restricted access An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” by Thomas Cousineau (review)
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An Unwritten Novel: Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet.” Thomas Cousineau. Champaign, London and Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Pp. 200. $35.00 (paper).

In his clearly written, well-documented book, Cousineau analyzes Pessoa’s major prose work—the unfinished, unordered, and “unwritten” Book of Disquiet, attributed to heteronym Bernardo Soares, the self-confessed “character of an unwritten novel.” Picking up on Soares’s wry self-description, Cousineau fills a largely missing dimension in the existing anglophone criticism and commentary on Fernando Pessoa’s famous “Book.” An experienced literary scholar and specialist on Beckett, Cousineau’s approach to The Book is fresh, because he discovered the work several years ago through a review. His is a clear example of the exhilaration resulting from an unexpected discovery, leading to an evaluation of The Book from the comparative perspectives of aesthetics, philosophy, and modernist prose. He joins precise and instructive analysis of Soares’s writing with a discussion of the comparative context of its unusual circumstances and the nature of the literary project, which approach results in a reading essential to anyone interested in the Book of Disquiet.

Fernando Pessoa’s famous “Book of Disquietude” was left unorganized at the time of his death in 1935, and it was filed among the 25,000 sheets of paper deposited in the wooden trunk that was his literary archive, now located at the Biblioteca Nacional in Lisbon and identifiable by the initials “LD,” (“Livro de Desassossego”) scribbled on some texts. The idea of an artist’s notebook, philosopher’s journal, diary, or literary companion dates from 1913, when an early fragment, “In the Forest of Estrangement,” was attributed to a heteronym, Vicente Guedes. Pessoa pondered the potential content and arrangement of The Book in at least five different early sketches, using suggestive, although vague, titles such as “Symphony of a Restless Night” or “Apotheosis of the Absurd.” Pessoa returned to the project intensively from 1928 to 1934, at that time attributing the work to Bernardo Soares, who would be depicted as an assistant bookkeeper in the firm of Vásques & Company on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores in Lisbon and described by the author as a “semi-heteronym”: a close, but not exact, literary equivalent to himself. More than half of The Book was written in this period, and twelve excerpts from it were published: two appeared in the prestigious Coimbra journal Presença, which certainly indicates that Pessoa planned to organize, and eventually publish, the fragments as a book. On his death in 1935, however, The Book became a posthumous project in all its indeterminacy and incompleteness. Although some pages came out in book form in Porto, 1961, only in 1982 did the phantom text appear in Lisbon. It was followed by a cascade of editions and translations over the following two decades, each with different editors, translators and arrangements of the fragmented narrative. Richard Zenith, a scholar, editor, and translator living in Lisbon, produced a prominent Portuguese version and a widely read English translation.

Cousineau’s very title, An Unwritten Novel, speaks for the breadth and novelty of his interpretation. While perhaps not written as a novel, The Book has certainly been structured and presented as such by its editors, each of whom constructed a sustained narrative voice, established thematic continuities by grouping texts dominated by the vivid plastic imagery of Soares’s [End Page 865] metaphors, and framed philosophical perspectives filled with what Cousineau calls “exhilarating lugubriousness.” Indeed, it is as a novel that Pessoa’s “Book” joins the realm of modernist prose found in Kafka or Beckett: to call The Book a novel is to recognize its achieved status as both a found and a created object. To call it “unwritten” is to play on the indeterminate nature of Pessoa’s lifetime project and, indeed, on his “own” existence as, in the words of Jorge de Sena, “the man who never was”—that is, someone who sacrificed a personal existence for a literary one. The Book is unwritten in the same way as Pessoa, who passed on his life and writings to invented others: it is all “unwritten” in that there...


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