Dear friends and readers, here you can find a snapshot of recent Brazilian literature and poetry, material for the workshop I'm attending on the theme next week, at Festilarts, the annual festival of literature and arts in the University of Lomé, with the graduation students of Letters - English language.
To those in Lomé I present the invitation link. I hope you can also enjoy it! Have a nice weekend.
Brazilian literature in recent decades: a reader.
Ana Paula Arendt*
I would like first of all to thank you for attending to this invitation. I am particularly honoured by the invitation of Professor Patron Henekou, head of the English Department in this fine University of Lomé. It is rather unexpected to deliver a word about Brazilian Literature in Lomé in English, but I accepted his challenge very promptly, for in Brazil we would rather speak in English language than in French. It is an old habit to say in Brazil French is a funny language, for us, Lusophone ears, so most people run away from it. I have myself postponed the intricacies of the French language until I could, just to be recently seduced by its charm.
So, to go straight to the point, respecting not only the features but also the spirit of this noble English language, I remind you I already presented myself to you in the syllabus of this workshop. So I come to you to speak about recent decades in Brazilian literature, especially from the point of view of a writer, a writer who cumulates a double function, diplomacy and poetry. I am not used to judging or to having an opinion on novels, on its narrative process, for I think it as a very complicated thing to create a plot, to give life to characters. But I see I cannot avoid doing it since I was requested by Professor Henekou as the chief of our Cultural Sector here in Lomé, and perhaps I may find two or three things to say about authors I admire.
To speak about poetry and literature is to speak about poets and writers. I would like as a fresh starter to pose the following question: who were these poets, who were these writers in Brazil on the 50s, 60s, 70s.. ? So we can move some decades back as a safe space, in order not to contaminate our assessments with friendship or connections. Certainly most scholars would not agree to start apprehending a movement by detaching its main active contributors, for they are always looking for the general aspects they can make use to label and understand waves and movements. But let me go through this deep diving. From the point of view of one who shares a similar condition, I would like first to understand who they were so we could understand what they wrote, why they wrote, and only then arrive at conclusions about the result: the landscape of the Brazilian literature and poetry in the recent decades.
I was born in 1980, when most of the Generation of 45, as some of them became known, had already passed away. Vinicius de Moraes, a senior to them, died some months before I was born. So I had to basically guess, and study from 3 sources : their very works, for I tend to think it is always the best evidence of someone’s thought, their own voices, views and desires. Were their hearts treasured in the lines they performed while writing? Second, I searched testimonies from others: friends, family, occasionally folk stories people keep telling about them, now and then, in the corridors Itamaraty; and, finally, registers, such as interviews and books about them. As I am not a scholar, nor a critic in the field, I will spare myself from detailing the bibliography available, mostly in Portuguese.
There were many poets and writers we could identify in this time gap between 1945 and 1970. Some of them became particularly known for moving forward a modernist perspective and adding to it some original characteristics. Brazilian authors concerning the Generation of 45, a merely didactical approach, were thought to have impelled a different guidance in the spirit of the Modern Week of 1922. This week, by its turn, assembled those Brazilian artists and poets that in the time were gathering people to make a revolution in the strict way people were getting used to look at art, to write and read poetry.
Usually every time a literary movement started in Paris, a year later we could grasp its main characteristics in Rio, reproduced by Brazilian writers; that was the case of Realism, and Machado de Assis; later Naturalism, with Aluisio Azevedo. For each French writer one could find its corresponding Brazilian mirror: Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola, respectively in this analogy. The quality of their work was measured by the extent they were able to resemble the French author and achieve even better results, overcoming the foreigner’s effort. That was the definition of elegance in Brazil, until some bunch of fellows, Anitta Malfatti, Tarsila do Amaral (women producing art, that was new!), Mario de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, started all presenting their works as they thought it could be: innovating, original, shrewd, funny, but above all and before everything unmistakably Brazilian.
The reaction came soon after: conservative writers and people in the newspapers evoked that those people gathered in a silly movement would never leave its mark, for their art and writing were embarrassing. Nonetheless, here we are talking about their stunning audacity, 100 years later, in Africa’s heart.
Then after this first effort came the second generation of Modernism building upon its assumptions; I’ll skip that for another opportunity. And hence we have the third generation, the one I shall speak about to you. Among the third generation main stars we could find: Carlos Drummond de Andrade (*1902-†1987), sometimes classified also in the second generation, usually the one we evoke as the greatest national poet at his time, although he declined the title to Manoel de Barros; João Cabral de Melo Neto, Brazilian diplomat and poet, who were befriended to Senghor, for he was Ambassador in Dacar when Senghor was President; Clarice Lispector, a journalist, and former wife of a Brazilian diplomat, an Ucranian raised in Recife, later gone to Rio, who achieved very particular results in her writing; and Guimarães Rosa, novelist and Brazilian diplomat, also Ambassador in important capitals, whose works developed on the “Sertão” theme, stories that blossomed in arid and isolated spaces of the Brazilian province. He was known mostly for creating new and sounding words. We could also bring other Brazilian writers along, but in my humble opinion they blossomed later, and in the wake of another wave, another mood.
Sometimes they were said “Generation 45” because it was the year that established a new time in the world, evolving to the Cold War. We could note these authors rescued and resumed an effort the preceding modernists had early abolished: the attention to the form, to the crafting of verses. Despite such a rupture, nevertheless they kept their focus on new and original themes, escaping sometimes the stereotypes on Brazil the official speeches were trying to produce. Instead of the picturesque scene and unique expressions, born in Brazilian soil and captured by the commonly said First and Heroic Generation, who made fun of our laziness and contradictions, this third generation chose namely social issues: the inequality of our landscapes, the social oppositions, and some contradictions we could find in Brazil by that time. We can also notice new perspectives from common characters people usually ignored for their lesser condition.
They had in common one aspect: escaping from the bipolar mind that seemed to be established from 1945 on as the beat of everything; a deep dive instead, an alternative view over neglected aspects of private life, but at some point we could not ignore, if we were to build the Brazil people advocated in speeches. They were relevant because they were depicting relevant issues, unresolved by bureaucratic goals or by a national boastfulness, whether on the near outside environment around them, whether by means of establishing inner regards.
We may find in Brazil their “schools” of writing, for there were poets and writers who fought among each other to be the legatorial repository of their achievements. Curiously enough, a modernist was someone told by people as a self-made person. To understand modernism in Brazil one must first grasp Brazil: a country where no glorious activity was ever unregulated, where you always had to show up the cards in your hand concerning you patron rainmakers, the predecessors who availed and stamped your activity as relevant.
The first Modernists, such as Manuel Bandeira (*1886-†1968), epitomised the self-made poet, delivering what he created himself. They gathered their own followers and friends, they made their own movies appraising their poetry... Tarsila was bombastically criticised by Monteiro Lobato, by that time of 1922, who was a true literary conservative authority in the country. Being a children’s author did not prevent him from accusing Tarsila of producing rather a childish art, and that makes us think how seriously he considered his young public of readers… Nevertheless she moved on, and she made up to the point of a Monet, van Gogh, if we compare how popular she is in Brazil now. Who would dare to question a beautiful charming lady wearing the last coiffure, the most expensive dress Parisians did not dare? For a moment childish was a quality people used to extend to all people under that modernist umbrella. But the public progressively abandoned their critics as a picture of the past and embraced the new. They signalled what the Brazilian did want: a self-driven development, a self-referred picture. That was modern in Brazil of the first mid-half of twentieth century. Actually I ask you to allow me to wonder, in the wake of this opportunity, if perhaps is it by that precise reason, the contrast between self-made gents and an old remaining Brazil, that their works still remain undeniably up to date.
So they were not worried about a thing on this issue of legacy or whose previous celebrity endorsed their work behind them. Manuel Bandeira, by the way, himself the cousin of João Cabral de Melo Neto, in no moment resulted as a name behind João Cabral: they rather contrasted, even competed in the silence of their differences.
