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.
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .