Between the Lines

Translated from Portuguese by Julia Sanches

I sat on the sofa and she sat in an armchair in front of me. A small table separated us. On it stood a jug of mate, a bucket of ice, and two glasses. In her hands were the pages of the short novel I’d finished five days ago and emailed to her, asking that she read it as soon as possible. As soon as she had, she’d invited me over to her house. It was a Monday night. Of all my friends, she was the one I most trusted to methodically, yet by no means coldly, criticize my work. She had jotted another text between the lines of my own, guidelines for what she would say to me, which didn’t mean she wouldn’t also come up with comments on the spot. She told me to interrupt her only when absolutely necessary—she did not want to get into an argument with me—and that her speech must flow with complete freedom. I took a tape recorder with me so that I wouldn’t miss anything she said and set it next to her on the sofa. We each got up once to go to the bathroom. Apart from these necessary breaks, I didn’t interrupt her. I was so enthralled by the text she spoke that her critical work—and why not literary, or even poetic?—ended up taking over my novel and, with only a few alterations, was turned into a whole new piece, a product of us both, as can be seen from the end result. Even though most of the words written here were said by her, they couldn’t have existed without the work that gave birth to them and are often indistinguishable from it.

“I’m not sure about that somber, death-obsessed side of you,” she said, “and your overly intentional search for beauty, as if it could redeem all your morbidity and melancholy. As if you were, above all else, someone who describes things: scenes, sensations, compositions. Those flowers you call nocturnal, sitting wilted in a vase in the apartment’s small living room; the depiction of a painting, or an engraving, in the room and the living room; the crucifix on the wall above Pedro’s bed; and facing it, on the opposite wall, a painting of Viviane, naked, her body fragmented in the signs of her sex,” she said. “But, again, only as someone who describes sensations. The smell Pedro thinks is salt air even though the beach is two whole blocks from his building; or even the faraway sound of waves he thinks he can hear crashing on the shore,” she said, “A suspicious and alluring beauty, like the kind of music they play on carousels and that will sometimes come to Pedro; and this smell might also be connected to the engraving in the living room where the boy, sitting on a little horse, goes round and round, up and down.

“But, above all, you let Copacabana go to waste, since Pedro only ever writes about interiors,” she said. “All he has to do is go down to the streets of Rio and be around people, all these people and situations, from the day to day’s most prosaic and banal to sudden bursts of violence. All he has to do is go into any one of those little bars, where people go to mix and mingle, chatting and drinking on the terrace, for him to meet a gallery-full of characters. Even the humblest bartender in one of those establishments has already seen much more than you have, Fernando, or your character, Pedro. Well, it’s true that Pedro has watched life happening in other apartments, like the old lady in the building opposite his who watches TV at dawn with her dog napping beside her on the sofa; or the couple fucking carelessly, their figures barely lit by the sidling light from another room, the man possessing the woman, belly down. And Pedro is both fascinated and repulsed by that brutal and wild force of instinct (she laughed) ‘Brutal and wild force of instinct,’ please,” she said. “And why, pray tell, is he stricken soon after by the certainty that someone has jumped out the window of a neighboring building, maybe even his own, Pedro’s? Why that immediate association of sex with death? And in Pedro’s internal screen, and then on the screen of his obsolete computer, there’s a description of a man’s corpse covered in plastic with candles by his side, their flames blown out by the wind. And Pedro thinks he can smell the melted wax and, for some reason, he thinks of it as an almost mystical experience, which appeals to his Taoist side—as a smell lost in space. Because Tao, he knows, is everything, even the outlook of a depressed and tormented man.

