Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Portugal/Brazil: Melancholy Redux – The Shared Literary Ethos of Assis, Pessoa, and Lispector

Machado de Assis's Collected Stories, Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, and Clarice Lispector's Collected Stories. (Photo: Getty Images)

This is an appreciation of three new translations of seminal works by perhaps the greatest writers in a shared language in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. But these three remarkable writers, all of whom specialized in creating scintillating short stories of extreme structural brevity and emotional precision, had much more in common than only writing in Portuguese. They also shared a deep subterranean conduit of melancholy realism and occasionally a surreal current of open-hearted embrace for the uncanny aspects of everyday life. They each documented waking dreams: everyday life under a magnifying glass.

For my purposes, and for the purposes of this brief study of their work (which is not a review of all three new translations at once but rather is a celebration of their radical stylistic spirit) there is a kind of metaphysical conveyor belt running directly from Machado through Pessoa and leading powerfully into the lap of the almost unbearably glamorous Lispector. (A lap-dance for intellectuals, perhaps.) That conveyor belt also operates in the gloomy nocturnal geographical navigations traveling from Portugal to Brazil and back again, fueled by the quirky and deceptive simplicity of their native language (to which I, alas, have no access apart from the seemingly brilliant handiwork of three gifted translation artisans) as it mysteriously runs uphill into a passionate yet tautly restrained English.

Machado de Assis. (Photo: Getty)
The new de Assis collection, translated by Margaret Costa and Robin Patterson, is published by WW Norton; the comprehensive Pessoa tome, published by New Directions, was also translated by Costa; the Lispector collection, released by New Directions, was translated by Katrina Dodson, with a valuable Introduction by Benjamin Moser (himself the authoritative author of a Lispector biography called Why This World?). All three books are distributed by Penguin/Random House.

In the case of Machado de Assis, the pioneering Brazilian novelist, poet, playwright and most importantly short story writer, we might be dealing with the most famous and written-about unknown author in history. He was the mixed blood grandson of freed slaves, and although incredibly influential, he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in his own lifetime, though both Pessoa and Lispector, his modernist inheritors, would certainly claim him as their own stylistic precedent and inspiration.

He was often later posthumously acclaimed, as his work became ever more cerebral and surreal, for the audacity and innovation in his early, middle and late themes, and probably remains best known for his incisive irony (a trait he shared with both Pessoa and Lispector as well) and also impressive literary vocabulary of allusions and metaphors. Among his most famous works were Posthumous Memoires of Bra Cubas in 1881 (also translated as Epitaph of a Small Winner, the version I first encountered a few decades away now). He has been extolled by the lofty American literary critic Harold Bloom on his list of the 100 greatest geniuses in literature, as well as his severe short list as the greatest black writer in Western letters. He largely achieved this status by being what Susan Sontag once called the “sly chronicler of Rio de Janeiro” and “the greatest writer ever produced by Latin America” (thus placing him above either Marquez or Borges, both of whom would again have readily bowed down to his memory).

To Stefan Zweig, Machado was Brazil’s answer to Dickens, a characterization I can completely agree with; to Allen Ginsberg he was another Kafka; Philip Roth compared him to Beckett; others place him next to another of my favourite pre-modern post-modernists, Laurence Sterne. When the current new collection of his complete stories arrived, the critic Michael Wood also invoked Henry James, Chekov, Nabokov and Calvino, all totally reasonable facsimiles. If you’re wondering what kind of protean author can elicit such wild and varied raptures and comparisons, the only way to answer the question is to pick up his stories, which are to this day largely unclassifiable.

I was quite taken with one assessment of de Assis by Parul Sehgal when this new complete story collection first appeared this year: “Machado is always writing about liberation in his own way, which to him begins with the freedom – the obligation – to think. Few fiction writers have written so affectionately about ideas, as if they were real people. Ideas and fixations elevate and distort in his stories. To Machado, your identity and the contours of your world are formed not just by your circumstances but by what you think about habitually.”

Fernando Pessoa. (Photo: Getty)
As other observers have commented, especially Sehgal in his fine NY Times assessment of de Assis, his personal biography seems to have seeped into his literary output. After early somewhat conventional works about simple romance and women of the ruling elite (again similar to Lispector later on) his style, largely self-taught, underwent a kind of sea change. At first his themes were straightforward, filled with alluring widows, naïve young men and odd coincidences, but later they became arcane, murky and often suddenly truncated and open-ended. In 1879, a prolonged illness, including epileptic episodes, led to the near loss of his vision and snapped him into a different realm altogether, one that produced suddenly strange tales with ironic authorial interventions, jump cuts and quite experimental mischief. Himself a complete chess fanatic, his characters are moved about on the chess board of his imagination and follow whatever whims or fancies he appears to submit to in the moment. Machado’s writing counsels us in a way: “You are what you contemplate, so choose wisely.” Such an observation places him directly next to writers whose style would not yet arrive for some fifty years later, authors such as Yankee experimentalists such as Pynchon, or Barth, or Barthelme. And of course, in his own tongue, it would likely be the mysterious and alluring Fernando Pessoa who most accurately picked up the literary torch that Machado flung so bravely into the darkness of the future. Into the dark and waiting arms of Pessoa and his army of alter-egos.

With Pessoa, pictured here in the 1920s, we’re practically dealing with de Assis’s adoptive son, at least in literary terms, and one who fully embraced the romantic solipsism only hinted at by his paternal precursor. The dimly lit texts of either Beckett or Kafka are often hilarious compared to the amplified internal distresses that bubble to the surface in the eclectic Pessoa, an author who entertained himself with at least a hundred other literary pseudonyms (but which he quirkily preferred to call heteronymns, suggesting actual alternating identities.) “I created various personalities within myself. In order to create, I destroyed myself. I have externalized so much of my inner life that even inside I now exist only externally.” This writer, who often celebrated complete and utter inertia, also remarked in The Book of Disquiet that “To act is to exile oneself.”

Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The Believer, characterized Pessoa perfectly, “A favourite book: in its determined melancholy, its gentle audacity and its insistence on renunciation, frustration and solitude as the nectars of life, it is almost scarily whole. The Book of Disquiet is a diary, but one of a self that is always more potential than actual. Its floating boundaries expand and contract, lazily animated by ‘the horror of making our soul a fact.’” Fernando Pessoa himself, always the best guide in the end, called it quite rightly the “saddest book in Portugal.” I would go further and call it the saddest book in the world. But it is a sadness which also conceals a profound and indescribable joy. The book itself, worked on for thirty years and never finished, was left in a trunk which might never have been opened. Our good fortune is that it was discovered, assembled, released and captures the inventions of a modest but gigantic-minded man who wrote it in total obscurity, never imagining that anyone would ever actually read it.

Clarice Lispector. (Photo: Getty)

George Steiner called it an extraordinary “haunting mosaic of dreams, one of life’s great miracles and a meandering melancholic series of reveries and meditations.” In the end, the most accurate descriptions of his strange set of observations and maxims is one made by Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian: “There no one quite like him, apart from all of us.” My own rather exotic interpretation of this uniquely poetic being is one that nevertheless I persist in firmly believing is accurate in the extreme, one that is only partially ridiculous (if you open The Book of Disquiet at random to any page and read it at night alone, you’ll doubtless know what I mean). That assessment of mine is simply this: that Machado de Assis dreamed of being Fernando Pessoa, citizen of a century he wouldn’t live to see much of, while Fernando Pessoa equally sadly dreamed of being Clarice Lispector, a vastly successful but equally sad writer who became world-famous for liking to be left alone (she makes Garbo seem like a downright flirt by comparison).

Yes, I’m willing to admit it. I fell in love with Clarice Lispector late in life. I’m also willing to admit that I even read Machado de Assis and Fernado Pessoa almost as an excuse to encounter their ultimate reincarnation and personification in the person of this astonishing woman. I had long heard about her, this reclusive figure who didn’t reveal her identity, didn’t do interviews, didn’t answer questions about her work. In short, I was delighted to find the feminine equivalent of Thomas Pynchon, and an artist who left her only residual existential traces in her enigmatic and often quite odd works, from the first one in about 1947 to the last one in 1977, the year she fled our carnival of souls after describing and documenting it with such alacrity, bravery and precision.

The newly translated complete and collected short stories of Lispector was in fact, apart from rumours I had heard about her elusive and enigmatic style, my first opportunity to sample her wares, so to speak. I only wish that I had first plunged into her strangely exotic female domain (one that makes the writing of Anais Nin seem somewhat tame by comparison) when I was three or four decades younger. On the other hand, as have learned, grudgingly perhaps from experience, sometimes one is not ready to be exposed to certain rarified and magical properties when too young. It has often been proven to be the case that prolonged exposure to existence gives us the necessary powers of deduction and insight required to distill the most elusive of artists. In other words, the years know more than the days could ever imagine.

So it is with Clarice, certainly one of the most mysterious women I have ever had the privilege to fall head over heels in love with. And it is not only because she has an exceptionally haunting beauty, though I’ll admit to being mesmerized by it. Rather, it is the strange brilliance she brings to bear to the task at hand, documenting this archival dream we call life, that has captivated me so deeply. Her stories transport us to stellar regions with the most economical and humble of fuels: a woman’s dark gaze and bright longings. The reception surrounding this year’s long awaited release of all her peculiar stories in English has been nothing short of frenzied. So, I suppose I’m trying to catch up with her dazzling legend after missing out on experiencing her for some many years. Sehgal also described her perfectly when he commented reverentially: “Sphinx, sorceress, sacred monster. The revival of the hypnotic Clarice Lispector has been one of the true literary events of the 20th century, with the real landmark, to my mind, being her glittering and savage complete stories.” And indeed, since other observers have called the release of her stories in English an “epiphany” and judged her to be a genius on the level of Nabokov, that seemed like the best place for me to start. It contains the stories that made her a Brazilian legend, where we meet teenagers coming into awareness of their sexual and artistic powers, humdrum housewives whose lives are shattered by unexpected events, old people who don’t know what to do with themselves. She takes us all on a guided tour through their lives, her life and also our own.

For me, one of the best guides through her forbidding psychic and emotional territory has been her biographer Benjamin Moser, who also penned a wonderful essay in the New Yorker about her. I guess I’ll have to share her with him, not to mention a few million of her other secret lovers around the planet. As I perused his New Yorker piece, from July of 2015, "The True Glamour of Clarice Lispector", I was immediately enthralled by his referencing of an insight she had that helped me understand what I was experiencing myself in her work, that though narratively natural on the surface it was nonetheless abstract and quite expressionistic underneath. This was how she herself helped me to grasp her earthy paradoxes: “In painting, as in music and literature, what is called abstract so often seems to me the figurative of a more delicate and difficult reality, much less visible to the naked eye.” Moser explained that “As abstract painters sought to portray mental and emotional states without direct representation, Clarice undid reflexive patterns in grammar. With overturned words, she conjured an entire unknown world – conjuring too, the unforgettable Clarice Lispector. Half a century after they were written, many of Clarice’s stories, read in an entirely different language, have lost none of their novelty.”

As a result, what stays with the reader who encounters her stories is the magnetism she transmits to those readers who are susceptible to her magic. “Be careful of Clarice,” one close reader told a friend newly discovering her work, “it’s not literature, it’s witchcraft.” Her stories do indeed involve the casting of spells, the kind we readily submit to as supplicants who desire her absolution for living in this world. Such was also the powerful Portuguese sorcery of her precursor Pessoa, and so was the even more alarmingly intoxicating elixir prepared for us in the 19th century by Machado de Assis, almost as if he somehow knew that we wouldn’t be able to fall fully prey to his charms until we surrendered to Lispector, some half a century later. Now, that’s what I call powerful magic. What else can it be?

The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, The Book of Disquiet, and the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector are all distributed by Penguin/Random House.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Fall 2018.

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