I picked up Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire on a weird whim. I mean, I quite literally passed by it in the bookshop I frequent; it was misshelved, or unshelved, really. Someone had left it in sci-fi, near the “Bs” (B-for-Ballard, if you must know). Pale Fire, eh? I thought. Can’t remember this one. Because I had never read it, somehow. An amazing novel, one I dove into after sampling a bit of Clarice Lispector’s Selected Cronicas (still sampling—this is one of those books that’s lovely to dip gently into between selections) and after failing to get through the first essay in Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal. Not sure if I can (should?) muster a “review” of Pale Fire, but it’s one of the better prepostmodern-postmodernist novels I’ve ever read—very very funny and a beautiful mindfuck.
In advance of New Directions’ forthcoming Clarice Lispector collection The Complete Stories, Vice has published “Report on the Thing” in a new English translation by Katrina Dodson (who translated the entire volume of 86 stories. First few paragraphs:
This thing is the most difficult for a person to understand. Keep trying. Don’t get discouraged. It will seem obvious. But it is extremely difficult to know about it. For it involves time.
We divide time when in reality it is not divisible. It is always immutable. But we need to divide it. And to that end a monstrous thing was created: the clock.
I am not going to speak of clocks. But of one particular clock. I’m showing my cards: I’ll say up front what I have to say and without literature. This report is the anti-literature of the thing.
The clock of which I speak is electronic and has an alarm. The brand is Sveglia, which means “awake.” Awake to what, my God? To time. To the hour. To the instant. This clock is not mine. But I took possession of its infernal tranquil soul.
It is not a wristwatch: Therefore it is freestanding. It is less than an inch tall and stands upon the surface of the table. I would like its actual name to be Sveglia. But the owner of the clock wants its name to be Horácio. No matter. Because the main thing is that it is time.
Clarice Lispector interviewed Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1968. Lovely, even through the strange wonderful estranging filter of Google translate.
“I’ve discovered a miracle in the rain — Joana thought — a miracle splintered into dense, solemn, glittering stars, like a suspended warning: like a lighthouse. What are they trying to tell me? In those stars I can foretell the secret, their brilliance is the impassive mystery I can hear flowing inside me, weeping at length in tones of romantic despair. Dear God, at least bring me into contact with them, satisfy my longing to kiss them. To feel their light on my lips, to feel it glow inside my body, leaving it shining and transparent, fresh and moist like the minutes that come before dawn. Why do these strange longings possess me? Raindrops and stars, this dense and chilling fusion has roused me, opened the gates of my green and sombre forest, of this forest smelling of an abyss where water flows. And harnessed it to night. Here, beside the window, the atmosphere is more tranquil. Stars, stars, zero. The word cracks between my teeth into fragile splinters. Because no rain falls inside me, I wish to be a star. Purify me a little and I shall acquire the dimensions of those beings who take refuge behind the rain.”
From Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart.
The moment her aunt went to pay for her purchases, Joana removed the book and slipped it furtively between the others she was carrying under her arm. Her aunt turned pale.
Once in the street, the woman chose her words carefully:
— Joana.. . Joana, I saw you…
Joana gave her a quick glance. She remained silent.
— But you have nothing to say for yourself? — her aunt could no longer restrain herself, her voice tearful. — Dear God, what is to become of you?
— There’s no need to fuss, Auntie.
— But you’re still a child… Do you realize what you’ve done?
— I know…
— Do you know… do you know what it’s called… ?
— I stole a book, isn’t that what you’re trying to say?
— God help me! I don’t know what I’m going to do, you even have the nerve to own up!
— You forced me to own up.
— Do you think that you can… that you can just go around stealing?
— Well… perhaps not.
— Why do you do it then… ?
— Because I want to.
— You what?
— her aunt exploded.
— That’s right, I stole because I wanted to. I only steal when I feel like it. I’m not doing any harm.
— God help me! So, stealing does no harm, Joana.
— Only if you steal and are frightened. It doesn’t make me feel either happy or sad.
The woman looked at her in despair.
— Look child, you’re growing up, it won’t be long before you’re a young lady… Very soon now you will be wearing your clothes longer… I beg of you: promise me that you won’t do it again, promise me, think of your poor father who is no longer with us.
Joana looked at her inquisitively:
— But I’m telling you I can do what I like, that…
A biblioklept episode from Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.
