Investigating the Brilliance of the Late João Gilberto Noll
In Conversation About a Great Brazilian Writer
When Brazilian novelist João Gilberto Noll died last week, at the age of 70, his reputation in the English-speaking world was really only beginning to blossom. The recent publication (and subsequent critical acclaim) of Quiet Creature on the Corner from Two Lines Press started the process of pushing the English-speaking world to see what the Portuguese-speaking world has long known: Noll is a master of prose, one of Brazil’s true literary icons. Next month that push will continue when Two Lines Press publishes its second Noll novel, Atlantic Hotel.
To celebrate this Brazilian icon—whose surreal, seductive, and sordid novels have been called Lynchian and Kafkaesque—we decided to curate a roundtable of publishers, translators, and writers to discuss these idiosyncratic texts and the uncanny litterateur who wrote them. Scott Esposito, a member of Two Lines Press, publisher of Noll’s novels in English, spoke with Adam Morris, the translator of Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel; Stefan Tobler, another translator of Noll’s work; and writer John Trefry.
Scott Esposito: Although João Gilberto Noll had the beginnings of a reputation in the English-language world—with invitations to places like UC Berkeley and King’s College, plus a Guggenheim Fellowship, all in the 1990s and early 2000s, and of course the publication of Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic—his reputation in Brazil is massive: just input his name into Twitter’s searchbox, and you’ll see page after page of people mourning his death (it goes on for some time). He also won the major Brazilian literary award, the Prêmio Jabuti, five times, a feat I’m not sure has ever been equaled. So could we start by having you all give some general thoughts on what made Noll so special?
John Trefry: It is really delightful that Noll was around long enough to see his work take wing and find new audiences. But it seems to me his reception would be very different in the US compared to Brazil. The political, social, and economic climates of 1980s Brazil certainly have a bearing on the hopelessness, ephemerality, and impermanence of his storytelling. I think that, as a writer, it would be fascinating to see how the essential human condition later became distilled from something so couched in a specific time and place. That essential quality is what I find most compelling about Noll.
Adam Morris: I am not Brazilian, but I will try to speak to John’s concern about the particularity of Noll’s time and place in Brazil.
The historical circumstances in which Noll wrote his earlier books became crucial to the dominant interpretations of his work in Latin American literary criticism. One scholar in particular, Idelber Avelar, probably has done the most to advance the understanding and study of Noll’s work. He did this mainly in a book called The Untimely Present, wherein he theorizes a category of Latin American literature he calls postdictatorial. Following Walter Benjamin’s meditations on ruin and mourning, Avelar describes the postdictatorial aesthetic as one in which the texts “confront the ruins left by the dictatorships and extract from them a strongly allegorical meaning.”
Avelar suggests that what Noll and these other writers mourn is the lost potential that alterity, marginality, and exteriority to the dominant culture that existed under the military regimes seemed to offer while those regimes were still in place. Those who resisted the military dictatorship were able to create identities and affiliations based on their opposition, and at the same time they imagined future political projects that might replace the militarized capitalism favored by the various generals and juntas, who were backed by the CIA. When the dictatorships finally ended, political dreams of a social order based on egalitarianism, human rights, and so forth mostly failed to materialize in any concrete form, although a number of people did make gains under the now-concluded Peronist and PT eras in Argentina and Brazil. Instead, Brazil was folded into the global consumerist world order and called a rising power or a strong emerging market.
I mention this codified academic theory because it is illuminating for readers outside of South America who would not necessarily have connected the pervasive themes of anomie and alienation in Noll’s work to that historical context. Much has been made of this postdictatorial aesthetic, but it I do think it runs the risk of overdetermining interpretations of Noll’s work, as though responding to political injustice were the central purpose of his work. It is not. And this is where his work emerges from the specificity of its circumstances of creation to achieve a more universal resonance that Anglophone readers have felt.
Although it is true that Latin American dictatorships resorted to violent and undemocratic expressions of power, going so far as to practice broad censorship and to exile, rape, and torture their opponents, these were particularized tactics for a strategy that was advanced by other means in places like the United States and the UK: the concentration of wealth achieved through denationalized and deregulated industry, reduced barriers of entry to foreign investment capital, and the undermining of the welfare state in places where it existed. In this framework it is possible to consider Noll the peer of someone like George Saunders or Gary Lutz, who both use their fiction as commentary on the social wreckage left behind by neoliberalism in the Northern hemisphere (specifically for them, the Rust Belt), where the agenda was carried out by the slower corporate corruption of democracy instead of a dramatic campaign of domestic terror. The abjectness of Noll’s protagonists reappears in Saunders’s and Lutz’s characters, who are often endearing and pathetic or disgusting at the same time.
Stefan Tobler: It’s great to hear Adam fill in a Brazilian and global political context for Noll’s writing. Maybe it’s worth adding that the southern city of Porto Alegre (where Noll was born, lived and died), has been in many ways the beating heart of progressive politics in Brazil: under a repeatedly-elected Workers’ Party (1989-2004) it was the place that created the World Social Forum and was, I believe, the first city in the world to introduce participatory budgeting. So perhaps it’s natural that a disillusionment with where the anti-dictatorship movement ended up was also first felt there. (And you can see the frustration and mourning in other Brazilians’ writing; it’s very much a concern in Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, who is a Porto Alegre writer of a younger generation and was a friend of Noll’s, as well as a disciple of his and his lawyer at one point.) But to echo Adam: Noll wasn’t a campaigning writer at all. He wasn’t part of any movement. He did his own thing. Although, on the other hand, nor does it seem like a coincidence that many of the best younger Brazilian writers are from Porto Alegre.
His books are loved in Brazil because he’s a daring writer, who explored radical experience and states of mind, including mental breakdown. And not just the mind: he’s a writer of the body. Corporeal writing, to use the phrase. And if not clearly to be labeled a gay writer, certainly one who wrote about gay and homoerotic themes, and as his novels started appearing in the 1980s the transgressive, queer power of them had a magnetic pull on young readers and writers brought up largely on a diet of social realist and regionalist fiction. Although he had a reputation for being a lone wolf, he was happy to do public readings, and he didn’t shy away from causing embarrassment among more conservative audiences!
SE: In addition to Noll being a hugely original writer, he was also a very interesting human being. One of the things we laughed about at Two Lines was how he demanded that if we ever flew him to the US for a tour it had to be on a plane that allowed him to smoke (and also first class of course). I’m not sure those planes exist any longer. But anyway, for those of you who knew what Noll was like as a person—either through first-hand experience or anecdote—could you tell us a little about who he was?
AM: I did not know Noll personally. I have never been to Porto Alegre, where Noll lived, and as I understand it he was not in the habit of traveling all that much in recent years. Noll and I exchanged a few emails related to specific questions I had about words or phrases as I translated his work, but his replies did not stray beyond those queries. He was always prompt and helpful, and seemed to understand how difficult and unforgiving his more surreal passages could be for a translator. When I first initiated contact with him to ask permission to pitch a translation of Quiet Creature on the Corner, I was still a rather inexperienced translator, having only published one book-length work in translation from Portuguese. Naturally I was nervous about writing to someone I considered one of the best living writers in Latin America. Maybe Noll sensed this in the stiff formality of my letter; he wrote back right away to tell me how happy my letter had made him, and was full of enthusiasm for the idea.
ST: My first contact was rather limited, but not disappointing. I had translated an excerpt from his novel Lorde (An English Gent) for Two Lines journal back in 2012 and wrote to ask his permission for publication. I got his cut-and-pasted biography and five words back: “Caro Stefan: Obrigado. Tradução brilhante!” (Dear Stefan: Thanks. Brilliant translation!) That’ll do!
