A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector (translated by Johnny Lorenz)

This novel was published posthumously having been found with the writings she left behind and is is very different from the novels.

A Breath of Life is about a narrator and his relationship with a character he has created. There are actually three characters in the Breath of Life. The narrator himself, his creation Angela Pralini and Clarice Lisepctor herself who although has no lines herself permeates the whole feel of the novel.

Our narrator writes about his thoughts on life, on writing, on the concept of god. The narrator is trying to discover more about himself. In doing so he creates Angela, he gives her a history, a life as if she was real Brazilian woman, instils her with her own personality. She also contemplates her own thoughts and who God is. In this case her god is the narrator. As we go through the novel who is meant to be speaking can merge as if it is clearly the narrator talking as Angela. The narrator becomes captivated by his creation. He falls for her and he also questions her mortality within the life he has given her. Both characters look at how they view the world. The Narrator wants absolute control over Angela’s fate but in doing so is writing about himself more so than he his writing about Angela among all of it is Clarice who is pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

As far as I’m aware there is some Eastern European influence to this book (according to a friend a I leant it to) and there is that philosophical sense of trying to understand a way of thinking that is recognisable in almost all of Clarice’s work. As you would expect from Clarice this is a book that is not long yet at the same time you feel like you are taking in a lot. Written towards the end of Clarice’s life it also shows us if only through a prism, Clarice’s thinking at this time. Although not exactly like it, this book made me think of Agua Viva more than any of the others and I like this book as it is regardless of who the author is. It looks at our own thoughts and how we represent them and appears the most ‘meta’ of Clarice’s works.

I have looked at all of Clarice’s longer works (as far as I am aware that have been translated into English) and after this one I will be looking at Clarice’s short stories (I have a copy of the whole collection) looking at each on individually.

[Penguin Edition Published 2014]

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

This was Clarice’s last published work before her unfortunate death although there were some works published afterwords (A Breath of Life being one of them). It is recognisably a work of Clarice’s in many ways, the varied use in vocabulary and an analysis of the self and who or what we are. There are two main characters in this story. Rodrigo SM the narrator and his unfortunate creation Macabea. The narrator tells us of their joy of writing, that their writing gives them a certain degree of power, in this case Macabea. We would see a similar type of theme in a Breath of Life though the narrator in that would give their heroine more of a voice.

This is Centennial Edition from New Directions publishing to commemorate 100 years from when Clarice was born. It also has a section written by her son Paulo Gurgel Valente on his recollections of his mother and her work which was written as recent as last July (2020)

Rodrigo has not given Macabea an easy life, she is a from poor area of Rio de Janeiro, she has simple pleasures and despite everything she goes through is actually quite content and in no way a vicious or nasty person. It would be hard to describe to much of the plot without giving too much of it a way so I will keep it to a minimum. Compared to other characters we meet Macabea is a relative saint if albeit a little naïve, her boyfriend does not have much to praise him for. Macabea is above all the other characters she meets in a number of ways without realising it. She has her own dreams and desires but never selfish. As the story develops however, we are made aware of the fact that Macabea is not master of her own fate. The narrator does say towards the end that this story is about the the greatest of everyone, more so Macabea in this case. Rodrigo then concludes with a nonchalant shrug with the acknowledgement that nothing lasts forever.

The Hour of the Star like her first published work Near to the Wild Heart is a short but well contained story. It does not feel as over done as her works The Besieged City or The Apple in the Dark. You will recognise however, again without giving too much away that the fate of Macabea resembles that of Virginia in The Chandelier. For want of a better comparison, The Hour of the Star is a lot less foggy in my mind’s eye with respect to the world it creates than The Chandelier was.

[New Directions, Centennial Edition 2020]

The Besieged City by Clarice Lispector (Translated by Johnny Lorenz)

I was aware that many before me thought this was a complicated book, a tough one to get through. Although I can see why people would think this to be the case, I actually thought it was easier to read than The Chandelier. It’s definitely different. I found myself not analysing the words being written but more what they made me feel (if that makes any sense, like in a poem), and I loved the use of metaphor. In Chapter 5 for example when the lead protagonist Lucrecia wakes up from her dream its says;

‘She awoke with the military march of the scouts! Drums ruffling among the baskets of fish.

She awoke late, the horses already lining up to go. The large vegetal ears of sleep were shrinking quickly to small sensitive ears-the joy of São Geraldo was also condensed until becoming precise as painstaking bees.’