Yes, she could feel within herself the presence of a perfect animal. She resisted the idea of unleashing this animal one day. Perhaps for fear of causing some embarrassment or because she was afraid of some revelation… No, no — she repeated to herself- one mustn’t be afraid of being creative. Deep down, the animal probably repelled her because she still felt anxious to please and to be loved by someone as powerful as her dead aunt. Even if only to humiliate her afterwards and disown her without giving it another thought. For the best saying, as well as being the most recent was: goodness makes me want to vomit. Goodness was lukewarm and weak, it stank of raw meat that had been lying around for a long time without, however, becoming completely rotten. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned sufficiently to preserve it, a lump of lukewarm, stagnating meat.
From Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.
I have to move through Near to the Wild Heart very slowly—Lispector’s representation of her narrator’s shifts in consciousness is slippery, abstract, terrifying at times, often beautiful, alienating, complex. As in The Hour of the Star, there’s an intense vein of abjection that unifies the work—its narrator’s navigation of internal and external worlds—that simultaneously attracts and compels me.
Daddy’s typewriter was tapping out tac-tac..tac-tac-tac… The clock chimed brightly ting-ting… ting-ting… The silence dragged out zzzzzzz. The wardrobe was saying what? clothes — clothes — clothes. No, no. Between the clock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening out, large, flesh-pink and dead. The three sounds were connected by the light of day and by the rustling of tiny leaves on the tree as they joyfully rubbed against each other.
Resting her head against the cold, shiny window-pane, she looked into the neighbour’s yard, at the great world of the chickens-that-did-not-know-they-were-about-to-die. And as if it were right under her nose, she could smell the warm, beaten earth, so fragrant and dry, where she knew perfectly well, she knew perfectly well that some worm or other lay squirming before being devoured by the hen that humans were going to eat.
There was a grand moment, motionless and quite hollow inside. She opened her eyes wide and waited. Nothing happened. Blank. But suddenly with a shudder they wound up the day and they began to function once again, the typewriter tapping, father’s cigarette giving off smoke, silence, tiny leaves, plucked chickens, brightness, things restored to life and as impatient as a kettle on the boil. All that was missing was the ting-ting of the clock which gave so much pleasure. She closed her eyes, pretended to hear it chime, and to the rhythm of that imaginary music, she went up on the tips of her toes. She executed three dance steps, so light and ethereal.
Then suddenly she looked at everything with displeasure, as if she had eaten far too much of that concoction. ‘Hey, hey, hey…’, she murmured wearily and then thought to herself: what will happen now now now? And in the fraction of time that followed, nothing ever happened if she went on waiting for something to happen if you get my meaning? She pushed away this awkward thought, distracting herself with a movement of her bare foot on the dusty wooden floor. She rubbed her foot, looking sideways at her father, awaiting his impatient and nervous smile. But nothing happened. Nothing. It’s difficult to suck in people like the vacuum cleaner does.
— Daddy, I’ve invented a poem.
The first five paragraphs of Clarice Lispector’s novel Near to the Wild Heart.
The Fata Morgana Books collects four novellas from Jonathan Littell and is forthcoming from Two Line Press, a new indie specializing in publishing English language translations of some of the world’s best literature. Here is their blurb about The Fata Morgana Books, Littell’s follow up to The Kindly Ones:
Ranging from swimming pools to art galleries, from beds to battlefields, and a few mythical places, these novellas are narrated by hermaphrodites, ghosts, wanderers, and wonders. Littell here once again mixes his love of the grotesque with time-twisting narratives and ethereal protagonists. Like an Italo Calvino or a Clarice Lispector, Littell channels the emotions of loss and desire to illuminate the shadowy depths of solitude, reflection, longing, and lust.
With fleet prose and Proustian self-reflection, these stories range from chaotic airlifts to a series of bullfights under the hot sun, fatal negotiations resolved as mathematical equations, and the nine circles of Hell. Commanding and beguiling, The Fata Morgana Books rings with depth and mystery, always pushing through to explore the in-between spaces: between thoughts, between bodies, between hungers and their satisfactions, between eyes and the things they look at.
I was psyched to get a review copy of The Fata Morgana Books; Littell’s previous novel about an SS officer’s depraved undertakings, The Kindly Ones, stuck with me in a weird, gross, foul way. In my review I suggested that it was “a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon.”
I read the first novella in The Fata Morgana Books, Etudes, which is comprised of four stories that read like an overture for what will come. The first piece, “A Summer Sunday,” sets an unnerving and estranging tone, where pleasure seems to mingle with ennui and dread:
That Sunday, then, after the beer near the cemetery, I accompanied B. to meet our friend A. and we went out to lunch at a beautiful, somewhat isolated restaurant with a terrace only half enclosed, which allowed one to stay out in the open air without breaking police regulations too much. We ate slowly, all afternoon, lamb chops with an onion salad, and drank a bottle of red wine. Afterward, B. and I shared a cigar, too dry but a great pleasure nonetheless. Then we bought some cakes and went over for drinks on my balcony, opposite the cemetery, with the two towers at our feet. It wasn’t till the next day, reading the papers, that we realized just how bad the weekend had been. But the summer had been like that for six weeks already, and it seemed likely it would continue that way.
