FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Brazil’s Unique Voice

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.

 

 

 

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
August 14, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Lights! Camera! Kill! Hollywood, the Pentagon and Imperial Ambitions.
Joseph Grosso
Bloody Chicken: Inside the American Poultry Industry During the Time of COVID
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: It Had to be You
H. Bruce Franklin
August 12-22, 1945: Washington Starts the Korean and Vietnam Wars
Pete Dolack
Business as Usual Equals Many Extra Deaths from Global Warming
Paul Street
Whispers in the Asylum (Seven Days in August)
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
‘Magical Thinking’ has Always Guided the US Role in Afghanistan
Ramzy Baroud
The Politics of War: What is Israel’s Endgame in Lebanon and Syria?
Ron Jacobs
It’s a Sick Country
Eve Ottenberg
Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Fake News
Jonathan Cook
How the Guardian Betrayed Not Only Corbyn But the Last Vestiges of British Democracy
Joseph Natoli
What Trump and the Republican Party Teach Us
Robert Fisk
Can Lebanon be Saved?
Brian Cloughley
Will Biden be Less Belligerent Than Trump?
Kenn Orphan
We Do Not Live in the World of Before
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Compromise & the Status Quo
Andrew Bacevich
Biden Wins, Then What?
Thomas Klikauer – Nadine Campbell
The Criminology of Global Warming
Michael Welton
Toppled Monuments and the Struggle For Symbolic Space
Prabir Purkayastha
Why 5G is the First Stage of a Tech War Between the U.S. and China
Daniel Beaumont
The Reign of Error
Adrian Treves – John Laundré
Science Does Not Support the Claims About Grizzly Hunting, Lethal Removal
David Rosen
A Moment of Social Crisis: Recalling the 1970s
Maximilian Werner
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf: Textual Manipulations in Anti-wolf Rhetoric
Pritha Chandra
Online Education and the Struggle over Disposable Time
Robert Koehler
Learning from the Hibakushas
Seth Sandronsky
Teaching in a Pandemic: an Interview With Mercedes K. Schneider
Dean Baker
Financing Drug Development: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us
Greta Anderson
Blaming Mexican Wolves for Livestock Kills
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Meaning of the Battle of Salamis
Mel Gurtov
The World Bank’s Poverty Illusion
Paul Gilk
The Great Question
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
Trump Doesn’t Want Law and Order
Martin Cherniack
Neo-conservatism: The Seductive Lure of Lying About History
Nicky Reid
Pick a Cold War, Any Cold War!
George Wuerthner
Zombie Legislation: the Latest Misguided Wildfire Bill
Lee Camp
The Execution of Elephants and Americans
Christopher Brauchli
I Read the News Today, Oh Boy…
Tony McKenna
The Truth About Prince Philip
Louis Proyect
MarxMail 2.0
Sidney Miralao
Get Military Recruiters Out of Our High Schools
Jon Hochschartner
Okra of Time
David Yearsley
Bringing Landscapes to Life: the Music of Johann Christian Bach
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail