The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy / José Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero.
Mariner Books, 2012, c1977.
I love Saragmago, I really do. This is a new English edition of his first book, and it was a slog, sadly...despite the absolutely beautiful cover. Perhaps I wasn't in the mood, or perhaps it was because Saramago clearly hadn't yet refined his particular, recognizable style. There was no continuous flow, something I love about his other books. And, there was too much sex. Too much presentation of women as sexual objects only. Too much of the main character, H., who is a painter trying to survive as an artist in fascist Portugal, under Salazar. He is frustrated, knows his work is mediocre, and can't seem to succeed painting portraits of rich families -- he always wants to dig deeper, which they aren't interested in doing.
Aggravated by his lack of success in creating the painting he wants to make, H. turns to writing to make sense of his life. He's very self-conscious and discusses the capability of both painting and writing to capture the realities of life (quite metafictional at times). H seems very self-absorbed, however; he's very concerned about his success, financial state and amorous activity -- while not paying much attention to his friends. He is shocked when one of them is imprisoned for anti-government activities. Did he really have no clue or was it just his way of remaining safe within in his cautious habit of talking big but doing nothing? I found his endless self examination rather tiring and in the end, a little pointless.
Saramago is touching on many of the topics he later builds on in his following novels, but it all seems to be tentative at this point, and the lengthy digressions were a bit distracting rather than delightful, as they can be in later work. I did find this read interesting because it was Saramago: it you are already a fan it will be worth exploring. If you are just starting out with him, try one of his later novels which I think are more developed and more successful. (I love The Cave, but his late, shorter novels have a light touch which make them a great introduction, like Death with Interruptions, for example.) I'm glad I had the chance to read this in English, finally, but only as an addition to the oeuvre of a writer I already admire.
***Lori of Goodreads has the Best Review Ever of this title, in her "Letter to an author I thought I knew better" She says everything I was thinking, but in a much funnier way ;)