Paying the Nobel price

When Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, it didn't change his views on the emptiness of fame. Interview by Miguel Yuste
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IN YOUR latest novel you say that fame is a wind that comes and goes. What has led you to reflect on fame?

I would probably not reflect on it were it not for the fact that the principal personality, the hero - who is not much of a hero but we call him the hero - is a poor pen-pusher who in his free time busies himself in collecting news items and photos from newspapers and magazines about other people. His collection is not oriented toward any particular activity or profession; it's all the same to him if they are actors, sportsmen... I suppose, I don't know, that in his collection there might even be writers. It's plausible. He has a ranking of celebrities from one to 100, beyond which there are a number who may any day pass from this relative second category of fame to the first category. This fluctuation is not as casual as it may seem.

In the first place, fame is not in itself positive, and it may often happen that one is famous for negative reasons. So fame is nothing more than this, than being known. There is a level. We are all more or less known, though it be only in the street where we live, in our circle of friends or in our work, where we are spoken of for good or ill. Later on one may come to be known to a wider world, in his town, in his country, in several countries, in the continent where he lives or all over the world but, in any case, there always remain a majority of people to whom the famous person is unknown.

The only positive thing I find in it, supposing that I have reached a certain grade involving only a somewhat wider public knowledge, is that it has enabled me to get to know more people - and not the other way round, ie, that more people know me.

This encounter with other people - is this the only compensation for being well known to the public?

When a writer receives letters from his readers, they are letters addressed to the writer but moved by extra-literary reasons. It is not that in these letters there is no talk of literature or books, of course the letter speaks of books the letter writer has read and such things, but, above all, the letter speaks of what went on in the head, the feelings or the heart of the letter writer by the fact of having, thanks to the reading of a book, a relationship which is not only that of reader to author but rather of person to person, between him and the author. This is a compensation. In this respect you can say there is something good in fame. Now, this may also happen with a writer. It may happen with someone who expresses ideas, sentiments and all that, but there are other fames: to the sportsman, though he receives letters and autograph requests. I think no one writes to speak of their own lives. Then, there are fames and fames, and the truth is that some small fames - and when I say small fames I mean, for example, my own - may be more rich in consequences, in relations, in friendships, in approaches to people than, say, the fame of a Ronaldo, who is much more famous than I, or than any writer in Europe or America. Ronaldo is known to all the world, but nobody in Spain or Brazil is going to write to him and say: "Imagine - the goal you scored has caused me to re-think my life, everything I'm doing, my feelings..." Thus, fame is not in itself a vanity, but if you gloat complacently in it, then it is just that, a vanity. In the other case, that fame adds more and more responsibility. Perhaps it is an ephemeral moment, but if you have reason to believe that what you are doing is important to a more or less wide circle of people, this, as I have said, may give you an image in which you take pleasure, but it adds to your responsibility, because they are attentive to what you are saying, what you think and, above all, how you behave, because it is not only a question of what you say and opine, these are only words; and for people, in this case your readers, for them, words are not enough.

Is it a drug?

No, I don't think so, if you keep in mind that everything in the world is precarious, relative. I think we take these things too seriously. You have a life of 60, 70, 80, 100 years perhaps. That's nothing. You are condemned to be nothing, and besides, you are condemned to be what you have been. All of this will be lost in oblivion. All of it will disappear. It all comes to an end centuries later, or half a dozen years later, owing to its having no importance, or almost none. Then, if you believe in that immortal fame that will cause future generations to pronounce your name, and that this will last forever, and that through all eternity they will still be saying your name with respect and veneration and so on, you are fooling yourself, and this indeed would be a drug. Now, if you think that a moment comes in which you write no more though you are still living, and you don't write because it's all over for you and you have nothing more to say, and out of self-respect you have to shut up, or you really ought to shut up and yet still go on writing, so that even the last day of your life will feel great because people will still be applauding and so on... We have to keep in mind that this does not last, and I may say that I am prepared, not by the fact of having thought about this, but by my own nature so that tomorrow, or the day after, some day, I know not when, what I am doing, or what I do from that day on, will cease to interest people, and that what may be called the fame of this gentleman here will disappear - disappear like so many others, and one sure thing is that the world will go its way without being the least put out.

Did you ever imagine a situation like the present one, in which you are well-known, lionised, sought after?

No, no, not at all, I have passed almost all my life as a discreet citizen with his friends, with a few people who knew me, even after I began to write books my readers numbered only a few dozen, and I have no more resonance than I would have had by writing columns in the press and then collecting them in a book form. It's true that the petty vanity of seeing one's work published has given me a pleasure of the most normal sort, but even so, when I had written four, five, six books or more, I was not at all famous, and became accustomed to not being famous. I had not been so before, and was still not so when I began to write and be published, and there was a moment in which without knowing how or why - and even so, it is easier to see why than how - the relative fame arrived because I wrote some books that people read and liked. Now, to see why is more complex, because if they say they liked your book, it pleases you, of course, but it is best not to ask them why they liked it, because they couldn't tell you. Not just once or twice, but several times someone has come up to me and said: "Reading your book has changed my life". And I feel like asking him: "And how has it changed, how were you before and how are you now, in what way has your life changed?" What do I mean by this? Well, I mean that, respecting the fame I have, I am the most surprised of anyone. A ceremony like yesterday's was very emotional. You feel as if you are trembling right to the marrow, to the bones, and it seems that everything is clear, because I wrote some books, because I said some words, and all that, but the real why goes unanswered, and for a very clear reason, because the why of each one of us in relation to that fame, the perplexity is real. Indeed I like to see this feeling of perplexity maintain itself. I don't wish to know the why, because if I knew the hows and the whys, that might affect me when it comes to writing. I would be attentive to it and take note, and it's better not to do so, to go on doing my own things.

Have you never had a feeling of abandonment, of thinking that nobody remembered you?

No, because every two or three days I receive signs of people remembering me, because I get letters, lots of them, letters which are jewels of humanity.

You spoke earlier about the gossip press in Spain. Is fame treated otherwise in Portugal?

No, just the same, but there everything is smaller, including the world of the famous, and perhaps because it is smaller, it is even more ridiculous.

What degree of vanity must a writer grant himself?

I could answer you if I knew the degrees of vanity permitted. Writers are no more vain than other people. The thing is that if they do something and this brings public recognition, in the matter of vanity they are more sensitive. That is, their vanity is more fragile; being human beings, public recognition makes the vanity they have more fragile, more easily disarmed, and thus it is noted more easily.

What is your degree of vanity?

I don't know; others may tell you. There are people who think, and say it too, that I am vain. I acknowledge that vanity is something human. Dogs are not vain. I think my degree of it is average.

There are writers such as Samuel Beckett who have felt the temptation to withdraw from the world. Have you ever felt this temptation?

No, and for me the world is not the applause, because the world, and here we are again, boos as much as it applauds. You can live more isolated, but misanthropy is something I don't understand, or the rejection of the world either. Who am I to reject the world? Rejecting the world would mean I had a higher notion of myself.

We spoke earlier of fame as fragility, and Ronaldo. Is a famous person always on the brink of the precipice?

Always, always, on the brink every day. It's a little bit like the circus, like the spectator who accompanied a small-town circus because he expected the acrobat would fall some day. There is a lot of this, there are people waiting for the famous to fall, and there is a malignant gaiety each time it happens.

So the famous person wishes to be immortal. And if he is an atheist?

Much worse, because I do not believe in immortality, and it is very clear to me that some things die before their time. But as for the fame I have, I don't like to call it fame. I tell you frankly; I don't like to, I don't think of myself as famous.

What are you then?

I don't know. Fame is something else, and now everything goes by so fast and is consumed, the fame that lasts is that of certain persons who serve as fodder to their own pain; otherwise it is purely decorative.

El Pais