Hilda Hilst, The Obscene Madame D, Trans. by
Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araujo, Nightboat Books, 2012.
The Hilda Hilst Roundtable
THE OBSCENE MADAME D is the first work by acclaimed Brazilian author Hilda Hilst to be published in English. Radically irreverent and formally impious, this novel portrays an unyielding radical intelligence, a sixty-year-old woman who decides to live in the recess under the stairs. In her diminutive space, Madame D—for dereliction—relives the perplexity of her recently deceased lover who cannot comprehend her rejection of common sense, sex, and a simple life, in favor of metaphysical speculations that he supposes to be delusional and vain.
How possible is it to know the self when the self is seemingly unknowable? This is one of the chief questions that Hilda Hilst poses in her extraordinary and extraordinarily strange novel The Obscene Madame D. But it is only one of many questions this work raises, or better casts forth in existential terms, as it plumbs the experiences, the depths of experience to be more exact, of its protagonist and main narrator, Hille. We might begin with the answer that Hille’s husband, Ehud, states quite clearly of his spouse, defining her epistemological method: she chooses the path of radical abjection, of herself and others, to approach and achieve that sought-after self-knowledge, but not abjection in the sense of negation or abnegation. For Hille’s approach is antithetical to that of the Platonism of The Symposium, that shedding of the body toward the achievement of the purity and beauty of the gods. It also is antithetical to the self-negation of the Christian martyrs, or the abnegation of Simone Weil. Instead, Hille’s method is closer perhaps to the Sade of Justine, or the Lispector of the stories and The Passion According to G. H. It is knowledge fashioned, if that word might be employed with utmost irony, out of the messiest, basest corporeality, out of obscene animality. Out of dereliction - the eponymous “D” of the title - unto death. Dereliction of sociality in all its forms, dereliction of Ehud and of their marriage, dereliction of herself, of life itself. Dereliction, we might even argue, of the reader. For in The Obscene Madame D, Hilst seduces and then abandons the reader to the fitful filth of Hille’s queer quasi-existence, her acts or non-acts, her roiling, untethered, ever-searching quest. Her dereliction and the knowledge it produces, or at least aims to produce, become ours.
"If Lispector's psychotic heroines careen towards Mars, Hilst's Madame D, in her flight from the body's 'unparalleled glimmer,' implodes. Her god is too small, too obscene to halt her descent into Hell. This brief, lyrical and scalding account of a mind unhinged recalls the passionate urgency of Artaud and de Sade's waking dreams in which sex and death are forever conjoined and love's 'vivid time' irretrievably lost."—Rikki Ducornet
"Like her friend and admirer Clarice Lispector, Hilda Hilst was a passionate explorer of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the obscene, and shows, in this discomfiting, hypnotic work, just how rarely those categories are what they seem. The translation is excellent—what a rare relief."—Benjamin Moser
--From the Introduction
By now, it’s safe to say that the only women who benefited directly from the Latin American literary boom of the 60s and 70s were the wives of those writers who found themselves suddenly popular across the globe. It also might be safe to say that Latin American countries, following the suit of most others (U.S. included), has been unkind to their writers of the female gender — ironic really, given how many of its writers count their madres and abuelas storytelling as major influences on their writing. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez attributes the deadpan style he brought to his magic realism to that of his grandmother who raised him on stories told in a way that Marquez called “brick-faced.”) If we take a quick look at a list of writers who became prominent during this period in a way few Latin American writers ever had before, we find a handful of today’s literary-household names: Julio Cortazar, Maria Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, and of course the aforementioned Marquez. The list of lesser known writers though not lesser talented (Jose Donoso, Juan Rulfo, Manuel Puig, etc.) is also a boy’s club. But women weren’t the only group that saw little rise in readership during the boom; Brazil, as a whole, received very little recognition. Fernando Sabino, Erico Verissimo, and Jorge Amado were all neglected. (Jorge Amado would eventually break into the translated world, unlike Sabino and Verissimo both of whom have no translated texts in print in America today.) The reason for this neglect may be rooted in language. Portuguese and Spanish, though both West Iberian Romance languages and therefore mutually intelligible, do have their differences. Maybe it was an issue of finding the right translator. Whatever it was, it is important to note, because finally, despite language issues and patriarchal attitudes, this year, Hilda Hilst has, for the first time, been published in book form in English for an American audience, an audience one can only hope will embrace her. This publication of Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D by Nightboat/A Bohla, originally published in Brazil in 1982, may just be the literary miracle of 2012.
Hilda de Almeida Prado Hilst’s story is one of both local and international neglect. She was born in Jaú, Brazil in 1930. Her publication history reads like a chronology of formal shifts: in the 50s she began publishing poems, in the 60s she worked almost solely in the theater, and in the 70s and 80s she published novels. She managed to win a major award in each form; in ‘62 she won the Prêmio PEN Clube of São Paulo for her book of poems Sete Cantos do Poeta para o Anjo; in ‘69 she won the Prêmio Anchieta for her play O Verdugo; in ‘77 she won the APCA best book award for her Ficções. But accolades don’t always bespeak popularity. Hilst remained a figure of the underground. In 2005 an important text titled Brazilian Writers was published in the states as volume 307 in the Thomas Gale collection “Dictionary of Literary Biography.” Each entry focuses on one author, listing their publications and providing a short biography of their life and character. The only way to make it into this book is if you have a scholar working on your papers. Hilst, not having one, was left out. A reading of Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D may be the best explanation for this. In the book, not only does Hilst challenge all the rules of fictional form, but she manages to completely deconstruct the power hold of the patriarchy, while at the same time drawing the text closer to the female body than even some of the most feminist works written to date. She is what one might call a difficult writer, which is unfortunate because reading her isn’t that difficult at all.
The plot — a more appropriate word might be timescape — of The Obscene Madame D is a conversation that takes place between Hillé, from beneath the stairs, and Ehud (presumably Hillé’s husband), from on the stairs. A year before Ehud died (although in death he manages to be very much alive in the novel), Hillé, the -agonist of the text, moved into the “recess under the stairs.” She begins by telling us that she has seen herself “removed from the center of a thing,” a thing she doesn’t know how to name. This detachment from the center, this psychic break, sets the conversation in motion. We come to learn, only later, the real impetus for this talk with Ehud is that Hillé, “the incestuous theophagite,” has become afraid she is dying and has decided it’s time for a settling of accounts. The tone is one of reflective-inquisition, a series of what-abouts. What about this, what about that. Why this, why that. She is searching for answers. Ehud, who, in typical male-fashion, would rather have her making him coffee, attempts to coax her out of her cubby: “Do you hear me, Hillé, listen, I don’t want to upset you, but the answer isn’t there, do you understand? neither in the recess under the stairs nor on the first step here, at the top, do you really understand that there is no answer?” Luckily, this isn’t true. The book, which is saturated with questions, is itself a kind of answer to one of the more important questions in literature today.
When literary theorists describe possible future feminist texts (texts like the one Helene Cixous describes in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa or like the one Virginia Woolf describes in her A Room of One’s Own) the reader is prompted to ask, Just what would a text like this look like? What would it read like? How would it sound? The answer is here in The Obscene Madame D. For instance, Cixous writes,
If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sound, it is time to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.
Hilst does just that. She invents a language for herself and gets inside it. She takes syntax and grammatical rules and explodes them, seizing words and structuring them in a stylistic way that one might place in the gap between Modernism and Postmodernism (this text may also be a great argument for why fitting art into a specific generational category is a practice that only serves certain texts while leaving the unclassifiable out in the literary-cold). We find Hilst using her created language throughout the book, but the passage when she ponders the death, or not-death, of Ehud who has climbed “up the stairs, to the bedroom,” is one of the more powerful examples. Hillé begins, “If Ehud did exist one day he continues to be, if he never existed, IT IS FOREVER IMPOSSIBLE FOR HIM TO BE, but before being Ehud he Was not and he would then have existed without being?” She then travels her language in a way that Cixous has told us we must “affirm the flourishes of,” for Hilst is writing “to give form to its movement, its near and distant byways.” Hilst shows us what Cixous means when Hillé continues:
The hours. Ecstasy. Dryness. Stung before the outdoors, I lapped the air, colors, nuances, and I stopped breathing before certain ochres, the veins of certain leaves, before the smallest of leopards, before the gray-white feathers that fell from the roof, gray of a stony gray, a shimmering silver-gray, and having seen, having been what I was, am I this one now? How can I have been Hillé, vast, and plunging fingers into the matter of the world, how having been, can I have lost she who was, and be today who I am?
She takes the focus from Ehud and brings it into herself. She does this later in the text with her father, as well as with the people of her village, and ultimately with God. But with Ehud, this decentralization of power holds the most significance. Ehud represents phallocentrism. The only way for a biblical story to be more phallic than Ehud’s, would be if it featured an actual cock. The story takes place in Judges chapter 3. The Israelite had not honored God to a point that displeased Him and as punishment God put an obese man named Eglon in place to rule over the Israelites for eighteen horribly oppressive years. After the Israelites petition God, paying honor and tribute, God forgives them and sends them Ehud, the great assassin. Ehud straps a short sword to his inner thigh and goes to Eglon under the guise that he is there to offer him the Israelites’s annual tribute. Once Ehud is let into the palace and finds himself in the room with Eglod,
Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out and the fat closed over it, and the refuse came out.
Every time Hillé removes the power from her version of Ehud, whose main worry is that they may “never screw again,” she does it with a question. Men of power hate questions. There is certain strength the inquisitive has, and Hilst proves this truth in the text over and over again. The questions pull the power from men and place it in the middle of the room. That seems to be the point: Give power to no one. Let us be people, man and woman, different but powerless all the same.
