“A note exists between two notes of music, between two facts exists a fact, between two grains of sand no matter how close together there exists an interval of space, a sense that exists between senses,” writes Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector in The Passion According to G.H. When critics describe Lispector’s work as “mystical,” “philosophical,” or “hermetic,” they mean she writes a lot of sentences like this one, sentences that amplify rather than clarify life’s mysteries. If you appreciate the author as seeker – if you prefer questions to answers – you’ll devour her work. If not, prepare to be flummoxed.
Lispector does not lend herself to easy comparison, description, or digestion, which is perhaps why she has yet to find much of an English-language audience despite being canonized as a master of world letters. (It’s hard enough to find readers for international literature, let alone mysterious and challenging international literature.) By the time of her death in 1977 at age 56, Lispector had written nine novels, eight collections of short stories, and four works for children. On top of that, she was one of the first and most prominent women journalists in the country. In Brazil you can find her face on postage stamps and her books in telenovelas, yet until recently, she was virtually unknown here.
Thankfully, when he was back in college, Harper’s contributing editor Benjamin Moser dropped his Chinese class and switched to Portuguese, where he was assigned Lispector’s most famous novel, A Hora da Estrela (The Hour of the Star). His fascination with that book and its enigmatic author led him on a globe-trotting mission to write the first English-language biography of Lispector, Why This World, which sparked fresh interest in her puzzling work and life.
It’s easy to see why Lispector would become the subject of a biographer’s obsession. Born Chaya Lispector in 1920 in a Ukrainian shtetl, her family narrowly escaped pogroms to immigrate to northeastern Brazil when she was just a year old. Renamed Clarice, she grew up in the Jewish neighborhood in Recife until the age of nine when her mother died and the family relocated to Rio de Janeiro.
By the time she was 23, Lispector’s debut novel Near to the Wild Heart won her acclaim as one of Brazil’s best writers. She spent two decades living abroad with her diplomat husband (including a stint in Washington, D.C.), but always considered Brazil her one, true home. Back in Rio, rumors spread in her absence. Was she a man using a pseudonym? Did she worship the occult? Her great beauty and cosmopolitan style fed the gossip. Lispector was so striking that long after her death, when biographer Benjamin Moser was interviewing her old friends in retirement homes, senile men in wheelchairs came to attention at the mere mention of her name.
When her marriage ended, she returned to Brazil with her two sons. During the 1960s, her avant-garde fiction inspired young Brazilians seeking expressive freedom in the face of military dictatorship, yet she lived as a recluse, writing beauty columns and intimate crônicas in some of the nation’s leading newspapers. In her final years, addicted to cigarettes and sleeping pills, she accidentally started an apartment fire that burned her right hand so badly it came to resemble a black claw.
Last year, when New Directions was making plans to reissue Giovanni Pontiero’s 1986 translation of The Hour of the Star, Moser offered to give the novel the fresh translation it deserved, channeling the voice he discovered in the process of writing Lispector’s biography. The success of Moser’s projects opened the door to more new translations, and with the help of a crack team of Portuguese translators, he has shepherded four more of Lispector’s novels into English.
Given Lispector’s unconventional grammar, spelling, punctuation and diction, this is no small feat. Moser and his team of translators collaborated on several painstaking drafts of each novel, striving to translate Lispector’s singular voice faithfully, line by line, book by book. Alison Entrekin translates Lispector’s 1943 debut, Near to the Wild Heart. Stefan Tobler translates Lispector’s 1973 philosophical meditation Água Viva. A posthumous novel, Breath of Life, collected from mountains of fragments, appears in English for the first time in a translation by Johnny Lorenz. Of all her novels, Lispector said that 1964’s The Passion According to G.H. was the one that “best corresponded to her demands as a writer,” and the new Idra Novey translation proves to be a raw, unforgettable glimpse into the obsessions and anxieties of “the witch of Brazilian literature.”
From the opening words of The Passion According to G.H., we are in an intimate first-person, halfway between confession and prayer. “_ _ _ _ _ _ I’m searching, I’m searching. I’m trying to understand,” writes G.H., a well-to-do Rio de Janeiro sculptor. G.H. describes herself as “a woman who lived well, lived well, lived well… living on the uppermost layer of the sands of the world, and the sands had never caved in beneath her feet…”
Until one day, without warning, the maid quits, upsetting G.H.’s “happy jailhouse routine.” The entire novel unfolds on the morning that G.H. enters the maid’s quarters, a room she hasn’t seen in months, expecting to clean up a mess. Instead, she finds the room bright and clean, save for a crude charcoal drawing on the wall, and a gleaming cockroach on the floor. In a fit of terror, G.H. kills the roach, and the thrill of violence gives way to spiritual crisis. “To have killed opened the dryness of the sands of the room to dampness finally, finally, as if I’d dug and dug with hard, eager fingers until I found within myself a thread of drinkable life that was the thread of death. “
We follow that thread for the next 150 or so pages, a lyrical, stream of consciousness meditation on the nature of time, the unreliability of language, the divinity of God, and the threat of hell, all provoked by close observation of the squirming, dying roach. “…the shape of the roach began slowly modifying as it swelled outward…the white matter slowly spilled atop its back like a burden…Immobilized, it was bearing atop its dusty flanks the weight of its own body.” As the roaches’ guts leak millimeter by millimeter, G.H. peers into its eyes “radiant and black…The eyes of a bride,” questioning her identity, her art, the act of creation and obliteration, the state of being man, woman, cockroach, the mysteries of life on Earth.
That may seem like a lot of existential anguish to squeeze from a single cockroach, but the novel toes a fine line between satire and psychological realism, and what could be more pregnant with existential questions than a species that’s survived unchanged for millennia? “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….” Lispector’s cockroach is less like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and more like Borges’ Aleph–a glimmering point that contains all other points. In the eyes of the roach G.H. gazes into the mysteries of the universe and her own painful memories. “Its eyes kept looking at me monotonously, the two neutral and fertile ovaries…I recalled myself roaming the streets knowing I’d have the abortion, doctor, I who about children only knew and only would know that I was going to have an abortion. But at least I was getting to know pregnancy… Along the streets I was feeling inside me the child that still wasn’t moving, while I was stopping to look in the shop windows at smiling wax mannequins. And when I entered a restaurant and ate, the pores of a child were devouring it like the mouth of a waiting fish.”
As sunlight crawls along the floor, G.H.’s spiritual crises grows ever more feverish, exposing her doubts, fears and ecstasies. According to Lispector’s worldview, we can’t trust time, we can’t trust beauty, we can’t trust God. “–Bear with me telling you that God is not pretty,” G.H. writes, “And that because He is neither a result nor a conclusion, and everything we find pretty is sometimes only because it is already concluded. But what is ugly today will be seen centuries hence as beauty, because it will have completed one of its movements.”
Lispector’s writing is seeped in doubt, not authority, yet the very act of creation is an act of faith, surrender to language even though language is incapable of reaching the nature of life or death, God or Hell, human or cockroach, “Since the thing can never be touched. The vital node is a finger pointing at it – and, the thing being pointed at, wakens like a milligram of radium in the tranquil dark. Then the wet crickets are heard.” In reintroducing the work of Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Moser and his team have translated not just a writer’s voice, but her seeking, her way of seeing into the void. “…the dark is not illuminable,” she writes, “… the dark is a way of being: the dark is in the vital node of the dark, and you can’t touch the vital node of a thing.”