BTBA 2013: "The Obscene Madame D" [The Books that DIDN'T Make It]
Next Tuesday, March 5th, at 10 am(ish), we will be unveiling this year’s BTBA Fiction Longlist. This year’s judges—click here for the complete list—did a spectacular job selecting the 25 best works of fiction in translation published last year.
In contrast to years past, this time I recommended that the nine judges agree on 16 titles, then each pick one “wild card”—a book that they personally love, but that didn’t make the list selected by the group. My hope—which seems to have worked—was to diversify the group of finalists a bit, allowing books that didn’t get quite as much play to get some attention.
That said, looking over the complete list of fiction titles, there are a few books that I thought for sure would be on there, but aren’t. So, over the next five days I’m going to highlight some of them. This isn’t to say that I disagree with the list of finalists—I think it’s pretty spectacular, and damn, is narrowing it down to 25 books a difficult task—just that I think there are a few other titles that deserve some sort of honorable mention. And besides, for those of you playing along at home, this list of non-BTBA books might give you some clues as to what did make it . . .
The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araujo (Nightboat Books)
I wish I could write a review of this book. I read it a few weeks ago along with Água Viva by Hilst’s friend and compatriot Clarice Lispector, and was struck by a) how well these two books go together, and b) how no one writes like Lispector and Hilst wrote. These are books that blow apart the nature of fiction and how to represent consciousness, and do so in a way that is mesmerizingly strange and beautiful.
But I’m really not sure how to write about Hilst . . . This book is basically about a widowed woman who lives under the stairs in her house, has masks hanging in her window, and tries to scare all the kids by yelling crazy shit at them. And if that’s not enough to get you interested, just check out this wild prose:
look Hillé the face of God
look at the abyss and see
I don’t see anything
lean over a bit more
only fog and depth
that’s it. adore HIM. Condense mist and fathom and fashion a face. Res facta, calm down.
And let’s see now which sentences are appropriate to speak when I open the window to the society of the neighborhood:
your rotten asses
your unimaginable pestilence
mouths stinking of phlegm and stupidity
enormous behinds waiting their turn. for what? to shit into saucepans
armpits of excrement
wormhole in hollow teeth
the pig’s woody
The Obscene Madame D is 57 pages of that: a mess of beauty and obscenity describing life and god and death and sex. It’s like Celine filtered through the mind of a bipolar woman.
So how do you even approach or explain this? What is Hilst up to?
Well, over at Triple Canopy you can read “Crassus Agonicus,” a shorter piece of Hilst’s, which also features a really interesting introduction:
In 1990, the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst—a prolific writer of experimental poems, plays, and fiction, beloved by initiates and completely unknown to the broader public—declared herself fed up with the punishing obscurity of high art and started writing smut for money and fame. Really filthy stuff, like a pornographic memoir narrated by a nine-year-old girl. The literary critics, those few but loyal readers, were left baffled and betrayed. “I think money delicious,” Hilst explained, chain-smoking her way through interviews that accompanied the celebrity with which she was instantly rewarded. She said the idea came to her after witnessing the international success of The Blue Bicycle, a hugely popular erotic French novel—Fifty Shades of Gray for the 1980s. She figured she could make a buck the same way.
Or, at least, that’s one of the versions of events that Hilst slyly propagated. In fact, the bizarre series of obscene books she wrote in the early ’90s—three novels and one collection of poetry—is far from possessing broad popular appeal; the stunt brought Hilst more recognition as a personality than as a writer, and she never got to taste much money. The second installment, Contos d’escárnio / Textos grotescos—here excerpted under the title “Crassus Agonicus,” in English-language translation for the first time—has more in common with the work of Ariana Reines and Helen DeWitt than that of E. L. James. Disguising a work of art as a trashy potboiler is a special sort of perversity for an author, and Hilst’s forcefully, grotesquely avant-garde novels are as devious as they are unsavory. What they do best is not titillate but muddy the customary distinctions between pornography and art, between the pulpy best seller and the literary novel.
In this regard, Hilst’s Obscene Tetralogy, as it became known, was an affront to the vulgar demands of the mass market and likewise to the values of the surprisingly prudish Brazilian literary scene. “Crassus Agonicus” in particular is a “fuck you” to both kinds of readers, but also a veiled love letter—a contradictory expression befitting the great passion Hilst felt for the audience she courted. As she insisted: “I wanted to be consumed before I died.” And by breeding her own style of transgressive, erotic literature with the seedier conventions of pornography (bestiality, infantile sexuality, and incest), she succeeded in making something so controversial it could not be ignored.
Anyway, The Obscene Madame D is definitely worth checking out (not to mention, purchasing this book will help Nightboat—a really quality small press), even though it didn’t make this year’s BTBA longlist.