‘And So I Love It’

Posted on July 12, 2015 in Essays

Review of Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart trans. Alison Entrekin;
The Passion According to G.H. trans. Idra Novey; Água Viva trans. Stefan Tobler;
A Breath of Life trans. Johnny Lorenz (New Directions, 2012).

Towards the end of Clarice Lispector’s first novel Near to the Wild Heart (Perto do coração selvagem, 1943), there is an exchange between Joanna, the heroine, and her bemused husband Otávio, that seven decades on 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, 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 north east before moving to Pernambuco, where Clarice’s mother died aged 42, 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 ‘hurricane’ success of Near to the Wild Heart in 1943. 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 (2009), however, has aroused fresh interest in this uniquely challenging author, leading to the four books currently under review.

Not much happens in a Lispector novel. In Near to the Wild Heart, Joanna 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, with all the real action inside. In The Passion of GH (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 GH’s thoughts. Água Viva (Água viva, 1973), has no trace of a plot, rather 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 his creation ‘Angela’. All four works are better categorized as internal dialogues; between Joanna 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’s writing of what she despises she is lucidity itself. In The Passsion According to G.H., the main character’s disintegration 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, adoping ‘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 – bits of religion, mysticism, and philosophy in a prose 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 echoed here, aware he’s broken some law but knowing no means of knowing what law he’s broken. 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 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 re-telling of the Pygmalion story, 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 that Angela aspires to be an author and embraces much of what is declared about her, and thirdly that, 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 Joanna and Otávio. ‘What wears me out,’ the author complains, ‘is that she’s impossible to domesticate’ as, in a final twist, it turns out Angela is dying of cancer.

Critics have Lispector difficult to pin down. ‘Unclassifiable’, says Edmund White. ‘As though no one had ever written before’, says Colin 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 (reviewed by Mairéad Hanrahan, TLS 25 May), or Amelias Rosselli (reviewed by Peter Hainsworth, TLS 29 June), or possibly Paul Celan – each of them writers damaged by the tragedies of the 1930s and 1940s, reflected in the unremitting bleakness of their vision, the embrace of ignorance, the questioning of language, the feeling (to quote Hainsworth), ‘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 obscurely but rapturously cabbalistic. The final sentences of The Passion of GH 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.

(First published the Times Literary Supplement, August 31, 2012)