Clarice Lispector: The Thereness of Language

Everyone who reads Clarice Lispector grapples with the figure who can’t be interrogated now, since she died in 1977, and couldn’t be queried any more readily when she was alive. To read her is to enter a state of involuntariness. If you are even just partway a serious reader, the sand begins to slide from under your feet. Think about those spiders who weave a funnel-shaped web. There you are—your grip loosed. Terrifying, inevitable, drawn in and down, and even if the filament is silk and therefore seductive, it is still a trap. But where exactly are you?

The noted collection of essays by Helene Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays (Harvard University Press, 1991), begins with an introduction by Susan Rubin Suleiman that sets Cixous’s topics to follow. Prominent among them in this, and in other of her writings, is the issue of exile. Cixous was born to a German Jewish mother in Oran, Algeria, in 1937. Her father, a Sephardic Jew, was a doctor and a military officer. The language of home was German and those spoken around her were Spanish, French, Arabic, Hebrew and, at school, English. At age three, in the garden of the Officer’s Club in Oran, Cixous, playing with other children, had her first encounter with anti-Semitism, Suleiman tells us, and with this began her feeling of foreignness. She wrote, “At a certain moment for the person who has lost everything, whether that means a being or a country, language becomes the country. One enters the country of words.” And about the city of her birth, “I lost Oran. Then I recovered it, white, gold and dust for eternity in my memory and I never went back. In order to keep it. It became my writing.”

For Clarice Lispector, who was also the subject of Cixous’s writing, exile was an eternal transit. She was born in Ukraine, which slipped inside and outside the shifting borders of Russia. So she was born in Russia or in Ukraine and at the age of one was living in Brazil with her family, who had sought refuge from the indescribably brutal pogroms that historically drove out as many Jews as could find exit. She spoke Portuguese; she wrote in Portuguese. Her home, as you would describe the place in which you live and are at ease as home, was Brazil. She was never at ease. Her husband, a Brazilian diplomat, was posted for a time in Switzerland, where their first son was born. From there Clarice wrote to her sisters, “There isn’t really a place one can live. It’s all somebody else’s country, where other people are happy.”

Every aspect of Clarice Lispector was notable. She was remarkable, unusually beautiful and her voice was noted—guttural, foreignsounding, raspy and thought by some to be French. But it wasn’t foreign; it was hers and, explained reasonably by her friend, a Brazilian speech therapist, was the result of her imitating the speech patterns of her foreign parents. In her ear she heard Russian, on her tongue she spoke Portuguese, in her head she lived between the worlds that drove her parents from Russia and the cities she inhabited and about which she wrote: Recife, her childhood home, and Rio de Janeiro, where she lived as an adult.

But the space or state of her writing was another country. In 1943 she published her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart. She was 23. The title was a portion of a line from James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from 1906, and she selected that line as an epigraph for her book: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life.” With this, showing her uncanny prescience, she anticipated the life that would follow, the perspective, and the reading entirely hers. From the outside, that is, as everyone else saw her, Clarice Lispector never went unheeded, and neither was she alone. She may have been happy, and the heart as the central progenitor was a correct location. It was central, meaning key, essential for this woman who was apart and outside, interrogating, provoking, prodding to locate the core, the kernel, the essence of meaning or being. And one more thing—the word “near,” near to the wild heart—because she was outside, a necessary distance from which to write and a preferred state of imminence. Almost there but not, “near” being anticipatory and generative.

Benjamin Moser wrote the comprehensive biography of Clarice Lispector, Why This World (Oxford University Press, 2009), and has written the introduction and afterwords to several of her novels. He seems to understand her, to know her well. His comments on the works in translation attempt to explain or give cause to what he feels readers find awkward or confusing language. He says, in his translator’s afterword to The Hour of the Star, her last novel published in 1977, the year of her death, “No matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original.” He makes reference to her “weird word choices, strange syntax, lack of interest in conversational grammar … that veer toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it.” Precisely. “Near” was as close as she wanted the writing to be—“near,” to allow for apprehension to slip into and behind meaning like two pieces of film stereoscopically eliding to produce one image. But he’s wrong about weird word choices or unusual syntax. If nuance could have a bell-like clarity—that was where her writing led us. In the afterword to her final book he wrote, “Her goal, mystical as well as artistic, was to rearrange conventional language to find new meaning, but never to discard it completely.” She knew this from the outset. In her first book, Near to the Wild Heart, she referred to the “ true thing” as not needing to be happy or sad or even to be manifest. All it had to do was exist. It shouldn’t be sought after, “since everything that existed necessarily existed…. You see, vision consisted of surprising the symbol of the thing in the thing itself.” Joana, the book’s young protagonist whom we follow to adulthood, reflects on her happiness and notes that the freedom she felt on occasion seemed to come from an awareness of perceptions “too organic to be formulated as thoughts. Sometimes at the bottom of the feeling wavered an idea that gave her a vague awareness of its kind and colour.” This is being, this is existing in a state of suspension, of aliveness untethered to anything more specific than being alive. Imminence, grace or just organic nature—the amniotic fluid or the salt sea from which we come.

The undernourished, wraith-like—but so much more—also endearing, admirable figure, a young woman who barely had a shadow—Macabéa, the heroine of The Hour of the Star, who would have been Marilyn Monroe if she had given herself the entitlement of wishing, lives a life so spare there would be nothing you could steal from her but life itself. (She worked as a typist who lacked accuracy and somehow dirtied the pages she typed.) This extraordinary final story is given to us by three voices—the omniscient narrator; the thin, dry Macabéa; and by Lispector herself, who loves Macabéa and who on occasion nudges the narrator aside so that she can observe and speak. Macabéa knew, “You don’t have to believe in anyone or anything—you just have to believe. That sometimes gave her the state of grace. She’d never lost faith.”

