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Rare and commonplace flowers : the story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de… (edition 2002)

by Carmen L. Oliveira

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Title:Rare and commonplace flowers : the story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares
Authors:Carmen L. Oliveira
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Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen L. Oliveira

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​What is a biographer telling us when she ends her book with an epigraph from Titus Livius: “Scribitur ad narrandum, non ad probandum,” translated as “One writes to narrate, not to prove”? Has she used the story of poet Elizabeth Bishop and her lover Lota de Macedo Soares, a self-taught Brazilian architect, as the scaffolding for what Truman Capote called a “nonfiction novel”? A best-seller in Brazil, this dual biography does indeed read like a work of fiction, which means, in this case, dramatic scenes, dialogue, flashbacks and flash forwards, shifting of tense from past to present, and a lively narrator who treats her two principal subjects as characters trying to work out their individual destinies through their devotion to one another.
​Yet Carmen L. Oliveira does not ignore the apparatus biographers employ to authenticate their narratives. Her bibliography shows that she has steeped herself in Bishop’s writing, consulted more than a dozen Brazilian newspapers and magazines, and familiarized herself with an extensive array of secondary sources. She lists as sources five separate collections of letters, other primary evidence, and thirty interviews. In a textual note she explains that the names of seven important characters in the book are pseudonyms. This resort to unidentified witnesses troubles some biographers, but Oliveira surmounts this problem by making each witness a full-fledged character. We know, for example, that Bishop will never please the hostile Vivinha, who maintains that the poet was a leech who literally bled her dynamic friend Lota to death. Yet Vivinha has to be believed—not for what she says but for who she is: one of the many who could not tolerate the presence of the needy, alcoholic, and aloof Bishop in their generous, extroverted friend’s life. What Vivian saw was a powerful Brazilian woman almost single-handedly creating Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro (equivalent to New York City’s Central Park) while Bishop sulked through prolonged periods of writer’s block and demanded everything of her seemingly indomitable lover. In the end, Soares was defeated by the machinations of male professional city planners, politicians, government bureaucrats, and a selfish lover.
​Oliveira knows this is not the whole story. She knows that Soares found Bishop an inspiring genius, and that the poet wrote some of her greatest work during her fifteen years in Brazil, even though she seemed paralyzed much of the time. In the end, Lota wanted Elizabeth all for herself as much as Elizabeth wanted Lota. That these women were, for all their differences, two of a kind, is never stated in the biography, yet the narrator deftly implies as much. The two women lived in a house and a setting that was a complete, if remote world:
The place was at the end of the earth. The house that Lota was offering as a dwelling didn’t even have electric light. When it rained, the road became impassable, sealing them off from the rest of the world. All around their ladyships, scantily dressed mestizos spoke an incomprehensible language.
​The biographer never pretends that she is not dealing with intractable reality; the gaps in the story are not elided by transitions that skip over what the biographer does not know. Instead, Oliveira’s speculations provide a deeper understanding of her subjects and their milieu even if the “facts” are not ascertainable, as when Bishop encounters Lilli Correia de Araújo:
Perhaps because of the massive walls of Lilli’s house, perhaps because of Lilli’s calm voice, perhaps because of the blue of the sky; perhaps because of the fundamental reality of the mountains; perhaps because of the languid sensation conveyed to her by the town with its hills from another century to be climbed without hurrying; perhaps because of all this at once, Bishop uncharacteristically gave in to an impulse. She bought a big eighteenth-century house that was falling to pieces.
In such passages, the full experience of Bishop’s life comes hurtling toward us—subdued only slightly by all those perhapses.
​I think Oliveira also means something else when she suggests her intention is to narrate, not to prove. By not including notes to her biography—you know, those references keyed to page numbers at the back of the book that make your eyes swim—she has eschewed the biographer’s always somewhat bogus claim to have documented reality. Biography is not the sum of its documentation; a story always goes beyond its sources.
​Narration, of course, has its limits. Telling one story means not telling another, and so there is much about Bishop, for example, that we do not learn. But the answer to one biography is always another biography—in this instance Brett C. Millier’s Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Oliveira provides only a terse explanation for Bishop’s introverted behavior. From Millier we learn that Bishop's earliest years were spent in Great Village, Nova Scotia. Her father died eight months after she was born, and her mother had a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. Bishop spent her childhood with uncomprehending relatives--first in Nova Scotia and then in Massachusetts. Though she eventually found family members who tolerated her precociousness, she was never at ease in any home and, except for her fifteen years in Brazil, never really settled down anywhere.
A biographer with less aesthetic finesse would have included more background information on both women. Oliveira understands that her biography is less concerned with proof than with the particular story she has to tell.
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  carl.rollyson | Nov 11, 2012 |
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