Not everyone is lucky enough to earn the effusive praise of a Nobel Prize laureate. About Cleonice Berardinelli, Portuguese writer José Saramago (1922–2010) said: “She is part of the aristocracy of the spirit, something which is indeed necessary for the evolution of society.” The longest-living member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL) died on January 31 at the age of 106, leaving a great legacy of essays and critiques, in addition to many students who learned the beauty and sophistication of the Portuguese language and literature from her.
Born on August 28, 1916, in Rio de Janeiro, Berardinelli spent her childhood moving from one city to another. Her father was in the military and the family had to move house every time he was transferred to a different station. They were living in São Paulo when she decided to study neo-Latin language and literature at the newly formed University of São Paulo (USP), having been in love with poetry since the moment she learned to read. After she graduated in 1938, her parents allowed her to continue her studies instead of seeking a husband, which was rare at the time. Later, in 1953 when she was 37, she married a physician, Álvaro Berardinelli.
In the many interviews she gave, she often recalled a memorable conversation she had with her husband: “He wanted me to stop teaching private students and high school classes. ‘What about college?’ I asked. ‘Not college. That’s your life,’ he said.” And thus in 1959 she became a lecturer of Portuguese literature at the National School of Philosophy of what was then the University of Brazil and is now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). At the time, the position automatically granted her the title of doctor. Her thesis on the poetry and poetics of Fernando Pessoa (1888–1935) was the first on the Portuguese author to be defended in Brazil, and only the second in the world.
Pessoa was the first to be scrutinized by the keen and elegant analysis of Berardinelli, who always strived to discover hidden sides of the authors she was passionate about. She studied others in the following decades, including: Gil Vicente (1465–1536), Luís Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), Antônio Vieira (1608–1697), Eça de Queiroz (1845–1900), and Mário de Sá-Carneiro (1890–1916). She wrote books that are still used in classrooms to this day, such as Estudos camonianos (MEC, 1973) and Fernando Pessoa: Outra vez te revejo… (Lacerda, 2004). She was repeatedly invited to join the ABL but she always declined. Finally, in 2009, she accepted and was named as the new occupant of chair number 8.
Marco Lucchesi, a poet who was ABL president from 2018 to 2021 and is now president of Brazil’s National Library, got to know Berardinelli after she joined the ABL, although he was already well acquainted with her work. “I got to know Cleonice from the saline seas of Camões, from the luminous masks and shadows of Fernando Pessoa, and later, in person at the ABL. It was an extraordinary encounter; she was attentive to subtleties and at the same time capable of shedding light on the most obscure parts of an author. She was a luminous and illuminating person, always balancing the rough and the smooth, the strong and the subtle of the Portuguese language, which runs through the veins of the languages spoken in Brazil, Africa, Portugal, and other countries,” he said.
Berardinelli had a passionate and life-long relationship with books and the classroom. She was a professor at institutions such as the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), the Catholic University of Petrópolis (UCP), and the Rio Branco Institute, in addition to UFRJ. In the 1980s, she taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the USA and the University of Lisbon in Portugal. She supervised more than a hundred doctoral theses and master’s dissertations, establishing academic relationships and friendships that influenced students for the rest of their lives.
“I met Dona Cléo, as we affectionately called her, in 2005 when I started a master’s degree in Portuguese literature at PUC. As a great admirer of Pessoa and because I was also an English teacher and loved Walt Whitman [1819–1892], I wanted to write a dissertation that united these elements,” recalled Maria do Carmo Facó, a retired professor who taught at several universities in Rio. “At first she refused, saying that she did not know Whitman well enough to supervise my work, although she knew that Pessoa himself read his work and even admitted to having been influenced by him.” According to Facó, however, she was curious to learn more about the American poet, so it was not difficult to convince her. At the time, Berardinelli was over 90 years old.
“Her legacy is of utmost importance. Pessoa, despite having 136 known heteronyms, is yet to be fully unveiled, because unpublished material still persists in his famous opus,” she says. “Dona Cléo was one of the greatest authorities of this immeasurable adventure, not only because she publicized the work of the Portuguese poet, but also because she helped us understand it in all of its complexity,” summarizes Facó.
Carlos A. Pittella, a poet and researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, recalls working closely with Berardinelli, who was his advisor for his master’s and PhD, for more than 10 years. “Cleonice was decisive in my education. Without her I would never have studied literature. She showed me the horizon of these studies and how it was possible to broaden that horizon, offering both primary source material, such as her critical editions, and a broad research methodology and approach. In other words, Cleonice and her work were and are unavoidable sources in studies of Pessoa. She is always at the forefront and always willing to revise her ideas, which is not very common in this field,” said Pittella.
“Cleonice is not just a legacy. A legacy is something that was left and for me, she was someone who opened many doors. And she was a bridge between Portuguese-speaking countries,” he added. “To give you an idea, she told us that Saramago called her when he released a book. A few days before publishing Blindness, he sent her a copy, then called her and asked: ‘So, what did you think?’ She answered: ‘It was like being punched in the stomach.’ Intrigued, Saramago replied: ‘But did you like it?’ She answered: ‘Sometimes a punch in the stomach is a good thing.’”Republish