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Terrible title for a post.  It is, however, very early in the morning, and I’ve decided that I’m going to ditch the last chapter of the new Gregor I edited and start again.  Part of the problem with having nonstop family crises is that it makes it difficult to get past them and into the characters’ heads.

That said, it’s first thing Monday morning and I have Frescobaldi playing behind my head.  It’s a CD I don’t play very much, so I’m going to let it loop and just keep going until I’m ready to take off for school.

Last night I corrected a stack of papers that made my teeth hurt.   I don’t care if you think students should study literature or not, I think  eighteen and twenty year olds ought to be able to write a paper about three poems that is more than just writing down what they think each of the lines means.

Or, worse, simply copying out the poems and going “the first one shows how the poet was really affected by his unique circumstances” and think that amounts to analysis.

In the meantime, I found out accidentally that Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who wrote the book I’ve been reading, and one of my favorite writers on the planet, actually died back in June, 2010. 

That means Death With Interruptions was probably his last book, although I’d have to look it up.  Sometimes there’s a lag between a book being published in Europe and a translation being published here, even with a writer like Saramago, who had a regular American publisher.

But a couple of things occur to me.

The first is that this book is an interesting meditation on death from somebody who was very old at the time he wrote it, and I thought, all the way through, that he might have been thinking of the subject for deeper reasons than just because it came to mind on Tuesday.

But as meditations on death go, this book is blessedly free of solemnity.   It’s not a moan or a deeply felt gaze into the unknown.  For some reason, that feels more authentic to me than the usual run of thing does. 

Maybe it’s just that I’ve been thinking about death myself a lot lately, for  obvious reasons.   I have not been thinking about it like this, but then, that’s why there are writers. 

The plot has twisted and turned a bit since I reported on it last.  Death has decided that going on a long break wasn’t working out, and come back.  It turns out coming back is more complicated than she’d thought.  I could do the whole thing, but Saramago does it better.

But the plot in and of itself isn’t what intrigues me.  Mostly, it’s the angle.  Why not, if you’re writing a “what if,” consider the bureaucratic response to it? 

Most books, if they try to do this, go at it with the “this is our armed forces fighting the problem” or “here’s the bad way people will behave.”  But Saramago is right.  In the world of the bureaucratic welfare state, the problem of how that state would go on paying old age pensions or disability welfare would be acute.   The vaunted European “social contract” on which the legitimacy of such a state rested would be blown to smithereens.  People would get old and decripit and would not die, needing to be taken care of pretty much forever.  The number of people in that state would rise with every passing day, while the birth rate would never be able to cope with it by bringing in new young lives to support the old.

It’s odd to think how well Saramago understood a situation that he refused to acknowledge in his day to day life at all.  He was both an atheist and a Communist, and a very committed Communist–although I sometimes wonder if his Communism was somewhat like that of people like Paul Robeson.

For those of you who don’t know, Paul Robeson was an African American singer of the thirties and beyond who was later accused, with some accuracy, of having been a member of the American Communist Party. 

Whether he was a Communist or not is not entirely clear, because when Robeson went looking for people who wanted to end segregation, almost all the ones he found were either Communists or Communist affiliated.  For better or worse, nobody was taking on that issue at that time.  And for Robeson, as well as a number of other African American leaders of that era, there was a certain amount of dance with the one that brung you.

In case you’re wondering, yes, there is a fair amount of what goes on in Saramago’s fiction that makes me question whether he was ever a Communist at heart, for all the rhetoric he spouted in his regular life.  I can think of only one book with a Communist theme, The Cave, and it’s the single worst thing he did of what I’ve read of him. 

The very good books–Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, All The Names–don’t really have politics at all.  They’re largely books about identity or about the ways in which people treat each other.

In Death with Interruptions he manages to do that without a single named character other than death herself.  Everybody else is identified by function–the minister of defense, the president of the undertaker’s union.

It’s a strange little book. 

Maybe the reason Saramago sounds so little like anybody else is that he didn’t have any of the formative experiences of most contemporary writers.   Poverty forced him to leave school early and go to work to help support his family.  Not being genteel, he did a lot of manual labor.   Later, he did a lot of fighting on one front or another.

I still think I’m right.  I think that making writing an academic career may make life easier for the writers, but it makes the writing worse.

In the end, though, I find myself hoping that I can stay sane and out of dementia long enough to still be writing–and still be being published–at an age like that.

Or, even better, at an age like Manoel de Oliveira, who makes films, but is still doing it at 100.

I’m off to try to explain why “Keats had a painful childhood, not least of which because he died at twenty-five” is not a sentence that makes sense.

Written by janeh

March 7th, 2011 at 6:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

17 Responses to 'Hmmmmm'

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  1. michaelwfisher@cox.net

    7 Mar 11 at 8:47 am

  2. I think after one of your early recommendations of Saramago, I leafed through a copy of one of his books – I don’t remember which one – in the local library, and decided it didn’t appeal to me. I was looking for something lighter and easier, like you yesterday.

    I just finished an older book from the library discard shop. It was light, not bad at all really for a light read, but I think there must be, or have been, a sub-sub-genre of mystery novels featuring liberal female Episcopal priests in the US NE who are attracted to unhappily married police officers. I’ve read a few by that author who names the books after lines from old hymns – Julia Spencer-Fleming – and now I’ve found Cristina Sumners’ version, and isn’t there one with a Mother someone or other?

    As for the bureaucracies, I suspect Saramago was exaggerating for literary effect. Bureaucracies are much too good at survival and growth to be bothered much by unprecedented situations! And the more people you have, the more administration you need!

    It’s politicians’ job to pay for it all – and they can produce as much money as they want, leaving the next generation of politicians and bureaucrats to sort out the mess of no one dying and financial disasters.


    7 Mar 11 at 10:26 am

  3. I checked Amazon Kindle store for Jose Saramago.
    A novel called “The Elephant’s Journey” is available for $10. Its worth a try so I’ve downloaded it to read on my coming NZ trip.

    Cheryl wrote “It’s politicians’ job to pay for it all – and they can produce as much money as they want, leaving the next generation of politicians and bureaucrats to sort out the mess of no one dying and financial disasters.”

    The US federal government and states have spent the last 50 years solving today’s problems with tomorrow’s money. The trouble is that tomorrow has finally arrived.


    7 Mar 11 at 4:06 pm

  4. You know, if I joined the Nazi Party and spouted racism, no one would say,”he’s a nice guy and perceptive. He can’t really be a Nazi.” Somehow nice Communists get a pass. When a sane adult insists he belongs to a party and supports an ideology which brought poverty and death to much of the world, I think he should be taken at his word. To do otherwise is demeaning.

    Longevity. Don Featherstone just put out a revision of an earlier work at 92. I’ll settle for avoiding the worst eulogy–“I thought he died years ago.”

    And the book. You know, I remember that “titles only” bit–the President, the Secretary of Defense–from ASTOUNDING/ANALOG back in the Campbell years. And DEATH is sort of but not quite a Campbell story, along the lines of “Business as Usual, During Alterations” or “The Master Science.” You’d take one device–a matter duplicator, say, an auto diagnostic machine or a smart pill–and explore the ramifications. Pure SF with, if one was lucky, a Frank Kelly Freas illustration. The funny thing is, looking back, the single device never came, but often we’ve gotten a series of lesser ones which had the same effect.

    If this story had been Campbell-era SF, there’d have been a longevity pill. People would retire at 65, then live another 20 healthy years, drawing pensions no one could afford, filling the highways and parks with RVs and–oh? You already know that one? I wonder how it turns out?


    7 Mar 11 at 5:05 pm

  5. Robert,

    Do you remember a story along these lines. Society is very stable and people live a long time. No one works until 40. Below that age, they go to school, marry, raise a family. At 40, they start work. At 70(?) they start training their replacements. At 75(?), the replacement executes the trainer.


    7 Mar 11 at 5:48 pm

  6. jd, I like that! Though I’d probably just leave us by a fire with a bit of hemlock. Speaking as a fogey, they’d have to get rid of us somehow to make any progress at all. There’s an old NEW YORKER cartoon with the physicist explaining to his students “there’s been a lot of loose talk lately about splitting the atom.” Or study Cretan Linear B and Mayan translation. In both cases, the first thing that had to happen in cracking the language was for the Grand Old Man of the field to die.

    But my suggested story was exactly what we now have, except it took us 50 years of nutrition and medical science to get here instead of a pill–healthy, active old people with a pensions system written when they could expect to be dead by 68. It’s getting from here to your story which is the tricky part. (Or maybe the real story is what happens to those 44 year old apprentices when a new problem shows up. Things could get very UNstable very rapidly. For adaptation, you need youngsters.)


    7 Mar 11 at 7:27 pm

  7. Robert, I remember reading that story but I don’t remember the title or author.

    Self Interested warning.
    1. I will be 75 in June
    2. I was very ill a year ago, spent 10 days in the hospital and am alive because of antibiotics.

    Suggestion to reduce the cost of health care and pensions. Make it illegal to prescribe antibiotics to anyone over 70.


    7 Mar 11 at 7:35 pm

  8. Seriously, jd? You’d rather be dead? Thanks, but if that law gets passed I’m out of here.


    7 Mar 11 at 7:41 pm

  9. Now, my suggestion was free drugs for life to any retired Boomers–and I meant any drugs whatever. I am a boomer (1952) and I figure enough of the cohort will OD on recreational drugs to ease the strain on both Social Security and Medicare–and a fitting end to my generation.

    Alternatively, if Obama would let us buy insurance for established procedures and generic drugs only instead of accomodating every medical lobbyist in the country, it might make three years’ difference in my return from exile. It’s one thing to insist we all own cars, and another to insist that the minimum acceptable car is a late-model BMW.


    7 Mar 11 at 11:27 pm

  10. Mary, the question is not whether I’d rather be dead. The question is how to deal with pension plans designed for a life expectency of 68 when pensioners have a life expectency of 78. Its too late to change the design so the obvious solution is to reduce life expectency. If it reduces mine, so be it!

    As for my preference, I expect the uncontrolled budget deficit of the US to lead to a global meltdown sometime in the next 20 years. And, yes, I’d rather be dead before that happens.


    8 Mar 11 at 12:21 am

  11. I think John is unduly pessimistic – and although I wasn’t being entirely serious about ‘leaving it to the politicians’ I do think our culture and our bureaucracies have some resilience left.

    As for the pensions – it helps if, as in Canada, the public pension system was set up originally as a contributory plan with payouts based on investment profits, not on taxes. We’re almost unique in that respect. And the management is flexible enough to change as needed – Changes Coming to Your Canada Pension! (But not elimination or serious cutbacks because the taxpayer pot is nearly empty.) Similarly, in private (self-explanatory) OR public (eg civil servants, teachers etc) pensions with employer contributions, the employer MUST be forced to keep their fingers out of the pot; there’s been too much damn borrowing for current expenses and pension money that vanishes when the company goes belly-up.

    And the other big change of course is keeping the older people working. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from seeing my grandfather being forced reluctantly into retirement (although he did manage to keep busy for some time afterwards on short term jobs) to me, who can’t be forced into retirement at all. The rights of the aging worker have swung from the right to compulsory retirement to the right to keep on working – and paying into all those funds, with some exceptions. The sick and the disabled and those whose jobs were boring and wearisome retire, leaving room for new entrants. And of course, there’s the difficulty any older working has of finding new work should they leave their current position, even though age discrimination is illegal.

    Barring a magic pill or other cause of an instantaneous end to death, I think things will work out, although those countries with troubled pensions which are on unsound footing are still going to have problems hitting the right balance of keeping some older people working – and contributing to he fund – and ensuring the others have enough money to retire, freeing up work for the younger generation.


    8 Mar 11 at 6:59 am

  12. Wait, pension plans? What pension plans? Hardly anyone I know HAS a pension plan. Government workers and the few remaining union workers, but most of the people I know are middle class people in white collar jobs where there have been no pensions for thirty years or more. You have your own 401(k) and IRA and whatnot or you have nothing.

    None of which really bothers me – I don’t think it should be a problem for people to manage their own retirement funds. But I’m curious as to what pension system you refer to, jd.


    8 Mar 11 at 10:50 am

  13. My mother still gets the widow’s part of my father’s pension from a private American company.

    Fortunately, it was all settled years ago (although not 30 years ago) before said company ended up in severe financial distress and so is reasonably secure.

    If I were in a situation in which I had to depend on the Canadian equivalent of an IRA, I’d be facing a penniless old age. The knowledge that it would have largely been my own fault would be of no practical use at all. In reality, paying into professionally-managed plans run by employers or the government worked much better for me than the entirely personal option. I doubt I’m alone.

    Anyway, now the experts are saying that tax-free savings accounts are the way to go for private saving for retirement, and RSPs are not – at least in Canada.


    8 Mar 11 at 11:17 am

  14. My dad still gets his pension too, from 3M, but it’s years since any current or new employee gets a pension. The company does contribute matching funds pretty generously, but they don’t manage the pension plan any more, and haven’t for a long, long time.

    That was my question – there IS no pension system in the US, so I’m not sure what jd was referring to. Unless it’s the Federal government pensions. Government employees are Not Like You And Me.


    8 Mar 11 at 2:57 pm

  15. Mary, as far as I can tell, US Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and the state and city pension plans are completely unfunded.

    The Australian system keeps changing. I’m in a state plan that was started in 1917 and was so insanely generous that it was closed to new entries a few years after joined. As far as I can tell, I’ve collected about 3 times what I paid in.

    We have a number of private pension funds, often industry wide, which are not linked to a particular company. The employee chooses which fund to join, and both the employer and employee contribute. They are portable so the employee can change employer and still stay in the fund. It remains to be seen how well that will work after forty years.

    The US seems to suffer from “not invented here syndrome”. Australia and New Zealand have different answers to providing medical care and pensions but both seem to work better than the US.


    8 Mar 11 at 3:22 pm

  16. I’m with jd in that I don’t expect the present system to endure, but I don’t think it will be the financial collapse that does it. (A) it’s still manageable, and (B)wiping out the thrifty along with the debts doesn’t always doom the system. Does the expression “not worth a Continental” ring any bells?

    But I don’t think the American leadership system can endure another 30 years. We’ve been drawing from the same pool since 1960, and if anything the results are getting worse. If I live to my father’s present age, very different people will run the country. If we’re lucky, this will be on a par with the elections of Andrew Jackson, Lincoln and FDR, which were traumatic enough. If we’re unlucky, the Constutiion will be a fond memory. I’d as soon go first, myself.


    8 Mar 11 at 5:04 pm

  17. 16 comments and still growing. Are we setting a record?

    There is a book “When Money Dies” by Adam Ferguson about the hyperinflation of the Wiemar Republic. One point he makes is that the Germans did not talk of the fall of the mark, they talked about the rise of the dollar.

    The Australian dollar has historically been worth 75 US cents. Its now worth 101 cents and I don’t think the Aussie economy is that strong.

    I follow it because a treaty between Australia and the US allows me to collect $US350 a month in social security. Its gone from $470Australian to $350 Australian so I do notice the change.


    8 Mar 11 at 5:30 pm

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