The Book of Disquiet

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by Fernando Pessoa

“My boss Vasques, Moreira the book-keeper, Borges the cashier, all the lads, the cheery boy who takes the letters to the post office, the errand boy, the friendly cat – they have all become part of my life.  … Moreover, if I left them all tomorrow and discarded this Rua dos Douradores suit of clothes I wear, what else would I do? Because I would have to do something. And what suit would I wear? Because I would have to wear another suit.”

The above is our introduction to the complex and neurotic disquieting thoughts of Senhor Soares, for whom Pessoa is the vehicle.

Fernando Pessoa was a fascinating man and writer. Ironically his surname in his native tongue, Portuguese means “person”.

He was born in Lisbon in 1888, the same year as T S Eliot, and at nine years old his family moved to Durban in South Africa for almost a decade. There he learned English to a high degree of proficiency, and later translated a number of English literary writings into Portuguese. He was well read in both English and French.

He wrote a lot of poetry, but much of it remained unpublished at his death. He worked as a translator of correspondence for various firms, and was virtually unknown when he died, having avoided not only literary circles, but society in general. His quiet demeanour in life, belied the incredible inner workings of his mind. He died in 1935, at the age of 47, leaving behind in a wooden trunk thousands of pages that still have not been fully edited.

Part of this cache was The Book of Disquiet, but to call it a book is a little misleading. Who knows how Pessoa would have wanted to present it? It consists of diary entries, some fragmentary, written across decades of his life. These have been edited into this book. I think it is true to say that there is nothing else out there like it.

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”

Philip Pullman wrote “This is the very book to read when you wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep – mysteries, misgivings, fears and wonderment. Like nothing else.”  I would have to agree.

Within Pessoa, there were a multitude of ideas, characters and styles of writing. So he took this to an unprecedented conclusion and wrote under a number of ‘heteronyms’. This concept differs from a pseudonym (Greek for “false name”). Instead heteronyms have their own style and biography as though they actually existed. Pessoa went so far as to create astrological charts for them.

“If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. what I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant.”

“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”

In The Book of Disquiet, the heteronym is Bernardo Soares, a clerk who works in the Lisbon business district, and in diary fragments relates his thoughts on life, death, the universe and everything. It is tempting to think that Soares is Pessoa, although he might deny it.

“Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.”

Was Pessoa genius or neurotic borderline madman? It’s a fine line, depending on your point of view.

This is a fascinating book, an insight into a singular mind, but not recommended if you’re feeling depressed or melancholy, as it will certainly accentuate those emotions.

“We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.”

Pessoa was intriguing to the end. On 29 November 1935, he wrote his last lines in his diary in English: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. He died the next day.

Note: All quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from the Serpent’s Tail edition, published in 2010, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Photo of Pessoa: copyright Getty Images

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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By Susan Cain

“Our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race. And the single most important aspect of personality – ‘the north and south of temperament’,  as one scientist puts it -is where we fall on the introvert/extrovert spectrum.”

This is the book that started a Quiet Revolution. And it was a revolution that needed to happen.

Susan Cain is a passionate and persuasive writer, and her case for the power of introverts is skilfully made with many real life stories. Without introverts we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, Van Gogh’s sunflowers or the theory of relativity.

As an introvert myself, with an introvert daughter, I found this book to be informative and empowering. Extroverts take up an inordinate amount of speaking space in employment, schools and in social life. Introverts have as much to offer, but being quieter it is not always noticed, or they themselves do not promote it.

Introverts often think deeply, but have trouble putting their thoughts into words fluidly and confidently. So inevitably, extroverts are more likely by their confidence to get more attention. This is specially troubling in schools. Cain presents research showing that for many teachers the “ideal student” is an extrovert. This is extraordinary when you think of classic introverts like Einstein, Steve Jobs and George Orwell who ironically enough did not do well at school.

There are many chapters on this and other research that has been done on introversion, and on the excessive rise of the extrovert ideal in modern society.

This book is a must read for introverts and extroverts alike. 5 ⭐️

If interested in this topic, I highly recommend the website: quietrev.com founded by Cain to address issues that prevent introverts from achieving their best both in work and in life. As Cain so poignantly puts it:

“If I had one wish, it would be to reverse the stigma against introversion for children so that the next generation doesn’t grow up with the secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted grown-ups today. “

If you have read this book, I would love to read your thoughts on it.

STANDING FEMALE NUDE

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By Carol Ann Duffy

Fifteen years minimum, banged up inside

for what took thirty seconds to complete.

She turned away. I stabbed. I felt this heat

burn through my skull until reason died.

~

I’d slogged my guts out for her, but she lied

when I knew different. She used to meet

some prick after work. She stank of deceit.

~

I loved her. When I accused her, she cried

and denied it. Straight up, she tore me apart.

On the Monday, I found the other bloke

had bought her a chain with a silver heart.

~

When I think about her now, I near choke

with grief. My baby. She wasn’t a tart

or nothing. I wouldn’t harm a fly, no joke.

cad-1

Duffy is a Scottish poet, born in 1955. She is the first woman, first Scot and first openly LGBT person to become Poet Laureate in the United Kingdom.

She is very popular and her poetry is widely used in high school and university courses in the UK.

