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Beginnings: An Education in Brazilian Literature

I went to public schools in São Paulo, Brazil from first grade to university. I didn't get a good education in science or history, but I did get an excellent education in math (irrelevant to this post) and in Portuguese (very relevant to this post!). In our Portuguese class, in addition to learning proper grammar and expanding our vocabulary, we read literary fiction by Brazilian authors regularly.

As early as elementary school, I was exposed to the poetry of Cecília Meireles (1901-1964), who was an educator and literacy advocate and wrote beautiful poems for kids. Later I started reading Meireles's "grown-up" poems on my own and loved them. When I turned twelve, my mother bought me Meireles's collected works as a birthday gift. I still have that book--see picture below--and treasure it.

In middle school, I was introduced to the novels of Érico Veríssimo (1904-1975), Raquel de Queiroz (1910-2003), and Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953), and the short stories of Machado de Assis (1939-1908). I liked everything I read and was in awe of Veríssimo's lyricism, Queiroz's and Ramos's descriptions of life in the sertão, and Machado's realism. Through literature, I learned so much about the diversity of Brazil--the various geographical regions, their unique physical and social landscapes, challenges and riches. Veríssimo wrote about the pampas in the south of Brazil, Machado about Rio de Janeiro in the southeast, and Raquel and Graciliano about the northeast. (Please pardon the inconsistency in my references to some of these writers. Many Brazilians are on a first-name basis with their favorite authors, and I am using first names when I feel they fit best in the sentence. Machado, by the way, is how Brazilians refer affectionately to Machado de Assis, even though it is a family name.)

All four authors have been translated into English. Machado de Assis has been more widely translated than the others. A new translation of his novel Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas) by Flora Thompson-Deveaux was published recently. Collections of Machado's short stories also have English translations, including the volume translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.

Of Raquel de Queiroz's novels, only As Três Marias (The Three Marias) seems to have an English translation. I am currently reading the translation by the late Professor J. P. Ellison. Some of Professor Ellison's phrasing is awkward, but overall he does capture Queiroz's style: often direct, free of unnecessary flourishes and beautiful in its simplicity, clarity, and wisdom. Another book by Raquel de Queiroz that I would love to see in translation is O Quinze, or The Fifteen, which is a reference to 1915, a year of terrible drought in the sertão.

Érico Veríssimo's novels available in English translation include O Tempo e o Vento (Time and the Wind, a trilogy), Noite (Night), and O Senhor Embaixador (His Excellency, the Ambassador), translated by Linton Lomas Barrett. There may be more titles available in English that I am unaware of. I know of two of Graciliano Ramos's novels in English translation: Barren Lives (Vidas Secas), translated by Ralph Edward Dimmick, and São Bernardo, translated by Padma Viswanathan.

I can't remember much about the fiction I read in high school. (Isn't it interesting that what I read in my younger years is what I remember best?) I know we read nineteenth-century novels--the romantics and the realists. O Cortiço (the tenement) by Aluísio Azevedo (1857-1913) has stayed with me, though. It offers a striking portrayal of poverty in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro with true-to-life characters and vivid descriptions of the cramped, squalid conditions in which they lived. In the English translation by David Rosenthal, it is titled The Slum, possibly a more fitting choice than the tenement, as it may more readily evoke for twenty-first-century readers the dire living conditions in the cortiços.

I hope I have piqued your curiosity about these books and you will look them up and find them in Portuguese or in translation. Contact me if you have questions about these authors or if you have found good translations of their work, and I will share your comments in future posts.

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