Discussed in this essay:
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector (trans. Giovanni Pontiero). New Directions. $9.95. 96 pp.
“I am a concomitant being: in myself,” says a character in one of Clarice Lispector’s short works, Agua Viva (The Stream of Life), “I gather the time past, the present and the future, the time that pounds in the ticktock of the clocks. . . . I know what I’m doing here: I count the instants that drop and are thick with blood. . . . I, who live sidewise. . . . I’m to the left of whoever comes in. And in me the world trembles . . .”
Reading Clarice Lispector we enter a realm in which one person is every person, and the boundaries of otherness—especially those between reader, audience, and writer—dissolve along with the usual artifices of plot and character that usually make for us a novel. Private being-ness and public otherness are porous materials in Lispector’s authorial hands.
The writer, narrator, and main character of The Hour of the Star, the last of Lispector’s works published in her lifetime, exemplify this fusion, this being-ness in otherness. Hour is a good work to consider Lispector through, as this novella offers an opportunity to see the concerns Lispector worked at throughout her career. Not just in this singular work but in so many of Lispector’s other fiction, a sense of boundaryless, vast, and dissolved identities all merged into one spiritual catharsis is a central theme and vision.
Leaving God aside [the author/narrator tells us in The Hour of the Star] I have just discovered that reality made little sense to the girl [Macabea, the novel's main character]. She felt much more at ease with the unreality of everyday life. She lived in slo-o-ow motion, a hare le-e-eaping through the a-a-air over hi-i–ll and da-a–ale, obscurity was her earth, obscurity was the inner core of nature; She found consolation in being sad. Not desperate, for she was much too modest and simple to indulge in despair, but that indefinable quality associated with romantics.
Clarice Lispector was born on December 10, 1920, in Tchechelnik, a small village in the Ukraine. In February 1921, when she was just two months old, Clarice arrived in Maceió, the capital of the state of Alagoas, Brazil, with her parents and two sisters, Elisa and Tanya. Brazilian Portuguese would be young Clarice’s native language.
After her mother’s death, Lispector’s father moved with his daughters to Rio de Janeiro, and it is of this city that Clarice writes in The Hour of the Star. At the age of twenty-two, she began working as a writer for the Agência Nacional, The Brazilian News Agency, and shortly thereafter she married Maury Gurgel Valente, who became a member of the Brazilian Diplomatic Corps. His career in diplomacy took him and Clarice to Europe, where he held various offices in different countries and cities across the continent. Lispector would not return to Rio for over sixteen years.
Eventually she separated from her husband, returning to Brazil in the 1960s where she published her first book of short stories, Laços de Família (Family Ties), which was called “the most important story collection published in this country since Machado de Assis” by Brazilian writer Érico Veríssimo. A Maçã no Escuro (The Apple in the Dark), her third novel, was published in 1964, along with her second book of short stories, A Legião Estrangeira (The Foreign Legion), which was considered by many critics as among her most important collection, and a novella, A paixão segundo G.H. (The Passion According to G.H.) One night in 1967, alone in her apartment in Rio de Janeiro, Lispector fell asleep while smoking a cigarette, and as soon as she felt the fire in her bedroom she scurried to put it out with her bare hands. Lispector seriously injured the right one—her writing hand—which was nearly amputated, but she still remained prolific as a writer and an activist. Her Diálogos possíveis com Clarice Lispector (Possible Dialogues with Clarice Lispector), was a series of celebrity interviews she wrote for the magazine Manchete. She took part in popular demonstrations against the military dictatorship, alongside many intellectuals of her time. In 1977 she published her final work A hora da estrela (The Hour of the Star) and soon thereafter found herself in the hospital with inoperable cancer, dying in December of that year.
Lispector’s life—its circuitous routes and accidents—was in itself a collection of seemingly random impressions and shocks from which she felt an urgent need to devise a personal system of meanings. Of Slavic-Jewish ancestry, Lispector had inherited a sense of divine spirit that was uniquely Kabbalistic. Unlike Christian theology, the Kabbalah often portrays an invisible spirit espousing the dictum that through a creative process true meaning can be found “exacting justice.” Lispector asked writing to be such a creative process for her. And, for Clarice, living and writing were one in the same.
