Pessoa in 1914
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The hunt for a “complete edition” of Fernando Pessoa’s fragmentary masterpiece

Anyone who knows the history of The Book of Disquiet will know what a bold claim completeness is.

In a 1932 letter to João Gaspar Simões, Fernando Pessoa wrote that The Book of Disquiet, a project he had been working on fitfully since 1913, needed “much balancing and revision”. He couldn’t guarantee that it would be ready for publication within the year. In fact, it remained unpublished not only at the time of Pessoa’s death in 1935, but for 47 years beyond it. Since its publication in 1982, it has become considered one of the great modernist texts: an extraordinary mapping of consciousness, or, in its author’s words (via Margaret Jull Costa’s translation), “a single state of soul, analysed from every angle, traversed in every possible direction”.

But whose consciousness was this? Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888 and moved with his family to Durban in the British colony of Natal, where he was educated at an English school. He returned to Lisbon in 1905 and never left again. Pessoa  worked as a writer, composing and translating letters in English and French for various companies. He also founded several literary journals and contributed to many others. He published only one book during his lifetime, the poetry collection Mensagem (1934), but left trunks containing a vast amount of disorganised writings that have kept scholars busy for decades.

It wasn’t Pessoa who wrote the Book of Disquiet, however, but an assistant bookkeeper called Bernardo Soares. Pessoa is famous for his heteronyms, alter egos with their own biographies and bodies of work. There are nearly a hundred of them, from friars and futurists to Scottish engineers, astrologers, consumptive hunchbacks and suicidal noblemen. The three major ones were the poets Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, each of whom produced highly respected bodies of work. They commented on each other’s poetry and even their creator’s life, Campos once expressing jealousy of Pessoa’s girlfriend. The relationship ended.

Soares was a little different, though, by Pessoa’s admission far closer to a conventional pseudonym than a heteronym. For that reason I will refer to Pessoa as the author of The Book of Disquiet, in a way I wouldn’t if I were discussing, for example, Alberto Caeiro’s poetry. The Book of Disquiet was written in two phases. It comprises hundreds of sections, most less than a page long. They read like diary entries, short essays, epigrams, visions, stray thoughts and prose poems. The book offers a reading experience unlike any other. It is thrilling, confusing, upsetting, joyous, tedious and profound. You will never forget it, or stop wanting to return to it.

The first phase, written between 1913 and 1920, is almost Gothic. The landscapes are geographically unmoored, the atmosphere symbolist. We feel we are wandering through psychic space, not a physical one. The second phase, written between 1929 and 1934, is set in Lisbon, and this anchoring works somehow to make the psychological destabilisation more forceful than what came before: the lows become more crushing, the highs even more ecstatic. Unexpectedly, it is the cobbled streets of Lisbon that turn out to provide the most penetrating route into Pessoa’s psyche.

There are many versions of The Book of Disquiet. The various English-language editions published since 1991 comprise anywhere between 259 and 523 fragments. This edition includes expanded passages that are elsewhere much shorter and combines sections that were previously separate. Anyone who knows the history of the book will understand what a bold subtitle “The Complete Edition” is, given that Pessoa could never decide how to organise his text. In a note to his Penguin Classics edition, Richard Zenith recommends that “readers invent their own order or, better yet, read the work’s many parts in absolutely random order”.

The chronological approach that this new edition adopts is not one Pessoa entertained, but that doesn’t invalidate it: if a question has no right answer, no answer can be wrong. It would be good to understand more about the editorial decision-making, but details can only be found in a Portuguese edition of 2010, and I cannot read Portuguese. For that reason, too, I can’t tell which of the three English-language editions of The Book of Disquiet I’ve read – two, including this one, by Margaret Jull Costa, and one by Zenith – most accurately conveys the style and spirit of Pessoa, but judging the English alone, Zenith’s translation is most compelling.

For example, on Christmas Day 1929, Pessoa wrote, “I’d got up early and lingered over my preparations for existence” (Costa); or, “I’d woken up early, and I took a long time to get ready to exist” (Zenith). Elsewhere he complains, “My head and the whole universe ache” (Costa); or, “I’m suffering from a headache and the universe” (Zenith). Was Pessoa’s humour this sharp? Was his language this sleek? I like to think so.

A more significant divergence comes in the beautiful passage in which Pessoa, reflecting on his inability to finish anything, describes how he often resorts to scenic description to escape the fact that he isn’t saying what he wants to say. He then slyly deploys this tactic, describing the setting sun hitting the buildings crowding the Lisbon hillsides.

Zenith’s version describes “the steep houses that overlap like posters, with windows for letters, and the dying sun gilding their moist glue”; while Costa gives us “the posters pasted one on top of the other on the walls of the steep houses with windows for words, where the dead sun turns the still wet glue golden”. Which is it? If Pessoa is only (prosaically) describing posters on the houses’ walls, rather than the jumbled houses resembling posters, why are the windows words? And is a “dead sun” more likely to turn wet glue golden than a “dying sun”? (And is that glue the sun-struck glass of the windows, as in Zenith’s version, or merely glue, as in Costa’s?) Here the variance in translation is more than one of style: these are two very different orders of noticing. I want Pessoa to be as great as the version Zenith presents.

There is an ironic fittingness to Pessoa, that host of authors, splitting off in translation into yet more variants. There is room enough for both Costa’s Pessoa and Zenith’s to coexist, and if a case can be made for owning multiple editions of any book, it should be The Book of Disquiet, a literary vortex that, even in completeness, remains incomplete. 

The Book of Disquiet: The Complete Edition
Fernando Pessoa; translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Serpent’s Tail, 432pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”