Authors: Hilda Hilst
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #United States, #Hispanic, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Psychological Thrillers, #Contemporary Fiction, #Literary Fiction, #Psychological, #Hispanic American
PRAISE FOR HILDA HILST
THE OBSCENE MADAME D
“Like her friend and admirer Clarice Lispector, Hilda Hilst was a passionate explorer of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the obscene.”
“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.”
“May just be the literary miracle of 2012 …
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.”
“In the sense that language is a cultural and political construct, Hilst breaks that construct and, in doing so, asks us to hear life’s eventual silence.”
LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
was born in 1930 in Jaú, Brazil. She was a prolific author whose works span many different genres, including poetry, drama, fiction, and newspaper columns. Born the heiress to a coffee fortune, she abandoned São Paulo and a law career in the 1950s to devote herself to literature, moved to the countryside, and built herself a house, Casa do Sol, where she lived until the end of her life with a rotating cast of friends, lovers, aspiring artists, bohemian poets, and dozens of dogs. She received numerous major literary prizes over the course of her career, including Brazil’s highest honor, the Prêmio Jabuti. She died in 2004, at the age of seventy-three.
is a PhD candidate in Latin American literature at Stanford University. An excerpt from his translation of
With My Dog-Eyes
won the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize for Literary Translation.
WITH MY DOG-EYES
Originally published in 1986 as
Com meus olhos de cão
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Fuentes
Translation copyright © 2014 by Adam Morris
Introduction copyright © 2014 by Adam Morris
First Melville House printing: April 2014
Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
8 Blackstock Mews
London N4 2BT
eBook ISBN: 978-1-61219-346-5
Design by Christopher King
A catalog record for this title is available from the Library of Congress.
For many years toward the end of her life, Hilda Hilst spent every evening getting drunk on cheap whiskey, drunk to the point of not remembering the things she said or the fights she provoked. “I drink because it’s the only way I can tolerate reality,” she told a close friend and longtime resident of the Casa do Sol (The House of the Sun), the secluded estate where she lived and wrote for nearly forty years. There, surrounded by a rotating cast of friends, bohemian artists and poets, and a pack of dogs sometimes numbering more than one hundred, Hilda Hilst produced one of the most ambitious and original bodies of work in Latin American literary history.
Hilst had been born into one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Brazil, an heiress to the lands, if not the fortunes, of a São Paulo coffee dynasty. Her father, Apolônio de Almeida Prado Hilst, was a writer as well as a coffee baron. Hilst revered her father, and throughout her life attributed her prodigious literary talent to him. Unfortunately, mental illness also ran in the family for generations,
and Hilst’s father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia shortly after her parents separated, when she was only two years old. Her mother also later suffered from dementia, and ended up confined in the same sanatorium to which her father had been committed years before. The specter of madness would loom over Hilst’s entire career as a writer, inflecting her work with themes of insanity and contributing to her formidable reputation as an eccentric recluse.
After primary schooling in São Paulo province and secondary education in the city, Hilst studied law at the distinguished University of São Paulo. Class privileges allowed her to circulate among the elite, where she was acknowledged as one of the most beautiful women of her generation in 1950s Paulista high society. Though her suitors courted her with jewels and furs, Hilst chafed at the constraints of bourgeois values, choosing instead to smoke and drink in the company of writers and artists at a time when such behavior was considered worthy of prostitutes. Hilst had little patience for the sexual mores of her caste, and her sexual freedom became as well-known as her glamour and irreverent intellect.
By her early thirties, Hilst had abandoned a prestigious law career and promising marriage prospects, published a few books of poetry to critical praise, and traveled
Europe. While in Paris, she stalked the filming of a Marlon Brando movie, determined to seduce the American actor. Though the affair was ultimately frustrated, she went so far as to bribe Brando’s doorman and date his friend Dean Martin in an effort to get closer to the star. Upon her return, Hilst settled in São Paulo’s bohemian district, having decided to be a writer. It was only after reading Nikos Kazantzakis’s
Report to Greco
that she resolved to devote the rest of her life—every hour of it—to literature, and that to do so meant renouncing even the salons of bohemia. She constructed the Casa do Sol on inherited coffee fields near the regional city of Campinas as a home for her literary work. Once established on the estate in 1965, Hilst seldom left it, detesting even short journeys into Campinas. The coiffed and manicured former debutante let her hair grow long and cast aside couture and jewelry in favor of simple robes. She had gone to the Casa do Sol, she said, “to make myself ugly.”
