Breaking the Frozen Sea of the Soul: Clarice Lispector
The Hour of the Star
(New Directions, 2012)
Clarice Lispector (December 10, 1920–December 9, 1977) is commonly praised as One of Brazil’s greatest modern writers. When her biographer Benjamin Moser (Why This World, Oxford University Press, 2009) first read one of her earlier Kafkaesque masterpieces, The Passion According to G.H., his obsession could only grow. He’s confessed, as have others, that it’s impossible to read her without falling in love; for the most part she is his life’s work. Moser is also the latest translator of her last novel, The Hour of the Star, published this year by New Directions. It comes with the publisher’s great wave of four of her works, translated under Moser’s editorial direction, including her breakthrough first novel, Near to the Wild Heart and her penultimate experiment, A Breath of Life.
The Hour of the Star is Lispector’s last experiment, a tiny slip of a novella whose brevity makes it no less an epitome. It traces from start to finish the strange life of poor, plain Macabéa—who our unnamed writer-narrator describes as being “cold coffee”—an unloved girl from Rio, a Brazilian anti-heroine. Macabéa operates on a pure plane of existence, as one unaware of her own power to dismantle the master’s house; for her, things simply are what they are, hence her glints of mysticism. And so it is fitting that the voice that gives her expression belongs to an old, unnamed narrator, himself a creature of the shadows.
The Hour of the Star is concerned with rarefying banalities—these worlds are tremendous, too, because they partake of the same mysteries; the same passions are possible. Macabéa is capable of carrying out this visceral enlightenment by virtue of being alive. She can reveal something very crucial, something by its nature inexplicable.
Lispector, despite her upbringing in Brazil, was a foreigner, born in Podolia—a shtetl in what is now the Ukraine—and Jewish, studying Hebrew and Yiddish in school. To native Portuguese speakers, her foreignness marks her writing; there is a beautiful oddity to her prose even in translation (if the translator is good, and Moser is) that strikes the reader as being impossibly rare. But beyond this, the woman herself was a rare winged creature, the perplexity of her arresting face matched only by that of her words. The American translator Gregory Rabassa reported being “flabbergasted to meet that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”
Upon completion of her breakthrough book, Near to the Wild Heart, she’s quoted as having said that when she reads what she’s written, she feels as though she’s swallowing her own vomit. We can see how for such a voice, it must be like this. What she has made she has made by virtue of having devoured herself, as an ouroboros, divining the absolute through the basic. Writing like this could only be the product of a sublime creative purge, an incomprehensible, compulsive flowing-out response to the raw intake of being human and everything that that is and means.
Elizabeth Bishop mused that Lispector might be a “self-taught writer, like a primitive painter.” This primitive quality often causes her readers to feel afraid, as though she is exposing not only the world, naked, but themselves in their own nakedness. The reader finds herself in the throes of a master, rendered speechless with awe and terror. We have a feeling of unprecedented innovation: Who has written like this before? Kafka, whom Moser has compared Lispector to, said that “if the literature we are reading does not wake us, why then do we read it? A literary work must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” Lispector’s books, in the audacity of her originality, do this. For such a woman, such a human, the act of writing became her admission to life, or her permission to feel death.
Despite being her ultimate work, The Hour of the Star reads like the clairvoyant writing of someone brand new, both to writing and to the world that drives it. Here, as everywhere, she is wide awake, eyes flung open to the world, hair raised. Her compulsion to write (even on the threshold of her passing at age 57, of ovarian cancer) was still held firmly in the grips of life. For those of us lucky enough to encounter her works, we are inevitably compelled, like Moser, to come under the haunting spell they cast. The mystery of her spell, of course, is only the mystery of life. As a result, our souls are stirred by her works because we find our mirrors in them.