Woolf tells us that the female writer’s “book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men . . .” She tells us this because women are forever being interrupted at their work — like in the old saying “a woman’s work is never done.” But what if a shorter length, coupled with a concentration of ideas, served another purpose? What if we looked at them as their own form? The Obscene Madame D stands at only 57 pages and yet manages to offer the reader a truly immersive experience unlike any of the classic tomes that brim with words. With Hilst we get not only the conversation, the incessant questioning of her inner and outer life, but also her symbolism. Her text has depth rather than length, another attribute that may be, in a certain sense, female. She speaks of being a sow and of giving birth to the Porcine Child. In many cultures, the sow has been seen as the Great Mother suckling her litter of piglets. And again, we’re back at Cixous who says that “Even if phallic mystification has generally contaminated good relationships, a woman is never far from “mother” (I mean outside her role functions: the “mother” as nonname and as sour of goods). There is always within her at least a little of that good mother’s milk. She writes in white ink.” Hilst writes in white ink. The symbols don’t stop at the sow. One can find them littered throughout the text, which only adds to the desire to reread the work.
Both Cixous and Woolf call for an embracing of female writing, not some homogenization of all writing, not some literary middle road that authors can walk down hand-in-hand writing the same type of texts. Woolf reminds us that “It would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only?”
Of course, it’s important not to pigeon-hole Hilst’s writing. Much like the great works of feminist literature, with Hilst, we are talking about a literature capable of transcending gender, offering up worlds and ideas we need all experience. What those who don’t quite grasp the concepts of feminism fail to understand is, feminism is working to help all of us evolve. All. Of. Us.
In the middle of The Obscene Madame D, Hillé says “I would have loved Franz K, we would have laughed together. . .” And they probably would have, but if they did, we would be able to hear something distinct in Hillé’s laugh that wouldn’t be there in Kafka’s. For when Hillé laughs, she laughs the laugh of the Medusa. Now, thanks to Nathanaël’s wonderful translation, more of that laughter can be heard here in America. - Alex Estes
FOR THE LAST SIX YEARS, I’ve been carrying around a tattered copy of the introduction to Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil. Until tonight, however, I didn’t appreciate its ironic duality: the beginning of a larger work, but at the same time, the last of a man’s life’s work. One that Becker didn’t live to see published, as he died only a few months before his 1974 magnum opus, The Denial of Death, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. Nonetheless, this introduction had a profound effect when it was given to me in a literature class, by a professor who I’ve often credited for leading me into the writing life. Without knowing who Ernest Becker was — without ever seeking out another page of his writing until now — I kept this essay, with my marginal notes, folded up in a jewelry box on my dresser as I moved from room to room, city to city. Every now and then I would come across it, open it up, read it, and put it back in its place. One sentence in particular always struck me:
[M]an is first and foremost an animal moving about on a planet shining in the sun.
The lack of punctuation brings ambiguity into the image: is the planet shining, or is man? Is man’s creatureliness (Becker’s word) somehow glorious? A work of psychology and philosophy, Becker’s Escape from Evil expounds on his work in The Denial of Death, itself a groundbreaking investigation into the division between man’s animal self and his symbolic self. Becker posits that this division is the basis of man’s neuroses: that man is forever searching for meaning in the world of symbols while at the same time conscious of, and terrified of, his own inevitable “death and decay.”
This is no doubt what the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst was thinking about when she dedicated her novel The Obscene Madame D and “all future works, if there are any” to the late thinker. Hilst’s book tells the story of Hillé, a woman who, after “eating the flesh of God,” decides to live in a recess under the stairs. There, Hillé (or Madame D, for “dereliction”) reflects on her relationship with her recently deceased husband, who was perplexed by her refusal of sex and social interaction in favor of metaphysical speculations. In her solitude, Madame D confronts her relationship with God, her body, her imminent death, her society, and her identity’s dependence on language.
The Obscene Madame D is the first of Hilst’s work to become available in English, with a translation by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo. It arrived along with several new translations of novels by Brazilian women writers last year, most notably Clarice Lispector, whose name appears in both blurbs on the back of The Obscene Madame D. Tempting though it may be to consider Hilst alongside Lispector, however, as both were Brazilian women writing experimentally, on similar subjects and around the same period, it would be doing Hilst a disservice not to consider her independently.
Hilst’s work ranges from theater to poetry to fiction and nonfiction, changing focus several times and often blurring the lines between genres. She collected multiple literary prizes over 40 years, the last in 2002, two years before she succumbed to an infection at Casa do Sol, her country estate near Campinas.
Her father suffered from schizophrenia and, for long periods throughout his life, lived in mental institutions. Hilst visited him in her childhood city of Jaú in 1946, and this encounter, as well as cases of mental illness among other family members, would have a profound effect on her work. Studying law at the Faculty of Law at the University of São Paulo, she met the writer Lygia Fagundes Telles (whose novel The Girl in the Photograph became available from Dalkey Archive Press in September), with whom she shared a close, lifelong friendship. In 1966, two years after the coup d’état that launched an 11-year military dictatorship in Brazil, she moved to Casa do Sol.
Though she wrote for many years under the military dictatorship, Hilst was mostly protected from its harshest effects thanks to her relative seclusion. Her work shows an interest in existential issues, science, mysticism, and themes of transformation. In the early 1970s (as Fagundes Telles was writing her highly political The Girl in the Photograph) Hilst was mourning the death of her mother and finding inspiration in the work of Friedrich Jürgenson, a Swedish researcher of the paranormal, whose writing about what is now termed EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon, led Hilst to experiment for several years with capturing and transcribing, by means of a tape recorder, voices with origins unexplained by science.
Written in shifting tenses and voices that blend in and out of one another, The Obscene Madame D features a protagonist wracked by mental instability, tortured by her inability to reciprocate her husband’s sexual invitations. She tells us that she is “I in search of light, sixty years in silent blindness, spent seeking the sense of things,” and proceeds to introduce a series of memories written in stream-of-consciousness prose that, at times, resembles poetry. In this way, Hillé confronts her human limitations, her corporeal existence. Her husband, Ehud, is dead; her father is dead. She is no longer able to deny the ghastly reality of her own body. This is where Ernest Becker’s influence becomes obvious: Hillé knows that her body — its desire, its filth, its inevitable death — is keeping her from fully existing in the world of symbols.
“[Man’s] body is strange and fallible and has a definite ascendancy over him by its demands and needs,” says Becker. “Try as he may to take the greatest flights of fancy, he must always come back to it.” The body is the only means through which one can possibly know anything, but man strives to escape his death and find meaning for his life in the world of symbols, in their cultural synthesis. (For it is culture that imposes upon man his identity, his purpose, his sense of self and his superego: “Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us.”)
But Hillé has eaten the body of God. She’s seen how this striving for bodilessness is folly, how our God, too, is bodily, and can die. She can no longer use God or culture to deny her creatureliness. This theme resonates as well in Hilst’s poems, including one recently translated by Caroline Aguiar, which includes the lines:
For a God, what a singular pleasure.
To be the owner of bones, the owner of flesh
To be the Lord of a brief Nothing: man:
Attempting likeness with you, Executo(ione)r.
“This is one aspect of the basic human predicament,” says Becker, “that we are simultaneously worms and gods.”
But men aren’t built to be gods. A god can take in the whole matter of the world unfiltered. A god doesn’t need what Becker calls a causa-sui project — an “energetic fantasy that covers over the rumbling of man’s fundamental creatureliness.” Man’s neuroses stem from his need to filter the world, to take in a chosen part of its information. In other words: to deny the truth of existence. Those who cannot do this are paralyzed; they cannot function. However, Becker argues, artists and psychotics take in the world in much the same way: completely, the only difference being artists’ ability to channel the information of the world into creations. This becomes their causa-sui project, their stab at immortality. Hilst shows us the problem with this. Inhabiting the space under the stairs, Hillé fashions fish out of paper that disintegrates in water, a godlike activity that nonetheless depicts the transience of all bodies.
The Obscene Madame D is ostensibly narrated from the present, yet time is nonetheless slippery, and the unattributed dialogue contributes to the feeling of disorientation. Voices of neighbors, real or remembered, drift in from offstage — in the rafters, in the wings — calling Hillé crazy, labeling her perceived insanity, her self-imposed isolation, contagious. This unreliable narration nonetheless leaves truth to question: is she really insane, or is she, with her recently acquired ingestion of the truth, perhaps the only one who is actually sane? A hint at the autobiographical comes to a head at the end of the novel, when Hillé is seen with Ehud at the bedside of her dying father who says to Ehud, “Don’t let her ask the same questions I asked”:
[s]he dives, wise, heavy, toward the bank of shells, she wants to open them, she believes she’ll find pearls and she may find some but, I’ll slip this to your ear, she won’t be able to stand it, do you understand? there’s nothing inside
inside the pearls, Ehud, nothing, empty, you understand?
A warning, but Ehud’s presence in the scene tells us this memory is distant, that it is already too late for Hillé. Even before Ehud’s death, she had isolated herself, withdrawn from culture, sought truth by means of her personal dereliction. She has been “subjected to the terrifying paradox of the human condition” and can no longer live the lies she must in order to integrate with her culture. But is this the definition of sanity, or, rather, of insanity? Certainly, truth and sanity aren’t synonymous.
Becker built on the psychoanalytic idea of transference to explain man’s tendency to yield to a superordinate authority, to transfer our fears onto someone or something that can sustain us beyond the threat of death. As children, this is our parents; as adults, it may be our culture, our religion, our lovers, or our government. The death of Hillé’s father, her failed sexual relationship with Ehud, her spiritual disillusionment, and her relationship with language can all be seen in the context of her struggle against, or with, transference.
While the political situation in Brazil doesn’t often appear at the forefront of Hilst’s work, it does figure into her work thematically, and in the way she uses language. The experimental prose of The Obscene Madame D especially “can definitely be understood in the context of the military regime's waning, and all the possibilities that this opened up,” says Bruno Carvalho, a Brazilian literature scholar at Princeton and a participant in the Hilda Hilst panel held at Poets House when the translation was released. In the sense that language is a cultural and political construct, Hilst breaks that construct, and in doing so, asking us to hear life’s eventual silence.
Regarding the translation of The Obscene Madame D, Nathanaël says that the great challenge was “to maintain [Hilst’s] idiosyncratic punctuation and word order; there is a sense of something broken and at the same time highly rigorous about her prose.” Not a fluent speaker of Portuguese, Nathanaël translated the novel instead from the French, bringing it afterward into collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo, her Brazilian publisher at A Bolha Editora, who partnered with Nightboat Books on the edition. The result was “a disintegrative process that unmoors the languages in question from their perceived bases,” a process, I suspect, Hilst would have appreciated, as one who was ever-conscious of the fact that writing is a bodily act. It’s no surprise that she spent the early 1990s writing works that were largely considered pornography: a collection of poems and three novels, including one narrated by an eight-year-old girl. More like de Sade than E.L. James, these works push the limits of taste, of what can and should titillate. It’s no surprise that they brought her considerable notoriety, even among her peers, and especially among members of the literary establishment. “Hilst's work is flesh and blood and bones and that is it,” says Araújo, who founded A Bolha Editora to publish writers like Hilst. “It is body,” and bodies decompose, like the last pages of The Obscene Madame D, which fray into jagged lines of dialogue. Until now, Hillé has spoken of the Porcine Child as a kind of savior figure — at times like God, at other times like Jesus. Now, he enters the scene as a man:
what is your name?
I’m called the Porcine Child.
Because I like pigs. I also like people. - Sarah Gerard
Alt-Lit Divas: be not afraid. I come bearing good tidings. In academia and mainstream media, we are constantly being presented with literary rubrics from which we are locked out; but the world, like Death, is different from what we supposed, and luckier. Therefore if we attentively comb through the literatures of other cultures, occultly presented to us by indie presses and at the hands of provocative translators, we just might find ourselves exposed to an alternate and inverted set of art-heroes, an ‘alt-lit’ landscape that upends and distends our own. To that end, I give you the Brazilian wonderworker Hilda Hilst, and her first English title, The Obscene Madame D.
1. THE AUTHOR AS AN EXTREME LIFE FORM
Imagine one of those miraculous life-forms that live in hydrothermal vents at the deepest part of the ocean, an organism of the category extremophile, gifted with snail’s feet or red plumes or a host of delicate tubes, an organism thriving on poison gas at pressures greater than we surface-breathers could ever conceive.
Now imagine that this fungible form were simultaneously discovering itself, holding a self-contrived microcamera on itself, discovering more and more of its own fantastic muchness in close-ups and cutaways, unfolding pleated vistas while keeping always within its own tight parameters. This combination of alien ingenuity, cruel compression, brilliant expansion and a diet of steady delight characterizes the 57-page prose flourish that is The Obscene Madame D.
2…. BUT SHE RUINED HER CAREER TO MAKE PORNOGRAPHY FOR CHILDREN!
The Obscene Madame D represents an incredible, life-changing pleat in the career of its author, the legendary Brazilian one-off Hilda Hilst. Hilst produced a steam-tide of widely celebrated poetry, drama, and prose for some thirty years before jumping to a still more extraordinary level, a shining, smoking and considerably more provocative orbit, for the second half of her career (including, for example, what the author called ‘porn for children’). The Obscene Madame D provided the portal through which this jump could be made, as its daredevil title suggests. It is thus a particularly florid and wonderful book with which to introduce North American readers to this titanic and infernal author.
3. WAITING FOR THE PIG CHILD
This book exists within a single plot point—our heroine, Hillé, has confined herself to a cupboard-like chamber under the stairs. With only one point, the plot sustains not a cause-and-effect but rather a spatial logic; scenes and conversations register audibly, marked by their proximity or distance from this critical no-place, this hole. Hillé has a husband, Ehud, who perhaps died some months before but whose coaxing conversation goes on posthumously seducing her through the ether, so that the seductions construct a new orbiting ‘spacetime’ of their own. Neighbors are also (comically) heard through the wall attempting to communicate with the ‘shut-in’ who has literalized and thus scandalized that term. The most important recurrent figure is the Porcine Child who is continuously described, whose arrival is so passionately awaited, who will usher into the hole-world not transcendence but a child’s frank occupation via ether-collapsing obscenity. In this sense, the word ‘obscene’ in the title feels aspirational, a status our heroine will achieve only through the lyric eviscerations of the last few pages.
4. A LITANY OF THE SELF
But first we have Hillé, Hillé herself. One of the book’s exciting (and inciting) recurrent modes is that of self-litany, a rhythmic, substitutive naming that brings our protagonist into being with the multiflorate force of a Hindu goddess. The book begins by describing the abnegation that is the beginning of a limitless, lawless, filling-back-up:
I saw myself removed from the center of a thing I didn’t know how to name, but this is certainly no reason for me to go to the sacristy, I, Hillé, incestuous theophagite, also known by Ehud as Madame D, I, Nothingness, Name of No One, I in search of all things […] Dereliction, Ehud would say, Dereliction—once and for all Hillé—signifies abandonment, neglect, and why do you ask again each day and you never remember, from now on, I will call you Madame D. D for Dereliction, do you hear? Abandonment, neglect, my soul forever in constant emptiness, I sought after names, I palpated angles, nooks, I caressed hems, looking inside, go figure, curls, wefts, twists, at the bottoms of trousers, in the knots, the visible quotidians, the insignificant absurd, in the minima, the light one day, the understanding of us all destiny, on day I will understand, Ehud
life, death, these whysI quote at some length here to bring out several characteristic structures of the book, evident even in this very first paragraph. One is that the book proceeds by paragraph. Paragraphs are its delightful units. Whole liquid thoughts announce, move through themselves, double back, repeat in paragraphs. The effect is concentrated and effluvial, a self-conserving system which displays its riches like waste on its wide banks. The book is also thus cyclical. In the above paragraph, the voice picks up “Abandonment, neglect” from Ehud’s dialogue and uses it to relaunch its thought. But rather than listing her various names, the speaker now narrates this process. She says “I sought after names”, then re-trains the searching, phrasal energy of the opening sentence not through proper nouns but through utterly common things, minor sites on the larger geography of bodies: “figure, curls, wefts, twists, the bottoms of trousers”, etc. This cyclical, rebounding energy thus fuels the book’s logic of hyperbole, its ability to move between the hilariously concrete and the murkily obscure (the obscene’s two modes), from minima to maxima, from the mundane business of “knots” and “hems” to “all destiny”—and back again. This motion is the book’s engine, because pursuit of minima always directs us back to the maxima, and vice versa. The book’s metaphysics are thus firmly rooted in this world, and cannot leave it. The Porcine Child, when he comes, will have to come to this cupboard under the stairs. He will have to come here. To Hillé.
4. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE
For all the radical force of Hillé as the black smoking hole at the center of this book, the opening paragraph also reveals another key structure: the book exists in dialogue. Ehud the bridegroom, there-and-not-there, is not an antagonist. He surges, he touches, he comes close, he brings descriptions of the outside world, new textures and objects into the book’s imagining. He is the necessary prod for Hillé to feel and to fill out her own outline, including the outline of her thought. Other figures’ dialogue is more comic, such as the neighbors who tread into Hillé’s precincts in order to have the pleasure to scorn her, or the priest who is easily scared off the place. For all the humor of these set pieces, I found these cameos by other human voices necessary. For while Hillé prays in the book’s last line to be delivered from “imbeciles and cretins”, the imbecility and cretinousness of the neighbors is also part of the Porcine Child’s brief. Obscenity needs bodies, familiars, the neighbors. Hillé says,
I contemplated this pig-world and I thought to myself; He has nothing, That One, but nothing to do with this, This One inside has nothing to do with this, This-One, the Luminous, the Vehement, the Name, I ingested deeply, salivating, licking my lips I demanded: make it such that I understand, that’s all. Really, Madame D? Understand the play-thing of the Mad Child, just imagine, Hillé, or imagine the sinister pastimes of a mad child, or imagine children playing with little cats, rats, with sad errant bitches, come to me, oh, little children, what do we know of little children? How could he speak like this, he who said he knew so many things?
House of the Sow, that is what they call my house now, I am now the wife of that Porcine Child Builder of the World.In this passage, Hillé wants to be declarative, Vehement, to conceive a Vehemence, and to be its wife. But Hilst won’t let her have this declarativeness. Immediately a voice (Ehud’s?) answers and complicates the thought, suggesting that boundaries and binaries cannot be so firmly drawn, and that if we imagine a messianic arrival, we must imagine not a purely alien or even strictly animal apparition but something circuited, for better or worse, to all the cruel and lovely obscenity of human organisms.
5. TASTE AND SEE
The Obscene Madame D is thus not a fixed thing, not a tract, not the end result of a course of thinking but a marvelous irruption, a salvo, the opening of a series of possibilities which would occupy Hilst for the remainder of her career. The poet Nathanaël worked with series editor Rachel Gontijo Araujo to create this translation and the result is fittingly double—on the one hand musical, shapely, with an emphasis on phrase and, on the other hand, hot-blooded and direct in tone. The resulting text is complex and fully saturated like bloody butcher paper. And satisfying, too, like the lick of that butcher paper Madame D might dare us to undertake. - Joyelle McSweeney
The Obscene Hilda Hilst
By the time of her death, in 2004, Hilda Hilst had garnered fame for the whole of her oeuvre—including Brazil’s most prestigious literary prizes—and notoriety for the filthiness of her final books. Her body of work, which includes poetry, plays, and prose, is as wide-ranging as it is defiantly avant-garde, yet, despite the accolades, her writing—and its many controversies—has only recently been introduced to Anglophone readers. Born in 1930 into one of the wealthiest families in Brazil, Hilst was raised in Jaú, a small town not far from São Paulo. As translator Adam Morris notes in his introduction to With My Dog-Eyes, the latest of her novels to be made available in English, Hilst’s father was a writer and coffee baron who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when Hilst was two years old. Indeed, the pall of the degenerative mind hangs over Hilst’s life and work; its dark influence pervades The Obscene Madame D (published in Portuguese in 1982, and in English in 2012), a novel narrated by the widow Hillé, who, having sequestered herself to a recess beneath her staircase, reflects on loss, the denial of the body, and the breakdown of the mind.Hilst’s fictions are feats of economy and compression: though they are short—Letters from a Seducer, the longest of her novels so far available in English, is a slender 115 pages—the texts do not feel small. They are expansive in the way Beckett is expansive, stripped of all but the bare and brutal questions of human experience. While studying law at the University of São Paulo, Hilst began publishing her poetry, and by the age of thirty-two, she had authored seven collections. Harboring a deep aversion to the restrictive social mores of bourgeois São Paulo, Hilst abandoned a career in law to devote herself entirely to her literary work. In the mid-1960s, she moved to a house outside Campinas known as the Caso do Sol (House of the Sun). Built on the coffee fields she had inherited from her father, the house became a refuge for artists and writers—her elective family, as she called them—during Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted until 1985. She was married to the sculptor Dante Casarini, who also lived on the estate, though they both had many other lovers; they ultimately divorced in 1985.
