I am thinking March, aiming at the last week of March, as a good time to write about The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa’s semi-fictional non-novel un-diary. Whatever it is. I invite anyone interested to join in however they like.
The Book of Disquiet is only a novel in the sense that we now stretch the word “novel” to cover unclassifiable fictional objects. The book has no obvious story, no plot, or characters aside from the narrator, but is instead a series of observations, sketches, and aphorisms, the diary of a Lisbon bookkeeper, Bernardo Soares. Pessoa wrote that Soares has Pessoa’s style, but was “distinct from me in ideas, feelings, modes of perception, and understanding.”* So the book is a fictional exercise of some sort.
I am in large measure the very prose I write. I punctuate myself, and, in the unchained distribution of images, I wear newspaper hats, the way children do when they play at being king; by making rhythm out of a series of words, I crown myself, the way mad people do, with dried flowers that remain alive in my dreams. And above all, I am tranquil, like a sawdust-stuffed doll, which, having acquired awareness of itself, shakes its head from time to time so that the bell on its pointed hat plays something, life rung by the dead, a minimal warning by Destiny. (152-3, Alfred Mac Adam translation)
Please see this essay at Vapour Trails for more Disquiet.
The What-is-it problem is worse than it seems. The Book of Disquiet is unfinished, perhaps never meant to be finished, and was unpublished until 1982, forty-seven years after Pessoa’s death. The order of the elements of the book cannot be established with certainty. The text is not stable.
The book’s English history is odd, too. Four versions exist (Richard Zenith, Alfred Mac Adam, Margaret Jull Costa, Iain Watson) all of which were published in 1991. That must have been handy for book reviewers. The Zenith version is the longest and most complete, including fragments and appendices and so on. I will be reading Alfred Mac Adam. The thing I want to emphasize is that these are not just different translations, but translations of different texts, different orderings and excerpts of the mass of material.
I see this as an opportunity for a group read, not an obstacle. With many readers, it might be possible to see more than I can by myself. The Book of Disquiet is a perfect candidate for many readings, and many kinds of reading. Seraillon recently finished it, over the course, he says, of two months (about four chapters a day). Another reader may want to guzzle Pessoa, or just read fragments, such as the samples of The Book of Disquiet found in Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown’s Poems of Fernando Pessoa (1986) or Honig’s Always Astonished: Selected Prose (1988).
Pessoa wrote and even published one more ordinarily fictional piece of fiction, the 1922 story “The Anarchist Banker,” a thirty page short story of ideas that has characters and dialogue and even a story, the story of how the anarchist became a banker, and why the banker is still an anarchist. Read that instead. Or, like me, also.
OK, March. The end of March.
A couple of other readalong opportunities will intersect with Wuthering Expectations: Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (see Caravana de recuerdos and in lieu of a field guide) and Our Mutual Friend (see The Argumentative Old Git). The former has more of a schedule, while the latter does not. When I finish Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, I will have read every Dickens novel. How many pages into Little Dorrit was I, by the way, before I realized that “Dorrit” only had one “t”? (Answer: 200). What kind of an English name is that?
* This quotation, and the post’s title, are from the fragment of Pessoa’s “Concerning the Work of Bernardo Soares” found on p. 209 of the Honig and Brown Poems of Fernando Pessoa.