Antonio Candido, of whom I was a pupil and a friend, was the central figure in Brazilian literary criticism from the 1940s onwards. While very young, he started writing weekly newspaper tailpieces, first for the Folha da Manhã and then the Diário de São Paulo, which soon earned him a national reputation. These articles remain interesting today, for the quality of their prose and the discernment with which they followed day-to-day publishing, whether Brazilian, European or North American. He also co-founded the cultural magazine Clima, which ran from 1941 to 1944. Advanced aesthetic positions combined with militant anti-fascism and opposition to Stalinism made for an uncommon clarity of mind that did not age with the years. At a time when the Vargas dictatorship was persecuting the left, and the Communists, victims themselves, were persecuting in their turn, his stance called for courage. Thus, for example, in 1943, by greeting Trotsky’s autobiography with an essay entitled ‘An Exemplary Life’, the young critic was exposing himself to possible reprisals from both sides. (At that time, the epithet ‘Trotskyite’ was one of the gravest insults in the language of politics.) He was active in the clandestine opposition to the dictatorship, the Frente de Resistência, later participating in the political developments that led to the formation of the independent Partido Socialista Brasileiro in 1947. For the next three years he edited the party paper, Folha Socialista. He withdrew from active politics in 1954, while remaining a member of the psb—then, decades later, in 1980, returned to militancy as a founding member of the Partido dos Trabalhadores, in which he remained active until Lula’s election to the Brazilian presidency in 2002. For all that, however, aesthetic and political positions are not enough as an intellectual characterization. Antonio Candido was above all a critic and a teacher, and one with a rare sense of cultural strategy, in the face of the pressing concerns arising in a marginal, backward country for which literary theory had no name. It fell to the critic to deprovincialize Brazil, avoiding both obtuse nationalist introversion and subaltern fascination with metropolitan trends. This has been one of the lasting tonic effects of his work.

Antonio Candido grew up in south-eastern Brazil, on his father’s side descended from the minor rural oligarchy of Minas Gerais, in an atmosphere gravid with political and economic archaism. Among his memories of Cássia, the town where he spent his childhood, was that social contact with ex-slaves was normal. His mother’s family was one of well-off public officials and doctors from Rio de Janeiro, which was at that time the national capital and an ostensibly civilized milieu. His intimate knowledge of these two spheres—for good or ill, the axes of the country—was matchless, preserved in an immense repertoire of lively, illuminating anecdotes. This form of knowledge, at once compelling and singular, lent his critical work—especially the essays on Brazilian fiction—an unrepeatable quality, a capacity for apt and subtle contextualization that academic debates over method cannot capture.

Candido graduated in Social Sciences in 1941, in one of the earliest cohorts from the Faculty of Philosophy in the newly created University of São Paulo. The era of self-education, which had been a feature of the national culture all along, was now nearing its end. With great good judgement and a bit of luck, the founders of the new institution recruited an astonishing team of academics from France, young unknowns including, among others, Roger Bastide, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Fernand Braudel, Jean Maugüé, Pierre Monbeig and Martial Guéroult. The shock to the local environment must have been great. As for how it affected the formation of a young literary critic, let us say that the judgement of taste was being radically transformed: no longer argued in the scant terms of general culture, it would now rest on the new human sciences. Fuelling the dynamic of academic research on its various developing fronts, it was producing a new style of aesthetic reasoning, one more in keeping with the demands of the time.

Antonio Candido’s central work, a book that circulates far outside the literary field, is his Formação da literatura brasileira: momentos decisivos (1959). This is a study of fundamental significance that not only constructs the formation of a national literary space but also makes the latter an object of reflection with relevance to the contemporary world. As an analysis of individual works, the book refreshes the reading of every one—not just a few—that it discusses. As a work including general conceptualization, it proposes a sober, unmystified model of what might be the transition, in the plane of culture, from a colonial condition to that of an independent country. This has great interest for the study of decolonization. The formation of a national literature, as counterposed to the colonial order, configures a large-scale historical structure that neither begins nor ends with official political independence; nor is it accounted for by the usual platitudes on the topic. Once correctly perceived, this historical assemblage forms a distinct period and a unified object with its own logic and specific issues. While every case is singular, the problematic holds generally. The goals, paradoxes and illusions of this process, uncovered and studied by the author of the Formação, are a little-understood part of the contemporary world. The essay ‘Literature and Underdevelopment’, from 1970, offers a magisterial synthesis.footnote1

A delicate historical feel for the differences that separate the literature of the ex-colony from its European models is one of the special strengths of this work. With unfailing impartiality, Candido notes and analyses the discrepancies, which may signal aesthetic inferiority but also its opposite. The original is not always superior to the copy—which, even involuntarily, is capable of innovation. The discovery—the word is not excessive—of the peculiarities of art and mentality associated with decolonization opens a world sui generis. While continuing to respect the categories of the European matrix, the aesthetic choices and cast of mind work differently, calling for a new kind of comparativism. The similarities in terms and the differences in content together define a situation historically characteristic of the world’s peripheries, which Antonio Candido set about disentangling in some of his most important essays.footnote2 Without any prescriptive purpose in mind, he effectively gave us a critical roadmap equal to the novelty and complexity of the ex-colonial situation.