“If everyone were to remember what comes out of their butt, everyone would be more generous, show more solidarity,” says Tui, in Letters from a Seducer, concluding one of literature’s greatest discourses on farting during sex. Shocking, exquisite, mesmerizing, metaphysical, and, above all, obscene considerations abound in three recently, masterfully translated novels, With My Dog Eyes: A Novel (Melville House), The Obscene Madame D, and Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat & A Bolha) by Hilda Hilst (1930-2004). Recognized in Brazil as one of the most significant and controversial voices in contemporary literature, Hilst is virtually unknown outside her native country.
Born into a wealthy family of coffee growers, Hilst’s childhood was thrown into upheaval when her father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and eventually institutionalized. She moved with her mother (later committed to the same institution for dementia) to São Paulo, where she earned a law degree and built a successful career as a lawyer. Beautiful and glamorous, she ran with the city’s socialites. While still a law student, she began to publish poetry and between 1950 and 1962, produced seven poetry collections. She also wrote plays and in 1970 published her first novel.
In the 1960s, she abandoned her law career, rejected her bourgeois existence, and moved to Casa do Sol, a country house she had built on inherited land. It became a bohemian commune for Hilst’s friends, lovers, and aspiring artists and writers, along with her dozens of dogs. In her extensive library she immersed herself in the works of Bataille, Camus, Foucault, Madame de Staël, Bertrand Russell, Ernesto Sábato, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and William James. Her literary inspirations included Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Jean Genet, D.H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce, especially the latter two. “If I wrote in English,” she once claimed, “I would be Joyce.”
Toward the end of her life she began to drink heavily, cheap whiskey, provoking nasty, belligerent encounters with fellow dwellers at the Casa do Sol. She said, “I drink because it’s the only way I can tolerate reality.” However, she only hit the bottle after seven p.m. and was up the next morning bright and early tapping away at her Olivetti.
In addition to pornographic, Hilst’s work has been described as experimental, unconventional, impenetrable, hermetic, metaphysical, and metalinguistic. Her multi-genre prose overflows with references to world literature, science, philosophy, and religion. As Bruno Carvalho describes in his excellent introduction to Letters from a Seducer, her writing “straddles the lines between seriousness of purpose and irreverence, erudition and kitsch, grotesque and black humor, sublime and sordid.” Without taking themselves too seriously, her novels are, as the translator John Keene points out in his introduction to The Obscene Madame D, “anti-novels, de- and re-constructions…” representing “a Foucauldian ethics in fictional form, of becoming and un-becoming, of instability and destabilization; it is an ethics of the mutability of process.”
Above all, Hilst is a practitioner of the obscene as a literary aesthetic. Adam Morris, translator of With My Dog-Eyes, says, “In Hilst’s formulation, the obscene is differentiated from the erotic and the pornographic by its philosophical and spiritual elements, and also through its act of social provocation.”
Like her friend, admirer, and compatriot Clarice Lispector, Hilst rigorously examined the limits of language and the literary pursuit itself. Though their prose styles are equally bouleversant, Lispector uses language like a fine-bladed knife to explore the space between ecstasy and mundanity, while Hilst uses language like a rod, ramming it every which way in order to collapse the space between orgasm and insanity. Lispector’s biographer Benjamin Moser says, “they were both passionate explorers of the sacred and the profane, the pure and the obscene.”
Letters from a Seducer, originally published in 1991, is the third in Hilst’s self-proclaimed “porno-chic” tetralogy. It begins with a series of letters written by Karl, a rich, erudite, sex-crazed writer, to his estranged sister Cordélia about his debauched proclivities, including his wish to rekindle their incestuous relationship. These twenty letters are found in the trash by another writer Stamatius, called Tui, Karl’s despised alter ego. Both men are fixated on sex, heterosexual and homosexual, incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, cannibalism, murder, and so on.
As Carvalho specifies, “most of the sex revolves around male-centric ideas of female phallic fixation, and certain passages even verge on parodies of Henry Miller’s literature.” Hilst’s spoof could also be applied to the work of Updike, Roth, Franzen, et al. Karl writes, “A woman’s ass should serve as good steaks in case of an avalanche.” Realizing his extraordinarily accommodating consort Eulália is unreal, his own invention, Tui writes sadly, “I really did construct my squealing-woman-in-life in a poignant and delicate, submissive and patient way.”
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