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book reviews

4 novels by Clarice Lispector

New translations of four novels by the innovative and beguiling Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector offer a fresh opportunity to assess her talents

Paulo Gurgel Valente

New Directions has released new editions of four novels by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector: “Near to the Wild Heart,” her first book, published in 1943; “A Breath of Life,” published posthumously in Brazil but never until now translated into English; “Água Viva,” originally released in 1973; and “The Passion According to G.H.,” often called “shocking” in 1964 when it came out because of the ending, in which a woman has an intimate moment with a dead cockroach.

The book covers, when arranged in a square, recreate an undated photo from the writer’s early years, a portrait nothing like the more famous photos of Lispector, which led translator Gregory Rabassa to describe her as: “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” To me, in the jacket images Lispector looks like an exotic face in a Brassai photo, the hard edges of Dietrich softened by melancholy, her gaze focused intently on something outside the frame.

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Lispector directed this intense scrutiny to the inner life of her narrators. She details her characters’ unrelenting fascination with the physical world and the human interactions that often alienate them. At a time when many people post elaborate descriptions of the salad they just tossed or an angry encounter with a barista or cabdriver, it is jarring and yet restorative to read a writer whose focus is so private, internal.

From her first novel, in which a young girl’s anger and imagination shape her inability to love, to her final works in which author and subject become part of the same wavering world, her vivid and mysterious examinations of obsession move far beyond the daily. Lispector’s novels offer a stark counterpoint to much of modern life’s focus on individual fame, Facebook, and perfection. The existense of these four slim volumes are testament to Benjamin Moser’s tenacity in bringing Lispector into renewed prominence. Moser, who in 2009 published “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,” has overseen the series and championed her writing for many years. Her novels may be cult favorites and taught in some Latin American fiction courses, but they deserve a wider audience.

Moser’s biography theorizes that Lispector’s mother was raped by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, that she contracted syphilis as a result, and that according to folk wisdom, a pregnancy was prescribed to cure the venereal disease. Chaya Lispector was born in 1920 in Chechelnik, maybe to heal her mother, but of course, no such healing would materialize. When the family, who were Jewish, moved to Brazil to escape violence and poverty, Chaya, then a child, became Clarice. Her mother succumbed to syphilis in 1930, and her father died in 1940.

She wrote “Near to the Wild Heart” in a rented room from March to November of 1942. It was published the next year, when she was only 23, to national acclaim. Shortly afterward, she was married to a diplomat and began a life of travel, motherhood, and writing. However in her first novel, the narrator is already impatient with the caged quality of marriage, of the idea of love and ownership.

Joana begins as a child without a mother, like Lispector, a girlchild who refuses to be diminished or incurious. “Ah, that’ll teach you, that’ll teach you, her aunt would have said: never do it, never steal before you know whether what you want to steal is honestly reserved for you somewhere. Or not? Stealing makes everything more valuable. The taste of evil — chewing red, swallowing sugary fire.”

Her journey through adolescence and adulthood is marked by the constant seeking of self, of rejecting the idea that self is less than others.

By the end of the novel, when her husband leaves her for his contented, pregnant mistress, Joana refuses to be docile or even conventionally scorned. Her husband is furious: “She would rise up in him, not in his head like a common memory, but in the center of his body, vague and lucid, interrupting his life like the sudden pealing of a bell.”

Lispector’s tone is indefinable; she was called “a foreigner” by critics who couldn’t categorize what made her writing sound so different from other Brazilian authors. In reading “Água Viva,” not a straightforward novel, but a meditative treatise, there is an element of saudade, the quality of melancholy and focus on nature most often associated with Portuguese and Brazilian poetry. Perhaps Lispector, who wrote of herself, “I am sure that in the cradle my first wish was to belong. . . . For reasons that do not matter here, I must have somehow felt that I didn’t belong to anything or anyone,” embodies the only woman who could carry pogroms in her blood and saudade in her soul. One of her friends once wrote that “Clarice was a foreigner on earth, going through the world as if she’d arrived in the dead of night in an unknown city amidst a general transport strike.”

