In his introduction to “With My Dog-Eyes,” Adam Morris, the novel’s first-rate translator, details the life of the late Brazilian poet and novelist Hilda Hilst. Born beautiful, rich, and quite brilliant, Hilst abandoned a career in law for writing and travel, for a time dating Dean Martin in an unsuccessful attempt to seduce his friend Marlon Brando.
Later, she settled on a plot of family land in São Paolo, built a house, and lived out the rest of her days with a coterie of young gay men and a large pack of dogs. She died in 2004 at 73.
A student of the paranormal and occult and spellbound by Joyce, Beckett, Henry Miller, Nin, Genet, D. H. Lawrence, Georges Bataille, Nietzsche, Jung, and Otto Rank, Hilst became notorious for her “obscene” novels, her reclusiveness, and her hard-partying ways. In old age, she guzzled whiskey and got into arguments: “‘I drink because it’s the only way I can tolerate reality,’” she once remarked.
Morris describes “With My Dog-Eyes” as the story of a middle-age mathematician’s descent into “the depths of madness.” This is as good a way as any to describe a short hallucinatory novel filled with madness, a suicide attempt, ants, beggars, persistent gingivitis, barbecues, bicycles, bookshelves, and a bee.
Protagonist Amós Keres is 48, an assistant professor, married with a young son. Keres had an unpleasant upbringing. His own father was cruel; seeing the young Amós distraught over the death of his beloved dog, Keres senior remarks, “He [screwed] himself.”
Although Amós loved his mother, she remained an enigma to him. He muses over her quixotic life choices: “I wonder about those delicate women who marry crude men, always flushed with blood, vulgarity, and rudeness, I guess they like it? But why do they later turn so dry, my mother as mute as I myself, piety and stupor and from so much of all this same old muteness?”
When the novel begins, Keres has become a family man himself, but his parents’ transgressions have made him misanthropic and emotionally distant. After his college dean reprimands him for unnerving the students by falling into a 15-minute silence during a lecture, Keres is ordered to take a leave.
It is then that he has a transformative vision: “I was looking at the tip of my shoes, the scuffed tips, I turned over my right foot, and yes, the sole was bad too, two dark ants passed close by the left shoe, I stopped on the path, they were conferring now, and I thought there were sounds my ears couldn’t capture, the sounds ants would make, did they emit sounds as they touched each other?”
This epiphany sends Keres into a reverie about his past: “Father would go scraping the sole of his boot over their ranks, and I would go to my room brimming with compassion. Those feelings . . . a continuous living mass attempting to conceal itself.” His disenchanted soul reanimated, Keres realizes that life still has “the possibility of surprise.”
Hilst’s writing is characterized by an exuberant, masterful impropriety and winding sentences that put it, by her own lights, squarely in the tradition of literature that includes Joyce and Beckett.
The drama of this novel — and it is dramatic — derives from Keres’s difficulty in figuring out what to do with his vision. “Did the possibility of Amós having felt that incommensurable meaning create a loss or a gain?”
He can see just two choices: “live a pathetic indecent life, transude obscenity, why not? Get drunk every night’’ and openly defy social conventions or “abandon house Amanda son university. Have nothing.’’
Decisions, decisions. Half the fun is watching Hilst needle Keres — and the reader, and herself — for his limited vision of what passes for life.
Eugenia Williamson, a writer and editor living in Somerville, can be reached at email@example.com.