In this interview, M. Elizabeth Ginway, who wrote the introduction of the MLA’s new translation of Sphinx: A Neo-Gothic Novel from Brazil, discusses the recent renewed interest in Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto’s work, the novel’s treatment of gender, the appeal of Sphinx, and the courses that might benefit from teaching it.
MLA: As you note in the introduction, Coelho Neto was a “literary tour de force” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his works eventually fell out of favor. What is the reason for the renewed interest in his work in recent years?
Ginway: Born in 1864, Coelho Neto was part of a generation that believed in literary erudition and virtuosity in using the Portuguese language. This elegance and panache became an object of ridicule for younger Brazilian modernist writers influenced by the European vanguard of futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism. For them, it was important for literature to depict Brazil’s popular argot and spoken language. For this reason, Coelho Neto’s work fell into oblivion in Brazil in the 1920s, although it continued to be republished in Portugal. It was not until the 1990s that Brazilian science fiction critics, among them Braulio Tavares, began recovering early Brazilian speculative fiction that included works by Coelho Neto, who did not shy away from the popular genres of horror and fantasy. Increased interest in the Latin American gothic has also brought Coelho Neto to the attention of a new generation of academic critics.
MLA: In what ways does Sphinx comment on gender, and how does it diverge from or foreshadow current ideas about gender and gender identity?
Ginway: Coelho Neto was influenced by esoteric thought that included speculation about the spiritual quest of the soul for transcendence, to be achieved through the balance of dualities and cosmic forces (light and dark, infinite and finite, male and female). In this spirit, Coelho Neto created the protagonist of Sphinx, James Marian, the product of a mysterious form of surgery, who has a woman’s head and a man’s body. Like most people of his time and place, Coelho Neto generally had a binary understanding of gender, so it is not surprising that Sphinx reflects a certain ambivalence about James Marian, whose presence disrupts the lives of those around him. However, Coelho Neto’s protagonist does anticipate modern concepts of transgender identity. Indeed, the novel ends with the idea that James Marian’s purpose is to enlighten people to other, more fluid ways of being that prefigure current ideas about gender.
MLA: In what courses can you envision Sphinx on the syllabus, and to what effect?
Ginway: Written in 1908, Sphinx can provide a historical precedent for modern conceptions of gender. Given its brevity, it is an ideal literary text for courses on gender, sexuality, and transgender studies. At the same time, it offers an international perspective on the topic, thus adding to the corpus of works in English that includes Gregory Casparian’s An Anglo-American Alliance, Barry Pain’s Exchange of Souls, and Michael Arlen’s Hell! Said the Duchess. Coelho Neto’s novel is also suited to science fiction courses, because it reworks the Frankenstein theme, adding new angles to the idea of creator and creation while contributing to debates about gender and identity and gender and genre. Sphinx would also be a good adoption in courses on the gothic and horror genres, given its similarities to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Finally, the original Portuguese edition could be used in courses on Brazilian literature and culture, while the English translation would make the text accessible to those teaching courses on Latin American science fiction.
MLA: What will today’s readers find enjoyable in reading Sphinx?
Ginway: The appeal of Sphinx is first and foremost its unique treatment of gender and sexuality through its use of speculative fiction. Beyond its deceivingly realist portrait of a boardinghouse in Rio lies a narrative that erodes certainties, destabilizes a solid sense of place, and challenges the borders between genders and genres. The embedded text of James Marian’s diary provides moments of magic, discovery, terror, and otherworldliness that surprise and entertain readers. The variety of settings—including Rio, Sweden, India, and England—give it a cosmopolitan feel, while life in the boardinghouse offers a sense of local Brazilian society during the belle epoque. Kim F. Olson’s translation captures the aristocratic preciosity of the original while also providing a lively narrative style for contemporary readers.