A genius of the essay

Study states that essayist Nelson Rodrigues was "Brazil's Montaigne"

Agência Estado ArchivesNelson: the chronicler becomes an essayistAgência Estado Archives

The ranking of Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980) among the foremost playwrights of the twentieth century has already been ensured by several generations of specialists. His talent as an essayist, even though Rodrigues never had this pretension, however, is the new angle chosen by literary critic Luis Augusto Fischer, a native of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, in his book Inteligência com dor [Intelligence with pain], published by Arquipélago Editorial. The uniqueness of the argument lies in the fact that it is based on essays published in newspapers. Fischer, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and author of books on Machado de Assis and Jorge Luis Borges, sees much more than merely brief and trivial comments in these essays. The exceptional features of these texts, he explains, can elevate them to a higher category.

The description “essayist” –  rather than “chronicler”  provides a new status to the texts that Nelson Rodrigues published unpretentiously in the press. “As a rule, a chronicler is a lyrical commentator on life, while an essayist writes with an active brain, even when he comments on daily life,” says the literary critic. “The chronicler tends to be self-complacent, while the essayist is strict and even cruel with himself, and he does so not because he is a masochist, but rather to achieve a deeper and more radical point of view, by fleeing from the mild cycle of the chronicle, which is happy to focus on exteriorities,” he adds.

Born in the city of Recife in 1912, Nelson Rodrigues moved to Rio de Janeiro as a child. He came from a family of journalists – his father, Mario Rodrigues, founded the Rio de Janeiro newspaper A manhã in the 1920’s, while his brother, Mario Filho (after whom the Maracanã soccer stadium is named) was one of the leading sports writers in the country. From a tender age, the boy who, as he put it in his own words, “sees the world through a keyhole”  was exposed to tragedy. The first tragic event in Nelson’s life was the death of his brother Roberto, also a journalist, murdered in the editorial room. During the 1930 Revolution, the family’s newspaper was destroyed for political reasons. As a result, Nelson, who had written news articles on the police and on soccer, started to write increasingly popular plays. In the 1970s, Nelson’s son, Nelson Rodrigues Filho, went underground, fleeing the dictatorship regime, and his daughter Daniela (…) the girl without a star (…)  was born with serious health problems.

The chronicles compiled in his books such as O óbvio ululante and A cabra vadia describe episodes of political and social life in Brazil, along with comments on his daily life and that of his family, on ulcers and Cardinal Hélder Câmara, and new habits and customs. Books such as À sombra das chuteiras imortais contain sports chronicles – so amazing that they can be dedicated to a soccer player’s spitball. Nelson himself had no perception of the value of his chronicles. They were written, as he said it, to pay for his “children’s milk.”  His chronicles were written in the manner of a gossip, a memorialist, who frequently aroused the fury of different sectors of society, which viewed him as a reactionary and a pornographer. “He certainly never thought of himself as following the tradition of the essay. I think one can also safely state that he didn’t even have the concept of chronicle in his mind. However, his intuition, as well as his ability to form his language, are the main characteristics,”  Fischer argues.

The idea of Nelson the essayist, a “Montaigne of Brazil,”  as Fischer specifies, came from Aníbal Damasceno Ferreira, a journalist and historian who was responsible for the revival of another author, Qorpo Santo, in the 1960’s. At a lunch in 1988, Ferreira inspired Fischer to research the theme. A short while later, the value of the playwright’s chronicles was be emphasized by Ruy Castro, when Castro launched the biography O anjo pornográfico and coordinated a new edition of Nelson’s works by the Companhia das Letras publishing house in the 1990’s. Today, the publisher Agir holds the publication copyrights.

Readers familiar with Nelson Rodrigues’ chronicles recognize them immediately when they come across them again. Not only does the author write well, but he also – as the literary critic points out – has “an extensive repertoire of narrative and dramatic manias”: delayed action, the dramatization of the chronicler’s position, and a swift and efficient description of the characters. He used such expressions as “blindingly obvious”  and created unforgettable caricature-like characters, such as the protest march priest, the journalism trainee with dirty heels, or the society lady with corpse-like nostrils. As for the themes, as Fischer points out, Nelson’s most original creations are more closely related to the point of view than to the topic. “Many other chroniclers also wrote about youth, soccer, the condition of the Brazilians, but only Nelson had unique thoughts and opinions about all of these.”  In the manner of a good essayist, he was able to flee the narrow-mindedness of his times, freeing himself from such limits, to try to evaluate things from the point of view of eternity.

