The Artist’s Library: Phyllida Barlow on Fernando Pessoa and ‘The Book of Disquiet’

The 2017 New Directions edition of ‘The Book of Disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa, originally published in Portuguese in 1982. Courtesy New Directions Publishing

  • Nov 28, 2021

‘Lines like these, which seem to spring into being on their own, independently of whoever says them, cleanse me of all the metaphysics that I automatically tack on to life. After reading them, I step over to my window overlooking the narrow street, I look at the immense sky and the countless stars, and I’m free, with a winged splendour whose fluttering sends a shiver through my body.’—Fernando Pessoa

When Fernando Pessoa died in 1935 in Lisbon at the age of 47, of cirrhosis of the liver, he was known in his native city mostly as a minor poet and a familiar, if aloof, presence in the literary cafés and bars of the Chiado. But in a wooden trunk in his modest apartment lay an unpublished, unknown continent of writing—more than 25,000 pieces of prose and poetry, some of it composed on paper scraps and envelope backs—that would slowly make him, decades after his death, into Portugal’s Joyce, a titan of European modernism and one of its most unclassifiable pioneers.

In this edition of ‘The Artist’s Library,’ a regular ‘Ursula’ feature in which writer and editor Sarah Blakley-Cartwright talks with artists about their favorite books, Phyllida Barlow describes her decades-long intellectual and emotional engagement with ‘The Book of Disquiet,’ Pessoa’s masterpiece, which she revisited on the occasion of the recent publication of translator Richard Zenith’s landmark biography of the author, ‘Pessoa,’ (Liveright, 2021).

First edition of Pessoa’s 1934 ‘Mensagem,’ or ‘Message.’ An epic of symbolist poetry, it was one of only five books published during the author’s lifetime, and the only one in Portuguese. (The other four were published in English.)

Pessoa at Abel Pereira da Fonseca, Lisbon, 1929

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright: Hi, Phyllida. How were you first introduced to ‘The Book of Disquiet’?

Phyllida Barlow: I went through a fad of reading a lot of South American literature —Marquez’s ‘100 Years of Solitude’ and Fuentes and Alejo Carpentier’s ‘The Lost Steps.’ But there was one particular volume I loved, a 1967 Penguin anthology of short stories and poems called ‘Latin American Writing Today.’ It was a glimpse into an intensely Catholic world and into the mixture of heat and quite difficult circumstances to do with the landscape, the spaces, the city, a whole concoction of powerfully sentient time, places and events, against a background of quite extreme positions regarding religion and morals.

I like to read about these passionate ‘other’ societies, in stories often about some absolutely tiny incident, a missed opportunity, or something that goes wrong, which in normal, everyday life would be easily corrected. But under particular circumstances—for example, a long-term vendetta between families—it becomes impossible to fix. I found it intriguing and addicting because it was so un-English.

SBC: This would have been in the 1980s? What was it like to read these stories in London then?

PB: When I read those books, 20 or 30 years ago, you could still reflect on the impact of certain kinds of Victorian attitudes of correctness in English society that mirrored some of the things I was reading in Latin American and South American fiction. And I think that then led me to the discovery of Pessoa and ‘The Book of Disquiet.’

SBC: Which edition did you read this time around, for this discussion?

PB: The edition I have now was first published in 1991 by Serpent’s Tail, which specializes in works in translation and works by writers of color. It’s translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and edited by Maria José de Lancastre. Maybe I need to get one like yours, actually. The one on the right. What is that? [On Zoom, Barlow points at a colorful hardcover book on Blakley-Cartwright’s desk.]

SBC: New Directions. It’s fantastic. [Published in 2017, the New Directions edition is the first chronologically complete edition in English, again translated by Costa, with a painterly cover design by Erik Rieselbach.]

PB: I think I’ll get that one. That looks quite substantial.

Phyllida Barlow’s copy of ‘Latin American Writing Today’

SBC: How do you go about reading a book like this, which really has no beginning or end in any conventional sense?

PB: I must admit that it’s a book I often open anywhere and just read. In a strange way, I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, having a conversation about it is going to be quite fraudulent!’ because I don’t actually know the book that well. But like a lot of other people, I think, I read it continuously, on and off, in an ad hoc way.

SBC: Do you reach for it when you’re in a certain mood, or does it always speak to you?

