Marina Colasanti, legendary Brazilian author, worked at the Journal du Brasil from 1967 as Clarice Lispector’s editor. We met in Quito during a book fair and I asked her if Clarice let herself be edited. “Nooo,” she said, “but I would’ve never tried to.”
She told me of Clarice’s tremendous fear that her originals would be lost;
She didn’t make copies. She couldn’t use carbon paper; her hands wouldn’t let her. Those were the days of typewriters. She always said to me: “Be careful with my texts. Because the carbon paper can wrinkle,” and I had to answer: “Don’t worry,” and we copied it immediately; “also, you know there’s a spot at the newspaper just for your texts.”
Then that fateful night she nodded off in bed, with a lit cigarette, and awoke to a cloud of smoke and everything in flames, Clarice burnt her hands trying to put out the fire licking at the notes scrawled on scraps of paper. She’d taken sleeping pills, which is why it took her so long to wake up.
They cut skin from her legs. Her hands received skin grafts. Graft: both wound and remedy.
Those hands that typed mysteries over her lap, that sent letters, that evaded questions, that took turns caring for two children, that looked proud in portraits, were not able to make copies or save her papers from domestic disaster.
A skill is understood as something that is done well and comes easily.
Marina said that it pained her to see how unhappy Clarice was. There was a weight, an inability, she suffered when she wrote and suffered when she couldn’t write. She called her friends up late at night: “Oh, I can’t write.”
I remind Marina that Clarice said: “If I don’t write I’ll die.”
“Yes,” she said, “but when I write: it’s so terrible, such a burden.” There was a certain capacity to live life, she concludes, that Clarice never had.
Years before that conversation with Marina, I asked Hebe Uhart what she thought about Clarice’s quote and she pounded the table. A table with a phobia of emptiness. Choked with coasters, ashtrays, and placemats that jumped up and hung for a moment in the air: “I’m going to tell you: I think it’s shameless. Maybe it’s true, I don’t know, but I think it’s shameless to say it.”
Her hands, small, freckled, lively, trembled.
As if all my power, my energy, was focused only on that. But a person is capable of doing other things. For example, if I were dedicated to some social service, something as absorbing as the lives of others or studying chimpanzees . . . Didn’t you have multiple vocations in adolescence? I liked the long jump, paddleball, playing volleyball. At siesta time I would put my entire soul into finding someone to play volleyball.
Virginia Woolf, like Clarice, needed to write every day. If not the abstinence made her so anxious she became bitter, foul tempered. She relished the slow march of evening into night, between six and ten o’clock, concentrated on her work beside the fireplace. Reading. She noted it in her journal when she and Leonard went out to collect firewood with their hands. She hated to be interrupted by unexpected visitors. It was unbelievable to her that people could be so rude as to knock on the door at any hour, without having called ahead in the morning to announce their arrival. The only interruption she welcomed: the mailman. Even if he arrived with books that she had to review immediately.
Clarice, so often compared with Virginia, could never forgive her for committing suicide.
She writes on slips of paper left scattered across the desk in her bedroom. The interspersed writing belies her technique: only in fragments, only as collage. She asks that no one touch them or try to tidy them, she will find their meaning as soon as she gets the chance. She saves them for later. Stockpiling.
At some point they will be burned.
She will put her hands in the fire in an attempt to rescue them. An act of suicide. An act of love.
Translated by Frances Riddle
Frances Riddle lives in Buenos Aires, where she works as a translator, writer, and editor. She holds an MA in translation studies from the University of Buenos Aires and a BA in Spanish literature. Her book-length publications include A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero (New Directions, 2017); Bodies of Summer by Martín Felipe Castagnet (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017); and The Life and Deaths of Ethel Jurado by Gregorio Casamayor (Hispabooks, 2017). She has also published four titles with Charco Press: Slum Virgin by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (2017), The German Room by Carla Maliandi (2018), Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic (2020), and Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2021).