By “The Wait,” the next chapter of Etudes, we’ve descended into Littell’s abject terrain. More to come in a full review.
The opening paragraph to Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H.
1. How to go about this?
A starting place:
Clarice Lispector’s 1977 novella The Hour of the Star is a superb collection of sentences.
2. But what do I mean by this ridiculous statement? I mean isn’t that what all or most writing amounts to–a “collection of sentences”?
What I mean then is that Lispector’s sentences prickle and tweak and glare, launch off in strange angles from each other as if they were building out narratives in disparate, separate tones, moods, colors.
3. Another way to say this: the writing is strange, marvelous, uncanny. The good weird.
4. Or maybe I should let Lispector’s narrator say it:
Remember that, no matter what I write, my basic material is the word. So this story will consist of words that form phrases from which there emanates a secret meaning that exceeds both words and phrases.
(Our narrator repeatedly invokes the power of “the word,” but I’ll linger on the way those words string together in sentences).
5. And yes, our narrator is a “he.” Clarice Lispector the ventriloquist. Early in the book the narrator says that the tale could only come from “a man for a woman would weep her heart out.”
6. I’ll be frank: I don’t know how to unpack all the ventriloquizing here, the layering between Lispector and her narrator Rodrigo S.M., who relates the sad tale of Macabéa (a typist!), indigent slum-dweller, no talent and no beauty.
7. Narrator Rodrigo S.M. seems unsure himself how to unpack the tale. He spends almost the first fifth of the book dithering over actually how to begin to start to commence:
I suspect that this lengthy preamble is intended to conceal the poverty of my story, for I am apprehensive.
And a page or two later:
I am scared of starting. I do not even know the girl’s name. It goes without saying that this story drives me to despair because it is too straightforward. What I propose to narrate sounds easy and within everyone’s grasp. But its elaboration is extremely difficult. I must render clear something that is almost obliterated and can scarcely be deciphered. With stiff, contaminated fingers I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.
8. (I promise to pick back up on that squalor and whatever invisible might be at the end of this riff).
9. The Hour of the Star: The story is thin, the plot is a shell, a threadbare ancient trope, as brave Rodrigo S.M. repeatedly tells us.
10. The plot is archetypal even. The orphan girl in the big city. Cinderella who imagines the ball, or tries to imagine the ball. Etc.
11. So here’s a proper plot summary, c/o translator Giovanni Pontiero (who surely deserves large praise heaped at his feet (or a location of his choice) for his poetic translation):
The nucleus of the narrative centres on the misfortunes of Macabéa, a humble girl from a region plagued by drought and poverty, whose future is determined by her inexperience, her ugliness and her total anonymity. Macabéa’s speech and dress betray her origins. An orphaned child from the backwoods of Alagoas, who was brought up by the forbidding aunt in Maceió before making her way to the slums of Acre Street in the heart of Rio de Janeiro’s red-light district. Gauche and rachitic, Macabéa has poverty and ill-health written all over her: a creature conditioned from birth and already singled out as one of the world’s inevitable losers.
Her humdrum existence can be summarized in few words: Macabéa is an appallingly bad typist, she is a virgin, and her favorite drink is Coca-Cola. She is a perfect foil for a bullying employer, a philandering boy friend, and her workmate Glória, who has all the attributes Macabéa sadly lacks.
12. A dozen things that The Hour of the Star may or may not be about: Poverty, storytelling, lies, illusions, abjection, resistance, agency, self, class, power, romance, fate.
13. But let’s get back to those words the narrator is braggin’ on:
Another angle at approaching The Hour of the Star: Its page of thirteen alternate titles, which act as a prose-poem descriptor for the novella:
14. And some sentences:
The first provides a context. The second tells us everything about Macabéa. The third tells us everything about her awful, venal “boy friend” Olímpico:
For quite different reasons they had wandered into a butcher’s shop. Macabéa only had to smell raw meat in order to convince herself that she had eaten. What attracted Olímpico, on the other hand, was the sight of a butcher at work with his sharp knife.
15. Macabéa, our primary, and Olímpico a distant second. But also Rodrigo S.M. (and a few others):
The story—I have decided with an illusion of free will—should have some seven characters, and obviously I am one of the more important.
16. (Again though, how to parse Rodrigo from Clarice Lispector . . .)