“But what bothers me most are the moments Pedro leaves his body in order to observe himself in front of his computer, as if standing in the building opposite his. For God’s sake, it’s been done to death! The story of a writer suffering over a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen that he can fill any way he likes. Or in any way he can,” she said. “And how awful of him to fill it with the image of a corpse on the sidewalk. As a matter of fact, it bothers me—and a lot—when literature is the subject of literature, when a novel’s protagonist is an author who, more often than not, leads a lonely and mortifying life, struggling to write a book that’s always on the edge of failure, in a constant act of self-flagellation. You run the risk of having the readers ask themselves: Why doesn’t he just give up already and do something else?” she said. “And you can’t help explaining: because of how he’s failed in other parts of his life, two broken marriages, no children; a man with no stable profession, barely surviving on freelance writing jobs, proofreading and translating, it isn’t really admirable when he puts all his chips, all his hopes, on such a particular kind of love, and in literature, under the constant threat of failing in both, even if they aren’t inseparable in your novel.
“Yes,” she said, “Because even if Pedro lives his own kind of passion for Viviane, he also knows he only occupies a certain space and time in her attention and her heart. And that the only way to posses her completely is to write her into his story, into his book,” she said. “But, on the other hand, he also feels that to fully live this love, to be worthy of himself and of her, he must write her well, justifying himself, in his own eyes, for leading such a reclusive life. He feels almost inferior to Viviane, being, as he is, completely insecure in his writing and constantly running up against difficulties. And so we find ourselves once again in the Kingdom of Literature,” she said, “despite the fact that it is through Viviane, through her joy and her freedom, that Pedro—and his writing—live, are invaded by life—and why not tell the truth?—you too, Fernando. Through her and through Misael as well. Pedro alternates between being jealous of Misael and fascinated with him, for many reasons, but partly because he is a musician, an excellent musician, and because he’s black. And it’s this fascination that leads him to almost go mingle with the audience near a stage in Copacabana, just so that he can hear Misael play his saxophone with other musicians. And he also envies him because he’s pursuing an art that Pedro feels is more visceral than his own—Literature, again—in the same way that he envies Viviane because of her line of work, creating and painting patterns for dresses, wallpaper, tablecloths, etc, which allows her to live creatively and independently,” she said. “And though Pedro relapses now and then into feeling silently possessive, even in that great lapse at the end of the story, he knows he can’t restrict Viviane’s savage independence. She’s the one who seduces and nourishes him,” she said. “It would be fatal to their connection if he were to try to deprive her of that freedom. And it would be unthinkable for the two of them to lead a domestic life together.

“And I can even understand why Pedro would want to live his meetings with Viviane, an untamable bird, as you described her yourself, with such intensity,” she said, with a certain irony, “and also that he would want to make Viviane feel pleasure, so much pleasure that she would want to see him again. But to go from that to embellishing a fuck with beautiful phrases and lyricism—like you did at one point—that whole part about trying to penetrate the hidden secrets of Viviane’s body and being, to possess her completely, if only fleetingly, is a bunch of flowery nonsense.

“And it’s all tied to you, Fernando, to what I know of you,” she said. “The way Pedro lays his head on Viviane’s lap that time after making love (a term you used), feeling her pubic hair on his cheek, contemplating her sex, half-open, so that he can preserve that image in his mind, that opening to another world, while he makes her caress his hair. Excuse the pun, Fernando, but it’s as if you were literally trying to be deep. His relationship with her is childish, placing man in a weak and dependent position. And for pubic hair? Can’t you just say ‘bush’ like everyone else? And her half-open sex, my God,” she said. “I know it’s not easy to write about these things, but must you really speak so minutely of sex in your stories? And so it wasn’t surprising to me when Viviane became suddenly impatient, lit a cigarette and made up an excuse to leave. By the way, you yourself make it clear that for her to like Pedro, in her own way, she must be able to come and go at will, and to have other people in her life.

“But you also make it clear that ‘the other man,’ the real rival, and the dominant character in Pedro’s fantasies, is Misael. So much so that one night he finally gets up the courage to ask Viviane what it’s like to have sex with him. And when she smiles wide and says: ‘Oh, with Misael it’s different, Misael is cool like his music. He’s such a man,’ Pedro is mortified, but holds his own. And because he knows that Misael spends time at Viviane’s apartment with her ten year-old daughter, Rita, he ends up writing one of his story’s most beautiful scenes—and one of yours too, Fernando.

“That scene,” she said, “where Misael sits on the couch beside Rita, who is in her underwear, and they’re reading picture-books together, her head resting on his shoulder, while Viviane, also in her underwear, smokes a cigarette and irons a dress on the ironing board, there, in the living room with them. You write the best of yourself in that scene, Fernando,” she said. “And I thought it was lovely—just feminine enough, and very much Viviane—for her to be ironing a silver dress that glows, sparkling. And it’s also perfectly right and elegant, like his music, for Misael to be wearing an impeccable suit. Anyway, the scene has this barely suggested eroticism, a certain tenderness that the girl is also a part of. And on the table, there’s this black saxophone case. We assume, then, that Misael is going to play somewhere and that Viviane is going with him. I think it’s very sensitive of you to have put Pedro there, as if loving all three of them, even though he’s excluded from such scenes of domesticity, and wouldn’t feel comfortable in them either,” she says.

