The Book of Disquiet, a Thousand Times

I’ve never been able to lose myself in a book…. After a few minutes it’s I who am writing….
–Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, Richard Zenith ed. Penguin paperback

There are a thousand ways to read The Book of Disquiet. Sometimes I start at the back and leaf through to the front, focusing on my own marks but stopping at any word that catches my eye. Most often I open the book at random, reading anywhere, and, considering that method, one would have to say there is an unlimited number of ways to read it.

For it is not really a book, not a book like other books. It moves like lava, changing even as one “holds” it in one’s hands. Consider how it was written–on random scraps of paper over the course of Pessoa’s life. Consider the peculiar character of the author (regardless of his name), who perceived himself as many selves, who believed that what he thought and wrote on one day would be completely different or entirely forgotten the next, who believed perfection was impossible, dreams were preferable to reality, and such a thing as a “book” itself was a chimera.

Now that I am reading the beautiful New Directions edition I find that I want to keep going back to Richard Zenith’s edition, since that is how I first read it, to see how Mr. Zenith arranged things. The New Directions version is the best way to approach The Book of Disquiet since the texts are arranged–as best the editors could determine–chronologically. Chronology, in the case of The Book of Disquiet, is perhaps as random as the alphabetic or any other method of arrangement, but it happens to be the order that nature herself imposed upon Pessoa, and so it retains a certain poetic justification. Since it is the pattern that nature and time imposed upon an author who could not commit to his own pattern, it allows the reader the creative freedom to read it as he or she wants.

There are a thousand ways, unlimited ways. Unlimited ways for even one reader. Richard Zenith was one reader. A great reader (yes, I believe it is possible to be a great reader). The order that he imposed on the fragments is indeed beautiful. But I would point out to anyone approaching The Book of Disquiet for the first time that if you pick up Zenith’s version, please know that, as a book, this is Zenith’s creation, not Pessoa’s. One would do well to read Zenith’s introduction. And it is interesting to note that Zenith is quite explicit in stating that The Book of Disquiet is not, nor could ever be, a “book”:

What we have here isn’t a book but its subversion and negation: the ingredients for a book whose recipe is to keep sifting, the mutant germ of a book and its weirdly lush ramifications, the rooms and windows to build a book but no floor plan and no floor, a compendium of many potential books and many others already in ruins.
–p ix

How curious then that Zenith worked so hard to arrange the pieces–if not into a book, then what? And so sure in his belief that Bernardo Soares came to “absorb” Vicente Guedes that Zenith tries to rub out the traces of Guedes, to make The Book of Disquiet a single work by Soares, as if to complete what Pessoa could never do. He removes the reference to Guedes in the Preface and places it in the back as an appendix, thus encouraging the reader to see the figure in the preface as Soares. The two great collections of fragments attributed by Pessoa to two authors are then shuffled into Zenith’s own arrangement and attributed by him solely to the one author, Soares. Zenith makes a compelling argument for his artistic reading of the fragments, even claiming that to argue that the early fragments “retain Guedes’ style…. is to take the game even further than Pessoa did.” [p xx]

Now, this begs the question: what exactly is the “game” to which he refers? It would seem to be Pessoa’s unique way of creating heteronyms–imaginary persons with singular writing styles. Zenith’s argument would seem to be, in sum: since Pessoa struggled with the vision of The Book of Disquiet and abandoned Guedes only to come back to the project later with the more satisfying voice of Soares, why not arrange the fragments with that ostensibly more mature view in mind?

Is he justified? Or is this a little bit like Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson cleaning up the punctuation weirdness and em-dash madness of Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Her versions are clear, just as the themes of The Book of Disquiet clearly make a polished book impossible. Todd and Higginson’s modifications are beautiful, as is Zenith’s creative arrangement, but in the first case the poet should remain her wild self and in the second, why not let the reader decide how to arrange, if at all, the material? This is what the New Directions edition does, by presenting the texts chronologically with an introduction that describes exactly what they are, as they were found.

Pessoa could not “finish” the book, not only because he could not believe in perfection but also because he was not the same Pessoa from one day to the next. Now, if one were to argue that these views were conceits of the fiction, views of the heteronym, then it is not “taking the game further than Pessoa did” to preserve the fact that Pessoa had envisioned a game that could not be polished nor could conclude. The best way, the most disquieting way, to see it is with its flaws glaringly intact.

Undoubtedly Zenith is engaged in another kind of game, a game that Pessoa himself could not avoid playing, nor can anyone else with an open mind: the creative act of reading. I have gotten to the point where I can no longer read The Book of Disquiet for any length of time without picking up my pen. And so I admire Zenith’s work, even as I disapprove of it.

This has been one of the ways in which I can no longer read The Book of Disquiet without writing. I have also written poems inspired by it. I imagine poems as well. Some of the fragments read like prose poems and who is to say that I would not be as justified as Zenith in producing a version of the book in the form of prose poems? I wouldn’t do that, of course. Besides, more interesting to me are the dream poems I get glimpses of as I’m reading. There are a couple of ways this happens. Individual words and phrases stick in my mind as I leaf through the book, like musical figures that linger, fade and reappear. And sometimes I’ll focus on a passage, like this section of number 69 of the New Directions edition:

Was I once so accustomed to stately processions that a kind of weariness with certain mysterious lost splendors now cradles any yearnings I may have for the past?

And what canopies? What sequences of stars? What lilies? What pennants? What stained-glass windows? 

I imagine I will want to write a poem some day that will somehow be married to these questions or questions like them. If it is a good poem, no one will ever suspect the names Vicente Guedes, Bernardo Soares, nor even the greatest of them all, Fernando Pessoa.


This entry was posted in Mondays with Pessoa and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Book of Disquiet, a Thousand Times

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    I hope you will write a poem connected to the questions you quote. I look forward to that possibility.

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