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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: firstname.lastname@example.org.