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Fernando Pessoa: Livro do desassossego (The Book of Disquiet; The Book of Disquietude)

Of course, this book is certainly not a novel. However, like the”novels” of Sebald, Rilke, Calasso and others, it is included here because it is not recognisably classifiable elsewhere, it uses a fictional personality (albeit clearly based on the author), its format – musings, reveries, a view of the world seen through the eyes of a literary man – is clearly at least one way authors are seeking to take the novel form and because it is essential reading. Indeed, in this case, any excuse for including Pessoa is a good excuse. Pessoa wrote this work as fragments which were found, assembled and published long after his death. He used many pseudonyms during his life. He called them heteronyms as they all wrote different types of poetry, enabling him to write classical poetry but also more informal poetry. The”author” of this work is Bernardo Soares who, as the first page tells us, is an assistant bookkeeper, a profession which Pessoa himself had.

Novels usually (though not always) have heroes and the hero of this novel is the city of Lisbon, as other cities are in other novels. As in some of these other novels, Pessoa’s portrait of his city lets us see the city in a way that we would never see it, even if we had visited it many times. From the almost photo-like descriptions of the river Tagus to the portraits of neighborhoods, with their sharp distinctions between the well-to-do and poorer ones, reading this work will give you a picture of Lisbon you will not find elsewhere. But, as a good writer, he makes himself the hero of his book as well. His view of himself is of a lonely, unimportant man, struggling with his life, but one who believes that his thinking and how he sees the world is far more important than the daily business of living. He is, above all, a poet and he sees everything with a poet’s eyes, whether it is the local café or his own changing moods or even his mundane job and office. If he has friends, we see them only remotely. We do meet his boss and colleague and he is generally sympathetic towards them but they clearly are just there and have little importance in his life, particularly his inner life. This is a book not to be read at once but to be read in parts, in the same way you would read Valéry’s Cahiers or, indeed, any book of poetry. You will find it most rewarding.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Atica, Lisbon
First English translation 1991 by Quartet
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa