“Everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt and control them. The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that noise.” Philip Roth
In his book Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips does a wonderful job of collecting the great author’s thoughts on the field of writing. Phillips draws from various sources including personal letters, books, novels, essays, commissioned articles, and interviews. Sectioning our post in the same way Phillips did with his book, let’s try to summarize some of Hemingway’s most interesting ideas on the topic.
What Writing Is and Does
• Good books are all alike in the sense that they feel true. Communicating genuine experiences to the reader is essential. It’s the writer’s job to convey to the reader feelings, sensations, and even the weather, as he narrates the experience he’s writing about.
• Literature is, after all, poetry written in prose and it should read like that.
• Good books may be reread as many times as the reader wishes: they never lose their mystery, there’s always something new to learn.
The Qualities of a Writer
• Writers need the talent of a Kipling and the discipline of a Flaubert. They also must be intelligent, honest, and disinterested.
• Writers must be able to detect anything that doesn’t sound genuine in their texts. Their minds need to work as radars to avoid artificiality.
• To write novels, writers need to have an inbuilt sense of justice and injustice. Otherwise, they had better be doing something else.
• Writers need to be fast learners. Knowledge of the world is an essential tool for this job.
The Pain and Pleasure of Writing
• You write for two people basically: for yourself (and you need to make it perfect) and for the person you love, so they can read it and share the experience.
• Hemingway says he never suffered when he wrote. He felt empty and horrible when he was not writing. This is the opposite experience of many other writers, as you probably know.
• Writing is a difficult and challenging process, yet, so rewarding. It’s a disease some people are born with.
• Sometimes a writer will need to reread something good he has written in the past to convince himself he can still do it, and then, will continue writing.
• Writing is an obsession. Maybe a vice.
• There are no rules to writing: it may come easily sometimes, and at other times it can seem almost impossible.
What to Write About
• Don’t write about your personal tragedies: nobody really cares about them. But you can use your hurt feelings to convey truth in what you are writing.
• A man has to have suffered a lot to write a really funny book.
• Writers should stick to what they know profoundly.
• Readers expect the writer to repeat the same story every time they pick up one of their new books. Don’t do that: the new book is not going to be as popular at the last.
• War is a good subject. Experiencing war can teach writers a lot. Some are jealous because, never having taken part in a war, they can’t write about it firsthand. Other good topics are love, money, avarice, and murder.
Advice to Writers
• At the beginning of your text, write one true sentence. The rest will stem from that.
• Write about what you really feel, not what you are supposed to feel. Only real emotions count.
• Remember the details of the experience that inspires you in order to pass on to the reader real feelings and sensations. Readers should relive your excitement.
• Listen carefully and actively when you talk to people, so you can understand their perspective and use it in your writing. Learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
• Hone your observational skills.
• To be truthful, you can’t put only what is beautiful in a novel. You need to add the ugly and the bad.
• Distrust adjectives.
• Write like Cézanne painted: Start with all the tricks and then get rid of all the artifice and bare the truth.
• As you are writing, stop when it’s going well. So the next day you feel energized about the task and pick it up knowing where you are going.
• When you are not writing, don’t think about it, try not to worry about your novel; do something physical or read other books. Let your subconscious work on it.
• Every time you start writing, reread everything you have written so far. When it begins to take too long to cover all the written passages, reread only the last few chapters.
• After writing a novel, give it a couple of months before you start rewriting it. Let it cool off. So it looks and feels fresh in your mind when you go back to it.
• Hemingway needed to be left completely alone to focus on his writing. He said writing, at its best, is a lonely life.
• Hemingway refused to write about living people. He didn’t wish to hurt anyone. Unless he deliberately wanted to.
• Use what you know as well as other people’s experiences to write fiction, but don’t make them recognizable. Invent it.
• Let people be people, don’t turn them into symbols.
Knowing what to leave out
• Hemingway compares writing to an iceberg: only the tip shows, but the underwater part is the knowledge the author has about what he’s writing, and it matters.
• Avoid slang (except if it’s needed in dialogue).
• Only use profanity that has existed for 1000 years. It may go out of fashion fast.
• Don’t use profanity merely for its shock value. Make sure it’s really necessary.
• It takes time to find a good title.
• A great number of good titles comes from the Bible, but they have all been taken.
• Other writers can teach you a lot.
• A selection of books every writer should read: War and Peace and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy); Madame Bovary (Flaubert); Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann); Dubliners (Joyce); Tom Jones (Fielding); The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky); Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain); The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)…
• Authors should write what has not been written before or try to beat dead men (which means: write better than former writers on a certain subject).
• Hemingway thought War and Peace was the best book ever written, but that it would have been even better had Turgenieff written it.
• Do not follow the political fashions of your time. They are temporary and will wear off soon.
• There is no left and right in writing: only good and bad writing.
• Patriotism does not make good writing either.
• Don’t write about social classes you don’t belong to or don’t know deeply about.
• Writing about politics may get you a good job in government but it won’t make you a great author.