“Água Viva” contains an entire section devoted to her assessment of flowers, brief bursts of stream-of-consciousness and rumination on death, and paragraphs like this: “I think I’ll now have to beg your pardon to die a little. Please – may I? I won’t be long. Thank you.”

Lispector died in 1977, four years after the publication of “Água Viva” and one day short of her 57th birthday, of ovarian cancer. Her friend Olga Borelli, a former nun who lived with Lispector for eight years and typed her manuscripts, put together “A Breath of Life” from three years’ worth of pages and writings left unfinished. An exchange between an author and his creation, Angela, where the artifice of writing and the idea of art remain broad and somehow theatrical, it is less compelling to me, but the intersection of power and sly references to which character actually holds power are always convincing.

It is “The Passion According to G.H,” which is best read last, to linger in the reader’s mind. Often compared to writing by Kafka and Joyce, this novel is infused with that same heady brew of saudade and snowy forest, singular and yes, shocking. A sculptress who lives alone, who admits her mediocrity and ability to survive on men and loneliness: “Whereas I myself, more than clean and correct, was a pretty replica. Since all that was probably what made me generous and pretty . . . I lived a kind of pre-eagerness for my ‘bad.’ ”

One sullen morning, she enters the room of a recently departed maid and sees a large cockroach venturing from the wooden wardrobe. Crushing it with the door, while half its body remains visible, the narrator enters a trance — that cockroach somehow precipitates crises of the soul. But Lispector’s prose is unforgettable: “It was a face without a contour. The antennae stuck out in whiskers on either side of its mouth . . . Its black faceted eyes were looking. It was a cockroach as old as a fossilized fish. It was a cockroach as old as salamanders and chimeras and griffins and leviathans. It was as ancient as a legend.”

She – the sculptress – makes herself the same as the dying insect. This novel, published nearly 50 years ago, long before super-realistic horror movies, Internet porn, and every conceivable permutation intended to shock, is still startling by the end because of Lispector’s unsettling forcefulness.

In this way and in others Lispector’s novels resemble those of Jean Rhys, another writer displaced by geography and death of family, with her ellipsis and beautiful phrasing, with narrators who move through relationships and rooms with a wild unhappiness at their perceived encagement.

Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” is thought to be the answer to the mysterious wife locked in the upper reaches of the mansion where Jane Eyre is brought to live. The narrator begins as a child growing up on a remote Caribbean island, isolated from her insane mother, wandering the landscape in the same fierce lyric way as Lispector’s characters. Continents apart Rhys and Lispector occupy the same tonal spaces.

Thinking about Lispector’s work as it brushes up against the modern age shows how private it all seems in the age of Twitter and the constant exposure of every thought, cupcake, and kiss to thousands of complete strangers. If an action, or a burger, or a relationship is worthy only once it is public, then Lispector takes us back to the private thought. She wrote once, “Alongside my desire to defend my privacy, I have the intense desire to confess in public and not to a priest.” How can there be a more perfect phrase to examine how we live now, and how can there be more perfect novels for new readers to linger over than these slim, fiercely cerebral investigations of longing and belonging, anguish and love, than Lispector’s at this moment?

NEAR TO THE WILD HEART

By Clarice Lispector

Translated, from the Portuguese, by Alison Entrekin

New Directions, 194 pp., $15.95

A BREATH OF LIFE

By Clarice Lispector

Translated, from the Portuguese, by Johnny Lorenz

New Directions, 167 pp., $15.95

ÁGUA VIVA

By Clarice Lispector

Translated, from the Portuguese, by Stefan Tobler

New Directions, 88 pp., $14.95

THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H.

By Clarice Lispector

Translated, from the Portuguese, by Idra Novey

New Directions, 193 pp., $15.95

Susan Straight’s new novel, “Between Heaven and Here,’’ will be published in September. She can be reached at susanstraight.com.
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