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.

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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 In fact, it remained unpublished not only at the time of Pessoa’s death in 1935, but for 47 years beyond it.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