Actually, Clarice Lispector

Guardian Angel“The Hour of the Star,” Clarice Lispector’s final book, is a study in narration, how to tell a story. The style is more industrial and electronic than “Agua Viva.” And more colloquial. First published in 1977, a time of candlelight compared to today, “The Hour of the Star” is dedicated

“…to the strident cries of the electronic generation.”

The short dedication, signed, “Actually, Clarice Lispector,” brings attention to the difference between the author and her narrator, between experience and fiction that tries to bring the experience to others, and suggests the angle of the work, and why she chose the strategy.

Writing, for the narrator, is not easy:

“No, it’s not easy to write. It’s as hard as breaking rocks.”

Maybe his difficulty comes from his being an amateur:

“Anyway. It seems that I’m changing the way I write. But it so happens that I only write what I want, I’m not a professional.”

But as an amateur, he’s free to go his own way, to address his own needs:

“I am not an intellectual, I write with my body…I swear this book is made without words. It is a mute photograph. This book is a silence. This book is a question.”

This book may also be an act.

“Is the fact an act?”

Actually, it’s all an act. He’s obsessed with facts. But what is a fact? The narrator tells a story about how he wants to write a story about a girl he seems to be haunted by. What’s he haunted by, the girl, her story, or his story? But she has no story. And he has no story without her story. So he has to come up with one, and he invents it on the go. The girl is described as being poor, ugly, and stupid. She’s hopeless. She would be invisible were it not for the fact that she is annoying.

The girl looks into a mirror – no, the narrator sees the girl looking into a mirror, but she sees him in the mirror,

“we’re that interchangeable.”

Actually, is the author interchangeable with the narrator? Is it possible to see Clarice’s face when the narrator sees Macabea looking at herself in the mirror?

He’s obsessed with her, and so, obsessed with his writing. That he’s an amateur is evidenced by his having to “give up sex and soccer” in order to write. That’s the difference between amateur and professional writers. It’s a hilarious line.

“Or am I not a writer? Actually I’m more of an actor because with only one way to punctuate, I juggle with intonation and force another’s breathing to accompany my text.”

Lispector’s unconventional and idiosyncratic punctuation and syntax. Themes seem to play on identity of narrator and character: and author? The girl forlorn, he does not seem to pity her. At the bottom of one paragraph,

“Not that it mattered. Nobody looked at her on the street, she was cold coffee.”

And at the bottom of the next paragraph, he says of her,

“What a thin slice of watermelon.”

But he learns more about her as he goes, and here’s Lispector having some fun:

“I’ve just discovered that for her, besides God, reality too was very little. She could deal better with her daily unreality, living in sloooow motion, hare leeeeaping through the aaaair over hiiiill and daaaale…”

It’s a short book, 77 pages, a novella, but if writing can be hard, so can reading. He’s sarcastic and frustrated by his inability to get going on his story about the girl. We’re a quarter of the way into the book before we get her background and a traditional narrative seems to have begun. What was all that about, that meandering prologue? He seems to be improvising. He claims he doesn’t know how her story will end.

She lives in a tenement in a hard part of town; nevertheless,

“…the girl’s life might have a splendid future? I’m pleased by the possibility and will do everything I can to make it real.”

Macabea asks questions. She listens to Clock Radio, which is often incomprehensible to her, but fuels her questions. The narrator wants facts, is bored with description and other traditional writing requisites. The center of the book is devoted to a long section of dialog between Maca and her boyfriend, Olimpico, and Maca asks him questions he can’t answer. He leaves her for another, another typist. As a typist, Macabea is another kind of writer. But she’s not a female Bartleby.

Yes, she has a job, even a skill, though she’s not very good at it, and she doesn’t earn even minimum wage. She lives in a room with four other girls, all named Maria. She subsists on a diet of hot dogs. She’s never had a gift from anyone, never a party given in her name. Her parents died when she was a child. She was raised by a mean and ignorant aunt. She collects advertisements.

She hears on Clock Radio that

“there were seven billion people in the world. She felt lost. But with the tendency she had to be happy she immediately consoled herself: there were seven billion people to help her.”

Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but the world population in 1977, when the book was written, was only 4.2 billion. It was 7 billion in 2011, when the translation was done. So much for the narrator’s quest for facts? Of course, as with all the other facts in the story, this adds up to nothing.

