A concise history of Brazilian literature

Jackson Pollock, Easter and the Totem, 1953


Commentary on the book by Alfredo Bosi

When the A Concise History of Brazilian Literature was published in 1970, there were, among friends, those who predicted 25 years of validity. It was a prediction, in addition to being generous, it was certainly optimistic. Generous, because he was able to immediately recognize the value of the work, and optimistic in a peculiar sense: because, noting its exceptional quality, he foresaw, in that period, a literary evolution that would not nullify it, but overcome it, dating you the value.

Precisely now – 32 editions later –, when this probationary period of a quarter of a century has been completed, it becomes clear that the period of validity of the book has not expired, nor does it expire in sight. What ended up dating more easily was the optimism of that judgment, in fact quite generalized and understandable in his time. It was certainly assumed that Brazilian literary production would evolve in such a way as to recompose and broadly re-perspective its own past, and that the accumulation of particular critical studies would allow and demand the realization of a new historical synthesis at a high level.

Since then, nothing has really stood still, of course, and some real advances have been made, including in the knowledge of authors and capital works of our letters. It is not the place to list them here, however, none of this, when authentic, can be forgotten or neglected. But that literary movement, capable of re-perspectiveing ​​the past, and that accumulation of particular advances, which remain to demand a new historical synthesis, certainly did not occur.

In the field of criticism, particular studies with scope and strength to propose a more general change in perspectives still remain quite isolated examples. Fortunately they exist, but they are rare, or even very rare. In their relative isolation, they tacitly denounce a panorama harshly marked by the association between critical and conceptual shyness and its indefectible partner – pedantry to de-repression of assholes. Acting in tandem, pedantic counterfeiting and bureaucratic mediocrity replace the work of the concept, with devastating theoretical and practical effects.

Thus, a weighty and long-term work, such as the Concise History, when updated and enlarged, emerges involuntarily as a revealer of the times. It shows, from the outset, that the multiplication of postgraduate courses in literature – which were installed in the country precisely in the period after its publication –, if it had the merit of normalizing and sustaining an average production, contributed little to a true renewal of perspectives. Tributary, to a large extent, to a cultural situation prior to this one, the Concise History is now in a peculiar position: “to keep up to date, it needs to incorporate this production that makes it outdated” without, however, on the whole, overcoming it. Interestingly, if this was one of the difficulties to be faced in its update, it was certainly also the first condition of possibility to carry it out. Indeed, it would not make sense to update, in the informative aspect, a work that was hopelessly dated in the critical aspect.

twice the Concise History this test was put to the test: at the end of the 1970s, when it was updated with regard to fiction authors and the critical bibliography, and now, in the mid-1990s. Before, as now, it did not become an old book with a new piece, but a work that serenely re-proposes itself, with its age and relevance. I believe that some intimate feeling of this order guided its present expansion, which visibly chose to preserve the balance and the game of original proportions of the work. The new additions naturally unfold previous panels and critical lines, integrating harmoniously into the whole. Incidentally, in a work that, from the outset, focused attention on recent movements, modernist and postmodernist, the updating gesture is even more natural.

Faced with the abundance of fictional, poetic and critical material, this expansion has declaredly renounced any pretense of exhaustiveness. He expanded considerably, but selectively, the book's famous bibliographic footers, also preserving, without cuts, its previous composition.

Although equally without aspirations of completeness, the new chapter “Fiction between the 70s and 90s: Some Reference Points”, is a very rich and nuanced panel of this production. Strictly speaking, there is not a single movement essential to the literary narrative of the period that is not represented in it. The keyword there is certainly movement. Faced with authors and trends that, in most cases, are agitated and still taking shape, before us, the historian chose to spot dynamisms and lines of force. That is the extent of the interpretative movement -but only that far-, suggesting hypotheses to understand transformation vectors, but prudently suspending itself in the face of the most definitive evaluation of individual authors and works.

Something of the stinging phrases and cutting judgments that always surprised, in the midst of the sobriety of Concise History, disappears in these new chapters, reappearing only in some veiled phrase or suggestion. Judging by other recent works by the author – in particular the Dialectics of Colonization –, it was not the polemical vein that waned, but only, in this case, the need to support the perspective of the historian who stopped judgment in the face of what can still barely be put into perspective. In any case, the chapter does not shy away from bold suggestions, from which much literary study could be born. Perhaps among the most interesting is the one that marks the peculiarly Brazilian conjunction, originating from the end of the 1960s, which sometimes joins, in the design of the same work, critical tendencies of a mimetic and documentary nature to anarchic impulses, coming from the shattering after 1968 .

In this line, in a somewhat veiled way, the book also points out, in recent works, the symptomatic association – which cries out for interpretation – of brutalism and mannerism, in which it seems that, in already explicit and projectual terms, our ancestral conjunction of sophisticated pretensions and atavistic boorishness.

In the new chapter “Poetry still”, the historian's point of view accepts a much more defined focus. The summary of his judgment, surprising to many, is the “demarcation of the current dominance and pre-eminence of our existentialist streak in poetry”, which overtook the experimentalist tide – whose continuity and validity, on the other hand, are equally marked. Along with a very rich and generous survey of authors and works, this existentialist vein is marked, according to the author, (1) “by the resurgence of poetic discourse and, with it, of verse, free or metered -as opposed to the ostensibly print shop"; (2) “for the expansion of the margin granted to autobiographical speech, with all its emphasis on the free, if not anarchic, expression of desire and memory” and (3) “for the ardent restoration of the public and political character of poetic speech – in opposition to every theory of self-centering and self-mirroring writing”. As can be seen, all these characteristics are established against the grain of pure language self-referentiality, common to the experimental vanguards.

In this area, however, the main surprise of the book is in the chapter on “Translations of Poetry”, whose survey and judgment led the historian not only to open this space but also to state that “the appearance of numerous translations of poetry in the years '980 will perhaps be the phenomenon most worthy of attention in our literary historiography at the end of the century”.

I just record, to conclude, that, enlarged and updated as it is, the end of the book has not been altered: it culminates with the invocation of the figure of Otto Maria Carpeaux – to whom the work is also dedicated – and his last word is Espírito, with a capital letter , in the good old Hegelian way. More than the faithfulness to himself of this Master of Critics, who is Alfredo Bosi – an admirable virtue anywhere and much more in the land of sailors –, this ending makes me think that in something, finally, those who only bow to the work of the Spirit and the real materialists. Each in their own way, both seem to say: no fetishism.

*José Antonio Pasta Junior is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Brecht's work (Publisher 34).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews / Folha de S. Paul no. 04, on July 03, 1995.


Alfred Bosi. A Concise History of Brazilian Literature. Revised and expanded edition. São Paulo, Cultrix, 528 pages.



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