17. So maybe in one of his (her) parenthetical intrusions (but how can they be intrusions?). From late in the novella:
(But what about me? Here I am telling a story about events that have never happened to me or to anyone known to me. I am amazed at my own perception of the truth. Can it be that it’s my painful task to perceive in the flesh truths that no one wants to face? If I know almost everything about Macabéa, it’s because I once caught a glimpse of this girl with the sallow complexion from the North-east. Her expression revealed everything about her . . .)
Solipsism? Hubris? Humor? Irony?
18. But I want to say something about how funny this novella, but I don’t know how to say it, or I’m not sure how to illustrate it, how to support such a claim with text—how does one support a feeling, a vibe, a phantom idea? Is The Hour of the Star actually funny? Or am I a sick man? Why did I chuckle so much?
19. I think, re: 18, I think that it must be a mild streak of sadism, or an identification with the narrator’s flawed empathy, his raw presentation of a pathetic, abject heroine, a heroine whose heroism can only manifests in strange eruptions of self-possession, minor triumphs of the barest self-assertions.
20. Perhaps an illustration, re: 18/19—a lengthy one maybe, but indulge me (or, rather, indulge yourself):
At this point, I must record one happy event. One distressing Sunday without mandioca, the girl experienced a strange happiness: at the quayside, she saw a rainbow. She felt something close to ecstasy and tried to retain the vision: if only she could see once more the display of fireworks she had seen as a child in Maceió. She wanted more, for it is true that when one extends a helping hand to the lower orders, they want everything else.; the man on the street dreams greedily of having everything. He has no right to anything but he wants everything. Wouldn’t you agree? There were no means within my power to produce that golden rain achieved with fireworks.
Should I divulge that she adored soldiers? She was mad about them. Whenever she caught sight of a soldier, she would think, trembling with excitement: is he going to murder me?
Can you feel the shifts here? A distressing Sunday, a hungry Sunday (“without mandioca”); its strange happiness; an ecstasy that repeats a childhood vision; the desire for more, to rise above one’s allotment (The Right to Protest, or, She Doesn’t Know How to Protest); the limits of words, of language. An unexpected, seemingly irrelevant anecdote. A rare dip into our heroine’s consciousness.
21. There’s a certain absurdity here, a methodical absurdity, of course. There’s a rhythmic certainty to the prose—a sense of aesthetic uniformity—but the content jars against it, the meaning spikes out in subtly incongruous jags that form some other shape. Folks say folks say Lispector echoes Kafka in this way. (I’m reminded of Robert Walser’s sentences too).
22. But I’ve shared enough to give you a sense of Lispector’s style, a taste anyway, right?
What about the book’s claim, its viewpoint, its thesis?
23. Okay, so it’s right there upfront in the book’s fifth paragraph, delivered early enough when the reader is suitably perplexed, looking for some kind of narrative inroad, not looking necessarily for a theme or a message or what have you:
Even as I write this I feel ashamed at pouncing on you with a narrative that is so open and explicit. A narrative, however from which blood surging with life might flow only to coagulate into lumps of trembling jelly. Will this story become my own coagulation one day? Who can tell? If there is any truth in it—and clearly the story is true even though invented—let everyone see it reflected in himself for we are all one and the same person . . .
24. Let’s not misunderstand the last sentiment as some hippy-dippy bullshit: Let’s go back to: “I must touch the invisible in its own squalor.”
25. That squalor is the abject, the filth, the not-me, the other, signified most strongly in waste, blood, filth, vomit, the corpse.
26. The gesture of The Hour of the Star is to make visible—in sentences, in words, in language—the invisible in its own squalor.
27. Highly recommended.
It’s a sickness. Should I explain that the bookstore is like 1.1 miles from my house? And that it holds somewhere between one and two million books? (No exaggeration). That it’s like three or four buildings cobbled together in snaking passages, all said passages lined by books? It’s also like .2 miles from the grocery store I/we usually shop at. Which I had to go by to get mozzarella. For make your own pizza night. But of course, I had to stop off and browse. (Is it weird I set the timer on my iPhone? Gave myself 17 minutes?).
Anyway. Picked up these two.
The Lispector comes via recommendation of Scott Esposito, although this New Directions edition is not the latest translation, but, I dunno. It’s short. The Braly, well, I’d never heard of it, honestly, but it’s an NYRB edition, and the spines of those books always standout, and Lethem introduces it, and even though I haven’t liked Lethem’s last few books, well, he’s still a tastemaker par excellence, and Kurt Vonnegut blurbs it on the back, calling it, “Surely the great American prison novel.” And I just finished “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 (yet again, more on that to come) and maybe a prison novel seems especially intriguing.