Thomas Cousineau

Thomas Cousineau, Professor of English (Emeritus) at Washington College in Maryland, was a Fulbright Scholar in American Studies at the University of Bucharest during the Fall 2014 term. His books include After the Final No: Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, Waiting for Godot: Form in Movement, Ritual Unbound: Reading Sacrifice in Modernist Fiction, Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard, and An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. The website for his current project, The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing, is at

How to Read The Book of Disquiet

Bernardo Soares, the putative author/narrator of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet describes himself as “the character of an unwritten novel, wafting in the air, dispersed without ever having been, among the dreams of someone else who didn’t know how to complete me.” This self-description applies as well to the “factless autobiography” that Soares wrote, which was discovered only many years after Pessoa’s death at age forty-seven in a sea trunk, into which he had consigned thousands of scattered scraps of writing. Not only was The Book an unpublished novel at the moment of Pessoa’s untimely death, but is to this day – and will always be – an unwritten novel in the sense that Pessoa himself never actually wrote it as a completed work. How to “complete” The Book has subsequently been the highly speculative task facing the various editors who have worked on its published editions. Not only must they decide what texts among the many thousands to include but also in what order to arrange them. Ideally, it should be made available as a boxed set of unbound pages through which readers could sift and sort at will.

Rather than waiting for the unlikely arrival of such an edition, readers of Pessoa’s unwritten novel may “disassemble” the book that they have at hand – whether it be Livro do Desassossego, or The Book of Disquiet, or, in Dinu Flămând’s fine translation, Cartea Neliniștirii – by reading haphazardly rather than sequentially from beginning to end a work that has been so aptly described as “all middle”. Readers who become in this way The Book’s “unreaders” will discover that its incompleteness – its tenuous existence as a “building in ruins that was never anything more than ruins”, to recall another of the narrator’s self-portrayals that points to the work itself – goes hand in hand with uncanny intimations of “greater completeness”, an experience of which he speaks when wondering “if we weren’t in fact other beings, whose greater completeness we can sense today, incompletely, forming at best a sketchy notion of their lost solidity in the two dimensions of our present lives, mere shadows of what they were” (172).

The “lost solidity” of which the narrator speaks here – the experience of having once lived in a different and immeasurably better world – echoes throughout a work whose dominant mode is that feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia that the Portuguese call “saudade”. Soares’s nostalgia is not for anything in particular: “I don’t mourn the loss of my childhood; I mourn because everything is lost” (232). So acute is this sense of loss that it can be aroused even by losses that he did not sustain – “I feel sad because of whom I never was, and I don’t know with what kind of nostalgia I miss him” (171). What we should especially notice as we read The Book is that Soares compensates for the loss of “a prior state, blissful because it was so good or because it was so different” (174), not by attempting to retrieve its perfection but by creating a work that takes his passively endured losses and actively uses them as the material from which he fashions – not a monument that restores lost grandeur – but a “building in ruins”, made from what he calls in Text 155 “Lost and idle words, random metaphors, chained to shadows by a vague anxiety… Remnants of better times, spent on I don’t know what garden paths… Extinguished lamp, whose gold gleams in the dark, in memory of the dead light… Words tossed not to the wind but to the ground, dropped from limp fingers, like dried leaves that had fallen on them from an invisibly infinite tree… Nostalgia for the pools of unknown farms… Heartfelt affection for what never happened…” (139).

As we read such passages as this one – a fragment whose phrases are joined together by gaps rather than by conventional syntax – we realize that they are oddly closer to “greater completion” than ordinary completion would have been. For this reason, they deserve the tribute that Samuel Beckett paid to the work of his friend Emil Cioran: “In your ruins, I find shelter”.

Continuing to read The Book haphazardly, we come upon countless examples of such “sheltering ruins”, in which Soares makes use of ellipses to create the equivocal effect of both incompleteness and greater completeness:

ï “Needlework of things… Intervals… Nothing…” (21)

ï “Nothing happened, except in what I felt. Outwardly speaking, legions of men have suffered the same inner torments. But…” (142)

ï “…in the sad disarray of my confused emotions . . .” (47)

ï “All of a sudden, live steel…” (73)

ï “…and a deep and weary disdain for all those who work for mankind, for all those who fight for their country and give their lives so that civilization may continue…” (37)

ï And then it seemed…” (52)

ï “Two or three days like the beginning of love…” (105)

Completing these fragments by supplying their ostensibly missing parts, in order to satisfy the requirements of conventional syntax, would clearly deprive them of their capacity to transform the originary experience of loss into those “sheltering ruins” of which loss itself has become, paradoxically, the cornerstone. The constructive use of missing parts such as we find in these ellipses appears throughout The Book itself in the form of the blank spaces between the disparate fragments that have gone into the making of a work that – like Nature itself according to Pessoa – is “parts without a whole”. This contribution of missing parts to the making of a greater completeness that is not to be confused with wholeness applies as well to Soares himself, whom Pessoa described as his “mutilated” self and who is handicapped in three principal ways: first, he’s shy about speaking with others; second, he can’t write poetry; and, third, he’s allergic to action.

With respect to speaking, experience has taught Soares that “The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding” (277); he feels “physically nauseated by the voice and gestures of my so-called fellow man” (264); he worries about how his voice will sound to others (283) and hesitates to ask the price of bananas because the vendor “might find my voice strange” (152). His inability to write poetry – which clearly designates him as a mutilated Fernando Pessoa – comes to the fore at the beginning of Text 227, in which he tells us “I prefer prose to poetry as an art form for two reasons, the first of which is purely personal: I have no choice, because I’m incapable of writing in verse” (197). Soares’s allergy to action — memorably expressed by the boast that “I cultivate hatred of action like a greenhouse flower” (99) — is echoed by his likening humanitarian action to “rubbish dumped out of a window right on top of me” (143) and by his dismissive allusion to men of action as “involuntary slaves” (145). His belief that “to act with others is a metaphysically morbid impulse” (184) underlies his own pursuit of what he describes as “venturing without acting” (179).

We notice, however, that Soares’s reluctance to speak (which may otherwise seem to be merely a loss) allows him to express himself through what he calls “the written voice”: “To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image. This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined love and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming – like worms when a rock is lifted – under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky” (108). This voice allows him to write according to his own freely chosen rules, which include the right “to express what one feels exactly as it is felt – clearly, if it is clear; obscurely, if obscure; confusedly, if confused” and “to understand that grammar is an instrument and not a law” (81). He pays tribute to the greater completeness of writing over speaking when he affirms that “The only tolerable form of communication is the written word, since it isn’t a stone in a bridge between souls but a ray of light between stars” (185).

So also, Soares’s inability to write poetry frees him from obedience to the constraints of poetic conventions, which are, in their own way, merely “a stone in a bridge between two souls.” The earliest of the writings that were intended for The Book were in the form of a conventional prose poem entitled “In the Forest of Estrangement”. Skipping to the latter part (pp. 417-423) of Richard Zenith’s edition, where he has placed this early text in an addendum titled A Disquiet Anthology will help readers of The Book to appreciate the quantum leap towards greater completeness that Pessoa was able to achieve once he had confided its writing to his “mutilated” self.

Soares himself explains the rationale behind this shift when he tells us that the second reason for his turning away from poetry in favor of prose is that prose is not merely a “shadow or disguised form” of poetry. On the contrary, prose possesses, as it were, a greater completeness than poetry because “In prose we speak freely. We can incorporate musical rhythms, and still think. We can incorporate poetic rhythms, and yet remain outside them” (197). This leads him to conclude that “prose encompasses all art”, that “in a perfect, civilized world there would be no other art but prose”, and that prose embodies “gestural subtleties carried out by a great actor, the Word, which rhythmically transforms into its bodily substance the impalpable mystery of the universe” (198).

