22 March 2011

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy (José Saramago)

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.
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, trans. Giovanni Pontiero

The opening paragraph of José Saramago's Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is unmistakable in its trademark tone. The lulls and pauses in the phrasing are searching for a way forward. The prose is laden with hesitations and qualifications, trying to overcome the clauses that skirt away from the general idea. The ideas are spreading like ripples in the pond, emanating from the center of consciousness. Above the surface hovers a unique voice, a singular mind, a ruthless thought process. Below is raging calm, propagating through perfect control of rhythm. The only comparison I can immediately think of is the artful opening of a Javier Marías.

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is a work of fiction, a novel, but it is an essay in the same way that Blindness and Seeing are essays on blindness and lucidity. It is narrated by H., a fifty-year old painter commissioned by S. for a portrait. The first few pages unfold slowly, telling of H.'s difficulties in producing two simultaneous portraits of his client. In order to get around to this problem, or more like to escape from it, H. decided to produce another third portrait of S., but this time the image will be in words. Through sudden impulse or instinct, H. decided to turn into writing (the "calligraphy" in the title).

I never expected this book to develop right off the bat a similar theme of another novel I finished last year, also from the Portuguese. The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector (translated by Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz) is narrated by a female painter who writes of her innermost consciousness and feelings the way colors unravel from the strokes of her paint brush, the way consciousness streams forth from a fountain of imagination. But where Lispector's prose issues forth quick as silver, Saramago's brush paints from a slow easel, building from primary colors as he established his plot. As in Lispector's "art book," plot is probably the least of Saramago's concern here. Manual is, from the outset, a novel of ideas: ideas about art, about the expressions and forms that art makes, and the relationships of these art forms.

Manual de Pintura e Caligrafia first came out in 1976, only Saramago's second published novel at that time. The first, The Land of Sin (still untranslated), appeared almost thirty years earlier. In between the two, he produced three collections of poetry (he did not publish poetry since then) and four collections of newspaper articles. The English translation of Manual, by Giovanni Pontiero, appeared in hardcover from Carcanet Press in 1994, and in paperback from the same publisher a year later. Among his earliest works in the original Portuguese, this is the first "window" to his works as it remains to be the earliest with an English translation. The translation, however, has since gone out of print.

The online sales pitch for this book goes like this: 'A rare first edition of the author's hard to find second novel. The novel is often thought of as his first but he published The Land of Sin in 1947; the book received little attention and upon being told that the book was out of print, Saramago replied "Thank God".' I'm not sure about the veracity of this claim. The alleged exclamation (from an avowed atheist) is interesting, and it is at least intriguing why this book has not been reprinted.

Last year The Collected Novels of José Saramago was released in e-book format, as an exclusive compendium of Saramago's fiction (twelve novels and one novella). This collection is missing Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. Why this book was not reprinted or included in the collected edition of his fiction is a mystery to me. It wasn't clear if he wanted to suppress this translation of the book. Was it due to the quality of the translation? Saramago was known for being very exacting about translation of his books. There was an instance when the novelist requested for a more faithful English translation of Baltasar & Blimunda as the first published version contains editorial amendments that he wished to be overruled. It could not be the translation since Giovanni Pontiero is a very good translator and esteemed even by Saramago. His prose work on The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Baltasar & Blimunda, Blindness are some of my favorite writings.

Maybe initial sales of Manual were poor so the publisher did not produce any more copies? But Saramago, Nobel laureate, is a big name now, almost a brand. His name recall alone will be enough to pull new readers and drive sales of this book, especially a book with such a mysterious title.

Perhaps Saramago considered this early effort to be minor, not at par with his later novels which are considered masterpieces? But the book has been released lately in other languages.

Maybe there are some copyright issues with this book? Or maybe the supposedly overt political theme of the book is the reason? Saramago was a staunch follower of communism and this book had some political color directly linked to its historical backdrop, the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 and the overthrow of Salazar. But I still doubt that the politics of the novel was enough reason not to republish it. In the arenas of politics and religion, Saramago courted controversy like black ink stain on bright white paper.

Whatever the reason, the rarity of this novel makes it Saramago's priciest book. By sheer luck, I was able to acquire both the paperback and hardcover. A month or so before the Senhor died, the OOP book suddenly appeared online at a very cheap price. Through a friend, I was able to snag a copy of the hardback. The paperback I got, of all places, from the book swap site BookMooch.

First posted in Project Dogeared.

Flips Flipping Pages will discuss Saramago's Blindness on March 26.

Related post: Stark white


  1. It's a shame that this is not available to me, as this sounds a really beguiling book, one I already find fascinating through your post. what translated book by him would you most recommend.

  2. I'm on bookmooch, if you want to link up (friend) I'm parrish (in the UK) or let me know your user name thanks.

  3. Great post, Rise. I've read a couple of works by Saramago but have never heard of this (though I'm happy to report that the library here has a copy of this translation, so I've added it to the ever-lengthening list...).

  4. I've added you in BM, parrish.

    I think every book by Saramago has a unique charm of its own. This book here will probably bore a number of readers but interior narration and a wandering story are always a plus for me. Of the 4 by Saramago I've finished, 'The Gospel According to Jesus Christ' is a personal favorite. Followed by 'Blindness' - a compelling thought experiment.

    Scott, I'm still in the middle of the book, and I'm surprised I find it to be absorbing. I've a high tolerance for Saramago's quirky style even if I'm not discounting the possibility that he really considered this to be a minor work.

  5. Since your post, the novel has been reprinted by Mariner in paperback:


    I don't know of any particular animosity by Saramago against this novel. I do think it's a minor novel, written prior to discovering his voice in Raised from the Ground. Having read it almost at the end of his oeuvre, I found it disappointing. But it's miles ahead of Terra do Pecado, and it's a curious work because it's the only Saramago novel written in the first person.

  6. Another posthumous reissue of an early novel? Is there a pattern here? Really I must read more of him. These reissues/new translations certainly cast light on his evolution as a political writer.