PB: If I can’t sleep at night, I always read a few entries. It’s a book I have by my bedside, if you know what I mean. I first read it in the ’80s and I’ve always had one copy or another nearby ever since. It has to do with it not being a straightforward story, with there being another layer to it that is more reflective of an individual’s response to the world, like say, Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot,’ where you think there’s a particular narrative going, but then huge parts of the novel are just ruminations on the state of somebody’s mind. It’s the kind of fiction in which the characters think of their circumstance in a way that opens a series of layers of meaning about the social norms of the time and the complexities of life. The story is filtered through those intense and quite elaborate sub-narratives.

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: splinted, 2021 © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: walledparapet, 2021 © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Alex Delfanne

SBC: This book is sometimes called a novel, but more often it is termed something like ‘a fragmentary lifetime project.’ You’ve talked about your work in narrative terms, saying that, ultimately, there are three protagonists: the work, the space and the audience. You’ve spoken of ‘the adventure of objects.’ What does narrative mean to you in fiction?

PB: I quite like books that wander through life. There is the wonderful Italian writer Italo Svevo, who lived in Trieste and whose work in a way mirrors Pessoa’s because it’s highly circumscribed in one place, Trieste, as Pessoa’s was in Lisbon. There is a coherent narrative in Svevo’s books but also that same way that Pessoa has of observing life close-up and observing how you fit into it or don’t fit into it.

SBC: Pessoa seems bent on talking himself out of his project. He says, ‘It’s by the door of thought and window of observation that suffering comes into one’s house.’ And yet he can’t help but compulsively think and observe, across the fragments.

PB: He’s looking at the moment when a certain combination of events comes together—the observation, the emotional background noise that may trigger the observation, and the aftermath of the clash between the two, which acts as a fuse, bringing these two states of awareness together. Pessoa is testing language to the absolute limits.

SBC: After I finished the book, I found the world inflected by his words. Are there particular aspects of his vision that you most identify with?

PB: I think it would be the lament that carries throughout the whole book—Pessoa constantly revealing another layer of perception, of tolerance or intolerance, or just being completely moved to an extreme state because the sky has changed from one shade of blue to another.

‘He’s not talking about success. He’s talking about an act of communication and finding, landing somewhere and making a connection.’—Barlow

SBC: The book alternates between tethered realities, his searingly specific particulars, his careful, deliberate attention to reality, his lovingly crafted evocations of Lisbon street life and especially of that weather that blew in the sky—the yellow, the grey, the grey going to yellow. And then all of that specificity is modulated with such a vast, disconnected miasma of non-pictorial impressions.

PB: You’re right—all those pictorial, filmic visions of what he’s looking out at from his lodgings, the views of Lisbon that he’s so familiar with. And yet he’s ignited by things like minor shifts in the weather. Everything is a heightened visual experience. He’s providing a kind of remarkable evidence that there is no such thing as the familiar, no such thing as the everyday.

SBC: He compulsively describes, but refuses to submit to, the drowsiness of everyday existence—what he calls almost tenderly ‘life’s bustle.’ He has a tender spot, ‘tender to the point of tears,’ for example, even for his ledgers in which he keeps his accounts.

PB: He has a recognition that the boredom is something different from what is actually going on. He hangs onto every nuance of every day, like watching the office boy at the opposite end of the room or studying in minute detail his boss, whom he scrutinizes through the wrong end of the telescope.

SBC: He says he prefers his workplace boss, Vasques, to the other abstract bosses of existence, like wealth and vanity.

PB: Yes. He is a vessel taking in information, processing it, and leaving his print on the world around.

SBC: At one point, he writes, ‘Where there is form, there is a soul.’

PB: He has a great sense of substance. I imagine that form for him has something to do with behavior. Of life hitting the cobblestones—the form of the flatness of the street, the horizontality of the street, as opposed to the uprightness of the facades of the shops and the buildings around. His whole way of gauging the world is about how things exist in the face of how they are commonly understood.

SBC: Can you say a bit more about that?

PB: Well, for example, dawn is happening. But everything that is affected by that dawn is reacting in its own way because of the form that it has, the way that it occupies the street, the buildings, along with the people in those spaces, people going to work, people waking up, the passage of time, etc. It’s about a particular materiality in relation to common experience, the common experience that daylight is arriving.

Installation view, ‘Phyllida Barlow. Frontier,’ Haus der Kunst, Munich, 2021. Photo: Maximilian Geuter

SBC: Pessoa writes, ‘The household clock is definitively located in the midst of the infinite.’

