18 June 2010

Jose Saramago - King of the Comma Splice ?

I've just finished reading the novel "Blindness" by Portugese author Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The plot device – a nationwide infectious blindness - is an interesting concept, and was the reason I selected the book; it sounded similar to some interesting sci-fi novels I read years ago.

Without reading the book, one can guess that any narration on this topic is bound to be bleak, and this one certainly is. Saramago pulls no punches in postulating a total breakdown of society, with a special emphasis on the failure of sanitary systems. The dystopic future he envisions is equal to those presented by Cormac McCarthy in The Road or Blood Meridian.

BUT - despite the interesting plot (and the Nobel credentials), I'm not going to blog this review in the category of recommended books. My reason for not doing so is the difficulty I encountered in reading the book - a difficulty based solely on the author's choice of formatting and sentence structure. Here is the opening sentence of the final chapter:
The next day, while still in bed, the doctor’s wife said to her husband, We have little food left, we’ll have to go out again, I thought that today I would go back to the underground food store at the supermarket, the one I went to on the first day, if nobody else has found it, we can get supplies for a week or two, I’m coming with you and we’ll ask one or two of the others to come along as well, I’d rather go with you alone, it’s easier, and there is less danger of getting lost, How long will you be able to carry the burden of six helpless people, I’ll manage as long as I can, but you are quite right, I’m beginning to get exhausted, sometimes I even wish I were blind as well, to be the same as the others, to have no more obligations than they have, We’ve got used to depending on you, If you weren’t there, it would be like being struck with a second blindness, thanks to your eyes we are a little less blind, I’ll carry on as long as I can, I can’t promise you more than that, One day, when we realize that we can no longer do anything good and useful we ought to have the courage simply to leave this world, as he said, Who said that, The fortunate man we met yesterday, I am sure that he wouldn’t say that today, there is nothing like real hope to change one’s opinions, He has that all right, long may it last, In your voice there is a tone which makes me think you are upset, Upset, why, As if something had been taken away from you, Are you referring to what happened to the girl when we were at that terrible place, Yes, Remember it was she who wanted to have sex with me, Memory is deceiving you, you wanted her, Are you sure, I was not blind, Well, I would have sworn that, You would only perjure yourself, Strange how memory can deceive us, In this case it is easy to see, something that is offered to us is more ours than something we had to conquer, But she didn’t ever approach me again, and I never approached her, If you wanted to, you could find each other’s memories, that’s what memory is for, You are jealous, No, I’m not jealous, I was not even jealous on that occasion, I felt sorry for her and for you, and also for myself because I could not help you, How are we fixed for water, Badly.
Wiki describes Saramago's style is described as featuring "long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs extend for pages without pausing for dialog, which Saramago chooses not to delimit by quotation marks..."

I prefer to be able to run my eye down a page and dwell on (or skim) the conversations or descriptions, which paragraph formatting permits. In the absence of paragraphs or quotation marks it’s almost necessary to read every word; whether or not that’s the author’s intention, I find it a bit of a nuisance.

I don't mind the run-on sentence per se. Cormac McCarthy uses paragraph-size sentences, but they are powerful and coherent. Try reading the two paragraphs by McCarthy in this post, and compare the experience to the reading of Saramago's contrivance above.

In terms of sheer length of sentence, those by Saramago and McCarthy pale in comparison to some of the creations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As I've noted previously, the final chapter of The Autumn of the Patriarch is a sentence 53 pages long (I estimated 17,500 words), 40X as long as the above, difficult to read but coherent and often quite lyrical. Marquez stacks conditional phrases one after another, presents long detailed descriptions, or transcribes stream-of-consiciousness thoughts. With Saramago it’s often (as above) conversation spliced together with commas, with speaker changes denoted by the initial caps.

Addendum:  reposted 6/18/10 in recognition of the death of Jose Saramago.


  1. I gave up trying to read this. García Márquez does amazing things with language, which, as you mention, can be lyrical, even magical. I wonder if Saramago is as difficult to read in Portuguese.

  2. Yes. Saramago is just as difficult to read in Portuguese. In fact that's the main reason why I've only read one book from him. I didn't have the courage to read another one. :) Alas, since he has some great plots and does master social critique.

    I'm not alone, many Portuguese (usual readers) do not read Saramago, but there are some fans who love his kind of writing.

  3. It's definitely not an easy read, but it it thoroughly enjoyable once you get used to it. The simple way he twists the reader around and forces him to read every word and to go back several pages to check if the same person is still speaking of the same situation...it's brilliant :)

  4. not sure 'brilliant' would be my choice of words for that mess. Anyone who cared about their reader would do much better breaking that monstrosity down into multiple sentences (and perhaps paragraphs)

  5. You might be interested in this bit from Saramago's latest novel, Death with Interruptions. Death writes a letter to the world at large, and of course it's written in Saramago's style, which elicits this outraged response (also--ha ha--in Saramago's style):

    "According to the authorized opinion of a grammarian consulted by the newspaper, death had simply failed to master even the rudiments of the art of writing. And then, he said, there's the calligraphy, which is strangely irregular, it's as if it combined all the known ways, both possible and aberrant, of forming letters of the latin alphabet, as if each had been written by a different person, but that could be forgiven, one could even consider it a minor defect given the chaotic syntax, the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter, which, you can imagine, is even omitted from the actual signature of the letter and replaced by a lower-case d. It was a disgrace, an insult, the grammarian went on, asking, If death, who has had the priceless privilege of seeing the great literary geniuses of the past, writes like this, what of our children if they choose to imitate such a philological monstrosity, on the excuse that, considering how long death has been around, she should know everything there is to know about all branches of knowledge."

    Me, I love Saramago's cool, ironic and utterly original style. As Jorge says, if you can release yourself to it (easier for some than others, of course), there are so many pleasures to be discovered.

  6. I agree with Jorge. Once you get used to the style, it's not that difficult and it's actually quite enjoyable.
    But I think in English it gets more difficult in the dialogs, because the "I" is always in capitals (whether there's a speaker change or not), which doesn't happen in Portuguese.

  7. BTW, if you want to read something lighter by Saramago, try "All the Names".

  8. I also recently read this book and blogged a review. I remember thinking that Saramago's style added to the confusion of the whole society-going-blind thing. I'm not sure I'd speak in rational clauses and sentences if I were watching (hearing?) the end of civilization either.

    But later when I learned 'twas his natural writing style I was less impressed. I've heard good things about his other books (commented here as well) but it may be a while before I read one again.

    Oh, and I got an interesting comment from a representative of the Performing Arts Division of the National Federation of the Blind informing me how offensive this book and subsequent movie are to blind people. The commenter made interesting points, but I maintain the book was not intended to disparage the visually-impaired.

    Big fan of the site, go Midwestern bloggers!

  9. his style is amazing. it's hard for the first pages only, then you get the hang of it. reading it in english is a bit more difficult because the word "I" is capitalized.

    anyway, i think he tries to emulate someone really telling a story, i mean orally. that's why his writing is so fluid and loose and spiral-ish.

    there was a time the only thing i could read were Saramago's books.

  10. another thing, most of the sharpness and beauty of his style is lost in translation. one can never translate how certain words feel in the original language.
    that's why mccarthy feels so much more fluid and natural to an english speaker.

  11. I've been told that this is commonly how it's done in French.

  12. My book-club read this a few months ago, and I could not read past the first chapter for this very reason. I think the lack of quotation marks bothered me even more than the epic-length sentences.

    I was not enjoying myself, and I refused to put up with such nonsense for an entire book, no matter how compelling the plot.


  13. I could read this, and there are definitely pleasures to be found in his writing, but, but, but, it's like slogging through waist deep mud.

    I kept looking ahead to see when chapters would end, so I could get a break. Maybe it's too much whining about style, but I wish I could find some justification for making the reader and his poor eyes work so much harder than necessary.

    Conventional punctuation evolved for a reason, and sure you can ignore all convention and still write in a way that's understandable, but you'd better have a bloody good reason to do so.

    I read "The Cave" and liked the characters, and especially the ironic comments on life, which had me laughing out loud at times. Saramago in this book was like your wise old uncle telling you a story with plenty of commentary.

    These bits, which enlivened the book immensely, made the book worth reading. I'd love to go back and find some of them again, but there's no way I'm heading back into that rock solid block of prose without dynamite and a pick axe.

    I wish some publisher would just say, "Ok, now he's dead, we can go ahead and punctuate the thing properly and publish something people can read." He was a renowned pessimist and atheist, so he can hardly complain.

  14. I agree. I'm about six pages into the book and find it a big headache. I probably won't go much further. I don't mind long sentences if they're coherent, but Saramago's use of the comma makes for painful reading.

    I keep thinking, analyzing the prose, that if he had actually punctuated it properly, it simply may not have turned out to seem that special of a story in the eyes of people who like 'difficult books' and think that difficulty alone makes fine literature.

    On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of Celine, who uses ellipses to great and hilarious effect--and coherently--and a big fan of Hemingway and Margeurite Duras too, both of whom are known for turning grammar on its head. I'm not, though, a fan of Cormac McCarthy, whom I suspect is a bit of a Hemingway wannabe without a truly idiosyncratic poetic sense of his own and--at least it seems so from this brief excerpt you provided--uses difficulty as a bit of a shield or pose (sorry, guys, I know he's sacrosanct to many).

    I found this blog by googling 'jose saramago blindness use of commas' because I wondered if, despite his Nobel status, there were others who saw through this style that strikes me as done in the service of the ego and not in the service of the story.

    I'm glad to know that there are.

  15. One of my favorite books... I loved it and almost missed my bus stop a couple of times while reading it.

    I didn't find it exhausting but I think it could be because the original language in which the book was written -Portuguese- is closer to the language I read it in -Spanish, my mother tongue.


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