This kind of solipsism was a great temptation for Pessoa, as “The Book of Disquiet” reveals. The material that he marked for inclusion in the book was written in two phases, each with its own heteronym, separate from the four characters who dominate his poetry. During the first phase, from 1913 to 1920, he attributed the work to Vicente Guedes, whom he describes in an introductory vignette as “a man in his thirties, thin, fairly tall, very hunched when sitting though less so when standing, and dressed with a not entirely unself-conscious negligence.” The passage goes on to describe Guedes’s austerity, melancholy, intelligence, and seeming insignificance—all qualities that he shared, of course, with his creator. Thus, when Pessoa describes “The Book of Disquiet” as “the autobiography of someone who never existed,” he is simultaneously telling a factual truth (there was no such person as Guedes) and making a poetic confession: he himself never lived what the world considers a full life.
During the nineteen-twenties, Pessoa set the book aside, turning his attention to poetry and indulging a lifelong fascination with occultism and astrology. When he returned to it, in 1929, he had reimagined its author. Now it was to be the work of Bernardo Soares, an assistant bookkeeper in a Lisbon fabric company. Soares, too, is spiritually akin to Pessoa: indeed, Pessoa wrote that he was only a “semi-heteronym,” because “his personality, though not my own, doesn’t differ from my own but is a mere mutilation of it.” Soares is a more fully imagined character than his predecessor, Guedes. He makes observations about his neighborhood of Baixa, his workplace in the Rua dos Douradores, and his boss, Vasques, in a way that gives the second phase of the book a more novelistic feeling. Indeed, the Penguin Classics edition of “The Book of Disquiet,” edited by Richard Zenith, places a number of these passages near the beginning, smoothing the reader’s entry with a kind of miniature narrative.
The chronological method of the new edition precludes any kind of thematic organization, and the result is a book that is less approachable than its predecessor. This is partly because it opens with the weakest material, which dates from when Pessoa was a twenty-five-year-old heavily under the influence of French Symbolism and the Decadent Movement, of the eighteen-nineties. (Portugal seems to have been about a generation behind the literary mean time of Paris and London.) “My soul is a hidden orchestra,” the first entry reads. “I do not know what instruments, what violins and harps, drums and tambours sound and clash inside me. I know myself only as a symphony.”
This passage sets the tone for the florid prose poetry that dominates the first part of the work. Some entries have ponderous titles, such as “Litany of Despair” or “An Aesthetics of Abdication.” Others consist of impressionistic sketches of skies and landscapes, as in “Rainy Day”: “The air is a concealed yellow, like a pale yellow seen through a grubby white.” There are perverse reveries about nameless women who are half Virgin Mary, half Belle Dame Sans Merci: “You are the only form that does not radiate tedium, because you change with our feelings, because, in kissing our joy, you cradle our grief and tedium, you are the opium that comforts and the sleep that brings rest, and the death that gently folds our hands on our breast.”
If this were all that “The Book of Disquiet” contained, it would not be a modern masterpiece but a time capsule. Still, it was from the late-nineteenth-century cult of decadence that the first seeds of modernism germinated; and in Pessoa the transition from the nineteenth century to the twentieth is fascinatingly visible. Decadence was founded on an impertinent reversal of the values of the time: in place of hard work and moral earnestness, writers like Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans elevated imaginative indolence and provocative paradox. For the young Pessoa, this message resonated, since it turned his own tendency toward hesitation and withdrawal into an artistic virtue. “I never try too hard,” he writes in a 1915 entry. “Fortune, if it so wishes, may come and find me. I know all too well that my greatest efforts will never meet with the success that others enjoy.”
As he grew older, however, and particularly once he returned to “The Book of Disquiet” in his forties, Pessoa fashioned this literary pose into something more serious and sharp-edged. It became a kind of metaphysical nihilism, in which the great truth the artist had to communicate was that nothing matters. Crucial to this shift was the decision to drop Guedes, with his rhetorical grandeur, and speak through Soares, who lacks glamour of any kind. Indeed, with his shabby rented room and his boring, repetitive job, Soares is as ordinary as can be—the kind of person an aesthete would recoil from, or simply not notice. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot saw crowds of people like Soares flowing over London Bridge and considered them as already dead: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”