In the Besieged City we see Clarice produce colourful prose and syntax and put it to good use. As others may have mentioned already, in this book Clarice looks at the ‘mystery of the thing’ with respect to how Lucrecia looks at the world.

This is a book about how things change, how things shift. The Besieged City felt like I was imagining someone else’s dream and their knowledge of it and even more so as the story develops.

The Besieged City by Clarice Lispector here is  a marvelous edition by New Directions from New York.

There are two main characters in the Besieged City, Lucrecia and the city of São Geraldo itself. We see throughout the book how changes both affect both Lucrecia and Sao Geraldo.

In the beginning Lucrecia is young and appears care free if a little shallow, Sao Geraldo is a just a small rural township, there are wild horses nearby the town, as the story develops it becomes more industrialised and gets a viaduct no less whilst the horses slowly disappear.

The choices Lucrecia reflect to a certain degree the ambitions for the city. When deciding between the men who are after her affection she turns down the quiet local boy and the soldier with his expectations to be with Mathieu, the man from out of town. São Geraldo itself is a place where the citizens wants the progression that other places have, for better or for worse. We witness how Lucrecia develops when becoming married as a result from being just a shallow girl with superficial thoughts to striving a certain degree of improvement just like what the citizens of the city expect of São Geraldo.

The Besieged city for me is an improvement on The Chandelier, the world is more fleshed out in this book and we see Clarice’s style of writing improve with each book although as an actual story and piece of work Near to the Wild Heart is still the better of her earlier works, it is a purer, less dense book than the other two.

The Beseiged City however, has some good things going for it, after reading it from cover to cover I have found myself jumping back in reading random sections of the book which I did not expect I would do.

This book probably isn’t for everyone but for the more patient among you, I would definitely give it a chance. You will learn to appreciate the style of writing. Lucrecia may come across as shallow in this but Clarice with her style of writing definitely does not.

The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards)

I have read The Chandelier twice now and do consider that what Benjamin Moser has written about The Chandelier in Why This World (which I’ve also done a post on my blog here, shameless plug of myself there) more than likely has had an influence on how I have viewed the book. Where I was quite brief in my post on Near to the Wild Heart, I want to go into more detail in The Chandelier to do it any justice and to show how Clarice contrasted the writing of the book from Near to the Wild Heart.

The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector

The Chandelier is Clarice’s second book, it should have been called the Society of Shadows (as I’ll explain later) I saw that as more fitting. The Chandelier is much longer than Near to the Wild Heart but like Near to the Wild Heart. The syntax in The Chandelier has developed on from Near to the Wild Heart. We have a story about a young woman and we read her inner thoughts. We meet Virginia who is somewhat different to Joana in Near to the Wild Heart (especially in appearance) we see how she thinks and how she perceives the world.

The world itself only appears to be vague. Although we know about Virginia and her family growing up in their old mansion in an out of the way village and then in her later life with her lover in ‘the city’, the physical world is never wholly described. We only know character’s first names, the city itself is just called ‘the city’, we are though aware of the village of Upper Marsh which isn’t wholly detailed either. The detail itself is in how Virginia is thinking and sees the world. Her biggest influence on her early life is her elder brother Daniel who truth be told isn’t that likable and appears cruel but at the same time also has a sensitive side. Daniel is mean to his sister, in a way that brothers at a young age are. The siblings when at play create the Society of Shadows after witnessing a drowning, although created just to hang around the forest and spy on their sister they give the society the motto ‘Solitude and Truth’ and within the society Daniel says

‘Everything that frightens us because it leaves us alone is what we must seek.’

The main thing that frightens Virginia however is her brother himself, he’d be verbally abusive and squeeze her arm and pushes her. Daniel does however, say to Virginia that she only knows what she is taught and that she must meditate on what is her own and what she has been taught to think, which has a long lasting effect on Virginia . She never goes against her brother, Daniel notices that she comes out happier after she does what he tells her. He unintentionally becomes like a drill sergeant in a boot camp, bringing Virginia down to build her up if albeit in an odd way. Daniel tells her that the member of the Society must perfect themselves. With the Society of Shadows although we may see an elder brother being a bit of a pain, he actually has Virginia’s best intentions at heart.

Virginia’s acts (on behalf of the Society) have a long lasting affect on her elder sister we are also made aware of the dark thoughts Virginia has (which only remain as thoughts). Where as in other more traditional stories where we can only guess what a character is thinking through suggestion or conduct (like in a detective novel) with The Chandelier and Virginia in particular it’s the other way round. We know how she is thinking but we are not too sure with how it is perceived by others or what’s really going on. Her perceptions without thought take her somewhere but we don’t quite know where.

