Literary Dazibao/Dazibao Literário

The essay below was sent by Ilona Ryder as a contribution to the discussions of the “Multilingual Writers Gathering”.  

An immigrant from Austria, Ilona has been part of the English Department faculty at Grant McEwan College since 1994 

      Multilinguality in Literature 


At the Multilingual Writers Gathering in Edmonton, participants are focusing on the current issues and challenges for writers who come from another language or are very familiar with other languages, writers who may have written or still write other-than-English. We’ve heard readings from a wonderful collection of works, The Story that Brought me Here: To Alberta from Everywhere. At panel discussions and workshops, we’ll be concentrating on the contemporary scene and thinking about the business of our work. 

In our current interest in globalization, these are, of course, very pertinent subjects. But I was recently reminded that writers and artists, thinkers and creative people in all walks of life have always crossed boundaries between cultures and languages. As far back as we can go in human history, people have integrated the ideas of other cultures – ideas expressed in other languages – with their native language in an effort to communicate those ideas to their own people. Alternatively, migrating people have adopted new languages and have then begun expressing themselves (for the most part) in those new languages. We tend to lump much of this activity under translation. Indeed, translation is not only an activity but an entire industry for writers around the world. 

There is another way besides all-out translation, however, that writers often employ. We talked about it at this gathering, and in our own reading, most of us have come across this practice: the mixing in of foreign phrases or short passages in the text of a dominant language – in our case, probably English. These words and phrases, exclamations and quotations are normally translated directly or indirectly by the author for the benefit of a wide reading audience. 

Lest we fool ourselves into thinking this is a new phenomenon or practice, something we have invented in our latest, greatest of world migrations, we should think again. I want to share with you just two examples – one from the early twentieth century, and one from almost a hundred years earlier – that may serve to introduce this interesting subject in terms of written text, in terms of literature. 

When I first started thinking about this, a friend reminded me that songs are often played in their original language. I listen to and support CKUA, where quite a large percent of the music has non-English lyrics, but as my friend says, “It’s easier in a song, because you have the melody support to help the people that can’t understand the second, or third, or fourth language.” 

And then there is conversation; immigrants have a way of making a “perfect mix of languages” intelligible to each other. How well I remember my mother and me, laughing about the way we mixed English and German, but that’s material for stories waiting to be told. 


My first example of multilinguality in written text is from Ernest Hemingway. As one of the pleasures of retirement, I’ve been catching up on my reading. One of the first books that I dusted off – a book I bought some years ago from a book club – is the 1987 Finca Vigía edition by Scribner’s of New York: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, and it contains – apparently for the first time – all his published short prose as well as some previously unpublished work. 

I was reading my way through the so-called “first forty-nine” stories, published as a collection in 1938, recognizing a few that I’d seen in anthologies, including “Hills Like White Elephants,” which I’d taught in English class. 

We don’t always think of the fact that, as a result of his World War I experience in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps on the Italian front, living as an expatriate in Paris, and taking part in the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway had become well acquainted with French, German, Italian and Spanish. The foreign phrases that appear in several of these “first forty-nine” stories are easily understood: the Italian bianco on the subject of wine, or pane, salami, formaggio in a story about fishing in northern Italy. There are specialized terms of the bullfight in “The Undefeated”: novillos, cuadrilla, patio de caballos – but they can be figured out. The first part of the set titled “Homage to Switzerland” employs multilingual dialogue, but the context provides meaning: 

Johnson walked over with the wine list to the table where the three porters sat. They looked up at him. They were old men 

“Wollen sie drinken?” He asked. One of them nodded and smiled. 

“Oui, monsieur.” 

You speak French?” (325) 

But when I came to the story “Wine of Wyoming” which uses French quite freely – translating only occasionally – I was surprised. And I had to work hard to understand without pulling out my Larousse. 

One of the main characters, Madame Fontan, not only speaks French much of the time, but she mixes French and English in hilarious fashion. Even more surprising, the French is not printed in italics, which is the normal cue. Here are a couple of passages. 

She was a plump old woman … from Lens [in France] 

“Where did you eat?” [she asked] 

“At the hotel.” 

“Mangez ici. Il ne faut pas manger à l’hôtel ou au restaurant. Mangez ici!” 

“I don’t want to make you trouble. And besides they eat all right at the hotel.” (343) 

In this passage, the context and the fact that the other speaker replies in English – letting us know he understands — makes the exchange quite realistic. Here is an example of mixing languages: 

“Perhaps he wants some kek,” Fontan said. 

“I should have gotten some kek for him,” Madame Fontan said. “Mangez du fromage. Mangez du crímcheez. Vous n’avez rien mange. I ought have gotten kek. Americans always eat kek.” 

It was quite a shock to me to think that Hemingway wrote this story sometime between 1920 and 1938 – way before the current interest in multilingual / immigrant writers. That train of thought led to my next example, a book that is considered travel literature. 


Anna Brownell Jameson published Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, in 1838. I came to Jameson after a long search for a suitable subject for my Masters Thesis in English studies at the University of Alberta in the late 1980’s. Ian MacLaren, one of my professors and my thesis advisor, suggested Jameson’s book. The search had circled around early Canadian literature partly because Dr. MacLaren kept saying in class, “this poet or that theme needs to be studied further,” but my decision to work with this particular book was also because of the German connection. 

Maybe because I was an immigrant from Austria which is a German speaking country, and because I had to learn English rather quickly and by myself at the age of nine, I’ve always been interested in the crossovers between these two languages and the cultural perceptions that come along with such a relationship. 

Anna Jameson was born Irish, grew up in England, but gained knowledge of continental languages and cultures through her travels as a governess. She was largely self-educated, and her interests brought her into the literary circles of Germany, among others, and in particular, she struck up a fast friendship with Ottilie von Goethe, the wife of the great man. In that circle, she became acquainted with German Romantic literature, and German became her next best language to her native English. 

When Jameson came to Canada to attempt a reconciliation with her husband, the then Attorney General of Upper Canada, she brought with her a trunk full of her books, many by the German romantics – the classics of fiction we still know, dramas, poetry, and related writings. 

One morning, in the depths of winter in Toronto, Jameson beats back despair and boredom by “ranging” – arranging, sorting – her German books. And thus begins one of her lengthy meditations about the effect of cultural and language differences, meditations that she uses to stimulate her mind and pass the time. In this first discussion, she deals with the drama Corregio by one — Oehlenschlager, a play about an artist. Thus, in this case, sensibilities about art also come into play. 

Jameson quotes several passages from the play, and in this case, she translates them – another stimulating exercise… However, and this is the main point I wish to make here, there are numerous instances of the author NOT translating passages of German. 

The epigraph for the first chapter is a quotation of Bettine von Arnim that compares the desolation and desperation of Winter in nature to an abandoned heart. 

Sind denn die Bäume auch so trostlos, so verzweiflungs voll in ihrem Winter, wie das Herz in seiner Verlassenheit? (15) 

Those of you who understand German will immediately appreciate the pathos in these words even without thinking of the English meaning of the individual words: Are then the trees also as inconsolable, as desparaing in their winter, as the heart in its abandonment? 

Jameson does, of course, quote English writers too: Wordsworth, Pope, Browning, even Shakespeare, as well as minor authors. It should be mentioned that she also includes an Ojibway song, complete with lyrics and music! 

The book contains at least one other German chapter epigraph, and numerous minor passages that are left un-translated. Jameson reaches beyond literature to philosophy with this exclamation: 

O Welt! Du schöne Welt, Du! 

Mann sieht Dich vor Blümen kaum! 

but here she describes the scene to explain the meaning (although not in verse): “… for thus in some places did a rich embroidered pall of flowers literally hide the earth” (238). 

Finally, here’s an example of what I’d call “reverse non-translation.” She is relating Goethe’s perception of Lord Byron, and writes, “Goethe seems to have understood him astonishingly well – I mean the man as well as the poet.” Then Jameson footnotes that statement with a sentence in German: “Lord Byron ist nur gross wenn er dichtet, sobald er reflectiert, ist er ein kind” (120). Here is a literal translation of that sentence: Lord Byron is great only when he writes poetry. As soon as he reflects, he is a child. 

Some of what Jameson does may, of course, be taken as a bit of snobbery: she also sprinkles her text with the odd French and Italian phrase, which was and is perhaps still a habit among some writers. I do, however, believe that she expected her readers to be knowledgeable of German, at least. She expected them to be able to keep up with her discussions of literature, philosophy, geography, and bias toward women and Indians. 


So if we have the urge to use words and phrases from our first language, from our other languages, and perhaps mix them in with our adopted English in speech and written words, let’s remember that this is a natural thing, that we are following a great tradition –so let’s continue to celebrate such multilinguality in our reading and writing. 


Saramago visitou Belo Horizonte cinco vezes e incluiu a cidade em sua obra

Walter Sebastião – Estado de Minas

Publicação: 18/06/2010 19:23 Atualização: 18/06/2010 21:13

Em 2000, Saramago voltou a visitar o Brasil e passou por Belo Horizonte - (Jair Amaral/EM/DAPress)  
Em 2000, Saramago voltou a visitar o Brasil e passou por Belo Horizonte

“Belo Horizonte tem lugar especial na vida de José Saramago”, garante Afonso Borges, criador do projeto Sempre um papo, contando que a cidade é citada no livro Cadernos de Lanzarote 2. Foi ele quem trouxe o escritor a Minas Gerais em 1987, 1997, 1999 e 2000. Aqui, Saramago fez o lançamento mundial de Todos os nomes, em 1997. A capital mineira também recebeu a visita do romancista pouco depois de ele ganhar o Nobel de Literatura.

