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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop: Her very private life mined for fiction, twice

Michael Sledge’s new novel The More I Owe You opens with forty-year-old Elizabeth Bishop arriving in Brazil. Her planned two-week visit is about to become the life-changing, at times tempestuous, seventeen-year love affair with the vivacious Brazilian architect Lota Machedo de Soares—and the novel follows the relationship to its tragic end.

Brenda Wineapple recently assessed Sledge’s accomplishment:
In her Brazil poems, Bishop captured the rich, sensual detail of fern and rock and the green hills of Rio, of women carrying market baskets, of the sound of hail on a tin roof. All this Sledge uses to evocative effect, portraying her surroundings and their impact on her with elegant simplicity. Consider . . . Sledge’s expressive use of color, reminiscent of Bishop’s own: “The sky was a vertiginous blue, the forest a thousand brilliant greens, the vertical mountain black, like a great ship’s hull cleaving the earth.” “I am very visually minded,” Bishop once said of herself, “and mooses and filling stations aren’t necessarily commonplace to me.” What Sledge has given us is a visually minded novel, rich in surfaces.
This is not the first time this affair has sparked inspiration. In 2002 Neil K. Besner translated from Portuguese Carmen L. Oliveira’s 1995 dual biography, published in the United States as Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares. Oliveira drew on interviews with friends and employees of Bishop and Soares—and their letters—to create a well-researched yet partially invented story. As Emily Nussbaum noted in 2002:
“Art just isn't worth that much,” Bishop wrote disapprovingly to Robert Lowell after he used his wife's letters in his work. A reader, she said, couldn't tell “what's true, what isn't . . . how much has been 'made up,' and so on.” Carmen L. Oliveira shrugs off such warnings (her background is as a novelist). As readers, we are made privy to private conversations, as well as to the comments of a gossipy Greek chorus of pseudonymous Brazilian friends. . . . But while “Rare and Commonplace Flowers” blurs lines, it is really not especially radical; mimicking a chorus of scandalized friends, after all, is not the same as making them or their opinions up. And Oliveira’s sources are fairly straightforward: much of her description of the women's private lives, for example, derives from the recollections of their maids. In fact, the book is at its best describing some of the most subjective sequences: for instance, the private bliss of the Samambaia idyll, the “house and rock / in a private cloud.”
Related LOA works: Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters

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