Saturday, July 24, 2004

Make mine a double

In Sunday's Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones reviews José Saramago's latest novel to be available in English translation. (The Double is available in the UK next week, but customers on this side of the Atlantic will have to wait till October.)

How long before mock-pompous becomes plain pompous? About 500 words. Joyce was wise, in Ulysses, to restrict his boring narrator to a single section. Every now and then, a novel achieves greatness despite being narrated by someone obtuse and self-regarding (Doctor Faustus, Pale Fire). Many thousands more have been dragged straight to the bottom by the dead weight of a pompous narrator.

Umm, you know he's a Nobel laureate, right?

Mars-Jones admits:

You don't get to be a Nobel laureate simply by strewing obstacles in the path of your readers. Saramago has a distinctive imagination, characterised not by leaps or flights but by a sublime grinding, as anyone who has read his implacable fable, Blindness, can confirm. From a single premise, he can generate prodigies of grounded fantasy.

The thing is, Mars-Jones's main criticism is valid: the punctuation is weird and troublesome. I would be outraged (and my inner copyeditor is, at every turn of every phrase), were it not for that I happen, coincidentally, to breathe in precisely the same rhythm as Saramago writes.

Writers tend not to like being edited, particularly copyedited. Many toil over comma placement and argue vehemently for the naturalness and necessity of their pauses, eschewing all conventions of punctuation and even grammar (fortunately few break with those of spelling). Bah! We have rules for a reason. It puts everyone on the same page. It's what guides us, all individuals with highly varying speech patterns and emphases, in parsing another's written words.

Saramago is an exception. I will allow him his breach only because I like him so much, only because his punctuation happens to make it easy for me, though probably very few others.

(When does prose become poetry?)

As for the Mars-Jones's contention that Saramago sometimes says too much...

There are elusive truths which must be approached round three corners, but there is also such a thing as going all round the houses for no good reason.

...and sometimes too little...

One of the consequences of the soporific manner of the book is that it sometimes sneaks something past the reader which isn't as self-evident as it is made out to be ('Generally speaking, one does not notice what a bearded man is carrying...'), but if that is a literary effect, it's a perverse one.

...it is a matter of personal opinion. What is obvious to some is elusive to others. Again, I can relate to Saramago on his choices. (Interestingly, my own writing style and, it seems, thought processes, are remarkably similar to Saramago's. My essays in university were often marked down on similar grounds.)

It's an editor's job to recognize ideas and their value, which need fewer words and which need explication. It so happens that Saramago, Saramago's editor, and myself are in agreement.

The review disappoints me because all these points could be levelled against any one of Saramago's works. He reports just enough of The Double's plot to whet my appetite.
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