Saiba mais…

Fernando Meirelles diz que mundo ficou mais cego sem Saramago Adaptação de livro de Saramago para o cinema trai o original A defesa do comunismo e o ateísmo de Saramago competiam com sua literatura Lula: Saramago foi decisivo para valorização do idioma Serralheiro, Saramago só se dedicou integralmente à literatura aos 53 anos Nélida Piñon representará a ABL nos funerais de Saramago Morte de Saramago provoca luto no Brasil e no mundo Para o presidente de Portugal, Saramago era referência cultural do país ABL decreta luto de três dias por morte de Saramago Saramago sofria de problemas respiratórios, diz jornal Academia Mineira de Letras lamenta morte de Saramago Morre aos 87 anos o escritor português José Saramago

Em 1997, depois de ouvir de Afonso Borges que o Palácio das Artes tinha 500 lugares (são 1.750), o escritor foi pego de surpresa ao chegar ao Grande Teatro e ser ovacionado pela multidão. “Menti”, confessa Borges. “Com bom humor, ele disse que pela primeira vez estava sentindo o vento dos aplausos”.

Saramago chegou a passar alguns dias em BH, tempo suficiente para experimentar a comida mineira (na casa da empresária Angela Gutierrez) e de se admirar com a Pampulha. Afonso Borges não esconde a surpresa com a diferença entre as imagens pública (homem sério, ortodoxo e de opiniões polêmicas) e privada de Saramago (afável, bem-humorado e de temperamento cordial). Lamenta que ambas se misturem.

“Ele fez literatura humanista, com grande sensibilidade, escrita por um homem cético e pessimista em relação ao ser humano. Saramago dizia que não era pessimista, mas realista”, observa o produtor cultural mineiro.
Em Cadernos de Lanzarote, o português narra a surpresa, mal chegando a Belo Horizonte, de ser localizado por uma chamada da Europa, à qual atendeu no celular de Afonso Borges. “Eu tinha um auricular, aquele fone de ouvido com microfone, e o passei para ele, que conversou com quem o procurava. Terminada a ligação, perguntou: ‘Mas como? É milagre?’. Brinquei: ‘Milagre, não. É satélite’. E ele respondeu: ‘Deveria ser milagre, porque se pudéssemos fazer este, faríamos outros’”, relembra Borges.

Confira o trailler do documentário ‘José e Pilar’, que conta a história do casal José Saramago e Pilar Del Río, que estreia em novembro no Brasil   


Morte de Saramago provoca luto no Brasil e no mundo 

Thiago Ventura – Portal Uai 

Publicação: 18/06/2010 15:00 Atualização: 18/06/2010 17:29 

Corpo de Saramago é velado em Lanzarote, na Espanha - (AFP PHOTO / DESIREE MARTIN )  
Corpo de Saramago é velado em Lanzarote, na Espanha

A morte do escritor português José Saramago nesta sexta-feira repercutiu em vários setores da sociedade, da cultura à política em todo o mundo. A Academia Brasileira de Letras (ABL) decretou luto acadêmico de três dias. 

O escritor português José Saramago, de 87 anos, morreu em consequência de falência múltipla dos órgãos, depois de um longo período com a saúde fragilizada. Prêmio Nobel de Literatura em 1998, Saramago morreu na Ilha de Lanzarote, uma das Ilhas Canárias, onde vivia desde os anos 90. 

Conheça os livros mais importantes da carreira de José Saramago  

Saiba mais…

José Saramago Críticas ao ateísmo de Saramago no twitter de Marina provocam polêmica Lula exalta origem humilde de José Saramago Para o presidente de Portugal, Saramago era referência cultural do país Amorim diz que contribuição de Saramago vai além da literatura ABL decreta luto de três dias por morte de Saramago Saramago tinha orgulho da língua portuguesa, diz professor da UFMG Saramago sofria de problemas respiratórios, diz jornal Academia Mineira de Letras lamenta morte de Saramago Ganhador do Prêmio Nobel de Literatura promoveu a rebeldia Morre aos 87 anos o escritor português José Saramago  

O presidente Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva  divulgou nota no final da tarde, destacando a origem humilde de Saramago que, autodidata, tornou-se um dos maiores escritores do mundo. “Saramago nunca esqueceu suas origens, tornando-se militante das causas sociais e da liberdade por toda a vida. Neste momento de dor, quero me solidarizar, em nome dos brasileiros, com toda a nação portuguesa pela perda de seu filho ilustre”, assina. 

O ministro da Cultura, Juca Ferreira, lamentou em nota a morte de Saramago. Ferreira afirmou que o escritor mantinha relações privilegiadas com o Brasil. “A sua perda é recebida com muita tristeza, particularmente pelos que têm apreço pela língua portuguesa e por sua importância cultural em tantos continentes”, afirmou. 

O ministro, que está em Lisboa, onde participa da 7ª Reunião de Ministros da Cultura da Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP). 

“Saramago foi o mais firme herdeiro de uma longa tradição: o iberismo português. Poucos como ele amaram e conheceram tão profundamente nossas duas culturas”, declarou a diretora do Instituto Cervantes, Carmen Caffarel. 

Vários escritores lamentaram a perda de Saramago nesta sexta-feira. O uruguaio Eduardo Galeano, autor de As veias abertas da América Latina lembrou da imortalidade da obra do escritor português: “Quero dizer, simplesmente, que neste mundo há finais que também são começos, mortes que são nascimentos. E é disso que se trata” 

O presidente de Portugal, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, disse nesta sexta-feira que o escritor José Saramago era uma “referência da cultura portuguesa” e que sua “vasta obra literária deve ser lida e conhecida pelas gerações futuras”.