In its turn, Soares’s third handicap — his allergy to action — frees him to pursue greater completeness in a work that he describes as “a show without a plot” – a literary genre which Pessoa himself named “static theater”, of which he says “I call it static theater when action does not constitute the dramatic plot… It will be said that this is not theater. But I think it is, for it is my belief that the theater has a tendency toward being simply lyric theater in which plot derives neither from action nor the movements and consequences of action… It is possible to reveal souls without action. It is possible to create situations of inertia, moments of soul without doors or windows to reality”. Pessoa wrote many plays in which inertia replaces action, but he was not to achieve the supreme fulfillment of this goal until he shifted his efforts from the theatrical stage to the scattered pages that were posthumously collected and published by his editors as The Book of Disquiet.

In the “static theater” that is The Book, what Soares calls “the great actor, the Word” – leaping over the obstacles erected by conversation, poetry, and action – beckons us towards a “prior state” presided over by what Soares called “unconscious forms of intelligence – flashes of wit, waves of understanding, mysteries and philosophies – that are like bodily reflexes, that operate as automatically as the liver or kidneys handle their secretions” (68).

Among the countless “flashes of wit” that give us glimpses of what Soares calls elsewhere his “winged moments”, we find:

ï I’m sleeping while awake, standing by the window, leaning against it as against everything”. (42)

ï “I strolled down the avenue of my small room…” (31)

ï “Behind me, on the other side of where I’m lying down, the silence of the house touches infinity”. (34)

ï “I throw an empty matchbox towards the abyss that’s the street […] not another sound can be heard, except the sound of the whole city” (98)

ï “At the end of the street – a placid abyss where the naked cobblestones are unevenly rounded” (136)

ï “In the vast whirlwind where the whole world turns like so many dry leaves, kingdoms count no more than the dresses of seamstresses, and the pigtails of blond girls go round in the same mortal whirl as the scepters that stood for empires.” (178)

ï “… things that shatter into fragments, shards, and debris, hauled away in a bin on somebody’s shoulders to the eternal rubbish cart of every City Council” (347)

ï “Like flashes from a distant lighthouse, I see all the solutions offered by the imagination’s female side: flight, suicide, renunciation, grandiose acts of our aristocratic self-awareness, the swashbuckling novel of existence without balconies.” (38)

I’ll conclude this listing – which could otherwise continue endlessly as well as haphazardly – with a particular favorite in which the gaps that are used so pervasively in The Book not only as ellipses but, as it were, in the disguised form of commas that induce us to read the sequence of individual elements, as though it were continuous, although it is, in fact, composed of abrupt discontinuities:

To cease, to sleep, to replace this intermittent consciousness with better, melancholy things, whispered in secret to someone who doesn’t know me!… To cease, to end at last, but surviving as something else: the page of a book, a tuft of disheveled hair, the quiver of the creeping plant next to a half-open window, the irrelevant footsteps in the gravel of the bend, the last smoke to rise from the village going to sleep, the wagoner’s whip left on the early morning roadside… Absurdity, confusion, oblivion – everything that isn’t life. (33-4)

Soares’s freedom from the constraints of speech, poetry, and action – and the “greater completion” that he achieves by accepting their loss and replacing them with writing, prose, and stasis – may remind us of the fragment that serves as his motto: “Not pleasure, not glory, not power… Freedom, only freedom” (36). Soares’s single-minded pursuit of this goal encourages us to see in him a direct, albeit “mutilated,” descendant of Walt Whitman, whom Pessoa himself regarded as among the greatest poets and who advised readers of Leaves of Grass (within whose very title we sense intimations of “greater completeness”) to “Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” The fulfillment of this ambition in the form of a building in ruins constructed of missing parts may likewise remind us of the French literary critic Marthe Robert’s vision of the modernist novel as a genre that “is free to be a sequence of sentences without history or story, free to express nothing but the narcissistic giddiness of its own writing, and even free to claim that this is the only respectable aspect of its vocation.”

Note: All page references are to Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated and edited by Richard Zenith. New York and London: Penguin Books, 2003.