There is no justice in the literary canon. But sometimes we can fix a mistake. Clarice Lispector has been dead since 1977. Supposedly she is revered in Brazil and almost unknown everywhere else. This year New Direcions re-released four of her books in brand new translations, with a striking series of cover designs by the Office of Paul Sahre, under the general stewardship of Benjamin Moser, formerly of Harper’s and currently a writer for The New York Review of Books. If this doesn’t win a bigger audience for Lispector, nothing will.
Near to the Wild Heart was published in 1943 by a 23-year-old Brazilian girl who was unknown in literary circles. Although it was predictably given a bright pink cover, Lispector’s debut blended two literary styles in a way that nobody ever had: the fiercely internal, objective, linguistic method of modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and the sensual, melodramatic flair of great Gothic writers like Charlotte Bronte. Occasionally the book is as dull as a random girl’s diary—which it essentially is. But on the whole it defies classification.
Lispector outlines the life of Joana, her protagonist, early on.
If she wanted to, if she let herself go a little more, Joana could relive her whole childhood… The short time she’d had with her father, the move to her aunt’s house, the teacher teaching her to live, puberty mysteriously rising, boarding school… her marriage to Otávio… But it was all much shorter, a simple surprised glance would drain all these facts.
As a young girl Joana is so clever and scathingly unsentimental that her family thinks she’s evil. Growing up, she embraces her animal nature and her solitary philosophical reveries, which she refines into a personal credo. While other people want to be happy, Joana just wants to live. This proves to be a subtle but significant difference.
Lispector’s approach is to chart the tiny, precise movements of Joana’s developing mind. Her prose is often breathtaking, as in the following passage, when Joana runs to the beach after learning that her father is dead.
The water lapped at her now bare feet, growling between her toes, slinking away clear clear like a transparent beast. Transparent and alive… She felt like drinking it, like biting it slowly. She caught it with cupped hands. The quiet little pool glinted serenely in the sunlight, grew warm, slithered away, escaped. The sand sucked it in quickly-quickly and then just sat there as if it had never known the water. She wet her face in it, ran her tongue over her empty, salty palm. The salt and sun were shiny little arrows that were born here and there, stinging her, tightening the skin of her wet face. Her happiness increased, gathered in her throat like a bag of air. But now it was a solemn happiness, without the desire to laugh. It was a happiness where you almost had to cry, for God’s sake. The thought came to her slowly. Fearless, not gray and tearful as it had been until now, but nude and noiseless under the sun like the white sand. Daddy’s dead. Daddy’s dead. She breathed slowly. Daddy’s dead.
While Joana draws strength from her father’s death, and invites even more strangeness and pain and mutability into her life, her young husband, Otávio, does the opposite. He studies law. For years he’s been having an affair with a girl he practically grew up with, a fat, earthy, simpleton named Lídia. Lídia comforts Otávio in all the ways Joana does not. And she’s carrying his child. Joana’s decision about whether to allow Otávio and Lídia to live happily together, and why, is still as complicated and shocking as it would have been in 1943.
Near to the Wild Heart is one of the most lopsided books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Its lyricism and its facility with complex emotions are beyond compare, and its astute proto-feminism is pleasantly overshadowed by the force of the author’s personality. (Lispector is the literary Frida Kahlo.) Near to the Wild Heart is also repetitive, immature, and occasionally as tedious as a B+ paper from Philosophy 101. But with all her freakish talents, Lispector should be part of any conversation on modernists, South American writers, or feminist novelists. She deserves to travel far beyond Brazil.
- Brian Hurley
Near to the Wild Heart is translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin.