JOHN HERBERT CUNNINGHAM Reviews
The following books by Clarice Lispector:
Near to the Wild Heart (Perto de selvage), translated by Alison Entrekin
The Passion According to G.H. (A Paixăo segundo G.H.), translated by Idra Novey
Aqua Viva (Áqua Viva), translated by Stefan Tobler
A Breath of Life (Um sopro de vida; pulsações), translated by Johnny Lorenz
(All published by New Directions, New York, 2012)
Daughter of a Jewish family who fled Europe following the First World War, Clarice Lispector was initially raised in northeastern Brazil. Her mother having died when she was nine, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro where she began attending law school while earning money as a journalist. Her first novel, Perto de selvage took Brazil by storm – the interior monologue revolutionary for Brazil. She spent time in Europe and the United States before returning to Brazil in 1959 where she wrote one of her masterpieces A Paixăo segundo G.H. Thanks to New Directions, these novels are again before the reading public.
In his introduction to Near to the Wild Heart, Benjamin Moser quotes the response of several unnamed Brazilian critics to this seminal work, such as that Lispector had “shifted the center of gravity around which the Brazilian novel had been revolving for about twenty years.” Moser goes on to state:
This was because the entire question of Brazil, that ‘certain instinct of nationality’ Machado de Assis considered to be the heart of Brazilian literature, is absent from Near to the Wild Heart. It was that its language did not sound Brazilian.
He then goes on to describe the basis of this new language:
It is instead connected to the sacred realms of sexuality and creation. A word does not describe a pre-existing thing but actually is that thing, or a word that creates the thing it describes; the search for the mystic word, the ‘word that has its own light’, is the search of a lifetime. That search was an urgent preoccupation of centuries of Jewish mystics. Just as God, in Clarice’s writing is utterly devoid of any moral meaning, so does language signify nothing beyond what it expresses: ‘the symbol of the thing in the thing itself.’
Near to the Wild Heart opens with the protagonist, Joana, a young child living with her mother and father. Lispector captures this time of life splendidly in the following interior monologue::
She went off making a little braid in her long, straight hair. Never never never yes yes, she sang quietly. She had recently learned to braid. She went over to the little table where the books were, played with them by looking at them from a distance. Housewife husband children, green for the man, white for the woman, scarlet could be a son or a daughter. Was “never” a man or a woman? Why wasn’t “never” a son or a daughter? What about “yes”?(7)
First the mother, then the father dies young leaving Joana an orphan who goes to live with her aunt and uncle. Joana refuses to obey her aunt leading to this altercation between aunt and uncle:
“It’s different! It’s different!” exploded the aunt victoriously. “Amanda, even if she were a thief, is human! But that girl...There isn’t anyone to feel sorry for in this case, Alberto. I’m the one who’s the victim...Even when Joana isn’t in the house, I feel on edge. It sounds crazy, but it’s as if she were watching me...reading my thoughts...She’s a viper. She’s a cold viper. Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her.(43)
Eventually, Joana marries Otávio, her childhood sweetheart, which leads to divorce when Joana discovers that Otávio has fathered a child with Lydia. All of this would be rather mundane if not for the fact that Lispector is the author. The story occupies a realm of thought that few writers have been able to approach. All writers have experienced the exaltation when their bodies disappear only to become conduits to their soul, when the words flow without impediment, almost unconsciously, onto the page. Generally, such moments are short lived. Lispector is able to sustain them and summon them at will. Here is an example from early in the novel:
Things that exist, others that just are...She surprised herself with the new, unexpected thought, which would live from then on like flowers on the grave. Which would live, which would live, other thoughts would be born and live and she herself was more alive. Happiness pierced her heart, ferocious, lit her body. She squeezed the glass between her fingers, drank water with her eyes closed as if it was wine, bloody and glorious wine, the blood of God.(54)
These lines flow with a kinetic energy lifting Joana above her circumstances until she herself becomes exalted taking the place of that god whose blood she drank as this passage reveals:
She was detached from things, from her own things, created by herself and alive. She could be left in the desert, in the solitude of the glaciers, any place on Earth and she would still have the same white, fallen hands, the same almost serene disconnectedness.(169)
This spiritual energy spills in a different and unique way into The Passion according to G.H.
G.H., the name by which we come to know the protagonist, defines herself as a three-legged person: “The idea I had of what a person is came from my third leg, the one that pinned me to the ground.”(4) This third leg is never defined although a good guess would be that it is fear: “In this new cowardice of mine – cowardice is the newest thing to happen to me, it’s my greatest adventure, this cowardice of mine is a field so wide that only the great courage leads me to accept it – in my new cowardice, which is like waking one morning in a foreigner’s house, I don’t know if I’ll have the courage just to go.”(4) The reader should note the development in the language Lispector uses between Near the Wild Heart and The Passion according to G.H. No longer is this simple internal monologue, no longer stream of consciousness. It has become directed.
We encounter G.H. one morning jaded by her wealth into a melancholic lethargy. She decides to go into the maid’s room to organize. When she enters, she discovers outlines of figures on the wall. While cleaning and organizing, she opens an armoire. Inside is a cockroach. The cucaracha begins crawling toward the opening of the armoire and G.H. slams the door on it. However, it has gotten half way out so that the head protrudes from the door while the body is crushed. This is the essence of The Passion. G.H. becomes trapped in the room and spends the next one hundred and fifty pages staring at the beast and contemplating her fate in a fit of ecstasy equivalent to Saint Augustine’s Confessions or the contemplation of Meister Eckhart or, on a more secular plane, the Marquis de Sade. Lispector carefully controls this ecstasy as it gathers momentum the further into the novel one goes. Here is the scene where G.H. is getting ready to organize:
A step before climax, a step before revolution, a step before what’s called love. A step before my life – which, due to a kind of reverse magnetism, I hadn’t transformed into life; and also out of desire for order. There’s a bad taste to the disorder of living.(20)
Here an encounter with the cockroach:
Meeting the face I had put inside the opening, right near my eyes, in the half-darkness, the fat cockroach had moved. My cry was so muffled that only the contrasting silence let me know I hadn’t screamed. The scream had stayed beating in my chest.(39)
She begins to transform the roach:
Looking at it, I was seeing the vastness of the desert of Libya, in the region of Elschele. The roach that had reached that spot millennia before me, and also reached it before the dinosaurs. Faced with the roach, I could already see in the distance Damascus, the oldest city on the earth. In the desert of Libya, roaches and crocodiles? All that time I hadn’t wanted to think what I had already thought: that the roach is edible as a lobster, the roach is a crustacean.(116)
until finally the roach becomes God. This gives rise to one of the most spellbinding scenes in all of literature. G.H. falls in love with the roach – not with a love ruled by eros bur rather one of agape: “The profound tedium – like a great love – united us.” While all of this is going on, pus from the roach’s crushed body has been forming on its head. It is this pus that becomes the site of transformation:
I haven’t told how, sitting there and unmoving, I still had not stopped looking with great disgust, yes, still with disgust at the yellowed white paste atop the roach’s grayness. And I knew that as long as I was disgusted, the world would elude me and I would elude me. I knew that the basic error in living was being disgusted by a roach. Being disgusted by kissing the leper was my erring the first life within me – since being disgusted contradicts me, contradicts my matter within me.
But there is something even more disgusting to come.
There is only one way to comprehend The Passion according to G.H. – as an allegory. To G.H., the ‘yellowed white paste’ becomes the wafer used in the transubstantiation of the host. But why the cockroach? Because we know essentially nothing about G.H. other than that she is ‘three-legged’, we cannot assume she is Christian. We do know that Lispector was Jewish, a Jew, in fact, attempting to exist in not only a Christian country but a Catholic country. There is always an attraction to the unknown, to the different, an attraction often accompanied by fear. So why not have Christianity transform into the ugliness of a roach, a roach with a pool of pus forming on its head in the shape of a wafer, a roach both attractive and abhorrent for the same reason – the roach’s sheer ugliness.
