Seize the Fourth Dimension: The Novels of Clarice Lispector

It would be hard to imagine Clarice Lispector receiving higher praise than she already has. “She looks like Marlene Dietrich and writes like Virgina Woolf,” to paraphrase perhaps the greatest translator of Latin American writers of the twentieth century, Gregory Rabassa. The French writer and critic Hélène Cixous claimed she was a female Kafka. She has also won the favor of film director Pedro Almodóvar and novelists Jonathan Franzen and Colm Tóibín, among scores of others. As Benjamin Moser explains in his authoritative biography of her, Why This World, she was one of those rare icons of twentieth-century literature whose prose really was as revolutionary as her reputation suggests.

These facts make it all the more deplorable that Lispector has suffered the fate of, at best, a cult author in English translation, even though her major works were made available throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Part of the fault rests with the translations themselves, which hew more to grammatically proper English than the beautiful strangeness of Lispector’s dizzying, euphoric Portuguese. And part of the problem is that Lispector’s books, though poetic, pithy, and revelatory, disregard those things from which novels are typically thought to be made. Of course, Lispector’s disregard for the typical is perfectly appropriate, since she was after things that few novelists comprehend, much less struggle to put into print.

We now have another opportunity to embrace Lispector. Thanks in large part to the tireless advocacy of Moser and the courage of one of America’s finest presses, we have four new translations of her key works, as well as a first translation of a previously unavailable novel. Whichever you most enjoy will depend on how you best like your Lispector. Here we have precociously Joycean (Near to the Wild Heart, with an epigraph from Portrait of the Artist); philosophical, poetic, and deeply personal (Água Viva); mystic, plotless, and sacred (The Passion According to G.H.); rarefied late style (The Hour of the Star); and what can only be described as “none of the above” (A Breath of Life).

Água Viva is likely the most bracing of the bunch, the book that breaks the farthest from what a novel typically does. It is all toward Lispector’s pursuit of a quality that she seems only capable of defining while writing the book. Água Viva opens with an epigraph from Michel Seuphor about a kind of  “painting totally free from dependence on the figure…where dream becomes thought, where line becomes existence.” As that suggests, this book strains to bring into literature the very momentary revelation evoked when, say, a Rothko suddenly begins to shimmer with life before one’s eyes. Moser passes on in his introduction the Brazilian rock star Cazuza’s claim to have read Água Viva 111 times — and indeed, this is a book that, like a good painting, can be picked up anywhere and that will continue to reward renewed contact over months and years of acquaintance.

Forthright as ever, Lispector gets right to the point on the book’s first page, telling readers, “I’m trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it’s already gone.” The epiphanic paragraphs that follow attempt to make us feel the fleeting instants passing right before us. Lispector’s breathless prose and her array of remarkable metaphors are most commonly embodied in images of pullulating, unstable objects, such as “an ever-trembling stream” and “acrobats and pirouettes in the air.” She also frequently turns to paradox to give her prose the kind of emphatic, persistent declarations one associates with a seer: “I then fear myself who knows how to pain the horror, I, creature of echoing caverns that I am, and I suffocate because I am word and also its echo.” This effervescent novel is translated with agility by Stefan Tobler, whose new version is a great improvement over Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz’s occasionally stumbling, too-correct Stream of Life.

Água Viva affects the impression that it was scattered off in one mad night, but Lispector actually labored over it for years, frightened that it was too free, too un-novelistic to work. Evidence of Lispector’s long struggle can be seen in the care with she returns to what she calls “it” throughout, always elaborating and intensifying this tiny word. On page 28 she introduces it, “Then the mother-creator-cat breaks that cord with her teeth and another fact appears in the world. That process is it.” Then, 11 pages later: “The air is “it” and has no perfume.” And still another 9 pages: “we were modeled and a lot of raw material was left over — it — and so the beasts were formed.” And on and on throughout the book. A precise definition of it can — and should — not be had; what Lispector does here is make that tiny word bear the crushing lightness of nothing, which she links to both the fleeting present and the unclutchable other.

The problem with writing about Água Viva is that it can only be described so much before you start sounding like Lispector herself — that is probably the best proof of the book as pure experience. Not so, however, with Near to the Wild Heart, by far the closest of these five books to what might be considered a normal novel. As such, it makes a good starting point for Lispector newbies. Written when the author was just twenty-three, it proves that she knew what she was about right from the beginning — in the first chapter we find the heroine, Joana, thinking, “precisely the things that mattered she couldn’t say.” This is a sentiment that would remain central to Lispector, finding new forms throughout the author’s career. Joana is marked from birth as an old soul (as a child she is continually bored and asks her father what one does once one has achieved happiness). The book is her extremely personal story of finding a place in a world she feels perpetually alienated from. That Lispector could write such a complete and satisfying coming-of-age story at twenty-three is proof — were any needed — that she was always ahead of the game. Reading it in conjunction with the later works helps map her trajectory from a young woman who thought about things far beyond her age to a middle-aged author who wrote books unlike almost any others.

The Passion According to G.H. might best be thought of as an oblique sequel to The Metamorphosis: a middle-class Brazilian sculptress goes into her maid’s room, sees a cockroach, smashes it in disgust, and proceeds to apostrophize it throughout its prolonged death throes for almost 200 pages. It is Lispector’s attempt — successful, I would say — to sacralize one of the vilest quantities in the Western world. This meditation shows us G.H.’s complete loss of identity, the “deheroization,” as Lispector puts it, of her life. “Deheroization is the great failure of life,” Lispector writes. “Only then is my nature accepted, accepted with its frightened torture, where pain is not something that happens to us, but what we are…. The human condition is the passion of Christ.”

Rounding out the five new translations is The Hour of the Star, carefully re-translated by Moser and published last November by New Directions. It is the story, as Lispector herself famously put it, of Macabéa, “a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs…. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.” Moser explains in his biography of Lispector that much of the author’s “subsequent fame, her enduring popularity among a broad public, rests on this thin book, in which she managed to bring together all the strands of her writing and of her life.” Indeed it does: the book partakes in G.H.‘s sacralization of a powerless and miserable subject, Wild Heart‘s interest in a preternaturally alienated young girl, and Água Viva‘s ecstatic structuring and blind pursuit of “it” (which Macabéa tragically lacks). It is a strange, austere, almost unbearably sad book. “When I think that I could have been born her — and why not? — I tremble,” writes Lispector. Elsewhere she claims that “this girl embodies a truth I was anxious to avoid.” Similarly we should tremble and read The Hour of the Star to know what, if anything, separates us from Macabéa.

Lispector is an author that requires the reader’s full participation, but the rewards are sizable. As with Virginia Woolf, she is best read at a brisk clip so as to activate her effects on one’s mind, although the books should also be revisited at a slower pace to ponder Lispector’s frequently aphoristic sentiments. It is tough to read this legendary writer and remain indifferent to the life she reveals to us. Her books open spaces within, where one can experience things as new. As she says in Água Viva, “my voice falls into the abyss of your silence. You read me in silence. But in this unlimited silent field I unfurl my wings, free to live.”