Thursday, June 20, 2013

De Profundis: Brazil

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amidst a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gayclad ligthclad figures of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.” It is from this passage from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that the late Brazilian-Jewish writer Clarice Lispector takes her epigraph for her astonishing first novel, Near to the Wild Heart. Indeed her debt to Joyce is clear. Published in Rio in 1943, the novel is nothing if not a tribute to the language he unleashed. 

Still, it is more the spirit of Virginia Woolf who haunts these lonely pages. It is really from Woolf, from her particularly feminine oppression and longing, that this novel takes its heartbeat and blood. Jumping back and forth in time, the story concerns itself with the startling interior landscape of a frustrated, deeply introspective, almost monstrously imaginative child and young woman known only as Joana. In this age of Facebook and Tumblr, one might be tempted to mistake the story for just another drunken foray into the temple of Self, but one would be wrong. As with most great modernist fiction, the fons et origo of this novel is Character with a capital C, a single individual whose perspective, whose psychology, not only subsumes and comprises the story’s plot and setting (for what little they mean), but actually proves macroscopic in its obsessive focus on the self, on the intricate clockwork of mind and heart and soul, so that what one gets in the end is not just a story of a woman but a story of the world.

Charged, poetic, at points as angular, dissonant, and unpredictable as Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” such fiction is at first quite demanding to read. Those not experienced with poetry will feel the weight of her words, the almost reckless invention of her prose. Given some patience, some faith, they are sure to be moved. Yet perhaps the most rewarding part such modernist fiction as Near to the Wild Heart is that one’s very notion of reading is changed. One sees freshly, with bold, new eyes. Freed from the tyranny of plot, such fiction delights in subtlety, in complexity, in the riddle of human things. Nothing is clear-cut, nothing certain; one stands astonished, mouth and mind agape. As Adorno puts it, in speaking of art in general:

Artworks that unfold to contemplation and thought without any remainder are not artworks…every artwork is a picture puzzle, a puzzle to be solved, but this puzzle is constituted in such a fashion that it remains a vexation, the preestablished routing of its observer.”*

This summer set yourself a challenge and read this book (or any others by Lispector or Woolf).  You’ll be happy you did.

Clarice (formerly Chaya) Lispector (1920-1977) was a Brazilian novelist and short story writer who was  born in Chechelnyk, Podolio, Ukraine on the ninth of December 1920. She was the youngest daughter of a Jewish family. They were targeted during pogroms that happened during the political turmoil of the early twentieth century. Following the destruction of Ukraine in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Civil War, the family fled to Romania. Still, harried, still anxious, they left Romania, sailing to Brazil in 1922, where they settle first to Maceió, Alagoas, and then in Pernambuco.  There she was educated at the Colégio Hebreo-Idisch-Brasileiro and Ginásio Pernambucano where she encountered Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, a novel that convinced her that she was meant to write.  Journalist, activist, author of numerous prize-winning novels and short story collections (most of which have been translated into English), she published her last novel, A Hora da estrela or The Hour of the Star, in 1977, the year she succumbed to ovarian cancer.+

* from Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, London: Continuum, 2002), p.158.
+ Thanks to The European Graduate School for this excellent short biography. 

Peter Adam Nash

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