“But even though Viviane is so essential to Pedro, you never succeed in making her an autonomous character with an inner life of her own, since the story is never told from her point of view,” she said. “It’s always Pedro who is watching her, feeling her, imagining her. And though, on the one hand, I like that Viviane is only shown through her actions, her gestures and words, though always also through Pedro and his imagination, I can’t help but ask myself: why does she actually go there and give herself to him? I don’t know, though, maybe you were trying to let her actions alone speak for her, along with Pedro’s feelings and perceptions,” she said. “And it’s possible it’ll be up to the reader to fill in certain blanks. In any case, I filled them like this: Viviane is impressed by this man who devotes himself so desperately to his writing, as if it’s the only thing through which he could truly live, and who suffers when he has to interrupt his writing to work. And Viviane knows well enough that she occupies a fundamental place in his life and in his writing, despite how seldom they see each other. She knows that when she is absent, she fades, and so she plays her part fervently, authentically; she wouldn’t know how to do otherwise. She also knows that he is failing on his own terms, and she realizes how tragic the situation is, this man always on the edge of the abyss, unable to cope with certain failure,” she said. “So Viviane, who already has another—or many other—lovers who do not suffer this kind of illness, is in love with this threshold situation, in large part because she only has to live with it for as long as she wants to; Pedro, apart from in the last scene, always lets her leave, peacefully, never clinging to her, because he fears he will lose her if he overdoes his devotion to her. And we also know he knows how to make her his forever: to write her into his book, and to write her well. And that’s very important: that he not stoop, that he not beg for her love beyond what that love is. And so she gives herself generously and takes pleasure in it—what you describe of their fucking leads us to believe this. And even though she is satiated when she leaves him, or even saturated from such intensity, anxious for a lighter air, the time will come when she will feel the desire, the urge, to return to him,” she said. “At least this is how I would tell her story, the story of a through Viviane’s eyes. And please, don’t contradict German painter me because once a story’s told, it’s no longer yours.

“Most of the time, though, your character is met in New York with his writing, the shape of her body pervading his thoughts,” she said. “When we live moments of affection and love, these moments stay with us. And even more so for Pedro because he writes these moments into his book, sometimes stylizing them, others not. And this leads us to one of your most beautiful scenes, Fernando, because it is both brief and unpretentious. That scene where Viviane, who is sit- ting on Pedro’s lap, lightly rests her head on his chest as if she, all of a sudden, also needed quietness.

“And there is a certain saturation to Viviane, just like there is in her painting. It’s clear to me that what you’re trying to do here is to use the painting in another one of your own compositions. And since Viviane, who has quite refined taste, maybe in part because of her profession, was the one who gave Pedro the painting, it can’t possibly be simply figurative or conventional; this would constrain Pedro, who is a demanding man, interfering with his erotic representations and daydreams. And so you invoke the story of a German painter Viviane had once met in New York and who had de-composed and re-composed her naked body through figurative, as well as abstract and geometric elements, such as photography and collage, thereby producing, even in good humor, the study of the different and sometimes repeated fragments of Viviane’s body, but all in a way that preserves her, allowing the observer to become fulfilled through his senses, as well as permitting a certain sensuality. Anyway, the painting is Viviane, but studied and intensified, and Pedro likes the painting, likes having it in front of him when he is in bed. Isn’t it kind of monotonous, though, and exhausting for you to have tried to recreate in words a work of art that is of such a completely different nature?

“And what about that crucifix, Fernando, the one hanging on Pedro’s wall, behind his bed, right in front of the nude portrait of Viviane?” she asked. “This crucifix lets Pedro place the two forces that constitute his life—passion and asceticism, desire and sublimation—opposite each other. And I can’t help but ask myself, Fernando, whether you actually expect to find readers for these quasi-metaphysical conflicts. Or if you and Pedro, with your obstinate integrity, write only for yourselves,” she said. “But I guess it’s true that at least I did read it and I don’t find the connection that Pedro feels with the crucifix uninteresting. In a way, it’s almost as if he were offering himself as a sacrifice to Christ, handing his luck over to him in those moments of acute failure and loneliness, those moments that make him feel like he is a pariah, like he’s been disowned. Perhaps that image of Christ, and what he represents, discourage Pedro from planning that fatal gesture he is sometime haunted by. It discourages him because, among many other reasons, Christ was the founder of the religion Pedro was raised in, which condemns suicide. Pedro doesn’t put much faith in it, nor does he want to find out for himself whether its doctrines are true. In the same way that he simply doesn’t—and isn’t it the same with you, Fernando?—have the courage, in his deepest moments of frustration, to appeal to some satanic force to help him write.

“But what’s most important is that Pedro inherited the crucifix from his mother, who he sometimes evokes, almost inadvertently, in that image,” she said. “Since she was such a religious mother, never once questioning her faith, Pedro grants the possibility, miniscule as it might be, that somewhere beyond this world, his mother, or her soul, is still watching over him. It was both absurd and brave of you to write that prayer Pedro whispers: ‘Mother dearest, guide your son’s hand so that he may finish his book and love himself, and let his love for Viviane come into being and make him worthy of her love’,” she said. “But see, the moment he says that prayer, the love that actually materializes and becomes truly absolute for Pedro is not his love for his mother, the woman who died of cancer at sixty-eight, but his mother the beautiful thirty-year-old woman whose photo he keeps in the drawer of his bedside table. And, as if that weren’t enough, he begins longing madly for her to appear to him, if only in a dream—young, as she was in the photo. And you dared write that too, Fernando: Pedro, in a kind of trance or a waking dream, sees his mother, young, standing at the end of a long open space lined with statues, which resembles a temple. He walks over to his mother and embraces her, and then he begins to doubt whether maybe he loves her as a man loves a woman who isn’t his mother,” she said and laughed nervously. “It’s all so childish, so sentimental, so sublimely sub-literary that it might actually penetrate the defenses of less sophisticated or less well-prepared readers—readers who are also patient enough to get through your tangle of words.

“Yes, there’s that desire of yours, and of Pedro’s, to move your readers—and yourselves as well,” she said. “A desire manifested in the engraving of the carousel that hangs on the apartment wall, which you use to express nostalgia and lyricism, while running the risk of a cheap kind of sentimentality translated into images that, in principle, should only touch people with very naive taste. And Pedro is moved by these images. And since it would be difficult to believe Pedro had bought the engraving himself, you resort to coincidence, to luck, and explain that Pedro had found it in his apartment left there by a previous tenant; and that Pedro had accepted this good fortune, while also recognizing his own sentimentality with a certain sincere self-awareness. And so he decides to leave the engraving where he found it, the only work of art that hangs in his empty living room,” she said.

“In an outdated impressionistic style, the engraving shows a carousel lighting up a park at night, in Paris, the most obvious of cities, with typical Parisian buildings in the background and, in the distance, the Eiffel Tower,” she said. “There are tired traces of surrealism, a pierrot and a harlequin mounted on little carousel horses; and then there’s a heavily made up woman dressed as a lady of the night with pearly thighs just visible beneath her black dress—she’s seated on another horse, as if she were reliving some childhood moment with absolute purity.

“You make it quite clear that a man on his own survives on fantasy alone. A fantasy that, at one point, leads Pedro to see in the barely outlined face of the carousel operator—pale and ghost-like—the face of a sickly writer trying desperately to give birth to beautiful forms. Now and then, this fantasy also leads Pedro to hear carousel music, which sometimes even brings tears to his eyes.

“In these moments, Pedro, as you yourself wrote, is transported to his childhood; he sees himself close-up as a boy of nine or ten riding a small yellow horse that goes up and down, going round and round to the sound of the music. It’s as if the images in the engraving moved; Pedro sees the boy take the hand of a girl about his age who’s riding the little red horse next to his, as if it were a hallucination. And his heart races because he’s found himself a girlfriend and he never wants the carousel ride to end,” she said. “As sentimental as it might seem, I don’t dislike this scene, Fernando, not even from a literary perspective. It moves me when you write these kinds of scenes. Your novel is a love story. But, it’s odd how solitary—and, you could even say, introspective—it is.

“You also never cease to remind us, Fernando, that we’re in a story that Pedro isn’t only living, but also writing. And both these things make his heart beat even harder, not only because he recognizes the emotional risk he’s taking, but also because of how uncertain the end is that his words might lead him to. And it’s clear that his beating heart is also yours, Fernando. Even though there is no Viviane in your life, from what I know of you, you also live intensely, as if what you wrote were real. In a way, I’m retelling your novel, which is now reaching its end, so that it becomes clearer to you—clearer to the both of us.

“And so, suddenly, with no warning to the reader or even to Pedro, we reach the denouement: Viviane is moving abroad, having been offered a job with a design firm in Milan. She tells Pedro the news over the phone, just a week before her flight, to avoid making him suffer more than necessary. And she makes a date with him— as always, in his apartment—at 9pm, two days before her flight. Because they’ll be saying goodbye, Pedro expects their encounter to be slower and more emotional than usual; he expects to be left, more than ever before, with the feeling that Viviane will remain with him forever; and, who knows, perhaps he hopes their encounter will leave a lasting mark on her, too. And so he buys expensive Italian wine, as if to show her that he’s happy for her and for her move, which represents a leap, professionally. But since Pedro knows that Viviane doesn’t really drink, isn’t the Italian wine really the sign of a plan (which is, as yet, unclear) to get her to stay longer, and maybe even get her drunk? And so he serves them both a glass, toasting to her health and to her success, while Viviane toasts to his book.

“But Viviane is Viviane and she makes it clear to him that she’s only stopping by and has every intention of going out afterward, to a nightclub in Lapa where she’ll say goodbye to her friends and acquaintances. And she invites Pedro, even though she knows he won’t go since he doesn’t dance and he wouldn’t want to suffer the ordeal of having to watch her dance and socialize with other men, while he sits abandoned at a table by himself, growing more and more depressed.

“And it’s natural at that moment,” she said, “for Pedro, who is hurting from losing Viviane and also feeling jealous, to think of Misael. And I found it interesting that Pedro thought of him as a kind of accomplice, since they are both faced with Viviane’s imminent departure, especially when he finds out that the musician will not be at the club and that they had said their goodbyes the night before,” she said. “I liked that Pedro found it sweet that, the other night, Viviane had gone to see Misael play and that he had dedicated a new composition to her: a song in which he tried to say something about the passing of time, a composition made up of beautiful chords, possibly even moving, but without a trace of melancholy—that’s how Viviane describes it. She also said that she had felt immensely happy, crying freely. And Pedro knows they’ll inevitably have fucked afterward, that’s the verb you yourself used, Fernando, and used well,” she laughed. “But poor Pedro can’t stop thinking enviously of how Misael must have other women to help him ease the pain of losing Viviane. And that even as he played a song for her there were women in the crowd who probably wanted him; while he, Pedro, only had Viviane—that is, a part of her—and a solitary and uncertain novel; what’s more, one that was inextricably linked to her.

“But Pedro also realizes that he can’t waste what little time he has left with Viviane, who is, incidentally, electric and exuberant while she talks about all her plans for Italy. And then Pedro’s attention zooms in on a gesture Viviane makes, which fills him madly with desire. Raising her dress, she takes a little cellophane-wrapped package of weed from her underwear. And she says, with a laugh, that the devil’s in that pot.

“Now I’ve got to say, Fernando, all the fear, all the terror, that Pedro carries inside himself and that might come out after he lights up scares me, and a lot. It’s true: some people become paranoid when they smoke weed and Viviane warned him about the devil in it, but Pedro is a suggestible guy and Viviane also said, laughing, that the pot probably smelled and tasted like her pussy. To her, the devil’s a cheerful little thing, and as soon as she’s taken two hits, she stops the Anton Webern music—Anton Webern, only you could possibly choose that, Fernando—and replaces it with electronic music, a CD that you, opportunely, have her leave at his apartment on a previous visit. Viviane starts dancing in front of Pedro and her breasts bounce in the décolleté of her loose dress, her underwear flashing, exacerbating Pedro’s desire for her. Pedro, his senses heightened by the pot, visualizes Viviane’s cunt, with intensity, an image he wants to preserve that night—yes, Fernando, you, your imagination and writing also heightened, dare to say, to write—and with pleasure—such a crude word as ‘cunt.’

“And when he begs her, with a voice that seems to come from deep inside him: ‘Stay!’ I have to say, Fernando, it touched me and made me think of all the millions of people who, from the beginning of time, have desperately begged: ‘Stay!’ But Viviane is and will always be Viviane and all she can say is: ‘I’ll stay for now, and I’ll sleep with you, but then I’m going out to Lapa. You can come if you want.’

