A decade ago, indie publisher New Directions commenced the ambitious project of retranslating the work of Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian writer celebrated in her homeland who had a small but loyal cult following in the United States. Though several of her works had previously appeared in English, many were obscure or simply out of print, and nearly all of them diluted her voice. These new editions have not only succeeded in mirroring the exactitude of her wording, but in this golden era of literary rediscovery and dead writer worship, they have hoisted her from the grave to a pedestal of adoration. It seems that nearly every critic who writes about Lispector appears to be intoxicated by her, not just with her incantatory prose but with her striking persona, her image, the mythology of her life, and the assertiveness with which she made writing, down to the grammar, bend to her will.
This new edition of The Apple in the Dark (New Directions, 2023), a novel from her mid-period, marks the end of the New Directions Lispector project, which began with Benjamin Moser’s translation of perhaps her most famous book, The Hour of the Star. Moser, who authored Lispector’s biography Why This World and acted as general editor of project, seems a fitting choice to restore what may be her most exigent book. Originally published in Brazil 1961 after a nearly twelve-year hiatus from novel writing and five excruciating years in manuscript, it appeared three years later in a sober English translation by Gregory Rabassa, who is better known for his translations of Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. The two translations could not be more different, one more mindful of clarity, one more aware that clarity doesn’t always come first in a Lispector novel.
What Lispector does in Apple in the Dark is weave a scant storyline out of dense and iridescent metaphysical description in a structural style she would later perfect: a narrative thin in exterior movements but pregnant with interior vibration, where the climax, though deliberately put off, reaches a well-earned catharsis when it finally arrives. While The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star achieve this with mastery, in part because of their brevity, The Apple in the Dark introduces it in its purist, unfiltered form. Longtime readers of Lispector will be enthralled; novices should proceed with caution.
The novel begins in a fugue state. Martim, a young man and possible murderer, flees from men he fears suspect his crime by jumping from the window of his hotel room into pitch black jungle. Martim escapes into a darkness much larger than he can conceive of; he finds himself immersed in a night “of a great and dark delicacy,” where the night’s silence “remade itself inside of the silence.” By morning he awakens in a barren desert, where the intense brightness of the dawning sun thrusts him from his solitude into a demanding new reality. He experiences a kind of pre-conscious silence, such that, when his thoughts begin to make noise, he becomes repulsed by his compulsion to think. By guiltlessly committing his criminal act, he has “lost the language of others” and “didn’t even have the beginning of a language of his own.” Martim’s clean slate gives Lispector free rein to experiment with the intricacies of a character who no longer identifies with the ethos of mankind, and who must rebuild for himself what it means to be human.
After countless hours of wandering he finds refuge at a lonely farm. In a few ungraceful words, Martim introduces himself to the owner, Vitória, as an engineer fallen on hard times, and offers his services as a handyman. This explanation leaves her suspicious, but she begrudgingly accepts his help. Throughout the novel, he performs whatever task she demands, no matter how pointless or degrading. Later, Martim is described as having “grown used without resistance to being constantly ordered around by Vitória who seemed to have discovered an incessant and impatient game: spying on him and inventing work for him.” Vitória’s intensity expresses itself as brute strength of will—a strength that makes her resent Martim’s flimsy self-worth to the extent that “the man’s docility seemed like an affront to her.”
Vitória’s younger cousin, Ermelinda, flits in and out of the narrative as the third major character. A weak woman, described by Vitória as someone who “allowed herself the privileges of madness without being mad,” has a fragile temperament that’s explained in part by the fact that she was a sickly child. The three of them interact infrequently amid various tides of tension, at times erotic, but oftentimes in simple battles of ego-clashing annoyances. In a novel characterized by intensely sparse interpersonal interaction, we might expect the characters to relish conversing with one another, if only to take a break from the enormity of their solitude. But the characters are frustratingly quiet; they have congested souls.
For every forward step in their development there are twice as many steps back, a stifled state that inspires Sisyphean prose. After one of the longer dialogues in the novel, the narrator remarks that, “Once again nobody understood and nobody seemed disturbed not to have understood.” The frequent misunderstandings between the characters are accepted as just being the way things are. Rather than becoming dull from these unfruitful exchanges, the narrative gains a strange power from the swirling distillation of the characters’ desires and the vastness of their differences. We find ourselves contemplating womanhood, love, and insights that deepen and entangle themselves like necklaces tossed in a purse.
The difficulty of this novel is in keeping up with these spiraling ideas. A deluge of pensées create a labyrinth in which a reader not paying close attention may lose themselves (and their patience), and Moser’s faithful translation does nothing to aid us. Something as simple as Martim hiking up a slope takes pages of build-up, with the narration rambling about, sometimes even going so far as to acknowledging the lack of action:
Oh, you could say that nothing was happening while he was on the slope. And he wasn’t asking for anything to happen either. The dusk of ragged light, the naked air and empty space seemed to be enough for him. Even a thought would sink the air. He was holding back. There, existing was already an emphasis.
Diversions such as this are marketed as part of Lispector’s charm: she offers clarity like a mirage—the second we become too confident that we understand what a character desires, that desire disappears.
In his introduction to her Collected Stories, Moser attributes Lispector’s “odd grammar” to “the powerful influence of Jewish mysticism to which she was introduced by her father,” going on to mention how “the reader—not to mention the poor translator—is often tripped up by their nearly Cubist patterns.” Rabassa’s translation of The Apple in the Dark was met with rough reviews, some of which accused the editing of not being thorough enough. But when comparing Rabassa’s translation to Moser’s, it appears Rabassa did a fair amount to tidy Lispector’s odd stylistic mannerisms:
Rabassa’s translation of the opening lines: This tale begins in March on a night as dark as night can get when a person is asleep. The peaceful way in which time was passing could be seen in the high passage of the moon across the sky. Then later on, much deeper into night, the moon too disappeared.
Moser’s translation: This story begins on a March night as dark as night gets while you sleep. The way that, peaceful, time was passing was the extremely high moon passing through the sky. Until much deeply later the moon disappeared too.
Lispector: Esta história começa numa noite de março tão escura quanto é a noite enquanto se dorme. O modo como, tranquilo, o tempo decorria era a lua altíssima passando pelo céu. Até que mais profundamente tarde também a lua desapareceu.
Rabassa creates a clear and pensive scene, whereas Moser’s translation of this paragraph mystifies. The question of clarity in translation is a complicated one, especially when it comes to Lispector. As quoted in the afterword of Moser’s translation of The Hour of the Star, Lispector acknowledges that her sentences “do not reflect the usual manner of speaking” and states that:
The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not result from an ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that the elementary principles of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it be respected.
In the same afterword, Moser advises future translators that they “would do well to recall this point. Because no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds as unusual in the original.” Though Moser’s translation does not contain the footholds that Rabassa employed, in preserving Lispector’s idiosyncrasies, Moser shows the luster of her occult brilliance. Her strangeness is her allure.
Despite the challenges presented by this novel’s wandering nature, Lispector’s stylistic feats enchant through to the end, and offer a compelling perspective on the wild magic of her voice. Though thin of plot, the book does have an arc, and its ending will leave readers breathless. As Lispector’s son Paulo Gurgel Valente writes in the book’s afterword: “the novel, with that formidable twist at its end, would have made a great Alfred Hitchcock movie.”