Penguin have reissued three titles by the Brazilian novelist and short story writer Clarice Lispector, who was born in the Ukraine in 1920 and died in Brazil at 57 years of age. Her last novel,Hour of the Star runs to a mere 77 pages, so it is arguably an elaborate short story, or barely a novella.
This latest translation is by Benjamin Moser who wrote Why This World, the much-acclaimed biography of this fascinating, enigmatic Greta Garbo of letters. Why This World describes her arrival as a young Jewish girl in Brazil, after traumatic family experiences in the Ukraine.
Lispector was an innovator in fiction, who came sidelong at her stories, expanding and contracting the sparse action, making sudden authorial interventions, as though frustrated with the need to tell a straight story. She played with the narrative possibilities and tended to dispense with the traditional story-telling format.
Indeed she could be compared to a latter-day Laurence Sterne,a Flann O’Brien, or a Jorge Luis Borges. In a perceptive introduction to this edition, Colm Tóibín writes that Lispector “had an ability to write as though no one had ever written before.”
She published her first novel in 1943 when she was 23 and was subsequently awarded the prestigious Graça Aranha Prize for best first novel. She later married a diplomat and lived in Italy, the UK, Switzerland and the USA.
The introverted, thoughtful Lispector never did comfortably accept the role of diplomat's wife and in 1959, she returned to Brazil with her children. Back in her adopted home, she wrote the novels which established her reputation. Her short stories were translated into English by the celebrated poet Elizabeth Bishop, which eased her introduction to discerning readers in the USA.
In Hour of the Star (in Portuguese, A Hora da Estrela) the narrator is Rodrigo SM, whose wistful but resigned tone may well echo how Lispector felt at the time. She had but months to live when she was writing this last work - there is a certain illusory air of acquired wisdom but also of a certain exhaustion. “I’ve experienced almost everything, including passion and its despair. And now I’d only like to have what I would have been and never was.”
After a great deal of preamble and misgiving, in Hour of the Star, Rodrigo SM settles down to tell the story of 19-year old Macabéa. A native of Alagoas, in the far north-east of Brazil, Macabéa is, in effect, an immigrant in the vast city of Río. She works as a typist who lives in poverty with a number of other girls. “The person I’m going to talk about is so dumb that she sometimes smiles at other people on the street, “ Rodrigo SM writes. “Nobody smiles back because they don’t even look at her.”
After due deliberation and hesitation, Rodrigo SM has Macabéa fall for a dodgy, macho type who cheats on her with her co-worker Gloria, who is a more sassy, self-confident young girl. The exploration of both girls' psychology is acutely convincing, and Rodrigo SM is intent on slowing the action to examine Macabéa’s frame of mind as best he can. He is insistent that his portrait should not evoke old- fashioned pathos, as he is in pursuit of something more nuanced than that.
Moser explains in an afterword that translating Lispector requires particular care and diligence, as the author consciously dispensed with conventional syntax. Much of the time reading The Hour of The Star, you find yourself pausing over the peculiar phrasing and the images. Or you break up the sentences and imagine the clauses as lines of poetry, such is their peculiar potency and charm.
Despite its brevity and lack of a conventional story, A Hora da Estrela was adapted as a movie, directed by Suzana Amaral. Released in 1985, it was praised by the celebrated film critic Pauline Kael.