Just as a skylight is an opening in the roof, either admitting a brief illumination of light or giving outsiders a peek as to what’s inside, so Jose Saramago gives us a view of the inhabitants of an apartment building in Lisbon during the early 1950’s. Each member becomes almost as familiar to us as the members of our own family; in fact, I felt as if I was living in the apartments with these people. Which wasn’t always a pleasant feeling, for we are face to face with a lonely cobbler and his wife who have recently taken on a renter, a beautiful mistress and her benefactor, a family of four spinster women: the mother, aunt and two adult daughters, and an embittered couple with their ten year old son.
Each family has its own dreams and disappointments; their lives are lived out before us as a slice of life. We, as the reader, never leave the apartment. But, we see the complexities and emotional drama inherent to each person. We find ourselves taking sides, nodding our heads in agreement with a conversation, or silently cursing foolish choices.
When I closed the book, I had only an indication of where each person’s path would take them. Nothing is wrapped up or finalized. But I saw that the steps which had been taken would be next to impossible to reverse, and that for each family, nothing much would change.
The elderly cobbler and his wife would continue to love each other throughout their old age and loneliness; the mistress would continue to find a benefactor who would support her financially; the embittered couple would go their own way with excuses for needing freedom; and the four women would listen to classical music as they continued to stifle their inner passions. It isn’t concluding what would happen that makes this novel fascinating, it’s discovering who each character is, how he thinks, and what prompts him to take each step in his life.
It is no wonder to me that Skylight is in the top of the important book lists lately. Although it took almost four decades to be published, it is a beautifully written observation of human lives. I will be thinking of it for a long time to come.
Publishers often take a while to decide whether to publish a novel, but 36 years is pushing it. This is what happened to the Portuguese writer José Saramago, whose book Skylight was submitted in 1953 and returned in 1989, a few years before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author, whose work has been translated into 26 languages and whose sales exceed 2m copies, refused to let the novel be published in his lifetime. It would be a constant reminder, he thought, not so much of rejection, but of indifference and bad manners. ~Independent
Some favorite quotes:
“They had their past to remember, the present to live in, and the future to fear.”
“On this side- or perhaps on the other side too – of the inevitable noises lay a dense painful silence, the inquisitorial silence of the past observing us and the ironic silence of the future that awaits us.”
“All I mean is that we won’t become what we are meant to be in life by listening to other people’s words or advice. we have to feel in our own flesh the wound that will make us into proper men. Then it’s up to us to act.”