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Clarice Lispector: 2 Primitive Elegant Literary Experiments

My recent “discovery” of Clarice Lispector was like striking gold. It’s funny the way these arcane writers are becoming increasingly known. I won’t dare say popular. That’s part of the appeal of literature for many anyway. I bet it was to David Foster Wallace too, and really anyone who writes a literature that resists being labeled, categorized, summed up, and put in its place on the shelf.

Everyone wants to remain forever on the shelves, no one wants to be shelved.

Água Viva is a book that, as Edmund White gushed is, “Brilliant and unclassifiable…Glamorous, cultured, moody, Lispector is an emblematic twentieth-century artist who belongs in the same pantheon as Kafka and Joyce.” Interestingly, both Wallace and oulipean Georges Perec strongly identified with Kafka, pedestaling him above all other writers. Seems Lispector may have been conscious of the Kafka legacy.

Her storytelling is intimate. You feel like she’s all in wherever it is we’re always exactly going. The going can get tough at times. The philosophical questions, even in their abstractness, are less the reason. The main challenge is manifesting the fortitude to follow her intuitive associations, her leaps. This is what I love about it when it (usually) works. You fall into a rhythm with her thoughts. After awhile you don’t even realize you’re following, and you don’t care when you do. You want to follow because there’s been this melting away between reality and non-reality. Reality becomes the interior voice of Lispector, her narrator, and your participation once you enter the thought pool.

Today I finished the canvas I told you about: curves that intersect in fine black lines, and you, with your habit of wanting to know why–I’m not interested in that, the cause is past matter–will ask me why the fine black lines? because of the same secret that now makes me writes as if to you, writing something round rolled up and warm, but sometimes cold as the fresh instants, the water of an ever-trembling stream. Can what I painted on this canvas be put into words? Just as the silent word can be suggested by a musical sound.

I see that I’ve never told you how I listen to music–I gently rest my hand on the record player and my hand vibrates, sending waves through my whole body: and so I listen to the electricity of the vibrations, the last substratum of reality’s realm, and the world trembles inside my hands.

You can almost see a professor writing all over the above, making connections on a whiteboard with the marker’s “fine black lines,” talking about rhythm, syntactical arrangement, synesthesia and the different senses called upon, etc.

It’s dense, and richer for being so, but academic is anything but what Lispector would have wanted. She wanted to cut to the quick, the chase. At the same time she bucks simplicity for authenticity. She doesn’t clean all the raw, rough edges off her prose. It’s a style that weaves itself into the meaning itself, like all great styles and forms should.

The lack of plot thread becomes no issue. Other techniques compel you. More importantly, when you begin to feel the urgency of the speaker whose story may only last as long as the story itself, which ends in 88 pages.

If one still isn’t as “into” urgent philosophic internal questions, intuitive leaps and anti-narratives, however urgent they may be, then a better entry point is probably through The Hour of the Star, her most famous, and of similar length. The book inspired David R. Slavitt to write a wonderful meditation-novel, a kind of literary investigation, called L’Heure bleu.

Other than that she remains in relative obscurity for someone of such prodigious talent. Not to mention her  distinction as a cosmopolitan, Portuguese-speaking, Brazilian woman of the 20th century.

This may be too obvious a connection but she does possess some of that same internally voiced quiet power that Fernando Pessoa does. That is to still say, the two are each brilliant originals and that is the only reason why we’re still discussing them.

The Hour of the Star “resists” in its own special way. The male narrator struggles constantly over why he is telling the story of this pathetic, unattractive, unintelligent, nobody, poor typist young woman. He comments on it but is inexorably drawn in.

But I suspect that all this chitchat is made just to put off the poverty of the story, because I’m scared. Before this typist turned up in my lift, I was a man who was even a bit contented, despite my meager success in literature…

She makes me so uncomfortable that I feel hollow. I’m hollow of that girl. And the more uncomfortable she makes me the less she demands. I’m angry. So enraged I could smash cups and dishes and break windows. How can I avenge myself? Or rather, how can I make up for it? I’ve got it: by loving my dog who has more food than that girl. Why doesn’t she react? Can’t she grow a backbone? No, she is sweet and obedient.

You begin to feel the narrator’s frustration, but also his torment as he continues to chronicle the inner life of Macabea. I won’t discuss the end except to say that the narrator asks if he’s being melodramatic and you’re left feeling like “maybe yes a little.” The question is what is the extent to which we feel for the young “nobody” girl?

And perhaps a further reaching question is: Does it change our perspective on who and what can be the subjects (or protagonists) of literature? And does it do what the best literature does, which is to blur lines, develop empathy and deepen human understanding? Are we not in some sense changed when we close the book?

Here’s a lively podcast discussion of the author’s life and work featuring two of Lispector’s translators, Idra Novey and Katrina Dodson, and acclaimed writers Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Hector Tobar; CJ Evans moderates.

Here’s a 20 minute, sub-titled interview of Lispector the same year she died in 1977.

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