Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
That the name Hilda Hilst is not more widely recognized by English-language readers, particularly admirers of her contemporary, Clarice Lispector, should come as no surprise considering the experimentalism of Hilst’s work. Thankfully, Adam Morris’ translation of With My Dog-Eyes, “perhaps the most novel-like prose work” (xvi) of a largely poetic oeuvre, has recently been released by Melville House, introducing us to an enigmatic voice in Brazilian modernism. Excerpts of this translation deservedly won the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize, and the result is a stylistic tour de force that skates the boundaries of language, deftly navigating the sinuous literary terrain first forged by the author herself.
Hilda Hilst (1930-2004), the daughter of a wealthy coffee baron and writer, spent most of her life isolated on an estate known as Casa do Sol. There she eschewed the trappings of high society to live a bohemian life dedicated to literature, surrounding herself with fellow artists as well as a host of dogs. Hilst’s economic freedom and her firm rejection of the literary establishment allowed her to experiment with both form and content. She was an avid reader, incorporating much of what she read into a highly esoteric, and often inscrutable, body of work. Her influences were diverse, spanning philosophy, theology, mathematics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, spiritualism and demonology, and included an array of writers and thinkers such as Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Pierre Louÿs, Georges Bataille, Bertrand Russell, Ernesto Sábato, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean Genet. Hilst eventually became obsessed with various experiments into occultism and numerology and subsequently, despite the critical acclaim her prolific body of work achieved during her lifetime, found her fortune diminishing as she spiraled into alcoholism. Towards the end of her life, Hilst’s work began to reach a wider readership, thanks to several more commercial re-releases, and she remains popular in Brazil today (vii-xxiii).
In his excellent introduction, Morris cautions against the inevitable comparisons between Hilst and fellow modernist Lispector, citing Hilst’s disdain for the type of critical recognition that Lispector enjoyed (xviii). Nevertheless, With My Dog-Eyes, like much of Lispector’s work, explores the failure of language to penetrate the mysteries of existence, bucking conventional form in order to grasp at extralinguistic truth. In so doing, With My Dog-Eyes reveals the anxieties arising from the collision between consciousness and corpus.
The protagonist, a mathematics professor named Amós Kéres, is searching for the meaning of life, continually frustrated by his inability to connect with his world through language. Is Amós mad? The other characters certainly think so. But despite the disordered stream of imagery constituting the “narrative” of Amós’ thoughts, the constant shift between first and third person which reveals the mathematician’s spiraling dissociation from himself and his surroundings, and the frequent leaps in time and place, the avant-garde prose so perfectly implants us within a flailing mind, desperate to extract some meaning from the chaos, that Amós emerges as a largely sane and sympathetic character. It is, rather, life itself which is a kind of madness:
The madness of the Search, which is made of concentric circles and never arrives at the center, the obscuring, incarnate illusion of finding and understanding. Madness of the refusal, one of saying everything’s okay, we’re here and that’s enough, we refuse to understand. The madness of passion, the disordered appearance of light upon flesh, delicious-tasting chaos, idiocy feigning affinities. The madness of work and of possession. The madness of going so deep and later turning to look and seeing the world awash in vain slaughter, to be absolutely alone in the depths. (41-2)
If compelled to classify this work, one might consider it prose poetry, punctuated by lines of verse, all of which form the fevered arc of Amós’ thoughts. Indeed, the mathematician is well aware of his tendency to fall back upon poetry and formulae – his train of thought often twisting itself into poems about formulae – whenever language abandons him, whenever his “Search” stumbles upon the ineffable:
Poetry and mathematics. The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colors, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning. He could say only that. Invaded by incommensurable meaning. (10)
Thus, With My Dog-Eyes places its protagonist at the intersection of poetry and mathematics, showing both to be a kind of transcendent mystical language, unbound by the strictures of syntax and common usage. Morris’ extensive work with the author’s personal papers reveals that Hilst couched her prose in myriad symbols and allusions culled from her frequent readings of philosophical, mathematical and occultist works (xxi). To read With My Dog-Eyes is to venture into a dense forest of marginalia, tightly packed with abstractions, a forest which, despite the brevity of the novel, could take a lifetime to explore to the fullest.
Nevertheless, it is not the unorthodox form which made this book so controversial upon its release in 1986. The imagery is violent and raw, wrenching readers from the heights of a sublime mysticism into earthy descriptions of sex and death, and back again. Seemingly disjointed episodes form meaningful juxtapositions which serve to crumble the facades of social institutions, for example the description of university bureaucracy which directly follows the rather graphic scene of a prostitute having sex with a priest, thereby linking both realms, religious and academic, in a double-critique. And, when Amós gazes upon the edifices representing the various arenas of public and private life – “Whorehouse Church Government University” – capitalization and an absence of commas situates the four on an equal plane, collapsing the pillars of propriety which hold religion, government and academe above the shadowy world of the brothel (4). As Amós proceeds in trying to make sense of life, other spheres also fall within the crosshairs of criticism: poverty, urban blight, materialism, marriage, family, all coalesce into the sticky residue of life that confounds the “Search” for transcendence.
With My Dog-Eyes thus represents Hilst’s attempt to piece together language and create a mirror reflecting existence. While such a mirror can only ever be fragmentary, Adam Morris’ bold and beguiling translation only adds to the author’s efforts to reach for those universal mysteries beyond humanity’s grasp. As Amós reflects when thinking about his “Search,” literature, and by extension translation, is a bit like collecting stones: “So many that they wouldn’t fit in my hands. Little stones. Words? Words that another will try to put together to explain the inexplicable” (29). Fortunately, despite the immensity – and some would argue futility – of the task, we continue amassing stones, until they are spilling out of the confines of language and reaching across cultures.
Hilst, Hilda. With My Dog-Eyes. Tr. Adam Morris. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.