Elizabeth Bishop -- in person and in her poetry -- was wry, discreet and a little peculiar. A Vassar girl and a disciple of Marianne Moore, Bishop rejected the confessional, politicized bent of her contemporaries. (She refused even to be included in anthologies of women's poetry.) Shunted about unhappily as a child, Bishop chose as her theme displacement, and as her aesthetic self-abnegation: a sometimes arid neutrality, the opposite of attention seeking.
How stunning, then, to learn that the love of Bishop's life was a swaggering Brazilian woman, the aristocratic self-trained architect Lota de Macedo Soares. A bold and funny self-promoter, Soares spearheaded the development of Parque do Flamengo, an elaborate public park in the center of Rio de Janeiro.
There was a fairy-tale intensity to the women's romance, which began when Soares nursed Bishop back to health during what was intended to be a brief visit to Brazil. Instead, Bishop stayed on, and the couple nested happily together for 12 years, spending much of their time in the ultramodern home Soares had designed in nearby Samambaia. But the love affair that began blissfully ended in sorrow: alcoholism, depression, adultery and, finally, suicide. ''Rare and Commonplace Flowers'' is an account of this romance, and in its mix of novelistic techniques and biographical reportage, it might well have appalled the more introverted of its two subjects.
''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. Oliveira is hardly alone in this sort of genre bending: the past several years have witnessed many fiction-inflected biographies, most notably Edmund Morris's ''Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan.'' 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.''
In any case, Soares was a character made for a novelistic treatment. She was charismatic to a fault -- the type of person all Rio wanted at their parties -- but also bullying and monomaniacal. Where Bishop tended toward paralyzing self-criticism, Soares possessed a grandiose ambition that was both admirable and, when she was thwarted, painful. Even while enmeshed in the bureaucratic tangle that would eventually defeat her, she had the chutzpah to send the governor of the state of Guanabara (basically Rio de Janeiro), who was her biggest political ally, an outrageous letter proposing herself as his successor and wryly comparing herself with other candidates. Politics is the art of conquering, she pontificated: ''After five years in government I hope to have all the members of the House, if not on my side, then at least incapacitated and impotent.'' (She also promised to finish all the governor's projects ''except for those that don't please me,'' and to replace his statues of thin women with statues of fat ones, both because the thin women were an ''unpatriotic allusion to the state of our underdevelopment'' and because fat women better resembled Soares herself!)
''Rare and Commonplace Flowers'' has become a Brazilian best seller, and one can see why. For although the book is superficially an exploration of a love affair, it is also deeply concerned with national identity, the nature of the Brazilian character and the effort to build Brazilian cities. Much of the latter half dramatizes Soares's doomed attempt to gain control over her park project. To an American reader, unfortunately, these hyperdetailed political wranglings quickly become confusing; they are, at heart, the notes of urban-planning meetings. And despite the novelistic sheen, and the intrinsically dramatic elements of the story being told -- Bishop's drinking binges and eventual infidelity, Soares's drastic descent into depression and suicide -- the book becomes surprisingly sketchy as it progresses. (In an introductory note, the translator, Neil K. Besner, describes his difficulties with the more florid rhythms of Portuguese, and perhaps these gave the original more dramatic tug.)
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