elvira vigna
"They are all the same. They always talk about death, emptiness and loneliness. But they are very funny", comments Elvira about her books. Photo: Diego Rousseaux

EBrazilian writer, journalist and illustrator, Elvira Vigna was diagnosed with aggressive cancer in 2012 and died in July 2017. However, she left unpublished works to be published, between text and arts. Now the publisher still launches the book of short stories Kafkianas, with a presentation by Carolina Vigna Prado and an afterword by Andre Conti.

Read one of the last interviews given by Elvira, granted to Daniel de Mesquita Benevides and published in issue 9 of CULTURA!Brasileiros, in March 2017:

Many, many years ago, Bob Dylan gave an interview to a Brazilian reporter. On one condition: that only five questions be asked. The poor journalist, who knew the bard's work in depth, was captivated. When faced with today's Nobel Prize in Literature, what he heard as answers were just two no, two yes and one maybe. Elvira Vigna is not Bob Dylan, of course. But the mood might be similar. Your requirement for the interview is that it be done by email. She explained that she doesn't really like to talk. Fair. Asked the questions, his responses were kindly immediate. But deceptively short. This journalist found himself wearing no less short pants. Lucky we're in the summer.

It is a fact that the reputation of being bad-tempered haunts her. But those who know her best say that Elvira is sweet at heart. And she is really withdrawn, out of shyness or for not dealing well with protocols, diplomacy and such. “I think she is unique in many ways. As a person, she doesn't compromise, doesn't make concessions, she is very consistent with what she believes, she is very feminist, very left-wing, she is firm in the idea of ​​a literary literature, not made for sale, but to transform. And she acts like that. She doesn't accept invitations to events she doesn't believe in. People have to adapt to it, it doesn't adapt to people. As a writer it's the same thing. Her text has a potency, it says exactly what she thinks”, says writer and critic Noemi Jaffe.

A prologue is necessary. Vigna is one of the most interesting voices in our literature. Her books, as she says, “are all the same. They always talk about death, emptiness and loneliness. But they are very funny.” It is debatable, however, if they are all the same. There is always a new experience with the narrator or narrators. The question of how to tell a story is central to her work and arises in the most diverse ways. Scenarios, scenes and motivations change. The grace she refers to exists, in fact, but it is very peculiar, not for all tastes. The reader needs to get into hers, tune into her channel, follow the flow in the same tuning fork. Worth the effort.

His trajectory is also peculiar. She was a fare worker for Air France in Paris, she has a degree from the University of Nancy in Literature, a course she took in an agreement with the UFRJ, and has worked in all the main Brazilian newspapers, Correio da ManhãNewspapers in BrazilThe GlobeFSPThe State of São Paulo. She illustrated and wrote several children's books, for which she won a few awards, including a Jabuti and an APCA (Paulista Association of Art Critics). He made two exhibitions with his prints. He had a few publishing houses, all bankrupt. For one of them he published, between 1970 and 1972, a pearl of journalistic desbunde, The Dove, something like a more eroticized version of O Quibbler. It also has a comic book, some unstaged plays, unfilmed scripts and chronicles (for lack of a better word). Since 1988, he has written ten adult novels, all of which have been highly praised by critics. Nothing to say, 2010, won the Brazilian Academy of Letters award; In writing, 2014, was second in Oceanos (formerly Portugal Telecom); and the most recent, As if we were in Palimpsest of Whores, won the APCA award.

the Dove
The covers of the first year of the magazine A Pomba, edited by Elvira between 1970 and 1972. Photo: Disclosure

whores, an accepted nickname, is perhaps the most accessible book he has ever written. Not that his writing is exactly difficult. It's… idiosyncratic. In one of the texts in the series Laughing out loud, published by the magazine Person, which can be read on her website, vigna.com.br, Elvira tells the following episode, which explains, in part, and very directly, what has been said so far: “My agent, Anja, a love of German, is categorical: I am no longer successful because: 1) I am a woman, a feminist and an old woman; 2) I write weird; 3) I don't smile at the people I should smile at. Being that she, she adds, disillusioned, if I smiled, the first two items wouldn't matter so much”.

One of the keys to understanding the book is in the title: the format really resembles a palimpsest. Characters and stories accumulate in layers that seem to repeat themselves, but with each narrative orbit they gain new meanings and, before being covered by other facts and words, leave traces of their passage. The plot is simple (its implications are complex): João, a reasonably rich, selfish guy, married to Lola, likes to date whores. Maybe it's an addiction, which feeds back because it's always unsatisfactory. We learn of her sexual misadventures through the narrator. It is to her that he tells, in his somewhat autistic way, of his prospecting along Rua Augusta, which includes the old kitschy little castle at the Kilt nightclub, and of his explorations through hells in Brasília or Rio. One-way conversations take place at a publishing house on the brink of bankruptcy. They both drink cowboy whiskey in plastic cups, she on the couch, he at his desk. Inverted Scheherazade, John seems to want to avoid some bad fate when recounting his dozen and one nights. A silent listener, she may try to seduce you with her silence. It is, reiterating the author's prediction, an encounter of solitude, in a situation of emptiness, with death hovering around. Put that way, it sounds like wrist-slitting reading, but Elvira is right: it's pretty funny too. The palimpsest idea is still in her genesis: she threw away an entire earlier version of the book, dissatisfied with the tone.

"John and the girl on the couch (me) were real, and they're more real now." Everything he writes is based on things “lived, seen or heard.” In the website Lusophone Studies, by Professor Leonardo Tonus, there is a great statement from him: “I am very clear about the reason for doing literature. With her, I intend to make my own the stories I was forced to live. There's only one way for them to become mine: it's to pass through others. This attempt takes place in the 'common world', a Hanna Arendt term that designates the space of differences that separate me and bring me closer to this other. It is, therefore, a space of intersubjectivity, this one, where my literature exists. In other words, for it to happen, there must be another, another way, other than mine, of living life. Then I recognize mine as mine. (…) The bad news is that this literature – mine and that of other contemporary colleagues – is arduous. Not only for us, the writers who propose it, but also for this other, the reader, who is invited to participate in what is not yet ready, in what is never ready, in what not only has no meaning to offer but, at On the contrary, it declares itself to be flawed, in need of partners for its continuous resignification. This sharing, this admitting inadequacies and needs, the admission that we need otherness to live, this requires effort. Alterity comes from altering. And altering, especially altering oneself, is a lot of work.”

The debt to journalism and the madeleines of life is evident. Proust's famous trigger also triggers his narratives in the most elusive, subjective aspect. But don't think about autofiction. To my question, “Narrator and author… how far away?”, his answer is characteristically ambiguous and concrete: “Well measured or, at least, well sought after. The narrator is never me, nor was it. He's someone who has a precise distance from me today, from me at any other time. An affective closeness: he knows me, he likes me. But he can see me. The narrator is a place from which what I want to share can exist. It is very difficult to find, at least for the one he tells you about”. I continue: “I found what you wrote about the images being more incomplete, but more polysemic, especially interesting. Words and even memory seem insufficient as well. Would literature be an attempt to make sense of all this? The answer appears on the screen like a passing fog. And strangely precise: “Yeah, exactly. Incomplete, polysemic worlds. Insufficiency as a measure of coexistence”. In another situation, she pointed out, as if she feared being misunderstood and felt the need to clarify this “insufficiency” she talks about: “Literature serves to destabilize you, to make you feel bad, with doubt”.

elvira vigna
self portrait. Award-winning illustrator, Elvira studied printmaking at the Escola de Belas Artes, in Rio

For Cristhiano Aguiar, journalist, editor, literary critic and professor at the Center for Communication and Letters at Mackenzie, “she tries to write against literature”. And he adds, agreeing with Noemi: “I think she also questions a 'straight' social position – traditional and formal – of the writer. It removes formality, it removes idealization. I think she also wants to remove, in her writing and in her posture, an aura of intense legitimacy. She wants to 'de-gourmet' literature, I think”. The critic Manuel da Costa Pinto has a similar opinion, but in a less positive sense: “She has the pessimism of a Graciliano Ramos, of a Dalton Trevisan, although she is more urban. Her feminist obsession with the issue of gender differences, with the brutality of social relations, sometimes borders on the caricature. It's more of a posture than something authentic. She wants epater le bourgeois, only the bourgeois is no longer shocked”. To Manuel's approximations, who nevertheless sees great merit in Vigna's books, one could add the name of Raduan Nassar, especially that of A Cup of Cholera, whose virulence, sometimes dry, sometimes lyrical, combines with the amorous and sexual misdirections in the Vignian plots.

The publication The Dove may have played, on a smaller scale, this role of to wow the bourgeois. A unique moment of the so-called dwarf press, it was quite subversive for the time, even though the censors, not very smart, did not realize it. In an interview for the Portuguese blog Som À Letra, she says: “Censorship released the editions to the printer without noticing that when we talked about German Nazi-fascism, we were talking about them”. The newsroom was in her apartment in Rio. Elvira, in her early 20s at the time, took more care of the production, and then her partner, Eduardo Prado, did the editing. The atmosphere was totally relaxed, with lots of laughter and poker games going on: “Nobody closed the door. The building was under construction and, in fact, we still didn't have a license from the city hall to live in the apartment under construction. So it was a constant movement throughout the day, and not only of journalists, but also of bricklayers and workers. There was nothing that could be called routine.” The cartoonist Quino once passed by. Joel Silveira, Domingos Oliveira and Ziraldo were some of the collaborators. The covers always showed nudes, which also occupied the inner pages. It was a provocation to the conservative times of the dictatorship and also to the men's magazine Fairplay, who had fired the couple. Unconventional, of course. There were also male nudes, “which was a scandal,” and the models were often black or ordinary people, far from the norm in commercial magazines. The texts talked about psychoanalysis and literature, among a thousand topics, always with humor and intelligence.

He started writing because of one of his publishers, Bonde, which committed the “imprudence” of only publishing new authors. She initially chose children's literature, because she wanted to communicate with her two children, whom she "didn't understand". In the end, they understood it so much that today they also faced the dream of small publishing houses: David Nicolau founded Estado da Arte and Carolina has just opened Uva e Limão. When they grew up, she abandoned her little monster Adrúbal (a character created by her) and, in 1988, she released her first adult-themed book. Seven Years and a Day, available in full on its website, deals with four friends in the post-opening period. An altercation with the publisher, José Olympio, made him abandon literature for journalism for almost a decade. The return took place through Companhia das Letras, where it is still today. She sent several manuscripts by mail and Maria Emília Bender, who would edit all her books from then on, became interested: “Your books are not exactly easy. She always covers things up, there's always a mystery, a secret, and a secret that is sometimes so secret it's almost encrypted. She is a very particular voice, unlike anything I have ever read. She has zero fussiness. She is often cruel, which I find quite interesting. It is a harsh, biting literature. And she's not obvious at all. His preferred option is for women and losers urbanites, ex-strippers, suburban transsexuals, third-tier journalists. There is a vagueness in things, something criminal could have happened or not. It's cerebral and visceral at the same time, and that's her gold,” says Bender.

Much of the criticism considers the whores your best book. Noemi Jaffe, who hasn't read it yet, is left with In writing: “I really like the polyphony in In writing. Each character has a voice of their own. It's hard to be polyphonic and keep the individuality of the characters. She is wild. It's amazing how she goes from one situation to another without us noticing the passages”. The writer herself – and also Costa Pinto – prefers a child less benefited by the small media spotlight. As she stated in a public conversation with Manuel: “one step awayIt's a unique book, and it's the best I've done. It's a commentary on the play The storm, by Shakespeare, in which fiction unravels on stage. One character tells the story of the other, lying. I want to republish it next year, I don't know if I'll get it, it's a non-sale, academic book for a scholar of literature.” On the contrary, it looks promising.

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