I shall go on painting the second picture but I know it will never be finished. I have tried without success and there is no clearer proof of my failure and frustration than this sheet of paper on which I am starting to write. Sooner or later I shall move from the first picture to the second and then turn to my writing, or I shall skip the intermediate stage or stop in the middle of a word to apply another brushstroke to the portrait commissioned by S. or to that other portrait alongside it which S. will never see. When that day comes I shall know no more than I know today (namely, that both pictures are worthless). But I shall be able to decide whether I was right to allow myself to be tempted by a form of expression which is not mine, although this same temptation may mean in the end that the form of expression I have been using as carefully as if I were following the fixed rules of some manual was not mine either. For the moment I prefer not to think about what I shall do if this writing comes to nothing, if, from now on, my white canvases and blank sheets of paper become a world orbiting thousands of light-years away where I shall not be able to leave the slightest trace. If, in a word, it were dishonest to pick up a brush or pen or if, once more in a word (the first time I did not succeed), I must deny myself the right to communicate or express myself, because I shall have tried and failed and there will be no further opportunities.
(Translated by Giovanni Pontiero)
Almost thirty years separate José Saramago’s first novel from his second one, Terra do Pecado (Land of Sin, 1947, a sensationalist title imposed by his editor) from Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. When asked about this interregnum, Saramago merely replied that he didn’t have anything to say. We know of course that he kept himself busy writing poems, newspaper articles and novels that were either left unfinished or neglected by editors. And, more importantly, if physically rather than spiritually, working for a living. It is often forgotten that Saramago didn’t make a living from his writing until he was in his sixties. For most of his life he had jobs – as a mechanic, a civil servant, a clerk at an insurance agency, editor, translator – to support himself. Perhaps most people regard this as a waste of time when he could have been creating more masterpieces. But Saramago would be the first person to consider these experiences essential to the worldview of the novelist he became.
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is a curious and important, but not remarkable, book in Saramago’s oeuvre for three reasons: a shift of interest in the type of protagonists; the adoption of a more complex style, based on the character’s inner existence rather than the exterior world; and the only use of a first person narrator in his novels. When Saramago wrote his first novel he was basically imitating 19th century novelists, namely Cousin Bazilio by Eça de Queiroz, the great Portuguese realist. Terra do Pecado was a tragic story of adultery between a rich widow and her brother-in-law. It ticked all the boxes of the genre and Saramago deserved an A for paying attention in class, but everything else from execution to characterisation was a C of B-, the novel was outdated in style and unremarkable in insight, and quickly disappeared. Decades later Saramago joked about the novel, remarking that he didn’t know what made him think he could write about things he didn’t know anything about like widows, and rich widows to boot. The grandchild of peasants, Saramago’s heart was always with ordinary people, people with manual skills for pottery and farming, even mediocre people, the people no one pays attention to because they don’t have great talents or interesting stories, in sum life’s nameless. One of his many nameless protagonists is H., a mediocre portraitist who knows he’s a mediocre portraitist. He will never create an immortal work of life, even if he dreams about it. As Manual of Painting and Calligraphy begins, he’s struggling to finish the portrait of a businessman called S. This difficulty leads H. to start keeping a diary to register his experiences about trying to paint S.’s portrait.
Notice that H. is not just a painter, he’s a portraitist. Few people nowadays – and in Portugal in 1976 – would bother to have their portraits painted, when they can have their photos taken, save for reasons of social and class status. One’s portrait is a sign that one is rich or has means at least. But if the portrait was a genre once practiced by the greatest painters of history, today it’s considered a second-rate talent, reserved for commercial hacks. Cubism, Dada and Surrealism have eliminated the human figure from art. H. is a man living behind his art form. Art has changed (let’s not say it has evolved because that doesn’t happen to art) and he failed to accompany the change (somewhere, I’m sure, I once read Saramago lambasting surrealist art and professing his love for realist paintings). Perhaps we can see in him a reflection of Saramago himself, struggling to modernize his own style. Terra do Pecado was all about images, sounds, smells, colours, it was a descriptive novel, in the noble tradition of the realist novel. This novel, instead, is about the mind of the protagonist, his impressions, his dreams, his memories, his experience of the world. There’s almost no plot, but lots of contemplation.
Once S.’s portrait is completed, H. continues to write. The book becomes a notebook of his thoughts, a sort of autobiography but also a commentary on the craft of autobiography, and the nature of identity and truth in fictional or personal writings. For this reason he frequently evokes the many possible ways writing has of mixing truth and fiction: the writings of authors who’ve penned autobiographies (Rousseau’s Confessions), fictionalised biographies (Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian), and fictional autobiographies (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).
At times the novel also becomes a travel book narrating one of H.’s visit, years before the action takes place, to Italy to see all the work of the Old Masters (again looking at the past and not the future). For H., travels are another way of writing autobiography. But this in turn transforms the novel into a sort of long essay about Renaissance art. Saramago once described this novel as a mixture of essay and novel, and it’s also significant in his oeuvre for being the first example of his intention to turn the novel into a place where different literary genres, arts and sciences could meet each other.
Towards the end of the novel H.’s digressions dissolve as the protagonist becomes romantically involved with M., the sister of one of H.’s friend, a friend arrested by the secret police for political reasons. Perhaps this is the most conventional part of the novel, but it’s also the one that meant more to me. It’s his only novel to deal openly with the dictatorship and the Carnation Revolution of 1974 (in the fact the novel ends on the 25th of April) and the final pages are very moving.
With this novel, Saramago was on the brink of discovering his style. He still used standard punctuation and his sentences weren’t yet serpentine riddles. The will to disperse his narrative in several directions is already latent, but convention continued to keep his oral style gagged. This is not to say that Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is a bad novel, not at all, but it’s a different novel. Maybe that’s even a good reason to read it.