In Memoriam: Victor Heringer

Borders, designed to be crossed and, whenever possible, abolished, were recurrent themes in Victor's oeuvre.

Today we bring you a reflection on the life of Brazilian writer Victor Heringer. Victor’s elegant and thought-provoking non-fiction piece “Notes for a General Theory of the Arriviste” was featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Asymptote where we have been long-time admirers of his work. Victor, who would be thirty this week, passed away on March 7, 2018. Today we celebrate his literary work.

Victor Heringer was a multi-genre, multi-faceted artist. It’s not enough to remember him as “Victor, the poet” or “Victor, the writer.” Victor drew and made films and sound installations. He wrote poetry, nonfiction, novels. It was as though the borders between genres were not so fixed or important. Indeed, borders, designed to be crossed and, whenever possible, abolished, were recurrent themes in his oeuvre.

“Being Brazilian, and especially being from Rio de Janeiro, was something I had to learn how to do,” said the writer, born in Rio in 1988, in an interview. “I spent my childhood moving between cities and countries, mostly Argentina and Chile. For a few years, I was sure I would stay in Santiago forever and become a Chilean citizen. When I came back to Brazil as a teenager, it took me a long time to lose the accent. I felt Chilean. In Chile, I’d felt Argentinian; in England, Brazilian; in Peru, where I am now, I’m starting to feel that I am nothing at all, maybe just a stateless person with documents and a few languages mixed up in my head.”

The Spanish language came to Victor long before Latin American literature, which he discovered much later, once he was back in Brazil and conducting nostalgic readings of the neighboring language. When asked about his favorite Latin American author in a different interview, Victor gave a revealing answer: he liked César Aira, not just for literary reasons but because of the way in which the writer approached publishing: his books were “short, released by small publishing houses, randomly.”

He himself followed precisely that method. The 7 Letras independent publishing house based in Rio de Janeiro released his first book of poetry, automatógrafo (automatograph) in 2011. The following year, he launched his prize-winning novel Glória (7 Letras) with a book trailer that he narrated himself. The publisher e-galaxia, which works with exclusively short form digital texts, published his 2014 short story Lígia. In 2015, again through 7 Letras, he published a chapbook of photos and newspaper cutouts called O escritor Victor Heringer (The Writer Victor Heringer). That same year, he was part of the publisher Luna Parque’s series “books in pairs” with his work Designação provisoria (Temporary Designation) in a partnership with Alberto Pucheu. His novel O amor dos homens avulsos (The Love of Solitary Men), published in 2016 by Companhia das Letras, was a finalist for the São Paulo Prize for Literature, the Rio Prize for Literature, and the Oceanos Prize.

Victor had an unusual combination of encyclopedic knowledge, erudition, and an interest in all things new. In 2014, he defended his master’s thesis on irony in the work of Enrique Vila-Matas in Literary Theory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Machado de Assis and Manuel Bandeira were his greatest influences: “Machado’s perspective on the world and Bandeira’s constant search for affection shaped me,” he said in an interview. “The first book I ever received, back when I barely knew how to read, was one of those copies of Dom Casmurro sold at newsstands. Something about the cover caught my eye, maybe the photo of the bearded author. Years later, I discovered the intellectual family to which that author belongs: Machado was the son of Laurence Sterne (as Machado himself says in Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas)), the great-grandson of Luciano de Samósata, the brother to German irony…I’m an add-on to the family, the one who lives for free in a little spare room.”

Victor used to say that the internet was his playground. In one of his columns for the magazine Pessoa he compiled an anthology of comments from news sites, which he called “public opinion’s crack district.” He learned to code in order to make digital books, ones in which hyperlinks folded into his poems, giving new meaning to footnotes. The internet, for him, was both form and content. And so the reader, upon clicking through the book, would open a window to another poem or a video or a song in a sort of twenty-first-century Babel’s library.

Victor had a melancholic, witty sense of humor. In the 2012 video “oi, você sumiu,” he speaks through a series of voicemails directed towards himself. He recounts a hit-and-run, asks the person on the other end of the line if they like capers and if they’ve ever spent Christmas alone. In “mamãe lia a sorte no açúcar,” also from 2012, he says, “clearly, the word ‘dream’ doesn’t sound very good”: “no one gets away with using the word ‘dream’ nowadays.” Books don’t sell if they have the word “dream” in the title, he points out. But “the candy sold under the same name, sonho, sells well, since it’s edible.”

Victor used humor to talk about his grandmother, who practiced the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé and had made contact with the spirit world during his childhood. “As a kid, my favorite was the candomblé intermediary Joãozinho da Praia, who made my grandma’s aged body dash to the kitchen, gulp down guaraná soda, and eat sugar straight from the pot. Joãozinho told me which girls at school liked me, made fun of my parents like he was my friend—and he loved Carnival.”

Critics considered his last book, O amor dos homens avulsos, one of the best novels in recent years. The story takes place in the fictional Queím neighborhood in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro during the 1970s. There, the life of a boy who uses crutches changes completely when his first love is murdered in a brutal hate crime. While he was writing the novel, Victor hurt his knee while running, a fact that he considered a “small miracle” that allowed him to write the character’s story viscerally. You can find a sample of the novel in English here.

When asked to sum up his novel in three words, he said: “yellow, beer, rotting,” describing the abrasive heat of Rio de Janeiro, a city for him defined by its yellow tone and precarious sanitation system. Though his two novels take place in Rio, Victor associated writing with migration, and the accounts of his many trips are available in his column in Pessoa, which sometimes involved travel diary entries. In one entry, he writes: “two friends asked me, speaking in that good vibration, telegraphic way travelers talk, how I would define myself. I evaded the question, circling around it until I finally said: ‘I don’t know. I live and I see.’ That’s a good definition, my friends said. I live and I see.”

Translated from the Portuguese by Lara Norgaard.

Rita Mattar was born in São Paulo in 1986 and is an editor at the Companhia das Letras publishing house where she also represents Brazilian authors abroad. She is working towards her Master’s degree in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of São Paulo and has a Master’s degree in psychoanalysis from the Sedes Sapientiae Institute.

Alice Sant’Anna was born in 1988 in Rio de Janeiro and is a Brazilian poet. She is the author of Dobradura (“Folding”) (7Letras, 2008) and Rabo de baleia (“Tail of the Whale,” Cosac Naify, 2013), which won the 2013 APCA Poetry Prize (São Paulo Art Critics’ Association) and was published in the United States, translated by Tiffany Higgins (Toad Press, 2016). Her most recent book, Pé do ouvido (Companhia das Letras, 2016), was written while she was a Visiting Fellow at Brown University, in 2013, and is currently being translated into English by Eric Becker. 

Lara Norgaard is a graduate of Princeton University in Comparative Literature with a focus on Latin America. She teaches English and researches public memory in Brazilian literature as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.


For more from the Asymptote blog: