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
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South