#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector

Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.
Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.

I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.

As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.

It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.

The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?

When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.

‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’

She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?

Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.

My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…

But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.

What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…

Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.

nearwildheartYet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.

Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.

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18 thoughts on “#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector”

  1. I’ve read about a third of the Collected Stories now, and am finding them hard going. Some shimmer with brilliant prose, but there’s not enough for me to hang on to – as you say in your post, it’s all about impressions, passionate feelings; that’s fine, but I need a bit more substance on which to place them – character, maybe. I don’t know. I can’t quite pin down what the problem is. Will have to return to them and try to figure it out.

    1. It’s hard to keep up the intensity of that prose (both as a writer and as a reader). All of her books are quite slim though, so it often does work. I’m curious to see what I think of whatever I reread next of hers.

  2. Sometimes stream of consciousness novels do leave you with just impressions, rather than a deep underlying substance, Marina Sofia. And you make such a well-taken point that authors who draw you in completely when you’re young may not be able to work the same magic at a different time in life. Still, it sounds as though you saw some of what had been there before, so to speak, and I’m glad.

  3. Very nice glimpse into Lispector’s first novel, Marina Sofia. My first book (published in 1990 and still in print with Simon & Schuster) employs many passages of stream of consciousness. I didn’t intend to write it that way, it simply happened. Thank you for unveiling another new (for me) author. I will definitely check out her work. 🙂
    –Michael

  4. Interesting to read your thoughts on this one, Marina. I picked it up last year with very high expectations, and while I found certain elements very intriguing, overall it left me a bit perplexed. The focus is on experience and introspection, for sure.

    Maybe I just need to try another of her novellas at some point – The Hour of the Star, perhaps.

    1. There were some beautiful, intense moments of experiential description (for want of a better phrase), but overall I was a bit sad that I no longer felt the magic. I’m almost afraid to go back to some of her other work now.

  5. Interesting reaction Marina. I think we definitely read differently at different ages of our lives – I’m certainly reading more deeply nowadays, but I don’t always have the patience with a book I used to (hence I’ll abandon nowadays, whereas I made a point of not doing so when I was young). I want to read more Lispector but I think I’ll have to be in the right mood!

  6. Interesting review Marina. It’s always fascinating to learn how we feel about a book we haven’t read in a long time. Sometimes it can be a life-affirming experience, connecting us with our younger self. Other times we feel a gulf. It sounds like you felt the latter this time.
    I haven’t yet read Lispector. I have The Gospel According to G.H. sitting on my shelf and I’ve been too scared to read it! It seems very dense and intense for a short book. Yet I’ve heard so many good things about Lispector I know I need to get around to it eventually.

  7. I will have to explore Clarice Lispector I think soon. I am very drawn to the quotes, I think I might like her writing.
    (I rarely post on a Saturday but I did today too – some weeks are just like that.)

  8. I am sad that I have not been able tomorrow in WIT month as I would have liked. I’ve been too busy reading the Man Booker long list as part of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury. That’s been great fun, and one can’t do it all, but I am wistfully reading the WIT posts such as yours.

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