PB: Exactly. Time is moving forward and it isn’t. He gives us a series of overlapping portraits and reflections. And it’s as though the portraits are transparent. He describes being at his desk and says he can recognize all the nuances and the sounds that surround him. He’s aware of how he entered the building that morning, how he walked down the street. He says that there was only one person that he knew on the street, and that person acknowledged him, and then he describes some odd little meaningless incident that transpires between them.

SBC: He writes, ‘I love all of this, perhaps because I have nothing else to love, and perhaps also because nothing is worth a human’s soul’s love and so it’s all the same, should we feel the urge to give it, whether the recipient be the diminutive form of an inkwell or the vast indifference of the stars.’

PB: He has a whole thing on love!

SBC: Right. And with that, again, he vacillates between dismissing love in its entirety and longing for it, yearning for it. He holds all of this contradiction together, sometimes in the space of a paragraph, or even of a sentence.

PB: Exactly. The longing for the impossible—and berating himself for that. ‘The world belongs to the unfeeling. Every gesture is a revolutionary act, and every action is incomplete and imperfect.’ I love that. He’s looking at himself by looking at other people who are in equally ‘ordinary’ situations—shopkeepers, the office boy, the boss, everybody going about their days.

The insight is that although there is an immense burden of ordinariness, there is also an incredible enlightenment of extraordinariness in everybody’s life. You can see the shopkeeper every day putting out the same goods. But that repetition has nothing to what that person is actually going through. There are layers of how human beings are within their own existences, layers that we have no real access to.

'The paradox in Pessoa is that his book, which is an ode, ostensibly, to non-existence, is of course a vital record of exactly the opposite.'—Blakley-Cartwright

SBC: The book is about Pessoa himself, but also about a disassociation from that self.

PB: His visionary attitude opens out onto endless worlds around him and then reflects back onto himself. Everything for him is like looking in a mirror.

SBC: Experience is a mirror, but a mirror that doesn’t necessarily provide answers.

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: box, 2006 © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Damian Griffiths

Phyllida Barlow, untitled:corral, 2019 © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Mario de Lopez

PB: All through the book, you’re aware of Pessoa’s consciousness about being unknowing: about who is he and what he is there for, while also being fully conscious of his own emotional state. It’s a mirror of the way in which many human beings are forced to operate. We’re unknowing, in a way, about what’s going to happen to us. But we’re completely conscious of every single nuance of the day, to which we have a sentient relationship. All this sentient stuff builds up, which you would think would provide a great sense of experience and of confidence. But Pessoa reveals how it does the opposite.

SBC: And it could be completely immobilizing. But his defeatist melancholy often gives way to a cheerful embrace of existence and of absurdity.

PB: Yes, exactly. The book is about riding a sense of unfulfilled expectation, a stasis.

SBC: Pessoa professes to seek only ‘sleep, extinction, and surrender.’ And yet he spent his whole life creating this cathedral in language. How do you reconcile his seemingly fatalistic persona with this fanatic commitment to carry out this project?

PB: Well, he never progresses to any kind of conclusion. I find that extraordinarily real, in that if you are trying to express what is in your head and you want to give that a form, like music or writing or in my case sculpture or drawing, there isn’t an overall conclusion. That’s what keeps one going.

'... [H]e’s ignited by things like minor shifts in the weather. Everything is a heightened visual experience. He’s providing a kind of remarkable evidence that there is no such thing as the familiar, no such thing as the everyday.'—Barlow

SBC: What are you looking for in those moments of not knowing?

PB: I’m looking for a subject in my work, and I suppose that’s why I love this book, because I don’t know quite what the subject is. I’m fascinated by artists who know at the beginning of a piece of work what the subject is. Whereas, for me, I think that the creative process and the sense of futility and the sense of joy and the dashed hopes and the whole melting pot of emotional responses to that reflects so much of what it’s really like to be in the world. To nail work down to one thing for me has proved to be impossible. I can’t do it.

SBC: The paradox in Pessoa is that his book, which is an ode, ostensibly, to non-existence, is of course is a vital record of exactly the opposite. It celebrates the existence of this specific and distinctive consciousness, Pessoa.

PB: Isn’t it interesting? He writes at one point if somebody should read this book when he’s gone and empathize with it then somebody would have found him. He’s not talking about success. He’s talking about an act of communication and finding, landing somewhere and making a connection.

SBC: In the writing, as we now know,, Pessoa drew upon a cast of various selves, which he called his ‘heteronyms.’ The book’s fragments are sometimes attributed to one of two narrators—the diaphanous Vicente Guedes and the more fully-drawn bookkeeper, Bernando Soares— such that scholars have had a hard time definitively assigning certain entries to one or the other persona. Did the ascription to one or the other character impact how you read that segment?

PB: You know, it’s only when I read more about Pessoa last week that I became aware of these different voices. It’s the reason I think I was perplexed by some things in my edition, which was one of the first translations published.

SBC: His use of alternate personas undermines any conventional sense of familiarity with the author’s voice, which I think was pretty radical for its time. Actually, you mentioned familiarity earlier. I’m interested in how artists use or subvert that idea.

PB: It’s an incredible aspect of the creative process, trying to take stuff in your head and bring it into the world. Whatever your medium is—in my case, it’s a visual medium—it’s about how you take something that might be just a fleeting thought and give it some kind of substance. I’m beginning with just physical stuff. I have no idea what it is. I’m engaging the head and the actions of the hands, steering and guiding. The arguments that get set up between head and hand seem to me to be about the same layers of consciousness that Pessoa is driven by. He’s conscious in one sense of every aspect of stimuli around him.

SBC: And yet meanwhile . . .

PB: Meanwhile, around those things there are huge embellishments, huge neurotic senses of danger and fear and dread. He puts the ordinary on a constant state of alert. Creativity is so much about dealing with that state of alertness to what one is doing, while at the same time being conscious of the mundanity, the familiarity of a material, or of a particular form that emerges. Then what does one do? Does one try to change it because it’s familiar or do you hang in there and pursue the familiar? Or do both avenues need to be explored with an equal perseverance?

SBC: Sometimes Pessoa’s entries are dense and very otherwordly, and others are much more lean and diffuse. He keeps the familiar and the exceptional in some kind of dance.

PB: Right, and the familiar feels like a breathing space.

Installation view, ‘Phyllida Barlow. small worlds,’ Hauser & Wirth Zurich, 2021 © Phyllida Barlow

Installation view, ‘Phyllida Barlow. tilt,’ Hauser & Wirth New York, 2018 © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Genevieve Hanson

SBC: We’ve discussed how this is an unstable book, a shifting form. No beginning, no end. It’s an ongoing thought. Sometimes, the book is called unfinished, given that Pessoa died at age 47, before it was ‘completed,’ if that term even makes sense in his case. I’m wondering what you, as an artist, think about the concept of completion.

PB: Pessoa says, ‘Every action is complete and imperfect.’ I love that. I think I belong to that school of thought. How do we define perfect? Is it just shiny, glossy, smooth, with not a scratch in sight, so that when a scratch appears on the gleaming new car it’s a complete catastrophe? I don’t trust that kind of perfection. It’s more than just preferring an aesthetic of the rough and the worn, of the expressionist gesture. It’s more about a journey towards a point where there’s a possibility that something might reach a conclusion, but it’s only a possibility. It’s not a definite ‘Yes, it’s finished.’ How did de Kooning decide when a painting was done, what was the last mark on a painting? How does one know what Manet thought about it? There are certain works of art for which it is clear that the artist is aiming for the finish to be a clear statement in itself. And, although I like the fact that those artworks exist and I like some of them very much, they’re not as poignant or potent to me as works that convey a sense that the act of doing has been stopped at a particular moment for a reason that is slightly unclear. It gives an enormous amount of oxygen to how we look at those works.

SBC: Could you give examples?

PB: Well, looking at a Velasquez from three meters away and then going up close, the painting reveals itself incompletely different ways. There are many contemporary artists who convey that feeling of indeterminacy—Franz West, for example, or of course Louise Bourgeois, who gives the act of touch the sense that it could perhaps go on and on. That gives an enormous amount of air around the work.

SBC: What feeling are you left with after spending time with this book?

PB: A sense of giving things time, giving experience time, and not trying to turn an experience immediately into an object state but into a poetic state.

SBC: Thank you so much, Phyllida.

PB: Thank you, Sarah.

Sarah Blakley-Cartwright is a New York Times bestselling author. She is publishing director of the ‘Chicago Review of Books’ and an associate editor of ‘A Public Space.’