My only previous acquaintance with Clarice Lispector was my reading of Near the Wild Heart, her first novel, for my Year of Reading Dangerously; I’ve now skipped her entire writing life and moved directly to her final novel, The Hour of the Star – completely unplanned as in both cases it was simply because I had the book to hand. Both have recently been reprinted as Penguin Modern Classics, along with three other novels, but my copy is the Carcanet edition translated by Giovanni Pontero. It’s a slim book – a novella – not quite reaching 100 pages, telling the apparently hopeless story of a poor young girl from the slums of Rio, Macabea.
If this sounds straight-forward, the first suggestion that it will not be appears before the story begins on the title page where twelve alternate titles are listed alongside The Hour of the Star. When it does begin we find ourselves addressed first by the writer:
“So long as I have questions to which there are no answers, I will go on writing.”
The writer, though, is also a character, Rodrigo S. M. – a male voice Lispector has created to tell the story. Rodrigo tells us of his inspiration:
“In the street I caught a glimpse of perdition on the face of a girl from the northeast.”
“First of all, I must make it clear that this girl does not know herself apart from the fact that she goes on living aimlessly. Were she foolish enough to ask herself ‘Who am I?’, she would fall flat on her face.”
Lispector seems to be using Rodrigo as a way of distancing herself form Macabea, making clear that not only is the novel not autobiographical, but she is writing about someone whose entire way of living and thinking is quite different to her own. This is not the same as saying that Rodrigo’s views are hers, but Rodrigo’s ferocity also forces the reader to question their own views as his angry commentary accompanies her story.
Macabea’s story is simple one. She is an orphan, brought up by an aunt. She works as a typist, is not particularly skilled even at that, and seems permanently close to losing her job. She feels inferior to her work mate Gloria (“This was probably due to the fact that Gloria was buxom.”) She regards herself as too ugly to get a boyfriend, and when she does find one he mistreats her, frustrated, as Rodrigo is, by her passivity. She drinks Coca-Cola, longs for face cream, and wants to be a movie star. When she buys coffee she fills it with sugar “to make sure she got value for her money.”
Yet it would not be accurate to say that Macabea was unhappy. Rodrigo claims he can write Macabea’s story because “I know about certain things simply by living.” However, towards the end, when Macabea visits a fortune teller she is surprised to discover the poor quality of her life:
“Macabea turned pale: it had never occurred to her that her life was so awful.”
This short novel, then, is not an expose of the life of the poor and ignorant, but an exploration of how we (i.e. readers, writers) view that life. This is perhaps where Lispector’s real anger lies, explaining such bitter in-jokes as Macabea’s remark, “On Radio Clock they used a word that worried me: mimetism.” It was for this reason (or misreading as it may be) that I found the novel fascinating. It looks like, having encountered the beginning and the end of Lispector’s work, I will have to go back and read some of the novels in-between.