Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2 New Hilst Reviews: The Quarterly Conversation & Three Percent

Literary translation is, as anyone who engages in it knows, a labor of love. The financial rewards are minimal, and outside of the case of some highly regarded translators (Gregory Rabassa, Susan Jill Levine, etc.), many US readers may have no idea of who has translated the non-English works they deeply admire. Perhaps readers do recall that Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer have dazzlingly captured the richness of Roberto Bolaño, but can anyone who professes to love Karl Ove Knausgård's My Struggle, for example, name the translator(s) who transformed the six Norwegian volumes of his Min Kamp into English? It's therefore always heartening when a review notices the challenges and successes of a translation, particular with regard to a writer like Hilst who, as at least one critic has noted, was known to baffle even her fellow Brazilian readers.

In "In the Funnel of Infinity: Life Portraits by Hilda Hilst," which appears in The Quarterly Conversation, critic and translator Christine Craig reads and writes about all three of the extant English translations of Hilst's prose works: the first one to be published, the novel The Obscene Madame D., translated collaboratively by Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Nathanaël (Nightboat, 2012); the novella With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated by Adam Morris (Melville House Press, 2014); and Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated by me (Nightboat, 2014). While most of the joint reviews of these books have focused primarily on the first two, Craig, in her thorough and insightful analysis of Hilst's themes and ideas, devotes a number of paragraphs to Letters, and provides one of the best reading yet I've seen of what Hilst's work is doing.

Craig examines many of the thresholds Hilst's novels explore and exploit, beginning with the psychological torment caused by the divergence between the two halves of the human, the animal and the psychic/symbolic, that her avatar Ernest Becker, the dedicatee of With My Dog Eyes, investigated in his philosophically profound and psychologically invaluable anthropological studies, particularly The Denial of Death. As a symbolic creature with psychological and affective interiority, man is the animal that suffers from the knowledge of our eventual death, which can lead to mental illness, a perception that Hilst understood because of her personal history, and which she wove extensively into the fabric of her texts.

Craig goes on to assess Hilst's understanding of the line between meaningful and meaningless language, and her inverting of the idea of "saint[hood]" as something beyond human limits, "the symbolic equivalent of death," often marked by the disgusting. At one point, citing my mention of Deleuze and Guattari in the Music & Literature roundtable from last year, she expands upon the reference, via Brian Massumi's reading of Deleuze, in order to show how Hilst's fiction sits at the nexus between "transcendence (orgasm's explosion of possibilities)" and "immanentism (life's sad remainder: the abandoned fish)." To quote her:
In “The Autonomy of Affect,” Massumi describes it as the simultaneous point of emergence and vanishing of “the unclassifiable, the unassimilable, the never-yet felt, the felt for less than half a second, again for the first time—the new.”

In his own writing, Karl is plagued by a “crazy urge” to reproduce the fundamental language of Daniel Schreber as described in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. It is, as Karl writes, the desire “to not make sense of some things, some words, of my own life.” In his memoirs, Schreber, a schizophrenic former judge, painstakingly explains, with ample footnotes, his own personal delusional system, according to which his body has been overwhelmed by “nerves of voluptuousness”—nerves which, according to Schreber, naturally occur on all surfaces of the female body but which, on the male body, remain concentrated in the genitals. The propagation of Schreber’s own nerves has effectively turned him female (“unmanned” him, as he writes). What’s more, his overabundant nerves are constantly under invasion by God’s penetrating “rays,” agitated into a state of insupportable vibration—the source of his “nervous illness.”

Schreber’s fundamental language, or nerve-language, in which Karl would aspire to write, is the vibratory language of euphemism and coded paradox through which God’s rays “speak” to Schreber’s nerves and against which Schreber’s only defense is not thinking, or more precisely, the cultivation of “not-thinking-of-anything-thoughts” through semantic satiation: he repeats words until they grow meaningless and his thoughts turn empty and mechanical. Schreber reasons that if he can cease thinking entirely he might trick God into believing him dead.
There is also this gem about my translation, though the credit does go to Hilst, whose lead I followed:

Letters from a Seducer brings us directly into the work of the two fictitious writers, Karl and Stamatius (“Tiu”). We first get to know Karl—depraved “aristocrat” and widely published author—through his love letters to a distant, cloistered sister, Cordelia, in which he speculates about her implied affair with their father, supposed to have occurred when they were both teenagers and both in love with him. Suffice it to say Karl has his doubts. Prove it, he says: “Prove to me you had in your hairy cavern the big paternal cock and curls.” Karl has a seemingly endless supply of sly, poetic euphemisms for his sister’s vagina, but his best is perhaps: “your purse, your poor pussy so without pursuers”—a turn of phrase for which translator John Keene (and not Karl) actually deserves our applause.
Madeleine LaRue, Associate Editor of Music and Literature, in her post "The Books I Haven't Forgotten, Or In Lieu of a Plot," on the January 25, 2015 weblog Three Percent, cogently and succinctly discusses four translated books from 2014, the first two from New York Review Books, Last Words from Montparnasse, by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich, and The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories, by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella; the third The Elusive Moth, by Ingrid Winterbach, translated by Iris Gouws, from Open Letters Press; and Hilst's Letters. All she recommends as worth reading, even though the site had previously not devoted a freestanding review to any of them. About Hilst's Letters she says:
And one more word on my most recent read: Like Last Words from Montmartre, Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst (translated from the Portuguese by John Keene) is passionate and epistolary, but its tone couldn’t be more different. Letters from a Seducer is an irreverent catalogue of outrageous, theatrical sexualities. Hilst delights in breaking taboos and detailing fetishistic obsessions, making constant fun of phallocentrism and bourgeois sensibilities. But she does it with a good sense of humor and often great literary panache. (Translator John Keene deserves praise for the number of euphemisms he’s managed to generate for various body parts alone.) Behind the absurdity are also flashes of deep feeling, comical desperation in the face of writing, and these meditations lend Hilst’s short novel staying power as literature, and not only as (in the author’s own words) “brilliant pornography.”
I'll take the praise, and note that Hilst actually uses "euphemisms," or rather, quite striking metaphors, many of them in current use in contemporary Brazilian popular and vernacular idioms, and that those body parts--and sexual acts--appear with such profusion in the text that I sometimes had to duck just to get to the next sentence! Now doesn't that make you want to read it?

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