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 is a writer and translator. His essays and criticism have appeared in The American Reader, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and World Literature Today. He lives in New York.
Image: "Sinnerman" from the Desretato series by Lucas Simões. Courtesy of the artist.