Monday, April 23, 2012

Antonio Tabucchi on The Book of Disquiet

If one can say that a life can be transformed by reading a writer’s work, the contemporary Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi (who died this March) provides a notable example. As a student in Paris, Tabucchi read Fernando Pessoa’s poem, “The Tobacco Shop,” which set him on a lifelong trajectory influenced to an unusual degree by the Portuguese writer. Tabucchi  wrote and taught of Pessoa, translated nearly all of the writer’s works into Italian, and, in his own novels and short stories, fed ravenously on Pessoa’s influence.

Before I leave off discussion of Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, I thought I’d attempt to summarize Tabucchi’s brief treatment of this work in La nostalgie du possible: sur Pessoa (The Nostalgia of the Possible: On Pessoa), one of Tabucchi’s two books of essays on the writer. There may be more insightful works on Pessoa, but I’ve singled out this one due to my appreciation of Tabucchi and because the book is both unavailable in English and difficult to track down in French.  La nostalgie du possible consists of four lectures Tabucchi presented in Paris in 1994 along with a handy guide to Pessoa’s principal heteronyms, those alter egos he created as authors of his poetry and prose. The first lecture addresses philosophical concepts in the entirety of Pessoa’s work. Another compares Pessoa to Leopardi. In a third (for me the highlight of the collection, though not the subject of this post) Tabucchi literally unpacks – like Harpo Marx emptying his pockets – the diverse and surprising belongings of the Pessoan heteronym Alvaro de Campos, commencing with a list of all the physical objects mentioned in de Campos’ poems, and incorporating a wonderful bit about the automobile in modernist literature that begins with Proust’s “Ruskinian adventures” in visiting France’s cathedrals using a car’s headlights to illuminate their facades and ends with discussion of a wayward tire floating in the middle of the de Campos poem, “Maritime Ode.”

The short lecture Tabucchi devotes to The Book of Disquiet is entitled, “L’infinie dysphorique du Bernardo Soares” (“The Dysphoric Infinity of Bernado Soares”). Tabucchi views Soares as a being whose primary mode of interacting with the world is a “disquiet” feeling of nostalgia, not for the past, or even the present, but for those things that might have been. Soares’ life is unusually marked by insignificance and troubled by the day-to-day. Out of the vast and dense universe of the quotidian described in these 450 pages of meditations by Soares, Tabucchi pulls out a particularly interesting episode: the fright Soares experiences when a group photo is taken at a holiday party at his office (fragment 56 in the Richard Zenith translation), a photo that causes Soares to suffer “the truth on seeing myself there” and that prompts him to wonder who he is, exactly, among this “lifeless tide of faces.” In effect, it’s a scene that clearly identifies Soares as depressive and dysphoric. And while as Tabucchi points out, the origins of this depression beg for a psychoanalytic interpretation he’s unqualified to provide, one must also point out that Soares is a fictional character, his book a “phenomenological” one (with a kinship to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge). Soares’ depression is not just the “black mood” of the ancients, but a dysphoric rupture with reality, a frustration with not being able to find in the exterior world a correlation for the grandeur of his emotions and sensations, those great and small alike. His interior world is simply too expansive to fit the crude limitations of his commonplace reality. A commonplace person, he turns of necessity to “his little daily universe, his pocket universe,” (I love this phrase – “pocket universe”), the ordinariness of the world, constructing of it a new kind of infinity, a new kind of metaphysics through which the mysteries of the universe are revealed via the quotidian and banal. One result of this attempt to invest the outside, commonplace world with the tumultuous interior world of Soares’ emotions is the richness with which, in his daily journal, Soares is able to imbue the most insignificant of things and magnify the world through them (through descriptions Tabucchi compares to the “word-paintings” of Ruskin).  As Tabucchi concludes, Soares’ writing – his pinning down the impressions of a day and etching his reflections on his tenuous existence – is the dysphoric stroke of a pendulum that finds a correlating euphoric expression in Pessoa’s other poet heteronyms, together representing an almost compulsory attempt to fill the void by trying to write “all possible books…incessantly multiplying oneself as though the world were made of writing.”  

“…as though the world were made of writing.”

I look forward to tracking down Tabucchi’s other book of essays on Pessoa.


  1. Great to see you with back to back posts after your recent absence. Are you familiar with the Mexican writer Sergio Pitol? He's a big Tabucchi fan and has written many flattering pieces on Tabucchi and his work that remind me of what you share about Tabucchi on Pessoa here. By the way, nostalgia for what might have been is a great description of one of the things I've enjoyed most about Pessoa so far.

  2. Richard: Thanks. I'm glad to be back too, and hope to stay that way. I have not heard of Sergio Pitol but will attempt to remedy that post-haste. I'm delighted to hear of someone else who shares my enthusiasm.

  3. I had a few of Tabucchi's books in my hand today. I'm still tempted by the idea of a Tabucchi week in June. I'm going to miss a lot once I start those in which Pessoa is so important without having at least started The Book of Disquiet. I read in the foreword of Requiem today that he chose to write it in Portuguese because his Latin wasn't good enough and Portuguese felt like the only language appropriate for the book. I like the idea, to write a book in the language which is the most appropriate.

  4. Caroline: I would not worry at all about missing a lot in Tabucchi if you haven't read Pessoa. With very minor exceptions, Tabucchi's use of Pessoa is not in granular allusions, but rather in broad adoptions of Pessoan themes and motifs, which already form an integral part of the modern literary and philosophical landscape. As I noted in the prior post, one reason I was so drawn to The Book of Disquiet was the way it articulated recognizable elements of modern life that felt instantly, intimately familiar. The instability of identity; multiplicity; the mysteries to be found in the commonplace - you're there.

    Requiem is made for Portuguese.

  5. I am reading Requiem now. That crack about Latin is a joke.

    1. Tabucchi was apparently quite the joker. Stefano Benni, in a memorial printed in the French press, tells the story of attending a dinner with numerous writers where the conversation turned to the torments of writing and anguish of writer's block. When finally it was Tabucchi's turn to speak, he quietly said, "This never happens to me. I wake every morning at 5 a.m., work five hours straight through, and revise maybe one or two lines at the most. That's how I was able to write Pereira Declares in just a few months." There was a stunned, embarrassed silence at the table. After a couple moments, Tabucchi burst out laughing: “I'm kidding. None of it's true. I too can spend days on a single page. I just wanted to drive all of you mad.”