Unwell but still powerfully alive, Clarice Lispector continued the traditions from which she had come—generations of rabbis, mystics pursuing spiritual understanding and connections but, as Benjamin Moser suggests, perhaps disappointed, feeling betrayed by the religiously sanctioned ideal of God. Having endured relentless brutality—the pogroms in Russia and Ukraine, for example—as the 19th century became the 20th, they turned from formal practice, certainly in the case of Clarice Lispector’s immediate family, to more spiritual pursuits.

In his introduction to Near to the Wild Heart, republished in 2013, Moser returns to Lispector’s saying, “You see, vision consisted of surprising the symbol of the thing in the thing itself.” This, he says—“the symbol of the thing in the thing itself”—was the heart of her entire artistic project. Making the thing and its symbol— language and reality—one was not, he suggests, an intellectual or artistic goal. “A word does not describe a pre-existing thing,” he writes, “but actually is that thing.” This was the intense pursuit and focus of centuries of Jewish mystics, the search for “the word that has its own light.” In her seeking God or the meaning and state attending God, Clarice Lispector was not attributing any moral implications, just, as Moser says, that language represents only itself. In The Hour of the Star, she wrote, “Each thing is a word and when there is no word it is invented. This is your God who commanded us to invent.” As the word for the thing is invented, it is the word and the thing together, each bringing the other into being as a synthetic whole.

Lispector’s ability in her work to conjure a sense or a state, or draw a portrait or place us in a room or a garden so that the language and we, as readers, are equivalently sensate, and do it without hesitation and with absolute economy, is unique to her. Only she writes as she does. Her observations, anxieties, alarms become ours. Even nausea, which she presents as the appropriate response and which I read as ennui brought on by seeing, feeling, being too much in the world. A surfeit, an excess, acute indigestion of the senses.

Brief examples from Near to the Wild Heart: the child Joana, newly an orphan, is brought to the home of an aunt she has never known. “Joana remained standing, barely breathing in the lukewarm smell that came sweet and still after the pungent ocean air. Mould and tea with sugar.” Fleeing from the overabundant bosom of the stranger who had embraced her and pulled her in too close and covered her face with warm wet kisses, she’d run out the door and to the seashore beyond. In the yard where she would play was an old chickenless chicken coop. “It smelled of birdlime and filth and stuff dying. But one could sit in it, very close to the ground, looking at the earth. The earth made up of so many pieces that it hurt one’s head to think how many.”

Eighty-five stories, from her earliest writing to those gathered from notes and fragments after her death, are collected in The Complete Stories: Clarice Lispector (A New Directions Book, 2018). Almost every one of the 85 is notable. You can twirl and spin and have your finger land on any one, which would serve as an example of her endless curiosity, her unblinking eye, her relentless acute gaze and observations, and her generosity. “The Dinner” would be a story where she and American painter Leon Golub would have enjoyed each other’s company, in complete agreement. I’m thinking of Golub’s “Political Portraits” from the late ’70s, which included dictators, exploiters and the powerfully wealthy, painted in a succeeding series where the aging subjects revealed their decaying souls. In Lispector’s “The Dinner” a large white-haired man sits at a table in a comfortable restaurant where he is attended to and fussed over. From a table close by, the narrator observes him. He has been served his dinner. “He was suddenly turning his meat over, examining it vehemently, the tip of his tongue peeking out—he pressed on the steak with the back of his fork, nearly sniffed it, his mouth working in anticipation.” You can see him, hear his teeth clacking just a little, picture the relief of the waiter when the wine is met with approval. She goes on, “He is finished. His face empties of expression. He closes his eyes, stretches out his jaw. I try to seize the moment in which he no longer possesses his own face, to see at last.” He is comfortable in country clubs, in boardrooms, at the head of his earned dining room table at home. We know him well from his dinner with Clarice.

The story “A Chicken,” brief and as large as a world, comes from her generous spirit and capacity to move outside herself. For Lispector, the world was one—all of nature, the rocks and trees and the water and all the inhabitants contained there—every living thing. Without ranking. I can write about the dogs I have lived with and feel that I present the world from their point of view. I can imagine myself them and feel a transformation, me into them. Clarice Lispector gives us a chicken—inside and out, bird and being. “Since Saturday she’d been huddled in a corner of the kitchen. She looked at no one, no one looked at her.” Then the bird makes a run for it, landing on a neighbouring roof. “There she stood like an out-of-place ornament, hesitating on one foot, then the other. Alone in the world, without a father or a mother, she ran, panting, mute, focused. At times, mid-escape, she’d flutter breathlessly on the eave of the roof.” Then caught and “carried triumphantly by one wing across the rooftops and placed on the kitchen floor with a certain violence. Still dizzy, she shook herself a little, clucking hoarsely and uncertainly.” We are there and know this chicken.

At the conclusion of her final novel, The Hour of the Star, Lispector tells us that Macabéa, who purchased a tube of red lipstick and painted it on and over her thin mouth, like Marilyn Monroe, has been struck while stepping off a curb by a fast-moving, expensive, large car—her life finally touching luxury. She dies untended but not unobserved by the crowd that had gathered. “With her dead, the bells were ringing but without their bronzes giving them sound,” Clarice Lispector wrote. “Now I understand this story. It is the imminence in the bells that almost-almost ring.”

This is the essence of what Lispector sought—the “empty,” encircled by a form, outlined and given shape by the form that isn’t really there. Think of an iron hoop. Inside the iron hoop is a measurable space that has a diameter, a circumference. Remove the hoop. That’s the space. There, gone, there. ❚