The end comes as no surprise, though the narrator says he’s tried to avoid it. We’ve been told Macabea has no guardian angel. Really? Should he have tried harder or was he simply being true to the story, the girl, or was he projecting some drama within himself that did not need to happen?

In the end, Macabea’s life does have significance, and all the narrator’s arguments fail to persuade. It might be trite to say it, but his criticisms say more about him than about Macabea. He’s a critic, the worst kind, a literary critic, but with this difference – he’s created and is criticizing his own work. Nothing else matters. It’s so fiction. Was he the driver of the Mercedes? Or is he the fortune teller? Who is he? But this is asking for something that is not there. He seems to have told a true story, after all, criticisms included.

Did the girl “exist”? It’s fiction, so she did not exist. That’s the whole story. He claims not to know the ending. But it becomes clear, in the end, that he knew the ending all along. In fact, he started with the ending and worked backward to a beginning, but he couldn’t find a beginning, so he began by telling about himself, limited to his struggles to write the story. He introduces himself as Rodrigo, but we forget his name since it’s not mentioned again, while he goes on talking about “the girl.” We have to wait a long time to get her name, Macabea. When she tells Olimpico her name, he says,

“Sorry but that sounds like a disease, a skin disease.”

Her poverty is all she possesses. She barely exists. She does not exist.

No, not actually. Actually, she does exist, as fiction. We believe in her. The book begins and ends on a “yes.” Still, the narrator grows tired of it all. Maybe a different narrator would have come up with a different ending. But no. This is the story. Take it or leave it. Except that, in her poverty, in her worldly nothingness, she is as beautiful as a weed struggling through a crack in the asphalt, and Clarice, her guardian angel, waters the unwanted flower with tears of words.

“The Hour of the Star,” 1977, by Clarice Lispector. First published as New Directions Paperbook 733 in 1992. Newly translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser, 2011, and Introduction by Colm Toibin, 2011, in New Directions Paperbook 1212.

The Toads Transfigured at berfrois!

The Toads post on the latest Rolling Stone Dylan interview, in which we blended Dylan’s discussion of transfiguration with Clarice Lispector’s in Aqua Viva, has been picked up and reposted at berfroisCheck it out!

Clarice Lispector’s “Agua Viva”: Oyster, Rose, and Time

In the center of “Agua Viva” a round curving flower unfolds, falling outward, foreshadowed by the oyster and turtle, by animals and insects. But “not having been born an animal,” Clarice is free to experiment, for “the animal never substitutes one thing for another,” never, in other words, uses metaphor, and so animals are better able to capture the “it” of time, and we want to watch them, but we must be careful not to “humanize animals because it’s an offense – you must respect their nature – I am the one who animalizes myself” (42-45).

There are 376 paragraphs in 88 pages of text (the writing begins on page 3). Each paragraph is a petal curling away from the center of the text.

Animals with paragraphs: oyster, owl, horse, wolves, turtles, tiger.

Flowers with paragraphs: rose (“The way she opens herself into a woman is so beautiful.”); carnation (“The white ones recall the little coffin of a dead child…and we turn our heads away in horror.”); sunflower; violet; daisy; orchid (“…exquise and unpleasant.”); tulip; cornflower (“biblical”); angelica (“dangerous”); jasmine; bird-of-paradise; night jessamine; edelweiss; geranium; water lilies; chrysanthemum (“deep happiness”) (49-53).

As with James Joyce, more dangerous writing: “Yes, what I’m writing you is nobody’s. And this nobody’s freedom is very dangerous. It is like the infinite that has the color of air” (76).

A maid and a cook appear momentarily, cursorily; what for? (75, 78). They witness the writing. Clarice has a job, “to look after the world” (54).

Ants appear, and bees. The voice treads water “beyond thought” (35, 41, 59, 61, 64, 73, 79).

How can we ask a text that occurs only in the moment to have a plot? Aphorism, definition, examples and illustration, clear and concise description. Insects, bugs. Without plot comes freedom: “Whoever isn’t lost doesn’t know freedom and love it” (65).

The end is a mirror (70) and a beatitude of nothing (82), sleep and waves, sadness. But begin being again, “with such profound happiness. Such a hallelujah” (3, 29), a jazz.

The narrator, a voice without narration, talks of writing and reading, first and second person. Time stops with the writing, close in, close up: “Insects, frogs, lice, flies, fleas and bedbugs” (35).

The narrator is a painter who writes. The writer’s doubt (34, 38, 48) is the reader’s joy: “The ‘freedom’ frees itself from the slavery of the word” (84). Yes, contradictions and connections, threads of paragraphs.

“Agua Viva,” by Clarice Lispector. Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler. Introduction by Benjamin Moser. Written in 1973. First published by New Directions as NDP1223 in 2012.

Related posts: Bob Dylan and Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured, & RedeemedJames Joyce on Writing: “write dangerously”

This Toads post picked up and reposted at berfrois on 25 Oct 2012: Check it out!

Bob Dylan & Clarice Lispector: Bewildering, Transfigured, & Redeemed

Perhaps no star’s luminosity glows murkier than Dylan’s in his interviews. Louis Menand, in “Bob on Bob: Dylan Talks” (New Yorker, 4 Sep 2006), a review of Jonathan Cott’s Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, comments on the absurdity of taking any Dylan interview as a gospel light. Menand opens by comparing Dylan’s interviews to Elvis’s, “who was one of the all-time worst.” Dylan is slightly better than Elvis in an interview, Menand argues, where the King’s sole imperative was to not offend, but Dylan “is rarely concerned about sounding polite, and he says things, but he sometimes makes them up. He also contradicts himself, answers questions with questions, rambles, gets hostile, goes laconic, and generally bewilders.” Dylan’s latest interview in Rolling Stone (Issue # 1166, 27 Sep 2012) does all of that and more.

The most bewildering discussion in this latest interview, ably conducted by Mikal Gilmore, is Dylan on transfiguration. Does he mean transmigration? He says not. He says he got the idea in a book in Rome, and advises to ask the Catholics. Yes, they would know, having written the book. Joyce’s Molly asks Bloom:

—Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There’s a word I wanted to ask you.
She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.
—Met him what? he asked.
—Here, she said. What does that mean?
He leaned downward and read near her polished thumbnail.
—Metempsychosis?
—Yes. Who’s he when he’s at home?
—Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It’s Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.
—O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words. (Ulysses, “Calypso” Chapter)

But Dylan says he’s trying to explain something that can’t be explained. He asks for some help. I recalled John Fahey’s 1965 The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Is Dylan talking about being reborn? Surely Dylan is familiar with the great guitarist John Fahey.

And this week, reading Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, first published in 1973 but recently transfigured by New Directions, and guess what appears – transfiguration: “No, all this isn’t happening in real facts but in the domain of – of an art? yes, of an artifice through which a most delicate reality arises which comes to exist in me: the transfiguration happened to me…I transfigure reality and then another dreaming and sleepwalking reality, creates me” (13:16).

Dylan: “Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving” (46).

But, “I don’t question myself about my motives,” Lispector says. “I am obscure to myself…I let myself happen” (17). Which is freedom: “Only a few people chosen by the inevitability of chance have tasted the aloof and delicate freedom of life. It’s like knowing how to arrange flowers in a vase: almost useless knowledge. The fleeting freedom of life must never be forgotten: it should be present like a fragrance” (62).

On the “only a few,” Dylan seems to agree: “I’m not like you, am I? I’m not like him, either. I’m not like too many others. I’m only like another person who’s been transfigured. How many people like that or like me do you know?” (46). Yet Lispector says, “All lives are heroic lives” (59).

And Bloom continues to explain to Molly: “—Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.” But this begins to sound more like transmogrification.

In places, Lispector sounds like Dylan in an interview: “I don’t want to ask why, you can always ask why and always get no answer…What I say to you is never what I say to you but something else instead” (8).

But both Dylan and Lispector can strike a point like sinking the nine ball. When asked if performing live is fulfilling, Dylan replies, “No kind of life is fulfilling if your soul hasn’t been redeemed” (48). And Lispector describes her job as looking after the world: “Looking after the world also demands a lot of patience: I have to wait for the day when an ant turns up” (55).

Dylan’s discussion of being transfigured reads less bewilderingly if read figuratively. His old self no longer exists. Look homeward, angel, but the transfigured can’t go home again. But enough for now. More on Clarice Lispector and Agua Viva soon, but for now, why worry the weary worry why?

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