(Image: Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa)
BY ARY QUINTELLA
Many years ago, on an autumn day, my sister was introduced to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Titina — she’s always been known by her nickname — had just turned eighteen. The Prince is renowned for his infelicitous remarks. For some reason, my parents’ divorce, then reasonably recent, came up in the conversation. “If your father lives in Rio”, asked the Prince, “and your mother in London, does that mean you keep coming and going between the two cities? Even before they divorced, did your parents always live like this, each in a separate country?” He concluded the interaction by saying, “I don’t know how you even managed to be born.”
I had completely forgotten that story. It came back to my mind, along with others, when, last December, I read the letters I had sent to my father, while an undergraduate student in London living with my mother and sister. He was then my main correspondent, and I saw him as the best of friends. My letters were frequent and long. I fondly remember the afternoons or evenings when, returning from university or the theater, I sat at the dinner table, in the absolute silence at our house in South Kensington, a few blocks from where Joaquim Nabuco used to live, on the same street, at the beginning of the 20th Century. There I would write him, usually on blue paper, an account of my daily life. Early the next morning, before taking the tube to go to class, I would stop at the post office near the station to stamp and post the letter. In the age of email and WhatsApp, this all sounds like a fairy tale.
My letters deal with my studies, my travels around Europe, my father’s writer friends —and books. To go through them is to remember what I was like between the ages of 19 and 24.
There are references I no longer understand; as my father died twenty years ago, I cannot ask him what they could mean. I`m surprised by this sentence, which I added as a post-scriptum to one of the letters: “I hear that you had an argument with two members of the Academy of Letters at Dinah’s funeral because they spoke of her passion for José Lins do Rêgo. I thought it laudable on your part, as their behaviour was in extremely bad taste.” I was referring to Dinah Silveira de Queiroz, a great friend of my father’s, whom I met as a teenager, and whose novel Margarida La Rocque: The Island of Demons I had read a short time before and found fascinating. But how did it happen that I learned in London of my father’s disapproval of this gossip in Rio? Who told me? Who were the two academicians? Did this “passion” of Dinah Silveira de Queiroz for José Lins do Rêgo ever truly exist? I will never now have an answer to those questions.
Because I had read, in my early teens, his novel Menino de engenho (Plantation Boy), José Lins do Rêgo marked my youth. Just as the narrator goes through childhood and youth at the sugar plantation of his maternal grandfather in the state of Paraíba, my siblings and I spent all our vacations at our maternal grandfather’s coffee plantation in Minas Gerais. Rural properties immersed in a life of their own, suspended outside of time, and stern landowners known as “the Colonel”, as were the character’s grandfather and my own great-grandfather, were concepts familiar to me in my childhood and adolescence. As I open the book at random, a sentence that defines the narrator’s grandfather could be applied to my own: “that air of tranquility of his I seldom got to see altered”.
José Lins do Rêgo was a friend of my second maternal grandfather’s, my mother’s stepfather, who raised her. By whatsapp, she confirms to me this very instant that she knew him well: “Zé Lins? Of course. He and dad were great friends, united by their love of soccer and the Flamengo team. He traveled with us to Switzerland in 1954 for the World Cup.” They were both directors of the Brazilian Sports Confederation and both wrote columns for Jornal dos Sports. In September 1958, on the first anniversary of José Lins do Rêgo’s death, my grandfather, Alfredo Curvello, wrote a column entitled “The Unforgettable Zé Lins”. My grandfather laments his loss, “a painful everyday surprise, when we seek him where he will never be again, when we wait for him where he would always show up”, and praises the “strong personality of a man who would never deceive anyone”.
On another letter to my father, I read the sudden phrase: “Luis Fernando Veríssimo called me yesterday. I didn’t get to see him, because he left London today.” How could I have forgotten that one day I spoke to Veríssimo? The conversation on the phone can’t have been very thrilling, because I was a shy young man. That happened the same year when, on vacation in Rio, I was introduced by my father to Jorge Amado and Carlos Drummond de Andrade and went mute at the friendliness of the novelist from Bahia and the cordiality of the poet from Minas Gerais.
Books occupy an important space in the correspondence between my father and me. We would mention that we were posting books to one another. We would exchange impressions about an author or some literary work. Perusing one of my letters, I am reminded of the joy that reading The Pickwick Papers gave me. In another, I comment on the critical success of the English translation of a work very dear to my heart, Ópera dos Mortos (The Voices of the Dead), by Autran Dourado. In a letter from my father, I see praise for a book written by Cora Rónai, Sapomorfose, illustrated by Millôr Fernandes. In another, he warns he’s sent me a copy of Jorge Amado’s new novel, Tocaia Grande (Showdown), with an autograph for me. He complains about his editors: “Book editing, here in Brazil, is really a problem. And, I think, insoluble”; and in another letter: “And what are they doing about the book promotion? It´s always like this, the eternal mess created by the publishers, who always think that the book sells for itself, in some mysterious way.” In a third letter, talking about the release of his novel Sandra, Sandrinha, he complains: “the book came out at the same time as O Gato Sou Eu, by Sabino, which takes precedence, as always, in the mind of the editor”. Fernando Sabino, my father’s close friend, was then probably the most popular Brazilian author, the biggest-selling one. It was no foolish concern to fear that the simultaneous release, by the same publisher, of Sabino’s collection of short newspaper pieces would affect the promotion of my father’s novel.
My father’s literary life is always present in his letters. Shortly before I moved to London, he had published his most charming work, a children’s book titled Titina, strongly based on our family life. All of us are characters, with our real names, and I appear as a boy steeped in “French books.” The heroines are Titina and our bassethound, Arusha. The dog would have a tragic death many, many years later, already in old age. The success of Titina with critics is extensively registered in my father’s archives. Wilson Martins, in an article about his “ideal library”, included Titina. Rachel de Queiroz indicated that “the moral lesson, showing the joy of coexistence, love, piety, human solidarity, flows so spontaneously and softly in the beautiful language of Ary Quintella, that even the adult reader appreciates and accepts it”. Carlos Drummond de Andrade wrote to my father: “Titina — poetry, human feeling, literary art: so very beautiful.” The book, in its freshness, is a departure from my father’s early works, which Drummond once described, in a laudatory article, as “avant-garde”.
When I want to read the letters I wrote to my father, I can’t just open a trunk at home. Five years before he died, he donated them, as well as his manuscripts, reviews of his books, family photographs and the numerous press articles he wrote, to the Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation. At the time, that made me very disappointed. When he told me the public destination he had given to my letters, I felt betrayed.
When I am in Rio de Janeiro and can go to the Foundation, I never fail to wonder that such an extraordinary place can still coexist with the city’s urban chaos. The historic building, on Rua São Clemente, is the house where Rui Barbosa lived. The bed where the jurist died in Petrópolis, in 1923, can be seen in one of the rooms. Sometimes I go in just to visit the library, which contains, according to the Foundation’s website, 23,000 volumes. Rui Barbosa liked French classics. I look with admiration, through the glass panes that protect the shelves, at the leather bindings of works by Chateaubriand, La Fontaine, Corneille and Racine, and the Mémoires of the Duke of Saint-Simon.
Behind the house is the garden, open to the public. It’s large and relatively quiet. The chirping of birds is the main noise. Families go there for a stroll with their babies. In a side building is Rui Barbosa’s collection of carriages and cars.
At the back, we see a modern low building, where the Foundation’s headquarters are located, and also the archive, which preserves manuscripts or documents by various writers, amongst them Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Clarice Lispector, Fernando Sabino, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Machado de Assis, Pedro Nava, Vinicius de Moraes. The archives of José Lins do Rêgo are not kept there, but the manuscript of Menino de engenho is and it was shown to me in July last year and placed in my hands. For me, it was like holding a treasure.
At Casa de Rui Barbosa, the reading room where I examine my father’s papers is also a literary museum. I sit and start working near a round table, chairs and a green armchair that used to belong to Manuel Bandeira. All around me, college students carry out their research. I divert my attention from Manuel Bandeira’s armchair and concentrate on my father’s legacy. An interview he gave to an Uruguayan newspaper catches my attention: in it, he declares that the best Brazilian writer is Machado de Assis, followed by Lima Barreto and José de Alencar. I remember very well that, six or seven years later, he condemned my appreciation of José de Alencar, expressing the hope that I would soon start reading “more interesting things”. Was that a contradiction? I believe it was rather the natural evolution caused by time, a process during which our taste changes. Who knows, I might not have nowadays such a great pleasure in reading José de Alencar.
The letters I received from my father, unlike mine, are easily accessible to me. I keep them at home. I open one of them at random and read that a friend, the writer Sonia Coutinho, “paid Jorge Amado a visit here in Rio, and told me that Jorge had Titina in his hands — and was discussing the book with Merquior, who had gone there to work on his candidacy for the Academy of Letters”. I open another and read about Pedro Nava’s suicide four days earlier.
In one of the letters, my father explains his views on the creative process: “I received your last letter, which I found very beautiful. I think you’re right: often, the writer doesn’t even realize what he’s writing and unwittingly puts in things that only other people perceive. But what counts — in any work of art — is the effect. That is, the reaction it provokes on the user of the artistic production. Obviously, users will interpret it the way they judge + adequate. Two interpretations — as a matter of fact — may often conflict, they may be antagonistic, the exact opposite of each other. I’ve read more than 4 books and/or 20 articles on the Capitu puzzle. Was Capitu unfaithful or wasn’t she? This ambiguity of the work of art is what makes it valuable, sometimes indispensable. It´s quite amusing, when we’ve written something, to later read what people think we meant. I once wrote “The Keep”. The interpretations of it I found very funny. What reviewers took as my meaning simply had not occurred to me as I was writing”. “The Keep” is a short story that Carlos Drummond de Andrade would have classified as “avant-garde”. Later, in that same letter, my father makes a casual comment that completes his idea of the process of literary creation: “Today, Jorge Amado called me. He’s going to Europe to write. Can’t take anymore all the interviews and parties and hype. They make one too tired and are a waste of time.”
My father was fascinated by Dom Casmurro, and particularly by Capitu. He often talked and wrote about her. In his archives, I found a long article by him, published in 1978, titled “Four Novelists from Rio”, written in a jocular tone, in which, analyzing Machado de Assis, he focuses on Dom Casmurro and reveals his own fantasies: “Capitu, Miss Capitolina, everyone talks about your mystery, your morals and everyone forgets that you were beautiful, attractive, sexy, glamorous […] you were the ‘Girl from Ipanema’ of your time.”
At the age of 22, I wrote in a letter, “Dad, I miss you so much.” I mentioned to a friend, who has known me since I was fifteen, the affectionate tone I adopted with my father. He asked me, “And his letters to you, are they affectionate too?” Only a lifelong friend — or Prince Philip — could ask me such a question. The intervals between his letters were very short, he wrote to me sometimes two, three times in the same week. They are more succinct than mine and adopt a more direct style; he was not prone to exposing his soul. Only on recalling the violent death of my brother in adolescence, a few years before, does he lower the guard: “Today, I couldn’t stop thinking about Alfredo and I feel depressed”. The affection for me appears in the constant concern for my professional future, my ambitions, my projects: “Time roars, and you — as a young man — still don’t know that.”
Above all, he encourages me to write all the time. Asks me if I will manage to finish my novel. Tells me to do translations. Offers to have some newspaper publish any articles I may write. Assures me that starting with articles could be a good way for me “to learn, when I decide to write something more substantial, to have discipline, a fundamental quality in a writer”.
I open another letter from him, at random, from when I was twenty-one. My father urges me on: “Merquior, if I´m not mistaken, began writing literary criticism at the age of 16 […] Jorge Amado, at the age of 18, had already published The Country of Carnival”. The letter ends with the following injunction: “Ary, just write: articles, your novel, about how you find your studies at the university, but do write”.
Time, however, neither roars nor urges. Time does not exist, it is an abstraction that we create in the useless attempt to give some coherence to our lives. Inner time is all there is, distinctive and unique to each one of us.
About the Writer:
Ary Quintella, a career diplomat, is currently Ambassador to Malaysia. He publishes his literary articles online at: aryquintella.com