True to the Kabbalah in many other ways, Lispector always wanted her work and her life to explore questions of being in the world as questions not requiring a definitive answer: the questions were far more important than any absolute solutions or answers. To be helpless, needy, to exist as needy and helpless—this was what Clarice had to offer as sacrosanct. The search in her prose is always a journey embarked upon through states where “reasons and reality were far away.” Or, as the famous French-Algerian critic and friend of Clarice’s Helene Cixous noted:
If Kafka were a woman; if Rilke were a Brazilian Jewish woman born in the Ukraine; if Rimbaud had been a mother, if he had reached his 50s; if Heidegger had been able to stop being German, if he had written the Novel of the Earth. . . . It’s in this ambiance that Clarice Lispector writes. There, where the most demanding works breathe, she advances. There, further ahead, where the philosopher loses his breath, she continues, still further, beyond all knowledge.
The main character in The Hour of the Star is Macabea, a poor, giftless female urchin from the North of Brazil. The narrator, by contrast, is a comfortably affluent man; though his occupation is never revealed, he quite obviously lives a sophisticated and cultured life (albeit an emotionally deprived, truthless one). He stands at the opposite pole of society from Macabea, but his sense of impoverished selfhood matches hers. Both possess an unrelenting hunger for some meaning in their life, some greater intimacy with the world, for a moment when life might become illuminated and transformed into passion and hope. Through the male narrator, one feels Lispector’s own self-probings, and sometimes her own self-contempt and loneliness: toward the end of her life she became lodged in a precipitous crevice between middle and upper class, as a non-Hebrew-speaking, non-Yiddish-speaking Jewess originally born in the Ukraine, but brought up in Brazil. Lispector’s thoughts become merged with the male narrator of The Hour of the Star, and as writer/narrator she continually battles with abstract concepts and emotional paralysis, exemplifying the life of an upper middle-class citizen who feels, nonetheless, as invisible to others as the novel’s hapless heroine. In contrast to Lispector’s and her narrator’s fears, which are the product of scrupulous introspection, Macabea’s fears are primitive, ignorant, and superstitious. What unites this dual character journey is the persistent reminder that “he who probes is incomplete.”
Lispector is intent upon linking the structure of the narrative with a subtle exploration of the creative process within herself. The act of creating blends in with the narrator’s voice, and it is as central to the novella as the heroine’s adventures and tribulations:
Perhaps I could enhance the story if I were to introduce some difficult technical terms? But that is the problem, this story has no technique, not even in matters of style. It has been written at random. Nothing would persuade me to contaminate with brilliant, mendacious words, a life as frugal as that of my typist [Macabea].
Fact and certainty make the writer/narrator “weary of the task of having to report what is definable.” He soon tells us, “The truth is always some inner power without explanation. The more genuine part of my life is unrecognizable, extremely intimate and impossible to define.”
Gradually, though, it is threadbare, forlorn, and innocent Macabea who becomes our anchor in a bumpy ride through some elaborate and complex existential hula-hoops. Macabea is introduced to us through sparse, ironic, and oddly lyrical phrases, some of them quite funny. As the writer/narrator says,
Macabea is sustained by neurosis. Neurosis sustained her. Dear God, neurosis counted for something: almost as good as crutches. Occasionally she wandered into the shop windows displaying glittering jewels and luxurious garments in satin and silk—just to mortify the senses. The truth is that she needed to find herself, and a little mortification helped. . . .
On Sunday she always woke up early in order to be able to spend more time doing nothing. . . . Should I divulge that she adored soldiers? She was mad about them. Whenever she caught sight of a soldier, she would think, trembling with excitement: is he going to murder me? . . . Apart from her monthly visit to the cinema, she enjoyed another luxury. She lacquered her nails a bright scarlet. Unfortunately, she had bitten her nails to such an extent that most of the lacquer had disappeared, revealing the grime underneath.
Relentlessly, the writer/narrator draws a character for whom the world did not offer anything at all in terms of love or comfort. Her boyfriend ridicules and abuses Macabea as her aunt had years ago when, beating Macabea silly, the aunt was also depicted as reaching her own personal sexual pleasure and gratification.
And when she woke up? When she woke up, she no longer knew her own identity. Only after did she reflect with satisfaction: I am typist and a virgin, and I like coca-cola. Only then did she get dressed, and spend the rest of the day passively enacting the role of being.
There wasn’t a trace of human misery in the girl . . . she carried within her an aura of innocence. Strange as it may seem, she had faith. Composed of fine organic mater, she existed. Pure and simple.
