Monday, April 2, 2012

Everything around me is evaporating - beginning the rambling, disconnected Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet begins with instructions:  how to organize The Book of Disquiet.  Instructions to an editor, presumably, not the reader:

The final organization of The Book of Disquiet should be based on a most rigid selection of the passages that exist in various forms, adapting the oldest, which do not contain Bernardo Soares’s psychology, as that true psychology is now pouring out.  Aside from that, a general revision of the style will have to be made, taking care that it not lose, in its intimacy, the rambling manner and the disconnected logic that characterizes it. (Entry 1, p. 3)

A strange way to begin any book, since the bound text I have been reading has already been organized, in this case into 276 numbered entries or passages, some just a line or two, some several pages long.   An Appendix keys the numbers to a different text, the 1982 Portuguese edition of the book which has at least 520 entries, and is thus less rigidly selected.

Your version of The Book of Disquiet, if it is not the 1991 Alfred Mac Adam translation (or, actually, the 1998 Exact Change edition), likely begins differently, its contents selected by differently rigid principles.

Who is supposed to adapt older passages?  Who is supposed to revise the style?  This note is actually from Pessoa to himself.  At the end of his life, he was preparing – or planning to prepare – a number of books for publication, including this one.  Who knows what decisions he might have made.

Or I could assume that even the first paragraph is part of the fiction of The Book of Disquiet, that despite the mention of Bernardo Soares it is in fact (in fictional fact) written by Soares, that it is a note from Soares to himself about how to organize his “real” journal, which then doubles as a real note by the real Pessoa about this novel he wrote, a novel in the form of a fictional journal.

For the next few days, I believe I will simply call this book a novel and its narrator a character.  The novel is a character study, without ordinary plot or story, arranged just as that first paragraph describes, not without logic but with disconnected logic.  The character, Soares, is “an assistant bookkeeper in the city of Lisbon” who does little but work, eat in the same café, wander the city, sleep, and write this journal. – “[t]hese pages are the scribbles of my intellectual unawareness of myself” (177, p. 158).  He is suffering from some sort of crisis of identity, but if the crisis is permanent is it still a crisis or rather a condition of existence?

A question of interpretation:  is Soares an extreme case who highlights some important psychological feature of the modern personality, or is he an ordinary or representative man who expresses himself with unusual force:

Everything around me is evaporating.  My whole life, my memories, my imagination and its contents, my personality – it’s all evaporating.  I continuously feel that I was someone else, that I felt something else, that I thought something else.  What I’m attending here is a show with another set.  And the show I’m attending is myself.  (12, p. 15)

Or Soares is nuts and it’s all a bunch of hooey.  I do not plan to follow that path, although it has the advantage of clear and accurate signage.  Instead, I will spend a few days making notes on Pessoa’s oddly organized, oddly argued, oddly compelling Book of Disquiet.


  1. I'm going to be late posting on The Book of Disquiet, Tom, and I'm still not quite sure what to make of Soares' mental health at my more or less midway point in the "novel." Sorry on both accounts, but thanks for hosting the readalong anyway. By the way, I like how a non-hooey acceptance of Soares as an "ordinary" narrator can result in a work that has echoes of devotional literature (maybe anti-devotional literature actually) and is maybe a philosophical cousin of Rimbaud's Illuminations or something like that (sorry, a bit rusty on Rimbaud). Lots to like here, though I think the work is freshest in small doses.

  2. No hurry with any book; less with this one.

    Anti-devotional, not bad, not bad. These are, after all, The Confessions of Bernardo Soares, as he almost says early on in the book.

    Rimbaud is not too far out of line, either. Soares, however passive or restrained or repressed he might seem in some ways does wander into some outrageous places. A different means of deranging the senses.

    Baudelaire's Paris Spleen is unquestionably a model for the "man about Lisbon" sorts of passages, so some sort of post-Rimbaud model is reasonable, too.

  3. Zenith puts that introductory note in an appendix and translates "disconnected logic" as "logical disconnectedness" - which provides a first hint of the pocked and tremulous ground we'll be crossing for the read-along. But many thanks for organizing it and getting it started. I'm completely unsure as to how (or whether) to characterize BoD as a novel. I keep thinking of it as one of those shots in a film where a character is riding in a car, yet one can tell it's the "landscape" behind the character that's the thing actually in motion. The character remains relatively fixed, as life passes by around him. I'm all for starting out with the premise that Soares is not nuts - or at least no more so than the rest of us.

  4. A first hint of the rich opportunities of the readalong!

    I enjoy your metaphor. The landscape passes. Occasionally there is a thunderstorm.

  5. I've read a chunk of the Zenith before setting it aside. Something in the fragmentation and tone makes it hard to sustain reading it through in just a few sittings. I'll try to pick it up again this Semana Santa.

  6. Yes, it is a book of tapas, not a big meal. A book for grazing, although it is actually organized with at least some care. There are clusters of entries that clearly work as sequences. I have no idea if the clusters are themselves organized in any meaningful way.

    A base-level issue is that without a narrative, and with almost everything so interior, this is a really hard book to remember.

  7. Soares an extreme case who highlights some important psychological feature of the modern personality...

    ... I'm still not quite sure what to make of Soares' mental health...

    Uh Oh. I'm a bit worried about my own mental health now. I find Soares such an insightful amateur philosopher. It's my comfort reading!

    The original portuguese: "há que fazer uma revisão geral do próprio estilo, sem que ele perca, na expressão íntima, o devaneio e o desconexo lógico que o caracterizam".

    Seraillon's (Zenith's) version - "logical disconnectedness" - sounds like a better translation to me. Great description of BoD too, the landscape one. Thanks for that.

  8. I bought this book when I was in Portugal in December; so far, I've been too frightened to pick it up. I am ridiculous. And now I'm firmly entrenched in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and can't escape.

  9. 2 questions, Claudia (or anyone, on the second one)

    1. "insightful amateur philosopher" = thought experiments by Soares? Fiction? "I consider myself fortunate for no longer having relatives... I never loved anyone" (186), or "I never had friends" (189). Perhaps Soares is creating the extreme case? Or does he not seem like a sort of test case to you, with his illness of the soul and so on?

    Which parts are the comforting parts? Which ideas quiet your disquiet?

    2. "o desconexo lógico" - "logic" is feminine in Portuguese ("lógica") so we know that "lógico" is not the noun but the adjective - so Zenith is right, Mac Adam is wrong (unless I am the one who is wrong). I assume that the latter thought the paradoxical "logical disconnectedness" sounded too little like English. The life of the translator.

    Colleen - fright is a puzzling response. Weariness I would understand. Boredom. Nausea. Indifference. Irritation. Disquiet.

    How is Amado?

  10. I read this book in a couple of days, some years ago; it's a book of epigrams and wisdom; you can just open it at random, read a line and it'll be something wondrous and original that will keep your brain ruminating the rest of the day.

  11. A couple of days! Mac Adam suggests reading it through once "in the arbitrary order in which it is set out here" and then reading it in random bites for ever after.

  12. Fright is a puzzling response, I suppose...but there it is. I worry my brain, so comfortable these days in the broad and deep but always linear narratives of the 19th century, won't be able to keep up. Or that I'll hate it just because I choose to read it at the wrong time. I clearly think too much.

    Amado is pretty good overall although there are a shocking number of linguistic cliches and gender stereotypse flying right about now. I wonder how much the former has to do with Amado or with his translator...