Skylightby José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa
A previously unpublished novel by a literary master, Skylight tells the intertwined stories of the residents of a faded apartment building in 1940s Lisbon.
Silvestre and Mariana, a happily married elderly couple, take in a young nomad, Abel, and soon discover their many differences. Adriana loves Beethoven more than any/b>/i>
A previously unpublished novel by a literary master, Skylight tells the intertwined stories of the residents of a faded apartment building in 1940s Lisbon.
Silvestre and Mariana, a happily married elderly couple, take in a young nomad, Abel, and soon discover their many differences. Adriana loves Beethoven more than any man, but her budding sexuality brings new feelings to the surface. Carmen left Galicia to marry humble Emilio, but hates Lisbon and longs for her first love, Manolo. Lidia used to work the streets, but now she’s kept by Paulo, a wealthy man with a wandering eye.
These are just some of the characters in this early work, completed by Saramago in 1953 but never published until now. With his characteristic compassion, depth, and wit, Saramago shows us the quiet contentment of a happy family and the infectious poison of an unhappy one. We see his characters’ most intimate moments as well as the casual encounters particular to neighbors living in close proximity. Skylight is a portrait of ordinary people, painted by a master of the quotidian, a great observer of the immense beauty and profound hardships of the modern world.
Completed in 1953 but not released in the author’s native Portuguese until 2011 (and appearing here in English for the first time), this early novel from Nobel winner Saramago (Blindness) details the day-to-day exploits of several families and individuals living in an apartment building in Lisbon. Silvestre, a cobbler, and his wife take in a young boarder named Abel. As time passes, the two men launch into a series of conversations on philosophy and existence. Troubled marriages lurk behind the doors of Caetano and Justina—he’s a jealous womanizer, while she continues to mourn the death of their daughter—and of Emílio and Carmen, who quarrel over their young son. Seamstress sisters Isaura and Adriana, living with their mother and aunt, find themselves confused after a night of romantic indiscretion. And Lídia, a kept woman, begins to question her lover’s intentions after she convinces him to offer a job to her neighbor, a beautiful 19-year-old. Throughout, characters intersect, yet their narratives often proceed without creating a tangled web, making the novel more resemble a linked collection. Saramago, who was still a novice in the 1950s, pads some moments and lingers a bit too long on minor episodes, but overall, the novel spins a series of frank, honest stories that strike deep. This translation offers fans the opportunity to read the pages that helped shape a master. (Dec.)
“Skylight is a fascinating and startlingly mature work, one that would merit publication even if its author had never written another book. The many hints of the styles and themes of his later novels add interest, but the book is a gem in its own right…Saramago’s talent for charting the darker territories of human nature is unsettling and profound. Dedicated Saramago readers will see many seeds of his later novels here.” –The Boston Globe
“A sketchbook for the superb work that Saramago would ultimately produce. But there is no shortage of wonders to be found in it. This master of human observation…clearly had a few literary faculties in place even as he was ratcheting bolts on cars.” –Washington Post
"Skylight, with its humanity boldly on display, deserves to reside amongst the late author's sincerest efforts. Saramago's gifts were myriad, and even in this, his second novel, it's easy to see why he would go on to become one of the world's most beloved and respected storytellers."The Oregonian "It is a work about the strictures of poverty and domesticity but also about momentary glimpses of beauty and fulfillment, and as such, it is immediately recognizable as Saramago, even though his political emphases, and his syntax, would evolve over the years. It will be bittersweet delight for Saramago fans, as this selection may well be his final published work."Booklist, starred review "Saramago’s novel is a delightful creation of characters with universal appeal. Readers will want to explore his other works after reading this gem." –-Library Journal, starred review
"The novel spins a series of frank, honest stories that strike deep. This translation offers fans the opportunity to read the pages that helped shape a master." –-Publishers Weekly "Rarely has a novel with a publication delayed as long as this one's proven such a pleasure...an early sign of considerable promise and spirited storytelling."Kirkus "[Skylight] has become the Nobel laureate's posthumous gift, and it's a literary explosion of youthful talent...The opening chapter alone is a bravura performance...Skylight is an exuberant classic farce with a philosophical spin...It crackles with subtext, subtle set-ups and unexpected payoffs, turning narrative somersaults with ease...All the elements of Saramago's thought-provoking genius are here, and several of the story threads have profoundly satisfying endings as we watch these early Saramago characters struggle to be happy."Shelf Awareness "A must-read for Saramago lovers, with insights into his later themes and characters. And it’s a complete delight. Reading this energetic and wry portrait of the inhabitants of one Lisbon apartment building in the mid-20th Century, with their intrigues, secrets and fantasies, is like watching a classic black-and-white movie."BBC Culture "Skylight is an artful depiction of the every day, and the unknown interiors of the people with whom we live...It’s fascinating to see the germ of his theories about love and how people should, above all, be decent to one another here in their earliest forms...Saramago fans can discover Skylight like an entryway to the past." Bustle "Fluid and imaginative...[Skylight] is a masterly creation: pessimistic without being bleak, lyrical without being sentimental...Brilliantly structured, the novel contains moments of extraordinary poignancy...[Saramago] shows humanity at its most anxious, its most vulnerable and most true." —The Independent (UK) "Not only does [Skylight] illuminate the slow development of a radically original artist, but it is an interesting novel in its own right...The explicit sexuality of the book (which may have kept it from being considered for publication in Salazar's Portugal in 1953) is remarkable now only because it is so compassionate...Moving from character to character, the loosely plotted story includes a good deal of mean-spirited evildoing, quite in the tradition of Balzac and the naturalists. It also includes dry humour, and at least one tranquil domestic scene revealed suddenly as almost visionary." —The Guardian (UK) "Compelling...[Skylight] is shot through with more than enough flashes of brilliance to justify it seeing the light of day." —The National (UAE)
Rarely has a novel with a publication delayed as long as this one's proven such a pleasure. The so-called "Lost Novel" by the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author has a peculiar history. Saramago (Blindness, 1995, etc.) submitted the book, likely written in the late 1940s or early '50s, for publication in 1953. He never received an acceptance or rejection from the publisher; instead, the manuscript by the then-unknown novelist just sat there. It didn't resurface until 1989, when the publisher discovered the manuscript while moving offices and informed the now-renowned author that it would be eager to publish this early work. He refused, apparently because it was a painful reminder of his struggling days, and didn't want it published during his lifetime. Since his death in 2010, it's been well-received wherever it's been published, suggesting that quality was not the issue. Unlike the author's later allegories, this is more of a dark romantic comedy with philosophical undertones, set in an apartment building occupied by six families. A cobbler and his wife, the only happy couple here, take in a young lodger who has a sense of his destiny unfettered by the usual entanglements: "I have the sense that life, real life, is hidden behind a curtain, roaring with laughter at our efforts to get to know it. And I want to know life." Occupying the other apartments are two married couples, a kept woman, two young sisters with their mother and aunt, and a family with a beautiful young daughter. After introducing all these characters in a confusing rush, the novel lets the reader sort them out as various entanglements reveal themselves, some more interesting than others. Ultimately, the young boarder comes to suspect that "the hidden meaning of life is that life has no hidden meaning." More conventional and less political than the later work that established the author's reputation but an early sign of considerable promise and spirited storytelling.
Nobel Prize winner Saramago's never-before-published first novel is an insightful and surprisingly suspenseful story about the tenants in a Lisbon apartment building in 1952. The characters range from Silvestre, the philosopher/cobbler, and his wife, who rent out a room to a young drifter; Lídia, a kept woman, whose lover begins to fancy a younger neighbor; Carmen and Emílio, an unhappy couple whose son is caught in the middle; grieving Justina and adulterer Caetano, who both loathe and desire each other; and sisters Adriana and Isaura, who struggle to keep a sexual secret from their aunt and mother. The daily routines and concerns of each family are rendered with touching detail and are captivating reading in their own right. But soon the complications of life lend an urgency to each character's story that makes this book hard to put down. This novel deals with the quintessential issues of life—love in all its forms, the death of body and soul, the desire for meaning and happiness—set within the simplest of circumstances. VERDICT Saramago's novel is a delightful creation of characters with universal appeal. Readers will want to explore his other works after reading this gem. [See Prepub Alert, 6/8/14.]—Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Book Lost and Found in Time
Saramago was shaving when the phone rang. He held the receiver to the unsoaped side of his face and said, “Really? How amazing. No, don’t bother. I’ll be there in about half an hour.” And he hung up. I had never known him to take a shower so quickly. Then he told me that he was going to collect a novel he wrote in the 1940s or 1950s and which had been lost ever since. When he returned, he had under his arm Clarabóia (Skylight), or, rather, a bundle of typewritten pages, which had somehow not grown yellow or worn with time, as if time had proved more respectful of the original than the people to whom it was sent in 1953. “It would be a great honor for us to publish this manuscript, which we found when we moved offices,” they said graciously in 1989, when José Saramago was working hard on finishing The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. “Thank you, but no,” he said and left, taking with him the rediscovered novel and having finally received an answer that had been denied to him forty-seven years before, when he was thirty-one and still full of dreams. Being ignored by that publishing house had plunged him into a painful, indelible silence that lasted decades.
“The book lost and found in time” is how we used to refer to Skylight at home. Those of us who read the novel tried to persuade its author to publish it, but Saramago stubbornly refused, saying that it would not be published during his lifetime. His sole explanation — his main principle of life, often spoken and often written — was this: no one has an obligation to love anyone else, but we are all under an obligation to respect each other. According to this logic, Saramago considered that while a publishing house is clearly under no obligation to publish every manuscript it receives, it does have a duty to respond to the person waiting impatiently and even anxiously day after day, month after month. After all, the book a writer submits in the form of a typescript is much more than just a collection of words; it carries within it a human being, with all his or her intelligence and sensibility. It occurred to us that perhaps each time Saramago saw a copy in print, it would be like reliving the humiliation of not receiving so much as a few short lines — even a brief, formal “we currently accept no submissions”— and so we, his friends and family, did not insist. We likewise attributed to that ancient grief the fact that he simply left the typescript on his desk to languish among all his other papers. José Saramago did not reread Skylight and did not miss it when I carried it off to have it bound in leather; when I presented him with the bound edition, he said I was being over the top, extravagant. And yet he knew — because he was the author — that the book was certainly not a bad one, that it contained themes that recurred in his later novels, and that in its pages one could already hear the narrative voice he would go on to develop more fully.
“But there is another way of speaking of all this,” as Saramago would say when he had crossed deserts and navigated dark waters. If, after presenting all these facts and suppositions, we accept that statement, then we must interpret all the various signs and his apparent obstinacy in the light of a whole life marked by a pressing need to share and communicate. “Dying means that we were and no longer are,” said Saramago. And it’s true that he died and is no longer here, but suddenly, in the countries where Skylight has been published, in Portugal and Brazil, the countries that speak his language, people are talking excitedly about this new book. Yes, Saramago has actually brought out a new book, a fresh, illuminating work that touches our hearts and elicits cries of joy and astonishment, and then we realize that this is the gift the author wanted to leave to us so that he could continue to share his words with us now that he’s no longer here. People keep saying: this book is a real gem; it contains all his later literary obsessions; it’s like a map of the work to come; how could such a young man have written with such maturity, such confidence? Yes, that is the question his readers keep asking. Where did Saramago get his wisdom from, his ability to portray characters with such subtlety and economy, to reveal the profundity and universality of the most banal situations, to trample on convention in such a serenely violent way? This is a young man, remember, who had never been to university, the son and grandson of illiterates, a mechanic by trade and, at the time, an office worker, daring to take on the cosmos of an apartment building and its inhabitants, guided only by his own instincts and in the enjoyable company of Pessoa, Shakespeare, Eça de Queiroz, Diderot and Beethoven. This is our entry into Saramago’s universe, which is already clearly delineated here.
