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He wrote a lot of poetry, but much of it remained unpublished at his death.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.

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 🌟

Burial Rites: by Hannah Kent

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” I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold on to what has not yet been stolen from me… They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say ‘Agnes’ …But they will not see me. I will not be there.”
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“The weight of his fingers on mine, like a bird landing on a branch. It was the drop of the match. I did not see that we were surrounded by tinder until I felt it burst into flames.”

Quotations are from “Burial Rites”.
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“Burial Rites” is a fictionalised account of the life and last days of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland for her part in the murder of two men in 1829. The descriptions of a brutal, bleak landscape are breathtaking. You can almost feel the extreme cold, and wonder at the will power of the characters to survive each day in such a harsh world.
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Agnes is portrayed as a complex and haunted character, and as her story unfolds, you begin to gauge the depths of her suffering, and become more amazed at her strength to endure extreme grief and pain.
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Brilliant book, gut wrenching in parts, the debut novel of an Australian woman when only in her twenties, the research undertaken for it is formidable.
Highly recommended. 5 ⭐️
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Fires: by Raymond Carver

I learned some things along the way. One of the things I learned is that I had to bend or else break. And I also learned that it is possible to bend and break at the same time.

Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I’ll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk.

I have a three-by -five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: “… and suddenly everything became clear to him.” I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.
It’s possible… to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things … with immense, even startling power…That’s the kind of writing that interests me.

The above are all quotations from Carver’s essays.
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“Fires” is an interesting collection of work by Raymond Carver, consisting of essays, poems and stories. The essays in particular I found really interesting, and are a fascinating insight into his method of writing, and the influences on his writing. A memoir of his father “My Father’s Life”, is poignant with the regret of things left unsaid. The title essay “Fires” was really meaningful for me, because in it he names his children as the biggest influence on his writing.

His responsibilities as a father were such, and the menial work he was forced to do was so time consuming that it left little time for writing. Writing a novel was an impossible dream, so he decided to specialise in short stories that could be written in one or two nights, and then refined. As Carver states in one essay on the crafting of his stories: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” The rest as they say, is history.

Maybe it’s for Carver aficionados only, but I really enjoyed this book. 4⭐️

This edition published by Vintage in 2009. Original publication 1988.