The vast majority of writers who have won the Nobel Prize in literature have then gone on to write some of the worst books of their careers. By the time Faulkner won the prize in 1949 and gave his famous speech about humankind enduring and prevailing, he was more than a decade removed from his best work. Ditto Hemingway, who won it in 1954 on the strength of his only strong later work, The Old Man and the Sea.
The New York Times recently administered a slap to José Saramago over his Nobel award of 1998, saying, "Political favoritism has been suspected [among the Nobel committee]: Dario Fo of Italy in 1997, José Saramago of Portugal in 1998 and Günter Grass of Germany in 1999 all have leftist views." Are these writers of no merit whatsoever? Did Grass not write The Tin Drum? Most of us would die happy having written a book so monumental! And what about Saramago's Blindness? The Times disputes the criteria of the awards, going so far as to say, "The Swedish Academy is so eccentric in its choice that the astonished winner often enjoys 15 minutes of fame and is quietly forgotten." This is one of those moments when the paper of record seems to be channeling the opinions of a self-involved and ruthless middle manager from Westchester or Fairfield County. This guy doesn't want to have to read Mahfouz or Kertész or some Chinese dramatist! Hey, how about some American writers?
And so the Nobel Prize can be construed as a mixed blessingóbecause the attention of the literary world descends on these winners violently, suddenly, and with pitiless intensity, and not long after this invasion comes the contempt, second-guessing, and, occasionally, a headlong plunge into neglect. It's no wonder it's often hard to write well after winning the award.
The Double, Saramago's newly translated novel, is a case in point. Published in his native Portugal four years after the author received the Nobel, the novel is easy to summarize: A secondary school history teacher with the musty old name of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso finds upon renting a forgettable videotape that he has an exact double, one Daniel Santa-Clara, whose job it apparently is to perform bit parts in a myriad of forgettable B-films. Beyond their professional differences, Tertuliano and Daniel (whose real name is António Claro) are otherwise completely identical, down to their date of birth, their moles, and even their scars. The course of the novel concerns Tertuliano's attempts to locate and meet Daniel/António, the bad blood that emerges from their meeting, and the fiendish plots they then initiate against each other. I won't ruin the end, which is quite moving and features at least one considerably surprising plot twist.
As it is with Saramago's best novels (in the United States, they are probably reckoned to be Blindness, a true masterpiece in my view, and The Cave), The Double seems to have a parabolic, or allegorical, layer, whereby it's possible to view the fabulism of the central conceit as standing in for something particular. Unlike in dream logic, in which the play of interpretation is imperative to arriving at understanding, in Saramago's parabolic world blindness tends to mean one or two things exactly, and the plight of the blind has a clearly representational, if not mimetic, flavor: The modern world, Blindness argues, exists as it does in this story. Saramago's work is not surreal, therefore, in the sense that we might understand it from Breton, or, to take a more recent case, Rikki Ducornet. Saramago is more like the poetry of Bunyan, or perhaps like Swift.
And yet, since Tertuliano Máximo Afonso doesn't even encounter his double until halfway through the course of the book, The Double, in the early iterations of the story, is closer to psychological realism than to some of the more fanciful works in the Saramago oeuvre. In the first half of the book, we aren't sure, in truth, if Tertuliano has really found a double, or if he is simply depressed (this is his own diagnosis, in fact). Perhaps this is a result of his inability to make his relationship work with bank employee Maria da Paz. The language of this first half of the book, as befits a work of complex psychological skepticism, is much woollier than the muscular prose of Blindness. In fact, it's much closer to Eastern European fiction, to Kundera, or even Bernhard, than to the Borgesian or Calvinoesque constructions that I associate with Saramago elsewhere. The narrator is often impertinent and windy and quite critical of Tertuliano, and when the narrator himself is not busy in this regard, Tertuliano's own common sense is introduced as an interlocutor, in order to provide abuse of the protagonist's judgments and actions. Here's a passage in which the main character and his common sense debate issues of volition (in the unparagraphed dialogic style that the author favors):
What will be, will be, Oh, I know that philosophy, it's what people call predestination, fatalism, fate, but what it really means is that, as usual, you'll do whatever you choose to do, It means that I'll do what I have to do, neither more nor less, For some people what they did is the same as what they thought they would have to do, Contrary to what you, common sense, may think, the things of the will are never simple, indecision, uncertainty, irresolution are simple, Who would have thought it, Don't be so surprised, there are always new things to learn, Well, my mission is at an end, you're obviously going to do exactly what you like, Precisely, Good-bye.
While funny and warm, all this intrusion can seem, actually, a little slapdash, as if the book were less methodically composed than the Saramago whom we have come to know and love; likewise in the following authorial aside about the unnamed city where the action takes place:
The moment has come to inform those readers who, given the, so far, rather scant urban descriptions, have created in their mind the idea that this is all taking place in a medium-sized city, one, that is, of fewer than a million inhabitants, but the moment has come, as we were saying, to inform them that, on the contrary, this teacher, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, is one of the just over five million human beings who, with major differences in standards of living and other differences that defy all comparison, inhabit the vast metropolis.
Everything changes once Daniel/António appears. The first genuine indication that the double is a living, breathing person comes in a phone call between Tertuliano and António's wife, Helena: "All I wanted to know is whether the actor Daniel Santa-Clara lives there, My dear sir, I will be sure to tell the actor Daniel Santa-Clara, when he gets in, that António Claro phoned to ask if they both lived here, Sorry, I don't understand, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso began to say, just to gain time, but the woman broke in, This isn't like you, you don't usually play tricks like this, just tell me what you want." The effect of this passage, as in the very tense telephone conversation between the two doubles that follows, is to dramatically root the narrative in the urgent ontological questions posed by the theme of the double. Suddenly, we want very much to know who's who and what is going to happen. The second half of Saramago's Double turns startling and uncanny once the double is revealed to be actual and not merely psychological.
In the context of a novel published by a literary writer after he won the Nobel Prize, perhaps it's fair to say that the theme of the double is about the strange reproduction of self that, in the modern world, one experiences in the moment of international notoriety. Since writing is an incredibly solitary act, as solitary as Tertuliano's lonely, compulsive screenings of videotapes in his apartment, the sudden exposure of the writer to the global media edifice must inevitably bring about the strange sensation that one's own name belongs to someone else. Saramago becomes a possession of global culture. And once this doubling takes place, it gains momentum rather quickly, just as it does in the novel titled The Double. Though Daniel/António initially seems rather mild and reasonable in the story, once he is confronted bodily with Tertulianoóin a memorable scene in which they even strip off their clothes in order to prove that their penises are, in fact, the same lengthóAntónio begins to crack, begins to succumb to the irrational feelings that are attendant upon the terrifyingly modern conclusion that one's identity is in no way unique.
And thus Elfriede Jelinek, this year's laureate, has already announced that she feels more "desperation than happiness" about her Nobel Prize. Who can blame her?
Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of Demonology (2001) and The Black Veil (2002), both Little, Brown.