Selections from The Notebook, May 18: José Saramago on Charlie Chaplin

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In celebration of the new paperback edition of José Saramago's The Notebook, Verso is pleased to present another of the acclaimed author's elegant and astute observations on contemporary culture and politics. The publication of excerpts selected from his blog began on April 20 in the lead-up to the release of the new edition and to commemorate Saramago's passing on June 18, 2010.

In an entry on May 18, 2009, Saramago put forth an intriguing analysis of Charlie Chaplin, the legendary actor that changed the face of comedy.

May 18: Charlie

One evening recently I watched some of the old Chaplin films on television. Two or three episodes were run from a lengthy fi lm called The Pilgrim, set in the trenches of the First World War, which reprises one of his recurrent themes: a blameless Chaplin wanted by the police. I didn't actually smile once. Surprised at myself, as if I had failed in a solemn vow, I dedicated myself to the effort of attempting to recall, insofar as such a thing is feasible eighty years later, how many giggles and guffaws Charlie had evoked in me when I was a six- or seven-year-old attending one or other of our two popular cinemas in Lisbon. There was not a lot to recall. At this period in my life my idols were two Danish comedians, Pat and Patachon, who were for me the true champions of laughter. Continuing with like contemplations of my navel, ever a sound practice for someone disposed never to change his home or his opinion, I reached the unexpected conclusion that ultimately Chaplin was not a comedian but a tragedian. Observe how all is sad, all is melancholy in his films. The Chaplinesque mask itself, entirely black and white, with a plaster of Paris skin, black eyebrows and moustache, eyes like blobs of tar, a mask that would be in no way out of place among the most classical statues of the tragic actor. And there's more to it than all this. Chaplin's smile is not a happy smile: on the contrary. I dare say, even knowing the risks involved, that it is so disturbing that it would look better on the face of Dracula. Were I a woman, I would flee a man who smiled that way at me. Those incisors, too large and too regular and white, are frightening. There is a grimace about the rigid set of the lips. I know in advance how few of you will agree with me on this matter. It so happened that, once people decided that Chaplin was a comic actor, no one really looked him in the face again. Think again and consider what I am saying to you. Look him in the face, without preconceptions, and observe his features carefully, one at a time, forgetting for a moment the dance of the fingertips, then tell me what you see. Chaplin would have brought all his films to tragedy if he could have.

Watch the Verso blog for more excerpts from The Notebook leading up to June 18.

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