Conversation Pieces: Jose Saramago


Musings from a Music Director

Scott Williamsom

March 20, 2010

I am an avid poetry reader and general librophile (the thought of a kindle or digital reader is an abhorrent one to me). One of my favorite poetry series is the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets. These $13 pocket-sized hardbacks feature as many anthologies as they do selected works of the great poets. One of the dozen editions I have is an anthology called Conversation Pieces: poems that talk to other poems.

The most famous poem to elicit responses that engage it in “conversation” is Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love” which begins:

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

The anthology opens subversively with Marlowe’s poem and eight responses to it (or in one case, a response to one of the responses). Following poems by Marlowe’s contemporaries, Sir Walter Raleigh and John Donne, are several 20th century examples. C. Day Lewis’ “Song” opens with typical tongue-in-cheek irony:

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

Two poems later comes Ogden Nash’s sardonic reply that is amazingly current in the 21st century. “Love Under the Republicans (Or Democrats)” opens with a familiar refrain:

Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of a marriage conducted with economy
In the Twentieth Century Anno Donomy.

Nash paints a a scene with which anyone who’s paid exorbitant rent for a tiny apartment in a big city can relate:

We’ll live in a dear little walk-up flat
With practically room to swing a cat
And a potted cactus to give it hauteur
And a bathtub equipped with dark brown water.

More amusing anecdotes follow, and then, as only a great writer (or story teller) can do, Nash changes direction, and closes with a quatrain of unexpected violence:

And every Sunday we’ll have a lark
And take a walk in Central Park.
And one of these days not too remote
I’ll probably up and cut your throat.

That “turn” is an example of poetry’s ability to have multivalent relevances and one of the many ways poetry (and all art, for that matter) can be, in the best sense, subversive. Nash expects his reader to get the reference to Marlowe. Students of Marlowe know both the irony that his subject (the addressee of his poem) was most likely a man, and that its author was murdered at the age of 29. Nash is both referring to Marlowe and speaking to his living audience. He is describing the fraught political relationships of the 20th century and the individual malaise that accompanies the modern age.


One of my favorite novelists is the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago, whose inventive fantasies are conversation pieces themselves. The first book of his I read, Blindness, was recently made into a so-so film (starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal). Read the book instead. But start with another Saramago novel if you haven’t read him. Those interested in historical fiction (and more subversion) might try The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (a fascinating novel that humanizes not only Jesus, but God and Satan, in the style of a 19th century Bildungsroman with modernist wit and insight). Those who find religious fiction–or any art form that attempts to depict God–offensive or blasphemous might start with The Stone Raft, which chronicles five fascinating characters as they try to make sense of life while their peninsular country literally breaks off from its continent and floats into the sea.

I just finished his latest novel, recently issued in paperback (in English by his long-time, award-winning translator, Margaret Jull Costa), Death with Interruptions. As is typical with Saramago, the fantastic & supernatural are as real as the human protagonists in his imaginatively spun tales. In this one, death (with a small d), stops killing, and the country who is the beneficiary of this reprieve cannot make heads or tails of the phenomenon. I would not rank it at the top of my list of recommendations (besides the aforementioned titles, The Year of the Death of Riccardo Reis is another favorite. It is a literary tale that is part love story, part adventure that pays homage to the great Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa. Another artist I referenced in a “conversation piece” post last month, ostensibly about Cy Twombly).

After a seven month reprieve, death begins killing again. And then we meet her. She is a bony woman who lives in a small apartment, whose only companion is her well-worn scythe (with whom she converses). Death begins the very humane practice of sending her victims hand-written announcements warning them their time is about up and they have one week to live. She runs into a snafu when one letter keeps reappearing under her doorstep. She goes to investigate and finds a 50 year old cellist (he was supposed to die at 49, according to her files). The final third of the novel is devoted to their peculiar tango, and is rife with musical–and other–allusions. Among others, I loved the following passage:

“Death wonders where amphitrite is now, the daughter of nereus and doris, where is she now, she who may never have existed in reality, but who nevertheless briefly inhabited the human mind in order to create in it, again only briefly, a certain way of giving meaning to the world, of finding ways of understanding reality.”

Besides the lyrical quality to the prose, I was struck by the reference to Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon/Neptune, and reminded of another famous reference to these mythological characters. Schiller’s poem Nänie features Nereus and another one of his daughters, Thetis, the mother of the hero Achilles. That poem inspired one of Brahms great choral tone poems by the same name. The image of Thetis rising out of the sea is vividly depicted in Brahms’ score (which no cinematic version of Clash of the Titans will ever match).

Saramago’s cellist practices Schumann and Bach (the suite no. 6 in D, erroneously listed in the novel as opus 1012. It is BWV 1012, a small but not insignificant detail) when he is not playing first chair in the national symphony. Death transforms herself into a beautiful 30-something woman and attends a concert (of an unnamed work) which features a prominent solo by the cellist.

“The orchestra has fallen silent. The cellist starts to play his solo as if he had been born for that alone. He doesn’t know that the woman in the box has in her brand-new handbag a violet-colored letter addressed to him, he doesn’t know, how could he, and yet he plays as if he were bidding farewell to the world, as if he were at last saying everything that he had always kept unsaid, the truncated dreams, the frustrated yearnings, in short, life…The solo is over, the orchestra washed over the solo’s song like a great slow, sea, gently submerging it, absorbing and amplifying that song as if to lead it into a place where music was transmuted into silence, into the merest shadow of a vibration that touched the skin like the final, inaudible murmur of a kettledrum on which a passing butterfly had momentarily alighted.”

I don’t know much about Saramago’s life (he continues to write award-winning fiction in his 80’s), and whether or not he studied music, but in passages like that one I’m reminded of how empty the silence of life would be without artists like him.


*Texto extraído del blog Musings from a Music Director

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