After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on John Keene’s translation of Letters from a Seducer, by Hilda Hilst.–Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: When E.M. Cioran’s epigraph claims life only tolerable “by the degree of mystification that we endow it with,” when Hilst’s libertine character Karl calls illusions “life’s linchpins,” when Karl later attempts to convince Tiu of lowbrow texts’ merit, particularly for their ability to invent “ballsy stuff, things to turn people on, pussies in hand, the guys who want to read something that makes them forget they’re mortal and shit,” I begin to lose any clear sense of which pornographies of genre, plot, idiom might obscure life from us, or which might expose and uncover our own everyday obfuscations of embodied experience. Could you parse Hilst’s and your own conception of how/when the literary, the pornographic, the everyday might overlap or differentiate themselves in this book and beyond?
John Keene: One of the tensions in Letters from a Seducer lies in the oppositions, which Hilst cannily and repeatedly dissolves, between various approaches to the literary, the artistic, the intellectual. Karl, rich and libertine, utterly vulgar and given over to his appetites and desires, yet also possessed of what might be considered a socially refined, haut-bourgeois sense of taste such that he is disgusted by the people who work for him, represents the figure in the book who is closest to the corporeal and the bodily. He is a desiring machine enabled by the leisure that social and economic capital permit. His idea of literature melds tradition—his epistolary approach harkens back to longstanding traditions in European letters, which also, I should note, were coded at a certain point as feminine—and the vernacular, the pornographic (I see Hilst signifying on certain gay male modes here). Of course, Karl is the figure whose work sells, yet we never see that work, or rather, we ironically see one aspect of it, the letters, but not the published books that so disgust Stamatius (aka Tiu). On the other hand, Tiu represents a Platonic idea of the literary; he has given away everything material, down to his clothes and watches, and is homesteading—homeless, in essence—on the beach with Eulália (whose name is ironic in that it means someone speaking sweetly, which the character does not, while also being the name of a martyr, just as “Stamatius” is), his mind consecrated to thinking the great questions, and writing. Writing is supposed to take him away from everything but writing, but he keeps returning to life, to “all this crap.” Eulália keeps begging him to write pleasant, popular stories, but Stamatius, having confronted his mortality, and perhaps Death itself in semi-human form, can only produce tales marked by bodies, sex, violence and mortality. Their strangeness upsets and horrifies Eulália. Tiu is both the other side of Karl and, as Hilst suggests, Karl himself, which is one reason for their dislike of each other. But despite his aesthetic askesis, he finds himself producing a version of what he detests. In the end, Hilst seems to be saying, if we are producing literature, we are endlessly negotiating relationships between the pure, austere and the abstract, and the bodily, sexual and the earthly—which is, she wittily suggests, what Satan, with his withered penis, and God, who is watching the proceedings up close, are up to as well. One might think of it as a kind of perverse sublime or counter-sublime, and she achieves it again and again in this text. Even the angel, “telluric and unique,” as she says, who descends to Earth to take a human as his lover, cuts off his wings in the end, and sows the soil with seeds of possibility that glow in the darkness of life—and death—like mother-of-pearl.
AF: Alongside Hilst’s recurring achievements here, I would love to trace your own accomplished prose, perhaps presenting my own clumsy reading style as a foil. For even when losing my footing among this book’s more vertiginous shifts in perspective, in discursive form, in syntactical momentum, I always could cling to the sex details. And as somebody who doesn’t translate, I also wondered if/how the translator’s reading experience might parallel the pornography-consumer’s experience as audience: getting absorbed amid a deep identification perhaps, fueled by desire-infused reverberations/echoes/embellishments enlivening the text at hand, then (or always, at the same time) stepping back into the embodied act (undervalued, by some) of creation. Maybe translating such a witty text, with such fluid shifts of register, offers something similar. Could you flesh out the particular poetics/erotics of translating what Hilst describes as “porno chic”?