If the abnegation of traditional values and hierarchies runs through Hilst’s life, her attempt to find a literary analogue becomes clear with the arrival in English of two more of her novels: With My Dog-Eyes (published in Brazil in 1986, and this month in Adam Morris’s translation) and Letters from a Seducer (translated by John Keene). Letters from a Seducer is the third book in her “pornographic tetralogy,” which solidified her notoriety upon its Brazilian release in 1991. Included in the quartet are a book of poems and three novels (O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, Contos D’Escárni / Textos Grotescos, and Cartas de um sedutor). Though Hilst’s later writing is considered radically different than her earlier work, the break represented by the tetralogy is merely an intensification and deepening of themes Hilst had long explored. Her “pornographic” books are united by the violence with which she works to undo the grammar of systems of confinement—language, gender, sexuality, and form—and the tenderness and comedy with which she scours the bleakness of circumstance for something that an optimist might call hope.
With My Dog-Eyes opens with a conversation. The narrator, a forty-eight-year-old, highly-esteemed professor of mathematics named Amós Kéres, is called in to speak with the dean of his university. Certain rumors have come to the dean’s attention about Kéres’s behavior—there have been reports of his aloofness, signs of his mind wandering off: in class, Kéres abandons sentences midway through only to return to them fifteen minutes later. “Professor Kéres,” the dean says, “fifteen minutes is too much.” Kéres is asked to take a leave of absence. Instead, Kéres suffers further breakdown, losing his control over language before losing the language of the self.
There is an Ouroboric quality to Kéres’s descent from genius to madness, concurrent with the novel’s own formal descent from coherence to chaos. Many of the pleasures and challenges of reading Hilst’s fiction can be found in this loop. By the end of the book’s sixty-two pages, Kéres has fractured and dissociated almost entirely from himself. Hilst renders this with a mix of first- and third-person narration, with Kéres hovering over himself—and over the text—as an intermediary between the reader and the professor’s thoughts:
Amós Kéres. From here I can hear him comparing the lucidity of an instant to the opacity of infinite days, I can hear him thinking of the various manners of madness and suicide. The madness of the Search, which is made of concentric circles and never arrives at the center, the obscuring, incarnate illusion of finding and understanding . . . From here can I hear him thinking how should I kill myself? or how should I kill in me the various forms of madness and be at the same time tender and lucid, creative and patient, and survive?As Kéres fractures and becomes increasingly diffuse, Adam Morris does an impressive job handling the sudden shifts in perspective and the disorienting rhythms of the text. Toward the end, it is almost impossible to know whom to attribute various lines of exposition and thought, as though Kéres himself were a poem emptied of signification, and Hilst seems to ask whether this is liberation or the essence of madness itself.
Where With My Dog-Eyes concerns madness of the mind, Letters from a Seducer explores the madness of desire. Hilst herself called the tetralogy to which this novel belongs, “brilliant pornography”—or “porno-chic,” as Bruno Carvalho states in his introduction. Though the novel is infused with sex, Hilst aims not to excite but to unsettle, with the violence of de Sade rather than that of E. L. James. In the back of my book, in a column that carries over to a second page, I noted the following euphemisms that Hilst uses for penis: catfish, pole, blunt, harmonica, banana, pod, thrush (as in “to pluck one’s thrush”), piece, club, table leg, rosy mallet, bat, tombstone, creeper, strap, box, nib, basket, and gourd. There is also starfruit-loquat-hole, rosy pulp, poompoom, dove, hairy cavern, butterfly, chocha, and petunia, where female genitalia are concerned.
But the pornographic nature of the novel reaches further than the physical. The three short sections that constitute Letters from a Seducer are narrated by two men: Karl, the seducer of the title, and Stamatius (Tiu, for short) an impoverished writer who is resentful of Karl’s money and manner. Karl’s letters are the most accessible and the most enjoyable, although enjoyment and accessibility are categories of which I imagine Hilst herself would be suspicious. The letters are lustfully written to Karl’s forty-year-old sister, Cordélia (named with reference to King Lear), who lives alone in the country. “Cordélia, my sister, come out of your cloister / The countryside ages women and cows,” one of Karl’s teasing lyrics goes. Karl’s own cloister is his family’s estate in an unnamed Brazilian city, where he lives with two German servants who putter about the house, muttering passages of Jean Genet by heart. Karl’s voice is arch and affected, often to the point of hilarious parody, but Hilst endows him with a clever self-consciousness and serial seducer’s charm. That John Keene’s translation captures the humor of Karl’s constant suggestiveness and change in register is a remarkable achievement of its own.
“My most beloved sister,” Karl’s first letter begins, “I would like to touch you. But if that’s impossible, I would like for us to write each other once again and for you to forget that sentimental little ruse of mine (you know what I mean).” Karl never does touch his sister, but his letters are not a record of failed seduction; instead, they are a recreation of love (and lust) either subverted by convention or dissolved by feeling—it is hard to know which. He describes with libidinous sentimentality their physical relationship of sixteen years ago, when Cordélia was twenty-four and Karl fourteen. He recalls her “dark, slightly sweet” nipples, the “rosy honey” smeared on her tongue, the taste of “yellow star apples and loquats” on her petunia. But Karl is often also crude and insistent, and he grows increasingly so as the series of letters progresses and Cordélia rebuffs his charms: “I see you dissembled, hiding something very serious. Why won’t you permit me to come to your house? What are you keeping there?”
What she keeps there is a freedom from Karl’s indecency and indiscretion, but he does not take her protests seriously. His memory of their intimacy becomes an obsession. Karl, who carries a copy of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by the nineteenth-century German judge Daniel Schreber, is convinced that his role in their affair was as a stand-in for their father. (His section of the novel is dense with further allusion; here Hilst makes reference to writers as varied as Genet, Proust, Nietzsche, Camus, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Foucault.) As Karl explains to Cordélia, “It is assumed that [Schreber] began to grow paranoid by the evidence of knowing himself or feeling himself a passive homosexual.” But Karl shares none of Schreber’s passivity: he is quite open about his preference for men, excepting his sister, who has a taut boyish body and who could also stand in for their father, if there’s anything to be made of Hilst’s play on Freudian desire. Here is Karl rhapsodizing on the male form:
In all women there is a languor, a letting go that discourages me. I like hard slender bodies, buttocks like those still green buds, tenaciously attached to their case. I like long feet, stretched out, I hate those women’s feet that I saw tending more towards cute or puffy-plump until they’re almost square or round. I like a man’s ass, manly asses, some black or blondish hair all around, one twitching, one closing itself full of opinion. And women with their moans and their chatter and big red assholes do not turn me on. The buttocks almost always voluminous, half collapsed even if they are young . . . A woman’s ass should serve as good steaks in case of an avalanche.While Hilst’s “pornography” is noteworthy for its transgression of hetero-normative depictions of sex and sexuality, the book does not try to reclaim the language of desire. Instead, the novel asks whether salvation resides in it. Hilst puts forth one possible answer in the epigraph, with a line from the Romanian philosopher Emil Michael Cioran: “Life is tolerable only by the degree of mystification that we endow it with.” For Karl, this is certainly the case. When not waxing nostalgic about his sexual acrobatics with his sister, he is describing his pursuing of a sixteen-year-old mechanic named Alberto—Albert, for short, as tribute to Camus. “Where are these gods?” he writes. “In the nothingness, in the light? Sister, I feel myself dead almost always. Only horniness, the splendor, the scintillation, the powder is what wrenches me from the sameness.”
One of the great achievements of Hilst’s fiction is indeed the splendor that wrenches the reader, too, from sameness, the way it challenges and provokes, with a seriousness and irreverence, a comedy and bleakness all its own. In an anecdote from “New Cannibalisms,” the final section of Letters from a Seducer, the narrator discusses the reception of a piece of his writing:
I showed him my texts and he said: you have no breathing room, buddy, everything ends too quickly, you do not develop character, the character wanders around, has no density, is not real. But that’s all I mean, I do not want contours, I do not want density, I want the guy lightly-drawn, concise, rushed for its own sake, free of personal data, the guy floating, yes, but he is alive, more alive than if he were trapped by words, by acts, he floats free, you understand?No, the man says. He does not understand, but perhaps the reader does. In her deconstruction of language, Hilst frees it of a familiar bagginess as a means of accessing what Amós Kéres calls “a clear-cut unhoped-for,” the previously inaccessible psychic experience of loss, madness, and desire. And herein lies the transgressive nature of her work. We can only hope for more. - Adam Z. Levy
Hilda Hilst, With My Dog-Eyes, Trans. by Adam Morris, Melville House, 2014.
Hilda Hilst (1930–2004) was one of the greatest Brazilian writers of the twentieth century, but her books have languished untranslated, in part because of their formally radical nature. This translation of With My Dog-Eyes brings a crucial work from her oeuvre into English for the first time.
With My Dog-Eyes is an account of an unraveling—of sanity, of language . . . After experiencing a vision of what he calls “a clear-cut unhoped-for,” college professor Amós Keres struggles to reconcile himself with his life as a father, a husband, and a member of the university with its “meetings, asskissers, pointless rivalries, gratuitous resentments, jealous talk, megalomanias.”
A stunning book by a master of the avant-garde.
