In this series, writers present the books they’re finally making time for.
Maybe it is true that books find you when you need them: The Book of Disquiet sat on my shelf for at least a year before I took it down, sometime in February. The hardcover is fat and dense, and the text is, like a drug, rather mood-altering, so I was still working my way through it as things began to change, and am still working through it now, in a world that has come to feel entirely different.
The Book of Disquiet, by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, is properly speaking perhaps not a book at all, and I imagine Pessoa would not necessarily be pleased to have his name so prominently affixed to it. Under the orthonym “Fernando Pessoa” he did write an introduction, but he credited the texts themselves to two different authors, his semi-heteronyms “Vicente Guedes” (who “endured his empty life with masterly indifference”) and “Bernardo Soares,” an assistant bookkeeper. The book is made up of fragments of varying length, something like disconnected diary entries. They have been ordered in different ways since they were first collected in 1982, nearly fifty years after Pessoa’s death; in 2017, the Half-Pint Press in London did an edition “typeset by hand and printed by hand on a selection of various ephemera, and housed unbound in a hand-printed box.”
Maybe Pessoa had a plan in mind for his fragments, maybe there was a structure that we just can’t divine—the version I have, Margaret Jull Costa’s 2017 translation of Jerónimo Pizarro’s 2013 edition, is, I think, the first in English to present them as close to chronologically as scholars can figure out—but if any hypothetical order exists I’d rather not know: these are scattered times. Things one didn’t even know one held to or depended on are gone. Rhythm, habit, the rituals that mark and shape the day, something as mindless as the commute that shifts you from one gear to another, none of that registers anymore. There is a frozen-in-place quality to things, an eternal present-ness.
Which is a way of saying that it’s been hard these days for me to find meaning; we are storytelling creatures, but I seem to have lost the plot. I can’t register a story, keep up with a narrative, make sense of any frame. In The Book of Disquiet, though, there seems thus far to be no plot to lose. There are characters and events, but I can find no thread to follow, no causes and effects. Every fragment feels self-contained, its connections to those on either side tenuous at best. As far as I can tell, there is really nothing to be gained from reading the book front to back: you could approach this as bibliomancy, opening at random to find something that speaks to you (no. 27: “To organize our life so that it is a mystery to others, so that those who know us best only unknow us from closer to”). Jull Costa notes that its “incompleteness is enticing, encouraging the reader to make his or her own book out of these fragments.” For me it has been less a building and more a ritual: prayer beads, mantras, a worry stone.