“ Standing Female Nude “ is her first poetry collection, published in 1985.

She writes in many voices, as a war photographer:

“In his darkroom he is finally alone

with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.

The only light is red and softly glows,

as though this were a church and he

a priest preparing to intone a Mass.

Belfast. Beirut, Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass”

from ‘War Photographer’

as a nude model:

“Six hours like this for a few francs.

Belly nipple arse in the window light,

he drains the colour from me. Further to the right,

Madame. And do try to be still.

…The bourgeoisie will coo

at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art.

~

Maybe. He is concerned with volume, space.

I with the next meal.”

from ‘Standing Female Nude’

and as in ‘Human Interest’ (above), as a man who sees his woman as a chattel and violence and murder as his entitlement.

Duffy’s work touches on issues of feminism, gender, violence and politics in very contemporary accessible language. Duffy was brought up in a Catholic household, and while no longer religious, she learned from it a sense of the ritual of language. She has said “ Poetry and prayer are very similar. I write a lot of sonnets and I think of them almost as prayers: short and memorable, something you can recite.”

Much of her work has a disturbing edge to it. In another poem “Education for Leisure” she gives voice to an alienated teenager:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God.

She has said that she likes to use “simple words, but in a complicated way”.

I find her poetry very powerful and striking. You can see why it’s used in education syllabuses. I think young people would be attracted by it. I read this collection in March and can definitely recommend it, specially to people that don’t read much poetry.

I love discovering new poets. Let me know in comments who your favourites are.

Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land

by Robert Crawford

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“ Eliot’s life was no neat progress towards literary canonisation, towards a form of sainthood or simply towards a Nobel Prize. It was much rawer than that, more jagged, frayed and damaged.”

This is a marvellous biography of Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all time favourite poets.

Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis, Missouri into a loving and privileged family. Although affectionate, his parents were very morally strict and religious. This atmosphere, as well as his own reserved, shy manner and precocious intellect, served to isolate young Tom from his peers and from life really.

Born with a congenital hernia, Eliot wore a truss for many years well into his teens.  Sexually, he was totally inexperienced and even repelled by the idea of sex. His strait-laced upbringing didn’t help. Eliot’s father described syphilis as “God’s punishment for nastiness” and hoped a cure wouldn’t be found or “it will be necessary to emasculate our children to keep them clean”. Ouch!

Eliot discovered Paris and French Symbolist poetry, specially that of Jules Laforgue at the age of 19, and this passion unleashed in him a new way of writing poetry and a way to express his torments, if not to surmount them. It also helped to find a way of thinking and feeling aeons away from his parents’ straitened lives.  Eliot might have been timid in life, but not in his writing where everything was on the table.

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

opening lines to “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

For anyone not familiar with Eliot’s poetry I would recommend reading the Prufrock poem which can be googled. Written in 1910 when Eliot was only 22, it still astonishes in its use of language and its powerful imagery.

Eliot married at 28 and was still a virgin at his wedding. Both he and his wife Vivian were totally unsuited to each other and made each other’s life a misery. It was from the disaster of this marriage, which led to Eliot having a nervous breakdown, and his wife to descend into mental illness, that “The Waste Land” was born, one of the most powerful poems of the twentieth century. The last and perhaps most powerful section of the poem “What the Thunder Said” was written in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Eliot had gone to recuperate.

It really is amazing that someone so emotionally awkward and sheltered from the many realities of life, should have produced such a powerful body of poetry. I think that his poetry became a substitute for life. Language and the power of its imagery and assonance, was for Eliot a means of understanding and escaping emotional distress .

This biography was written in 2015 to commemorate 50 years since Eliot’s death and it is the first one allowed to quote extensively from Eliot’s writing and letters, as well as describing various anecdotes from his childhood and youth.

The book has been superbly researched and written by Crawford, who is himself a poet as well as long time student of Eliot’s work, and Professor of Poetry at St Andrews University, Scotland.

I really enjoyed discovering so much new information about Eliot’s early years. It has certainly made me look at Eliot with new eyes, and to see the high price he and his first wife paid for their ill-fated marriage . This volume ends in 1922, when Eliot has just published The Waste Land. The second volume is being worked on currently.

Recommended for Eliot fans.  5 🌟

Gilead

By Marilynne Robinson 

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” You have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.”

“I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three. You were wearing your red shirt and your mother was wearing her blue dress.”

“A little too much anger, too often or at the wrong time, can destroy more than you would ever imagine.”

This novel is beautifully crafted, a meditation on life and death, but more particularly on what constitutes a good life, and how a good man does what he can with what he has on the small canvas of an insignificant Iowa town.

Reverend John Ames is a ‘good’ man, who has led a simple life in a small, obscure town. He comes from a long line of ministers, and he muses on the different theologies and lives of his father and grandfather. The former was a pacifist in World War 1, the latter was a fighter for the abolition of slavery and condoned violence to achieve that end.

In 1956, Ames is terminally ill, and so begins a letter to his young son, who will have few memories of him. Deceptively simple as a device, it allows Robinson to wander through a century of American history, and more particularly different types of Christianity, as well as black and white relations.

At times humorous in a very quiet and subtle way, at others poignant, “Gilead” reads like an elegy to another world.

Recommended. 5 🌟