Saramago fala durante conferência de imprensa da apresentação de A Viagem do Elefante, em Madri. Foto de dezembro de 2008.  - (REUTERS/Rocio Pelaez)

Saramago fala durante conferência de imprensa da apresentação de A Viagem do Elefante, em Madri. Foto de dezembro de 2008.


Writing for a living: a joy or a chore?

Colm Tóibín claims he does not enjoy writing very much. Do other authors share his view? 

The Guardian, Tuesday 3 March 2009

Article history

AL Kennedy

AL Kennedy The joy of writing for a living is that you get to do it all the time. The misery is that you have to, whether you’re in the mood or not. I wouldn’t be the first writer to point out that doing something so deeply personal does become less jolly when you have to keep on at it, day after cash-generating day. To use a not ridiculous analogy: Sex = nice thing. Sex For Cash = probably less fun, perhaps morally uncomfy and psychologically unwise. Sitting alone in a room for hours while essentially talking in your head about people you made up earlier and then writing it down for no one you know does have many aspects which are not inherently fulfilling. Then again, making something out of nothing, overturning the laws of time and space, building something for strangers just because you think they might like it and hours of absence from self – that’s fantastic. And then it’s over, which is even better. I’m with RLStevenson – having written – that’s the good bit. 

Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri Writing novels is no fun; nor is, generally speaking, reading novels. Reading people writing about novels is not always fun, either, because relatively little of this kind of writing is any good. Then there’s the group of people who don’t enjoy being novelists, to which I probably belong; whose lives are at once shaped and defined by, and to some extent entrapped in, the act of writing fiction. I still find it difficult to believe that I’m something called a ‘novelist’; but this hasn’t stopped me from dreaming, frequently, of alternative professions: second-hand bookshop owner; corporate worker; cinematographer. There are many reasons for this unease. One of them is a fundamental discomfort with narrative itself, and involves admitting to yourself that you derive your basic pleasure not from knowing what happens next, but from arrested time or eventlessness; this makes you constantly wish, as you’re writing, that you were elsewhere, or it makes you work to make the novel accommodate that impulse. Another reason is the professionalisation of the vocation, so that the novelist is supposed to produce novels as naturally, automatically, and regularly as a cow gives milk. In such a constraining situation, money can certainly be a compensatory pleasure; so can that paradoxical and sly addiction, failure. 

Hari Kunzru

Hari Kunzru I get great pleasure from writing, but not always, or even usually. Writing a novel is largely an exercise in psychological discipline – trying to balance your project on your chin while negotiating a minefield of depression and freak-out. Beginning is daunting; being in the middle makes you feel like Sisyphus; ending sometimes comes with the disappointment that this finite collection of words is all that remains of your infinitely rich idea. Along the way, there are the pitfalls of self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you’ve nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting. But when you’re in the zone, spinning words like plates, there’s a deep sense of satisfaction and, yes, enjoyment… 

John Banville

John Banville Civilisation’s greatest single invention is the sentence. In it, we can say anything. That saying, however, is difficult and peculiarly painful. Whether we are writing a novel or a letter to our bank manager, we have the eerie sensation that we are not so much writing as being written, that language in its insidious way is using us as a medium of expression and not vice versa. The struggle of writing is fraught with a specialised form of anguish, the anguish of knowing one will never get it right, that one will always fail, and that all one can hope to do is ‘fail better’, as Beckett recommends. The pleasure of writing is in the preparation, not the execution, and certainly not in the thing executed. The novelist daily at his desk eats ashes, and if occasionally he encounters a diamond he is likely to break a tooth on it. Money is necessary to pay the dentist’s bills. 

Will Self

Will Self I gain nothing but pleasure from writing fiction; short stories are foreplay, novellas are heavy petting – but novels are the full monte. Frankly, if I didn’t enjoy writing novels I wouldn’t do it – the world hardly needs any more and I can think of numerous more useful things someone with my skills could be engaged in. As it is, the immersion in parallel but believable worlds satisfies all my demands for vicarious experience, voyeurism and philosophic calithenics. I even enjoy the mechanics of writing, the dull timpani of the typewriter keys, the making of notes – many notes – and most seducttive of all: the buying of stationery. That the transmogrification of my beautiful thoughts into a grossly imperfect prose is always the end result doesn’t faze me: all novels are only a version- there is no Platonic ideal. But I’d go further still: fiction is my way of thinking about and relating to the world; if I don’t write I’m not engaged in any praxis, and lose all purchase. 

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates Given that the act of writing provokes such misery, why do you do it? – here is the writer’s perennial riddle. Every writer is asked this question, or its artful variants, and every writer comes up with some plausible answer, the most arresting of which would seem to have been Flannery O’Connor’s: “Because I’m good at it.” It’s rare that a writer – a literary writer, that is, like Colm Tóibín – will acknowledge that he writes for money, since most literary writers obviously don’t write for money – a prose fiction writer’s hourly wage, broken down into units, would be in the modest range of the US minimum wage of the 1950s – approximately $1 per hour. 

