The tales in this collection are translated from an imaginary work, Azulejos, by an imaginary author, Fernandes de Briao. To the best of my knowledge he has no existence and has never existed, though without his very real guidance I would not have had access to the mystical “Portugal” of the stories …
By Joyce Carol Oates
From the prize-winning novelist and author of the recent highly successful The Goddess and Other Women comes a new book of stories that shows still a different facet of Miss Oates’s incredible talent: another milieu, characters quite other than those she has so magnificently drawn in her previous work. As Miss Oates writes in a Note to the book, these stories seem to have been written through the influence of an unknown, a Portuguese, whom she calls Fernandes. Although Miss Oates has never been to Portugal, she captures the atmosphere of persons and places precisely, writing of a world she has never known but that she sees almost clairvoyantly.
. . .¡Oh noche, que guiaste, Oh noche amable más que el alborada: Oh noche, que juntaste Amado con amada, Amada en el Amado transformada!*
—St. John of the Cross
*. . Oh night that was my guide!
Oh darkness dearer than the morning’s pride,
Oh night that joined the lover
To the beloved bride
Transfiguring them each into the other!
(translated by Roy Campbell, in St. John of the Cross, Poems 1960)
The tales in this collection are translated from an imaginary work, Azulejos, by an imaginary author, Fernandes de Briao. To the best of my knowledge he has no existence and has never existed, though without his very real guidance I would not have had access to the mystical “Portugal” of the stories—nor would I have been compelled to recognize the authority of a world-view quite antithetical to my own.
“…the most compelling and sustained analysis of The Poisoned Kiss … manages to synthesize and greatly expand upon earlier critical insights, as well as correct some previous misjudgments …” from The Poisoned Kiss Revealed.
In November of 1970, while I was occupied as usual with my own writing, I began to dream about and to sense, while awake, some other life, or vision, or personality…. Since my mind is always receptive to a multiplicity of stimuli, this did not seem to me unusual. One day I wrote a story that was strange to me, a highly abstract story set nowhere at all; I did not understand the story and in a way I felt it was not my own. I could not make sense of it and set it aside; ultimately it became “Our Lady of the Easy Death of Alferce.”
The Fernandes stories came out of nowhere: not out of an interest in Portugal (which I have never visited), or a desire to write parables to pierce through the density of existential life that I dramatize in my own writing. I much prefer the synthesis of the “existential” and the “timeless” in my own fiction; I believe that writing should re-create a world, sanctifying the real world by honoring its complexities.
If I did not concentrate deliberately on my own work, or if I allowed myself to daydream or become overly exhausted, my mind would move—it would seem to swerve or leap—into “Portugal.” There seemed to be a great pressure, a series of visions, that demanded a formal, aesthetic form; I was besieged by Fernandes—story after story, some no more than sketches or paragraphs that tended to crowd out my own writing. I was able to alternate a “Fernandes” story with one of my own or with a chapter from the novel I was writing (Wonderland), as a kind of bargain; otherwise, Fernandes would have overwhelmed me.
The only way I could accept these stories was to think of them as a literary adventure, or a cerebral/Gothic commentary on my own writing, or as the expression of a part of my personality that had been stifled. Yet I was never able to designate myself as the author of the stories; they were all published under the name “Fernandes,” and I was listed as having translated them “from the Portuguese.”
Contrary to what one might believe, an experience like this—either real or imagined “possession”—is not really disturbing. Fernandes drifted into my life at a time when I was in normal health, and while his stories drained some of my energy, I was able to keep up with my own writing and my university teaching without much difficulty. It seemed that there was a harmony in what I did, without knowing what it was or why I did it; it seemed to be an almost impersonal function.
Since this experience, I have been reading voluminously in parapsychology, mysticism, the occult and related subjects, but so far I have not been able to comprehend, to my own satisfaction, what really happened. There is a considerable difference between reading about something and actually experiencing it, a lesson that intellectually oriented people must learn again and again, at times to their chagrin. My fairly skeptical and existential attitude toward life was not broad enough to deal with the phenomenon I myself experienced, and yet, at the present time, I find it difficult to accept alternative “explanations.”
Repeatedly, one is brought back to the paradox that one can experience the world only through the self—through the mind—but one cannot know, really, what the “self” is. Does the brain contain the mind? Does the brain generate the mind? Is the brain a kind of organic mechanism, in each of us unique as a mechanism, through which a larger transhuman or trans-species consciousness is somehow filtered? But what would the nature of this consciousness be, and what human being could ever delude himself into imagining he might deal with it, especially in words?
Fernandes retreated when his story seemed to be complete. A kind of harmony or resolution must have been established, and the manuscript came to an end. Years later, writing this afterword, I am almost tempted to return to my earliest and most conventional diagnosis of the experience and claim it to be only “metaphorical”—the stories, the book they gradually evolved into, the afterword itself. But in truth none of it was metaphorical, any more than you and I are metaphorical.
Joyce Carol Oates
New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Araújo, Susana. “Joyce Carol Oates’s Transatlantic Personae: Fernando Pessoa and Jorge Luis Borges in the USA.”Atlantic Studies. 7.1 (2010): 63-78. Print.
Monteiro, George. “Blue Tiles: Joyce Carol Oates.”The Presence of Pessoa: English, American, and Southern African Literary Responses. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. 77-85. Print.
Padgett, Jacqueline Olson. “The Portugal of Joyce Carol Oates.”Studies in Short Fiction. 31.4 (1994): 675-682. Print.
Bender, Eileen T. “Between the categories: Recent Short Fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.”Studies in Short Fiction. 17.4 (1980): 415-423. Print.
Malin, Irving. “Possessive Material.”Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979. 39-41. Print.
Giles, James R. “Oates’ ‘The Poisoned Kiss.'”Canadian Literature. 80 (1979): 138-147. Print.
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