The Portuguese author José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. The Swedish Academy praised his work “sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”. So, a pretty important writer.
You’d think that if he sent a manuscript to a publisher, that manuscript would get noticed. Perhaps it was noticed. But it was certainly lost.
Saramago wrote Clarabóia — Skylight is the English translation — in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1953, he sent it to a publisher. He never heard back from them.
Not an acknowledgement of receipt.
Not even a “no thank you”.
This plunged him, his wife Pilar del Rio says in her introduction to the novel, “into a painful, indelible silence that lasted decades”. As he himself explains, in the biography he put together when he accepted the Nobel prize, he “started another one, but did not get past the first few pages… The matter was settled when I abandoned the project: it was becoming quite clear to me that I had nothing worthwhile to say.”
He tinkered with poems, with newspaper articles, and then, in 1976, Saramago spent time in Alentejo, a rural Portuguese province where his family came from. His time there led to his 1980 novel Raised from the Ground. This tells a story over decades of the peasants who work on — but who do not own — that land, specifically through the years of the Salazar dictatorship. Saramago did have something to say after all.
And he had found the voice in which to say it. In this work, for the first time, we meet his distinctive narrative style. His prose takes on a rhythm unlike any other. Single sentences pour over pages, uninhibited by punctuation, shifting between the characters, their dialogue, his thoughts as narrator, and some useful agricultural apercus. You move in perspective from the ants on the ground who watch a political prisoner being beaten, to the red kites gliding in the air currents above. It is a beautiful, brutal book.
Throughout the 1980s, Saramago published several other novels. Then, in 1989, the publishers to whom he had sent Skylight called him to say that — guess what? — they had found the manuscript when they were moving offices. They added that they would now, actually, be honoured to publish it.
Not surprising, Saramago was now a well known author.
We all know publishers can take ages to decide whether to publish a book, but Saramago obviously felt that 36 years was just that bit too long. He declined their offer, went to their offices, and fetched his manuscript home. Pilar del Rio tells us that he never re-read it, and declined the beseechings of others who did, and who tried to persuade him to publish it. Skylight was finally published only in 2011, after his death.
Skylight‘s story takes place in an apartment block in 1940s Lisbon. The narrative weaves its way in and out of the apartments and in and out of the heads of the people who live in them “under the same roof, in the same light, breathing the same air”. They’re all poor, but variously happy, unhappy, frustrated, angry, uncertain, scheming or “dreaming a dream with no beginning or end”. Several ponder the meaning or meaninglessness of life but reach no firm conclusions about it.
It’s not a bad book, though not great, so why did the publishers not publish it? We’ll never know, but I am going to take a guess. It has passages of extraordinarily frank sexuality; the incestuous lesbian embrace by Isaura of her sister Adriana is as powerful and disturbing for the reader as it is for the sisters. The book does not paint a happy picture of family life: those closed apartment doors hide rape, abuse and prostitution.
All of these aspects would not have gone down well in Lisbon in 1953, in the conservative Catholic atmosphere, under the authoritarian regime of President Salazar. It would have been a risky choice to publish a book such as this by an unknown author.
Perhaps someone at the publishing house recognised the novel’s merits and, rather than disappointing the author with a rejection, put the manuscript away in a drawer and waited for the day repression would be replaced with democracy in the land. Surely that would be soon? Alas, it would be another twenty years. The Carnation Revolution took place in 1974. By then, the manuscript had been forgotten.
There are other unanswered questions. Would Saramago ever have developed his distinctive style if he hadn’t spent years in the literary wilderness? If Skylight had been commercially successful in 1953, would he have gone on to take such risks with his prose? If Skylight had been a commercial disaster in 1953, would he ever have written fiction again?
The questions are unanswered but also unanswerable. We’ll never know.
But if the price for this lost manuscript was decades of silence followed by the music of his later novels, Saramago might have thought it was a price worth paying.
Read Raised from the Ground.
Saramago himself called Skylight “the book lost and found in time”. You can read it here.