Clarice Lispector NEAR TO THE WILD HEART Translated by Alison Entrekin 208pp. Paperback, £9.99 (US $15.95). 978 0 8112 2002 6
THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G. H. Translated by Idra Novey 196pp. Paperback, $15.95. 978 0 8112 1968 6
ÁGUA VIVA Translated by Stefan Tobler 104pp. Paperback, £8.99 (US $14.95). 978 0 8112 1990 7
A BREATH OF LIFE Translated by Johnny Lorenz 184pp. Paperback, £9.99 (US $15.95). 978 0 8112 1962 4 New Directions.
Published: 29 August 2012
Towards the end of Clarice Lispector’s debut novel, Perto do coração selvagem (Near to the Wild Heart, 1943), there is an exchange between Joana, the heroine, and her bemused husband Otávio, that, seven decades on, still has the capacity to shock:
“’It’ll only be over when I have a child’, she repeated, vague, obstinate.
Otávio opened his eyes at her. ‘A little contrived this idea, don’t you think?’ he asked ironically.
‘What has been between us isn’t enough in itself. Whereas after a child there will be nothing left for us but separation.’
‘And what about the child?’, he asked. ‘What will the poor thing’s role be in this whole wise arrangement?’
‘Oh, he’ll live’, she answered.
‘Is that all?’ he said, trying sarcasm.
‘What else can you do besides that?’
Otávio, thinking she was waiting, despite his shyness and anger at obeying her, concluded hesitantly:
‘Be happy, for example.’
Joana raised her eyes and looked at him from afar with surprise and a certain glee – why? – Otávio wondered frightened. He blushed as if he had made a ridiculous joke.”
Otávio has been caught out expressing a hope. In Joana’s world of introspection and impulse, where there are no ideals or obligations, just freedom from such illusions, he has spoken like a child. Momentarily, though she quickly recovers, she loves him for it.
Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector was born in 1920 in the western Ukraine, and was taken by her parents to Brazil shortly after her first birthday. Benjamin Moser, her biographer (and the editor of the four translations under review), has unearthed the appalling history that her mother had contracted syphilis after being raped by Russian soldiers. In the folk medicine of the region, the best cure for syphilis was to conceive a child, and Clarice, as she became known, was the product of that attempt. The family settled first in the northeast before moving to Pernambuco, where Clarice’s mother died at the age of forty-two, ravaged by her disease. Clarice was aware of her history, trying to write stories she hoped might have a healing effect. “Except I didn’t cure my mother. And to this day that guilt weighs on me.”
She grew up speaking a guttural Portuguese with a strong regional accent, but did well at school, and when the surviving family moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1935, she succeeded in entering the university’s prestigious law school. Her much-loved father died in 1940. By then she had published her first story and begun working as a journalist with the Agençia Nacional. In 1943, she married a fellow student and spent the next fifteen years as a diplomat’s wife in Naples, Bern, Devon and Washington. “I hated it”, she wrote. “I gave dinner parties, I did everything you’re supposed to do, but with a disgust.” In 1959, feeling her literary career was also suffering, she left her husband and returned to Rio, where she lived until her death from cancer in 1977.
That career had begun with the notable success of Near to the Wild Heart. Along with nine collections of short stories and five books for children, she wrote eight further novels, of which four have previously appeared in English. Moser’s biography Why This World (reviewed in the TLS of February 19, 2010), however, has aroused fresh interest in this uniquely challenging author.
Not much happens in a Lispector novel. In Near to the Wild Heart, Joana recalls her childhood, is orphaned and adopted by an aunt, attends boarding school, marries, chats with her husband’s mistress, takes a lover, and loses both husband and lover. But this “plot” is incidental to the life of her mind, where all the real action takes place. In The Passion According to G. H. (A paixão segundo G. H., 1964), the heroine, known only by her initials, goes to clean the room of the maid who has given notice the day before, and has an apocalyptic encounter with a cockroach. The whole book takes place in the maid’s room, or rather, in G. H.’s thoughts. Água Viva (Água viva, 1973), has no trace of a plot, being instead a series of rhapsodic fragments, while A Breath of Life (Um sopro de vida; pulsções, 1978) explores the purely mental relationship between a character called “the author” and “Angela”, his creation. All four works are better described as internal dialogues: between Joana and Otávio; between G. H. and various interlocutors (her former husband, the doctor who performed her abortion and, of course, the cockroach); and between “the author” and Angela. Even Água Viva is addressed, in combative terms, to a putative reader called “you”.
