A few posts back I mentioned that the somewhat altered and edited version of an online roundtable discussion about Hilda Hilst was now live on the website Music & Literature, but I had not realized that in early April, in preparation for the roundtable, writer and critic Adam Z. Levy posted an insightful, well-considered and very praiseworthy review both of my translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books/A Bolha Editor, 2014) and of scholar Adam Morris's recent superb translation of Hilst's earlier novella, With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House, 2014) about a mathematician whose eyesight and consciousness are disintegrating.
Some quotes from Levy's review (which heartened me tremendously when it singled out my rendering both of Hilst's seemingly inexhaustible lexicon of terms for sexual organs, as well as of the multiple registers of idiom and discourse in the character Karl's letters, effectively capturing their often absurd--and I do mean absurd--humor):
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.
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.
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.
If you haven't picked up either book--they're short!--please do, and also do not forget the brief, enthralling The Obscene Madame D, the first of Hilst's works to appear in book form in English, translated collaboratively and with great panache by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo (Nightboat Books / A Bolha Editor, 2012)!