The pub date for Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso, which is translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, with a biographical note from Ben Moser officially came out on Tuesday, December 13th. To celebrate the release of this Brazilian masterpiece, we’ll be running a series of pieces over the rest of this week, including some early reviews, an excerpt, a press release, and a bit from the Ploughshares interview with the translators.
Benjamin Moser is the author of a biography of Clarice Lispector entitled Why This World and translated her novel Near to the Wild Heart. He’s also a book critic, editor, and currently at work on a new biography of Susan Sontag. He once visited Rochester and did an event with Chad about Clarice Lispector that’s definitely worth watching. He also wrote a biographical note for the novel: “Bette Davis in Yoknapatawpha.”
Chronicle is available at better bookstores everywhere, or through our website. If you order before the end of 2016, use the code BOOKSEASON at checkout to receive 40% off your total order.
I keep a tiny watercolor on a bookshelf in my house. It is only a few inches square, slightly larger than a playing card. To all appearances, it is the work of a child: some dabs of color transversed by two black slashes. It looks like something an encouraging parent might have stuck to the refrigerator—but it may be the most poignant thing I own.
In the bottom right corner, in tiny script, someone—not the artist—has written LÚCIO 62. Those characters let it be dated to within a few weeks. It was made in the last days of 1962 by the Brazilian writer Lúcio Cardoso, fifty years old and at the height of his powers when he suffered a stroke on December 7. He would linger another six years, paralyzed, unable to speak or write, devoting his remaining time to making paintings like these. This smear is what remained of one of the most prodigiously gifted artists of twentieth-century Brazil.
It is tempting to read symbols into these blotches. Are those black lines a sign of despair? Is that yellow half-circle a setting sun?
Today, Lúcio Cardoso is primarily remembered for two things: being gay, and being loved by Clarice Lispector, from whose great name his is inseparable. While still a student, the eighteen-year-old Clarice took a job at a government propaganda outfit called the Agência Nacional. There, among the bored young staff, was Lúcio, a twenty-six-year-old from a small town who was already hailed as one of the most talented writers of his generation.
His father, Joaquim Lúcio Cardoso, had studied engineering but left university without a degree, due to the death of his own father. He then headed into the backlands of the interior state of Minas Gerais, where he enjoyed a period of great prosperity, at one time accumulating eight thousand head of cattle, only to be forced to hand over his fortune to a textile factory owner to whom he was indebted. After the death of his wife, he created a soap factory; but his volatile personality brought him trouble with the local merchants, who boycotted his products. His business ventures failed, Joaquim and his second wife, Dona Nhanhá, raised their six children in relative poverty.
Their town of Curvelo was typical of the backwoods of Minas Gerais, a state said to imprint a special character on its inhabitants, and one whose personality occupies a prominent place in Brazilian mythology. The mineiros, the stereotype goes, are tight-fisted, wary, and religious; there is a joke that Minas dining tables have drawers built into them, the better, at the first approach of a visitor, to hide food from potential guests. It is a place where mannered elocutions play an important role in the local language. Nobody in Minas is crazy, or louco; the preferred euphemism is “systematic.” There is a taboo against overt descriptions of medical procedures: “They opened him, and closed him back up” is the most that can be conceded of a surgery. A mineiro, above all, does not draw attention to himself. One native, returning home from São Paulo, recalls his puzzlement at being the object of amazed stares. He finally realized that it was because he was wearing a red shirt.
That was in the capital, Belo Horizonte, one of Brazil’s largest and most modern cities, in the 1960s. Four decades earlier, in the no-name village of Curvelo, it was presumably even easier to provoke a scandal. And nobody did it quite as well as Joaquin and Nhanhá Cardoso’s youngest son, Lúcio, who refused to go to school, was obsessed with movie stars, and played with dolls. This last point especially galled his father, who fought with his wife about it. “It’s your fault,” he would charge, “you brought him up clinging to your skirts, and the result is this queer. Where did you ever hear of a boy playing with dolls? Why doesn’t he like playing with the other boys? He’s a nervous child who’s never going to amount to anything.”
