“Genres have no other function, for the writer, than giving him something concrete to abandon”
“In ordering things, I believe and understand at the same time… To order is to find the best form […] Ordering the form?”
“The terrible glory of being alive is the horror”
The first time that I heard of the writer Clarice Lispector must have been around the mid to late seventies. It was through my friend Elizabeth Burgos, who lived in Paris (from before the age of eighteen, if I am not mistaken ) and came regularly to Venezuela to visit friends and family in Caracas and in her hometown, Valencia. Elizabeth, who was and is a great reader, kept me well informed of books and writers. I trusted her judgement and standards, given that they had never disappointed me. Because of her, I came to the revelation of the great Russian writers and poets, Marina Tsvietáieva, Pasternak, Anna Ajmátova, Ósip Mandelshtam, Nina Berberóva, whom I could begin to read from the early eighties in French or Italian, when they hadn’t quite or had only just started to be published in Spanish. Ah, and I had forgotten, also to the reading of Joseph Brodsky’s essays brought together in Lejos de Bizancio (Fayard, 1986), as well as his poetry, in excellent translations, celebrated by Brodsky himself, from Italian.
During of one of her trips, Elizabeth gave me a brief but evocative biographical review of a peculiar Brazilian writer, born in Ukraine during the turbulent journey made by her family, already fleeing the horror of the ‘Pogroms’ and determined to take every risk necessary to emigrate to America, with a child who was barely two years old when they landed in Maceió, in the northeast of Brazil, before moving on to Recife. Elizabeth told me everything about La pasión según G.H. (The Passion According to G.H., 1964). Not long after, I listened to Marta Traba (at the Escuela de Arte of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, where they both taught) refer to Lispector with the same outpouring of enthusiasm, diligent promoter as she was of the wealth and breadth of the early Brazilian modernist movements (literature, sculpture, music, painting and architecture), initiated at the historic ‘Semana de Arte Moderno’ (Week of Modern Art) in São Paulo or ‘Semana del 22.’
The Passion According to G.H. was published by Monte Ávila in 1969, magnificently translated by Luis García Gayó; respectful of the singularities of her style and of the syntactical construction of her language. I read the translation in the late seventies or early eighties. Not before, simply because I was not aware that it already formed part of the state publisher’s catalogue (besides, in lockdown times, chronological precision has become very difficult for me). I was rather moved by this discovery. I read it as if in a trance, probably three times in the subsequent years, continuing over time with the combination of her previous and later masterpieces to end with her extraordinary and posthumous La hora de la estrella (The Hour of the Star). I should clarify that my generation, to my knowledge (perhaps with a few exceptions), had not paid great attention to Brazilian literature, due to carelessness, ignorance, self-sufficiency, or in other words, to not looking further than our borders until just a few decades ago, or perhaps more truthfully, until even more recently.
In those years, Brazil, despite occupying half the area of the whole of South America, seemed to us in some way as another continent, another linguistic hegemony beyond the dividing line, an almost impassable barrier determined by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which only began to be overcome thanks to the pioneering inter-American project (universal, some classified it) of Biblioteca Ayacucho, led by Ángel Rama and José Ramón Medina, formalised in September 1974, that had by 1982 achieved a corpus of one hundred well curated volumes.
Which masterpieces by Brazilian authors did we read in those years? In my case: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Machado de Assis, the first title from Fondo Editorial Casa de las Américas in 1963; the short novel Barren Lives, in an edition by Casa de las Américas in 1964, by Graciliano Ramos, a northeasterner like our author; some poetry by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, as well as the epic The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Guimarães Roas, full of literary and sometimes mythical ontological references, in the edition by Seix Barral (1975). In the eighties: Rebellion in the Backlands by Euclides da Cunha from Biblioteca Ayacucho, motivated by the recreation of the Canudos War in the novel La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World) by Mario Vargas Llosa, and some poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto associated with the prosaic rigour and the rejection of the musical dimension that ran through lyric poetry. Either way, I would have preferred a much less condensed list.
On the other hand, we were shaken by the hidden and incontestable tensions that invigorated the oral intonation of the written language of Brazil, whose divergences characterised the prevalence of spoken over written expression, in regionally delimited areas in Brazil, contraposed with the grammatical rigidity of the classical tradition. We also must not forget that at that time, there were not many more authors that were accessible to us translated into Spanish either. Bridges did exist, above all in the South with Argentina and Uruguay, but interaction with the editorial industry of the continent and that of Spain is rather recent. It is to be appreciated that at present Ediciones Siruela’s Biblioteca Clarice Lispector, founded in 1982, fulfils this commitment by including twelve titles of her oeuvre: chronicles, stories, novels, correspondence, as well as her complex and superb posthumous novel, The Hour of the Star.
At this point I would like to refer to an article by César Aira, which I read a few days ago, while I tried to redo our itinerary of readings and which corroborates that disinterest of readers not only from Venezuela, but also, estimating that being closer they would have to be more attuned, of the Southern Cone countries. Aira refers to the ignorance not only of the average reader of the richness of Brazilian literature; ductile, pluralistic in the miscegenation and diversity of its origins, ‘so fundamental in the making’ of that nation. He then refers to Borges, who neither frequented nor enjoyed writers such as Álvares de Azevedo or Machado de Assis, who would have given him ‘a much richer idea of the power of a minor literature’ (my emphasis).