“But it’s obvious he wouldn’t go,” she said. “Instead, he starts cooking up an insane plan about slipping a sleeping pill into Viviane’s wine to stop her from leaving. After taking two more hits, he starts hallucinating, fantasizing about everything that could possibly happen to Viviane if she were to leave his apartment on her own—exposed, as she is, in the little clothing she’s wearing—and take a cab to Lapa, where she is grabbed by two thugs who push her into a car and take her into the jungle on one of the Santa Teresa hills, then rape and kill her. And even then, you don’t let go of beauty. You aestheticize everything, as if you were trying to redeem yourself of all the crimes you’d committed on paper. And for how many more crimes in your head? Why are perverted writers so obsessed with writing beautiful things? And aren’t you also one of those writers? But, going back to Pedro, it’s as if, faced with the loss of that part of Viviane that belongs to him, he punishes her for her vitality, for her courage and her freedom. And yet, he still loves her and worries for her. This is what humans are like. At the same time, it’s as if the devil had freed his possessive side, feelings he used to have under control. And it’s no coincidence he chose the Santa Teresa hills. The wind shaking the bushes, the rustling of the brush mixing with the buzzing of the insects, the city, glowing, and the Rio-Niterói bridge sparkling with luminous cars. And a ship crosses the bay, emitting a deep sound, both long and piercing. A landscape that, from up there, where the body is, can’t be seen by anyone, and has the appearance of a metaphysical mystery. And then there’s the cat. A cat with flashing eyes that walks over to Viviane’s pearly body and licks her. It’s macabre, but in a lugubrious way. And above all there’s the feeling of death that will stay with Pedro once Viviane goes to Europe,” she said.

“And so, Fernando, you, by using a narrative device, you have Viviane go to the bathroom, which gives Pedro time to quickly take a sleeping pill from the drawer where he keeps his meds and slip it into her glass of wine, which he fills up again, reassuring himself that he’s actually saving her from all the dangers he’d imagined. The idea had already crossed his mind, like a brief spark, but it was Viviane’s sudden affection for him that had made him finally put it into action. Touched by how pale he’d turned, and by his silence, she had said: ‘Wait a sec, hon, I’m just going to go to the bathroom and then I’ll be with you.’ And, on the way, she’d turned off the noisy, rhythmic electronic music. When Viviane comes back to the living room, the sleeping pill has already dissolved in her wine and it isn’t too difficult for Pedro to get Viviane to join him in taking a few more sips, claiming they’re in honor of her move. And the way Viviane pulls him into his room, saying ‘Come with me, honey,’ is extremely tender.

“And it’s there, Fernando, that you have Viviane act unexpectedly, revealing a sensitivity that both enthralls and surprises Pedro, since he doesn’t see in it the effects of the wine she drank or the sleeping pill she took. In fact, it’s as if she knew exactly how to behave on such a night, so that she would remain delicate and precious in his mind. No sexual acrobatics, no excesses, no signs of the spirited Viviane in the preliminaries of love. She simply slips off her clothes, intimately and with ease, draping her dress on a chair. Then she gracefully lies down on the bed, her legs open, slightly, both hiding and revealing her greatest intimacy. With a small smile and with her eyes on Pedro, but also looking inward, it’s almost as if she were saying, ‘Go on, take me, keep me with you, use me in your book.’ And so we’re reminded once again that this is literature, too. Though it’s also as if she were saying: ‘Take me, because right now I am all yours.’ And when he has undressed, after gazing at her at length and caressing her slowly, after he lies on her and penetrates her, she sighs and says—and I hope I’m saying this right: ‘Ah, Pedro!’