The Writer’s Life
• Writing is more exciting than the money you make from it.
• When writers make a lot of money, they get used to an expensive lifestyle and have to carry on making money to sustain it. That’s when they compromise.
• Good writers don’t keep their eyes on the market.
• Publicity, admiration, adulation or being fashionable aren’t worth it.
• Writers should be judged on the merit of their writing and not on their personal lives.
• Critics have no right to invade the writer’s personal life and expose it.
• Critics will find hidden symbols and metaphors in a text when they are simply what they are.
Please let us know your opinion about this post.
The very well-produced Netflix show The Crown has been generating a lot of controversy all over the world. It seems there’s a great divide: British people and the royal family themselves hate it, as they wish it were more faithful to reality and less disrespectful to their beloved monarchy. Commoners around the globe, on the other hand, love the exceptionally good writing, the dazzling performances and thrilling storylines. They watch it as a soap opera – as they should.
What nobody seems to be taking into consideration are the important lessons viewers can extract from the show. That’s what I’m here for: To assist you. Read below the main takeaways, which will help you become a more successful and happier human being:
Don’t try to emulate your opponent even if you admire and envy her: be authentic. Spread as much jam and butter on your toast as you want, while your beautifully slim rival, sitting across from you, sips tea, dreaming she could be bathing in a chocolate tub. You will win their respect eventually.
Keep quiet and do nothing in most situations: They will sort themselves out eventually.
Don’t give in to your children. No displays of love and affection, which will only weaken them. Discipline is what they need most. Let them be bullied and brutalised at school to prove they are real men.
Love your pets more than your family and friends.
On the other hand, if animals are not pets, just go out dressed as a peasant and shoot them ruthlessly.
Complain, complain, complain about the constraints imposed upon you, as much as you want…but never try to live a freer and more fulfilling life: The privileges and pleasures of the royalty prove unsurpassable.
All problems can be solved by heavy drinking and chain smoking, or by huge doses of extramarital sex.
Pretend you are the only person on Earth that has direct contact with God – whatever your religion. People will believe you if you don’t waver.
Power has a lot to do with accents. Especially in English. Open your mouth minimally to enunciate your vowels. Let people struggle to understand what you are trying to say.
Use the word Indeed as often as possible. It will impress most commoners.
Keep a bell next to you at all times and ring it often, even if you don’t have any servants to summon.
Don’t get a real education, it will not do you any good. Learn about manners, rites, some French travel phrases, and all about the Constitution. More than that will be useless.
Lie, lie, lie.
Never touch a book. Spend your free time in long walks in muddy terrain and cold weather, drinking tea or hugging your dogs.
Go back on your promises without hesitation if it servers your agenda.
If you are having domestic problems (like your wild son went missing), go bombard some faraway country – such as Argentina – to relax a bit.
I strongly recommend you watch the show. It is already a classic.
Please post your comments below.
Our readers trust our book recommendations. We have been asked to recommend important novels that, for some reason, might not be on our followers’ radar. Therefore, I’m sharing with you five gems of Brazilian Literature, from different times and regions of our vast country, all beautifully translated into English. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
The Alienist by Machado de Assis (Originally published in 1882)
What is madness? How can you differentiate mad people from sane minds? These are the questions this timelessly hilarious novella puts forward. Readers will meet the psychiatrist Dr. Simão Bacamarte, an academic luminary of the fictitious city of Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. Having studied in two of the best universities of Europe, Coimbra, and Padua, Bacamarte turns down the Portuguese king’s invitation to remain in Europe as a court physician, deciding to go back to Brazil to conduct experiments and scientific studies in the field of mental health. The plot, however, is only a pretext for Machado to, sarcastically, criticize the theories of positivism, scientific racism and social Darwinism, prevalent at the end of the XIX century. The story takes place a century earlier, though, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. After committing 80% of the town’s inhabitants to the special asylum, the Casa Verde (The Green House), erected with public funds, Bacamarte realizes that, statistically, there must be something wrong: maybe it was the remaining 20% of the people, kept outside, who were crazy after all! But the development of new insights will take him a step further…
The last book by acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector, published shortly before her death, is the moving account of the life of a poor migrant woman, Macabea, who leaves her hometown in the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of the country (the region in which Clarice Lispector herself grew up, after arriving in Brazil from Ukraine in the 1920s) in search of the elusive dream of a better life in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, the novel is also an insightful reflection on the act of writing, as the fictitious narrator, Rodrigo, in quite a few asides, analyzes his own skills as a writer. According to Clarice Lispector, who summarized the book during a famous TV interview, this is “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery”. The book was made into an award-winning movie directed by Suzana Amaral in 1985.
The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lighting, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the quay market, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa. The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.