I was lucky to hear him read and meet him properly in 2014, when he and Paulo Scott both happened to be in London on reading tours and were able to do a joint event. I had some trepidation, because as publisher at And Other Stories, I’d decided at the time to focus on a newer generation of writers (publishing Scott and Rodrigo de Souza Leão) rather than publishing the very deserving Noll. But he was a true gent about it. There was a friendliness, and a tender fragility to him.
I doubt I’ve been more transported by a reading. It was one of those rare spine-tingling readings where you know you’ve seen and heard an extraordinary thing in itself. Almost like Noll went into a trance, or incorporated something that wasn’t quite the man Noll I’d been speaking to, his voice was a slowly weaving, almost chanting line, plangent. I’ve never heard anything like it. As the brilliant (Porto Alegre) writer Michel Laub posted on twitter to mark Noll’s passing, “At the end of his life, Noll re-invented himself not in his texts (which are consistent with his texts from the 1980s), but in the way he read. His public performances change the way we remember his texts, and make his work even more original.”
SE: One of the things that really struck us at Two Lines about Noll is the way his novels function. First of all, the attention to craft is incredibly tight. These are really just beautiful sentences (and much praise to Adam for making them just as beautiful in English translation). Beyond that, there’s the way these books function; I was corresponding with a poet who recently described it as “weird but all of a piece so it’s easy to follow along.” That’s really it: these books are so strange in what they say and how their plots move, but they flow so seamlessly that you’re just pulled through, almost in spite of how weird they are. This is one of the reasons I’m frequently comparing Noll to the films of David Lynch, which I think often achieve a similar effect. But anyway, can you share a few impressions of your first experiences with Noll’s work and how it felt to discover him?
JT: My sense of Noll now is very different than it was a year or so ago when reading Quiet Creature on the Corner. Initially the simplicity of the writing and the predominance of narrative in that book masquerades as a conventional sort of literary fiction, of a still-reigning pat naturalism, maybe like a Coetzee. Just a clean and well-executed package. But this reading doesn’t hold up. It very quickly falls apart. Where other writers might exploit narrative to characterize human behavior and tendencies through causality, Noll strips away the flesh linking events and the moral trajectory that comes from the depiction of continuity in a narrative. He presents compartments of events whose edges are blurred in such a way that they seem to flow together—as if one is precipitated by its predecessor—but are actually discrete from one another. It is not that the sequences of events are impossible, or take advantage of the same looseness of possibility that you might assign to David Lynch, but that they betray our expectations about how causality should reflect our moral conception of human behavior. In this way I see Noll using narrative as other writers might use the texture of prose or the employment of imagery or metaphor to speak about the position of the text culturally. His narratives seem more performative than representational. That is, I look to the narrative not for what is happening, but for what it says to me about what is happening. The way that my reading has changed by adding Atlantic Hotel into the mix is that now I am certain this is the case.
AM: The first piece of Noll’s writing that I ever read was Atlantic Hotel. It was quite unlike anything I’d ever read: dizzying in the way it condensed and distended narrative time. I was delighted by how forcefully Noll propelled the protagonist through his increasingly bizarre circumstances. There’s something presumptuous about the way he does it, maybe even a little bit rough: it gave me the feeling of being manipulated by the text.
SE: To pick up on what Stefan said about Noll being a queer writer, I’m curious to know more about how it conditioned his reception in Brazil—that is, how widely known it was, if there was a queer writing community for Noll to be a part of, what the Brazilians thought of it, etc—and also how it may come across in his work. The two books we’ve done at Two Lines feature some very sexually aggressive narrators, but the sex they have is notably heterosexual sex. That said, I do think there is a very easy to detect undercurrent of homoeroticism in the books.
