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.

On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi

Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?