Not many books in Brazilian literature tell stories that take place in the north region of the country. So The Brothers (Dois Irmãos, in Portuguese) will probably sound rather fresh to many readers. Besides having the exotic city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian region, as its backdrop, the novel explores the life of a range of characters who are also singular in our literature: members of the community of Lebanese immigrants who live in that region. This is the family saga of the tradesman Halim, a muslim, his beautiful wife Zana, a Maronite christian, their identical twin sons, Yaqub and Omar, and their enterprising daughter Rania. The plot focuses on the rivalry and hatred between the twin brothers: the dissipated Omar, who lives at home, wasting his nights on drinking and prostitutes, and the ambitious, goal-oriented, Yakub, who, after being sent to Lebanon at the age of 13, where he lived for 5 years, comes back home only to leave again for Sao Paulo to become an engineer. This conflict between brothers is, of course, an archetypal motif, reminiscent of the biblical tale of Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel. Despite its universality, the plot is effectively localized in Hatoum’s fascinating Brazilian tale. Told by a peculiar narrator, Nael, the illegitimate son of the family’s native in-house maid, fathered by one of the twin brothers, the ill-fated story of passions, hatred, and revenge has unpredictable turns and a surprising end. The story also works as a metaphor for the contrasts within Brazil, especially between the underdeveloped North and the more progressive and industrial South.
What does it feel like to find out that your firstborn has Down syndrome? This Jabuti prize-winning autobiographical novel by Cristovão Tezza tries to answer the question, as we follow the difficulties of a young father to come to terms with his son’s disability during the 1980s – when this condition was still called mongolism! Finding out that Felipe – the only character given a name in the book – has Down syndrome comes a terrible blow to this twenty-eight-year-old writer, who feels he himself has yet to become a full adult. He still doesn’t have any published books, his wife is the family breadwinner and his uncertain future becomes now even more complicated with the devastating arrival of this special kid. The description of the conflicting emotions the father goes through on his long journey towards the acceptance of Felipe, who lives in an eternal present, can at times make us uncomfortable, as the narrative – written in the third person – is brutally honest, letting the reader into the father’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, while avoiding any trace of sentimentality or self-righteousness. As a bonus, readers who might not know much about Down syndrome, are offered a great deal of information on this debilitating genetic condition.
“Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it.”
― Philip Roth, I Married a Communist
Reading is one of the great pleasures of life. It’s an acquired taste, though. It doesn’t develop naturally. The habit of reading starts at home. Kids will probably develop a liking to books eventually, if they see their parents reading; if there are shelves with books around; if they are allowed to spend time in libraries and bookstores just playing with and touching books; or if they are read to by their caretakers. I grew up among books, and many people in my family read for pleasure, so, for me, it was easier to tackle the complex task of going through words and sentences and trying to make sense of them. It gets better and easier with practice.
In addition to giving pleasure, there are many other proven benefits associated with reading. Here are some of them:
1. It’s entertaining. Reading is a wonderful and relatively cheap hobby. It helps you pass the time; it takes your mind off problems; it’s relaxing. You go places and meet interesting people in the stories you read.
2. Books can be mentors. It’s said that to develop a professional skill or hone a natural talent, one needs coaching and mentoring. Not everyone can get these services. Great leaders, artists and people who stand out in their jobs and careers have always been mentored. Books can take this role. If you don’t have access to a human mentor, read their written words. Buy his/her biography. Books will even give you the opportunity to follow a number of mentors and get from them what suits you better. Vicarious experience can be a great source of learning.
3. Reading improves your creativity. Of course, the most direct consequence of reading is improving your writing skills. There’s nothing like exposure to good writing to put you in the right direction of writing well and more creatively. But reading also opens many other doors in your brain: You develop new perspectives and insights. You add new knowledge to what you had accumulated before and.. bang!…all of a sudden you come up with a super original idea. Innovation leads to success.
4. You will never feel lonely again. Have you ever travelled alone? Maybe not as a hobby, but, sometimes, you need to do that for work. And it can be very lonely. If you like reading, books will be friends you can take along with you wherever you go: Especially now, when you can have your whole library on your smartphone or tablet, being able to download a new title at the touch of a button.
5. Reading can be a life-changing experience. Some books have such a profound impact on people that they actually change the course of their lives. They give you such new angles on things, you decide to behave in a different way or start something new. They may make you go to another country; start a new career; decide to take a course on a new subject, change your investment plans (thousands of people have, for example, reported how the personal finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki, has changed the way they think about their future).
6. Reading makes you smarter. It affects your brain in very powerful ways, creating new synapses (connections), improving your memory, broadening your attention span. Reading is the best brain workout. Great leaders are readers and this should say enough about how the activity boosts the powers of your mind.
7. Studies have indicated that reading can be a strong protection against the onset of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It looks like the exercise brains go through when submitted to the effort of decoding, processing and linking words, making sense of passages and connecting them with what was read before acts as a shield against those conditions.
8. Reading reduces stress. It changes your mental context, makes your focus on something other than your most immediate worries; calms you down, and helps improve your general health.
9. In the context of foreign language learning, reading is the most powerful skill in acquiring a new language. Reading in the target language – starting with simplified, graded readers and progressively moving on to unabridged books – is the strongest way to consolidate the grammar, vocabulary and linguistic functions you have been studying, as you observe them being used communicatively in its natural context.
10. Books will make you a better person. Reading about other people’s problems and lives, be them fictional or real; learning about how other people feel and see the world; exposing yourself to different dreams, passions, and aspirations; all this opens up your mind and boosts your empathy. As a result, you become a lot more tolerant of diversity and turn into a more evolved human being.
Are there any other benefits you would like to add to this list? Please feel free to write your comments below.
If you are a fan of the works of Diego Velázquez, considered by many the painter of painters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information I gathered for this article:
1. Volcan’s Forge (1630)
This is one of the uncommissioned paintings produced by Velázquez right after his first trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1629 to 1631. The painting shows the moment, narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Apollo, the god of light, shows up at Vulcan’s forge, to tell him that his wife, Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of War. Apollo is identified by the crown of laurel on his head and the orange toga he is wearing. Vulcan, the man on his right, looks horrified and even dangerous. He seems to be working on an armor for Mars himself.
Velázquez had become heavily influenced by Italian art during his trip. This is noticeable in this work by the choice of subject matter – mythology – and by the study of the male nude. However, Velázquez, being the great artist that he was, could not help but add a personal touch to the painting: as we can see, although the bodies replicate in their perfection and athleticism the idealization of the Greek-Roman statuary, the men’s faces look common, contemporary and even ugly. The exaggerated expressions of surprise and shock are a characteristic of the Baroque movement, which did not refrain from showing emotion. There is also an almost comic element to the painting, as it does not seem to treat Mythology with the respect it inspired in other painters. Apollo looks rather full of himself, which you can tell from his posture and body language, such as the curved back and the raised finger.
It’s also worth pointing out that the painting suggests a tri-dimensional perspective: the figure in the background, for example, looks blurred, as if we were actually seeing him from a greater distance. Some of the figures in the painting are displayed in front of others, a technique used to create the illusion of depth. In addition to that, the work suggests a combination of genre painting – the representation of the daily work in a regular forge – with the mythological theme. This kind of combination was rather unusual at the time.
Moreover, some critics claim the painting had the objective of enticing prospective patrons: the artist was perhaps trying to show off his draftsmanship, demonstrating how he could depict the male nude in different positions, in a balanced composition.
2. The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, 1657)
Critics understand this painting as the representation of the fable of Arachne, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. In the story, Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who developed an extraordinary skill as a weaver. When asked who had taught her how to weave so well, she said she had learned it on her own. This insulted Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the crafts, who showed up as an old woman to give Arachne a chance to apologize and acknowledge that her skill could only have come from the goddess. Arachne refused to do so, which made Athena furious. She reverted to her natural form and set up a contest with Arachne to prove who could weave better.
The story unfolds in two stages in Velázquez’s painting. In the foreground, we see the contest itself, as it takes place. Athena would be the older woman on the left. The fact that she is the goddess is betrayed by the youth and the skin glow of her exposed leg. Her ability is demonstrated not only by the relaxed attitude in which she operates the spinning wheel but also by the speed of the instrument, whose stokes we can hardly see.
Arachne, on the other hand, is seen working furiously on the right, with her back to the viewer. Arachne’s skillful work is also indicated by the speed of her performance – notice that her left hand moves so fast it seems to have 6 fingers! They are assisted by three other women in their work.
The conclusion of the story can be seen in the background of the painting. Arachne’s final work – represented here by a copy of Titian’s The Abduction of Europe – beats Athena’s. Athena, the woman wearing a helmet in the painting, is so angry that she rips Arachne’s work to threads. The goddess is seen here at the moment when she is casting the curse that will turn Arachne into a spider, so she will spend the rest of her life spinning webs. The obvious lesson is humans must not compete with the gods.
Just like in the previous painting we analyzed, Velázquez’s work in Las Hilanderas is a clever combination of genre and mythological themes. The women in the foreground look just like her contemporaries at a weaving workshop. It’s in the background that we have a more explicit reference to the myth, marked both by the presence of Athena is his Greek clothes and by the replication of the mythological work of Titian.
3. The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651)
This is the only nude study of a woman painted by Velázquez to reach our days. He seems to have painted three, but two of them are lost. This kind of risqué painting was the object of careful surveillance by the Catholic Church during those harsh times of the Spanish Inquisition. Artists who dared to break the rule faced the threat of excommunication.
This painting, which is sometimes called The Rokeby Venus due to the fact that it was in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, shows the goddess who personifies love and beauty lying with the back to the viewer and looking into a mirror held by her son, the god Cupid. The blurred image in the mirror is explained by the fact that ideal beauty cannot be represented.
However, contrary the trend of the times, Venus looks slimmer than the more voluptuous women usually depicted by other painters. She is also a brunette, while most other representations of Venus show her as a blond. These details all seem to indicate a wish to depict just a beautiful Spanish woman of Velázquez’s own days. Besides, the painting does not show any of the other items that characterize the goddess in other paintings, such as myrtle, roses and jewelry. Except for the presence of the winged Cupid holding the mirror, nothing indicates she is the goddess.