JK: Perhaps one way of thinking of Hilst’s “porno chic” is as a marketing strategy. A writer mentions “porno,” and some readers will flee, but a new group will appear to see what all the fuss is about. In fact, after her death, several Brazilian obituaries made sure to mention the “porno-chic” works, particularly the truly shocking and absurd O caderno rosa de Lory Lamby (Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook). But I think it’s deeper, in the sense that Hilst is playing with a range of discourses in Letters from a Seducer (from the high literary to registers considered beneath the dignity of literature), but without the usual bridgework, which endows this text with a discursive vertiginousness. Part of her assumption of these male voices lies in a critique of phallocentrism (in which the pornographic might be implicated), and, by extension, of the Brazilian and Western literary traditions. This book of male outrageousness is a feminist intervention. She draws upon those traditions, but remixes them in an estranging and thus re-enchanting way. The old truly becomes new in her hands. Even the form of the novel here undergoes deformation, to become re-form(ulat)ed; it’s as if we’re looking at several novels rethought as a kind of post-postmodern assemblage, with the very idea of the literary itself under tremendous pressure. This book is novel, but is it a novel? Translating the sexual references, which sometimes are, as you suggest, guideposts or waystations, required resourcefulness, because although English’s vocabulary in general dwarfs that of Portuguese, our sexual vocabulary is much impoverished by comparison. Moreover, Hilst includes puns that are untranslatable—quermesse, for example, means both a rural charity fair (like the English “kermesse”) and high-class group sex (!)—and shifts tones as quickly as an eyeblink. This is especially apparent throughout Karl’s letters, but also appears in Stamatius’s monologues and stories. Her verbal registry is extraordinary. We have not even broached the music of her prose, which English’s sonic palette cannot match either.
AF: Amid these questions of Hilst’s and of your own poetics/erotics, could you say more about your experience assimilating Hilst’s Portuguese prose? When you construct, for example, a sentence like the following, providing your own share of “anacoluthons, zeugmas, aphereses,” do you feel that your syntax translates this book’s content as much as any dry, straightforward paraphrase of particular concepts ever could?
I open her legs and put my fingers in the funk in the petunia in the cherry in the cunny, she opens up, I get hard, and while I meddle in her midsection the certainty comes to me that it was the Dark One the creator of this chaos that is man, this disorder that only knows how to feel, only feeling is what can be learned, only feeling is what has knowledge palpates kneads opens rips.
Does one need to undergo such craggy linguistic pivots if one really wants to read Letters from a Seducer?
JK: Here’s a little anecdote. When I was translating Letters, I mentioned the hurdles I faced to a Brazilian writer friend, and he responded with bemusement, “We have trouble understanding her too.” One Hilst term I queried the Brazilian publisher Rachel Gontijo Araújo about led her to reply that she had no idea what it meant. It wasn’t in any dictionary I consulted, so I had to reverse engineer the English meaning. One of the critical texts on Hilst notes her difficulty, which is not one of density, but a whiplash breadth of reference, tone, style and mode that requires that you assimilate a great deal very quickly. Reading her in Portuguese is a challenge, and I always think that with more readings and more time, I might refine the English even more, but I worry that I might lose too much of that strangeness, the queerness of her prose, because it is there in the Portuguese. In the snippet you quote, she shifts tones from comma to comma; a simpler writer might break those sentences up to say something like this: “I open her legs and put my fingers inside her. She opens up, I get an erection, and while I engage in foreplay, I realize that it was the Devil, and God, that I saw, the creator of human chaos, the person behind our suffering, which is the ability to feel. We can only learn feeling, only feeling can be known, felt, rips open.” Those are the ideas, but we lose the stream of consciousness, the thread of philosophizing (almost like an Ashberian drift) that Hilst has put on the page. So what to do as a translator? I say hew to Hilst, but try nevertheless to be intelligible, to capture as much of American English’s syntactic flexibility as well. Hilst’s work presents quite a challenge, but a highly pleasurable one.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Talks, Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Wlaks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. With Cristiana Baik, he recently has assembled the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
John Keene’s Counternarratives (New Directions) was published in the spring of 2015, with a British edition appearing in 2016. He is also the author of Annotations (New Directions), the poetry-art collection Seismosis (1913 Press) with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and the just published collaboration GRIND (ITI Press), with photographer Nicholas Muellner. His translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s Letters from a Seducer appeared in 2014 from Nightboat Books and A Bolha Editora. A longtime member of the Dark Room Collective and a Graduate Fellow of Cave Canem, he currently is a member of the African Poetry Book Fund, and serves as Chair of African American and African Studies and Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.