ST: There are gay themes right from the start, though not necessarily in a central way. In the story ‘Alguma Coisa Urgentemente’ from his first (1980) collection O cego e a dançarina the protagonist gets involved in and enjoys gay prostitution, but it’s not the focus of the story. (‘Something Urgently’ can be read in Sophie Lewis’s translation in the Comma Press anthology The Book of Rio.) Later books like A céu aberto (1996), Berkeley em Bellagio (2002), Lorde (2004) and Acenos e Afagos (2008) focus much more directly on gay themes. I have to admit I don’t know off the top of my head how early Noll was seen to be part of a queer writing community. Such a community certainly existed. Apart from the many gay writers who were not out of the closet in the late 70s, there were very openly gay writers like Fernando Caio Abreu.
JT: Full disclosure, I didn’t know this fact about Noll’s biography. It is not something that was bound into the books in any way like jacket copy or biography. So I approached the books as book-objects discrete from any kind of personal infusion of the writer. I admit that I have had reservations about the character of the sexual activities portrayed in the books. Obviously the pivotal sexual assault in Quiet Creature on the Corner is difficult to stomach, especially in light of the absence of any real penance for it. Not only does the protagonist avoid the moral consequences of his acts, but the prose avoids moral tonality regarding them. I have discussed the issue with a few women who have shared my level of discomfort and have struggled with ways of approaching the treatment of women in the texts.
So, I feel like I am sort of coping in real-time with what the implications of Noll’s sexuality might be in relation to these concerns, or what role it might have had vis-a-vis his rendering of heterosexual men and their attitudes toward women. I certainly don’t feel like the distance someone’s sexuality might put you from your characters liberates them from scrutiny as to why they might have depicted or objectified women in a nearly purely sexual role. My reading, based on the nihilism rounding out pretty much every other aspect of the books led me to believe that these things—the depiction of women included—had critical functions in the books, rather than being gratuitous. Still, it is a very male privilege to utilize women in this way as what might amount to pawns in a morality play—and again, not as an apology, everyone seems somewhat like a pawn to the miserable machine of nature in these books. But this revelation about Noll does make me more curious about the role of his sexuality in these characterizations. Bret Easton Ellis, who later went on to fully come out, once said regarding his sexuality, “I don’t necessarily think that it’s an invalid question. The characters in my novels often have a very shifting sexuality. But if people knew that I was straight, they’d read [my books] in a different way. If they knew I was gay, Psycho would be read as a different book.” Whether or not that is an accurate assessment is hard to know. I think it may be. So in light of that, anything I might have to say, beyond the fact that, for me as a reader, this knowledge would significantly color my perspective on the above, would be purely an assumption as to what the actual process and its motivations were.
AM: Both Noll and his critics have described him as cinematic writer, and Noll telegraphed his familiarity with cinematic clichés while subverting or bending them to his own purposes. One set of tropes by which we recognize noir film and genre fiction associates deviant sexuality with social illness or corruption. Together these tropes signify a seamy and lawless underbelly of society where people are generally the authors of their own misfortunes. By adopting some these tropes, Noll gives permission to read his portrayals of sexual deviance and gendered aggression as symptoms of a larger social dysfunction that his protagonists feel and discern, but do not necessarily articulate. They are relatively powerless actors in a system that exploits and manipulates them, and feel that there’s no recourse or way out. They react by perpetuating this exploitation to exercise some measure of control over their surroundings. In Quiet Creature, the narrator feels beholden to his protector, Kurt, and obliged to go to bed with him near the end of the novel. The mechanics of the scene are vague. But it seems to me that the narrator submits to Kurt, who is drunk and bereaved over his wife’s death. It is a strange and disturbing act of atonement and a sign of his loyalty to Kurt for rescuing him from jail, where he was sent in the first place for raping his neighbor.
