On this site I’ve often extolled the virtues of books that break apart linguistically as the protagonist suffers some kind of mental collapse, so I’m usually surprised when I come to another one and find it brilliant — not similar, not old-hat: brilliant. Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Com meus olhos de cão, 1986; tr. from the Portuguese by Adam Morris, 2014) utilizes this familiar technique, and the outcome is wholly original.
We may begin to hear a lot about Hilda Hilst. She’s got a large bibliography of work esteemed in her native Brazil, as well as a fascinating biography, which is nicely presented to us in an introduction by translator Adam Morris. Born in 1930, in her early years she was quite the mischievous beauty, turned off by the conventional morals of her time and class. She was involved in the bohemian scene, and seemed to relish a good challenge, once going to Paris to try to seduce Marlon Brando, though apparently she only got as far as Dean Martin. In her mid-30s, though, she gave up society and moved to then-secluded estate she called Casa do Sol, what would be home to her (and her 100s of dogs) for the next fifty years. There she fully dedicated herself to reading and writing and a few love affairs. Some may say her behavior was mad. It wouldn’t take much to convince me. And yet, in spite of all that — or because of it — she produced something like this short book.
In With My Dog-Eyes we enter the brilliant, unhinged mind of a university professor named Amós Kéres, who is sometimes presented to us in the first-person and sometimes in the third-person. He’s a mathematics professor (apparently the genius of mathematicians and poets interested Hilst a great deal), and he’s in a nightmare, only this nightmare is real, composed of the pieces of his life: his job (“Whorehouse Church Government University”), his wife, his child (“It’s bedtime. The boy keeps crying. What a sham all this of kids and marriage [. . .]”).
And now he must go talk to the dean, because recently, in the course of teaching, Amós has been stopping mid-sentence and sometimes doesn’t return to the sentence until fifteen minutes later. “Professor Kéres,” says the dean, “fifteen minutes is too much.”
He’s asked to take a leave of absence. While that may be just the right thing for the students, it doesn’t help Amós. In fact, it may push him well past himself.
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 only say that.
We often talk about the connection between genius and madness, and sometimes we refer to what’s called the “descent from genius to madness.” Here, though, while Amós’s mind is definitely on the wrong track, there is little evidence of “descent.” He’s still a genius, and Hilst is a genius for expressing his madness from the perspective of a genius trying to comprehend, someone “invaded by “incommensurable meaning” (I can’t think this was a simple translation project, either, so Adam Morris deserves recognition for pulling this off). Indeed, perhaps what Amós experiences is some kind of ascent into madness. Is that the clear-cut unhoped-for?