The Strange Spirituality of Clarice Lispector

by |
09/12/2012 4:00 AM |

Near to the Wild Heart
Tr. Alison Entrekin
The Passion According to G.H.
Tr. Idra Novey
Água Viva
Tr. Alison Entrekin
A Breath of Life
Tr. Johnny Lorenz

(New Directions)

“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “I know that is poetry.” The work of Clarice Lispector, one of 20th-century Brazil’s most intriguing, mystifying, and frustrating writers, is then likely poetic because it renders readers completely headless. A Ukrainian Jew who emigrated to Brazil at the age of one and considered Portuguese the “language of her soul,” Lispector seemed destined for the kind of strangeness that emerges within her digressive, mystical novels, which present female artists in the heat of spiritual and linguistic crises.

Under the editorship of critic, biographer and full-time Lispector cheerleader Benjamin Moser, her work is now available to English readers from New Directions. The series offers new, vivid translations of Lispector’s precocious debut novel Near to the Wild Heart and two of her late spiritual meditations, The Passion According to G.H. and Água Viva, as well as the first English translation of A Breath of Life, a posthumous novel—and the most accessible and complete work in the series. As Lispector’s most sustained meditation on art and writing, this final book clarifies and deepens the search for what lurks behind the façade of reality that emerges within her early work.

From Near to the Wild Heart (1943), published when its author was only 23, Lispector demonstrates a keenness for presenting the spiritual awakenings of women who move above and outside the societies that wish to contain them. Lispector narrates the growth of her protagonist Joana from an exceptionally creative child (condemned as a “cold viper” by her stodgy aunt) into an irrepressible, amoral woman who escapes her conventional marriage because of her desire to be as “brutal and misshapen as a rock…as strong and beautiful as a young horse.” While Joana’s inimitable stream of consciousness, which garnered comparisons to the creations of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, is couched within a traditional plot, Lispector’s early novel reveals an obsession with spiritual transcendence that her later work develops.

In The Passion According to G.H. (1964), this moment of rebirth begins, like another story of modernist transformation, with the sudden entrance of a cockroach. In this case the squashing occurs immediately, but seeing the dying, oozing creature precipitates a crisis in G.H., the novel’s eponymous narrator, an amateur sculptress. Adopting the cockroach as a symbol of eternity and prehistory—cockroaches have remained unchanged since the earth was formed, the narrator reminds us, and, as apocalyptic lore suggests, will outlive all other creatures—G.H. reduces humanity to “names” and “accretions.” All human trappings get in the way, including language, which is “the way I go in search of [reality], and the way I do not find it.”

Thus fearing that her identity is no more than “the initials G.H. in the leather of my suitcases,” the narrator looks toward the roach as the apotheosis of an idea that recurs throughout Lispector’s work: casting off the restraints of humanity and returning to animalistic bliss. What G.H. finds in the insect is a pre-civilized, pre-linguistic state she calls “being alive.” The unrelenting search for this state of pre-conscious being characterizes Lispector’s narrators, who demonstrate little more than this drive.

In Água Viva (1973) for example, this insistent (bordering on repetitive) search is the sole characteristic of the narrator and the novel as a whole. A plotless collection of fragments, this book expresses most forcefully both Lispector’s philosophical concerns and the difficulties of translating these concerns into prose. If G.H. is concerned that words are an obstacle between her and reality, the painter-turned-writer of Água Viva takes this anxiety as her main subject, reminding the reader that she is attempting to use language to reach what it cannot express. “I write to you,” she writes, “because I don’t understand myself.”

And yet an acceptance and exultation of this mystery, what the narrator calls “an exercise in life without planning,” is the highest value for Lispector’s characters and perhaps a key to appreciating her work. The confrontation between logic and illogic, reason and a liberating madness, is dramatized in Lispector’s final novel, A Breath of Life (1978). She makes a case for her own work in the story of an author whose irrepressible female character—who is named Angela Pralini, but is really a stand-in for Joana, G.H., or the narrator of Água Viva—ultimately supersedes his own philosophy with her embrace of “the sweet and abysmal vertigo” of what is “beyond thought.”

As the novel traces the author’s gradual escape from his “narrow cage of forced mental hygiene,” the reader, too, experiences the filthy pleasure of Lispector’s muck, which becomes a welcome alternative to daily life’s logical constraints. And while Moser exaggerates the significance of his beloved Clarice when he compares the emergence of these translations to the publication of Jorge Luis Borges’s works, the availability of A Breath of Life will certainly open Lispector to new readers by giving them a model for embracing this strange virtuoso of the murky.