This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
In the Review’s April 6 issue, Alejandro Chacoff reviews a collection of crônicas by the novelist Clarice Lispector, mostly written for the Jornal do Brasil in the 1960s and 1970s. “The Brazilian crônica,” Chacoff writes, “is a maddeningly elusive genre. The difficulty lies not so much in identifying the form’s attachment to the mundane…, but in the specific magic dust that transforms minor observations into prose that’s brimming with pathos.” Lispector—a novelist known for her inventive syntax and occasional forays into a kind of mysticism—was not a traditional cronista, but, Chacoff notes, her nonfiction work has an appealingly “raw sincerity and artlessness…. Lispector uses the ‘I’ without the self-conscious, manipulative care often employed by more autobiographical writers…, and the impression given is one of vulnerability.”
Chacoff is the author of the novel Apátridas (Rootless, 2020) and a member of the staff of revista piauí, one of Brazil’s leading magazines. He writes in English as well as Portuguese, and his reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, and The New Yorker, among other outlets. I recently wrote to him to ask about the fate of the crônica genre, the archipelago of Brazilian literature, and Clarice Lispector’s transition from modernist to mystic.
Hasan Altaf: Lispector’s reputation in English, based on the new translations of her fiction that have appeared over the past decade or so, is that of “sphinx, sorceress, sacred monster,” as Parul Sehgal put it in a review of her novel The Chandelier. You write in your essay that the crônicas present a different view of this writer—her work for Jornal do Brasil, for example, put her on a “first-name basis” with readers, which makes it a little harder to imagine a sacred sphinx. I wondered if you might talk about how Lispector and her work are seen in Brazil, where she didn’t need to be “rediscovered” the way she did for English-speaking readers, and where the crônica is a more familiar form.
Alejandro Chacoff: In Brazil, tellingly, you know you are famous once people address you by your first name or nickname—it’s as if fame must contend with the public’s urge to pull the person back to familiar ground. So there’s a very straightforward sense in which “first-name basis” just means Lispector had more readers once she began writing for a big newspaper. But there is also a way in which the crônica, as a form, invites this sort of intimacy in the public domain. A cronista speaks as if to a friend—colloquially, digressively, mixing anecdotes, and ostensiblynot fearing her own pointlessness. Of course, the trick lies in being so pleasant and insightful that this casualness is read as a quality indissociable from pleasantness and insightfulness. In many ways, the strictures of the form tested and even annoyed Lispector, while also endearing her to the public. Being a cronista might have made her seem more approachable, though back then she didn’t yet have the reputation she has today.
Regarding that reputation: usually, for a writer who achieves the kind of critical acclaim and popularity abroad that Lispector has achieved (and keeps achieving), the reaction in the author’s own country is either to double down on that acclaim or to deflate it. I’ve heard stories about Elena Ferrante not being as wildly appreciated by Italy’s literary establishment as she is around the world, which would be a shame; and at this point I’ve probably met more Latin American writers who are annoyed about than who are grateful for the legacy of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a healthy aspect to this contrarian reflex—some cerebral and funny Latin American writers who specialize in slow, domestic plots probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the Boom and its emphasis on long epics full of action. Sometimes you need a Vargas Llosa in order for a Zambra to come about.
In Lispector’s case, though, there has been a doubling down. There are only a handful of other local novelists as unanimously praised, and none of them have achieved the same kind of readership abroad. I’m not often drawn to assignments about sacred monsters, to use Sehgal’s term, but I was drawn to this assignment because it had never occurred to me to think critically about how Lispector fit into the cronista tradition; in the back of my mind, I just vaguely assumed she was great at it because she is a great writer. As the essay tries to point out, it’s not as simple as that.
The Brazilian crônica seems like an entirely idiosyncratic form—different even from the crónica of Spanish-speaking Latin American countries—but one that has, with a few exceptions that you mention, faded away. Do you have any sense of what contributed to this decline, and when it began? You write about the cronista as a kind of more social flâneur, and I thought of the review you wrote for The New Yorker a few years ago of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s To Walk Alone in the Crowd, which was about, among other things, how it is harder now than it once was to be an entirely idle wanderer.
It’s difficult to identify an exact turning point for when the decline of the form began. There were still quite a few writers churning out crônicas in the 1980s and well into the 1990s, though certainly not as many who were known primarily for their crônicas, as Rubem Braga and his friends were. I’d speculate that a lot of what the crônica once provided for the reader—the colloquial, epigrammatic style; the aphoristic touch; the charming self-deprecation (sometimes doubling as self-mythologizing or self-promotion)—has scattered and migrated, in more debased forms, into other realms, including social media. There was a time when the crônica was the reprieve from everything else in print; these days, you could argue that we need a reprieve from precisely the elements the crônica was made of. Which is not to say that the crônica isn’t missed, probably because it combined these elements in the right proportion and dished them out with more restraint.
In the New Yorker essay, I was trying to think about the material and social circumstances that complicate wandering as a literary activity—technology in particular, but also changes in the urban and economic landscape that make big cities more socially and visually homogenous, and less welcoming to exploration (not to mention the unease that a solitary wanderer might provoke in the age of mass shootings). The cronista is more of a social figure, so not all the same impediments apply—it’s still pretty easy to sit down and drink with friends at bars, even if your phone distracts you. Having said that, crônicas dofeed on a certain amount of friction—strange incidents, uncomfortable interactions with strangers, conversations with cab drivers (Lispector has a couple of very good pieces on this topic). Such events seem ever less frequent in our drive to make everything more convenient and efficient and—to state it clearly—human-less. The crônica demands a certain capacity for boredom, for being open to fleeting, small scenes of the quotidian. It’s hard to imagine a new generation of idling, boozing cronistas emerging, setting up shop in some corner bar.
You describe the cronistas of Lispector’s time as a close-knit, self-referential group, with whom she was associated even while being apart. When it comes to Brazilian fiction of that era, though, you write about it as an “archipelago…precariously united by a common language and the ruins of a modernist project.” Could you give us a snapshot of Brazilian fiction in the present moment?
The phrase “ruins of a modernist project” may suggest ruefulness, as though I were lamenting a bygone era of artistic and ideological coherence. But my feelings are more ambiguous. Modernism, in Brazil, was so powerful, so all-encompassing in its pledge to reshape the arts and society, that it might have stifled more peculiar literary talents had it triumphed as radically as its first proponents hoped. Writers like Lispector, Guimarães Rosa, or Raduan Nassar (who came a little later) seem to drink at Brazilian modernism’s fountain without feeling the obligation to proselytize its virtues or adhere fully to its principles, like Mário de Andrade and Oswald de Andrade did. Whatever may have been lost in artistic or ideological cohesion was probably gained in aesthetic diversity.
Despite how much time has passed since then, the image of the archipelago still appeals to me to describe Brazilian fiction. Maybe it’s the country’s gargantuan size or its linguistic isolation (which feeds into the sense that it is and isn’t part of Latin American letters writ large). Building the local literary canon of the last twenty or thirty years still seems to be more of an ongoing process in Brazil than it is in the US or England, say, or even neighboring Argentina. One can point to a few central novels of the last couple of decades, like Milton Hatoum’s Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers), or Ana Maria Gonçalves’s Um Defeito de Cor (A Color Flaw), but it’s harder to fit them into a larger story about how Brazilian literature has developed over these last few decades. What’s intriguing is that this makes revisions to what might be thought of as the canon more dynamic. Over the past decade, much like in the US, the demand for greater representation of minorities in Brazilian literature has helped bring attention to Black writers whose novels are so different from one another they form yet another archipelago. I’m thinking of Geovani Martins, writing about life in a Rio favela; Jeferson Tenório, whose protagonist mourns a father murdered by the police while teaching Dostoevsky to unenthusiastic students; Itamar Vieira Jr., using his deep knowledge as a field worker and public servant among quilombolas to weave a fictional story about ancestry and the disrupting forces of capitalism in Bahia state; Eliana Alves Cruz and her multigenerational family saga, which dramatizes the weight of Brazilian slavery. Any snapshot would have to include these voices; and these voices, in turn, have contributed to the reappreciation of authors living, such as Gonçalves, whose novel about the African diaspora in Brazil is being reissued, and dead, like Lima Barreto. My impression is that it is a time when lines are being redrawn, in search of a more complex image of what Brazilian literature stands for.