Szplug's Reviews > The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
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it was amazing

Humans are social beings, to the extent that those who prefer solitude to the company of others are usually perceived as troubled individuals, outside of the norm; it took me a long time to feel comfortable with being alone, with dampening the guilt that flared up in me every time I begged off going out with a group of friends. It is always a welcome reinforcement when I come across a book penned by a fellow recluse—and The Book of Disquiet could be a solitary soul's bible, so powerfully does it speak in the language of single-place table settings, corner-chair cobwebs and bachelor apartments. It has achieved pride of place on my bedside stack, where I can ladle myself servings of Pessoa's wisdom at leisure.

This book's voluntarily alone author is Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet, writer, and polylinguist who invented fully-fleshed out heteronyms—distinct and separate personalties of differing nationality and gender—in order to pursue his writing in various idiosyncratic shades and styles. The Book of Disquiet is a collection of the aphoristic prose-poetry musings of one such heteronym, that of Bernardo Soares, assembled from notes, entries, and jottings made over a span of some thirty years and left unpublished at the time of Pessoa's death in 1935. Richard Zenith, the editor and translator of this stunning, haunting, and achingly beautiful paean to the imaginary potentiality of man, has compiled the definitive edition of this tome in a truly outstanding translation that captures the expressive eloquence of Pessoa and his magical, metaphorically rich manner of constructing word images to portray his unique way of life.

There is no finer encomium to the shattering melancholy and bracing affirmation of loneliness and solitude than the five hundred plus entries that make up The Book of Disquiet; and few better descriptions of existential nausea, of the desperate efforts to perceive a reason to continue with the painful disappointments, shadow terrors, and numbing meaninglessness of human existence. As Pessoa—writing as Soares—quietly and unassumingly goes about his daily rituals of walking, working as a book-keeper and inhabiting the well-trod spaces of his rented room in the real world, he is living a rich existence within the wildly creative contours of his mind: as a knight errant, a rich merchant, a pirate, a voyager, a lover of countless women, a guide to the cosmos, an inhaler of sunrises and embracer of sunsets, the guiding hand of every drop of Lisbon's morning showers, the leaves shaken by a sudden burst of wind. Having been sentenced to a term of life by an errant universe, Pessoa decided to renounce action and ambitions in what we hold to be real life to pursue a variegated and abundant existence within the realm of dreams. As our life is measured through the archived clippings of one's memory, whether one actually performed the deeds recalled matters less than the detail and substance they contain.

Such, at least, is the defense offered by Pessoa; yet often his solipsistic persuasions are contradictory, defensive; and when the mask slips we can see the depth of pain and loneliness underneath the placid surface of his imaginary life. There is much repetition and mulling over of themes from different angles, but the writing is so expressive and raw and honest that, to myself at least, it never becomes tedious—even as the tedium of existence, the stretching of the soul on the rack of time, is one of the principal ideas that populate Pessoa's thoughts and entries. It is as if tedium was experienced as a box of chocolates, each colour and coating, each form and flavour, each taste and texture, mulled over, pondered, drawn out and examined, and then set to paper as a running record to remind of an eccentric daily pleasure.

This is a book to be mused upon and savored, one that can be imbibed in different ways: it can be read straight through—the way I approached it, drawn into a white heat of blistered enthrallment—or sparingly sampled over weeks, months, even years. The order the aphorisms are assembled in is purely a construction of Zenith; he stresses such in his introduction and encourages each reader to create their own sequence for the collected entries. However the reader decides to approach The Book of Disquiet, they will be rewarded with the inventive honesty of a hale and wounded man from a work that is truly sui generis.

*******************************************************

I've recently picked up the Serpent's Tail Extraordinary Classic edition, which features a translation by Margaret Jull Costa, who performed similar duties for José Saramago's last half-dozen books. Distinct from Zenith, obviously, but just as potent and powerful—and the differently parsed words and sentences only serve to present Pessoa's incomparable poetry of loneliness in a new light, equally fulgent and searing, just focussed from an alternate angle. A richly marbled interiority of immanent pain and transcendent beauty.

*******************************************************

Revisiting the disquietude of early modern Lisbon, I'm reminded anew how this collection of Pessoa's dispassionate passion is one whose title is so perfectly matched to the content within that one can sit there (all by oneself, of course) cushioned within the utter silence of an unvoiced existence, serving as an unexciting urban renewal zone for migratory dust motes and unimpressive highland anchored lethality for predatory silken arachnids, with a nigh sardonic set to the tight-lipped, hesitantly-committed smile of satisfaction that imprints itself upon one's otherwise stoney visage, and marvel at how much one man's textually decanted imaginative impressions and gossamer ruminations running the interior gauntlet of unlived memories, unacted performances, unconsummated affairs, unshed tears, unwatched observations, unwinged flights, ungrounded fears, unfelt kisses, untouched caresses, uninvolved emotions, unexercised exertions, untasted repasts, unliked friendships, unmet acquaintances, untold stories, unpoured libations, undone happenings, unannounced recollections, unlit umbrages, unformed expressions, untraveled journeys, unnoticeable leavenings, unhoused guilts, and unarticulated speechifications resonate, to the fullest extent, with the plucked strings ever aquiver within the utterly empty, lonely, and withdrawn chambers of the mind- and/or house-bound soul.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
November 29, 2009 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-45 of 45 (45 new)

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message 1: by Brandi (new) - added it

Brandi Your review alone made me want to read this. From one recluse to another, thank you.


message 2: by Szplug (last edited Jan 11, 2011 12:55PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug You're very welcome, and thanks for the comment. There really is nothing else quite like The Book of Disquiet out there.

BTW, as a fellow isolate, I can also point you towards Party of One , in which Anneli Rufus makes the pitch that one should take pride in craving solitude. It's not at the level of Pessoa, mind you, but still an interesting book about a subject that is seldom broached in a positive manner.


message 3: by Krok Zero (new) - added it

Krok Zero Great review -- I'm now convinced I must read this.


message 4: by Jimmy (last edited Mar 02, 2011 01:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jimmy After I quit drinking (for the ... god, 20th time now?) I'd taken great pains to make a point of enjoying my solitude, almost to a degree in which isolation became a sort of hobby or artistic endeavor. You're right, for a lot of people it's a fairly heavy issue to struggle with. Personally, I wonder if I wouldn't have been insanely reclusive over the past six years, had I been completely sober; drinking always took the edge off of how massively irritating and disappointing an activity socializing was for me. After I subtracted that from the equation, I was capable of seeing things much more lucidly, and I realized that this constant need to be surrounded by someone is just a form of denial.

In other words, the sooner that one accepts that they are, and always will be, alone in the universe (save for the occasional feeling of connection with someone else) the more profound and beautiful one's own company becomes. I think, that, to a certain degree, Pessoa understood this, more importantly, he put his imaginative self to work creating a world, that seemed far less lonely than his real life; his creative imagination. I dunno, I rambling, but I'm basically just trying to say that loneliness becomes engrossing in the most beautiful way sometimes, in that it's less immediately enjoyable. It's almost like you have to cultivate a healthy relationship with yourself. Or maybe I'm just talking about total solipsism.


message 5: by Natalie (new) - added it

Natalie Jimmy wrote: "After I quit drinking (for the ... god, 20th time now?) I'd taken great pains to make a point of enjoying my solitude, almost to a degree in which isolation became a sort of hobby or artistic endea..."

Jimmy, what you wrote was beautiful.


message 6: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma Great review. This is the one I thought I must read before beginning Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


Szplug Krok: Thanks, Krok (or should it be Krok Zero? What a great name!). I'd love to convince as many people as possible to take up Pessoa.

Mike: Thanks, Mike. Absolutely you should, as Soares and Reis were but two of the heteronyms - and understanding the former will undoubtedly cast light on what Saramago does with the latter. I've long owned TYOTDORR (surprise!) but shied away from ever reading it; almost like I believe, in my gut, that Saramago will somehow bungle it, will fail to do justice to this beautiful wonder that was a lifelong labour of love for Pessoa. Doubtless unfair to José, but I gots to have me peculiarities.


message 8: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma Any strong feelings on whether one should read the Zenith or the Margaret Jull Costa translation? I've had good luck with MJC, but Zenith seems identified with FP.


Szplug MJC does a fantastic job with her translation - I might slightly prefer hers to Zenith's at the moment, but it's really a coin toss. With that said, I'd go with the Penguin Classics RZ edition over the STEC simply because it's the most complete - the full complement of entries in A Factless Autobiography and the appending A Disquiet Anthology.


message 10: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma Thanks, will do.


