cover image The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet

Fernando Pessoa. Pantheon Books, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-40234-3

Pessoa (1888-1935), identified by Barnard professor MacAdam as Portugal's major 20th-century writer, seems to have interpreted Whitman's statement ``I contain multitudes'' as an imperative; the gifted and perfectionist poet gave voice to a variety of selves, whom he named not with pseudonyms but with what he called heteronyms. The elegant volume here is the ``diary'' of ``Bernardo Soares,'' presented as a bookkeeper, like Pessoa, who is obsessed with the role and aim of literature and tries, therefore, to become ``like a character in a book, a read life.'' No plot orders the entries, nor is there any discernible progression. Instead, Pessoa speculates on the paradoxes of art (``Only when I'm disguised am I really myself''), at times mordantly (``To speak is to have too much consideration for others. Both fish and Oscar Wilde die because they can't keep their mouths shut''), at times quixotically (``Writing is like the drug I despise but take, the vice I loathe but practice''), nearly always aphoristically. Readers with a particular interest in modernism will find this work indispensable. (June)