Brazil’s Unique Voice

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Most writers learn by imitation—at least that is the common assumption.  The late Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, obliterates that belief.  In a letter to Robert Lowell, written in 1963, Elizabeth Bishop, Lispector’s original translator, stated of her, “She’s the most non-literary writer I’ve ever known, and ‘never cracks a book’ as we used to say.  She’s never read anything that I can discover—I think she’s a ‘self-taught’ writer, like a primitive painter.” In his introduction to The Hour of the Star, Colm Tóibín remarks, “Lispector had, in common with Borges in his fiction, an ability to write as though no one had ever written before….”  One of a kind, unique, sui generis, the first writer on earth.

And, yet, what an unexpected voice—mesmerizing, tantalizing, deceptive, fresh, original.  These qualities apply to both the language itself (which must have been an incredible challenge for Benjamin Moser is this most recent translation of Lispector’s work) and the narrative structure.  Here, for example, the narrator (identified as a man) writing about his main character, identified repeatedly as “the northeastern girl” named Macabéa: “Since life’s like that: you press a button and life lights up.  Except she didn’t know which button to press.  She didn’t even realize she lived in a technical society in which she was a dispensable cog.  But one thing she’d unsettingly discovered: she no longer knew what it was to have a father and mother, she’d forgotten the taste.  And, if she thought about it, she might say she sprouted from the soil of the Alagoas backlands like an instantly molded mushroom.  She talked, yes, but was extremely mute.  Sometimes I manage to get a word out of her but it slips through my fingers.”

What do we know of Macabéa?  Not much.  She’s come to Rio, where she is employed as a typist—a rather startling revelation since she appears to be illiterate.  The narrator observes of her that “Her life was a long meditation on nothing.”  Elsewhere, she’s described as stuck in the present, because “having a future was a luxury.”  She’s so unworldly that the one time she goes to see a doctor (because of emaciation and TB) “She thought that going to the doctor was a cure in and of itself.”  In short, Macabéa is a poor, unworldly young woman with few prospects and no future, living in a slum in Rio.  Olimpico de Jesus—her boyfriend for a brief time—tells her when he dumps her, “You, Macabéa, are like a hair in the soup.  Nobody feels like eating it.  Sorry to hurt your feelings, but I’m being honest.”  Is she upset by these remarks?  Not really.

The narrator, one Rodrigo S. M. (Lispector regendered as a man?) isn’t exactly known for his self-confidence either.  In dozens of asides to himself as the writer, he tells us that “The toothache that runs through this story has given me a sharp stab in the middle of our mouth,” a confusing statement for certain.  “Our” mouth rather that “my mouth”?  Shortly thereafter—to shore up the difficulty of writing itself—he states that “this book is a silence.”  And much later (in this relatively short narrative), after repeatedly denigrating his main character, Rodrigo remarks, “Ah if only I could grab Macabéa, give her a good bath, a plate of hot soup, a kiss on the forehead as I tucked her into bed.  And cause her to wake up and find simply the great luxury of living.”

There’s a problem here.  Can’t a writer or a narrator do whatever she (or he) wants to do with her characters?  Isn’t that what a writer does?  And if she doesn’t do that, who’s to blame?  Stories are constructed around silences, missing scenes.  That’s what writers do.  You write a novel called Crime and Punishment and leave out the murder scene.  Or the seduction in The Scarlet Letter.  Which may be why Lispector in her introductory note to The Hour of the Star –“Dedication by the Author (actually Clarice Lispector)”—states of her craft, “What trips up my life is writing.”

The Hour of the Star trips up our concept of the novel.  What a story is expected to do.  How characters act.  Why writers write.  Why readers read.  It’s an experience you won’t forget.

The Hour of the Star
By Clarice Lispector
Trans. by Benjamin Moser
New Directions, 81 pp., $12.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”
July 30, 2015
Bill Blunden
The NSA’s 9/11 Cover-Up: General Hayden Told a Lie, and It’s a Whopper
Richard Ward
Sandra Bland, Rebel
Jeffrey St. Clair
How One Safari Nut, the CIA and Neoliberal Environmentalists Plotted to Destroy Mozambique
Martha Rosenberg
Tracking the Lion Killers Back to the Old Oval Office