Friday, 31 August 2007

Can a writer's claim to greatness be undermined by their politics?

On Sunday the New York Times carried a long article by Fernanda Eberstadt about Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Among other things, the article is a reminder that being a great writer of fiction, even a Nobel prize-winning one, is no guarantee against holding perverse political views.

Saramago aroused controversy a few years ago by naively and offensively comparing conditions in the Palestinian territories to Auschwitz. The veteran novelist is also a longstanding member of Portugal's notoriously hardline Communist Party. Before I read Eberstadt's article, I had regarded this as an understandable response to growing up under Salazar's quasi-fascist regime, when the communists were the main opposition force, and a recognition of the Party's key role in the 1974 revolution which saw the dictatorship overthrown and Portugal's overseas colonies liberated.

What I hadn't realised was Saramago's complicity in the communists' rather less glorious role in restricting press freedom following the revolution. Saramago was appointed deputy director of the formerly fascist Di├írio de Noticias, a newly-nationalized and Communist-dominated newspaper. According to Eberstadt, 'under his sway, people claim, it became an unofficial organ of the Communist Party. Many Portuguese intellectuals’ dislike of Saramago stems from this period.' She quotes book distributor Jorge de Azevedo:

For Saramago, black is black; there were no different viewpoints, no debate. He was hard on people working at the newspaper who were not party members; he made life extremely difficult for them. Because of this, he has a tough image that remains.

Do a writer's political opinions and activities affect our assessment of their imaginative writing, or is it possible (as with Evelyn Waugh, D.H.Lawrence, etc) to maintain a separation between the two?

Footnote

Along somewhat similar lines: there's a piece in today's (London) Times about Arthur Miller consigning his week-old son, who had Down's Syndrome, to an institution and then concealing his existence. I'm a huge admirer of Miller's work, but this comment from his biographer Martin Gottfriend still makes me uneasy:

All that theatre people care about are the works themselves...In England, where Miller is considered an equal of Chekhov, all they care about is that Miller is a great, great playwright... If he wrote Death of a Salesman and that’s all, that would be enough...He could be the worst son-of-a-bitch who ever lived, but he still wrote those plays.

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