Adam Morris, translator of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel and Quiet Creature on the Corner, remembers the Brazilian writer.
This week the literary world lost a hero. João Gilberto Noll died at his home in Porto Alegre on March 29, 2017, of natural causes. In Brazil, the outpouring of regret for his passing began shortly after news of his death was announced.
During the latter part of his career, Noll was widely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished writers of literary prose in Brazil. Noll’s obituary in A Folha de São Paulo lists his literary achievements and his many prizes, including his Guggenheim and his five Jabuti Prizes—one of Brazil’s most prestigious literary awards. These need not be summarized here. Noll didn’t write for prizes. What was so special about João Gilberto Noll was that he wrote for himself. This might seem like a simplistic criterion for heroism. And what I mean by it is simple, something better expressed by his agent, Valéria Martins, who was quoted in the Folha de São Paulo: “Era um cara que vivia para a literatura.” He was a man who lived for literature. Particularly in his later years, Noll lived a solitary lifestyle that allowed him to devote as much of his time as possible to his craft.
This is not to say that Noll cared nothing about his readers. His writing is not self-regarding or self-indulgent. On the contrary, Noll’s work demonstrates that he understood the writer’s task to be a polyphonic conversation with his contemporaries, with history, and with his chosen literary tradition. This set Noll apart in the contemporary literary industry, which he, like his literary heroes before him, preferred to ignore. In that industry, the writer’s conversational duties have been whittled down to a monologue: a performance for “the market.” Nor is any of this just another way of saying Noll was a “literary” writer. There are plenty of men and women of letters who write very well, and who are efficient and capable masters of form. But the great works of literary history are usually not authored by contemporary masters of the form, or anyone who makes a fortune from their work. By and large, the landmarks of literary history are written by those who broke the molds that their contemporaries believed would last forever. Noll is one of these writers.
It takes rage to smash idols. But it requires courage to do what Noll did, which was to take them down from their pedestals to play with them. It is a great risk for an artist to set his curiosity as free as a child’s, to eliminate the taboos of sophistication. Doing so invites accusations of perversion, and in the writer’s case, of poor form. Noll certainly courted this criticism. But he had something to say to readers, as well as a few words for the historical record about his moment in time. He gathered his idols around him like an audience. Noll knew his work was original and so he did it. Other considerations didn’t factor.
I didn’t know him personally. Although we exchanged emails, we never met. He punctually answered my questions about specific phrases, about his punctuation habits. But mostly I tried to give him what he desired: the solitude he needed to write—and to feel. Solitude, alienation, and abandonment are the prevailing themes of his writing, and he emphasized them with a unique, cinematic prose style. Noll was sometimes described as reclusive. This might be true to the extent that what he seemed to have loved most was writing, which for someone with his convictions is a solitary endeavor. But Noll’s work is far from hermetic. He concerned himself with the fate of humankind in a world that seemed to have lost its bearings, that lacked any telos beyond the protection and expansion of capital, and that had banished transcendental horizons beyond view. From this perspective, the plight of humankind looks grim and dire, and indeed it is. But this way of seeing brought Noll into close sympathy with his characters, even when they admitted to doing the most despicable things. He was both cruel and gentle with his creations, sometimes at once. As his translator, I tried to take myself there, close to the scene of the action. Translating Noll was less an effort to approximate language than a struggle to approximate his feeling. I hope I got close enough.