The tenacity with which Hilst maintained this retreat earned her a reputation as a hermit madwoman in the São Paulo circles she had forsaken, but she was seldom alone. Though methodic about her work and defensive of the solitude in which she wrote, Hilst also took pride in her role as matriarch of what she called the “elective family” of artists and writers that came to live in the Casa do Sol:
it was her lifelong repudiation of traditional family values. Even Hilst’s marriage, to the sculptor Dante Casarini, was unconventional. During many of the years of their marriage, Dante lived in a house nearby, Hilst having jilted him for a younger man. The couple had also discovered that cohabitation was incompatible with Hilst’s rigorous devotion to her craft. Highly knowledgeable in matters of astrology, Hilst attributed her stringent work ethic to the zodiac. She believed that writing caused an intensification of her Taurine traits, though this was perhaps an excuse for the imperious and gruff severity with which she dismissed anything or anyone standing in the way of her creation. Hilst and Casarini eventually divorced in 1985, and though Hilst had taken other lovers, Dante remained a close friend and presence at the Casa do Sol throughout her life.
Members of Hilst’s elective family also included aspiring young poets who admired her ferocious dedication to her art. They turned up in Campinas hoping to be apprenticed to Hilst and offering to serve as personal secretaries—or as one of them put it to her over the telephone when he called to seek her mentorship, offering to be the Beckett to her Joyce. The habit of sheltering beautiful young men, many of them gay, only contributed to Hilst’s notoriety. But she set her poet-apprentices to work, summoning them to read her poems aloud to her: it was her
preferred method of editing her verses. For Hilst, poetry existed primarily as sound.
Among these young assistants was Caio Fernando Abreu, who would go on to become one of Brazil’s most renowned poets. Appearing on Hilst’s books, Abreu’s accolades helped generate a devoted following for her work. “For her love of the human condition, Hilda writes,” Abreu wrote on the jacket flap of the original edition of Hilst’s first novel,
The Obscene Madame D
(1982). “One eye on the divine, the other on Astaroth. No one escapes her unharmed. As no one escapes unharmed, at its end, from life itself.” For those uninitiated in demonology, Astaroth is a crown prince of hell. While this might seem an overly dramatic introduction to a writer, Abreu’s description gets to the core of Hilst’s project: it is the dark heart of the human experience that compels her. Nor is demonology far afield from Hilst’s literary excursions into Gnostic philosophy and theology; writers such as the famed British occultist and magician Aleister Crowley undoubtedly influenced her writing.
Hilst read copiously and ecumenically, seldom without a pen in hand. Many of the books in the personal library she left behind at the Casa do Sol, now yellowing with age from the tropical humidity, are annotated and underlined, leaving clues to Hilst’s scattered studies
over the course of four decades. Her library reveals deep interest in Bertrand Russell’s writings on mysticism and the irrational, fascination with Elias Canetti’s
Crowds and Power
, and a long-standing predilection for Jungian psychology. Hilst also nourished an obsession for Allan Kardec, the nom de plume of French polymath and spiritist Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail. Kardec commanded immense celebrity in nineteenth-century Brazil, and his books remain popular there today. Hilst also read Freud, but her taste in psychoanalytic theory was for Otto Rank, whose 1926 book on pre-Oedipal separation anxiety,
The Trauma of Birth
, spoke profoundly to a woman whose literary and private writings were forever marked by the absence of her father. Rank was also the preferred analyst of several bohemian writers whom Hilst admired, having analyzed Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin—two of Hilst’s most cherished inspirations in both literature and life—at his practice in Paris. Jewish American anthropologist Ernest Becker, to whom
With My Dog-Eyes
is dedicated in memoriam, was also a powerful force in shaping Hilst’s unusual understanding of the human psyche.
Over a career that spanned nearly fifty years, Hilst’s literary work grew to more than twenty volumes of poetry, theater, and narrative prose. Although she enjoyed the esteem of a cadre of São Paulo poets and writers, and
quietly amassed all of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, Hilst’s work was little-read in Brazil and remained, until recently, mostly untranslated. This was partly due to the author’s own inflexible editorial decisions: Hilst scorned mainstream publishing houses as “bourgeois” and instead published small artisanal editions featuring her artwork and that of her friends. She would later claim, however, that literary publishers had turned her down. This is not hard to imagine, given that the frank sexuality of her work brazenly transgressed the patriarchal order that held sway in Brazilian letters through most of Hilst’s lifetime. In any case, her books were difficult to find, and not as widely distributed as those of her contemporaries. Even more challenging are the texts themselves, whose prolific allusions and dense stylistics require a degree of literary cultishness that Brazil—a country whose inequality and illiteracy rates were until recently some of the worst in the world—did not afford.
Until she began publishing experimental prose fiction in the 1970s, Hilst was almost exclusively a poet. She was also a playwright, and the plays she wrote during the first years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, along with theatrical adaptations of her prose texts, have experienced a revival in recent years, with numerous productions staged in São Paulo and Campinas. Her turn to prose fiction in
1970 marked a significant development in her style and themes: though her poetry was always well-regarded, it was through fiction that Hilst established herself as an avant-garde stylist. Her prose incorporates poetic, dramatic, and epic registers, revealing her far-ranging study of literature, science, philosophy, and religion. Erudite appropriations from these literary forms create what critic Alcir Pécora has called her “anarchy of genres.” Frequent and irregular shifts in perspective also create a strange and elusive diction in her prose, often mystical in timbre.