Jimmy Natalie wrote: "Jimmy wrote: "After I quit drinking (for the ... god, 20th time now?) I'd taken great pains to make a point of enjoying my solitude, almost to a degree in which isolation became a sort of hobby or ..."

Thanks, Natalie.


message 12: by Mike (last edited Mar 03, 2011 02:20AM) (new) - added it

Mike Puma Chris wrote: "MJC does a fantastic job with her translation - I might slightly prefer hers to Zenith's at the moment, but it's really a coin toss. With that said, I'd go with the Penguin Classics RZ edition over..."

Ordered Zenith's translation of TBOD and a coupla more Marías’ (All Souls and Dark Back of Time; they work together). Looking foward to all three.


message 13: by Natalie (new) - added it

Natalie Not a problem, I love the way you write, or the way you speak the truth; or both.


message 14: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Hi Chris, just wanted to say while I understand your reluctance to read it (I often develop the same kinds of fears myself), 'The Year of the death of Ricardo Reis' is really great. Also 'Requiem' by Antonio Tabucchi if you haven't already read it - that's even better. Penetrating review here, thanks. Will be sifting through your other reviews as I get the time.


Szplug Thanks, Ben, for the comment and GRF request. I've seen Requiem a couple of times recently on my update feed; so you've now fully sparked my interest. I appreciate the pointer towards it and the recommendation of Saramago's book.


message 16: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch No problems Chris. The thing about both those works is that they're really not biographical/historical attempts to flesh out Pessoa the human being, but meditations under the sign of Pessoa, if that makes sense. And this fairly unique form of homage seems to me a fitting testament to Pessoa's own uniqueness. Tabucchi has also written a slighter but still charming piece, 'The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa', but even that is not really biographical - instead it's the death-bed hallucinations of Pessoa as he is paid his last respects by one after another of his heteronyms. Gee, did I say slight? Maybe not - now I think of it, it really is moving. An extrapolation of Pessoa's own conjurings. There's something about all that heteronym stuff that really does seem important to me - as important as imaginitive writing can be. Perhaps it's precisely that these characters really do live on outside the writing, and hence it's fitting that Tabucchi has them all outlive their creator.


message 17: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch (Geez, how many 'really's can I fit in one paragraph?)


message 18: by Adam (new) - rated it 5 stars

Adam Lauver Great, great review. I just finished reading this one straight through for the first time (before that I had just jumped around). You do such a fine job of describing the unique feel and beauty of Pessoa's writing--well done.

My own personal feelings toward solitude and isolation are a bit less defined than others' in this thread; or, well, more ambivalent. I personally see value in both singularity and multitude, in separateness and connection. I personally find it difficult to sever one-ness from other-ness. So while reading Book of Disquiet, I had a multi-layered reaction to a lot of it--namely, that I related intensely to a lot of the sensations Pessoa was describing, but I also (and perhaps this is an unwise way to read this particular book) found myself trying to play almost a therapist to Pessoa, to point out to him some of the possible flaws in his logic of solitude, or at least ways in which it's incomplete.

Now what I'm wondering is whether Bernardo Soares simply represented that more heightened sense of fragmentation that Pessoa clearly possessed, and whether other of his heteronyms perhaps represented views that were more accepting of the "Other". Any insight into that, anyone?


Pierre Absolutely beautiful review.
I'm finding Pessoa incredibly comforting as of late; makes the solitude and loneliness bearable.


message 20: by Szplug (last edited Jul 01, 2012 11:12AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thanks Adam and Pierre, well after the fact though my acknowledgement be.


message 21: by Guillermo (new) - added it

Guillermo  That really was a great review. I flipped through a few pages of this at a buddy's house, and fell in love at first sight with it. What you said about this work only confirms that I should get my hands on this soon.


Szplug Thanks, Guillermo.


Brandy Wow, what a fantastic review! You nailed it.


Szplug Thanks, Brandy. It's really quite a thing to be able to read a person's thoughts—even in translation—from several generations earlier and discover so much of your mental envisioning and partitioning and draining and mazing dissected down to a tee.


Chiara Just as Pessoa's book speaks my feelings towards the world, your review speaks my feelings towards this book.