Please allow me to reach the following point: to spark your interest, perhaps the best thing would be talking about my personal impressions on each of them, after having read them, an advice I would give to anyone who wants to get familiar with their contribution to the Brazilian literary scene.
I mentioned Carlos Drummond de Andrade first: for allegedly he is considered the biggest poet of his time, although, as foretold, he preferred to decline the offer to proclaim Manoel de Barros (*1916-†2014) as the best poet. Also Drummond used to ask: “did you measure every poet in the country, to certify I am the biggest one?” People laughed. Hereby I leave to you an excerpt of a translation of a poem of his, and also some of Manoel de Barros, so you can decide on it.
Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s statue at Atlântica Avenue in Rio, LEO SANTANA/ARQUIVO PESSOAL.
Your shoulders sustain the world
Carlos Drummond de Andrade
There comes a time when we no longer say: my God. A time of absolute purity. A time when we no longer say: my love. Because love proved useless. And eyes don’t cry. And hands only weave in rough work. And the heart is dry. Women knock at the door in vain, don’t open it. You stay alone, the light goes out, and in the dark your eyes glow enormous. You’re convinced, you no longer know suffering. And you expect nothing from friends. Old age matters little, what is old age? Your shoulders sustain the world and it weighs no more than a child’s hand. The wars, famines, and talking in buildings only prove that life goes on and not all have freed themselves yet. Some, finding the spectacle barbarous, prefer (the delicate ones) to die. There comes a time when there’s no point in dying. There comes a time when life is an order. Merely life, without perplexity.
Drummond spoke about an aching desire to reach an essence embracing the world; he sang the divagations of people in the balconies of their homes, the passion for women he could not overcome, one at a time, the roses life gave and took from him. Shy and unpredictable, he perused great universal literature and extracted the nectar that brings up closeness to his reader.
Manoel de Barros, a friend he admired, used to say, in this same light, he wrote only dispensable things. “I only write useless things”, he quoted. It was the way they wrote that made us think about reality and events surrounding us, a consciousness extended by the poet’s sensibility. Drummond bared the soul of Minas Gerais; a place unique in Brazil for its quiet aspects, diversity, and great dimension. Manoel de Barros was a poet we could find in the center-west of Brazil, Mato Grosso do Sul, isolated from the rest of the world, raising cattle. He avoided the literary circles despite his long list of awards and although the public demanded to appraise him. His poetry included a kind of irrational Brazilian philosophy: becoming part of the world, rather than understanding it.
I transcript here five poems of Manoel de Barros available at the web, translated by Idra Novey at Bomb Magazine.
Yesterday it rained in the future. Water soaked my embarrassments. My sleepwear. My set of dishes. I sail on the flood’s rise to the image of a cork. My canoe is light as a stamp. These waters have no other edge. From here I only glimpse the border of the sky. (Might a vulture have his eye on me?) I am lined up with the cup of the leaves. Fish eat caranda fruits in the stands of palm trees.
Visit In the cell of Pedro Norato, twenty three years in seclusion, death naps with its legs open … Between the prison bars it weeds its way in. It has the blighted sleep of thighs. Norato told me he found a woman inside a pot and then drank her. It is without love we find ourselves with God, he told me. The world is not perfect like a horse, he said. In clocks, he sees trills of water. He beats a salute for the flies. I return home by the gutters.
The Rock Being a rock I have the pleasure of lying on the ground. I only deprive lizards and butterflies. Certain shells take shelter in me. Mosses grow from my interstices. Birds use me to sharpen their beaks. Sometimes a heron occupies me all day. I feel praised. There are other privileges to being a rock: a—I irritate the silence of insects, b—I am the beat of moonlight in solitude, c—In the mornings I bathe in dew. d—And the sun compliments me first.
Day Three The moon makes silence for the birds, —I hear the scandal! A red perfume thought me into being. (Do I contaminate the twilight?) These empty considerations restrict me more. Some pieces of me are already in exile. * * * (Is it good sense that increases absurdities?) At night I drink water from a packed lunch. I use wind for self-maintenance. I uneat without opulence. Excuse my delicacy.
