Buzz abounds for “Hurricane Clarice” and her new four-part series of translations from New Directions publishing house; after reading the first of these — Near to the Wild Heart — I’m not entirely sure that the hype is deserved. There is great magic and mystery to this short novel, but it’s also a wildly scattershot affair.
Clarice Lispector / Brazil / 1943 / 194 pages
Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entreken
I was searching through lists of Latin American authors the other day when I came across Clarice Lispector, an Eastern European who immigrated to Brazil as a child and wrote in the Portuguese tongue. I had never heard the name before (and my Latin American friends hadn’t, either), so I was surprised to find that New Directions had very recently issued a four-part series of translations of her work. New Directions is my workhorse publisher for great Latin American prose translations and they’ve never let me down in the past: indeed, their selection of texts and translators are both consistently excellent. The four covers of Lispector’s novels boast vague endorsements from the likes of Jonathan Franzen (“A truly remarkable writer”) and Orhan Pamuk (“One of the twentieth century’s most mysterious writers”). Combine all this with the emergence of a recent high profile biography (Why This World?), which received a glowing review in The New York Times and I began to feel like I was missing the boat on something important. I read a bit about each of the four novels before settling on her first — Near to the Wild Heart — which allegedly revolutionized Brazilian literature and drummed up something of a cult following among the Brazilian intelligentsia.
Despite emerging from sources other than my traditional channels of recommendation, I attacked this lean, sparse novel with excited momentum. The first several pages held up well to expectation; then the text began to flounder. Later on, things got back on track, then slid off the rails. I began to feel as if I’d been bamboozled. A few truly brilliant passages (painfully short) cropped up in the back half of the novel before it sputtered to a confused and insubstantial end. I sighed in relief upon finishing the book, overall disappointed but also a bit intrigued by what I had read. I think there are some interesting dynamics at play here — both inherent in and external to the novel — that might shed some light on why New Directions picked up Lispector. I’ll elaborate on these before making the case that, despite some nice touches, Near to the Wild Heart is a novel best put aside until one has spent more time with other works in the Latin American canon.
I think that many people have been taken with the idea of Clarice Lispector and the idea of a short, dense, impressionistic novel like Near to the Wild Heart. Indeed, most of the packaging and promotion of the books centers on Lispector as an unique author and personality: critics talk about the woman’s great beauty, odd voice, and interesting backstory. The four editions are covered with various fragments of a picture of Lispector’s face and even the introductory material that prefaces Near to the Wild Heart focuses more on the author and the novel’s composition than on its content. People are interested in whether or not she was influenced by James Joyce; people are curious about the method she used to write the novel and its lack of subsequent editing. There is a long discussion about how Wild Heart went on to win some of Brazil’s most prestigious literary prizes; critics argued that she was the best female voice in the Portuguese language, notable for her strange (non-native) use of the language. If you look up online reviews of the novel, they tend to parrot this biographical (circumstantial, incidental) information without really engaging the content of Wild Heart. The vast majority of reviews end positively because the writing is on the wall: Lispector is the next big thing coming out of Latin America and all of these reviewers want to be at the forefront of the discovery.
I don’t want to be too pessimistic here — and certainly I’ve often indulged in the “I found an obscure novel before you” mindset on this blog — but there is something kind of suspicious about all of this. It seems like New Directions might be aiming to replicate the “Bolaño Effect” from a few years ago: grab an author with whom very few people in the Spanish-speaking world are familiar, translate his work into English, find a receptive audience in the United States, and wait for the works to eventually catch on back home in Latin America. This dynamic played out successfully with Bolaño, but led to a backlash. While a couple of his novels are sheer genius, many of his lesser works are pretty awful and there was never any need to translate Bolaño’s entire output into English (thereby crowding out limited resources that might have been productively expended in translating other great authors). Part of what made the Bolaño story arch so compelling were the specifics of his biography and political history. People were drawn to the allure of the author as a figure and then, thereafter, the high quality of his major novels were an easy sale. Lispector has the requisite biographical chops, but not, I fear, the substance to back it up. At least, not with this novel.
The plot charts out in highly impressionistic fashion the coming-of-age of Joana, a strangely apathetic and emotionally untethered woman who loses her sole remaining parent at a young age and must go to live with her distant aunt. The novel covers some of her adolescence, her marriage to a high-achieving and empirically-minded man named Octávio, and the eventual dissolution of that marriage. The book ends with Joana on a boat, mentally oscillating between anxiousness, confusion, and epiphany.
Right off the bat, you get the sense that it’s going to be nearly impossible to figure out the trajectory of Joana’s evolution as a character. When I think of similar coming-of-age stories such as The Bell Jar, for example, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or even The Virgin Suicides, I feel like Plath, Spark, and Eugenides were all working creatively around tightly-constructed themes. That is to say, I feel like each of these authors put a good deal more time into actually thinking about what it was they wanted to say than Lispector did with Wild Heart. You know early on in The Bell Jar that you’re reading a heart-rending treatise on the problems of patriarchy in the mental health profession; you can also tell that Miss Jean Brodie is going to instruct her pupils in a way that challenges their understanding of the norms of femininity and it’s also pretty obvious that Eugenides is setting out to pillory the baby-boom suburbanism of his youth. All of these other coming-of-age stories have a thesis, a thematic thrust that they work to flesh out on each page of the manuscript. Lispector, by contrast, just throws us around in the haze and Joana’s epiphanies are bizarre and confusing; her dynamism as a character, then, is difficult to get a handle on.
I think a quick objection to the above characterization is to defend the novel as a work of stream-of-consciousness, a highly impressionistic piece that’s similar to styles invoked by Woolf or Joyce. If I didn’t “get” the story then it’s because I simply wasn’t willing enough to wander into the murky recesses of Joana’s mind and extract the encoded message. If I didn’t like the novel, then it was my fault, not hers.
This argument fails, however, because I know that Lispector was capable of better — she showed me as much in the course of Wild Heart. Indeed, when she lets us consider Joana outside of her own head, then the book rings with a truly haunting and mysterious beauty. Early in the novel, for instance, Lispector sketches out an effective interaction between a very young Joana and her father. Similar discussions of Joana and her aunt, Joana and her teacher, and Joana and Octávio are all equally poignant. I would actually venture the hypothesis that Lispector was something of a low-lying master of depicting the nuances in interpersonal relationships. She prompted me to think about marriage and parent-child interactions and I very much enjoyed where those thought experiments led me.
By contrast, all of the internal workings of Joana’s brain are just too much noise to sift through. She passes through the full spectrum of human emotions in almost every section of the novel and, upon its conclusion, you get the sense that literally anything could make her cry, anything could make her laugh, anything could anger her, whatever. I could see someone arguing “that’s the point, man!”, but I’m not buying it. Rather than driving home Joana’s apathy, the narration just undermines her plausibility as a protagonist. I’d be much more interested in reading about the (truly interesting) life of Clarice Lispector than the (truly confusing) lives of her characters. My verdict on Near to the Wild Heart is to dodge the hype and go pick up another lesser known Latin American author like Carpentier or Hernández instead.
Rating: 4 / 10