DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (trans. Benjamin Moser). New Directions, 128pp, $12.95.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems, Prose, and Letters, published by the Library of America, there are three translations from Clarice Lispector, including the astonishing story “The Smallest Woman in the World,” which has both the primitive power which Bishop noted, but also a real and artful knowingness, a sense of what can be done with tone, with paragraph endings, with dialogue, that could only belong to someone deeply literary. Lispector had, in common with Borges in his fiction, an ability to write as though no one had ever written before, as though the work’s originality and freshness arrived in the world quite unexpected, like the egg laid in Lispector’s story “A Hen,” which Bishop also translated.
The idea of Lispector as fleeting, oddly unreliable, complicated, someone who could vanish, as Bishop would have it, is essential to her work and her reputation. In October, 1977, shortly before her death, she published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, “was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs.” But she made clear that this was “not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery.”
The story is also about a woman from the state of Alagoas in the northeast of Brazil — the Lispectors first lived there when they came to the country — who then goes to live in Rio de Janeiro, as Clarice Lispector did. In a scene toward the end of the book, the heroine goes to a fortune-teller, Madame Carlota, just as Lispector herself went to a fortune-teller. Lispector told a TV interviewer: “I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it’d be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”
This is not to suggest that the story is autobiographical; rather it is an exploration of a self that is sometimes glimpsed, but barely known. The self re-created in a form of radical uncertainty is not merely the young woman from the northeast who is, ostensibly, the subject of the novel, but the narrator too is also a self re-created. He is capable of awkward asides, over-confidence in his own method, pure fear in the face of the power and powerlessness of words, and then sudden passages of soaring beauty and stark definition. He is capable of a paragraph such as: “Meanwhile the clouds are white and the sky is all blue. Why so much God. Why not a little for men.” or “Meanwhile — the silent constellations and the space which is time which has nothing to do with her and with us.”
Nothing is stable in the text. The voice of the narrator moves from the darkest wondering about existence and God to almost comic wandering around in his character; he is watching her, entering her mind, listening to her and then standing back. He is filled with pity and sympathy for her case — her poverty, her innocence, her body, how much she does not know and cannot imagine — but he is also alert to the writing of fiction itself as an activity which demands tricks that he, the poor narrator, simply does not possess, or does not find useful. At times, on the other hand, he is in possession of too many of them. It is hard to decide who to feel more sorry for, Macabéa or the narrator, the innocent victim of life, or the highly self-conscious victim of his own failure. The one who knows too little, or the one who knows too much.
As the French critic Hélène Cixous has written, The Hour of the Star “is a text on poverty that is not poor.” It has a way of being knowing and mysterious, garrulous and oddly refined. It withholds and it tells too much. It makes sweeping judgments and tiny observations. Most late work has a spectral beauty, a sense of form and content dancing a slow and skillful waltz with each other. Lispector, on the other hand, as she came to the end of her life, wrote as though her life was beginning, with a sense of a need to stir and shake narrative itself to see where it might take her, as the bewildered and original writer that she was, and us, her bewildered and excited readers.
Colm Tóibín’s most recent book is A Guest at the Feast: A Memoir, published by Penguin in 2011.
This essay is adapted from Colm Tóibín’s introduction to The Hour of the Star (New Directions, 2011). Published with permission of New Directions. All rights reserved, © 2011 by Colm Tóibín.
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