The Illness I never lived far from my country. However I suffer from farness. In my childhood my mother had the illness. She was the one who gave it to me. Later my father went to work at a place that gave this illness to people. It was a place without a name or neighbors. People said it was the nail on the toe at the end of the world. We grew up without any other houses nearby. A place that offered only birds, trees, a river and its fish. There were unbridled horses in the scrub grass, their backs covered with butterflies. The rest was only distance. Distance was an empty thing we carried in the eye, what my father called exile.
Translated from the Portuguese by Idra Novey.
The poet Manoel de Barros.
They were undoubtedly popular and true poets in their time, still alive today in the mind of people when you evoke in Brazil the idea of what is a poem.
João Cabral de Melo Neto (*1920-†1999) certainly is a closer name to Africa. When he was asked in one of his lasts interviews about who would have pleased him the most to have known, among the hundreds of authorities and celebrities he had the privilege to have met along his diplomatic career, he mentioned two people: Miró, the Spanish painter; and Léopold Senghor, the former President of Sénégal. Senghor was a friend to Aimé Césare and founder of, you know better than me, a new perspective on the African identity. Here you have a picture of Senghor at the Brazilian Academy of Letters, for he was entitled the honour to be patron and corresponding member of Chair nr. 4, in 1966.
Image : Fundo Agência Nacional.
João Cabral nevertheless did not write a plenty of lines on African issues; we may find some poems, it’s true; those lines written in Senegalese soil we could not check from the manuscripts; but he was owner of such a daunting character, we could guess he would certainly discard mixing things up in poetry as some kind of promiscuity.
Indeed, he made outspoken that poetry should not even consider the feelings of the poet! He was not against writing about feelings, as long as they were not his. He held a personality that used to cause an unexpected impact on people. As our chancellor by his time reported, Azeredo da Silveira, João Cabral was a complete disappointment to his son. A mathematician who travelled exclusively to meet the so famous author of “Life and death of a Severino”, his son was frankly surprised to find out he was able to talk only about politics and career.
It makes sense, thus, that he thought poetry as a pure process, put in a reserved and privileged altar where he had deposited lots of energy and a significant part of his soul to produce. “Life and death of a Severino” was his most popular play, since it was performed in France, and later acclaimed in Brazil. It also counted with a good harmonization with the soundtrack prepared by Chico Buarque de Hollanda, then a young composer belonging to the bohemian circle of Vinicius de Moraes. We do not know the extension of the relationship between Vinicius and him, who already was a great star by then. Vinicius is usually seen along the second modernist generation line. We can only guess that when João Cabral de Melo Neto was dismissed of the Brazilian Foreign Service, after being accused, altogether with Antonio Houaiss, of promoting a communist cell in Itamaraty, that Vinicius may have dispatched “Garoto” a hint, as they nicknamed Chico Buarque, to give him a hand to reach his destiny as a recognised Brazilian author.
I draw this hypothesis from information in the interview of 1986, by Geneton Moraes Neto, and also from the interview from Claudiney Ferreira and Jorge Vasconcellos, to Rádio Eldorado, with the participation of Augusto de Campos and Lêdo Ivo, presented in 1988, republished in the book: FERREIRA, Claudiney; VASCONCELLOS, Jorge (orgs.) Certas Palavras. São Paulo: Estação Liberdade: Secretaria de Estado da Cultura, 1990.
“Life and death of a Severino” told us about the difficult trajectory of a migrant from Northeast in Brazil, and the play ends with a beautiful revelation about life. Almost every student in Brazil has already read it. But it was never recognised by João Cabral de Melo Neto as an exponent of his poetical work, for it consisted in a play ordered by a friend of his, and with a deadline. He thought poetry as a building, and the poet as its engineer. He reported it had taken many years to finish his books from their start. We could cite “A knife all blade”, “Education by stone”, “The dog without feathers” as the strongest titles. He made admirers and was certainly more appraised in the anglophone world, than in the Francophone spaces, for his metaphors trading feelings for concrete words: stone, knife, and barrow instead of sadness, melancholy, nostalgia…
Certainly considering those years of poetry in France, I think I would not make a mistake if I say his calculated lines were not possibly compatible with French mood by that time, a possible reason to explain why “Life and Death of a Severino”, for the implicit social sentiment in it, was much more appraised in the Francophone world than his other works. But in Brazil he made school, editorial lines followed his literary reasoning in such a way his style is mainstream now, at least in the grand publishing houses. The public got used to manufactured rhythms, to poetry as a profession to deliver something brilliant, although expected. Poetry as a passion to reach something further and different was superseded for a time.
