In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
The recipe for the work of the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (1930–2004) is equal parts language and nonsense, obscenity and literary references, disparagement of writers and striving toward God. It’s thrilling to read but challenging as narrative, which is perhaps why Hilst is famous in her own country but not in ours. Despite a fifty-plus-year career and a sweep of honors, Hilst wasn’t published in English until 2012. If she’s known at all in the U.S., it’s in the shadow of the Brazilian grande dame Clarice Lispector, who worked in a similar vein.
My favorite of Hilst’s novels, Letters from a Seducer (1991), is the centerpiece of a late series often considered her masterwork. In it, Stamatius, a homeless writer, begs on the street for “everything that you are going to throw in the trash, everything that isn’t worth a dime anymore, and if there’s leftover food we still want it.” Hilst’s work resists quotation; it’s difficult to find a place to stop. Every line is a pirouette. The passage continues: “The burlap sacks fill up, bric-a-brac books stones, then some people put rats and shit in the bag, what faces those rats had, my God, what injured little eyes those rats had, my God, we separated everything out right there: Rats and shit here, books stones and bric-a-brac there. Never any food.”
Stamatius’s perspective bookends a series of letters of obscene invective—we assume he’s found or stolen them—from a man named Karl, a slick bourgeois, to his sister Cordélia, who has retreated to a nunnery, perhaps to get away from him. These letters begin: “Cordélia my sister, come out of your cloister. / the countryside ages women and cows. / Once again nourish your holes / With gentle swine-cresses, blunt poles / Or if it’s pussies your tongue wants / I’ll get you dozens: mature cunts / Youthful cunts, purple cunts / for your vile, repressed feelings.” Read More