This slim volume is the first of Hilda Hilst’s novels to be translated into English by a British publisher. But then, this avant garde writer hasn’t been widely read, even in her native Brazil, despite winning major awards before her death in 2004.
She is difficult. With My Dog Eyes was first published in 1986, but feels Modernist: fluid, shifting narration tells the story – if you can call it that – of mathematician and poet Amos Keres’ descent into madness. It moves rapidly between first person present tense, recalled memories, reported speech, and chunks of poetry; between absurdism, theory, fable and filth.
Such patterned leaps can provide a self-contained pleasure – but they’re not easy to wring any real meaning from. Concentration is required, and not always repaid. “He wanted the nonobvious to be demonstrated, a short and harmonious equation that would scintillate the as-yet unexplained.” Nonobvious? You bet.
And there are so many embedded “literary, philosophic, mathematical, and occult allusions”, we’re warned by undauntable translator Adam Morris, “it would be nearly impossible to comment upon them all”. This in a book that, even well cushioned with white space, comes in at merely 59 pages. Not that it’s a dry, dusty read. Hilst saw herself taking up the baton of Joyce and Beckett, and she matches them in combining intellectualism with crude, bodily-fluid-based humour.
Keres has a visionary scorn for the hypocrisy of societal institutions – a mouthpiece for Hilst, no doubt. An heiress, she was a sexually adventurous young bohemian before rejecting polite society and retreating to a country house with her writing, select friends, and many beloved dogs. Mental illness ran in Hilst’s family, and she was preoccupied with the connection between genius and madness.
And Hilst wastes no time in plunging into the most intense, mysterious stuff of life. Her first paragraph begins “God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter.” A typically brilliant yet slippery image, she nonetheless is attempting to, well, anchor one of the most elusive human concepts.
Keres’ insanity begins after a transcendental revelation: “He was invaded by colours, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning.” Of course attempting to capture such fleeting, mysterious experiences will be difficult. Hilst isn’t the easiest to love but, like her protagonist, she has her dazzling moments.
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