“Despite being something so small, almost nothing at all, it is the most expressive and most beautiful sentence you’ve written, Fernando . . .” she said. “And maybe I shouldn’t ruin it with commentary but for me it’s as if, through those simple words, Viviane had finally recognized and reaffirmed everything that had happened between them; that theirs was one of the many forms love can take. And, at that moment, not only does she give him her blessing, her surrender, but she also gives him her gratitude. Through her docility, through that sigh—probably affected by now by the mixture of the sleeping pill and the wine, even though you don’t explicitly mention it—it’s as if Viviane had finally let her quieter side surface—like that time when she rested her head on his chest—her introspective and sweetly sorrowful side, which almost always remains dormant, or at least seems to. A part of her that can be covered by a shadow, by a feeling for which I can’t find the right word and that is hidden within even the most lively of people, which Viviane doesn’t stop being at that moment. But I think she harmonizes with and also shares Pedro’s crucial moment, those suspended instants between possession and the end. My god, I’m being so serious and solemn right now, speaking for you like this when you knew to use the simple phrase: ‘Ah, Pedro!’”

“Pedro tries to delay coming for as long as possible, which is natural. Perhaps it was also plausible for you to write that when Viviane comes it’s like she’s dropping into a vacuum, and she falls asleep almost immediately, with Pedro still inside her—and so we are faced with absolute possession, absolute submission. And this is what is simultaneously beautiful and monstrous about your novel, Fernando. The direction—despite all the freedom that Pedro seems to concede Viviane, at least within himself—you make the novel take. Yes, toward the monstrous, and perhaps even the perverse side of the artist. You, Fernando, instead of allowing love and time to follow their course after her exclamation, instead of letting Viviane get on with her night—why not end it there?—you give Pedro time, plenty of time, to have absolute power over her, with the certainty that when Viviane wakes up, she’ll think she simply fell asleep because of the wine,” she said.

“And the time Pedro has, before he exhausts himself in her sleeping body— and how many people’s fantasies are you fulfilling there, Fernando?—is elastic enough so that he, without ever failing to intensely feel the body he is penetrating, can compose a scene in his mind that translates his anguish into a final and absolute completeness, both in love and in his novel,” she said. “One in which he is seen possessing Viviane, but from the outside. Alert to everything, not only does he see her real, physical body, but he also sees the representation of her in that painting, where she is deconstructed in fragments and signs, both erotic and intellectual. It’s as if Pedro were taking possession, sexually, on that last night, not only of Viviane’s body, but also of her pretentious, and perhaps sophisticated, artistic replica. And you take this to the extreme by having Pedro also become aware of the crucifix, which gives the room an aura of sanctity and sacrifice and gives sex an even more exciting, sinful quality. But, my God, how pompous of you. And won’t readers simply ask themselves: at the end of the day, isn’t this just a fuck?” she said and briefly laughed.

“As if that weren’t enough, Pedro allows himself the luxury of hearing, within himself, the faraway sound of waves beating on Copacabana Beach and, glancing toward the living room, he sees the fleshy nocturnal flowers turning toward the night and toward the sea breeze, whose smell wafts in through the open window; and both that smell and the velvety smell of the flowers—as you write—make him even more aware of Viviane’s sex, since you associate it with those flowers, in a comparison of very dubious taste, though I don’t deny you need courage to articulate it,” she said. “And, as if his senses were boundless, he then hears the carousel music and sees himself mounting one of those horses, with Viviane behind him, spinning and spinning, going up and down,” she said.

“But Pedro also knows that he won’t be able to hold back much longer and, in another, even more extreme moment of affectation, when he once again has eyes only for Viviane—and also incarnating his rival, Misael, comparing himself to him, since he knows he also composes his own music in words—, he thinks he can hear Misael’s saxophone, as if played with a mute.

“We’ll never know what might have happened to him afterward, but how else could he have felt after his orgasm, but sad and clumsy, while Viviane, I think, when she awoke hours later, must have felt confused and lost in time. But no, the end of your novel, and of Pedro, happens before that, when he indulges in those moments of a possession and perception that are both amplified and absolute, and in which time seems to stop. Moments of composition that aim for perfection and are, therefore, inhuman. And, Fernando, in those imaginary moments of perfection, instead of any theory of love, isn’t there, in fact, a spiritual crime?”

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Big Blue WhaleSérgio Sant’anna is the author of seventeen works of fiction, poetry, and theater. He has won the Prêmio Jabuti, one of Brazil’s most prestigious literary prizes, four times, most recently for O voo da madrugada (The Flight of Dawn), which was also awarded the APCA prize.

Brazilian by birth, Julia Sanches translates from Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, and French. Her book-length translations have been published by or are forthcoming from And Other Stories and Deep Vellum. She currently lives in New York City.

“Between the Lines” originally appeared in Big Blue Whale (TLR, Summer 2016)