It’s interesting to notice how her curvaceous body is echoed by the rounded belly of Cupid and by the folds of the drapery and bed sheets.
Just like in Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, which we discussed in a previous blog post (please click here for the post: https://jorgesette.com/2020/03/14/las-meninas-by-velazquez-under-the-magnifying-glass/), the presence of the mirror, and the fact the goddess seems to be looking at us through it, incorporates an element of mystery to the painting. It seems to stimulate a conversation between the work and the viewer, generating a discussion about the dichotomy between art and reality, representation and fact.
This brings us to the end of our blog post. It’s fascinating to discover the facts, the legends and the stories behind famous works of art. If you have further info, opinions or questions about the paintings discussed above, please don’t hesitate to enter your comments in the box below. We would love to share your perspective with our readers.
Neurologist, researcher, clinician, but especially a great storyteller, Oliver Sacks has millions of fans around the world. His books, which are essentially collections of case studies from his experience looking after patients with brain disorders, can be said to have established a new literary genre.
To me, the appeal of reading Oliver Sacks’ autobiography, On the Move: A Life, was to catch a glimpse of the real man behind the public figure and to learn more about the amazing neurological cases and concepts I’d read about in some of his previous books.
The autobiography tells us about aspects of his private life that didn’t make their way into his clinical stories. We learn, for example, about his rebel side as a lone motorcycle rider in the 50s and 60s, and about his love of strenuous – and sometimes foolhardy – physical activities, such as extreme weightlifting, swimming in dangerous waters and hiking alone. We also find out about his Jewish family background, his evacuation to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster during the second world war, his homosexuality, solitude and 35-year celibacy, and his drug addiction during the 1960s (although he was considered only a weekend “tripper,” having to cope with a challenging job during the week).
What struck me particularly was Sacks’ peripatetic nature, made explicit in the title of the book. It seems he was trying to escape from something, perhaps from himself, due to the fact that he was different – like his patients – but also from his family and the burden of growing up with a schizophrenic older brother. However, being constantly on the move may have been a consequence not only of the restlessness of his soul but also of the strong mental and physical energy he exuded until very late in life.
What mainly resonated with me was his account of his obsession with writing. Sacks kept journals, taking notes of his experiences, registering his observations, thoughts and feelings. He always had a notebook on hand, even when he went swimming – which, he claimed, stimulated his mind – and he would sometimes dash out of the water to scribble his thoughts down on the pad lying nearby. He may never use those notes when he was writing his books later on, but putting his thoughts down on paper was a powerful way of clarifying his ideas and reflecting on intriguing points; it was like carrying out a conversation with himself.
Laypeople cannot judge how good a doctor Oliver Sacks was. His track record as a researcher and even as a clinician has been disputed a number of times. Also, his decision to base his stories on the cases of real patients caused controversy, as some people claimed it was unethical. His first book, Migraine, was aimed only at the medical community, but it inevitably appealed to a wider public and generated popular interest. He then gave up trying to make his accounts mere reports on medical facts and purposely imbued his stories with themes, metaphors, and humanistic and philosophical considerations, which took his writing to a whole new level.
Sacks’ case studies never give the reader the impression he’s taking advantage of his patients or exploiting them for commercial purposes. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s treating human misery as a circus show. He genuinely seems to care, and his stories, despite the unthinkable suffering of many of the people involved, are mostly uplifting. He reinforces our belief in the power of humans to come to terms with tragedy and even to overcome it.
Following the publication of Awakenings and A Leg to Stand On, Sacks gained notoriety, but it was the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985 that turned him into a public figure and a celebrity recognized worldwide.
One of the most interesting passages in On the Move covers the time Sacks worked as a consultant for the movie Awakenings, based on his book. Although Sacks hadn’t loved the script, which contained some fictitious subplots he wasn’t comfortable with, he decided at one point that the movie was not his, and, therefore, not his responsibility. This realization liberated him, allowing him to adopt a more relaxed attitude and to accept his role in the project.
In his autobiography, Sacks praises actor Robert De Niro’s extensive and detailed research to play the postencephalitic Leonard L., stating that De Niro would sometimes stay in character for hours or even days after filming. Sacks also comments on how weird it felt to be mirrored by Robin Williams on the many days they spent together as the actor researched the model behind the character he would portray – based on Sacks himself. I watched the movie again to write this post and found it a bit dated, lacking a drier, less sentimental approach to the subject. It could have benefited from a wittier and more creative script, since it wasn’t supposed to be a faithful replication of real life. I wonder how much better it might turn out if it was remade today, especially as an HBO production. I loved Robin William’s performance – subtle, subdued and contained. As for Robert De Niro’s, I’m afraid he didn’t convince me in the role of a postencephalitic patient.
