14 August, 2015

The book of disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

When a little known twentieth century poet and prose writer from Portugal named Fernando Pessoa was included in The Western Canon (1994), Harold Bloom’s elegiac roundup of the most vital writing to emerge in the history of western literature, one review in the Times accused Bloom of being wilfully obscurant and elitist.

The benefit of hindsight has proven this notion to be more an indication of Pessoa's lack of a mainstream readership at the time than of Pessoa’s significance, or Bloom’s literary snobbery. New translations and editions have brought increasing acknowledgement that Pessoa’s body of work, mostly written under the guise of heteronyms (Pessoa's word for a variety of poetic nom de plumes for which he had created singular biographies and stylistic tendencies), was as brilliant as it was unique.

Pessoa’s most renowned work never saw publication in his lifetime. First published in Portugese in 1982, 47 years after Pessoa's death, The Book of Disquiet consists of hundreds of prose fragments which were found in a trunk in his room in Lisbon after his death. What connects these fragments is Pessoa’s crediting of them to the heteronym “Bernardo Soares, assistant bookkeeper in Lisbon.”

The pieces in this “factless autobiography,” as Pessoa calls it (or is that Soares?), include diaristic rumintaions, dreamlike aphorisms, passages as exquisitely beautiful as they are forlorn and meandering. Most pieces are combinations of all those things. Together they create a cumulative effect that is transporting, mesmerising, and, as the title implies, disquieting.

Unsurprisingly, it is within the books own pages you’ll find the most apt descriptions of both its strange appeal and mode of composition:  “In the faint shadows cast by the last light before evening gives way to night, I like to roam unthinkingly through what the city is changing into, and I walk as if nothing had a cure . . . . As my feet wander I inwardly skim, without reading, a book of text interspersed with swift images, from which I leisurely form an idea that’s never completed.”

Title: The Book of Disquiet
Author: Fernando Pessoa
Recommended by: Simon C, Central City Library

Simon C works in Readers Services for Auckland Libraries. His special reading interests include 19th-century French poetry and 20th-century modernist fiction. He likes to take psychogeographical walks in his spare time, sometimes not even leaving his desk to do so.

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