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The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
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it was amazing


Here is the only Portuguese literary joke I know: Q. Who are the four greatest Portuguese poets of the 20th century? A. Fernando Pessoa. Trust me, it's funny. But it does take a little explaining.

Fernando Pessoa, in order to express various philosophical and poetic moods, constructed a series of what he termed “heteronyms.” The heteronym, although similar to the mask or persona, differs in that each one is equipped with a name, a personality, a biography, and a physical description, as well as a distinct writing style. Although Pessoa made use of more than five dozen heteronyms in the course of his thirty-five years, the best known are Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares. Of these four, his greatest creation--and perhaps the heteronym closest to Pessoa's self--is Bernardo Soares, the "author" of The Book of Disquiet.

The Book of Disquiet, if not unique, is close to it. It is a little like a novel, often like a collection of prose poems, and often like a series of aphorisms and philosophical reflections. The heteryonum that is Soares enables Pessoa to communicate a disciplined, definite vision of the world, necessarily limited in scope, but intensified and concentrated. In this sense, it resembles Roman and English satire, its authorial mask as carefully crafted and resonant as those of Horace and Juvenal, Pope and Swift. Soares, however, takes no interest in vice, let alone the reform of humankind; in fact, he seems to care little about humanity in general, or people in particular.

It is here that the novelistic aspect of this work becomes interesting. Soares is a shy, isolated man, a clerk at a Lisbon commercial firm who adds up columns of figures, and seems to do little else. Although he mourns his colleagues when they pass away, he never seems to communicate with them when they are alive; the closest he seems to get to fellowship are his encounters with the waiter in the little cafe where he eats his nightly dinner and consumes his nightly bottle of wine. At first, we feel sorry for him, for we feel his great isolation and are moved by his great passion and profound love for beauty which he can only express through his journal.

Slowly, however, we begin to see that this isolation is a personal and artistic choice, a way of refining his art and his being . If he cares about human beings at all, it is only because they are useful adjuncts to his own magnificent loneliness, because they resonate as discrete elements of the poet's imagination, much as a certain play of light on a Lisbon street may reflect one particular color of the canvas that is the poet's consciousness. Perhaps this is why the book “The Book of Disquiet” reminds me of most is The Chants of Maldoror, that uncompromising paean to the magnificent isolation of evil.

There is of course a great difference. Maldoror could only have been produced by a very young man hiding beneath a very old mask. His persona is a posture of isolation through which he begins to know himself. The Book of Disquiet, on the other hand, is the work of someone who knows himself well, and cares only about reaching a kind of existential purity: a clarity of view, a refinement of mood, the isolation of particular beauties that resonate more deeply and linger longer than the others.

Soares is a monk of the poetic mind, for whom aloneness is a vocation. Its fruit, this memorable book, is rare and delicious, filled with vivid descriptions, evocative language, and refined reflections.
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Quotes Bill Liked

Fernando Pessoa
“I carry my awareness of defeat like a banner of victory.”
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa
“Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa
“My past is everything I failed to be.”
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet


Reading Progress

June 17, 2013 – Started Reading
June 17, 2013 – Shelved
June 17, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
October 19, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-39 of 39 (39 new)

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The Literary Chick I found the prose in this book incredibly beautiful.


Bill Kerwin I'm only about 20 pages in, but so far I am intrigued and moved. Is this the translation you read? That can make a big difference, especially when beauty is concerned.


The Literary Chick No, I actually read the Kindle edition and plan on buying a hard copy. How are you finding this translation.


message 4: by Bill (last edited Jun 18, 2013 07:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Pretty good so far. No complaints.


message 5: by Mafalda (last edited Dec 19, 2013 05:08PM) (new) - added it

Mafalda It totally looks like the book I’d read at home, with a close friend going about their business
I’ve got friends who would come visit me and stay as long as they wish, two days, a week, a month, whatever… they come and go, watch TV, read, meditate, have a nap, watch the sunset, go visit their girlfriend/boyfriend.
I may join them, or not.
We would be in the same room, or not.
We may talk, or not.
It’s all about peace, quiet and being alone with somebody you are totally in synch with.
That is how I want to read this book.

