Graciliano Ramos – a classic

Image: Mona Hatoum


Commentary on the biography Graciliano written by Dénis de Moraes

Let us then circle around Old Grace, the great biography of one of our classics. If the adjectives weren't so worn out, he would say it was a timely and necessary release. But in consideration of Graciliano Ramos, I will try to avoid excessive adjectives. And let's get to work

From the old edition that I have with me, from 1992, I take the excerpts and reflections that I now gather. The first of them is that there should be a suspension at the moment of the news that is a low-animal noise, of the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, which makes the hours pass in anguish and revolt.

Just as we must forget for a few minutes the everyday mockery of justice, because this October 27th is Graciliano Ramos's birthday. Camões would say, “cease everything that the ancient muse sings”, but in relation to the news, which muse? Better yet, this “what muse?” would sound to reporters’ ears like “what song?” And to avoid the muse that is confused with music, let's go to the first excerpt that I highlight from the biography Old Grace, written by Dénis de Moraes: “In the harvest of books, the bagaceira, by José Américo de Almeida; ingenuity boy, by José Lins do Rego; The carnival country Cocoa, by Jorge Amado; The corumbas, by Armando Fontes; Big house and slave quarters, by Gilberto Freyre”.
In an article in Diario de Pernambuco, of March 10, 1935, under the title The romance of the Northeast, (Graciliano Ramos) wrote: “It was essential that our novels were not written in Rio, by well-intentioned people, no doubt, but who were completely unaware of us. Today the processes of pure literary creation have disappeared. In all Northeastern books, it is clear that the authors took care to make the narrative, not absolutely true, but believable. No one moves away from the environment, no one trusts their imagination too much. (…) These writers are politicians, they are revolutionaries, but they did not name their ideas after people: their characters move, think like us, feel like us, prepare their sugar harvests, drink cachaça, kill people and go to jail, they starve in the dirty rooms of an inn.'”.

Note how impressive it is how such different writers, José Lins, Graciliano Ramos, Jorge Amado, without communication with each other, in different states and cities, have written novels as if they were part of a single literary movement. This, which for teachers of college entrance courses, and even in certain university chairs, takes on the appearance of a prepared dish, is more than a coincidence. These restless men did not write what they wrote through the method or influence of an aesthetic school. What unifies them is the spirit of the time, which in this case were left-wing ideas, socialist influence, the communist movement in Brazil, which reflected echoes of 1917, even in Palmeira dos Índios, where Graciliano Ramos lived.

And at this point, in passing, a very brief consideration is in order, which I leave to more capable scholars than myself: it is thought that the influence of the communist party occurred in its strict ranks, or, in another way, in the lieutenants and mass movements and of workers. Nothing more inaccurate. From 1930 onwards, the strength of socialist ideas spread in Brazil among organized communists, sympathetic communists (but sympathy is almost love, says a Rio carnival block), socialists, and, in general, among artists who reflected the people Brazilian as if they were demonstrating a new independence.

In a way, in a way, no, in all ways, the thought that advanced among us, from science to literature, received the fertilization of dialogue with the left-wing world. In passing, but elsewhere, the influence of these northeastern writers on the literature of Africans who freed themselves from Portugal should be noted.

But at the moment I draw attention to what seems to me to be a mistake, which by force of habit has become a genre of text. I think about Dried lives, a book about which Dénis de Moraes' research informs: “One hundred days after being released, Graciliano would begin a new literary project. He had written a short story based on the sacrifice of a dog, which he had witnessed, as a child, in the Sertão of Pernambuco… The favorable opinions would encourage him to continue the story, sketching the profile of the owners of Baleia”.

The process of composing the novel – the only one he wrote in the third person – would be, for financial reasons, one of the most original in Brazilian literature. The pension bill and the double expenses with the family's move to Rio would force him to write the chapters as if they were short stories. It was a device to make money, publishing them individually in newspapers and magazines, as he produced them. Sometimes he would republish the same story, with a changed title, in other periodicals. Of the 13 chapters, eight would appear on the pages of O Cruzeiro, O Jornal, Diário de Notícias, Folha de Minas Green Lantern, And La Prensa, from Buenos Aires… A collapsible novel, whose pieces can be highlighted for reading and serialized in more than one way. Like canvases in an exhibition that have a life of their own, independent of the others.”

