Monday, July 12, 2010

Lessons from Saramago

My post last Friday on  Remembering one of my very favorite writers who passed away last month.

Jose Saramago died last month. He was believed to be one of the greatest novelists in the world.

We did not get along. He did not know that we did not get along (we never met; he was famous- I am not), so this not getting along business was entirely one-sided. But, I have a feeling he would not have liked me either (if we had met and he had bothered to give me the time of day.) Saramago has been described as “cold,” “arrogant,” and “unsympathetic.” And he was an atheistic communist. Not a granola-loving hippie Marxist, mind you, but a Stalinist.

Saramago was a Portuguese novelist, born to landless peasants in a small village not too far from Lisbon. His father would eventually move his family to the city and become a police officer, a job that required little educational background, and Saramago began his own educational career in grammar school. At the age of twelve, his parents no longer had the resources to keep him in grammar school, so he was pulled from it and put into a technical school, where he was trained in mechanics. Yet, he was drawn to reading and writing and would leave mechanics for a job in the publishing industry.

Growing up, he was exposed to the cruel practices of the fascist Portuguese government. He joined the communist party and is almost as famous for his hard-line communist views as he is for his novels.

Saramego began composing the novels that would bring him fame in his fifties. He would not receive acclaim for his work until he was 60. In 1998, he became the first Portuguese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Despite our differences, I fell hopelessly in love with Jose Saramago’s writing. (Saramago had a truly spectacular translator who was also a good friend.) I always wonder whether a person’s writing is indicative of his soul: if so, Saramago had a genuinely beautiful, insightful, and sad soul, laden with suspicion and grief and a just a small glimmer of hope beneath layers upon layers of pessimism.

His cynical nature is captured in this quote from a 2007 interview in the New York Times:

Can fiction make the world a better place? “An ethical novel can perhaps influence a reader temporarily,” he went on, “but no more. I write as well as I can, but when my readers say, ‘Your book has changed my life,’ I don’t believe it. Maybe like a New Year’s resolution — for a week you try to be good, then you forget.”

A reader can surmise this belief from his most famous novel, Blindness, which I stumbled upon years ago on a display table at Barnes and Noble. It was unlike anything I’d read before. It’s the story of an epidemic: an unnamed city is struck by “white” blindness- the infected are gathered and quarantined within an asylum. A doctor’s wife remains uninfected, but fakes her blindness to remain with her husband. Fear and hunger end up dividing the patients, and they experience a complete breakdown of civilized behavior. Soon it appears the doctor’s wife is the only one left who can see. She ends up leading a small and eclectic group of strangers on a search for food and for some semblance of civilization. The novel is a blunt but trenchant analogy and it tells a timeless tale. (Please skip the film version.)

Saramago’s prose was unconventional. He had little use for punctuation and loved a good long run-on sentence. (He was the e.e. cummings of novelists! On a related note, Saramago was also a poet.) He had a habit of smashing paragraphs together; a Jose Saramago page could appear most foreboding. One finishes a paragraph and literally gasps for air.

Personally, I am generally critical of avant-garde writing styles: I could never make it through one chapter of a Cormac McCarthy novel. But Saramago’s stories take hold and don’t let go. Reading his novels is like learning to breathe underwater: a surreal revelation.

Saramago had definite opinions about the writing process. Here’s an excerpt from an interview conducted by the Paris Review:

I don’t believe in the notion that some characters have lives of their own and the author follows after them. The author has to be careful not to force the character to do something that would go against the logic of that character’s personality, but the character does not have independence. The character is trapped in the author’s hand, in my hand, but he is trapped in a way he does not know he is trapped. The characters are on strings, but the strings are loose; the characters enjoy the illusion of freedom, of independence, but they cannot go where I do not want them to go. When that happens, the author must pull on the string and say to them, I am in charge here.

Harold Bloom considered Saramago to be the second greatest living novelist (only after Philip Roth.) Now, some other aging writer moves to second place and we remember and commemorate the brilliance of an interesting, eccentric and wholly talented writer.

As I consider his life, I believe that (as writers) we can take an education from Jose Saramago. Five thoughts from the life of this writer:

1. You are never too old to begin writing.
2. You are never so old you must stop writing. Saramago was working on a book during his last days.
3. Brilliance trumps convention.
4. Allegory is not dead.
5. Good writing crosses boundaries: political boundaries, religious boundaries, ethnic boundaries.

So, take a lesson from the deceased: Start writing. Don’t stop. Be unconventional. Be meaningful. Be brilliant.

Rest in peace, Jose Saramago. 1922-2010.

Interested in reading his books? Start here:

Baltasar and Blimuda
The Cave


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