This first English-language edition of Hilda Hilst's (The Obscene Madame D) tart 1986 novella aims to introduce the cult Brazilian writer to a wider audience. Translator Adam Morris's fine introduction provides the necessary context to appreciate Hilst, an author, poet, and playwright noted for having her love of dogs. Here she addresses "the nexus she believed existed between genius and madness, poetry and mathematics." The thin narrative concerns Amos Keres, a professor asked to take a leave of absence in part for pausing 15 minutes between sentences in class. Written in a stream of consciousness style where word associations create rhythms and suggest meanings, Hilst's lyrical little book ebbs and flows with vivid imagery, from "a surface of ice anchored to laughter" to a certain smile described by the "little crease on the side of a face." The experimental narrative is interrupted throughout with diverting short stories, haikus, and poetic digressions. A section on polyhedrons is clever, as is a couplet about Keres being a "doctor of numbers but starved of letters." There is even an amusing debate about a man about to be hanged wanting to catch some zzz's. Readers will enjoy this taste of Hilst's talent, but many will find themselves still hungry. - Publishers Weekly
A slender, surrealism-tinged tale of fear, loathing and transformation, the third novel to be published in English translation by Brazilian writer’s writer Hilst.
Born near São Paolo in 1930, Hilst, who died in 2004, was an odd character indeed: trained as a lawyer, obsessed with Marlon Brando, a lover of dogs and devourer of libraries, hermit and alcoholic. She also had a sticky memory, and everything she read and observed, it seems, found a way into her writing, though often with absurdist shadings: In Letters From a Seducer, published in English translation by Nightboat Books in March, she speculates that the police hunt down and kill the disappeared “in order not to give them more work later on.” (Come to think of it, given Brazil’s recent history, that may not be so absurd after all.) The present book scarcely qualifies as a novella, but its pages are densely packed with meaning. “Whorehouse Church Government University. They all looked alike”: So grumbles the protagonist, Amós Kéres, a professor whose mind rattles with visions, images and loose quotations from Bertrand Russell and Elias Canetti but who wants to be otherwise engaged, it seems: “There are books all over the place,” he says, “and I can’t interest myself in them any longer.” Thus, in appropriately Kafkaesque fashion, does Amós begin a transformation that puts him “[b]eyond the other side of the mirror” and finds him in distinctly different form, though not without a few troubling, adult-rated visits (“Get drunk every night, and vicious, sputtering, shake my dick timetotime for Amanda’s friends…”) to points of interest in his biography and personal geography. Conceived in the early 1980s, as translator Morris documents in his lucid introduction, this novel speaks to the nexus between genius and madness—and it gets off a few growls at the state of things as they are.
Memorable and very strange: Latin American magical realism taken far beyond the bounds of the genre’s usual whimsy and pushed into the territory of nightmares. - Kirkus Reviews
The Hilda Hilst Roundtable — Music and Literature
“Hilst’s fictions are feats of economy and compression: though they are short…the texts do not feel small… One of the great achievements of Hilst’s fiction is indeed the splendor that wrenches the reader, too, from sameness, the way it challenges and provokes, with a seriousness and irreverence, a comedy and bleakness all its own.” —Music and Literature, on With My Dog-Eyes
How long can high literature continue to fetishize the impenetrable? James Joyce has been dead for over 70 years, Ezra Pound for over 40. The artistic merits of inscrutability, always questionable, seem by the modern day to have been largely exhausted. The aesthetic seems now to be used primarily as a mask of sophistication for artists who cannot maintain a coherent narrative or who do not have anything worthwhile to say—and it has been that way for some time, as indicated by Adam Morris’s translation of Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s 1986 work “With My Dog Eyes.”
Hilst, inheritor of an old Brazilian coffee fortune, resided and wrote in her “Casa do Sol,” a retreat built on her family’s farm and a refuge for a tribe of literary eccentrics and an enormous packs of dogs. Hilst’s reception in Brazil, discussed in Morris’s introduction, has been mixed. On the one hand, she received all major Brazilian literary awards during her lifetime; on the other hand, her work was condemned as pornography and has largely remained untranslated from its original Portuguese for decades.
In retrospect, the decision to protect foreign markets from the hackneyed, incoherent ramblings on display in “With My Dog Eyes” looks more admirable. The Brazilian literary establishment appears to have been had. The novella (at 62 pages, it is difficult to categorize), which is ostensibly about the transcendent revelation and mental breakdown of the mathematician Amós Kéres, is not only formless and confused but also trite. The connections between mathematics, poetry, and the transcendent have been thoroughly explored, and while this fact does not preclude fresh work on the theme, none is here presented that has not already been consummately overused. Hilst describes her protagonist at work: “At night returning to his studies, searching, searching principally for order, mind and heart integrated once more in those magnificent suns of ice formulas expansions expressions, Amós would drift sublimely over some pages, and wasn’t it in a sudden burst that everything was no longer?” The image is so worn and the presentation so overwrought and so familiar that nothing edifying is to be gained from it. The same condemnation applies to her description of Amós’s ambitions. “Hopes: Amós Kéres, mathematician, proved today by scientific methods his conception of the univocal universe.” What is a univocal universe? When did pure mathematics ever prove anything by scientific methods? Why should the reader care?
Similarly, Hilst’s frequent reliance on her shallow readings of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism is wearying. At one point, one of Amós’s friends declares, “And then I understood that only polyhedrons exist.” Amós thinks unclearly as he rampages through town during his breakdown: “Cursing and cruel, stained in inks, those dark-dusks of not knowing how to say it, I attempt an amputee’s step forward, a blind knowledge of light, an armless embrace of you, Knowledge.” The Gnostic texts especially are rich mines of images and ideas; however, to put the generic, unspecific notional end of Gnosticism directly into the mouth of a character is amateurish at best. If originality is not Hilst’s strong suit, it cannot be said that she makes up the difference in subtlety.
The prize judges of Brazil’s literary establishment were fooled by Hilst’s act; Morris, her translator, is completely taken in. His introduction is not literary criticism, or even biography, but rather hagiography: in addition to being a third as long as the text itself, it contains such hackneyed gems as “Hilst chafed at the constraints of bourgeois values” and, on her marriage, the absurdly diplomatic statement “The couple had also discovered that cohabitation was incompatible with Hilst’s rigorous devotion to her craft.” Morris seems to be unable to speak a word against Hilst in spite of the fact that he freely catalogues her abuse of her lovers, her alienation of friends, and her eventual retreat into angry, crazed isolation. Even great work can come from unpleasant people; the case of Evelyn Waugh comes to mind. Morris, however, adopts the childish critical attitude that, because he thinks that Hilst is a great writer, all her personal dislikability is to be lionized rather than excused. This sort of pandering on behalf of a good writer would be absurd; for a mediocre author playing at inscrutable greatness, it is unforgivable.
In sum, there is little to recommend “With My Dog-Eyes.” This is not “The Waste Land.” This is not “Ulysses.” This is not “Cathay.” This is a middle-schooler’s short story ginned up with sex and incoherent poetry. Maybe opaque modernism is not dead, but this work does not give support to those who argue this. “With My Dog-Eyes” is not a lost masterpiece; it is a call to action, to reform a critical atmosphere in which failure to communicate is raised to the acme of aesthetic virtue.
- Jude D. Russo
Hilda Hilst was one of the greatest and most original Brazilian writers of the twentieth century. Sadly, like many other literary giants, she enjoyed critical acclaim and collected Brazil’s most important accolades, but her sales didn’t reflect her talent. In fact, many of her publications were limited editions packed with her artwork and that of her friends and housemates. Because her work was so rich, deep, unique, and avant-garde, it remained untranslated. Now, with the release of With My Dog-Eyes, translated by Adam Morris, Melville House is finally bringing Hilst’s work into English for the first time.
With My Dog-Eyes follows mathematician Amós Keres as he slowly descends into madness and maybe, just maybe, transforms into a canine. Amós teaches at the Whorehouse Church Government University, but has grown very tired of academia’s endless “meetings, asskissers, pointless rivalries, gratuitous resentments, jealous talk, megalomanias.” He’s also struggling to come to terms with and fully understand his role as a father and is frustrated with his marriage. The mixture of all those elements quickly pushes him to insanity.
The beauty of With My Dog-Eyes stems from it multiplicity. The narrative seamlessly weaves together conversations from different points of views, prose, poetry, and strange visions/memories/dreams. It goes from what could pass for reality to surrealism in the span of a paragraph and seems to be a celebration of language as much as a story about a professor spiraling into dementia:
“The green fruit was plucked? Is that what he said? The wall on the other side of the street. There are certain walls that should never be seen before we grow old: moss and ocher, dahlias across some of them, lacerated, sounds that should never be heard, pulsations of a lie, the metallic sounds of cruelty echoing deep down to the heart, words that should never be pronounced, hollow eloquences, the vibrations of infamy, the throbbing ruby-reds of wisdom.”
Amós’ madness comes quickly, but the depths Hilst explores give the narrative a feel of something longer. The writing is dense, but not impenetrable, and that makes each transition into philosophical, surreal, or metaphysical terrain a diverging road: the reader can choose to deconstruct it and try to interpret it or simply take in the imagery and keep reading.
With My Dog-Eyes would be a great by itself, but translator Adam Morris also wrote a superb introduction that offers a glimpse into Hilst’s life in Casa do Sol, a countryside home she built for herself on inherited land and which hosted a never-ending and constantly changing group of artists, bohemians, poets, dogs, and lovers. With the context of the author’s reclusive-but-not-alone lifestyle, the writing becomes even more significant.
Ultimately, With My Dog-Eyes is a great introduction to the work of a writer who occupies an important place not only Latin American letters but in world literature as well. - Gabino Iglesias
Hilda Hilst, Letters from a Seducer, Trans. by John Keene. Nightboat, 2014.
The first English-language translation of the second volume in Hilda Hilst’s dynamic and unnerving erotic-pornographic trilogy
In Letters from a Seducer, Hilst describes the everyday life of Karl, a wealthy, erudite, and amoral man who seeks an answer to his incomprehension of life through sex. Karl writes and sends twenty provocative letters to Cordelia, his chaste sister. The letters’ text becomes intertwined with the life of the poet Stamatius, who finds Karl’s letters in the trash. It quickly dawns upon the reader that both men are in fact the same person albeit at different points of time and circumstance. This mirror play is the guiding trope for a uniquely grand work.
