Why is it important to read Brazilian novels? And how to choose the best gateways to its complex universe? These questions have just been given some stimulating answers for critic and professor from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) Marisa Lajolo. Como e por que ler o romance brasileiro [How and why to read the Brazilian novel], a book from the collection “Como e por que” [How and why], from the Ática publishing house, is immediately becoming a sort of guide not only for readers on their first voyage, but also for those who are accustomed to circulating through our fiction.
“I have the greatest difficulty in giving universal recipes”, Marisa warns. “Recommending books, even for people you know, does not always work out, so imagine for people you don’t know!” Indeed, the world of reading – an intimate exercise, performed in reclusion and silence – is governed by the particular. Many factors help to explain why we like a book and are not interested by another, and even so, no one of them, and not even the sum of them, goes so far as to explain these two facts.
Why do some prefer Guimarães Rosa, and others Clarice Lispector? Why is the group of readers that are enthusiastic about Graciliano Ramos not always the same as those who devour, with the same fervor, the work of Machado de Assis? Do answers to these questions exist? If there are no ready explanations, these disagreements serve, at the least, for delicious intellectual exercises. And it is to these that Marisa Lajolo devotes herself. “I think it is very interesting to discuss what the reader without the habit of reading has read or what he has not read. And why he has read what he has read, and why he has not read what he has not read”, says Marisa. Indeed, many are the reasons that lead a reader to read a novel: the opinion of friends, the attraction for a title, the act of opening a book in the middle and at random, taking a squint in a bookshop. Manners, uncertain, for, as Marisa suggests, “deciding, in short, if the book has something to tell him”.
Marisa, of course, has her personal selection of favorite books. “I am going to answer by putting together a cunning bookshelf, just with authors who have died and were important in my history of reading”, she explains. And so she arrives at a list of eleven titles: A moreninha [The little brunette], by Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, Iracema, by José de Alencar, Dom Casmurro, by Machado, São Bernardo, by Graciliano Ramos, A chave do tamanho [The size key], by Monteiro Lobato, Grande sertão: Veredas [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands], by Rosa, O tempo e o vento [Time and the Wind], by Erico Verissimo, Gabriela, cravo e canela [Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon] by Jorge Amado, Quarup, by Antonio Callado, A hora da estrela [The Hour of the Star], by Clarice, and Memorial de Maria Moura [Maria Moura], by Rachel de Queiroz.
A respectable list – but even so not immune from the interferences of personal elements. “If I had to disguise the personal character of the selection, I would wrap up the list in the argument about acceptance. They are works that have always had many readers, that have been rewritten in different languages, and that, I think, still have things to say to the Brazilians of today.” The fact is that, as Marisa says, literature is a sort of stock exchange, in which titles and signatures go up and down, without one being able to understand the reasons clearly. But almost always when authors are redeemed, or valued, this is done in someone’s own interest, she warns – for them to be proclaimed as precursors of this or that, “to confer the patina of time on a given literary trait”. It is a game, the literary game, that nobody plays ingenuously.
Marisa recognizes that, she too, to write her Como e por que, submitted herself to this logic of redemption. In her case, trying to give prestige to names like Paulo Setúbal and Coelho Neto, “writers who were much read in their time, but who today are completely disqualified by the literary studies”. She also admits that it is always more difficult to talk about the production of the present: in the heat of the moment, a set of works is always incomprehensible. With the passing of time, literary criticism tries to group and to manage these books, classifying them into “literary schools”, “styles”, “generations”, “isms”. They are attempts, worthy – but not definitive.
So, then, how does one teach literature? Marisa imagines an ideal course, “a bit like they say Socrates used to teach”, which means, teaching by walking slowly with the pupils, discussing readings, declaiming poetry. But, she recognizes, the teaching of literature is always impaired with some kind of systematization. To her mind, they are all equivalent. What is really important is whether the teacher is a “mature, experienced and impassioned” reader. The novel is the genre of versatility. “It encompasses both marvelous and difficult tomes and equally marvelous booklets, although simple and direct, which everybody reads and comments on”, she says. Perhaps for this reason the novel represents, better than any other genre, the arena in which there is most manifestation of the disagreements between the public at large and the critics. “I wrote my book with an eye on each area, trying to lead the reader to cover the whole field and to get to know the rehearsed plays of the two teams”, she admits. Different novels help with the construction of different images of Brazil. And there are always new images to be created, new prospects to be unveiled.
But, even so, Marisa Lajolo believes that the novel was not born to be taught in schools and to be examination subject matter. “Far to the contrary, the novel seems to have been born as alternative to written, erudite and serious productions, inaccessible to the great majority of readers.” However, with time, it has been gobbled up by schools, “running the risk of losing its stroke of emotion and involvement”. Marisa gives an example: is the information that São Bernardo, by Graciliano, is a “metalinguistic” novel, as the critics usually define it, more relevant than the dramatic experience that a reading of the novel offers its readers? It is not. Even so, with the systematization of the essay, the perspective of the pleasure of reading stays in the background. It is this barrier that the reader must overcome.
Marisa Lajolo is not alone in her assessments, a significant part of Brazilian novelists and critics agrees with her. “It is important to read the Brazilian novel because it is the whole of our life, our history, our language and very specific languages that pass though it”, reckons, for example, novelist Sérgio Sant’Anna. And for that alone: as to the rest, one just has to read and find one’s own reasons. “Why read the Brazilian novel? Because it talks of a reality that we know”, says in chorus novelist Ignácio de Loyola Brandão. “It shows personages that are around us, are familiar to us, friends. We know the language, the codes, on the nearby sentiments.” Because it helps us to understand who we are.
Often, admits Loyola, it is an incredible feeling to realize that it is us, Brazilians, who are there in that novel. That is why he believes that “the Brazilian novel can help us to understand our way of living, of being, and of thinking”. To read novels is in itself to learn – and, to do so, the reader does not need to be a specialist, he does not need to learn how to read. Each reader makes himself on his own, in the silent clash with the books. Even so, Loyola thinks that the way to enter into the world of the Brazilian novel ought to begin with the contemporary novelists.
He puts Erico Verissimo right in the first place, and next Jorge Amado, but straight afterwards come names like Lygia Fagundes Telles, Dalton Trevisan, Antonio Torres, Moacyr Scliar and Salim Miguel, intermingled with the obligatory names like Graciliano, Zé Lins, Callado, Rachel, Mario and Oswald de Andrade, Cornélio Pena. It is, always, an interminable list, even when the reader guides himself solely by his personal standards. Be that as it may, Loyola believes that an author like Guimarães Rosa should be kept, preferably, for later. “I would only read Rosa later, because I think he needs all this preparation.
It is always necessary to make choices, and afterwards to believe in them, or the reader will get lost. “Dostoyevsky used to say that all the Russian writers were heirs of Gogol”, is the comparison made by novelist from Pernambuco Raimundo Carrero. “We can assert that we are all children of Machado de Assis.” Even when the choice, like this, tends towards unanimity, even so there has to be a certain prudence. Carrero, though, tends to think that the simple existence of Machado is a sufficient reason for reading Brazilian novels. “It is too strong a reason”, he emphasizes. In the 20th century, he highlights the vitality, in particular, of two movements: Modernism and Regionalism. “They generated, amongst other, novels like Macunaíma, Vidas secas [Barren Lives] and Fogo morto [Dead Fire].”
Raimundo Carrero also recalls a declaration of the great Mexican writer, Juan Rulfo, the author of a minimal, but fabulous work, according to which Brazil has a literature that is superior to American literature. To understand the weight of this opinion, suffice it to recall, by way of contrast, that the United States is the country of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. But, Carrero counters, the Brazilian fictional tradition has produced names like Guimarães Rosa, Clarice Lispector, Osman Lins and Autran Dourado, alongside whom he makes a point of placing Erico Verissimo and the generally forgotten Dyonélio Machado, besides Lima Barreto and Alencar. In the second half of the 20th century, Carrero chooses the names of Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Adonias Filho, Rachel de Queiroz and João Antonio. And also Antonio Torres, João Gilberto Noll and Sérgio Sant’Anna. There are so many names, so many choices, that every attempt always gets lost in dispersion and in fragmentation.
Journalist and biographer Alberto Dines, the author of Morte no paraíso [Death in Paradise], a biography of Stefan Zweig, prefers to rephrase the question posed by Marisa Lajolo and to expand it like this: “How and why to read Brazilian texts?”. Dines makes a claim for the importance of the essay, the biography, the tale, and the chronicle. And, in an opposite direction, reflects critically on the fate of fictional prose in Brazil. “Brazilian prose is disappearing, partly because of the academic world and scientificisms, partly because of politicians incapable of expressing their ideas correctly”, he says. “And, above all, because of the absolute predominance of television in the upbringing of at least two generations of Brazilians – including many so-called intellectuals.”
Dines also warns than the best things are not always where we judge that we will find them. “Recently, I read the memories of Israeli novelist Amós Oz, and I regard them as his best novel”, he exemplifies. He also recalls the precious texts that composed the different comments about Fernando Sabino, the writer from the state of Minas Gerais who died in October. “It was touching that Antonio Candido gave vent – he feels so lonely!”, he recalls. “Brought together, stitched and referenced, these obituaries would compose a sort of biography”, he suggests, showing that what one should read is not always in books.
In fact, the Brazilian novel is an inexhaustible territory. “Brazil is too unequal, too vast territorially, with regions so diverse and an abyss between classes, which makes it a special country”, recalls writer and critic from Rio Grande do Sul, Paulo Bentancur. “It isn’t horizontal, like Mongolia, it’s vertical – and sometimes, chaotic, even. But this, of course, doesn’t guarantee good literature.” Bentancur calls to mind that it is easy to lose oneself in Brazilian literature, “it is immense, like the country”. Not that we should abandon the adventure because of that.Republish