José Saramago: a New Statesman retrospective

In praise of the late Portuguese writer, who died on 18 June aged 87.

The death of the Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago last Friday seems likely to spawn an international retrospective of his work. To mark the occasion, we've taken a look back through the New Statesman archives for reviews of his work.

Most recently Tom Cameron, reviewing the "dazzling satirical display" of Saramago's 2008 novel Death at Intervals, praised the author's distinctive tone:

Throughout his fiction, he has cultivated an entertaining and witty blend of logic and absurdity, and his work is characterised by an obsessive search for the right words and names even as he is amused by their arbitrariness.

Writing of Seeing in 2006, John Gray highlighted the struggle between Saramago's political convictions and his aesthetic agenda:

At some level Saramago must realise that his political hopes are delusive and absurd. In Seeing, he blinds himself to this fact while allowing his characters the dubious gift of sight. Contrary to everything Saramago wishes to believe, the book is haunted by the thought that the world's most serious problems have no political solution. It is as if the ghost of Pessoa had re-appeared, smiling, to mock him in his dreams.

Henry Sheen's review of The Cave in 2002 drew attention to a structural development in Saramago's writing:

While Saramago's previous novels often languish and fade as they come to an end, The Cave has a decisive shape and clarity to the ending. The discovery of the cave is the final piece that makes the novel perfect and enlightens everything that has gone before.

Back in 1999, Robert Winder named Saramago's All the Names as one of his picks for book of the year:

It traces the effects of a clerical error on the life of the world, and is both light and grave, elaborate and simple. A lovely adventure, a search for an unknown woman, floats on sentences that topple over one another like waves.

Saramago had intended to visit this year's Edinburgh Festival to promote his new novel The Elephant's Journey. That book, together with Cain, due next year, will complete the translation of his oeuvre into English.

Rebecca Carter, Saramago's editor at Harvill Secker, praised his work as, "one of the most important of the last century -- radical, witty, humane, endlessly challenging and questioning".

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Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder