Posts Tagged ‘clarice lispector’

The Hour of the Star

August 11, 2014

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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.”

He claims:

“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.

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Near to the Wild Heart

March 14, 2011

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.