There is another scene from earlier in the novel where a hustler pretending to be a cop tries to shake down the narrator in the men’s room of a movie theater. It is a short episode, just a few sentences, but it’s clear that the male hustlers hanging out in the bathroom are marginalized people who are as accustomed to being harassed by the police as they are rolling their tricks. It’s one of those Lynch-like scenes where the atmosphere suddenly turns noir, and reminds me of one of the first mainstream gay novels published in the US, the almost comically noir City of Night by John Rechy—which features very many cinema bathrooms. In Atlantic Hotel there are clearer signals of the protagonist’s latent or repressed homosexuality: he only wants to have sex with the flapper-receptionist at his initial Rio hotel from behind; he refuses Nelson’s repeated entreaties that he join the bachelor-party festivities at the forest brothel; and he is impotent when Dr. Carlos’s daughter tries to seduce him. All these events add to the sexual undercurrent of his queer, homosocial relationship with Sebastião—one that crosses expected norms of race, class, gender, and disability.
SE: I feel like you all have done a really nice job of giving a sense of what it’s like to read a Noll novel, as well as bringing up a few of his core concerns as a writer. So maybe we could conclude by talking about what Noll’s books are saying to us. It seems that virtually everyone who reads the two that Two Lines has published has an initial reaction of bafflement . . . I’ve often compared it to reading a good poem, where you know you have something to say about it, you just don’t know what that is yet. After that, it’s possible to begin making theories, but (at least in my experience) these books do defeat a lot of the critical architecture one tends to bring to a novel. So I’m curious to know what you think Noll’s novels are about…
JT: That is very difficult. Clearly I am the resident schoolboy in short pants when it comes to all of the forces at play in the composition of these books, so my readings are purely formalistic. Building on what I said previously, I actually did not have a puzzling reaction to the texts at first, or at least not the jarring sort of puzzlement I might have upon reading something so incredibly different from the conventional novelistic form. The experience was far more insidious for me. My puzzlement came from how superficially simple the books were in their deployment of that propulsive content. They played out in the proscenium very objectively. Even when some level of introspection came into the fore it possessed a certain flatness. It was that emotionless, matter-of-factness that confused me. But that is also what gets snagged in the mind of the reader. It is very different from the objectivity of someone like Robbe-Grillet. It might be better described as lucidity than objectivity. It is like looking at yourself being injured with the curiosity of shock.
As to what is taking place in these narratives, I would simplify it to ineffectual restlessness within the shell of mortality. The strangeness of time speaks to this, as does the almost road-trippy character of the books. The people in the books are trying—in vain, and they know it—to escape from some kind of fluid that is the only thing keeping them alive, whether it is a reliance on human companionship, or devotion to the geography of Brazil.
AM: When I read Noll, I am reminded of how fragile life is, and of the ways we as humans try to cope with it. Noll’s characters move across public surfaces and through bureaucratic institutions and semi-private spaces like hospitals and hotels. They are conscious of how inconsequential they are to other people, and at the same time they struggle to assert who they are, if only to themselves. Like the other writers I mentioned who respond to neoliberal social conditioning—Lutz, Saunders, and many others—Noll is interested in what it’s like to be among that category of people who don’t matter as long as they’re not interfering with “order”: those interchangeable subjects in what art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud has called our “society of extras.”
At the same time, Noll was a writer interested in the depth of human feeling and the ways that consumerist ideology disavows or stifles those feelings and the natural, animal instincts that allow humans to perform acts of total selflessness and make supposedly irrational decisions based on love or ethical principle. He understood that most of us are just one or two bad decisions away from being one of the lumpen social outcasts at the extreme margins of society who appear in his novels: a very thin but powerful narrative is all that separates “us” from being one of “them.” Consumerism thrives on this superficiality by offering distraction, placation, and the false assurances that comes with substituting a “productive” life for a meaningful one.
What was so genius about Noll was the way he used a deceptively simple narrative style to identify and reproduce that superficiality. But his words are like ice over a very deep lake—or to quote one of Hilda Hilst’s definitions of God, “a surface of ice anchored to laughter.” So occasionally the mundane is suddenly exalted, and the sublime suddenly ridiculous. Like Saunders, Lutz, David Foster Wallace, and other masters of postmodern style, there is both mirth and despair in Noll’s work. It might sound like a generic thing to say, but how many writers actually achieve this?