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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Manual of Painting
and Calligraphy

José Saramago

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To purchase Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

Title: Manual of Painting and Calligraphy
Author: José Saramago
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 243 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Manual of Painting and Calligraphy - US
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy - UK
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy - Canada
Manual of Painting and Calligraphy - India
Manuel de peinture et de calligraphie - France
Handbuch der Malerei und Kalligraphie - Deutschland
Manuale di pittura e calligrafia - Italia
Manual de pintura y caligrafia - España
  • Portuguese title: Manual de pintura e caligrafia
  • Translated by Giovanni Pontiero

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating and often very entertaining apprentice-work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 3/7/1994 Suzi Feay
Publishers Weekly . 5/3/2012 .
TLS . 15/4/1994 Adrian Tahourdin

  From the Reviews:
  • "The European Art Novel is as daunting a prospect as the European Art Movie, but this Portuguese academic's 1977 debut is, once you've accustomed yourself to its terrain, surprisingly easy to negotiate. (...) A quiet triumph." - Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday

  • "Saramago’s novel succeeds as a meditation on the writing process and a philosophical look at fiction and reality -- for Saramago devotees, this is an insightful and meaningful book." - Publishers Weekly

  • "For all its ingenuity, Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is interesting mainly as groundwork for Saramago's subsequent writing, which has, over the past few years, established his reputation as one of Europe's most original writers." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is narrated by a portrait artist who has no illusions about his talents: he knows he provides his clients with what they expect, but: "what I am doing cannot be called painting". He is nearly fifty, and refers to himself as: "a simple H. and nothing more" (several of the characters are referred to only by an initial, though others' full names are given) -- indeed, he suggests:

A blank space, were it possible to differentiate it from the margins, would suffice to say all that can be said about me.
       But it turns out he has a lot more to say about himself. That's also the logical consequence of an idea he repeatedly brings up:
     In my opinion, everything is biography. I insist with even greater reason, as someone in its pursuit, that everything is autobiography (autobiography ? reason ?).
       The novel begins with him painting a portrait of a corporate executive. The picture he paints is typical of his portraits, and what the client expects, but he also works on a second portrait, an attempt to move beyond his usual just-going-through-the-motions. It remains beyond him, however, and eventually:
Using a spray gun, I covered the second portrait with black paint. I banished the colors of error and false gestures which put them there into a superficial but eternal night. Covered in black paint, the canvas is still mounted on the easel and consigned to the shadows of the storeroom, like a blind man fumbling in the dark to retrieve the black hat he removed an hour ago. I can visualize the canvas from here, invisible, black over black, fettered to the skeleton of the easel like a condemned man to the gallows.
       The man H. painted is called only S., and the company he runs is called SPQR, which H. chooses to see as the historic counterpart had it, the Senatus Populusque Romanus. He calls him just S. -- noting he could choose from many evocative names to complete it: Saavedra (as in Cervantes), Salazar (as in the despised dictator), Saramago, Sisyphus, and Socrates are among those he considers, but assigning him a full name: "would already be classifying and putting him into a specific category". If not quite an everyman, S. at least remains representative for a larger class; that (one of) his portraits winds up being spray-painted black is also a clear message: writing in the early 1970s, H. is still writing within a corrupt and hollowed out society. He admits to and worries about his own complicity, and the focus on stifled creativity -- and on copying over creating -- is one manifestation of what this culture and country have come to. (The brief final chapter begins with the coup of 1974 -- "The regime has fallen" -- and the hope that comes with it.)
       In working on the two portraits of S., H. finds he has more or less hit a wall as far as his painting goes, and he turns to writing. He understands:
By resorting to writing I knew that I was simply turning my back on a problem: I was not ignoring it, I knew it was just as daunting, but it was as if the novelty of the instrument (everything for me had to be real invention and not merely an imitation of earlier experiences) was sufficient in itself to bring me closer to my objective.
       He approaches writing as one might painting, and Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is fascinating in how it functions as an apprentice work, H. describing how he tries to figure out the craft (as Saramago himself, on a different level, is with this novel as well). H. even resorts to simple copying, as a painter might make sketches of masters' work -- a striking effect in the book (hence also the apt use of 'calligraphy' in the title, rather than (creative) writing, which H. seems almost not to trust he is capable of -- though the narrative certainly moves far beyond mere copying and calligraphy and is a true artistic achievement). Similarly, he examines the approaches to writing -- noting, for example, that: "Writing in the first person is an advantage, but it is also akin to amputation" (and describing why). The novel is not a manual, but it is like the notebooks of an artist trying to figure out his craft.
       Comparing it to painting, H. admits also that: "writing strikes me as the more subtle art and probably reveals more about the writer". So he moves from the 'blank space' that he saw himself as in the beginning, to ultimately revealing far more of himself.
       Manual of Painting and Calligraphy is far from a purely theoretical novel. There are H.'s relationships with several women, trips to Italian cities (admittedly with a focus on the local art), and, of course, the oppressive political situation in Portugal itself, and its consequences for daily life, and H., and his acquaintances. It makes for a fascinating experimental work -- an artist getting the feel for what can be done in writing. Yes, it feels very much like an apprentice-work, in every respect -- but it is an apprentice-work by a master.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 July 2012

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Manual of Painting and Calligraphy: Reviews: José Saramago: Other books by José Saramago under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Portuguese author José Saramago (1922-2010) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.

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© 2012 the complete review

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