Lispector can be a bafflingly elusive writer. But her images dazzle even when her meaning is most obscure, and when she is writing of what she despises she is lucidity itself. In The Passion According to G. H., the disintegration of the protagonist is superbly done, as she describes the woman she has ceased to be, organized in terms of what others saw in her, living perpetually in quotation marks, adopting “the elegant, ironic, and witty replica of a life” as a sort of extra leg. But as she advances into meaninglessness, identifying with the prehistoric, prehuman, inert world of the wounded cockroach, she enters a waste land of fragments of what she was before – we find bits of religion, mysticism and philosophy expressed in a form in which the separate words make sense, but the combinations are baffling:
“I knew that I was in the irreducible, though I was unaware what the irreducible is. But I also knew that ignorance of the law of the irreducible was no excuse. I could no longer excuse myself by claiming I didn’t know the law – since knowing myself and knowing the world is the law that, even unattainable, cannot be infringed, and nobody can be excused claiming not to know it. Worse: the roach and I were not faced with a law we had to obey. We ourselves were the ignored law that we obeyed.”
Kafka’s The Trial seems to be echoed here: Josef K is aware that he has broken some law but has no means of knowing what law it is. But the passage continues:
“The renewedly original sin is this: I must fulfil my law which I ignore, and if I don’t fulfil my ignorance, I’ll be originally sinning against life.”
This seems mere word play, aping profundity, or as I prefer to see it, deliberately incoherent.
The event that rescues her is described by the publisher as “the most shocking scene in Brazilian literature”, and I won’t spoil their sales pitch by revealing what happens. But it entails a return to partial, if mystical lucidity, and a triumph over the derangement brought on by the cockroach.
The next day I don’t recognise what I write. I only recognise my own handwriting
The most interesting and sophisticated of these dialogues shapes Lispector’s last novel, A Breath of Life, edited after her death by her companion, Olga Borelli, and now published in English for the first time. The two characters are “the author”, a judge, husband and established novelist, and “Angela”, a character he has created in an attempt, he says, “to save someone’s life”. Inevitably, in this retelling of Pygmalion, the author falls in love with Angela, whom he sees as his opposite. He is geometric, logical, balanced and sensible, while she is intuitive, tactile and unafraid “to err in the use of words”. But these stereotypes are offset, first by the fact that the author has himself been created by Lispector, secondly, because Angela aspires to be an author and embraces much of what is declared about her, and thirdly, because, as the author is ruefully forced to admit, she is the better writer, the one in control as she exposes herself “to a new kind of fiction”, which she still doesn’t “know how to handle”.
Angela is quite frank about her writing methods. “I write”, she says, “in a state of drowsiness . . . . The next day I don’t recognise what I write. I only recognise my own handwriting.” The result is a text that resonates endlessly, with no limit to the possible ramifications as creator and created interact. Not the least of the ironies is the way the dialogue echoes and expands the original confrontation between Joana and Otávio. “What wears me out”, the author complains, “is that she’s impossible to domesticate” as, in a final twist, it turns out that Angela is dying of cancer.
Critics have found Lispector difficult to pin down. “Unclassifiable”, says Edmund White. “As though no one had ever written before”, says Colm Tóibín. Comparisons are invoked with Proust, Kafka, Joyce and, for the introspection, with Virginia Woolf. For Hélène Cixous, she is the very epitome of “écriture féminine” with her assault on binary logic and patriarchal logocentrism. Other parallels may be drawn with Emil Cioran, Amelia Rosselli, or possibly Paul Celan – each of them writers damaged by the tragedies of the 1930s and 40s. All were noted for the unremitting bleakness of their vision, the embrace of ignorance, the questioning of language, the feeling (to quote Peter Hainsworth, reviewing Rosselli’s Locomotrix in the TLS of June 29), “that sense is hovering at the edge of what can seem to make no sense at all”. But in Lispector’s case, each of these four books ends by embracing a mysticism, part Catholic, part Jewish, that is also obscurely but rapturously cabalistic. The final sentences of The Passion of G. H. can stand for each of them:
“The world independed on me – this was the trust I had reached: the world independed on me, and I am not understanding whatever it is I am saying, never! never again shall I understand anything I say. Since how could I speak without the word lying for me? How could I speak except timidly like this: life is just for me. Life is just for me, and I don’t understand what I say. And so I love it.”
Landeg White’s books include The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões, 2008, Singing Bass: Poems, 2009, and, most recently, a novel, Livingstone’s Funeral, 2010.