It was impossible to keep him in school, but he was curious about everything, and his older sister, Maria Helena, who became the best chronicler of his life, oriented his reading. This ranged from Dostoyevsky to the romantic novels serialized in the newspapers, which Lúcio and Maria Helena followed avidly. In his teens, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro, and he was sent to boarding school, where he was predictably miserable, and he eventually ended up working at an insurance company, A Equitativa, run by his uncle. “I was always a terrible employee,” he said. “All I did was write poetry.”
But he was finally free and in the capital. He was twenty-two when, in 1934, with the help of the Catholic poet and industrialist Augusto Frederico Schmidt, he published his first novel, Maleita. By the time he published his third novel, The Light in the Basement, two years later, he had attracted the attention of Brazil’s ultimate cultural arbiter, Mário de Andrade, who dispatched a typically colorful letter from São Paulo. “Artistically it is terrible,” Andrade thundered. “Socially it is detestable. But I understood its point . . . to return the spiritual dimension to the materialistic literature that is now being made in Brazil. God has returned to stir the face of the waters. Finally.”
You can read the rest of Ben’s piece—which includes a lot of information about his relationship with Lispector—by purchasing the book, either from us or from your favorite book retailer.
All four galleys arrived today, and every single book I was planning on reading has been pushed aside for the moment . . .
(ONE COMPLAINT: There is really no reason whatsoever to include a quote from J-Franz on the front of Near to the Wild Heart. I saw that and threw up a little bit in my mouth, especially considering that—at least based on all of his fiction and that totally mental Harper’s essay from a while back—my taste in literature and Franzen’s tend to overlap not at all.)
This is pretty cool. Starting this month, PEN America is launching PEN Reads an online reading group allowing readers and authors to interact. And being PEN, they’re also going to include essays and commentary from prominent world authors, scholars, etc., etc.
The first book in the program is Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (which is available from New Directions):
This haunting tale of love and pain, death and art, is widely viewed as the Brazilian author’s masterwork. Written shortly before her death, this slim novel boldly cracks open the riddles of daily existence and draws out glimmering bits of truth. Beautifully translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero, The Hour of the Star is a vivid reminder of the power of literature, and an affirmation of its ability to connect the seemingly disparate points of the human condition.
Lispector’s amazing, and I’m really looking forward to reading this and joining in the conversation . . . To get things started, PEN posted the opening section of the novel and an introductory essay by Colm Tóibín:
The Hour of the Star is like being brought backstage during the performance of a play and allowed odd glimpses of the actors and the audience, and further and more intense glimpses of the mechanics of the theatre—the scene and costume changes, the creation of artifice—with many interruptions by the backstage staff.
Nothing is stable in the text. The voice of the narrator moves from the darkest wondering about existence and God to almost comic wandering around his character—watching her, entering her mind, listening to her. He is filled with pity and sympathy for her case—her poverty, her innocence, how much she does not know and cannot imagine—but he is also alert to the the writing of fiction itself as an activity which demands tricks which he, the poor narrator, simply does not possess, or does not find useful. It is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Macabea or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly-self conscious victim of his own failure. The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much.
The narrative moves from a set of broad strokes about character and scene, with throw-away moments and casual statements which sum up and analyse, to aphorisms about life and death and the mystery of time and God. It moves from a deep awareness about the tragedy of being alive to a sly allowance for the fact that existence is a comedy. The story is set both in a Brazil that is almost too real in the limit it sets on the characters’ lives and a Brazil of the mind and the imagination, made vast by the way in which words and images, and shifts of tone and texture, are deployed by Lispector in her mysterious swan-song.
And if you’re interested in more info on Lispector herself, you should definitely check out Ben Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. Here’s a link to the first chapter and a link to a piece Ben wrote for Publishing Perspectives.
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