This realization leads the writer/narrator to finally address the central thematic question: “And what about me? The only thing that can be said about me is that I am breathing.”
Toward the end of the novel, Macabea’s lover and boyfriend have deserted her, and she has lost her job as typist; she is trapped hopelessly in her own inescapable impoverishment of self. We wonder if it will be her fate to remain loveless, desolate, and unseen. But then Macabea visits a clairvoyant named Madame Carlotta, who tells Macabea her life will soon be different, that her abusive boyfriend will actually come back and marry her. She continues: Macabea’s employer will beg her to return to work, and she will be his most valuable employee. Though based on pure fantasy and wishful thinking—indeed, the word of a quack—all this false news nonetheless replenishes Macabea’s person and soul:
Macabea had never had the courage to cherish hopes. Yet, now she listened to Madam Carlotta as if she were listening to a fanfare of trumpets, her heart beating furiously. Madame was right: at long last, Jesus was taking some interest in her. Macabea’s eyes open wide as she felt a sudden hunger for the future (bang) and I, too, am beginning to cherish hopes. . . . At that instant, Macabea came out with a phrase that no one among the onlookers could understand. She said in a clear, distinct voice
—As for the future.
Passion has kindled hope in Macabea, as well as a clear sense of meaning and beauty in life, a “reflowering that she enacted with her body and that other thing you call a soul,” but through a painful twist of completely haphazard events Macabea is left dying, and the story ends in the hour before Macabea’s death. Rather than consider it a defeat, Lispector portrays this as the moment where final self-realization and self-illumination can take place—it is this hour that Lispector has been invested in rendering all along.
For in the hour of death you become a celebrated film star, it is a moment of glory for everyone, when the choral music scales the top notes. . . . Only in death am I finally the star, the celebrated, the stars abound in the night sky lighting my way.
The writer/narrator is also relieved and made more whole in the hour before Macabea’s death, but in this case the relief comes through the creative process of writing Macabea’s story, by the creative act of writing in itself. Yet the narrator’s awakening into awareness and integration (“What is the weight of light?”) is undercut by a sudden realization of mortality: “Dear God only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me?”
Lispector might well have added that she writes not to reveal the mysteries of life but to only reaffirm them. She does not tell stories; she writes life itself, and, in fact, she writes the act of writing itself. Clarice Lispector’s characters walk out of hiding from themselves. Written words are living organisms, instruments of being. Words are not symbols; they are pieces of living tissue. The author’s passion is words; the author and the narrator have found their passion by the telling of the story.
I can think of few other writers who respected the autonomous life of the uninterpreted, breathing word on the page more than Clarice Lispector. She is an author who has often been responded to and remembered more with poems and lyrical epigrams than with critical essays or interpretative literary analysis. One of Clarice’s many friends and a collaborator of hers, the Brazilian actress Maria Esmeralda, wrote a poem about Lispector that can be seen as one of the many “sounds” in Clarice Lispector ‘s literary orchestra:
Where were you at night,
You who return in the morning
with the ultra-world in your veins among abyssal flowers?
We were in the most distant that the letter can reach:
reading Clarice’s book, mystery, and key in the air.
Who can bear such intimacy, such relentless scrutiny of emotions and depths which we are also asked, as her readers, to feel as our own? By dissolving the borders between the narrators of her stories and herself, Lispector offers a pathway of mirrors and echoes, a new language filled with images from which we might also emerge, reaching for a deeper sense of ourselves.
The challenge for any critique of Lispector’s work is to remain faithful to her appreciation that the problem of being in the world—as reader, writer, or invented character—isn’t supposed to be solved or resolved. Related to that idea, The Hour of the Star tries to elucidate the view that not least among life’s ineffable mysteries is the state reached in the last hour before one’s death, where instead of being solely weighted down in despair in darkness, one can develop a hope for a simultaneous vibrant illumination—a kind of existential awe. There, the pains and joys of mystery—the mystery of identity, being, and passion—are at long last embraced. Thus it’s the frightening beauty of human incompleteness in itself that Clarice Lispector asks us to celebrate and accept. This means that though The House of the Star is not a comfortable or pleasing novel, it is one that shows us a unique approach to the question of life, and that makes it great.
Leora Skolkin-Smith’s first novel, Edges: O Israel, O Palestine, was selected by Grace Paley for Glad Day Books and was a 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award Nominee. Her literary criticism has appeared in various publications.
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