Book Reviews

Factless Autobiography

by Rick VanderKnyff | Contributing Writer

The Book of Disquiet (The Complete Edition)
Fernando Pessoa
Translation by Margaret Jull Costa
Edited by JerĂłnimo Pizarro
New Directions, 2017

“I am the outskirts of some non-existent town, the long-winded prologue to an unwritten book. I am nobody, nobody. I don’t know how to feel or think or love. I’m a character in a novel as yet unwritten, hovering in the air and undone before I’ve even existed, among the dreams of someone who never quite managed to breathe life into me.” The Book of Disquiet, 337 [1.12.1931]

By day, he worked as an assistant bookkeeper for a textile company in Lisbon’s old commercial district. Each evening, he dined in the same modest family restaurant, and then walked home along beloved, familiar streets to his small apartment on the Rua dos Douradores.

There, alone, he ruminated over his solitary existence, examining his life from every possible angle like a stone he turned over and over in an outstretched hand. And he wrote his thoughts, sometimes fitfully, in diary-like entries that ranged from a few words to several pages. These probing, contemplative passages cycle through a set of recurring themes (meaning, art, the nature of self and identity) and dualities (dreams vs. reality, action vs. contemplation, faith vs. non-faith). Collectively, they are an unflinching portrait of one man’s quiet anguish—and sometimes reverie—over life and his place in the world.

Bernardo Soares, assistant bookkeeper, is just one of the many names under which the great Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) wrote. Pessoa created more than 70 known “heteronyms,” as he coined them—full-blown characters with distinct biographies, writing styles and topical concerns. Alvaro de Campos, Alberto Caeiro, and Ricardo Reis were his most prolific poetic heteronyms, whose works (together with those attributed to Pessoa-himself, as anthologies sometimes render it) constitute one of the 20th century’s essential bodies of poetry in any language.

Soares stands out from Pessoa’s crowd in an important way, and not only because he was strictly a prose stylist. Pessoa singled him out as a “semi-heteronym”: instead of a fully independent entity, he was “a simple mutilation of my own personality,” Pessoa wrote. “It’s me minus reason and affectivity.” Soares is the chief (but not only) “author” of a prose collection that has gradually grown in stature to become one of the most revered, and enigmatic, literary works of the last century.

There are a couple of strong reasons to celebrate the new edition of The Book of Disquiet arriving in the U.S. Aug. 29 from New Directions (and published in the U.K. by Serpent’s Tail). First: the rich, thoughtful, fluid work by translator Margaret Jull Costa, building on her popular book-length sampler first published by Serpent’s Tail in 1991. Second: a chronological ordering scheme that, while in some ways problematic, nevertheless puts a welcome and illuminating spotlight on the later sections of “Disquiet” that Pessoa—as Soares—wrote in the last years of his life.

“My self-critical mind allows me to see only the defects and faults in my own work, and so I only have the courage to write snippets and snatches, brief notes on the theme of non-existence, and yet even the little I write is imperfect. Best to produce either something complete, albeit bad, but which nonetheless exists, or else a complete absence of words, the blank silence of a soul that knows itself incapable of action.”

Billed as “The Complete Edition,” the New Directions entry joins three English-language translations of The Book of Disquiet in print. There is Jull Costa’s previous translation, currently available from Serpent’s Tail in a 2010 paperback edition; Alfred Mac Adam’s translation, also first published in 1991, and available in a 1998 paperback reprint from Exact Change; and the 2001 Penguin edition with Richard Zenith as editor and translator.

These four editions vary widely in both selection and ordering—are, in a sense, four different books. How did that happen? The origin story of “Disquiet” is so extraordinary it can distract from the work itself, but a brief recounting seems necessary to explain how one book can take on so many forms.

During his life, Pessoa published in journals a handful of pieces that he associated with the Livro do desassossego (the wonderfully assonant and evocative “desassossego,” according to Jull Costa’s introduction to the new edition, can be translated as unease, disquiet, unrest, turmoil, or anxiety). He mentioned the project in letters to friends and family, but save for those fragments it was never published in his lifetime.

Famously, after Pessoa’s death in 1935, a large trunk was discovered with more than 25,000 of his writings, some typewritten but many scribbled on envelopes and other scraps of paper. Thus sprang an ongoing industry of scholars combing through the works—poems and prose—and carefully shaping them into a recognizable oeuvre. The conclusions of these Pessoa experts do not always align. Meanwhile, new books of Pessoa’s work, particularly prose, continue to appear in Portuguese each year.

Hundreds of the fragments have been associated, through notations or references in letters or other writing, with the Livro do desassossego. Pessoa worked on the project 1913 to 1920 and, after apparently abandoning it for a stretch, turned back to it from 1929 to 1934 (the period during which Soares appears). There are only five dated passages from the early period and about 100 in the later period, along with several hundred undated fragments—making chronology a tricky proposition at best.

The first Portuguese edition of Livro do desassossego did not appear until 1982, 47 years after Pessoa’s death. The first wave of English-language editions were based on this edition. Zenith, who has devoted much of his career to Pessoa (and who is the most prolific of Pessoa’s poetic translators) published a new, more complete Portuguese-language edition 1998, on which he based his own Penguin edition.

The three current English-language translations—indeed, most editions in any language—group the selections thematically. Zenith uses the major dated pieces as a backbone, in date order, but declines any attempt to arrange the undated (and, to his mind, un-dateable) passages chronologically—going so far as to pre-emptively label any such endeavor “treacherous or even foolhardy” in his 2001 Penguin introduction.

“I do not know if I exist, it seems possible to me that I might be someone else’s dream; the idea occurs to me, with an almost carnal reality, that I might be a character in a novel, moving through the long waves of someone else’s literary style, through the created truth of a great narrative.”

The editor of the new version from New Directions, Jerónimo Pizarro, carefully wades in where Zenith declines to tread. Pizzaro, a professor at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and a Pessoa specialist, based this new “Disquiet” on his own 2010 critical edition in Portuguese. In it, he stakes a couple of claims that warrant examination.

First, there is the issue of “completeness” itself. Is such a thing possible? And what does it even mean? Pessoa left behind contradictory notes and clues as to his concept of a completed book, so every new edition is in at least some sense an interpretive act.

Pizzaro has said in interviews that his editing work has been as much about what to leave out as what to leave in. And so, this “complete” edition has 437 numbered passages, as compared to 481 in Zenith’s theoretically incomplete Penguin edition. Zenith also includes an Apocrypha of sorts, an assemblage of related writings that he titles “A Disquiet Anthology”—and some of these excluded texts are part of the corpus in the New Directions edition.

As Pessoa scholars parse each scrap and fragment from the storied trunks, posterity moves closer to a shared definition of what falls inside and outside the boundaries of “The Book of Disquiet,” but it appears unlikely there will ever be complete agreement. In the end, such questions might consume the experts, but don’t necessarily have much impact on the lay reader. Each English-language edition now in print comprises a satisfying, self-contained reading experience.

The second issue—structure and sequence—does have consequences for the average reader. Pizarro’s edition breaks the book into two “phases,” the first covering materials written from 1913 to 1920, and the second covering 1929 to 1934. Pizarro writes in his introduction: “There was a first and a second book—and several years passed between the two—and there is no need to make a thematic montage to unify what required no unification.”

Are the two major groupings essentially correct? It’s probably best to call them a highly educated and plausible guess at which passages fall where. Is the ordering correct within each phase? That requires a longer leap of faith, but again from a reader’s point of view it’s a reasonable enough attempt.

“I am, for the most part, the very prose that I write. I shape myself in periods and paragraphs.”

Previous editions of The Book of Disquiet, despite their different selections and ordering, create a similar sort of rhythm. The definitively Soares-penned passages—with their grounding in a recognizable Lisbon and in daily lived routines—anchor more free-floating and ethereal (sometimes ecstatic) digressions on related themes. These editions are all subjective assemblies of Pessoa’s scattered fragments, as every editor and translator readily admits.

Pulling all the fragments into two piles—early and late—is a markedly different reading experience. The first phase is looser in both style and form, with the author (in his 20s) alternating between experimental, post-symbolist texts, manifestoes, maxims, semi-absurd instructions (“Advice to unhappily married women” and other topics), as well as some diary-like entries. Many early sections are associated with another heteronym, Vicente Guedes, who sometimes appears to be a sort of proto-Soares. Topical concerns—solitude, dreams, identity—do overlap with the later text.

The second “phase,” apparently all Soares, is for me the chief revelation in this new edition. Pessoa’s conception of his project appears more fully developed by the 1930s, and the details of his daily life and the beautifully evoked Lisbon of the period create a kind of narrative drive and cohesiveness even amidst the lack of traditional plot, an effect heightened by Jull Costa’s lush, expert translation. Pessoa may have labeled his project an “unwritten novel” and a “factless autobiography,” but by the end of this half of the book we have a full measure of the inner life of an indelible literary character.

How much are the thoughts of Soares simply Pessoa’s own? He is, after all, a “semi-heteronym,” and there are biographical parallels. Pessoa made his living with office work (as a translator of business correspondence). He was by nature introverted, and is believed to have rarely left Lisbon in his adult life. But Pessoa did move in literary circles, publishing poems and prose pieces and even co-founding more than one short-lived (but influential) journal. He did have a social life, though he never married and, by all accounts, died a virgin (he did have one relationship with a younger woman—which he broke off with a letter signed by one of his heteronyms).

In Soares, Pessoa amplified some of his own characteristics while tamping down others, carrying those chosen tendencies to an extreme that was still clearly an outgrowth of his own fragmented self. Pessoa filters his own thoughts and self-examinations through the persona of Soares, creating an atmosphere that drifts between melancholy and revelation.

“I write like someone asleep, and my whole life is like a receipt awaiting signature.”

The first edition of The Book of Disquiet I picked up (on impulse) is the one translated by Mac Adam. The passage that first hooked me concerns the act of reading, and appears by page 10 of that edition; the same passage is more than 300 pages into the New Directions translation. My concern with the new edition is this: will a new reader give up while trying to read through the diverse (though often brilliant) first phase, before ever getting to Soares?

Perhaps, in the big picture, it’s not really an issue. For all the hand-wringing about sequence, I suspect most readers of “Disquiet” treat it more like a book of poetry than a novel, picking passages at random and reading a few at a time—“dipping and skipping,” as Jull Costa terms it. The design of this handsome new edition seems to encourage this, starting each passage, however short, on a new page rather than running them together like a diary.

Readers who pick up the new edition may want to start with the “Second Phase” and Soares, but one really can’t go wrong by carving a personal path. The Book of Disquiet can be seen as a sort of choose-your-own-adventure tale, but one that always has the same ending: the hero alone, in a small apartment, in deepest self-contemplation.


This essay is part of a Poetry Northwest feature on Fernando Pessoa. For more, read an excerpt of The Book of Disquiet and an interview with translator Margaret Jull Costa.

Rick VanderKnyff started his career as an arts writer and copy editor for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, and has since worked as a writer and editor for several online publications and projects. He holds a B.A. in Communications and an M.A. in Anthropology, both from California State University, Fullerton, and lives near Seattle.

Cover illustration courtesy of New Directions