I beg your pardon I could not find parts of “The Amphion’s fable”, one of his most highlighted works, about the desert, in English. Perhaps the desert was a metaphor for loneliness?
Also in our Embassy we requested the complete works of celebrated Brazilian authors we could present in French or English, but truth be said, we are not in the best times for budgeting them. I brought to you here the first printing in Lomé of a sample of contemporary poems by alive writers, some of them written by my colleagues who also cumulate these functions; Itapuan was written in Portuguese and French, by my own means, but I wish I could present to the University’s library an official collection. Perhaps if nobody does, I can work on it in the future. Never mind, for you can buy samples at Amazon, and here you have some pages from “Selected poems”, edited by Djelal Kadir, a book available on
João Cabral de Melo Neto in the web.
From Life and death of a Severino:
Education by stone.
Other interesting poems.
Endowed with a very recluse personality, João Cabral de Melo Neto alleged to avoid the crowds, even hardly calling his friends. He told us in his childhood he was obliged to attend mass and religious musical hearings, a reason for not being able to appreciate music at all. He confessed he could not even pay attention to a speech, from the beginning to its end, and that he had to read, whenever he needed to understand something. João Cabral had fixed ideas of what poetry should be: it should present a sense of intellectual interest. Otherwise, it would be sentimental rubbish, talking about oneself rather than talking about anything really interesting. He dismissed the idea of an author writing or speaking about oneself.
Clarice Lispector (*1920-†1977) seemed similar in her insular hermitage at the last years, but her writing was quite the opposite. Her novels were poetical in some sense, fluid, almost made of water. And she wrote a lot about her own person. Legions of fans followed, all adoring her personality, very obtuse, mysterious, difficult to apprehend in her palimpsests. Vinicius made a song appraising her and her mystery; she was a woman, after all.
Antonio Andrade/Editora Abril Fonte da imagem:Fraco e Moura, Portugues: Projetos (Atica, 2008), p.378.
By coincidence, Clarice was also raised in Recife, Pernambouco, despite being born in Ukraine. She spoke of her own world, she danced along her own stories; she dared people to decipher her, or being devoured. Honestly, as a woman, I would say it was such an effort for having achieved too little in practical life… For sure she was recognised as a grand female author, she did not denied her feminine condition and made of it the most; we can read her tears shed, and her brilliant work on writing about the soul. It surely resounded later on, after her death, as she probably expected. Clarice Lispector had a life whose fire did not extinguish, but burned later on.
She was married to a Gurgel Valente, a traditional family in Brazilian diplomacy, later divorced, if divorcing diplomacy is possible. In the novel “His own man”, a blockbuster of Edgar Telles Ribeiro, a diplomat and novelist of our time, he tells us about the main character, Max, some say depicting Pio Correa, the so said founder of the Brazilian secret service in the 1960s, receiving a first edition of Clarice’s most recent book, as a sign of his prestige.
There is lots of thinking in Lispector’s lines. Some people argue on her “feminine existentialism” and proclaim ontological findings in her works; that’s what Harvard registers say, that she was trying to create a system of personal meanings. Personally I think it as pure poetry mixed with narrative.