In summary, reading On the Move: A Life was as fascinating an experience as reading Sacks’ previous books. His language and fluency are remarkable. He writes through examples; he doesn’t explain or define concepts in technical ways. That’s what makes it easy for us to appreciate his stories.
Reading Sacks’ books, I learned a lot about curious brain conditions I never suspected existed. I became familiar with a wealth of new words and concepts: aphasia, amusia, musicophilia, synesthesia, visual cortex, auditory cortex, Tourette’s syndrome and prosopagnosia, to name just a few. In his wonderful book Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, he made me understand that sign language is just another mode of language, not unlike verbal language in its sophistication and capacity to express all kinds of concepts, both abstract and concrete, through perfectly structured grammar. These kinds of enthralling revelations are the stuff his books are made of. You simply can’t put them down once you get started. On the Move: A Life is equally irresistible.
Sacks found out he had melanoma in his right eye in 2005. When it metastasized to his brain and liver in January 2015, he knew his death was imminent, but he seemed to have already come to terms with it. When he publicly announced his predicament, he added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.” On the Move: A Life gave me a sense of a life well lived, packed with adventures, experiences, profound learning and fulfillment. Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015.
Congratulations, you got a new job. You will be relocated to Rio? How exciting. How did you manage to grab such an interesting post? You must know a lot about Brazil and speak good Portuguese. Or maybe you are just the only person who had the availability to move to this country. Whatever the reason, or despite how much you might already know about Brazil, I would strongly recommend you read the books listed below to get a crash course in the country. They are all fun to read and will contribute in their own way a small piece of understanding to complete the puzzle.
I’m Brazilian myself, spent most of my life here, and still profited a lot from reading these texts. Here they are:
1. The Brazilians, by Joseph Page.
This is one of my favorite books about Brazil. It’s visibly written by someone who loves the country, and despite its very objective, and sometimes hurtful, analysis, makes you feel appreciated and liked as a local. Besides, it covers many different aspects of the culture and history of the country, including the national religions and the nuances of the current power structure, all written in a light and pleasant language. I particularly liked the way it analyzes the way the different social classes interact with each other in Brazil, with all the hypocrisy and paternalism that underlies these brutal relationships. However, the book was written way before the passing of a new set of Constitutional amendments (PEC 478 – known as PEC das Domésticas) in 2013, regulating the working life of the “empregadas domésticas” (Live-in maids; a very typical Brazilian institution), and therefore broadening the professional rights of these underpaid and exploited workers more than 100 years after the abolition of slavery took place in the country.
2. Brazil on the Rise, The Story of a Country Transformed, by Larry Rother.
Written around the time when the now infamous cover of the magazine THE ECONOMIST showed an illustration of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio taking off to the skies as a potent rocket on its way to a future of fully developmental glory and economic power, the book gives us the historical and economic background necessary to understand how we got to where we were by the end of the two mandates of the Labor Party, under president Luís Inácio da Silva (Lula). It focuses on the economic and political aspects and the obstacles the country had to overcome on its path towards democracy and to arrive at the reasonable level of economic stability we had some 6 years ago. Of course, things are not looking now as great as when that issue of THE ECONOMIST came out, but corrections are being made along the way and I firmly believe we will realize the bright potential we have been predicting for the past 500 years.
3. Futebol Nation: A Footballing History of Brazil, by David Goldblatt.
The English writer does not sound very sympathetic to the country and its people. The writing is a cold and dispassionate account of the importance football gained in Brazil since its introduction in the early years of the 20th century and its ramifications through the history of the country. Although it became clear after the World Cup (2014) that football seems to have lost a lot of its importance to Brazilians – given the sense and irony most of the population demonstrated after the historic loss to Germany with a scoreline of 7×1, the book makes it clear that, especially from the 1950s to the 1990s, football was Brazilians’ greatest source of pride. It is also evident how strongly we identified the values of the nation with this foreign sport, allowing and making it easy for politicians to tap into its people’s naive passion to advance their own agendas. Although the book does not take into account the World Cup of 2014, it covers the June 2013 social unrest and popular demonstrations directed mainly against the realization of the over-budgeted upcoming event. All in all, it’s a very interesting read, even for those who are not really into the sport.
4. Backlands: The Canudos Campaign, by Euclides da Cunha.
Considered one of the most important books of the Brazilian canon, this text is a journalistic account of the conflict of Canudos – supposedly a civil war between monarchists and republicans at the end of the nineteenth century – which took place in the arid and difficult geographic region known as the backlands in the interior of Bahia. The official story says that a group of backlanders (sertanejos), led by a religious fanatic, Antônio Conselheiro, the Counselor, built up a settlement constituted of thousands of huts forming a kind of overcrowded slum, spreading over the valleys and hills of the region. The book reads like a novel, once you manage to get through the slow and dragging geological, topographical and climactic minutiae used to describe the region in the first couple of chapters. Then it finally gets to the action, depicting with cinematographic vigor the 4 military incursions into the settlement of Canudos, defended fiercely by the backlanders (sertanejos and jagunços, the latter considered bandits infiltrated in the community).
5. The War at the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.
While Backlands was meant to be an objective report of the Canudos War in Brazil, this book by Peruvian writer Llosa is a fictionalized version of the events. It tells the same story, but as novels go, adding the thrill and emotional twists of the format. The book depicts characters on both sides of the war, offering a balanced perspective of what happened. It’s considered one of the author’s best books. Llosa himself considers it his most accomplished novel, and it features in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon.
6. A Death in Brazil, by Peter Robb.
A thrilling account of 500 hundreds years of Brazilian history, Australian writer Peter Robb’s book also reads like a novel. The writer lived in Brazil and offers authentic and knowledgeable insights into the country, its people and culture. He also talks very candidly and passionately about the country’s serious problems and inequalities. The death of the title is the mysterious assassination of PC Faria’s, fixer and bagman to corrupt President Collor in the early 1990s, but the book does not focus on this. It covers, among other things, the brutal slavery system we had in the country until 1888 (longer than anywhere else in the Western world), the destruction of the fugitive slave settlement of Palmares, the Canudos war, Brazilian cuisine and literature. A must-read.
7. 1808 – How a mad queen, a coward prince and a corrupt court fooled Napoleon and changed the History of Portugal and Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.
Written by one of the most influential journalists of Brazil, this is the first installment of a trilogy that covers the history of the country from the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808, in a maneuver to escape the Napoleonic wars, to the events surrounding the Proclamation of the Republic in 1889.
It took 10 years of research for the first volume to come to light. It’s a well- written, direct and very readable account of the story of the arrival in Brazil of D. Joao VI, his wife, Carlota Joaquina, and their entourage, changing the destiny of the colony forever by paving the way for the declaration of independence 14 years later. Mixing the personal anecdotes of these characters – some of them very funny – with important historical events, Gomes offers the reader a sprawling overview of those times in the colony.
1808 was awarded two Jabuti Prizes, in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.
8. 1822 – How a wise man, a sad princess and a money crazy Scotsman helped D. Pedro create Brazil, a country that had everything to go wrong, by Laurentino Gomes.
This is the second volume of the trilogy we mentioned above. Now we are focusing on the story of D. Joao VI’s son, Prince Pedro, and the role he played in the declaration of the independence of the country, culminating in the historic Cry of Ipiranga, and then becoming the first Emperor of Brazil. The book reads like a thriller, depicting the highly charged political events, the confronting factions and the many different interests that led Pedro to decide to stay in the country and cut its ties with Portugal. It portrays D. Pedro I as a wild, sensual and determined young man, who did not refrain from playing the role history reserved for him. 1822 added two other Jabuti Prizes (the third and fourth) to Laurentino Gomes’s collection, again in the categories of best reportage-book and non-fiction book of the year.
9. 1889 – How a tired emperor, a vain marshal and a wronged teacher collaborated for the end of the Monarchy and the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, by Laurentino Gomes.
The third volume of Gomes’s acclaimed trilogy revolves around the Proclamation of the Republic in Brazil, bringing down the Empire, which had been the most stable and solid government in the region for 67 years. Emperor D. Pedro II – 0ne of the most educated man of his time – was banned from Brazil with his family, being exiled in Europe. Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, a former anarchist and a friend of the deposed emperor’s, was in charge now, despite his old age and debilitated health.
10. Gabriella, Clove and Cinammon, by Jorge Amado.
Besides The War at the End of the World, this is the only other novel I included on our list of top 10 choices for the reader who wishes to understand Brazil. Written by Jorge Amado, Gabriella takes place in the small town of Ilheus, in the state of Bahia, during the economic boom of the cacao in the 1920s. The book consists of two intertwined stories: the first is the romance between the bar-owner Nacib, of Syrian origin, and the drought immigrant worker Gabriella, who becomes his cook and mistress; the second story is the confrontation between the conservative plantation colonels (powerful heads of landowner families) and the wealthy young man Mundinho Falcão, who represents the arrival of modernity, efficacy and urban values in the rural underdeveloped and backward region. Readers will be delighted to have all their senses and intellect arrested, as they immerse in the world of Gabriella: Amado describes the tastes, smells, and texture of the local foods; the funny, and sometimes violent, local customs; the hypocrisy of a narrow-minded and provincial society; the brutality of machismo; and the bright colors of what is supposed to be a microcosm of Brazil and Latin America.
I guess these 10 books will give newcomers enough introductory background and information on the beautiful, challenging and diverse country I’m lucky to live in. Welcome, good luck with your new job, and don’t forget to rate and comment on this post.
Lima Barreto, the acclaimed journalist and author of the Brazilian Belle Époque, is more popular than ever these days. The author was honored at the FLIP (International Literary Party of Paraty) a couple of years ago and that made him even more well-known. New editions of his work have been released since then. Along with these, there was also the publication of a very well-researched biography, Lima Barreto – Triste Visionário, by historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (Companhia da Letras), available at the main bookstores.