When Virginia is older she moves to the city but we still don’t know much about her other than what she is thinking . She is at a party and she does not feel comfortable there with the different types of people. She tries to distract herself with sense perception. She is not comfortable with the people she meets in the city and her thoughts go back to her brother who has also moved on, the one person who shaped how she understood life is no longer with her and she is surrounded by other people she cannot understand and she is questioning who she is. Virginia is identified with the chandelier in her house, the chandelier is on top of everything sometimes swinging with light reflecting through it, sometimes still and dark. I would say she is more the shadows separate from the light. By the light but not part of it. Hence why I think The Society of Shadows is more fitting.

Virginia dies towards the end. Clarice writes ‘Death has finished forever, anything that could be known about her.’ We also see how this affects another character Adriano but I will leave it there with respect to the story, this is a story where the ending is not as important as what is experienced within it.

This book is almost like reading somebody else’s dream, we are inside the head of Virginia but we are not her. We are seeing things through steamed glasses that we are constantly clearing. The Chandelier isn’t written in the first person but it could be to a point. In Near to The Wild Heart where we look at different parts of Joana’s life whereas in The Chandelier we see a merger of Virginia’s earlier and later life like through a cloud.

The Chandelier has a bigger by word count than her prevois work.

If you are to read this book which I strongly suggest you do then I would say read it at least twice. Don’t think too much on the words (Clarice has done that for you), just read it and take it in. Clarice Lispector was still a young when this was written and you can sense her development towards her future works.

The only issue I have with the book is that if you ever have anyone ever tell you that her short stories are better than her longer ones, this is probably what they are comparing it to (Song with The Besieged City).

The Chandelier is much longer than Near to The Wild and Heart and a number of her other works and is not as easy a read. Clarice is a little more daring and experimental with with her shorter stories and especially in her later works. Where as I said in Near to the Wild Heart that not a single word is wasted, this is a larger work where I suspect Clarice was trying to shape herself as a writer especially with trying to put thought into word. However, if you take my advice and just read the words and make Virginia’s inner thoughts just appear in your head then you will get a lot from this. Clarice always makes you contemplate thoughts and ideas that may otherwise be hard to put into words.

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (translated by Alison Entrekin)

Near to the Wild Heart is one of them special books, something original that you remember much later after you read it. Written in Brazilian Portuguese originally, the modernist style made famous by the likes of Joyce and Woolf helped create a book with a unique style.

Disclaimer of sorts before I go any further, I am a big fan of this writer’s work, I’ve read almost everything she’s written (watch this space for more on Clarice) that’s been translated in English so I will try to be as balanced as I honestly can about this book. I have already done a post on Why This World the Clarice biography by Benjamin Moser which like everything else I try to do here I more of a recommendation than a review..

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

I love it of course I do. It was Clarice Lispector’s first released novel and was a success in Brazil when it first came out.

The book is influenced by some of the philosophical writings of Spinoza, mainly Spinoza’s thoughts on good and evil and people’s subjective understanding of it. As a result we get an interesting look at the protagonist Joana. Her views on the world and especially how other people perceive her probably says more about the people than they do about Joana. We also get to look and see Joana’s way of thinking.

I want you to read the book so I won’t give a lot of the plot of the book away. We meet Joana through her childhood and her life as a young woman. We see her interactions with others and who have been important people in her life also get to find out what thy think of Joana. Joana is compared to animals. A snake being one  of them.

Clarice Lispector

Despite being less than 200 pages long this book is very rewarding. I’ve read books over 600 pages long and haven’t read anything with as much expression and substance as this book. Clarice would later go on to experiment with different ways of storytelling from her short stories to her longer ones. Now I know this is a translation by Alison Entrekin (I will quote translators from now on, they deserve credit) so we naturally will not get an exact literal translation of Clarice’s intentions at least in the English language, not a single word is wasted however, there is no rambling or sections that aren’t needed.

Clarice was 23 when this book was first published and she showed a maturity which was wise beyond her years. If you’ve read about Clarice’s life and upbringing you would not be surprised by this at all. Whilst Clarice’s next two books, The Chandelier and The Besieged City have more detail in them in the way the characters look at the world, Near to the Wild Heart is probably my favourite of her first three. As much as I loved her subsequent books, this one has