It must also be taken into account that Brazilians speak and make themselves understood in Spanish, whereas we, when it comes to them, are guilty of sinful indifference, in understanding very little or almost nothing of Brazilian Portuguese.
The story of The Passion According to G.H. is tiny; the protagonist and narrator, G.H. (a woman who lives in a vast penthouse in an affluent neighbourhood, an amateur sculptor, associated with Rio de Janeiro’s highest society), enters with fright and horror the room no longer occupied by the mixed-race maid, that unwelcome but indispensable servant-housekeeper, an intruder whose name she cannot even remember, who has vacated the place that she occupied in G.H’s house; such a foreign and strange place, a kind of forbidden territory, one which she had never felt the slightest of curiosity to look into before and which, as was her duty as mistress and owner of the house, she is obliged to clean and order, sanitise and organise.
In her novels, her stories, and even her chronicles, Clarice Lispector breaks from the outright domestic, from the home as a refuge of intimacy in opposition to public space, from the sensitively private, at the same time painful and dark, to launch herself into exploring the twists and turns of the experience of thought; to think with pleasure and imagination, to think suspiciously and speculatively, to think ironically and obliquely through the intermediation of the epiphanic power of emotions and intuitions. Her writing is pure sound; we feel as though we hear a voice whose frequency speaks and reverberates inside our heads, a voice that imposes itself upon us with its linguistic games, with its faltering recital, with its melancholy and languid accents, forcing itself to express what is most difficult to express, twisting grammar to articulate and enunciate the matter of its language from the mystical and illuminated seal of Judaism, in order to enter and leave simultaneously further inside and outside in her perception of her own body, of objects, of living things that make up the world and to make her own the greatest adventure of fatal and threatening solemnity of the genesis narrated in the Old Testament…
G.H. enters the bedroom, opens the wardrobe door, sees a cockroach; terrorised, she slams it shut, squashes the cockroach, watches elated how the matter slips away, the most exclusive part of organic life. With all her repugnance, she ingests it. She engulfs, devours it in her challenge to assume her impure animal condition, which had not yet been shown to her and in which she had not recognised herself until that moment. There is no other less brutal way to say it. Some critics speak of an existential nausea, under the influence of Sartre’s Nausea. I do not believe so; in his journey Sartre did not dare to lose himself so much as to confront himself with the unknown, in order to pursue much-feared and longed-for freedom. Compared with The Passion According to G.H., Nausea, a metaphysical, abstract nausea, is more or less a parable for young ladies. In any case, in an interview Lispector herself assured that she had neither read nor been influenced by existentialism, that hers was an eternal physical nausea, not philosophical.
In those first readings, if someone had asked me what The Passion According to G.H. was about (it is difficult for me to call it a novel, in the same way that it is difficult for me, a profanity almost, to call Kafka’s The Castle or The Trial novels), I would have responded that The Passion According to G.H. concentrates wholly on denying the ontological, and, more prosaically, psychological principle of identity, that principle that builds everything on the first person singular: I. And in return, on the inescapable condemnation of facing our unknown self, in passing through the secure, the stable, the defined and definitive that we felt ourselves to be but weren’t, to the stupor of the unknown, another trajectory of discovery. Her friends Carlos Drummond de Andrade, João Guimarães Rosa (for whose work she felt an undoubted affinity and great admiration, having read it in 1956), Lucio Cardoso, Olga de Sá, opportunely qualified Lispector’s thoughts as ‘ontological questioning.’
In the first and subsequent readings, with some months of intervals, I tried to summarize in a few words what this peculiar and exquisite, in my way of seeing and reading, work consists of: a masterpiece which transgressed, with such naturalness and without a trace of self-consciousness, all the genres and precepts of the canon. It was then that I realised that it was precisely this transgression of genres, through unconscious combination and fluency (at least in the first attempt), which would configure the abundantly elaborate structure of The Passion According to G.H. That every chapter, or fragment—if we are allowed to call them such, since there are no chapters in the usual sense of the term—resumes itself, shutting itself down, reviving itself, identifying itself with the conclusive phrase, sentence almost, of the previous chapter, results in a potent stylistic resource in a constant process of recreating itself. As well as coming close to Quodlibet, that compositional procedure derived from choral music that combines different voices and melodies in counterpoint with popular themes, with variations and repetitions with minor changes of a simple form. Think of its similarity to the effect of the final repetitions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The variations represent caesura, interruptions of rhythmical transport, of lucid lances, voluptuous phrasing, reflexive pauses between each and every variation, as an incitement to reflect. The chapters, the fragments, are in turn formed by paragraphs and each paragraph has a beginning, a middle, a climax, a coda, like how waves at the beach go to die. Before an outcome, a curl, a final flourish, a conclusive closure, in the style of the incomparably beautiful and sharp final verses of the poems of the mature Baudelaire.
Translated by Amy Watts and Katie Brown
Amy Watts is currently pursuing an MA in Translation Studies at the University of Exeter, U.K, working from Spanish into English. She previously attended the University of Sussex, U.K, where she gained a BA in English Literature. She has previously lived in Buenos Aires and Barcelona and is now based in the U.K.
Katie Brown is a Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Exeter. She completed a PhD on “The Contested Values of Literature in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” at King’s College London. With Tim Girven and Montague Kobbe, she co-edited the anthology Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela (Ragpicker Press, 2016), for which she translated stories by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Héctor Concari, Liliana Lara, Carolina Lozada, Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez, and Slavko Zupcic.