And when Colm Tóibín began writing, he could have had no idea that he’d ever be paid, or even published; obviously, the motive for the form of artful mimicry we call prose fiction goes much deeper, and is inaccessible to interviewers. 

Recall that DH Lawrence warned us to trust the tale, not the teller – the teller of fictions is likely to be a liar. Darwinian evolutionary psychology suggests that none of us really knows what has made us what we are, still less why we behave so eccentrically as we do; when we are pressed to explain ourselves, we invent. In the Renaissance, poets claimed repeatedly that they wrote for posterity – to be “immortal.” In religious communities, the creation of any art was for the glory of God. In a capitalist society, one is likely to claim that one writes for the same purpose that everyone else produces a product–for money. 

To me, who has written for most of her adult life, in a number of genres and with wildly varying degrees of “enjoyment” and/or “misery”, it’s likely that writing is a conscious variant of a deep-motivated unconscious activity, like dreaming. Why do we dream? No one seems to really know, just as no one seems to really know why we crave stories, even or especially stories we know to be fiction. My experience of writing – of writing these very sentences, for instance – is invariably a blend of the initially “inspired” and the more exacting, or plodding, execution of inspiration. 

Most writers find first drafts painfully difficult, like climbing a steep stairs, the end of which isn’t in sight. Only just persevere! Eventually, you will get where you are gong, or so you hope. And when you get there, you will not ask why? – the relief you feel is but a brief breathing spell, before beginning again with another inspiration, another draft, another steep climb. “I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake'” – these words of the young DH Lawrence in a letter written before the first world war are probably as reliable as any. 

Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer When I was young, I thought that the fun part of writing would be the “creative” bit, making stuff up and inventing things. The older I’ve got, the less fun this has become. I dread it. The part I enjoy is the re-writing. Increasingly, I enjoy the dullest, most clerical stages of the process. Having said that, there always comes a point, after I’ve amassed enough material and can start knocking it into shape, when I begin looking forward to working on something. Basically it gets easier and easier each day until the last five or six months are a real pleasure and I can spend long and happy days doing it. I always hope I can carry over that momentum from the end of one book to the beginning of another but, unfortunately, it’s strictly non-transferable. So I then spend a year or so doing nothing until that becomes even more intolerable than doing something. 

Ronan Bennett

Ronan Bennett I am not a tortured writer. Sometimes the writing does not go well and I can feel frustrated and disappointed with myself. Sometimes I do not feel like writing and sometimes I lose faith in what I’m writing. But I take a pretty robust view about all this because I tend to believe it will come good eventually. I’m not sure I would describe as pleasurable the actual process of writing, even when it’s going well, but when I know in my bones that I’ve written a good book, like The Catastrophist or Havoc, In Its Third Year, I do certainly feel on a high. Good reviews please me, but nothing like as much as meeting readers who tell me they were moved or provoked by one of my books. To enjoy a certain level of public regard, the support of publishers and to be financially rewarded – if this is not a pleasure it’s at least a rare privilege. 

Julie Myerson

Hay festival: Julie Myerson Writing gives me such enormous pleasure, and I’m a much happier (and therefore nicer) person when I’m doing it. There’s a place in my head that I go to when I write and it’s so rich and unexpected – and scary sometimes – but never ever dull. I first went there when I was seven and I wrote a poem which startled me a bit because it felt like someone else had written it. The adrenaline rush that gave me was incredible and I wanted more. These days, maybe because I can now access that place quite easily, writing feels like something I simply could not live without. It is a joyous thing. I feel very lucky to be paid to do it, but even if I’d never been published, I think I’d still be writing. I love being read, but the person I’m really always writing for is me. 


Best thing about writing? Money

The award-winning author Colm Toíbín has revealed that he gets no enjoyment from his acclaimed work – not even the good reviews Alison Flood

The Guardian, Tuesday 3 March 2009

Article history

Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin. Photograph: Murdo Macleod 

Three hundred years ago Samuel Johnson declared that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”. Now the Irish novelist Colm Toíbín has admitted to feeling much the same way, despite his slew of awards and the high esteem in which he is held by the literary establishment. 

In an interview with fellow novelist MJ Hyland, Toíbín said he took no enjoyment from writing his books – or from reading good reviews – and that the best thing about being a writer was financial success. 

“Oh there’s no pleasure. Except that I don’t have to work for anyone who bullies me,” he said in response to Hyland’s question about how writing makes him feel. 

“I write with a sort of grim determination to deal with things that are hidden and difficult and this means, I think, that pleasure is out of the question. I would associate this with narcissism anyway and I would disapprove of it.” 

Toíbín said he hadn’t enjoyed writing any of his books, from his debut The South to his two Booker-shortlisted novels The Blackwater Lightship, about a young man dying of Aids who returns to his home in Ireland, and The Master, a portrait of Henry James. 

“After a while [writing is] not really difficult, but it’s never fun or anything. With a few of the books, especially The Heather Blazing and The Master and the new novel Brooklyn, there has been a real problem in not having a sort of breakdown as I worked on a particular passage,” he said in the interview, which appeared yesterday in the second edition of the online arts journal the Manchester Review at 

“I don’t want to go on about this too much, but there is a passage in each of those books which I found almost impossible to write and then harder and harder to rewrite. I hope never to have to look at those passages again.” 

In response to Hyland’s query about what the best thing was about being a writer, he replied: “The money. I never knew there would be money … It has nothing to do with enjoyment. I like selling foreign rights, but that feeling would last no longer than 20 minutes.” 

The moment when he was declared winner of the International IMPAC Dublin award – worth €100,000 – for The Master must also have been a good one for the writer. 

In his casting of himself as a professional author, in the literary game for the money, Toíbín finds himself in good company, from Samuel Johnson to Thomas Hardy, who much preferred his poetry to his novels, seeing works including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge as merely a way to make a living. 

Charles Dickens, meanwhile, was determined to make as much money as he could with his novels, while Dostoevsky churned out his novels because he desperately needed the money. 

Toíbín said he would never quit, because he has “things that will not go away – some of them are true, some slowly become imagined”. 

He believes that his desire to seek fame as a novelist is “essentially neurotic”. He told Hyland: “I don’t think we have a right to enjoy our neuroses; in fact I believe that we have a duty not to. But we cannot walk away from ourselves. Who else is there to become?” 


Writers Beyond Borders is a creation of multilingual writers that’s starting in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but it’s not restricted to any specific border. The link to it is 


 The Guardian interviews Saramago – November 22, 2008 


‘I don’t make excuses for what communist regimes have done. But I have the right to keep my ideas’, Saturday November 22 2008 00.01 GMT

The Guardian, Saturday November 22 2008

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José Saramago

‘We’re already in hell’ … José Saramago. Photograph: Francisco Leong/AFP 

There is a revealing moment when José Saramago, Portugal’s austere Nobel laureate, relaxes into laughter, and it comes as he is talking of his own death. Frail and unflaggingly upright in posture, he is in an armchair in his compact, postwar house in Lisbon, sheltering from the city’s Atlantic drizzle beside a smoking log fire. Rushed to hospital last winter with a respiratory illness, he recalls: “They were reluctant to take me because I was in such a serious condition.” Chuckling, he adds: “they didn’t want to be the hospital where José Saramago died.” 

His amusement may stem from a mischievous sense of thwarting expectations, as much as delight at his reprieve. “I don’t see it as a miracle,” he makes clear (he is an atheist), “but my chances of recovering were very slim.” Yet it also suggests an ironic stance towards his late fame. He first worked as a car mechanic and metal-worker before eventually devoting himself to fiction in his 50s. He was 60 when his breakthrough fourth novel, Memorial of the Convent (1982), was published. A baroque tale set during the Inquisition in 18th-century Lisbon, it tells of the love between a maimed soldier and a young clairvoyant, and of a renegade priest’s heretical dream of flight. The novel’s translation in 1988 as Baltasar and Blimunda, by the late Giovanni Pontiero, brought Saramago to the English-speaking world, and it was turned into an opera in 1990. Its success accelerated his output of some 15 novels, plus short stories, poetry, plays, memoir, and the travelogue Journey to Portugal (1990). In 1998 the Nobel committee praised his “parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”, and his “modern scepticism” about official truths. 

After several months in hospital, Saramago returned home in February. Last week he turned 86, and he has resumed a hectic schedule. The adaptation of Blindness, by Brazilian film-maker Fernando Meirelles, opens this weekend in UK cinemas. Saramago attended a preview in Lisbon, where the pink elephant on the cover of his new novel, The Elephant’s Journey, fills bookshop windows. He is about to fly to Brazil, where he has a huge following, to open an exhibition in São Paulo on his life and work. 

His fledgling José Saramago Foundation is poised to move into new premises. Speaking through a translator, he says the aim is to “bring a new dynamic to cultural life in Portugal”. The foundation’s director is Saramago’s wife of 20 years, Pilar del Rio, a journalist who is now his Spanish translator. 

For the past 15 years, the couple have lived mainly in a clifftop house in Lanzarote. They moved after the Portuguese government, under pressure from the Vatican, vetoed nomination of his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) for an EU literary prize. (He demanded – and later received – a public apology.) In Saramago’s humanist, “heretical gospel”, Jesus, the son of Joseph, has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, and challenges the power-hungry God who demands sacrifice of him. When Saramago provoked a storm in Portugal last year by saying the country would inevitably become a province of a united Iberia, some thought his remarks were motivated by a lingering anger. Yet he insists: “I left the country as a protest against the government of the time, not anger at Portugal. I pay my taxes in Portugal. This year alone I’ve spent more than six months here.” 

His move to Lanzarote marked a shift in his fiction. His later books, set in unspecified countries, are less tangibly rooted in Portuguese life and history, or the streets and storms of Lisbon. The speculative element has come to the fore. Another writer of speculative fiction, Ursula K Le Guin, admires in them the “sound, sweet humour” and simplicity of a “great artist in full control of his art”. Yet for the novelist Helder Macedo, emeritus professor of Portuguese at King’s College London, Saramago has always been a “writer of allegories with a universal outlook. His starting-point is not ‘once upon a time’, but ‘what if?’.” For Saramago, “my work is about the possibility of the impossible. I ask the reader to accept a pact; even if the idea is absurd, the important thing is to imagine its development. The idea is the point of departure, but the development is always rational and logical.” 

Meirelles was drawn to Blindness (republished this month by Vintage) by the novel’s vision of “how fragile our civilisation is, and how easily it can collapse”. Yet for Saramago, “I don’t see the veneer of civilisation, but society as it is. With hunger, war, exploitation, we’re already in hell. With the collective catastrophe of total blindness, everything surfaces – positive and negative. It’s a portrait of how we are.” The crux is “who has the power and who doesn’t; who controls the food supply and exploits the rest”. 

It is only the second of his books that he has allowed to be filmed – after George Sluizers The Stone Raft in 2002. Reluctant to let “a violent book about social degradation, rape” fall into the wrong hands, he refused many offers. But he deems Meirelles’s movie, which was shot in São Paulo, Uruguay and Canada, and opened this year’s festival at Cannes, a “great film”. Its success in South America, including Brazil, contrasts with a tepid response in the US. 

Death at Intervals, published in Britain earlier this year, was inspired, says Saramago, by the idea of “what would happen if death took a holiday”. When people in a landlocked country stop dying, a clandestine mafia in league with a crisis government takes the moribund across the border to be buried. Death personified as a woman is being kept from her job by a love affair with a cellist. For Saramago, “I don’t see it as a love story. Some people read it as love winning over death, but to me, that’s pure illusion.” In his view, “the church tried to find an explanation for the creation of the world, and they’ve been defending that idea ever since – with violence. It’s a murderous intolerance, like the Inquisition burning people who are seen to be different. The new Pope wants rigid dogma to be respected and not questioned. I’m against that. We can’t accept truth coming from other people. We must always be able to question those truths.” 

Saramago was born in 1922 into a peasant family in Azinhaga, a village in Ribatejo, northeast of Lisbon. When he was two, they moved to the capital, where his father José, an artilleryman in the first world war, found a job as a traffic policeman and his mother worked as a domestic cleaner. After the 1926 coup d’etat overthrew the republic, António de Salazar rose to power with his fascist militias and PIDE secret police. Small Memories, Saramago’s memoir which is published in Britain next year, describes his family’s sordid living conditions in Lisbon and hints at a coercive submission within the household to the fascist slogan of “God, Fatherland, Family”. 

Set against this were his maternal grandparents, Jerónimo and Josefa, with whom he spent school holidays in Azinhaga: “They were poor farmers who couldn’t read or write but were very good people, and made an impression on me for life. My best memories were not of Lisbon but of the village where I was born.” His grandfather, a “swineherd and storyteller” who could “set the universe in motion” with legends and apparitions, died in 1948. Fifty years later, Saramago paid tribute in his Nobel lecture. He was intrigued that Josefa’s father was from Morocco. “To give my great-grandfather a more romantic image, I said he was Berber, but it’s not certain.” According to Carlos Reis, rector of Portugal’s Open University and author of Dialogues with José Saramago (1998), he still derives a “moral superiority and wisdom” from his humble background. 

Shortly after the family moved to Lisbon, his elder brother Francisco died, aged four. Saramago’s efforts to track down his grave some 70 years later, while collecting information for his memoir, fed his novel All the Names. Since his family could not afford to keep him at grammar school, he went to technical school to become an apprentice mechanic. Yet he read “at random” in public libraries, and worked at a publishing company in the mid-1950s. He translated Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Hegel among others, before becoming a journalist. Joining the underground Portuguese Communist party in 1969 – the main opposition to the dictatorship – he risked jail and assault. But after the Carnation revolution of 1974 toppled Salazar’s successor, Marcelo Caetano, Saramago became deputy editor of the revolutionary daily newspaper Diário de Nóticias. It was “a very intense period, when the Communist party was finally legalised. There was social unrest”. His reputation as a Stalinist dates from this period, when he was said to have purged non-communists from the paper. “He made a lot of enemies at that time,” Reis says. But after a radical leftwing coup was thwarted in 1975, Saramago was himself sacked. “Portugal became ‘normalised’; land reform and political participation stopped.” 

Saramago had married Ilda Reis, a typist turned engraver, in 1944 (they divorced in 1970). His debut novel, The Land of Sin, was published the same year, 1947, that his only child, Violante, was born. After a long gap, he began to publish poetry and plays in the 60s. But, jobless in 1976, he spent time in rural Alentejo, and returned to fiction. The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is, says Carlos Reis, “very autobiographical. Saramago thinks the revolution failed. Yet it was thanks to that failure, when he was fired, that he had to write to survive. It was his only option.” 

