I'd like the reading of this book to leave you with the impression that you've traversed a sensual nightmare.
One of the great masterpieces of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa's 'The Book of Disquiet' ('Livro do Desassossego') is impossible to read in its entirety. Not because of the book's incomplete state (the manuscript was found posthumously in Pessoa's famous literary trunk, unfinished, on loose leaves stuffed in an envelope), but because its fragmentary and dreamlike nature prevent the reader from ever surveying it as a whole.
This is the kind of reasoning that Pessoa, or rather his heteronym Bernardo Soares, revels in - a labyrinthine introspection reminiscent of Borges, always shifting between metalevels of his argument and delighting in paradoxes, oxymorons and non-sequiturs.
Worked on throughout Pessoa's adult life, the book has no beginning or end, its narrator has no past or future, there is only an eternal mazelike present made of thoughts, scenes, aphorisms, literary theory and metaphysical irony. As in a dream, there is only a very tenuous, haphazard link between one fragment and the next, nor is there any way of turning back - the book is truly nonlinear, almost random, and easy to get lost in.
This is my morality, or metaphysics, or me: passer-by of everything, even of my own soul, I belong to nothing, I desire nothing, I am nothing - just an abstract centre of impersonal sensations, a fallen sentient mirror reflecting the world's diversity. I don't know if I'm happy this way. Nor do I care.
As with most of Pessoa's work, 'The Book of Disquiet' is ostensibly written by a heteronym. In this case Bernardo Soares, assistant bookkeeper in Lisbon, was described by Pessoa as a semi-heteronym, "because his personality, although my own, doesn't differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it". The book contains a preface by Pessoa describing how he met Soares in a Lisbon restaurant and ended up receiving the manuscript from him, subtitled 'A Factless Autobiography'. In reality, the book wasn't published in Portuguese until 1982, and in English in 1991 - over half a century after Pessoa's death. Needless to say there is no such thing as a definitive edition. (The quotes here are from the translation/edition by Richard Zenith.)
In an Observer review, George Steiner also wondered how to characterize this strange and unique book:
What is this Livro do Desassossego? Neither 'commonplace book', nor 'sketchbook', nor 'florilegium' will do. Imagine a fusion of Coleridge's notebooks and marginalia, of Valery's philosophic diary and of Robert Musil's voluminous journal. Yet even such a hybrid does not correspond to the singularity of Pessoa's chronicle.
Without aspirations or illusions, living and working in Lisbon's Rua dos Douradores, Bernardo Soares treats life as "fundamentally a mental state" and prefers to live in his dreams - or rather to "interexist" in that half-conscious state where dreams are real and the world is strange. Thus he escapes from the tedium of existence, formulating a philosophy of inaction and of failure - a theme Samuel Beckett would develop further (though without the possibility of dreaming).
Taking nothing seriously and recognizing our sensations as the only reality we have for certain, we take refuge there, exploring them like large unknown countries. And if we apply ourselves diligently not only to aesthetic contemplation but also to the expression of its methods and results, it's because the poetry or prose we write - devoid of any desire to move anyone's will or to mould anyone's understanding - is merely like when a reader reads out loud to fully objectify the subjective pleasure of reading.
A quintessentially modernist work, 'The Book of Disquiet' is a kind of exploded novel - plotless and fragmentary, and with a narrator who realizes his own incoherence. As such it contains fascinating insights into Pessoa's obsession with his literary personas. (Apart from his most famous ones, Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Ricardo Reis, he reportedly used dozens of other alter egos.) Soares writes:
I've created various personalities within. I constantly create personalities. Each of my dreams, as soon as I start dreaming it, is immediately incarnated in another person, who is then the one dreaming it, and not I.
To create, I've destroyed myself. I've so externalized myself on the inside that I don't exist there except externally. I'm the empty stage where various actors act out various plays.
Here Soares' melancholy escapism threatens to turn into nihilism, the modernist narrator almost disappearing in his various personas. Usually Soares will solve this by just switching to a different dream level, from where he can watch the stage of his own self like a spectator. On another level, by making himself an unflinchingly self-aware literary character, Soares really has found the perfect escape from his tedious life. With Pessoa, fiction became an endlessly layered and kaleidoscopic concept.
To be sure, with its heady style and plotless philosophizing, 'The Book of Disquiet' is best read in moderation. But this doesn't mean it's all literary abstraction. Pessoa has a wry and self-mocking humor, as when he describes the soul as a dark well full of "subjective snot". And once in a while he'll throw in a perfect aphorism:
Reductio ad absurdum is one of my favourite drinks.
Here's one more excerpt from this infinitely quotable book, a short vignette (fragment 101) showing a hint of moody romanticism in Soares. (Or is "we" just him and his various personalities?)
If our life were an eternal standing by the window, if we could remain there forever, like hovering smoke, with the same moment of twilight forever paining the curve of the hills... If we could remain that way for beyond for ever! If at least on this side of the impossible we could thus continue, without committing an action, without our pallid lips sinning another word!
Look how it's getting dark!... The positive quietude of everything fills me with rage, with something that's a bitterness in the air I breathe. My soul aches... A slow wisp of smoke rises and dissipates in the distance... A restless tedium makes me think no more of you...
All so superfluous! We and the world and the mystery of both.
See also the Site of Disquietude, an interesting experiment to turn 'The Book of Disquiet' into a hypertextual, audiovisual experience.