Elizabeth Bishop translated some of her stories and tried to sell them for The New Yorker, but she was abruptly puzzled why Clarice then just vanished, since she needed money. Perhaps she didn’t enjoy the translation and the exposition of her needs at all? I transcript a beautiful page here of the “Hour of the Star”, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, available at
Finally I remember Guimarães Rosa (*1908-†1967). Greatest Brazilian novelist of the century, many say. He lived precious memories during World War II, he had found true love; and he was such a precious figure when dealing in the diplomatic metier, we say in Brazil. Also a “Diplomata de salão” and intellectual, besides a great writer, for his presence of spirit and cunning observations among his peers. He wrote in such a way many readers wept openly along his books, the great known sagas in the Brazilian desert; he was the George Lucas of Brazilian literature in his generation. His works were awaited blockbusters, as Star Wars in the movies, renown by creating a universe, its own language and its beautiful way to approach difficult situations in life.
Guimarães Rosa. Image: Folhapress.
One must first remember that regionalism was a relevant theme long installed in Brazilian literature, starting over from Canudos War, by Euclides da Cunha (*1866-†1909), but continuing as a fashionable scenery at the work Vidas Secas, of Graciliano Ramos (*1892-†1953), and noticeable at the books of José Lins do Rego (*1901-†1957), these both understood under the second modernist generation. Guimarães Rosa was so admired that Roberto Campos, a famous liberal politician in Brazil, who was pupil of Joseph Schumpeter, dedicated some lines to him in his own biography, amusingly assuring Guimarães Rosa was heterosexual. People by that time were asking about it, because of one of his characters.
I here transcript some pages of his resounding work “The devil to pay in the backlands”, in Portuguese, “Grande sertão: veredas”. Today you can easily download the first original English edition launched in New York at online libraries.
To speak about Guimarães Rosa was to be sophisticated. Ministers and Ambassadors used to open one of his books in a social occasion to read out loud for ladies in unforgettable black tie evenings, as the crème de la crème of the greatness we may achieve with our Portuguese language. It surely sounds better in Portuguese than in any other language.
Also some reports in official publications account for him as a beast in the Brazilian diplomatic academy, for his severity in Portuguese entrance exams. Some also say, we call it “radio corridor”, he would have received a call from a famous politician in Minas Gerais, before being upgraded to the Ambassador post. He would have answered he accepted the politician’s indication and that “his colleagues would die of envy”. Honestly I consider it partly legend, partial pictures around him, although we can find it written down; for we surely know how easily in the real world how people are delighted to gain leverage and attention on the basis of others’ reputation, often people they hardly know.
Guimarães Rosa preparing for a trip, Wikipedia.
Here you have, then, my personal impressions, and a general acknowledged appreciation on the works of these outstanding authors, nevertheless their uniqueness, under the scope of a third modernist movement in Brazil. So I end up here my presentation as a diplomat.
However as a poet and as a simple reader I come to you to confess something very controversial. I must confess I am not their fan.
Why not? I recognize their greatness, their sophistication, their contribution, no doubt about that.
But I miss something in their writings.
As we are talking about a third generation of Brazilian poets and writers in a modernist movement, we are talking about people who performed a role they were expected to perform: to present excellent literary results and honour a national and international scope at some point, during military government years. Surely the identity of anyone is in a perpetual dialogue with the specific places of their time, as once said the third female rabbi of France, Delphine Horvilleur. But what moved them forward? I cannot still figure out. As we can notice, some of them explicitly being diplomats were no doubt representing my country, driven by a certain sense of duty to reverberate a Brazilian soul, a Brazilian string by means of their writings. Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim, I guess set up for it as an example to be followed. I am not against it. On the contrary. Of course I have read, re-read and enjoyed all of them.
But they still have not reached my heart, not then, still not now, I regret to say. They made it, they reached men’s hearts, nailed on the head, and became their own references. But I refuse to be easily driven by pictures and titles. There is something real, I am sure, in what they have built, a true honest compromise to the craft, a heritage contemporary writers enter in dispute to receive; however its officiousness make me wonder if they did not lack some spontaneity in their effort. They did not need literature to survive or moving forward, and apparently they enjoyed poetry as a quiet, soft, quintessential distraction. In part it was to admit literature had a place: it should be like this, and not like that, to be good literature… I see for them good literature should not have a utility; however they used literature.