Saturday, June 19, 2010

Graduation Day + Birthday + Adeus Saramago + Adios (Old New) New York

Although I've already congratulated this year's graduates, since today is GRADUATION DAY, let me extend my deepest CONGRATULATIONS again!


Yesterday was my birthday. C made a delicious pasta dish (penne con funghi), and baked one of his signature desserts, a coconut-lemon cake, which, as the photo below shows, we dove right into. I'm willing to turn 45 weekly if it results in that meal and one of these cakes!


Yesterday around the time that Reggie H. sent me the link I saw online that José Saramago (1922-2010) had passed. He was, without a doubt, one of the major writers in contemporary world literature, and one of Portugal's greatest novelists.  I must confess that although I can read Portuguese (to some extent), I've only read his novels in English; years ago, when after teaching myself the rudiments of Portuguese I realized I couldn't speak the language, so I engaged an Azorean tutor-conversationalist in Cambridge who had me read selections from the works of Fernando Namora, Jorge de Sena, José Cardoso Pires, Augustina Bessa-Luís, and several other major 20th century Portuguese (but never Brazilian) writers, including some whom she wasn't so fond of, like Antonio Lobo-Antunes. But Saramago was, I recall, "too difficult" for a beginner. By this, I later gathered as I read his work in English, his formally experimental prose, often comprising long, paratactic and sometimes hypotactic sentences, broken up mainly by commas and few periods, and shifting at times abruptly between points of view and perspectives, while interspersed with direct authorial commentary and philosophizing, certainly would have proved a challenge. Yet I've found that in English at least, Saramago's works, once you engage the prose's rhythms, aren't as narratively difficult in the way that William Faulkner's, Juan Goytisolo's, Claude Simon's, or  are. Nor are they philosophically demanding in the way that superficially more formally simple novels of Clarice Lispector are, or linguistically as impenetrable as Julián Ríos or João Guimarães Rosa (i.e., untranslatable). Saramago is very interested in the traditions not just of the novel but of storytelling, and stories, sometimes remarkable ones, often allegorical and symbolic, his novels do tell. Saramago attributed this deep devotion to story to his illiterate grandparents, great storytellers thesmselves, who reared him when his parents left the small Santarém district village of Azinhaga, where he was born, to look for work in Lisbon.

My introduction to Saramago's work was the 1995 novel Blindness (Ensaio sobre a Cergeza), which appeared in English (translated by Giovanni Pontiero) in the fall of 1997.  An allegory about the effects on civilization of man's loss of our most important and essential sense--sight--and the possibility, even after societal breakdown, of humanity, Blindness struck me at the time as the work of someone writing at the very height of his powers. The next year Saramago received the Nobel Prize, in part for this extraordinary book but also for his oeuvre, up to that point, consisting of the poetry he'd written during his fallow fiction period, of some 30 years, and the nearly dozen novels up to that point, including Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Stone Raft, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. This last inventive, irreverantly anti-religious book sparked denunciation by the Roman Catholic Church, which led the Portuguese authorities to withdraw Saramago's name for a prize consideration, which thus led him to decamp for Lanzarote, in Spain, where he lived for the remainder of his life. From the time of his Nobel Prize he was sometimes derided as or viewed solely in terms of his affirmation of Communism, and he also received harsh criticism for his critique of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. His work, however, rarely dealt overtly with contemporary politics or ideology, either in the abstract or, in the case of Portugal's, where the Salazar dictatorship spanned a great portion of his life; only in one novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, I believe, does he directly treat a fairly recent political moment, 1936, when war and fascism were engulfing Europe--and Salazar seized control of the Portuguese state--but in his inimical, indirect fashion; the eponymous protagonist, Reis, is, in fact, a heteronym of Portugal's towering 20th century literary figure, Fernando Pessoa, whose death provokes Reis's return from Brazil and who makes repeated, ghostly and increasingly troubling appearances, finally leading to Reis's own "death," as it were, at the novel's end. Saramago has stated that this strange and enchanting book is his favorite.

The last book of Saramago's that I read was 2003's The Double (O Homen Duplicado), published in 2004 in English. A haunting metaphysical meditation, The Double starts with the principle of the doppelgänger, and plays it out, with devastating consequences, to its logical end. Saramago's prose style presents an initial challenge, but once you get past and into the flow of the storytelling, this bizarre tale unfolds like a charm: at the suggestion of a coworker, a man recognizes a double of himself in a videotape, conspires to meet the double, does do so while withholding the details and truth from his beloved, switches places with the man, terrible things ensue, and then...he's contacted by someone whose voice, as was the case with him and his double, sounds--in so much as he might appear--like his double. Only the protagonist decides he ought be preemptive this time around, and so.... This reductive plot summary hardly conveys the literary and philosophical richness of the novel, which, like several of Saramago's later works, unfolds on a more narratively abstract plane, giving it the quality of fable, or allegory, or myth. And there is enough in this work to ground the reader in a here-and-now, in a material world, swiftly but authoritatively drawn, full of suspense and disquiet, such that you not only become part of it, but care about these characters and feel the topsy-turvy emotions they experience.  This is the case not only for The Double, but for all the ones of Saramago's that I've read. He was, and remains, among the best.


The blog of a mourner of lost New York City, or a fairly recent version. He has, however, tired of his mourning, and now bids his readers, like the now vanished city of a decade ago, adieu. Read it, and commiserate, and weep (if it resonates with you at all).  And to think, but for 50,000 or so more votes (only 1.15 million people voted out of 4+ million eligible voters), New York could have freed itself, at least for a term, of its neoliberal, billionaire billionaire-cheerleader.