With Risen from the Ground, about three generations of an Alentejo peasant family, he began the great novels of the 80s, and invented his distinctive style of “continuous flow” with sparse punctuation. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa says his “seamless narrative voice” is meant to sound like speech. He orchestrates sounds and pauses. She also likens him to the 19th-century realist novelist Eça de Queiroz, “in a tradition of mocking Portugal, making fun of it”. The novel widely seen as his masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, gives human form to one of the poet Fernando Pessoa’s pseudonyms, or “heteronyms”, imagining him returning from Brazil in 1936, after Pessoa’s death. 

Reis sees his postmodern fiction of the 80s as taking stock, alongside other writers after the 1974 revolution, of “Portugal’s origins and destiny, and its ambiguous relationship with Europe”. For Reis, The Stone Raft posed a question: “Are we really European, or don’t we have responsibilities outside Europe – particularly in South America?” Macedo insists that Saramago, despite his recent comments on Portugal’s future, is “not an Iberista in the traditional 19th-century sense. But unlike many Portuguese, he values Spain – one of his favourite writers is Cervantes. He sees the peninsula as a conglomeration of different cultures under the EU.” 

Still a Communist party member, Saramago describes himself as a “hormonal communist – just as there’s a hormone that makes my beard grow every day. I don’t make excuses for what communist regimes have done – the church has done a lot of wrong things, burning people at the stake. But I have the right to keep my ideas. I’ve found nothing better.” Yet he did write in 2003 that, after years of personal friendship with Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader “has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, cheated my dreams”. In Reis’s view, “Saramago lives his communism mostly as a spiritual condition – philosophical and moral. He doesn’t preach communism in his novels.” His fable of consumerism and control in a globalised culture, The Cave (2001), shows the focus of life shifting from cathedral to shopping mall. But for Jull Costa, its strength is in his “writing so humanely about ordinary people and their predicaments”. 

In Seeing (2004), set later on in the same country as Blindness, the majority cast blank ballots in a protest that leads to a state of emergency. For Saramago, democracy was in need of regeneration, since economic power determines political power. “I’m doubtful of democracy,” he says. “Participation in political life is insufficient. People are called in every four years, and in between, the government does what it wants. That’s not specific to Portugal.” Yet even he is heartened by Barack Obama’s election. “It’s a beautiful moment, democracy in action, when millions were mobilised – including people who had never voted before – for a new candidate, and a black candidate at that. It’s a kind of revolution.” 

His new novel The Elephant’s Journey, which Meirelles sees as a “brilliant comedy about the stupidity of humankind”, traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria. It was “99% pure invention”, Saramago says. “I was fascinated by the elephant’s journey as a metaphor for life. We all know we’ll die, but not the circumstances.” He was 40 pages into the book when he was taken to hospital in Lanzarote. Allowed home, he immediately resumed writing. “What I find surprising and strange is that there’s a lot of humour in the book – it makes people laugh. No one would guess how I was feeling at the time.” 

In September, at Del Rio’s prompting, the octogenarian author began a blog on his foundation’s website, with a “love letter” to Lisbon. He used to write for newspapers, he says, “but now I’m writing every day, and there have been a million visits – which I find astonishing – but I’m doing it all for free.” His topics range from the credit crunch to advice for divorcing couples on how to divide a library. 

He has described Del Rio as his “home”, and calls her “the most important thing in my life – maybe more than my work. I see our relationship as a love story that has no need of being turned into a book”. They had a second civil marriage ceremony last year in Castril, her hometown in Andalucía, having neglected to register their Lisbon wedding in 1988. The bureaucratic oddity would not be out of place in his fiction. 

Saramago on Saramago

“Wearing the new dress that she bought yesterday in a shop downtown, death goes to the concert. She is sitting alone in the box, and . . . she is looking at the cellist. Just before the lights went down, when the orchestra was waiting for the conductor to come, he noticed her. He wasn’t the only musician to do so. Firstly, because she was alone in the box, which although not rare, wasn’t that frequent an occurrence either. Secondly, because she was pretty . . . pretty in a very particular, indefinable way that couldn’t be put into words, like a line of poetry whose ultimate meaning . . . continually escapes the translator. And finally, because her lone figure, there in the box, surrounded by emptiness and absence on every side, as if she inhabited a void, seemed to be the expression of the most absolute solitude.” 

This passage points to what I believe to be one of the main characteristics of my work: accepting that the impossible is possible and extracting from that slightly risky premise all the consequences that the imagination can bring to it, even if ordinary logic has to suffer. Proust may have seen death, or thought he did, at the foot of his bed, in the guise of a fat woman dressed in black, but death has no substance unless we push against the limits of the possible to gain access to a different level of seeing, to the inner scenario of the imagined where everything makes sense. In this novel, death buys a new dress to wear to a concert. Impossible, you’ll say, and I’ll respond, Yes, but not any more. 

• Extract from Death at Intervals, translated by Margaret Jull Costsa, published by Harvill Secker.Ω 

Cavaco Silva divulgou uma nota apenas duas horas após o anúncio da morte do autor português. “Em nome dos portugueses e em meu nome pessoal, presto homenagem à memória de José Saramago”, disse ele. 




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