Posts filed under 'biography'

Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.


Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

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I Have Changed Nothing: Seven Paradoxes in Pursuit of Arthur Waley

Fourth in Josh Billings' "Lives of the Translators" Series

Skiing

Of all outdoor sports, skiing is the most dependent on “conditions”; so it is with some confusion that we come across this incredible sentence, from Arthur Waley’s short essay “Waiting for the New”:

But the truth is that for the skier time does not count.

As truths go, this one sounds strange—especially coming from the man who essentially introduced ancient Chinese and Japanese literature to 20th century-English readers. But Waley knew what he was talking about. Over four decades and over two dozen books (an output rivaled only by his fellow Fabian, Constance Garnett), he developed an exquisite ear for the way that time changed words. At the same time, as a poet, he understood that the gulfs separating two seemingly distant eras could be bridged, unexpectedly, by a single act. Later in the same article, he described the skier’s patience:

Waiting is waiting, whether it be for a night or for six months; and inversely the prospect of a ski-run is as exciting, day after day, to the rentier or pensioner who spends Michaelmas to May Day on the snow, as to the breadwinner who snatches a fortnight at Christmas. Each, on waking, thrills at the thought ‘today I am going to ski’; each has sat for hours in heavy and perhaps wet skiing boots, merely to put off the moment when he must confess to himself ‘today the skiing is over.’

The skier in Waley’s description no more ignores the weather than the translator would ignore the echoes of an archaic verb tense; on the contrary, he steeps himself in the conditions of his art, sure that if he waits long enough, his moment will come. The clouds will part and time collapse like a Mad Fold-In, creating a moment that is simultaneously a repetition of previous moments and unique. The name that Waley’s article gives to this miracle will be familiar to readers of either ancient Chinese literature or 20th century poetry. It is “The New.”

Biography

In a note to his 1934 translation and study of the Tao Te Ching, Waley explains the concept of fan-yen:

The ‘which of you can assume murkiness…to be clear’ is a fan-yen, a paradox, reversal of common speech. Thus ‘the more you clean it, the dirtier it becomes’ is a common saying, applied to the way in which slander ‘sticks’. But the Taoist must apply the paradoxical rule: ‘The more you dirty it, the cleaner it becomes.’

As a tool for thought, paradox has a long history in Western and Eastern literatures, but its use in biography has been limited. The mythmaking urge is too great, which means that most of the time biographers from Samuel Johnson to David Remnick have found themselves “cleaning” their subjects’ lives in a way that may sound and even be true, but which hides a certain messiness. The life in question becomes a story with a plot and theme—which is all well and good until you think about your own life, and the thousand things that any story about it would have to leave out in order to make any sense.

The life of Arthur Waley breaks the biographer’s storytelling urge in a number of ways, not the least of which is the fact that Waley didn’t write much about himself. He kept no diary and destroyed his letters, leaving a space, or network of spaces, where most of his contemporaries left maps. Perhaps most importantly, his insane productivity occurred almost exclusively in translation—a discipline that traditionally prides itself on self-erasure. Because of this, any attempt to make a story out of him has to confront the fact that there is, ostensibly at least, not much “him” to make a story out of. READ MORE…

The Book of Sand: St. Jerome

Second in a series highlighting the lives of famous translators

When we dream about him, we dream about lions. But when Jerome dreamed, he dreamed of the desert, and of a judge who told him to destroy his books.

He had wanted to do this for a long time. Not because he hated his books, but because he loved them so much. He had labored over them, copying line after line of Plautus and Virgil into the codices that were now his curse, since no matter how much he fasted, wept, or threw himself in the dust, they were there to do what great literature always did—that is, to pick him back up and console him for his human lot. READ MORE…

Constance Garnett and the Real Russia

In the first of a series of essays on the lives of translators, Josh Billings explores the work of pivotal Russian translator Constance Garnett.

Nobody had told her how bright it would be. Cold, yes, dangerous, of course (this was 1894, after all). But the light! It surrounded them like an ocean, assaulting the tiny sled with a relentlessness that would have been painful for anyone but was torture for her, whose eyes had been sensitive from birth. Later in life this photophobia would become so bad that she would have to hire someone to read the pages she was translating out loud (a method one amanuensis described as “very tedious and exhausting”). But at this point, there weren’t any assistants: there was just Russia, which shone during the day but emitted a soft glow after dark, like a horse steaming in its stable. When the sun went down, the sled stopped at a village for directions, and a peasant whom Constance Garnett described as having “an ivory face and jet black hair and beard, rather like some picture I have seen of John the Baptist” invited her into his hut:

I was blinded by the steam on my spectacles at first, then I saw the interior of a Russian izba for the first time. Two women and several children got up from their lockers on which they had been asleep… In the middle of the fearfully hot airless hut swung a sort of large birdcage covered with a large red cotton cloth, and from it came the miauling of a baby… I could not stay more than a few minutes in the izba—I was afraid of fainting—so I went out and sat in the sledge where the temperature was somewhere about zero under the immense dark blue starry sky. The peasant directed our driver. I remember one of the women ventured to put in advice—and was at once told to hold her tongue—that this was not a woman’s business [1].

It was a scene straight out of Turgenev, a writer whose unexpected vogue in late 19th-century England turned out to be the first wave of a fascination with Russian literature that would grip the anglophone world until the late 1920s. Over the course of its thirty-year run, this “Russian fever” [2] would influence not only specific artists, but also the way that writers, and readers, thought about fiction. It would transform the novel in English, swinging interest away from corseted descriptions of late-Victorian drawing rooms, and towards what D. H. Lawrence, writing about Anna Karenina, called “the bright book of life.” And it would do so, for the most part, in the voice of a single translator: Constance Garnett.

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