More Dried lives It's not a romance! And the reasons for this come not only from the writer's financial side, I want to believe. A novel demands – even if its creation is rebellious to border lines – something more than the repetition of characters in different accounts. If that were so, The Human Comedy, by Balzac, would be a single book. In the novel, there is an organicity of people, I mean characters, that grow and dissolve into a block destiny. And in such a way that its autonomous parts, even if sectioned and sold as short stories, gain full meaning as a whole. The whole is the illumination of the particular. The magnificent story of the dog Whale, joined to masterful pages by the characters that the genius of Graciliano Ramos added, would never have absolute autonomy if it belonged to a novel. In truth, Dried lives it is a victory of the writer's talent over the difficult conditions of time and place in which he wrote the book, and its value does not drop a billionth when it is seen as an exemplary set of short stories instead of a novel.

And here, about the artist's genius, on more than one page of his biography we receive lessons: “The essential quality of someone who writes is clarity, it is saying something that everyone understands in the way you wanted. For a self-taught writer, this costs years, because it is not in the grammar, nor in any book”.

Very good!!!! It's the most thoughtful comment I can think of. For the self-taught writer, this costs years, because it is not in the grammar, nor in any book, as the proven master teaches. Please follow me: in which literature workshops can essential writers train? In which writer's workshop is life formed? In which workshops, in their own way laboratories for test-tube babies, will one achieve the clarity that only working out outside gyms of all types and genres provides? Where will one learn the observation that instinct and mind and experience conceive?

In Graciliano Ramos, if we understand him well, there is a theory of art, there is a theory of literature, there is a lesson of wisdom that should be a light for every writer worthy of the name. Everyone, young and old, free writers or rogue slaves. As in this step, from Paulo Mercadante's diary, cited in  Old Grace: “Graciliano spoke about his experience. Writing is a slow learning process that lasts throughout life, it is something that requires concentration and patience. A lot of patience indeed. It's not just about knowing the syntax, about mastering a large vocabulary, but about being faithful to the idea and mastering it in terms of formal precision. Therefore, experience is essential, only the poet escaping this condition. Perhaps in relation to the writer there is a combination, Graciliano concluded, of the person as an individuality, from the point of view of a psychology determined by the environment in which he grew up and lived”.

Understand. The enthusiasm considered above does not mean that from his writing comes a norm, a law that tells a man who wishes to “just” (!) express his thoughts: – look, outside of this path no salvation is possible. It's not that. In literature there is only one rule: there is no rule. There is only one way: all ways. Recognizing the greatness of Graciliano Ramos does not imply the search for the unique path of the master's slick, clean and lean writing. So what would José Lins' fat look like? On what level would Gabriel García Márquez's letter-shaped bolero appear? Or Proust's vocabulary tournaments? And Gogol's delusions of killing? No. It's just a matter of removing from the experienced experience, in the sense of the wrinkled skin of many of Graciliano's suns, what serves fat and thin, tall, short, foul-mouthed or restrained. Namely: writing is a slow learning process that lasts throughout life, it is an immense job that requires concentration and patience. A lot of patience indeed.

And here, without leaving the chapter on the excellence of your writing, and as not everything is rosy, we enter more rocky terrain. We enter into the master's political clash, inside the party and outside the party at the same time, even as proof that party life is not a hothouse. Society and history pass through communist parties, wherever they are. I refer to the culmination of Graciliano Ramos' work, the Memories of Prison. For me, political literature in Brazil has a peak, whose name is Memories of Prison. To this day, I have read nothing better than portraits of communist men in a prison collective.

It's curious how even academics don't see the Memoirs as Graciliano's best book. They say: “it’s not fiction”, and with that they dismiss mature, great, denouncing prose into the trash can, because “it’s not fiction”. But it is as good or better than his best fiction. Well, this work was not done without the most serious conflicts, more particularly with Diógenes de Arruda Câmara, the man who strictly followed party discipline, let's say excessive. The biography says: “Arruda had asked to leaf through the originals of Memories of Prison, getting upset, right from the first page, with the statement that, in the Estado Novo, 'we never had prior censorship in art'... During the meeting, they (Arruda, Astrojildo and Floriano Gonçalves) would again demand from Graciliano his distancing from the socialist realism and the lack of revolutionary vigor in his books.

One of those present, in an inflamed tone, would say that he persisted in an outdated critical realism and would cite Jorge Amado as a writer committed to giving participatory content to his works. Upon hearing Jorge's name, Graciliano would break the silence: “I admire Jorge Amado, I have nothing against him, but what I know how to do is what is in my books”.

The biography tells that on another occasion, years before that day, Diógenes, in a meeting with writers, among whom were Astrojildo Pereira, Dalcídio Jurandir, Osvaldo Peralva, and Graciliano Ramos himself, would have made, according to biographer Dénis de Moraes, “an apology for revolutionary literature, demanding that those present comply with Zdanovist dictates. At one point, he would cite as an example the poems of Castro Alves, which in his view faced social problems from a revolutionary perspective. And what was most important: with rhyming verses”!!!

Regarding Graciliano Ramos' conflicts with the party leadership, conservative critic Wilson Martins wrote, regarding the censorship that Memories of Prison had suffered, and which would have adulterated the author's original forever: “There was also in the history of these relationships, the great crisis caused by Memórias do Cárcere. It was known that the PCB exerted strong pressure on Graciliano Ramos' family to prevent its publication, ending up accepting it at the cost of textual cuts and corrections whose true extent we will never know. In the back and forth between the family and the Party censors, at least three “originals” resulted, typed and retyped according to the demands imposed. It is assumed that the last of them received the imprimatur canonical, the only thing being that, in the inevitable confusion of so many 'originals', the pages chosen to illustrate the volumes differed significantly from those printed, raising doubts as to their authenticity”

Lie, falsehood by Wilson Martins. The writer's widow, Heloísa Ramos, and Graciliano's children, Ricardo and Clara, later confirmed the authenticity of the book published with the original text.

At another point in the biography: “In later conversations with Heráclio Salles, Graciliano would emphasize his aversion to the pamphlet novel. Didn't any socialist realism book please you? – the journalist would ask. Until the last one I read, none. I think that's such a deal that I didn't agree to read anything else. What is your main objection? This thing is not literature. We read things that come from the Soviet Union in fits and starts, very well. Suddenly, the narrator says: 'Comrade Stalin…' Oh damn! This in the middle of a romance?! I was horrified. Would it not be possible to purify the style of socialist realism? Does not make any sense. Literature is revolutionary in essence, and not because of the style of the pamphlet.”

It is no wonder, therefore, that he did not tolerate the formulas emanating from Moscow. Upon learning of Zdanov's report on literature and art, he would say: “Report? I really like the word, because informe really is a formless thing.”

Graciliano Ramos' relationship with the PCB (acronym of the Communist Party of Brazil at the time), in the writer's last years, is conflictual, here and there in open crisis. But what stands out in this relationship, for this very reason, is an expression of the greatness of Graciliano Ramos, who did not abandon his choice of communism, even in the struggle against the narrowness of the leadership at the time. In this biography, a communist emerges in the old way, in the way we consider classical, to model.

Just look at how he acted, and what he was like, the communist Graciliano Ramos: “He refused to sign articles (in the Correio da Manhã, where he worked as a reviewer), claiming to those closest to him that he did not agree with the editorial line of bourgeois newspapers. The most he would admit was collaborating with the literary supplement. He was reluctant to accept closer ties with the owners of the Correio da Manhã, although he maintained a cordial relationship with Paulo Bittencourt (the boss). Political orthodoxy would lead him to the exaggeration of not attending Bittencourt's birthday dinner.

To José Condé, who was passing along the membership list, he would say: “I don’t sit at the table with the boss. Every boss is a son of a bitch! Paulo is the one I know least, but he is the boss”. The next day, Bittencourt would complain: “But, Graciliano, how do you do such a thing to me? Paulo, I respect you, but you are the boss… But I am a different boss. No, Paulo. Every boss to me is … – … son of a bitch. I already know you cursed my mother. The communist and the bourgeois would end up laughing together.”

Paulo Bittencourt liked to provoke Graciliano for his socialist ideas. When the Correio da Manhã received new machines, Paulo would needle him: “Imagine if you made a revolution and won. This entire graphics park would be destroyed.” Graciliano would cut him off: “Only a fool or a madman could think that. If we carried out the revolution and won, only one thing would happen. Instead of you going around, traveling around Europe, spending money on women, you would have to sit in your corner working like the rest of us.”

This biography Old Grace has a characteristic that is still little highlighted today. Instead of simply reading a life in a book, it awakens in the reader a deep sympathy for the biographer. In it, Graciliano Ramos grows as a writer in a rare empathy, like a brother more than a friend, or like a friend more than a brother. In short, like a comrade, fraternal, admirable. A master and companion on the journey of every Brazilian writer, until these days.

And now at the end: Graciliano Ramos, brilliant, indispensable, fundamental, inspiring and light for today. May the master forgive us so many adjectives.

*Urarian Mota is a writer and journalist. Author, among other books, of Soledad in Recife (boitempo). []


Denis de Moraes. Old Graça: a Biography of Graciliano Ramos. Boitempo. []

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