Comments by Bob Corbett
This is Saramago’s first novel, and having read all his other novels, this first novel become the last Saramago novel for me until a new one becomes available. Unfortunately like the line from the Bible “the first shall be the last.” Last in two senses for me, last one for me to read, and least of his novels in literary quality, in fact it seemed to be less a coherent novel than roughly cobbled together bits and pieces of fiction, albeit each separate piece containing much fine writing.
As the novel opens S has commissioned H to do his portrait. H is a middling painter, about 50, struggling with the notion of meaning. What does it all mean? For a portrait painting there is an easy answer – give the customer as flattering a view as possible and still be recognizable That’s basically what H sees portrait painting to be, and what he sets out to do for S.
But, that’s not enough. He can only solve this puzzle – what is portrait painting, or phrased differently, what is truth, by painting a “real” painting – so he decides to do a second “secret” portrait of S, this time trying to paint the truth of S. That painting hasn’t been going well either, so he’s now begun this book – in which he hopes tell the truth of S in words. It seems it will be a sort of dialectic of the epistemology of truth in literature and a verbally true portrait of S, and finally an analysis of the relationship between H, himself the author of this document and those earlier themes.
Oh me – can I possibly even follow such a complex theme!
It turns out that H knows who he is:
"I know very well who I am, an artist of no importance who knows his craft but lacks genius, even talent, who has nothing more to offer than a nurtured skill and who is forever treading the same paths or stopping at the same door, an ox drawing a cart on its daily rounds, yet before, when I approached this window, I used to enjoy watching the sky and the river as Giotto, Rembrandt or Cezanne might have done. For me differences were unimportant. When a cloud slowly passed, there was no difference and when I later held my brush to the unfinished canvas anything could have happened, even the discovery of a genius entirely my own. My peace of mind was assured, all that could happen now was more peace or, who knows, the excitement of a masterpiece. Not this gentle but determined rancour, not this burrowing inside a statue, not this sharp and persistent gnawing, like a dog biting its lead while looking anxiously round, fearful that whoever tied it up may suddenly reappear."
As it turns out all THREE portraits will fail, the painting for S, the secret painting and novel. The writing is telling him more about himself than about S. But at a deeper level all three are just “views of” and not “the truth of” …
“But it would always be an image never the truth. And this was probably my biggest mistake: to think that the truth could be captured externally and simply with one’s eyes, to imagine a truth exists which can be grasped at once and there after remain still and at peace …
“This leads me to the question whether we posses what is knowable about this world or are we simply the interpreters of knowledge or known, which hovers over the earth like one more atmospheric layer capable of surviving the death of civilizations and the gods they worship.”
After the painting is delivered to S 1/3 way through the novel , H begins an autobiography rather than continuing the story of S. “…everything is biography, or to be more precise, autobiography.”
“I insist that everything is biography. Everything is life, lived, painted and written: to be living, to be painting, to be writing: to have lived to have written, to have painted.”
But this is where things get rather shaky as a unified novel. The new autobiography actually turns out to be heavily a sort of learned critical comment of a trip through Italy to visit important pieces of art. The writing is fascinating, and indeed revelatory of H’s person, and exposing constantly the philosophical epistemological notion that all knowledge is really autobiography.
I see this long section of his Italian travels as sort of an irony of loaded dice. The irony, of course, is that Saramago is obviously a brilliant writer, soon to even receive a Nobel Prize for Literature and thus his creation of a verbal autobiography for H is fascinating and philosophically exciting. But given it is Saramago creating H, it’s a bit difficult not to be surprised that H fails at painting while succeeding at writing autobiography!
I have always preferred to stick strictly with TEXT in reading and assessing authors and to let their published words and ideas inform me of what they have to offer and reveal. However, I did read the translator’s introduction at the front of the novel. Soon, as the novel took this turn from painting to writing, I felt this irony in the translator’s matching of the character H with the person of Saramago himself.
The translator’s introduction speaks about the similarities between Saramago himself and the character of the artist, author, “H” in the novel.
“The details we glean of H’s past also suggest a close affinity between author and protagonist. Both experienced a childhood of poverty when sacrifices had to be made to acquire any kind of formal training. Both confess to being timid and somewhat insecure, introspective and skeptical by nature. Like Saramago himself, H. is a compulsive reader and thinker, a creature of habit, disciplined in his working habits and with few interests outside his studio apart from dinner with friends or visits to the cinema. He shares the author’s fascination with women. Both feel irresistibly drawn to ‘the sphinx and her mysteries’, and H’s amorous adventures persuade him that there are uncanny similarities between making love and the artist’s tense struggle with paints and words.”
Here’s Saramago (later to be) Nobel prize winning writer, writing about a mediocre painter who can actually reveal the world better in words than in the art of painting. A marvelously ironic dishonesty! And it was with this analysis in mind that I found H’s failure at painting, but success in writing more difficult to accept.
However I was quite impressed with H’s view (Saramago’s too???) of the nature of human being. One reveals the world to oneself thus creating the self and the truth of the world as one goes along revealing. This world and self become one’s self. This is much like the position of Jean-Paul Sartre who tells us in BEING AND NOTHINGNESS that “I am what I am not and am not what I am.” The first is the “am” of becoming and the second is the “am” of being.
One creates oneself as one lives and the more one does it with self-reflective consciousness, as H does, the more one seems to be a rebel to one’s self, that self whom one is not.
The last 1/3 or ¼ the novel seems to come from nowhere – an episode of falling into and discovering love, something S told us earlier was hopelessly a false idea, and then, all of a sudden, to have H emerge on the verge of becoming a serious painter who might after all create genuine art ….
Piece by piece I was gripped but I believe this novel is not as coherent as novel as Saramago’s later work. There are flashes of the brilliance to come, but in too many ways this novel degenerates into a learned discussion of Italian art (in many places) and not much related to the central directions of the novel as story – even the story of H’s autobiography.
However, the one theme that does seem to run through the whole is the notion of writing as being revealing and autobiographical.
“… I go in search of myself by writing or painting.”
At the very end as that theme is perhaps to finally open the door to full self-knowledge he seems to part from the Sartrean becoming. He tells us, as he prepares to do his first “real” painting that he will return now to the first three words of this document. Like nearly every reader must, I immediately rushed to page one to see the first three words, which are: “I shall go…” Ah, I was quite disappointed. He leaves the Sartrean “I am what I am not and am not what I am,” and returns to some philosophical absolutism. But I would have loved it if H had said he would now return to the first FOUR words of the novel: “I shall go on … That would, I think, have been philosophically more sound and much more in keeping with H’s character.
Brief addendum: On thing that is missing from this novel which was present in all the others are little throw-away lines of incredible cleverness and wit. That trait has always delighted me in the Saramago works. However, he does have one utter gem which I want to record and point up. He is telling us that the only reasonable epistemological stance is radical skepticism – we never know for sure, we only have our individually created world and views. At that point he tells us:
“And now is the moment. Now day may dawn, slowly, haste! Lying on the ground on one’s back! Looking up where the sky will start to clear, then turning one’s head from side to side, because there is no certainty in this world that the sun will rise in the east,…”
Good old Jose!!!! He can make me laugh and marvel at his cleverness.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org