by Traci Dolan-Priestley
Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, published after his death and put together by assembling notes that he left behind, was the first book I read about what it meant to be a writer. Not how to write, no, no, not even mentioned. I’ve quoted this particular passage many times.
“One of the soul’s great tragedies is to execute a work and then realize, once it’s finished, that it’s not any good. The tragedy is especially great when one realizes that the work is the best he could have done. . . So why do I keep writing?. . . I have to write, as if I were carrying out a punishment. And the greatest punishment is to know that whatever I write will be futile, flawed, and uncertain.”
He goes on to lament, “Why do I write, if I can’t write any better? But what would become of me if I didn’t write what I can, however inferior it may be to what I am?. . . For me, to write is self-deprecating, and yet I can’t quit doing it. Writing is like the drug I abhor and keep taking, the addiction I despise and depend on.”
And this is what happens when you don’t write. “For a long time now I haven’t written. Months have gone by in which I haven’t lived, just endured. . . haven’t even existed. I hardly even seem to be dreaming. . . For a long time now I haven’t been I.”
It’s not just the trials of imperfection that Pessoa’s writer/character Bernardo Soares endures, but it’s the understanding of dreaming and daydreaming, birth and death, and what it means to live. It’s about the process of writing. “When I write, I pay myself a solemn visit. I have special chambers, remembered by someone else in the interstices of my imagining, where I take delight in analyzing what I don’t feel, and I examine myself like a picture in a dark corner.” I suppose today we call that “hitting our stride” or “being in the zone,” and I before have described it as that special place inside of me where the story resides.
Another thing I love about Pessoa was his creation of “heteronyms,” his word for multiple personas, each with their own personalities and writing styles. It was his style to create a different writing style for each of these heteronyms. What freedom! One, Ricardo Reis, was the subject of another book, A Year in the Death of Richardo Reis, by Jose Saramago, in which the Pessoa heteronym learns that Pessoa has died. Wrap your mind around that. A made up character discovers the man who created him is dead yet lives on. But isn’t it so true?
The introduction to The Book of Disquiet details more in-depth the relationship between Pessoa and Soares, as they are one in the same, but also that the book is much more autobiographical. It does have that feeling. Although The Book of Disquiet is plotless, seriously, no plot, it is more like a stream of consciousness about what it means to live as a writer, the desolation of this solitary pursuit, self-doubt, compulsion, depression, detachment, and seeing the world through a writer’s eyes as he examines life, “I never sleep. I live and I dream; or rather, I dream in life and in my sleep, which is also life.”
The Book of Disquiet continues to intrigue me. Although I don’t suffer from the extreme detachment that Soares does, nor the isolation, if you’re a writer, or love a writer, I highly recommend having an affair with this book. A long affair. This isn’t a book that begs to be read all the way through in one sitting, or chapter to chapter. You can start at the beginning (I would read the introduction first to understand how the book came to be), but also feel free to start on page 444 or 200 or 287 or 122. In opposition to Pessoa’s own words, “Pray for me by reading it, bless me by loving it, and forget it as today’s sun forgets yesterday’s, as I forget the women in my dreams that I was never very good at dreaming. . .”, I cannot forget it.
This post is reprinted in full by permission.
Traci Dolan-Priestley graduated from Goddard College in 2012 with an MFA in Creative Writing. Her Goddard thesis The Blue Stone was a semi-finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition (Novel-in-Progress), and her work has appeared online at The Rumpus and Paper Tape Magazine. She recently completed her second book, a short story collection set in her home state of West Virginia where she resides with her husband, son, two dogs, and six cats.