Crassus Agonicus by Hilda Hilst
“All the better, my beloved slut, that you paint vaginas and schlongs. Not much transcendence there.” A story with illustrations by André da Loba. Translated by Julia Powers and Lívia Drummond.
A Note from the Translators
In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame.1 Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.
Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from
possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money. The second installment,Contos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos—here excerpted under the title “Crassus Agonicus,” in English-language translation for the first time—has more in common with the work of Ariana Reines and Helen DeWitt than that of E. L. James. Disguising a work of art as a trashy potboiler is a special sort of perversity for an author, and Hilst’s forcefully, grotesquely avant-garde novels are as devious as they are unsavory. What they do best is not titillate but muddy the customary distinctions between pornography and art, between the pulpy best seller and the literary novel.
In this regard, Hilst’s Obscene Tetralogy, as it became known, was an affront to the vulgar demands of the mass market and likewise to the values of the surprisingly prudish Brazilian literary scene. “Crassus Agonicus” in particular is a “fuck you” to both kinds of readers, but also a veiled love letter—a contradictory expression befitting the great passion Hilst felt for the audience she courted. As she insisted: “I wanted to be consumed before I died.” And by breeding her own style of transgressive, erotic literature with the seedier conventions of pornography (bestiality, infantile sexuality, and incest), she succeeded in making something so controversial it could not be ignored.
In a farce of pornographic repetition, our narrator, Crasso, recounts one sexcapade after another, as he goes about assembling a best seller. “I always dreamed of being a writer,” he explains. “But I had such respect for literature that I never dared.” Crasso—whose mother died just after naming him for a corrupt Roman general, whose father died “atop a whore,” whose uncle died getting head from a choirboy—is finally inspired by the incompetence of writers and the ignorance of readers. “With so much pap in print I thought, why can’t I write my own?” he asks. But his project is derailed when he discovers the whimsically bleak stories of his friend Hans, an uncompromising artist who has died from lack of recognition. The conflict between Crasso’s pulp and Hans’s high art at first appears to reveal a straightforward satire of the publishing business. But since the author and her project can be so obviously identified in both characters, it's impossible to take sides.
The ability of “Crassus Agonicus” to disturb readers two decades after the publication ofContos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos, in another language and another hemisphere, may have to do with questions of taste. Distinctions between taste and tastelessness remain dear in the United States and in Brazil. In both countries, despite idealized notions of equality, culture is constructed along socioeconomic lines, and the word class(classein Portuguese) can be used just as well to mean “caste” as to indicate a quality of elegance. Taste—good taste—tends to be marked by the exclusion of mass culture, low culture, the lower body parts. At a certain point, though, it becomes difficult to distinguish between “naive” tastelessness—an ignorance of high culture’s standards—and the artful violation of taste that is one of the imperatives of a traditionally antibourgeois avant-garde. Hilst leads us into this murky territory. One of her primary intentions is to baffle and repulse, by way of style as much as content; of course, by even naming that intention here, we’ve undermined it. Therefore, to keep the spirit of Hilst’s work alive, as you read you must continually ask yourself (as one of the characters in “Crassus Agonicus” does): “Is it metaphysical or a big fuck fest?”
—Julia Powers and Lívia Drummond
AH, WOMEN! HOW SENSITIVE AND SWEET,how wily, imaginative, lucid, and vile. Women! I became the lover of Clódia, “lioness of the sycamores.” I called her that because it seemed to me her true name. The sycamores go on account of the sonority of the word. I also called her “beloved slut,” which was even more fitting. She had certain Nordic qualities: health, youthful enthusiasm. And a weakness for using diminutives in German: Liebling, Herzchen, and Bärchen. German, of all tongues, which has always seemed to me to be exactly what it’s already been called: the language of horses, because when I found out that poontang in German is Schenkelbürste, I immediately thought of a mare. She had black qualities, too: swaying hips, white teeth, fleshiness, a perfect ass, candor. And she loved blacks. And skinny nymphets, eyes radiant and starry. My life was transformed into laughs, colors, adorable follies. Clódia lived in a sunlit studio, with windows looking out onto a square where flowers were sold in striped tents and where boceteiras2(Careful! They’re street vendors selling odds and ends.) would pass by offering lacework and little tiny velvet hearts pierced with pins. She would get up at eight, drink a glass of orchid juice (She said that orchids nourished the tongue, making it elastic and vibratile. She was visibly insane.) eat toast with thin slices of cucumber, fresh Minas cheese and grapes. Clódia’s paintings were of immense vaginas, some of thickish density, others transparent, some in a blackened yet ethereal ruby-crimson, vaginas spread out on tables, on baroque columns, vaginas in boxes, inside the trunks of trees, the great lips distended like stretched silk, some made furnaces, some sad, hanging, pubes wispy, or like snails, with that noble darkness. The variety of clitorises was unparalleled: small ones, the texture of shiny taffeta, tiny and spiked with infinitesimal prickles, or large ones, the size of pinky fingers, hard with sensuality and vigor. She would paint fingers touching clitorises. Or sad isolated fingers on beds. Or a single finger touching a clitoris-finger. She used to say she’d been inspired by God’s finger in the Sistine Chapel. The one on the ceiling.
why not paint dicks, huh Clódia?
ach, du süsser Bimmel… it’s very complicated.
you mean the dick in itself,das Ding in sich?
the thing in itself, the cock is what’s complicated to
because it seems to me a lot less complicated than those cunni there.
how silly you are, du süsser Crassinho. A dick without an erection is fatal for paints. Look: a vagina at rest is all life, drive, color. A dick at rest is but a dead worm. What sort of paint do you use to paint a dead worm?
oh darling, don’t be like that, I can try to paint yours at rest, come on, pull down your pants.
I did. Clódia asked me to sit on a high stool. I sit. She gets a small canvas. She looks sadly at my cock.
She grabs a tube of yellow paint. Not yellow, Clódia, there’s no way my cock is yellow.
I sat posing two hours for the first portrait of a dick at rest. Once in a while she would give me a kiss on my cock. It rumbled (!)
Clódia: oh, you’ll spoil everything, darling, stay wormy, stay.
My dick materialized yellowly upon the canvas. A certain autumnal light encircled it where it lay among a sketch of pears.
but why pears, Clódia?
they’re illations, my dear.
She is serious. She squints. She steps back. Now the doorbell rings. I put on my pants. It’s our writer-friend Hans Haeckel. He looks at the canvas with a nauseated expression.
what is this? a worm!
no, it’s my dick, I say
I can’t believe it. Like that, was it?
I pull out my dick. Of course not. She’s crazy.
Hans: let us give the painting a name: “Crasso’s falus agonicus between autumn pears.”
Clódia thought it divine. I, not so much.
Hans Haeckel was a serious writer, the poor wretch. He adored Clódia. He considered her to be the cleanest and simplest of women. He was a middle-aged man, tall, rather hunched and very mild. He had written a really beautiful novel, a retelling of Lazarus. The critics ignored him, the reviewers insisted he didn’t exist, his little colleagues would smile enviously when someone mentioned him now and then. It was he who gave names to the painted vaginas: sly-kitty, aqua-kitty, demented-kitty, darksome pussy, pussy vivace,
carnivorous kitty, light-kitty, gehenna-kitty, molto trepidant, molto sleepiness, etc. I used to say to him:
Hans, nobody wants anything to do with Lazarus, especially this one of yours, some leprous guy and dead on top of that. But he rose again, Crasso, he rose again! But it’s the devil’s world, Hans, let’s write a saturnalian score for four hands, let’s invent a pornocracy, Brazil my dear, let’s follow Clódia’s example and exalt the land of the pornographers, of the rakes, of the rascals, of the creeps
I can’t. To me literature is passion. Truth. Knowledge.
He killed himself soon after. An unsteady shot, judging by the unlikely trajectory: just grazing the bridge of his nose but hitting him right in the left eye. Clódia in her despair decided to make a portrait of Hans, or better yet, of Lazarus risen from the grave with the face of Hans, and Jesus at his side, all bright and pretty, very mannered, with a pink tunic. I commented that the thing was a disaster and that according to the laboratory at NASA which reconstructed the face of Jesus using the Shroud of Turin as a point of departure, the man Jesus was a real beauty but a male.
I can’t believe he was only that.
what do you mean only that? he was a man, Clódia!
he was a man and a woman in a single creature.
but in your painting he’s a preachy lunatic woman.
One afternoon, looking through Clódia’s drawers for a receipt stub to give to the buyer of the “demented kitty” vagina (because once in a while a perv bought a vagina), I found a story by Hans Haeckel. Clódia told me she never read Hans’s work “because, liebchen, I want to go on living, you know?” I here transcribe it for my reader. If you want to go on living, skip this section.
The pension in the big city was miserable. The pompous name: Palace Pension. I was attending my second year of law school. My father was the supervisor of a farm and he sent all his savings to me so that I could complete my studies. Since childhood I heard him say: I want the boy to look at the world through a different hole than the one I looked through. I never understood whether it was the world that would be different or if the hole would be another hole or if the world would be new when seen through a different hole. The phrase was too complex and ambiguous for me, such a little child. Well. The pension had few guests and they all seemed sad to me. Or was it only an impression? One of them fascinated me. Short, thin, pale eyes behind fine-rimmed glasses, his hair wooly and blond. Why did he fascinate me? Something desperate and infantile radiated from the man. He was the owner of a small and docile she-monkey: Lisa. He seemed very fond of the little animal. Once I heard him tell the lady who owned the pension that a gang of boys captured the monkey and wanted to kill her and eat her. He gave the boys quite a bit of money and saved the little beast.
During the day, Lisa would stay in the modest yard behind the house, in the guava tree. In the afternoon she would get restless and then around five o’clock she would go and station herself by the door to her owner’s room. Everyone knew that it was five o’clock and that the man should not belong. He would arrive, and she would climb up his legs, reach his shoulders, give a screech, and scratch his blond wool. One night in the hallway I heard groans and I became curious.
