talked too much, drank too much and wrote too much; his political ideas were often mad; but all the time The Book of Disquiet was emerging, holding a tight space between banality and comedy.
It is easy to see why the theme of the book – the gap between what seems to be there and what might not exist at all – is so intensely and obsessively managed. While Pessoa was writing the most substantial part of the book, between 1930 and 1935, he was a failed poet, an eccentric figure wandering from office to office, an ineffective bachelor sitting in cafés discussing Portugal’s former glory and his own literary games. The distance between the soaring confidence of his prose and the shuffling figure in the city is the distance between the known world in The Book of Disquiet and Soares’s efforts to undermine it.
The book is almost about philosophy; its tone is often casual and then deliberate. Pessoa loves aphorism, and enjoys long, loose ruminations. He writes beautifully about weather; it seems constantly to surprise him. He evokes the city of Lisbon with a nostalgia all the more intense because he has not lost it. Sometimes he is nearly a novelist, managing to make his own quotidian life almost credible and his voice, as he narrates ‘my factless autobiography, my lifeless history’, almost real. What he doesn’t do in ‘my haphazard book of musings’ is relax his control. He can be precise, exact and restrained – like a chess player or a mathematician. But the thinking in the book is almost light. At times, he can make Soares sound like Oscar Wilde (‘I see humanity as merely one of Nature’s latest schools of decorative painting’); at other times, like the J.M. Synge of The Aran Islands, utterly alone in strange weather, trying to make sense of his own solitary condition. Like Synge, he can write simple phrases that do nothing more than say something simple: ‘I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown.’
The lack of a plot means that it should be possible to make many editions of The Book of Disquiet, as Zenith suggests, shuffling the order but still creating a coherent narrative. Soares’s inexhaustibility, the relentlessness of his urge to un-explain the world, cast a spell, and would do so even if we had to read the book backwards. (‘Never read a book to the end,’ Pessoa tells us, ‘nor even in sequence and without skipping.’)
The book is suffused with the aura of Lisbon: ‘I love the Tagus because of the big city along its shore. I delight in the sky because I see it from the fourth floor of a downtown street.’ The clanging of the trams inspires him. (‘The sound of the first tram’ is ‘like a match to light up the soul’s darkness’.) But the inspiration doesn’t last: ‘Everything wearies me, including what doesn’t weary me.’ What doesn’t weary him is the power of negative words. He is engaged in ‘unknowing myself’ and has overcome ‘everything where I’ve never been’. He has ‘already seen what I’ve never seen’. And: ‘For a long time now I haven’t been I.’ And: ‘I sometimes write because I have nothing to say.’ And: ‘I’m the gap between what I am and am not.’ And: ‘I want what I don’t want and renounce what I don’t have. I can’t be nothing nor be everything; I’m the bridge between what I don’t have and what I don’t want.’ Or: ‘I never let my feelings know what I’m going to make them feel.’ Or: ‘I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist.’ Or: ‘I suffer from not suffering, from not knowing how to suffer.’ When he is tired of moaning (‘Life is hollow, the soul hollow, the world hollow’), Soares writes aphorisms: ‘To live is not to think.’ Or: ‘Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.’ Or: ‘Whoever has crossed the seas has only crossed the monotony of himself.’ Or: ‘Poetry would be for children, to prepare them for prose.’ Or: ‘Lying is simply the soul’s ideal language.’
Soares is a solitary, fearful creature. He has nothing good to say about sex. The masturbator, he writes, is ‘the only one who doesn’t feign and fool himself’. Nor does he like the idea of another body: ‘When we grasp an attractive body, it’s not beauty but fatty and cellular flesh that we embrace; our kiss doesn’t touch the mouth’s beauty but the wet flesh of decaying, membranous lips.’ But he is capable, at rare moments, of something close to pure lyricism: ‘Revolution? Change? What I really want, with all my heart, is for the atonic clouds to stop greyly lathering the sky. What I want is to see the blue emerge, a truth that is clear and sure because it is nothing and wants nothing.’ His cries from the depths are sonorous and sweetly self-indulgent:
Ah, who will save me from existing? It’s neither death nor life that I want: it’s that other thing shining in the depths of longing, like a possible diamond in a pit one can’t descend. It’s all the weight and sorrow of this real and impossible universe, of this sky like the flag of an unknown army, of these colours that are paling in the fictitious air, where the imaginary crescent of the moon, cut out of distance and insensibility, now emerges in a still, electric whiteness.
The great thing is that the narrator goes on and on, sometimes in plain sentences, at other times using metaphor to describe his plight, or his non-plight, or the space in between:
I’m the suburbs of a non-existent town, the long-winded commentary on a book never written. I’m no one, no one at all. I don’t know how to feel, how to think, how to want. I’m the character of an unwritten novel, wafting in the air, dispersed without having ever been, among the dreams of someone who did not know how to complete me.
No one knows how to complete The Book of Disquiet. At the end of his translation Zenith includes seventy pages from the 1910s that another editor might have usefully excluded altogether. He includes as an appendix a copy of a letter Pessoa wrote to his mother in 1914 with ‘B of D’ marked at the top, as though he wanted to reuse it as a section of the book.
What will I be ten years from now, or even five? My friends say I’ll be one of the greatest contemporary poets – they say this based on what I’ve already written, not what I may yet write … But even if this is true, I have no idea what it will mean. I have no idea how it will taste. Perhaps glory tastes like death and futility, and triumph smells of rottenness.
In 1991 Serpent’s Tail published a translation of The Book of Disquiet by Margaret Jull Costa based on what she called ‘a thematic selection’ by Maria José de Lancastre that had appeared in 1982 in Portuguese. Her version is half the length of Zenith’s, which was published by Penguin Classics in 2001. (He published his first edition of the book ten years earlier.) Jull Costa’s version begins by situating Soares in a physical Lisbon, in an actual office, with named workmates and a boss. While this may help to make the reader comfortable, it lacks the essential weirdness that characterises the book, a weirdness that, of course, will eventually break through in any version since there is really very little about office work or bookkeeping in the pages Pessoa left behind.
By ordering the book thematically, one section repeats what the previous one has said, ruining the possibility of surprise. We follow Soares’s mind not because of the connections he makes, but because he seems unable to predict his next thought. I can see no useful logic, for example, in putting the entry dated 15 September 1931 just before the one dated 18 June 1931. They both deal with the relationship between man and animal. Omitting one of them might have made more sense. But putting them together, suggesting that Pessoa’s thinking was systematic or continuous, seems like an over-arranged effort at coherence, an editor’s book. So, too, one entry about reading old work written in French and finding a strange fluency is followed by another in which Soares comes ‘across things I wrote ten or even fifteen or more years ago. And many of them seem to me to have been written by a stranger.’ Reading the same idea in different form twice in a row is oddly tedious in a way that Zenith’s version, based on his own feeling for the text, never is.
In 2017, another edition, nearly twice as long as the one arranged thematically, appeared in English, published once more by Serpent’s Tail (and New Directions in the US), and again translated by Jull Costa. She writes in an introduction that this edition, ‘meticulously put together by the Pessoa scholar Jerónimo Pizarro, proposes that we read The Book of Disquiet as it evolved’. In other words, the sections appear in the order in which they were composed, as far as this can be ascertained. Jull Costa is alert to the difference between the sections written between 1914 and 1920 and ascribed to Guedes and the sections written after 1930, ascribed to Soares. So is Pizarro, who writes that ‘there is an unnecessary violence about bringing together texts written many years apart, or creating longer texts out of smaller ones or minimising the importance of Vicente Guedes as co-author, imposing an authorial unity under the name of Fernando Pessoa, a name that always was and always will be both singular and plural.’
It seems to me that it is essential to minimise the importance of Vicente Guedes as co-author. The book depends for its power on a mixture of close observation, tonal variation and radiant description that Guedes is not capable of. Some of the Guedes entries are weak, like prose poems or try-outs. He is capable, for example, of this: ‘Virgin Mother of the absurd World, a kind of incomprehensible Chaos, sow and scatter your kingdom over everything – over the flowers that sense they are fading, over the wild animals grown too old to walk, over the souls born to languish between error and the illusion of life!’ But there are gems here too:
When one of the cups in my Japanese collection gets broken, I dream that this was due not to the clumsy hands of a maid, but to the wishes of the figures who inhabit the curved flank of the cup; the grim, suicidal resolve that gripped them does not alarm me in the least. They used the maid, where we might use a revolver.
I would favour including the Guedes section, or the best bits of it, as an appendix. And then triumphantly beginning the book in 1930 with Zenith’s first sentence, though it’s slightly better in Jull Costa’s version: ‘I was born at a time when most young people had lost their belief in God for much the same reason that their elders had kept theirs – without knowing why.’
In Jull Costa’s thematic edition, this section appeared on page 207. Around it were other sections dealing with the question of faith and God. In her newer edition the two sections on man and animal from September and June 1931 are thirty pages apart. In between, among other themes, are a subtle set of thoughts on travel and imagination, inspired by a train journey between Lisbon and Cascais, an account of the weather in Lisbon and an excursus on the possibility of buying bananas. In the next section, Soares lingers on the idea of monotony. Thus, following the order of composition, we have a set of entries that are various and surprising, as Soares expands his thoughts with relish and anguish from a single statement or observation without losing sight of his own limitations. He does not lose hope that his own despair will eventually offer comfort to someone, before he thinks of a stark image or a grumpy sentence to put an end to such foolish dreams.
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