Having a walk with a horse, sitting on the ground while it grazes and comes to play with your hair from time to time, would work too.


message 6: by Quo (new) - added it

Quo Enjoyed your thoughtful commentary on Pessoa, who I 1st encountered when reading "Night Train to Lisbon" by Gabriel Mercier but who obviously also has a connection to Jose Saramago, whose novel I have enjoyed very much!


message 7: by Andres (new)

Andres LOL...


message 8: by Andres (new)

Andres That was a good joke, Bill...


message 9: by Gary (new)

Gary Wow, Bill, that's a profound review. Thanks.


message 10: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Gary wrote: "Wow, Bill, that's a profound review. Thanks."

You're welcome!


message 11: by Cherie (new)

Cherie Beautiful! I do not read the books you review, or very few, but I always read your reviews.


message 12: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Cherie wrote: "Beautiful! I do not read the books you review, or very few, but I always read your reviews."

Thanks! That's a very nice compliment!


message 13: by Anuradha (new) - added it

Anuradha This is brilliant. Colour me interested.


message 14: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Russell The Book of Disquiet' on the other hand, is the work of someone who knows himself well, and cares only about reaching a kind of existential purity: a clarity of view, a refinement of mood, the isolation of particular beauties that resonate more deeply and linger longer than the others. ---- Sounds like my kind of guy. I have to get to this book at some point. Thanks for the great review, Bill!


message 15: by João Carlos (last edited Jul 03, 2016 08:08AM) (new) - added it

João Carlos Obrigado.
Beautiful review.
You must read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis - José Saramago


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Isolation and aloneness is our de facto existence in the U.S. says demographics on "singles" (including over a quarter of adults who can't name a single friend) but don't we think it's a bit over-rated and has harmed civil society? Precious few get this "existential purity" from our increasing social alienation (as Marx predicted.) Not that I don't dig more quiet mindfulness as I age... Great review as usual, Bill.


message 17: by Supratim (new) - added it

Supratim Brilliant review!


message 18: by Carol (new) - added it

Carol Wow.


message 19: by William (new) - added it

William Wow. What a different world it was. Thank you for the review!


message 20: by William (new) - added it

William Thank you for the lovely review, Bill.


message 21: by Nocturnalux (last edited Oct 12, 2017 07:37PM) (new) - added it

Nocturnalux Hey, there's more than four! :P

Fun fact: In Portugal, the final high school exams (known as 'exames nacionais') are a big deal in deciding what university one gets into and every single year, there is the possibility of Pessoa featuring on the Portuguese exam. Needless to say, everyone hopes this will not come to pass. Even those in the humanities course- or perhaps those in particular, since their Portuguese exam is more difficult that the general one- are deadly afraid of this possibility.

It is no exaggeration to say that for any Portuguese intellectual that much of their formative years were marked both by a passion and a phobia for Pessoa.


message 22: by William (new) - added it

William Nocturnalux wrote: "It is no exaggeration to say that for any Portuguese intellectual that much of their formative years were marked both by a passion and a phobia for Pessoa."

Fascinating. I don't believe I had *any* classes in poetry during my entire formal educational run from 6-27 years old 😢


message 23: by Robin (new)

Robin Wonderful review. Wonderful book. I recommend another that you might like, written by acclaimed American poet, Sherod Santos. It's a collection of prose poems written in the wake of a nervous breakdown. Tender, illuminating, and humorous at times.

Square Inch Hours Poems by Sherod Santos


message 24: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Robin wrote: "Wonderful review. Wonderful book. I recommend another that you might like, written by acclaimed American poet, Sherod Santos. It's a collection of prose poems written in the wake of a nervous break..."

Thanks for the suggestion!


message 25: by Nocturnalux (new) - added it

Nocturnalux @William, I grew up in a literary home so I knew of Pessoa almost as far back as I can remember. I knew bits and pieces of his vast and highly diverse work long before I encountered it in a formal setting at school.

Both my parents were passionate Pessoa readers and could quote lines from memory. Pessoa books have been in the family for generations as my paternal grandfather was also a huge fan. I have inherited most of said books.

And speaking of Pessoa's work, the entire works have yet to be published. There is a trunk full of manuscripts- by which I mean an actual trunk- that belongs to the Pessoa House. Access to these unpublished material is extremely difficult even for Pessoa scholars.