Between my room and the man’s room, there was a vacant chamber where the owner of the pension kept old chairs, cracked marble tabletops, a very tall, narrow clock and various gadgets. The woman showed me the room once upon my arrival “so you don’t think that there’s some boyfriend of mine hiding in here,” she said with a loud laugh. The door remained locked; no one had any interest in the junk piled up there. The day after hearing the strange groans, I bought a screwdriver, and a few days later, hearing them once again, I determined that they were coming from the man’s room and with great caution I opened the door to the storage room, excited in the stupidity of my nineteen years.
A bluish light came through the cracks around the other door adjoining the man’s room. Then I saw: the man naked, lying down, and Lisa caressing his sex in her dark little delicate hands. Between small groans and weak sobs the man was saying: my beloved, my darling Lisa, we have only each other, it’s just us two in this sordid world of darkness and suffering. Lisa was looking alternately at the man’s face and his sex. When at last he ejaculated, she slowly curled herself up at the foot of the bed. He turned out the light. I heard him add: “thank you, my friend.”
I stayed for a long time leaning against that door. Never did the world seem to me so sad, so terrifying, so Godless. The next day I wrote to my father telling him that I no longer had the patience for studying, that I wanted to return to the country. He found it very strange. He never asked me a thing, and I wouldn’t even have known how to explain to him the pathos, the laceration of what I had seen, I wouldn’t even have known how to tell myself the reason I had abandoned my studies. My father died many months later. I heard him say to my mother, before he was forever dead: “Keep an eye on the boy, he’s not the same as he was.” He was right. I was the never the same again.
CLÓDIA, AS SOON AS SHE FINISHED painting my cock on the canvas, said the same thing that the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said when he first saw the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex in the museum such and such: “I have just discovered my life’s occupation.” It got to be very inconvenient because as soon as she was introduced to someone she would ask: may I see your dick? She painted dicks of all sizes and expressions. There were some so solitary, so feeble that they could move one to pity. Others affected, pedantic. There were some adrift, as if begging for their own existence. Some ostentatious, big cocky dicks. Some very, very happy. Above these last ones, Clódia felt like painting garlands of pansies. Others dramatic, almost panting. My dick, for example, on Clódia’s canvas. Listen to this, Clódia, see if you like it:
The dragon stretched his narrow tongue into the adolescent cunnus, slowly at first, as one who scribbles. A hypothetical dusk of bluish hues grew, encircling my lowered eyelids. My cold eyelids. So that was your dream? A real dragon? Yes. A dream dragon. Stretch out your tongue. Lick here. Did it have scales? Lovely purple ones. Did it have a mustache? Ah ah ah. No. Ah ah. It was then she began to come. The man buried his shaft in her vagina. (Oh! ah! Oh!). Then he opened his eyes. He looked at the narrow face, angular and agonized, of the adolescent woman. He whispered to himself: death must have the same face.
how dreadful liebling, you’ve been reading Hans, how depressing!
but let me read you one more
no, no and no!
if you let me read it, I’ll warm some radishes for your little hole
and after that I’ll warm my poker for your big hole
He stretched twine between the two trees. He hung his rags. Then he put his hands on his hips and said: “Well. Now I have a house.” He had neither roof nor dog nor wife nor pots. Much less children. He had (soon thereafter) the black sky and stars. Days later, he took some time (excessive time perhaps) looking at the trees and hung himself. That one is by Hans.
Clódia: is that all?
Crasso: but I can continue it for him.
Clódia: God help me. Only if you remember to put someone’s tongue in the middle of all this or another dragon who knows.
Crasso: a dragon that screws him in the ass for example.
Clódia: before or after he hangs himself? (pause) Crassinho, please, make a woman appear or a sluttish teenager, perverted, nice and hot. What’s the matter huh, Crasso?
Crasso: but Hans only wanted to write that sort of thing above.
Clódia: ok fine. Look I’m going to call up Rubito.
Crasso: you still haven’t tired of sucking his fingers?
Clódia: I’m depressed.
Crasso: you don’t want a chocolate popsicle?
Rubito arrived. Soon he was taking off his pants, his shirt. His drawers were red. He didn’t take them off. He looked like a coal about to catch fire. He got himself a whisky. Stretched out on the rug. Crasso’s sad, said Clódia. So you suck his knob and I’ll stick my tongue in your cooter. How ’bout it, Crasso?
no thanks, Rubito, I said.
whoa. he really is sad.
you need to read the little story he read to me. By Hans.
is it metaphysical or a big fuck fest? Anyhow I don’t
want to read it. I want you to know, Crasso, that I saw a black anthurium. It’s gorgeous. Something Japanese. I’m crazy about the Japanese. They’re tender and cruel.
a black anthurium is something cruel, Rubito.
it’s like seeing the palate of God.
only if he smoked a lot right, liebling? Bite me here, go on. Here on my cunnus.
and the radishes?
and me, guys? what about me? said Rubito.
I TRAVELED BECAUSE I WANTED Hans’s unpublished works. Clódia gave me his mother’s address. We found out that he had left everything there a few days before killing himself. The city is called Muiabé, in the municipality of Cantão da Vila. Muiabé is so isolated they call it an island. I’m going. Who knows, maybe I’ll start gradually preparing a list of these scumbag publishers. Maybe on the island I’ll discover my swine. Because each one of us, Clódia, has to find his own swine. (Careful not to confuse it with sinew.) Swine, everybody, swine—sinew turned inside out.
Dear Clódia: I have some things to tell you from my self-imposed exile here. For example: when I die, instead of those little wads of cotton they usually put in the corpse’s nostrils, I want you to arrange for little wads of virgins’ pubic hair. I know it will be an arduous task because, first of all: there are no virgins. Second: those who would be virgins are prepubescent and therefore lacking pubic hair, glabrous. Keep all that in mind. Another important thing: paint a vagina on the inside of an egg shell, with nuances of black and bleu foncé, and once I’m dead, slip the little canvas in the pocket of my trousers. On the right side. As you slip it in, gently stroke my lifeless dick (the one that I now stroke as I write to you and which is completely turgid, hard, aroused, aquiver, pulsating, tumid), at the same time making sure none of my friends gathered around the casket notice, so it’s not embarrassing for me, you know? And why, you will ask me. And why,kleinelittle bear, little golden beetle, you will say. As for the virgins’ pubic hairs, because I want to feel them tickling my nose and sneeze if I’m not dead. If I am, because I want to smell the aroma of those hairs. You will say: but you’re dead. Who knows, my dear?I say. Because I may be simply absent. Indifferent. Impassive. Or I may be dead in the dimension of the living and alive among the former, and your gesture will have the tenderness, the caring, the sweetness, the unmistakability of a last goodbye. On the right side because it will be easier for me (if I’m not dead) to touch the tiny black andbleu foncévagina, and if I am dead it will serve as a passport, I mean a more precise identification for where I would like to travel. To the hideaways of pleasure, my dear, to the core of celestial debauchery. Another thing: trim your nails if you happen to have a fetish for sticking your finger in the asshole of a dead man. Not even dead can I bear your hard, pointy nail in my hole. For that matter, why do you insist on not trimming at least the nail on that finger that I don’t know what it’s called anymore, I can only remember the ring finger? Clódia, how I miss you. It’s horrible, this island. But I’m on it. I vomit everyday when I think about me, when I dwell on myself. Someone needs to invent some kind of contraption that can be placed into the brains of the unborn to prevent men from having deleterious thoughts. Knowing about your own death, for example, is a real hassle. The profusion of worms and wings that will sprout and burst in my body-heap. The contraption installed in my brain would not let me think about this. The word death extracted from the brain. We’d look at a dead man and it would be like looking at a platter of lettuce. Eating the dead man would be even better than knowing he was dead. It was very rash this business of my having come here to catalog all of Hans Haeckel’s unpublished work. Clódia, if you only saw Hans’s unpublished work! The one with Lisa is the most cheerful. There are agonies without end, men and women leaning out over Nothingness, the End, hate, hopelessness. And if you met Hans’s mother, you would find her intolerable. She is a hateful old woman. Miserly to her pubes. They say she has fifty houses rented out and when the guy doesn’t pay she stands on the unfortunate soul’s doorstep until nightfall and comes back everyday. When I went to look for our friend’s unpublished writing, she said to me: “You can keep all that garbage.”
Heavy, varicose, her breasts like a great skein of yarn bumping about her waist. She asked me to accompany her shopping, to the market in this little village. She spent about fifteen minutes arguing with the guy about the bread.
but ma’am, I’m not the one to blame for the price of the bread if you don’t lower the price I’m not buying
And it was with all this lower-not-lower that the man ended up lowering his pants and showing her his prick (you’d like this one, it has black warts on the tip). She left without the bread. She went along the street collecting everything she could find; nail, margarine lid, bottlecap, cardboard. They say she built a house selling these bits of junk. When I came across a dog turd, I asked her: that won’t do, will it? She growled. Her name is Sara. At the store they told me she fries cockroaches and pulls the mustaches off the poor little things before eating them. What is it with these mothers, huh, Clódia? Poor Hans. A genius with this woman for a mother!
And what’s with genetics, huh, Clódia? Men know nothing about DNA, nothing! Nothing! Please, send me one of your vaginas, that one spattered with purple, drooping around edges. The one Hans called: pussy-buona. I want to be reminded of some kind old ladies. Otherwise I’ll start going around killing mothers all over the place.
A Posthumous Story by Hans Haeckel
He touched the immeasurability of God. It gushed blood and black semen. He woke up panting and sweaty. His sore fingers burned. He went to the bathroom. Filth and disorder. How everything had changed since his father’s death. His mother was always a demented woman. Today he would still have to finish the translation of S. An-Sky, “The Dybbuk.” What a house! The sofa falling to pieces, the table covered in stains, the papers that had to be hidden away because she insisted on crumpling them up and throwing them in the trash. How could he have been born the son of such a mother? How was it possible that his father, a fine, delicate man, fell in love with that coarse woman, her eyes hard and frightening as razor edges.
but she wasn’t always that way son, he would have said one day.
What would she have been like then? What was the other one like, before, nice and young?
beautiful, son, beautiful. Unbelievable. The son only remembered her as she was. That dream was unbelievable too. He touched the phallus of God.
And the phallus gushed blood and black semen. He felt a hint of nausea eating breakfast. His mother, sitting in the dark armchair, was moving her empty hands as though she were knitting. Absent, mute, ferocious. The Dybbuk. S. An-Sky once wrote: “I have neither wife nor children, nor home, not even a house or furniture. … The only thing that binds me to these concepts is the nation.” He too had not wife, children, home, and where he was couldn’t be called a house with furniture … as for the nation, his feelings were ones of revolt, pain, absurdity, because to be Brazilian is to be no one, to be destitute and grotesque before oneself and the world. He pushed away his cup of coffee and tried to continue the translation from the night before. He no longer had a typewriter. He had sold it months ago. It was difficult to hold a pencil with those aching fingers. He started to smile. God’s phallus. What madness. There was no such thing. He was perplexed when his mother began to sing:Du bist wie eine Blume, so hold und schön und rein? You are like a flower, so sweet and pretty and clean. How many years had it been since the old woman said a word, let alone sang? What is it, mother? The answer was an ever higher and more strident singing. “Stop mother, that’s enough, stop.” She stopped and said with an alien voice: “Question yourself no more, look no further.” Then the old woman continued her habitual and phantasmagorical knitting.
CLÓDIA, THESE ARE THE FIRST LINES of a posthumous story by Hans. In the notes he says that the word dybbukis the name of a dead man’s spirit. And he says further: “The story is a tragedy of the translator, a man who perceives the irreversibility of evil and goes mad.” I didn’t find the continuation. For the time being, only the notes. Just look how loony our friend was. God’s dick. That’s what you would really like to paint. You’d use your red and black paints and you’d paint the divine cock ejaculating like mad. Hans was wise, Clódia. He knew that it was not for us to question ourselves much, that life is only viable when lived on the surface, in the tints, in the watercolors. Now watercolor is dangerous, too. There are some extremely sad and sinister watercolors. He knew that, but resolved to keep watercoloring. Clódia, don’t ever paint watercolors, not even the landscape out your window. Everything tends to come undone in an instant, when we linger over it. What is seen comes undone, only to form a new landscape. The singular landscape of the one who paints. All the better, my beloved slut, that you paint vaginas and schlongs. Not much transcendence there. Listen: I met a delectable girl by the gazebo in the square here. Joseli. She’s a typist. Her tail sags and she’s somewhat pearish, but what a mouth. We would have such a happy time together, the three of us, but the girly appears to be uncorrupted, she has a mother and a little sister. My intention is to bring some sweets for her mama tomorrow night. The mother might be better. Joseli is only eighteen little years old. Don’t get jealous now, your cunnus is eternal, the one and only. Expect news.
Dispatch from Brazil #1: Hilda Hilst Wrote Porn for Children
First up: The brilliant Hilda Hilst’s The Pink Notebook of Lori Lamby, a work once classified by its author as a “banana” instead of a “book.” Hilst, according to this interview, thought of the novel as “porn for children.” Lori Lamby, the 8-year-old narrator whose surname plays off the Portuguese word for lick (lamber), is the decidedly monstrous lovechild of Lolita and Humbert Humbert who writes in diary format about her sexual conquests/exploitation. The artwork, provided by Millór Fernandez in the style of storybooks, alone suggests Lori’s insatiable appetite and unsentimental education:
Here’s a rough translation I’ve penned to give an idea of how Lori Lamby slides in and out of art, language, pedophilia, and prostitution in a comically (!) libertine fashion:
I’m eight years old. I’m going to tell everything the way I know it because Mommy and Daddy told me to tell it the way I know it. Now I have to talk about the young man who came here and Mommy told me now that he’s not so young, and so I lay in my little bed so pretty, all rose-colored. And Mommy could only buy this bed after I started doing what I’m going to talk about. I lay down with my doll and the man who is not so young asked me to take off my underwear. I took it off. Then he asked me to open my legs and I lay down and I did it. Then he started to touch my thigh that is really soft and fat, and asked me to open my little legs. I really like it when people put their hands on my thigh. Then the man asked me to be quiet as a mouse, he was going to kiss me on my little thing. He started to lick me the way a cat licks, really slow, and squeezed my bumbum nice. I stayed really quiet because it’s delicious and I wanted him to keep licking the whole time, but he took out his big thing, the piupiu, and the piupiu was very big, the size of a corn ear. Mommy said it couldn’t be that big, but she didn’t see it, and who knows if daddy’s piupiu is smaller, the size of a smaller ear, maybe a ear of green corn.Lori’s father is a writer who, like Hilst in her lifetime, feels marginalized by his lack of commercial success in the face of so much humdrum popular fiction. Lori herself reflects on this:
I don’t know why stories for kids don’t show the prince licking the girl and putting his finger inside our beautiful little butthole. I mean, the girl’s. Daddy could write these beautiful stories for kids with all this, so I went to talk to him but it didn’t work out because he and mommy had fought. So it went like this:As Lori’s notebook progresses, her naughty vocabulary expands in defiance of her father’s claim that “a book is not born like a child, it’s all a construction, pyramids etc., and the result of sweat and pain etc.” She confuses “refined lingua” with the physical referent of the same word (tongue), wondering if a skillful lick is the same thing as a skillfully written sentence.
“Daddy, since you want to make money off the filthy rat Lalau…”
“Don’t talk that way, child.”
“But you’re the one who talks like that, Daddy.”
By conflating words and bodies as the easy commodities they both become, and letting this conflation linger in our open mouths, Hilst takes the sort of debasement traditionally engaged by male writers (Lawrence and Bataille are mentioned) to its (il)logical and self-consuming conclusion. Rather than trot out a feminist critique that confers on the writer and reader a path to moral high ground, Hilst’s prepubescent erotica shatters all roles. Even the narrative, exhausted by its shock appeal, tries to undo itself and escape its protagonist’s sex/money-hungry depravity. Lori Lamby ends with fairy tales written by Lori in what amounts to a potatoesque collapse of genre and gender norms, not to mention the ethical distinctions that the latter invite. I ended up feeling naked by the end of this uncompromisingly compromised book, having been thoroughly cast as its consumer–or both its predator and prey.
In the early 90’s, Hilda Hilst, like many other Latin American writers, regularly penned a newspaper column. Published as the collection Cascos e Carícias (Crusts and Caresses), her cronicas are as visionary, scathing, and hilarious as her books. Hilst’s fiction, poetry, and drama might seem hermetic at first glance, so it’s interesting how often she reflects on politics at a time when Brazil was plagued by national debt, inflation, and corruption scandals. I’m especially intrigued by the connection this example (my translation) makes between sexual/colonial aggression, submission, and marginalization:
The cronica thus illustrates the reversal of the power bottom—a writer whose submissiveness within the culture is the very thing that permits and spreads her voracity, her agility, her “multi-irrational” contagion and disease. Her mouths and holes multiply in me, forcing leaps of an imagination whose violation only gives it more reach.
System, Form and CucumberHilst’s sign-off—an acknowledgment of the degradation that literature, too, can inflict—reminds me once again of poetry’s ability to turn its own negligibility into a space of permissiveness, of potency, beyond the mandates of preconceived systems and forms. By taunting the “hurt” or “scandalized” reader, Hilst deftly undermines a potentially imperialist ethics of reading based on the prowess of enlightened states such as ‘thinkership’. Instead, the reader, like the poet, becomes a vessel—a “pooooor thing”—used and abused as a passive orifice to the phallic fruit (cucumber) of those higher up in the power structure.
When Plato was asked which existing governments and systems were most conducive and useful for our knowledge, he responded: “None of the present ones.” I, a mere poet, would say the same today. But the poet doesn’t exist. That last phrase reminds me of a story: Queen Victoria—angry because the Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo not only forced the ambassador of Britan to drink a barrel of chocolate as punishment for refusing a glass of chicha (an alcoholic drink), but also made the ambassador ride a donkey backwards on the main street of La Paz—Queen Victoria, as I was saying, asked for a map of Latin America, drew a line over Bolivia, and prophesied: Bolivia doesn’t exist. I would also say: poets and Latin Americans don’t exist. Yes, they exist to be ransacked. Under any form of government, presidentialism, parliamentarism, or (!?!) monarchism, we, Brazilians, Latin Americans, will always be ransacked.
Ah… how sadly truthful is the fragment from the book Tu não te moves de ti, whose author is this modest writer of cronicas in her spare time, yes, myself, the one who’s been stoned (pooooor thing!). Cut out the following (purchasing the book would be too much to ask!) and, please, don’t forget it this time:
“…I’m a man, I trip up, I lie on my belly, on my belly, ready to be used, ransacked, adjusted to my Latinness, yes this one real, this one on my belly, the countless infinite cosmic fornications in all my Brazilianess, me on my belly, vilified, a thousand bucks in my acosmic hole, handing over everything, my rich depths from within, my soul, ah, much like Mr. Silva, so thick, kicking the ball, singing, rich people abroad call you a bum, oh Mr. Silva the Brazilian,
Mr. Macho Silva, hoho hoho, while you fornicate asslike your women singing, kicking the ball, what a big cucumber, Mr. Silva, on your turntable, your poor junctures breaking, handing over your iron, your blood, your head, hidden, by the touch, half-blind, conceding, always conceding, ah, Great Ransacked One, great poor ransacked macho, on your belly, on your knees, how long conceding and pretending, green-yellow victim, loved macho entirely on your belly flexing, on all fours, multiplied in emptinesses, in ais, in multi-irrationals, mouth of misery, I exteriorize myself stuck to my History, she swallowing me, me swallowed by all chimeras.”
Did you hurt yourself, reader? Did you scandalize yourself, reader? (pooooor thing!)
The cronica thus illustrates the reversal of the power bottom—a writer whose submissiveness within the culture is the very thing that permits and spreads her voracity, her agility, her “multi-irrational” contagion and disease. Her mouths and holes multiply in me, forcing leaps of an imagination whose violation only gives it more reach.