Lima Barreto was born in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro and dedicated his life to writing and literature. His father was a typographer with connections with the powerful Empire Senator Viscount of Ouro Preto, who became Lima Barreto’s godfather. His mother, a freed slave, was a school teacher. She died when the writer was only six.
The key to understanding his artistic work is the overlap between the stories he created and his biography. Dark skinned (a mulato, as we say in Portuguese) and born in the lower echelons of society himself, he understood very well, and experienced first hand the issues discussed in his novels and short stories.
The main themes of his realistic pre-modernist fiction are the problems of the recently founded Brazilian Republic: class and race prejudices; the cynicism, incompetence, and arrogance of academics, journalists, politicians and the police force in general; the oppression women were subjected to. Not surprisingly, many of the problems Brazil had a hundred years ago are still current, making Lima Barreto’s works powerfully modern and still very relevant.
Lima Barreto had a productive but short life. He died at the young age of 41, plagued by alcoholism and related mental illnesses.
The books listed below have not been translated into English yet (except for The Sad End of Policarmo Quaresma), but, if you speak Portuguese, you can easily order them from Bookwitty.
- Recordações do Escrivão Isaias Caminha (Memories of the Clerk Isaías Caminha)
Lima Barreto’s debut novel was received coldly by the critics and the literary community of the time. The resentment of the protagonist-narrator and the sarcastic (although disguised) way in which he describes powerful figures of the contemporary society irritated many people who possibly identified themselves with the characters depicted in the novel and felt ridiculed by it. In the novel, Isaías, a boy from the countryside, does exceptionally well in school and is predicted to have a bright future, due to his intelligence and hard work. As a young man, full of hopes and willing to expand his horizons, he leaves his family and hometown, coming to Rio de Janeiro with a letter of recommendation for a congressman. Isaias thought it would not be difficult to find a good job, given his previous scholarly success and this single connection with a powerful politician. It does not take long, though, for his dreams to be crushed. Rio turns out to be a concrete jungle, where the doors are tightly closed to dark-skinned men. The novel tells the story of the deterioration of the young man’s self-esteem and his progressive submission and passive acceptance of the brutal rules that govern Brazilian society.
- The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma
This novel marks the transition from Realism/Naturalism to the Pre-Modernist literary movement in Brazil.
Policarpo Quaresma, the protagonist, is a methodical civil servant who lives with his spinsterish sister in the suburbs of Rio at the end of the 19th century. He is a naïve and rather optimistic nationalist, who believes that he himself can act as a force to preserve the traditions of Brazil in the face of the fast modernization and internationalization the country is going through.
To accomplish his nationalist objectives, first, he writes a letter to the Parliament proposing that the national language be replaced by Tupi, the indigenous language spoken by the local tribes who lived along the coast of the country before the arrival of the Portuguese. The idea is received with such mockery and disbelief that Quaresma suffers a nervous breakdown, being confined, for a while, to an asylum for the mentally ill.
Recovering from the illness, Quaresma decides to move with his sister to a farm on the outskirts of the city to live a more peaceful life in contact with nature. There, he tries to initiate, again practically single-handedly, an agricultural reform, aiming at setting an example to his countrymen, teaching them how to make the most efficient and rational use of the fertile soil of his beloved fatherland. This results in another failure, as he cannot count on any official help with his endeavour.
Finally, he sides with President Marshal Floriano Peixoto (a real historical figure), joining the military, to fight against the Second Naval Revolt, only to find out that the leader, contrary to Quaresma’s idealization, lacks the brains and military-strategic mind of a Napoleon, being nothing more than an authoritarian and unskilled dictator to a barbaric country in the periphery of civilization and capitalism.
- Clara dos Anjos
Published after Lima Barreto’s death, the novel has a simple and direct plot. It’s the story of a dark-skinned girl from the suburbs (the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, rarely portrayed in our literature) who gets seduced and abused by the white guitar player Cassi Jones, a notorious crook from a slightly higher social social class. However, the focus of the book is not really the plot. Clara’s sad story is just a pretext for the author to explore important connected issues. The main theme of the novel is the suburbs and its inhabitants: the members of the poorer classes of Brazil. Lima Barreto, with his precise journalistic prose, describes their small and difficult lives, the destitute environment they are forced to live in – despite the high taxes they pay, which are hardly used for their own benefit; the excessive drinking habits of the men; their music and literature; and the repression suffered by their passive and conservative women.
- Contos Completos de Lima Barreto (Lima Barreto’s Complete Short Stories)
Besides journalistic articles and novels, Lima Barreto also left us a great number of short stories. Again, in those works, his main themes are the description of daily life in the city of Rio de Janeiro and its suburbs during the years of the Brazilian Old Republic (the period comprised between the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century), written with irony and sharp criticism against the political system of the time, the ingrained racism of our society, the oppression of the lower classes in general and the limitations imposed on women in particular. He also rebuked the mediocrity of the cultural and literary elites of the country. His attempts to mock Brazilian society while denouncing its serious flaws have made a profound mark in our literature.
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