Every now and then new material gets released for the very first time. Just this year I got a brand new collection of writings from António Mora, a less known heteronym and often gets tagged as a 'semi-heteronym'.


message 26: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Nocturnalux wrote: "@William, I grew up in a literary home so I knew of Pessoa almost as far back as I can remember. I knew bits and pieces of his vast and highly diverse work long before I encountered it in a formal ..."

Thanks for the insight and info.


message 27: by William (new) - added it

William Nocturnalux wrote: "@William, I grew up in a literary home so I knew of Pessoa almost as far back as I can remember. I knew bits and pieces of his vast and highly diverse work long before I encountered it in a formal setting at school."

Wonderful and fascinating. Thank you, Nocturnalux.


David Schaafsma Finally read this, in part thanks to your nudge, and now have read your review thoroughly, thanks. Great review, as always.


message 29: by Fabrício (new)

Fabrício Santana Great review. Let me ask you: did you read it in English or Portuguese? Because, for it to have made this impression on you, either the translator is really competent or you read the original haha


message 30: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Fabriccio wrote: "Great review. Let me ask you: did you read it in English or Portuguese? Because, for it to have made this impression on you, either the translator is really competent or you read the original haha"

I read it in English, and it was a good translation. Costa has also translated Eca de Quieros and Saramago.


message 31: by Fabrício (last edited May 07, 2018 06:47PM) (new)

Fabrício Santana Bill wrote: "Fabriccio wrote: "Great review. Let me ask you: did you read it in English or Portuguese? Because, for it to have made this impression on you, either the translator is really competent or you read ..."
Interesting! I love to see non-portuguese speakers appreciating Pessoa; he's truly a great treasure. I'm still kind of an infant when it comes to literature, but of all Portuguese poets, he's the one who impressed and inspired me the most so far (the second being Bocage). Anyway, good readings to you!


Ghost of the Library Fantastic Review!
And if I may say so, you read what is presently the best possible translation to the English language...nope, not related to the translator! ;)


message 33: by Célia (new) - added it

Célia Loureiro Beautiful. Being Portuguese and reading it right now, I kind of feel flattered. I am still to understand if Pessoa is writting universally about people and the deep sea inside, or about isolation and resenting/ignoring company so you can built your own spiritual world. So far, I underline most of his words for they seem like my own particular thoughts, but being expressed with great finesse, clarity and assertiveness. But maybe he is just so good that I understand him so fully... That I actually think those ideas were mine all along.


Fergus Thanks, Bill - especially for your Wit! Pessoa NEEDS more light reviewers. The nod to Lautreamont was also apropos.


Sanskar Usha I get it... I get it. But then... He had many more heteronyms than that or correct me if I am wrong.


message 36: by Tras (new) - added it

Tras Fascinating review, Bill.


message 37: by Bill (last edited Apr 09, 2019 04:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Kerwin Sanskar wrote: "I get it... I get it. But then... He had many more heteronyms than that or correct me if I am wrong."

You are right. I think, though, that the four particular heteronyms I mention here had somewhat more distinctly defined personalities and wrote more--and somewhat more popular--poems.


message 38: by Nocturnalux (new) - added it

Nocturnalux Bill is most definitely right; there are indeed many other heteronyms but these four represent the core and the best achieved, the culmination of the phenomenon of heteronymy, if you will.

But if one wants to refine the joke, just say, "Q. Who are the four greatest Portuguese poets that make Portuguese high school students quake in their boots when it comes time to take the national exam?
A. Fernando Pessoa."

It doesn't quite work as Bernardo Soares is not part of the curriculum, but still, three heteronyms (Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro Campos, Ricardo Reis) and the orthonym make four: the joke still holds and it is absolutely true to life.

I find it very interesting how the focus of non-Portuguese speakers seems to revolve around this particular work Pessoa studies in Portugal are much more concerned with Caeiro, Campos and Reis. As I have mentioned before, Soares is not even part of the curriculum while the above mentioned are very much front and center.

It may have something to do with the format, prose tends to be easier to translate than poetry and the bulk of Pessoa's other work concerns modernist versification at its finest.

English speakers may also find Pessoa's English poems to be of interest. They tend to be less experimental and more accessible all around.


message 39: by Adrianna (new) - added it

Adrianna Hodges Wow! That was a lovely review! You made me want to read the book even more now!


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