The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

I started reading The Book of Disquiet during that very quiet, reflective period immediately after Christmas and it was both the perfect and the worst time to start it. Perfect because I was in exactly the right frame of mind to absorb it; the worst because I was in exactly the right frame of mind to absorb it. It is a book redolent with sweet sorrow, a kind of gorgeous melancholy that seeps out of the pages and under your skin. Each brief passage drags you deeper in, and the more I read the more lovely it was but also the more sorrowful it became. At times the perceptions were so sharp it almost hurt; I could see my own life, my own thoughts, emerging from the pen of this writer living in a very different time and place writing with such extraordinary clarity and hopelessness. It was unsettling. I began to feel as Pessoa felt. That life had no meaning, that the sorrow was inconsolable, that I was living a life of pointless activity punctuated with moments of sudden insight in which the meaninglessness of everything was laid plain. In short, it was making me depressed. Or rather, perhaps, I was in the mood to be depressed and Pessoa’s words coalesced around this mood creating a melancholy fog from which it grew increasingly difficult to emerge.

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“Brief, dark shadow of a city tree, the light sound of water falling into a sad pool, the green of smooth grass – a public garden on the edge of dusk – in this moment you are the whole universe to me, because you entirely fill my every conscious feeling. I want nothing more from life than to feel it ebbing away into these unexpected evenings to the sound of other people’s children playing in gardens fenced in by the melancholy of the surrounding streets, and above, the high branches of the trees, vaulted by the ancient sky in which the stars are just beginning to reappear.”

The Book of Disquiet comprises a collection of short passages observing the life of a man who works in an ordinary office in the Rua dos Douradores in Lisbon, Portugal. Sometimes the passages are no more than a line, other times they extend to 2 or 3 pages long. The book is credited to Bernard Soares, a heteronym of Pessoa’s, a kind of fictional character who lived through Pessoa’s writing. It is a fictional account, yet it has the currency of non-fiction. It could be a memoir written straight from the mind of an ordinary accountant, living an isolated and small life, absorbed by daydreams, metaphysical observations and this fragmented, unsatisfying, writing. The passages are loosely connected, yet the book as a whole has a character which is heavy and assured. It feels as though you are reading a diary, but the saddest diary you’ve ever encountered.

“The rustic, the reader of novels, the pure ascetic: these three are the truly happy men, because they have all renounced their personality – the first because he lives by instinct, which is impersonal, the second because he lives through his imagination, which is oblivion, and the third because he does not live and, not yet having died, sleeps.

Nothing satisfies me, nothing consoles me, everything – whether or not it has ever existed – satiates me. I neither want me soul nor wish to renounce it. I desire what I do not desire and renounce what I do not have. I can be neither nothing nor everything; I’m just the bridge between what I do not have and what I do not want.”

It is an astonishing book, so astonishing that I find it hard to put into words how viscerally it affected me. I had to set it aside for a day or so, as its insights, its sharp observations, were too close and too personal. I felt I could be reading my own life, if only I could write so beautifully and with such lucidity. There is a word in Portuguese, a famously untranslatable word, saudade” which refers to a form of melancholy longing for something missing or absent, a kind of nostalgia perhaps reminiscent of the Japanese concept of mono-no-aware. The Book of Disquiet is steeped in saudade. Each passage drips with it, with this longing for whatever is missing – love, social acceptance, meaningfulness, an active life, a valuable life. Pessoa recognises the beauty in emptiness, and the pain too. Through Soares he explores what it is like to be so painfully aware of all that you lack and the meaninglessness of desiring something more. It makes for painful reading at times, and yet I felt compelled to go on.

“It falls lightly, the end of this certain day, on which those who believe and blunder are caught up in their usual work and who, in the midst of their own pain, enjoy the bliss of unconsciousness. It falls lightly, this wave of dying light, the melancholy of the spent evening, the thin mist that enters my heart. It falls lightly, gently, this indefinite lucid blue pallor of the aquatic evening; light, gentle, sad, it falls on the cold and simple earth. It falls lightly, like invisible ashes, a tortured monotony, an active tedium.”

Tedium: I have a wholly different perspective on it now. I recognised myself in Pessoa’s descriptions, yet I also recognised that I had it within myself to do something about it. Had Pessoa, via Soares, considered the same for even a moment it would have destroyed the delicate beauty of this book. The Book of Disquiet is like a misty mirror which obscures everything other than a distorted vision of ourselves and the captivating power of our dreams. It is an encounter. It is the opposite of uplifting, but despite this absence it remains oddly life affirming. I’m not sure it will ever be possible for me to read it uninterrupted without wanting, at the end of it, to slit my wrists, but as a book to dip into and out of, for its grasp of stunning sadness and its insights into the ordinary human life, it is ravishing.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
This entry was posted in fiction, memoir, outwith, translation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

  1. This sounds very beautiful but perhaps best read when cheerful. Your misty mirror is such a striking simile.

    • bookbii says:

      It is indeed a beautiful book, very poignant. I think it might well depress a cheerful mood or, perhaps, not have as much impact. Whilst I did make me feel even lower-spirited, being in that sad, uncertain, rootless time after Christmas it also felt like just about the perfect time to read it. I’m not sure if I’d read it from start to finish again, maybe I would, but it is equally lovely to dip in and out of.

  2. roughghosts says:

    Sometimes I find that sad (or pensive) books are best read when one is in a lowered mood—they can provide a company and give a voice to melancholy. Your thoughts on this book have encouraged me to add it to the selection of books I’m taking to India in a few weeks. I’m deeply engaged in writing (or thinking about writing) which is, for me, a melancholy pursuit. It is about time I took it off the shelf anyhow.

    • bookbii says:

      I think so too, perhaps a low and pensive mood is just about the right time to read it, because you’re right it did seem to give a voice to the empty, pointlessness I was feeling at the time. Of course there are limits. Enjoy your trip to India. I do hope, if you have chance to read it, you find it connects or stirs you in some way. It feels wrong to use the word ‘enjoy’, it is not exactly an enjoyable book, but rather stirring, emotive, beautiful and gorgeously melancholy.
      It’s interesting that you experience writing as a melancholy pursuit. I think I feel like that about it too. Often it depresses me because the gulf between my vision and the capability of my expression is so enormous, and there’s a *feeling* about writing which kind of seeps into the bones, a reachlessness. It is hard to articulate but melancholy seems an appropriate term.

  3. SimplyMe says:

    This review made me think, naturally, of many of the great existentialist writers. Most especially, though, I thought of Marion Milner (pseud. Joanna Field), the British author of a classic work from the 1930’s, “A Life of One’s Own”. I read it years ago and think I will reread in the near future.

    • bookbii says:

      Thank you for the introduction to Milner, I read up on her work after you’d posted this comment here and she strikes me as a writer I must read. I’ll be looking up both A Life of One’s Own and its companion-piece An Experiment in Leisure. Thanks!

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