Near to the Wild Heart

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Clarice Lispector

As part of its World Book Night coverage, the BBC did manage to finally produce a reasonably interesting programme about books, focusing on twelve debut novels. Whether the novels, or the writers, will live up to the hype remains to be seen, but at least the programme was forward-looking and engaged with writers and writing, while providing a historical context with glances back at the Granta lists, and some fake(it had already been announced) drama as the list was chosen. There was also some discussion of the influence of creative writing courses, and, although no conclusions were drawn, it struck me that the days of the anguished, autobiographical first novel are clearly gone. These were writers who wanted to be someone else, often someone living at a different time, providing them with a distanced irony that was frequently used to create humour. In contrast, Clarice Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, originally published almost sixty years ago, isn’t funny. How autobiographical it is I cannot tell (it is not really a novel about what happens anyway), but it is certainly the work of a writer who took life, and writing, seriously.

The novel tells the story of Joana both as a child and as a married woman. The first half moves between the two; in the second Joana’s narrative is occasionally interspersed with those of her husband and his pregnant mistress. The narratives are not first person, but are entirely immersed in the consciousness of the character. Joana’s mother is dead at the beginning of the story and she is being raised by her father. He soon dies too and she taken to an aunt who finds her so cold and unresponsive she sends her to boarding school. There is a brief infatuation with a teacher, but the rest of the novel deals with her marriage to Otavio and his affair with his ex-fiancée, Lidia. From the very beginning, Joana’s thoughts are often bleak:

“Resting her head against the cold, shiny window-pane, she looked into the neighbour’s yard, at the great world of chickens-that-did-not-know-they-were-about-to-die. And, as if it were right under her nose, she could smell the warm, beaten earth, so fragrant and dry, where she knew perfectly well that some worm or other lay squirming before being devoured by the hen that the humans were going to eat.”

This appeal to all the senses also continues throughout: there is no real separation between emotional, physical and philosophical feelings. The novel is about her search for her identity, particularly In relation to her sex:

“Her whole life had been a mistake, she felt useless. Where was the woman with the voice? Where were the women who were merely female? And the continuation of what she had initiated as a child?”

It is clear that she feels disconnected from herself as a child, and this is one reason for the disconnected narrative structure. She often refers to herself as a child in the third person (“She remembered Joana as a little girl…”). She searches for happiness but is not sure that she will recognise it – “What do you get when you’re happy?” she asks a teacher. She discovers that the happiness she wants cannot be found through marriage:

“Happiness was effacing her, effacing her… She now wanted to know herself again, even with sorrow.”

Although Otavio makes her happy she also resents him:

“Now all her time was devoted to him and she felt any minutes she could call her own had been conceded, broken into little ice cubes which she must swallow quickly before they melted.”

The feeling she is looking for is something more profound than domestic bliss:

“I can scarcely belief that I have limits, that I am defined. I feel myself to be dispersed in the atmosphere, thinking inside other creatures, living inside things beyond myself.”

I began by saying the novel wasn’t funny: if you can read the above with a straight face then you will cope with what now seems the old-fashioned naivety of its modernism. While the novel’s register can be powerful, it can also verge on the banal in trying too hard to be interesting, and its refusal to ever be satisfied could be seen as either heroic or wearing. These are the thoughts of an adolescent so we shouldn’t assume that Lispector endorses them completely, but neither does she present them to be sniggered at. Joana’s search for meaning as an individual and a woman is urgent and intense – which, among today’s novels, makes Near to the Wild Heart something of an antique.

Lispector can provide one final warning for the debutants, however: her novel caused a sensation when first published in Brazil, but she struggled to publish each of her books after that.

Danger rating: a dizzying percussion of stream of consciousness can feel a little like a hailstorm experienced in a caravan. Written in 1944, this wasn’t translated into English until 1986 by Giovanni Pontiero, who has also translated some of her other work. It’s published by the wonderful New Directions Press.

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2 Responses to “Near to the Wild Heart”

  1. Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] other bloggers have reviewed this book: Grant at 1streading, Stu at Winstonsdad’s, Tony Malone and Tony […]

  2. Bryan Says:

    what are some of today’s novels?
    if the search for meaning is antique, naive…
    i probably sound naive asking this.

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