Szplug Thanks, Chiara. I am always coming back to Pessoa as a kindling spirit for my interior travels and travails—and so whenever I hear that I've captured something of the book's magic for those who similarly value it, I'm very gratified.


message 27: by Sanjiwan (new) - added it

Sanjiwan Pradhan Your review of this great book helped me understand what the book is all about.You cleared the path;now, I can walk very confidently.


message 28: by knig (new) - rated it 4 stars

knig Last paragraph/addendum: so beautiful.


Szplug Hi, Sanjiwan. Thanks for letting me know that some of what I wrote helped makes Pessoa's beauty shine clearer for you. That's the very best thing I could be told.

Knig: Thank you. I often wonder if I tend to focus too much upon the beauty to be collected, cradled, and cherished from Pessoa's internal flights of fancy, as opposed to the eternal tedium of the lived moment, and the anguish of being solitary in need amidst a world social in function, and of which, in that chicken or the egg question that underlies his heteronyms, would be my own discerned First Mover. It's still what soaks into me the most, and which being of completely like mind with the great man, in that capacity, certainly serves only to heighten in me that particular inclination...


message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

I wonder if people sometimes learn to love dark side of the life just because they are afraid of change


message 31: by Szplug (last edited Dec 29, 2013 11:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug That's something I've given thought to, Thorleif. When I was reading Gilles Deleuze's succinct exegetical interpretation of the Critical Philosophy, I was moved to hastily sketch out the following:
Could God be thought of as time, or succession? We can only perceive a linear movement forward, but time could operate in reverse to account for the unknown, geometrically for periodicity. Then, perhaps, the Devil would be our own agony of stillness, our essence inflating in a single moment and intuiting eternity, wanting permanence, perdurance, but getting only incessant motion and extension.
However, it seems to me, in the reflection of what you pondered above, that this might actually be better explained in a near-reversal, while still allowing that our human essence may be fully permeated by this particular conundrum. When you consider the works of God (or Allah) in their respective scriptures, one is struck by how much of it demands consideration as a permanent/unchanging/eternal aspect—even in the Genesis story, the world is brought into being and then proceeds forward, as is, without significant alteration. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the concept of evolution is so repulsive and antagonistic to large parts of the religious community: that man is a creature, of oceanic cellular origin, who has raised himself unto his present dominating tier by means of impermanence, being ever in the process of changing—always becoming, never is as a finalized fleshly spiritual vessel—is a direct challenge to the elevated and perduring conception they deem our species to be. In that vein of seeing, I would imagine a reality of sequential alteration to take on Satanic overtones; to find the Original Sin soaked in the goading driven by that deep-rooted need to know what is, that what is to come be anticipated, perhaps even, in the forewarning, effected to change.

Perchance of a similar vein was the original suggestion that our universe was created during some manner of Big Bang, as opposed to the previous vision of it as a static, infinite entity that had no beginning and anticipated no end; merely is, always was, and forever would be. A universal theater wherein things evolved, of course—but at the superstructural level, endowed with a permanence.

Admittedly, that's strayed rather markedly from what you opined above—certainly it's the case that I fear change, and I sense a similar bent towards the Herclitean flow in Sr Pessoa. It could very well be that people with a low self-esteem, who lack the capacity to mentally adjust themselves sufficient to keep pace with the charged and changing-tack-on-a-dime environs of human social gatherings—who prefer stickiness, that which is (comfortably and/or dreadfully) known to the maelstrom of unknown when those confines are left—are more prone to finding their cloistered structures falling into the shadows. Yet I wonder if that's less a case of learning to love the dark side than finding such fuligin gloom is a necessary consequence of trying to seal oneself against the turbid change that defines existence in our implementation of spacetime? That is, it might be more a case of (resigned) acceptance of, rather than fervor for, the funereal condition that attends to one's immersion within a coffin—what with this state of enduring, the slow grind against the winds of change, readily adapting itself to the metaphor of being buried alive, or at least prematurely.

And yet the wonders, the purely glorious, cerebrally parturient wonders that Pessoa was able to elevate out of that depressed, harrowed state! Withering away on the vine of tediousness, he still envisioned an interior life wherein change was a creative fuel for apperceptions aplenty—that most wondrous of evolving conditions, in that, unlike for our purblind cosmic God, all of the variables are controlled and, hence, the rapidity of change is yet conserved safely within a comfortable waveform. The best of all worlds, in a manner of speaking...


message 32: by [deleted user] (new)

Reading your brilliant reply is like reading my own thoughts, only expressed far better than I have been able to express them...


Szplug Well, thanks, Thorleif—I'm always kind of bemusedly surprised to discover that the product of my burped mental progressions resonate with others, especially to the degree you expressed above.

I've been circling about those two differing conceptions—God as motion, the Devil as our craving, through modal living, for stillness within that impermanence; and God as an eternal, unchanging cosmic theater wherein the Fallen One would be conceived and perceived as the rebellious change ever working upon those set pieces as divinely ordained—and think they are actually mirror images of the same spiritual envelopment. That is, we originally endow the permanence, the certainty that we potently crave with godly origins and attributes, that the existential and material state our humanity desires be given divine sanction and hence, through our projection of supernatural mastery over our cosmic environs, a patina of solidity and truth outside of our tergiversating and vacillating nature. However, the actual experience of our brief mortal tenures within a structure so effected is one of continuous change, besetment, discovery, improvisation, etc, such that, beneath the deemed perduring straightness of Godly permanence we perceive that such invariance is actually chimerical; and then our desire for constancy, in origin holy, morphs into something with malevolent undertones, takes on a weight, serves as an anchor sufficient to switch the attributes we had originally bestowed.

Perhaps the macrocosm of what we experience as individuals—in my case, early on desiring some measure of stability and permanence within a rootless, shiftless life wherein each day was an unknown journey, and a conception of routine and continuity held great appeal, through to where, via a not unimpressive self-discipline and -effort, I've become a routinized creature, bound by the determination to make each day an allotment of time spaces in which I know exactly where I'll be, what I'll be doing, and that which is awaiting next in line. That is, within the maelstrom of change that comprises any existence, I've created an illusory sense of perdurance by means of schedule adherence and environmental control; but this is no less chimerical than the attributes of the same crafted, in heartfelt good intention, upon the religious superstructures noted above. In what seems to me to be an inevitability, it falls into darkness. It serves no longer to comfort, but to distress; no longer frees one from chaos, but enslaves to pattern. It provides not the sturdy measures of safety, but the confines of enhanced fear. It's unnatural, really, and so, being thus an alien state, alienates us, not merely from the world, but, in a certain measure, from ourselves.

As the likes of Pessoa make abundantly clear, these self-constructed labyrinths are no easy thing to disentangle oneself from—particularly in that, IMO, in both its original golden implementation, and subsequent iron evolution, its essence inheres with our desire to expel responsibility for our present of omniadaptation unto a higher ordered tier; to try and work memes of eternity such that they will become effective in stopping the flow that ever besets us. Of course, there are many people in the world who embrace such unbounded and unknown existence, revel in the newness of each and every moment; but, for that [larger] proportion who don't, it may be that there is this continuous balancing act between that which strengthens and succors through fulgent sunlight, and its lived expression of benighted noose. Whether you are served or strangled depends upon the multitudinous vagaries of unique occurrence—though the balance, over time, would seem to me to shift in favor of the latter, what with night ever falls being one truistic instance of the eternity we have discerned and then fashioned.


message 34: by Ian (last edited Feb 01, 2014 03:36AM) (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Heteronymity means never having to say you're alone.


Szplug The question is, which one picks up the tab?


message 36: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Chris wrote: "The question is, which one picks up the tab?"

I almost asked the same question!


message 37: by knig (new) - rated it 4 stars

knig What a bunch of cheapskates you two are. Fine, I'll pick up the tab.


message 38: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Haha. It's more that heteronyms tend to drink from the same wallet or feed from the same purse!


Szplug You can lead a heteronym to water but another one always drinks it...


message 40: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye You can lead a heteronym to silence, but another one always finds disquiet.


message 41: by Agnieszka (last edited Feb 10, 2014 12:13PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Agnieszka Chris , this is an absolutely fantastic review!And as I can see now I delayed too long with reading that book.


Szplug Thank you, Agnieszka. I have to say that, out of all the reviews I've penned herein, this is the one I take the most pleasure from in hearing that it has helped convince others to give the book a try. Pessoa seems to form a special bond with people who are solitary/reclusive/socially avoidant—I return to him with frequency. I hope you find a similar connexion when you enter into his Disquiet.


Mickey I will read this book because of this review. Thank you.


message 44: by P.E. (new) - rated it 3 stars

P.E. Thanks for your review Szplug. I am set on snatching it in the corner library, right away.


message 45: by Margaret (new) - added it

Margaret King This review, and the comments, are literature in themselves.


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