Saturday, 3 November 2012

José Saramago's Favourite 11 Writers

Before we delve into José Saramago’s diaries, I want to single out this passage from 1996:

July 21

A Spanish magazine had the idea of asking a few writers to draw up their literary genealogical tree, that is, what other authors did they consider as their ancestors, direct or indirect, excluding from the invented kinship, obviously, any presumptions of relations or equivalences of merit which reality, in my case anyway, would soon reveal to be false. They were also asked to give, in very brief words, justifications for that kind of reverse adoption, in that it was the ‘descendant’ who chose the ‘ancestor.’ To each consulted writer the drawing of a tree was given with eleven frames dispersed over the boughs, where I suppose the portraits of the chosen authors will appear. My list, with the respective rationale, was this: Luís de Camões, because, as I wrote in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, all Portuguese ways lead to him; Father António Vieira, because the Portuguese language was never more beautiful than when he wrote it; Cervantes, because without him the Iberian Peninsula would be a house without a roof; Montaigne, because he didn’t need Freud to know who he was; Voltaire, because he lost his illusions about mankind and survived it; Raul Brandão, because he demonstrated that you don’t have to be a genius to write a genial book, Húmus; Fernando Pessoa, because the door through which one arrives at him is the door through which one arrives at Portugal; Kafka, because he proved that man is a coleopteron; Eça de Queiroz, because he taught irony to the Portuguese; Jorge Luis Borges, because he invented virtual literature; Gogol, because he contemplated human life and found it sad.

When I read this passage I was very happy and surprised. I was happy because Saramago seldom wrote about his literary interests, in fact he seldom wrote about literature at all, which is what makes his diaries so special; and I’m always curious to know what my favourite writers think of other writers and books. And I was surprised because, well, I didn’t expect some of the names on this list.

The ones I saw coming were Fernando Pessoa, because he wrote a novel about him (about one of his heteronyms, really) and Luís de Camões, because The Lusiads is the zenith of Portuguese literature. Eça didn’t surprise me either because Saramago has declared that The Maias is the greatest Portuguese novel ever written. I’d like to just make a humble correction: although Saramago rightly says that Eça taught irony to the Portuguese, it is doubtful how much they retained of his lessons. Portuguese literature is, it saddens me to say, very melancholy, very sombre. Humour, sarcasm and irony are not part of our spirit, save for some exceptions like Saramago. Eça, it must also be said, was a very atypical Portuguese writer and there was never anyone quite like him again in our national literature.

I also knew he admired Father António Vieira (rather ironic given his outspoken atheism) from a lovely entry he wrote in his blog. I’m not sure I agree that the “Portuguese language was never more beautiful than when he wrote it,” I think Vergílio Ferreira or even Saramago were better. But I can see his attraction to Vieira’s long, baroque sentences, with their archaic vocabulary, and their musical cadences – Vieira wrote sermons and so his words were to be heard and not read, another thing he has in common with Saramago, whose style is often and correctly described as oral. Anyone studying Saramago’s style can’t overlook Vieira. Gregory Rabassa, incidentally, has translated him.

His choice of Raul Brandão was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. I don’t understand what he means by Brandão proving that a writer doesn’t need genius to write a genial novel. It seems it’s meant as a compliment, albeit in rather twisted prose. Brandão was a literary genius and is considered one of the best and most important Portuguese novelists of the 20th century. Saramago rightfully singles out his masterpiece, Húmus, which I’ve written extensively about; I continue to hope Dedalus Press will one day consider my humble recommendation to translate it into English.

Cervantes is another choice that doesn’t surprise me, and Don Quixote is another novel I have to read soon. In fact, from his diaries Saramago seems more attuned to Spanish-language than Portuguese literature, given its rich tradition of irony and fantasy: magical realism was a style that prior to Saramago wasn’t used in Portugal. Montaigne was a surprise, and it reminds me I have to read his Essays as soon as possible too. I also didn’t expect Voltaire, but thinking about it, Candide does seem like the kind of novel Saramago would love, a searing satire of idealism. Although Saramago was socially and politically committed in his personal life and in his books, he always maintained a healthy dose of scepticism and pessimism about the future of mankind.

Kafka and Gogol are another two big surprises. Kafka is one of my favourite novelists, so the inclusion leaves me very content. I don’t have much of an opinion on Gogol, I loved a couple of his short-stories, but I keep postponing Dead Souls for no good reason. Perhaps in 2013 I’ll finally give it a try.

As for Jorge Luis Borges, yes! If José Saramago is my favourite novelist, Borges is my favourite writer. He’s the greatest writer that ever lived actually. So this leaves me very, very thrilled. Although Saramago never met Borges, he knew his wife, María Kodama, and his Foundation frequently organized events about Borges. Still I’m left wondering if Borges would have liked José Saramago. Borges was a conservative who didn’t hide his contempt for communists (his comments about Pablo Neruda are quite interesting), and although he’s considered one of the fathers of magical realism, according to Alberto Manguel in On Borges he didn’t like the books of Gabriel García Márquez, so there’s a good possibility he wouldn’t have liked Saramago either.

So there you have them, José Saramago’s favourite 11 writers.

Next week will be devoted to his diaries, full of juicy gossip and personal reflections about books, writers, politics and his own work.


  1. I find lists of recommended writers and works to be very interesting.When the list is created by a great thinker it is all the more intriguing.

    Though I have not read all of these choices this helps motivate me to get to them!

  2. I find lists such as this fascinating - especially when, as here, each item is accompanied by an explanation. I particularly like hi reason for including Montaigne: "Montaigne, because he didn’t need Freud to know who he was".

    None of us in Blogland is as distinguished as Saramago (I hope I don't offend anyone by saying that!) but perhaps we should all put together a list of the eleven writers who mean most to us. With reasons, of course!

  3. Hey, those are my - well, not my 11 favorite writers, but some of them are probably among my 11 favorite. I doubt Camões ever makes the 11 Favorite list when read in translation, reagardless of how fascinating the epic is, and you, Miguel, have already made me gnash my teeth about Brandão.

    My "because"s would be a lot less interesting than Saramago's.

  4. Brian, once again I suggest you read Fernando Pessoa; I'm sure you'd love The Book of Disquiet.

    argumentativeoldgit, that's a good idea. Once I finish this event, I'll try to create my own list of 11 writers.

    Tom, I personally prefer Camões' sonnets and lyrical poetry, his epic I think pales in comparison to Homer, Milton and Dante's.

  5. So Senhor José and I shared a few favorites. Good to know. And more writers to explore.

  6. "Borges was a conservative who didn’t hide his contempt for communists"
    This isn't totally true. He was a conservative but he liked also the works of Julio Cortàzar, and Cortàzar was a communist like Saramago... And I reccomend you the novel of Cortàzar of course, because like Borges and Saramago he is one of the greatest writer of '900. Sorry for the language, I'm italian.

    1. Hello, yes, I stand corrected. Perhaps it'd be better to say that he held communism in contempt. I'm sure he got along fine with many communist writers, well, if you're a writer in South America, you have to :)

  7. Saramago better than Vieira, Camões epic pales with Milton's...

    i loled