In Skylight we find the prototypes of some of Saramago’s male characters: the man known simply as H in Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, Ricardo Reis in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Raimundo Silva in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, Senhor José in All the Names, the cellist in Death with Interruptions, Cain, Jesus Christ, Cipriano Algor — that whole tribe of silent men, free, solitary beings who need to find love in order, however briefly, to break out of their focused, introverted way of being in the world.
In Skylight we also find some of Saramago’s characteristically strong women. His treatment of them is even more unconventional: Lídia, for example, is a kept woman who gives lessons in dignity to her businessman lover; lesbian love is treated with remarkable frankness, as are the inherited submissiveness handed down within families, the fear of what others might say, rape, blind instinct, the struggle for power, narrow lives lived honestly despite straitened circumstances and sundry misfortunes.
Skylight is a novel of characters. It is set in the Lisbon of the early 1950s, when the Second World War has ended, but not the Salazar dictatorship, which hangs over everything like a shadow or a silence. It is not a political novel, and we should not, therefore, necessarily conclude that the reason it remained unpublished was because it fell victim to the censors. And yet, given the prudish times in which it was written, its content must have had some bearing on that decision not to publish. The novel rejects established values: the family is not a symbol of hearth and home, but of hell; appearances count for more than reality; apparently praiseworthy utopian dreams are revealed for the hollow things they really are. It is a novel that explicitly condemns the mistreatment of women, but treats love between two people of the same sex as natural, albeit, in the circumstances, anguishing. Coming from an unknown author, such a strong-minded book would have taken a lot of defending for very little reward. That is probably why the book was relegated to a drawer, without a firm yes or no. Perhaps — and again we are conjecturing — they put it off until later on, when times would have changed, never imagining that it would take decades for any so-called liberalization to begin to make its mark, and meanwhile, in both the world and the publishing house, generations passed and any such good intentions were left to molder in a drawer along with the typescript. Saramago, by then, had a new profession, that of editor. Having made his journey through silence and solitude, he was preparing to write other books.
Life was not easy for Saramago. Not only was his book ignored by the publishers — a book written at night, after days spent engaged in unrewarding tasks — he was ignored too, because he was unknown, had no university education, and wasn’t one of the intellectual elite, all of which were important factors in the small world of 1950s and ’60s Lisbon society. Those who later became his colleagues made fun of him because he stammered, and his stammer, which he eventually managed to overcome, made him rather withdrawn; he let others do the talking while he watched, living very much in his own inner world, which is perhaps why he was able to write so much. After Skylight, he published nothing for another twenty years. He began again with poetry — Os poemas possíveis (Possible Poems) and Provavelmente alegria (Joy Probably) — then wrote O ano de 1993 (The Year of 1993), which is already on its way to becoming a narrative, followed by two collections of his newspaper articles, which are also fictions in embryo. Skylight is there in his articles too — even though no one knew it existed — waiting for the moment when it would reach the reader as something more than just a lost book.
Skylight is the gift that Saramago readers deserved to receive. It is not the closing of a door; on the contrary, it flings the door wide open so that we can go back inside and read or reread his other novels in the light of what he was writing as a young man. Skylight is the gateway into Saramago’s work and will be a real discovery for its readers. As if a perfect circle had closed. As if death did not exist.
Pilar del Río
President, José Saramago Foundation
Meet the Author
JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
MARGARET JULL COSTA has established herself as the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English today.
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