Thirty years after the writing of Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector wrote Áqua Viva. Benjamin Moser, in his introduction, says that “Of all Clarice Lispector’s works, Áqua Viva gives the strongest impression of having been spontaneously committed to paper. Yet perhaps none was as painstakingly composed.” Moser goes on to say that “to a Brazilian the words [aqua viva] will first of all refer to a jellyfish’ - a floating thing without backbone. It is this that made Lispector hesitate in having it published. As she stated, “That book, I spent three years without daring to publish it, thinking it would be awful. Because it didn’t have a story, it didn’t have a plot.” But that is not that far from the two books already considered in this review. In Lispector’s work, plot is minimal. Moser refers to Olga Borelli, Lispector’s editor, when he says, “As Borelli understood, this ‘spineless’ writing is not random, or even abstract. Instead, its consistency more properly belongs to the realm of dreams, in which ideas and images connect with a logic that may not be immediately apparent but is nonetheless real.” Haven’t all of the Lispector works under consideration belonged to that dream realm?
But let’s concentrate on the language of Áqua Viva for, without plot, without story, what else is there? But the language is enough as this passage demonstrates:
during love the impersonal jewel of the moment shines in the air, the strange glory of the body, matter made feeling in the trembling of the instants – and the feeling is both immaterial and so objective that it seems to happen outside your body, sparkling on high, joy, joy is time’s material and the essence of the instant. And in the instant is the is of the instant. I want to seize my is. And like a bird I sing hallelujah into the air. And my song belongs to no one. But no passion suffered in pain and love is not followed by a hallelujah.(4)
If one can write like this, who needs a plot?
Lispector remains conscious of that which she creates even though she denies it. She knows the difficulty of acceptance:
I don’t know what I’m writing about: I am obscure to myself. I only had initially a lunar and lucid vision, and so I plucked for myself the instant before it died and perpetually dies. This is not a message of ideas that I am transmitting to you but an instinctive ecstasy of whatever is hidden in nature and that I foretell. And this is a feast of words. I write in signs that are more a gesture than a voice.(17)
Lispector does continue the theme she has explored in the earlier two books as this passage reveals:
The transcendence inside me is the living and soft ‘it’ and has the thought that an oyster has. Could the oyster when torn from its roots feel anxiety? It is disturbed in its life without eyes. I used to drip lemon juice onto the living oyster and watched in horror and fascination as it contorted all over. And I was easting the living it. The living it is God.(24)
Toward the end, in a passage she labels ‘On the edge of beatitude’, she writes:
When you see, the act of seeing has no form -- what you see sometimes has form and sometimes doesn’t. The act of seeing is ineffable. And sometimes what is seen is also ineffable. And that’s how it is with a certain kind of thinking-feeling that I’ll call ‘freedom,’ just to give it a name. Real freedom – as an act of perception – has no form. And as the true thought thinks to itself, this kind of thought reaches its objective in the very act of thinking.(81-2)
Although there are moments where the energy lags – particularly in the long litany of flower names and lore – for the most part Lispector maintains a kinetic charge unsurpassed by others.
The final book in this quartet of translations by New Directions, A Breath of Life, presents difficulties for the reviewer. This is a posthumous publication which Benjamin Moser describes as “unfinished and hieratic”. What was “a mountain of fragments: which “remained to be ‘structured’ by a trusted friend”, as the back cover states – that friend being Olga Borelli who lived with and was Lispector’s secretary for the last eight years of her life and who assembled the fragments into the form we have here. The difficulty is determining who wrote what. Can a reviewer feel secure in praising a passage of prose without being confident whose prose she is praising? I have chosen to opt out of reading this book as, to me, the answer to that question is “No!” This doesn’t mean that the book isn’t worth reading. However, I felt that if I did begin to read it, I would have to comment on it with all of the incumbent insecurity of so doing.
New Directions deserves, as always, a heart-felt thank you from the literary community for undertaking the monumental task of translating these four works.
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets heard every Sunday starting at 4:30 p.m. CST on CKUW 95.9 FM or by podcast on the CKUW website. He has written two plays, Innocent and Waiting for ‘Waiting for Left’. He is writing a novel, The Professor, and a poetry manuscript based on the diary of Samuel Hearne, an 18th C Canadian explorer. He reviews poetry, poetics, and fiction extensively.