Agência Estado ArchivesCopacabana Beach: the chronicler’s inspirationAgência Estado Archives

Nelson’s best chronicles were written between 1967 and 1970, which witnessed the onset of the Tropicália avant-garde music movement and the Soccer World Cup. This was the time when he “reached the peak of his language, which had been undergoing the process of being polished,”  the critic explains. The leftists and young people were the constant butts of his biting criticism. “After this, he became partially predictable, because he had already found those expressions and had confronted those enemies. That was also a period during which he even had to engage in radical self-criticism – although he had conservative leanings –  because of the brutality and censorship of those times, for example.”

Fischer’s opinion, the author of Vestido de noiva belongs to the lineage of language geniuses, which comprises “few but valorous members.” In the Brazilian press, says Fischer, he has come across at least one other brilliant essayist, in the same sense that Nelson was; this other essayist was Paulo Francis. “Even after all the necessary adjustments and changes, the work of Paulo Francis –  fiction and journalistic articles –  clearly has an essayist’s heart inside, interested in analyzing things through self-analysis and deep criticism,”  Fischer states. Other authors wrote and write great chronicles, although not always: Machado de Assis, Carlos Heitor Cony, Millôr Fernandes and Luis Fernando Verissimo. In terms of foreign authors also linked to publishing works in newspapers, Fischer mentions Karl Kraus and Jorge Luis Borges as having shown “expressive originality.”  “I don’t see any direct disciples of Nelson Rodrigues, perhaps because each excellent artist really cannot be repeated. In general, anybody who seeks to be a disciple by imitating another writer’s style becomes ridiculous, and only mimics the original – and it’s certainly better to read the original directly than poor imitations.”

In Inteligência com dor, the literary critic also argues that Nelson Rodrigues concludes a modern constructivist project in Brazilian literature, which began with the Parnassians, involved the Modernists, and continued until the tropicalists. The author, he argues, is disillusioned with the avant-garde fantasy in the broad sense, “that kind of avant-garde that drives artists to achieve the future by screaming, confronting average opinions with outwardly transgressive gestures.”  “This was seen in those groups, with variations in keeping with the times and the tastes, but this is not found in Nelson’s works, not even in his plays, I believe. The areas in which he was commonly viewed as a transgressor had nothing to do with avant-gardism, but with something deeply tragic, in the case of the plays; in the case of his chronicles, the work was not avant-garde, but had the spirit of the essay,”  Fischer points out. “Nelson is close to being a classic, and therefore he has the opposite of the avant-garde temperament, which is invariably romantic.”

According to Fischer, Nelson was the first author to record the end of the Cold War, the end of the battle between a market economy and a centralized, planned economy before any other Brazilian author did so. Few authors had perceived contradictions and even fewer authors had the courage to voice their criticism, which had become easier after the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall. As the literary critic explains it, it was not a question of ignoring Nelson’s reactionary attitude in the 1960s and 1970s, nor of suggesting that he had a well-grounded critical interpretation based on the prophetic interpretation of the economic limitations of the former Soviet Union. Nelson was a terrible, obtuse reactionary, sometimes laughable because of his radical conservatism, Fischer ponders. However, he says, Nelson was right, “because he thought autonomously and adopted a broader view than the sad and mediocre polarization that had been imposed by the dictatorship, all of this because he refused to admit that those were the only possible directions.”

In his chronicles, Nelson Rodrigues came up with a theory on the Brazilian being, a notion that was so pleasing to essayists, says Fischer, that they wrote about this topic throughout the twentieth century. The author coined phrases that in many cases became commonly used expressions. Some examples are “Brazilians have a soul like a holiday; the Brazilian is an upside-down Narcissus that spits at his own image; in Brazil, glory lies more in insult than in praise; Brazilians, including atheists, are people of faith.”  Fischer says “that the author was the prophet of the “blindingly obvious”  who used specific language means that were “in a latent state”  in the Portuguese language.”  Thus, Nelson Rodrigues achieved his old dream of writing “in Brazilian”  as if he were chatting, something that Mário de Andrade had already attempted to do and which materialized through the work of Nelson Rodrigues. According to the literary critic, literary language became definitively Brazilianized thanks to Nelson’s chronicles. “Nelson made the magic,”  Fischer concludes.