Preface of Fernando Pessoa to The Book of Disquiet
Lisbon has a certain number of eating establishments in which, on top of a respectable-looking tavern, there’s a regular dining room with the solid and homey air of a restaurant in a small trainless town. In these first-floor dining rooms, fairly empty except on Sundays, one often comes across odd sorts, unremarkable faces, a series of asides in life.
There was a time in my life when a limited budget and the desire for quiet made me a regular patron of one of these first-floor restaurants. And it happened that whenever I ate dinner there around seven o’clock, I nearly always saw a certain man who didn’t interest me at first, but then began to.
Fairly tall and thin, he must have been about thirty years old. He hunched over terribly when sitting down but less so standing up, and he dressed with a carelessness that wasn’t entirely careless. In his pale, uninteresting face there was a look of suffering that didn’t add any interest, and it was difficult to say just what kind of suffering this look suggested. It seemed to suggest various kinds: hardships, anxieties, and the suffering born of the indifference that comes from having already suffered a lot.
He always ate a small dinner, followed by cigarettes that he rolled himself. He conspicuously observed the other patrons, not suspiciously but with more than ordinary interest. He didn’t observe them with a spirit of scrutiny but seemed interested in them without caring to analyse their outward behaviour or to register their physical appearance. It was this peculiar trait that first got me interested in him.
I began to look at him more closely. I noticed that a certain air of intelligence animated his features in a certain uncertain way. But dejection — the stagnation of cold anguish — so consistently covered his face that it was hard to discern any of his other traits.
I happened to learn from a waiter in the restaurant that the man worked in an office near by.
One day there was an incident in the street down below — a fist fight between two men. Everyone in the first-floor restaurant ran to the windows, including me and the man I’ve been describing. I made a casual remark to him and he replied in like manner. His voice was hesitant and colourless, as in those who hope for nothing because it’s perfectly useless to hope. But perhaps it was absurd to see this in my supper-tie peer.
I don’t know why, but from that day on we always greeted each other. And then one day, perhaps drawn together by the stupid coincidence that we both arrived for dinner at nine-thirty, we struck up a conversation. At a certain point he asked me if I wrote. I said that I did. I told him about the literary review Orpheu, which had just recently come out. He praised it, he praised it highly, and I was taken aback. I told him I was surprised, for the art of those who write in Orpheu speaks only to a few. He said that perhaps he was one of the few. Furthermore, he added, this art wasn’t exactly a novelty for him, and he shyly observed that, having nowhere to go and nothing to do, nor friends to visit, nor any interest in reading books, he usually spent his nights at home, in his rented room, likewise writing.
He had furnished his two rooms with a semblance of luxury, no doubt at the expense of certain basic items. He had taken particular pains with the armchairs, which were soft and well—padded, and with the drapes and rugs. He explained that with this kind of an interior he could maintain the dignity of tedium. In rooms decorated in the modern style, tedium becomes a discomfort, a physical distress.
Nothing had ever obliged him to do anything. He had spent his childhood alone. He never joined any group. He never pursued a course of study. He never belonged to a crowd. The circumstances of his life were marked by that strange but rather common phenomenon — perhaps, in fact, it’s true for all lives — of being tailored to the image and likeness of his instincts, which tended towards inertia and withdrawal.
He never had to face the demands of society or of the state. He even evaded the demands of his own instincts. Nothing ever prompted him to have friends or lovers. I was the only one who was in some way his intimate. But even if I always felt that I was relating to an assumed personality and that he didn’t really consider me his friend, I realized from the beginning that he needed someone to whom he could leave the book that he left. This troubled me at first, but I’m glad to say that I was able to see the matter from a psychologist’s point of view, and I remained just as much his friend, devoted to the end for which he’d drawn me to himself — the publication of this book.
Even in this respect circumstances were strangely favourable to him, for they brought him somebody of my character, who could be of use to him.
In PESSOA, Fernando, The Book of Disquiet, edited and translated by Richard Zenith, Allan Lane, ed. Penguin Press, England, 2001