Sunday, 20 June 2010

Literary comings and goings

Mixed feelings on hearing of the death of Jose Saramago. On the one hand, he wrote one of my all-time favourite novels, was my point-of-entry to modern Portuguese literature, especially the work of Fernando Pessoa, and was responsible for initiating my love of Lisbon. I shall probably pack one of his novels when we go to Sintra this summer.

On the other hand, Saramago was a Stalinist hack who made stupid and hateful comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. Yesterday’s obituary in the Guardian only glanced at these matters, noting that Saramago worked for various newspapers after the death of Salazar and that ‘political wranglings’ and the writer’s ‘uncompromised and uncompromising communism’ were partly responsible for his being fired in 1975. In fact, Saramago was deputy director of Di├írio de Noticias, which had been a fascist organ but was nationalised and became communist-dominated after the revolution. The obituary fails to mention his ruthless attitude to those who failed to follow the party line. In a previous post, I quoted the view of 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.

There is only the briefest reference in the obituary to Saramago's fervent hatred of Israel. A summary of the contents of his late publication The Notebook describes it as ‘a series of blogs, more often in fact essays, articles and a few rants – against Israel, fundamentalism, George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi – covering the year from September 2008 to August 2009.' But 'rant’ is an inadequate word to describe the author’s comparison of a Palestinian city blockaded by the Israeli army to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He also described Israeli soldiers as ‘experts in cruelty with doctorates in disdain, who look down on the world from the heights of the insolence which is the basis of their education.’ He continued, in words that betrayed an antisemitic as well as anti-Zionist cast of mind: ‘ We can better understand their biblical god when we know his followers. Jehovah or Yaweh or whatever he is called, is a fierce and spiteful god, whom the Israelis always live up to.’

In other literary news: I can be less equivocal in welcoming the appointment of Geoffrey Hill as the new Oxford professor of poetry. Without wishing to sound elitist, when I heard the news I thought: at least they've given the job to a proper poet. When I was a student, it felt as though Hill's Mercian Hymns had been written to appeal to all of my youthful enthusiasms: the history of early England, modernism, sacramental Christianity. And to someone whose socialism had been sparked by reading Ruskin, the twenty-fifth section of the sequence had a particular resonance:


Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in

memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent

in the nailer's darg.


The nailshop stood back of the cottage, by the fold. It reeked stale

mineral sweat. Sparks had furred its low roof. In dawn-light the

troughed water floated a damson-bloom of dust ---

not to be shaken by posthumous clamour. It is one thing to celebrate the

'quick forge', another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.


Brooding on the eightieth letter of Fors Clavigera, I speak this in

memory of my grandmother, whose childhood and prime womanhood were spent

in the nailer's darg.

1 comment:

Minnie said...

Admire your capacity for objectivity, Martin - can't cope very well with absolutism in any of its forms so would give S a miss ...
Hadn't even heard of Hill, let alone his poetry; thanks for reminder/example, now off to attempt to complete education.