Saramago, an old influence

February 19, 2014

Looking through old files, I find former selves. Here is one from June 2009:

The first sentence in José Saramago’s new novel, Death at Intervals: “The following day, no one died.”

Tonight, will dream of Saramago’s character, death (lowercase).


Sunday morning at two a.m., I finally finished reading Saramago’s All the Names. I’d bought the book last October at the Strand, the day the bookstore turned eighty, with various authors scattered throughout the store looking neglected and bored and self-conscious. For seven months I carried All the Names with me everywhere, putting it down now and again to concentrate on (late) proofreading jobs and on a new writing project, which was going more smoothly than I’d anticipated because of the long sentences I’d absorbed from Saramago.

Slow reading is extolled and encouraged, but I’m convinced now that I’m merely a scattered reader. Too much to do, too much to write and other things to read. Self-diagnosed ADHD.

On Sunday afternoon I strolled down to West 3rd for crepes. In a café where I sat down to coffee and to read a story for my writing group, I set All the Names on the table, and was distracted by its worn cover every time I looked up from the story. I read through the story quickly so I can start savoring the book again. I had about twenty more pages to go, the point where I can no longer keep the book open on the table with only my keys or phone, I have to hold it in my hand once again, to use it for the object it is. To hold a book at its start and at its end is unwieldy. I love the sensation of newness at the beginning (I just started a book . . . I am still reading this book . . . I am falling into this book . . . I am going to name my next dog Senhor José), and I am depressed at the eventual close near the end (Can there really be only X many pages to go?).

Senhor José has just sat down on a stranger’s couch.

Before I can read on, my imagination takes over: I see him moving into the stranger’s apartment, leaving behind his numbing job at the Central Registry to take over the stranger’s job, equally numbing but at least new, at an elementary school.

When I showed my friend the book a few weeks back, she read the cover and laughed: “This is you.”

Senhor José is a low-grade clerk in the Central Registry of an unnamed city, a department where the living and the dead share the same shelf space. A middle-aged bachelor, he has no interest in life beyond his daily routine of issuing certificates of birth, marriage, and death. But one day, when he chances upon the records of an anonymous young woman, something happens to him. Senhor José, newly obsessed—newly awakened—sets off to follow a threat that he hopes will lead him to the woman. But as he gets ever closer, he discovers more about her, and about himself, than he would ever have wished.

Since starting this book, I’ve been writing third-person narratives. I can’t do close third person, though. And my narrators are male.

I can’t pinpoint why I can’t do the same for a female narrator. Every time I try, I get “close” to the narrative, when I want to be as removed as possible. The intimacy is derived, for me at least, from the flow of the narrative, which is long and attempts to be all-encompassing.

A fellow writer said the other day: “I appreciate short stories for the economy of language, for saying everything in as few words as possible.”

To me, I’m not sure that’s what a short story is.

I want to learn how to control it, the way Saramago does. For instance, look at this beautiful passage, when Senhor José has just entered the woman’s apartment to look for clues into her life:

Senhor José slowly closed the drawer, he even started to open another but did not complete the movement, he stopped to think for a long minute, or perhaps it was only a few seconds that seemed like hours, then he firmly pushed the drawer shut, left the study and went and sat on one of the small sofas in the living room, where he remained. He looked at his old darned socks, the trousers that had lost their crease and had ridden up a little, his bony white shins with a few sparse hairs on them. He felt his body sinking into the soft concavity left by another body in the upholstery and the springs [. . .] The silence, which had seemed to him absolute, was interrupted now by noises from the street, especially, from time to time, by the passing of a car, but in the air too there was a slow breathing, a slow pulse, perhaps it was the way houses breathe when they are left alone, this one has probably not even realised yet that there is someone here now.

This is the ecstasy that I hope to reach in my stories—a focus on detail that shifts the narrative to an on-the-verge-to-be-awakened morality.


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