“I’ve been working on the translation nonstop—it’s like I’m in a trance,” Magdalena Edwards told me in early March 2017, while preparing a gin and tonic at her house in Santa Monica. I walked there from my place—we live very close to one another. I had just returned from visiting my family in Italy. Outside I saw her three kids, two boys and a little girl, on their bikes. “You have to absolutely see what I made at school!” “Are you going to have dinner with us?” “Are you babysitting us?”—they all yell at me from the other side of the street and keep biking. I try to answer but they are already far, so I enter the house.
“How’s the book?” I ask as the kids come in. “Don’t run and take off your shoes,” Magdalena says, “We’re going to have dinner soon.” The kids are always with us. “The book is intense, but it’s Clarice, you know.” She has studied Lispector’s works for more than 15 years and we are both sure that she’s ready for this—she knows Clarice. I had never read Clarice Lispector before and all I knew was that she was a Brazilian writer, born in Ukraine. The older boy Théo, nine-years-old, wants to show me a magic trick with the poker cards that I have to pretend I don’t know. “My love, we’re talking about work,” she says. “Yes but just a second!” I understand immediately the situation: “If you need time alone, I can babysit the kids anytime,” I say.
This is the first image I have when I think about last year, when my friend Magdalena was deep in the process of translating The Chandelier, the book I’ve just finished reading. She’s out of town with her husband, Vlad, so I text her. “It’s disturbing,” I say, and she immediately replies, “Remember how crazy I was?”
The book is a traumatic experience even for a reader. How could she translate it, I wonder. And with the kids always around! The Chandelier narrates the story of Virgínia and her never-ending relationship with her childhood, especially with her brother Daniel with whom she creates the Society of Shadows, a sort of secret pact with “strange and undefined objectives” based on two mottos: Solitude and Truth. “Everything that frightens us because it leaves us alone is what we must seek,” Daniel tells her. Virgínia never forgets it. She can’t forget it as a young girl at Quiet Farm, where she spends her days playing alone in the forest or exploring the dark corners of the shadowy mansion, a house that belongs to her grandmother who is still alive but bedridden. And Virgínia can’t forget it when she moves to the city to try to become an adult, a journey of the self interrupted when she is called to return home to pay her respects to her grandmother.
“Better than Borges,” Elizabeth Bishop said about Clarice Lispector’s writing. How about darker than William Faulkner? And I can’t help but connect The Chandelier to As I Lay Dying and also Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The three books open with the dynamic of a family and are set in the countryside, but whereas in Faulkner all the family leave the house for the specific reason of the mother’s funeral, in Duras and Lispector, the protagonists of the stories move to the city to emancipate themselves. In Lispector, it is through Virgínia’s eyes and feelings that the reader is shuttled between the events, even though there’s the sensation that really nothing happens, in what she calls “her girlhood without events,” in a life that “had gone on as if she hadn’t met anyone.” That nothing much happens in the novel (until it does) is neither a surprise nor a problem, despite the protestations of readers eager for the steady drum of narrative beats, especially given the opening sentence: “She’d be flowing all her life.” And then we get the opening scene: Virgínia and her brother Daniel in the forest watching the flowing water of the river, seeing something they’re not supposed to have seen, a secret they cannot tell anyone, the secret that “illuminated her against the world” and gave her “intimate power.”
Virgínia is always in the past, indissolubly linked to her life at Quiet Farm with the family. The family is her primary social nucleus, what trains her for her future life out in the world, first in the anticipation of school, and then in society; and yet it’s at school that “Virgínia would understand, disappointed, that everything had been seen years before” like an “unfurling of an oft-rehearsed scene.” The family is also the place, the ecosystem, where its members discover how to be together but alone, where they feel, like in Faulkner, that their aloneness “had never been violated” (Lispector writes that Virgínia’s intimacy “even if violated didn’t seem to be possessed”), or in Duras, where to rebel means to create a destiny: “I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live, to the exclusion of everywhere else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.” Even Virgínia feels like she acts “according to a destiny,” but she can’t understand what it is, the only thing she can really do is explore the connection between her things, the things she loses when she moves to the city, trying to grow up and take on an adult life, things like the chandelier at Quiet Farm.
Presiding over all is her love for the brother Daniel, who has always rejected her: “Virgínia, every day when you see milk and coffee you like milk and coffee. When you see Papa you respect Papa. When you scrape your leg you feel pain in your leg, do you get what I’m saying? You are common and stupid.” She decides that Daniel is right, that she doesn’t want to be stupid anymore, she wants him to love her, she’s ready to do everything for him, hurting her parents or dreaming of pushing a dog into the river while watching him dying: “her goodness wasn’t preventing her badness.” But it’s never enough for Daniel, so that for Virgínia “Alone was the way she could wear herself out.”
Last year Magdalena wrote a one-woman play, I Wanna Be Robert De Niro, which she performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In the play a translator named Madalena is fighting with Clarice: why is she treating Virgínia like that? She’s a young girl, she doesn’t deserve it, she needs protection. No answer from Lispector. Then the telephone rings. It’s the husband, there’s a problem with the kids. Can’t he figure it out all by himself for once? She’s working! That’s what she says. Madalena, almost despairing, then turns to De Niro, born in 1943, the same year Lispector started writing The Chandelier, for help in saving Virgínia from Lispector’s tragic narrative. The translator breaking ranks, a woman behaving badly in the name of another woman. But in Magdalena’s play this vision of the translator, Madalena, interceding is foreclosed by Virgínia herself. Who dares tell another creature filled with her own being-hood what to do? Who dares rewrite, overwrite, another person’s script?
Virgínia is alone in The Chandelier, but with a new force and a project: to free herself from the others. “To free herself from maternity, from love, from intimate life and in the face of other people’s expectations to refuse, to land hard and closed like a rock, a violent rock, who cares about the rest,” Lispector writes, only to retract everything 10 lines later: “But against what? Her fake power was waning with disappointment and slowly a troubled sadness was overtaking her, she wanted to rejoin right now the movement shared by everyone, being happy with them, accusing-offended very quickly with humility, without any power so that nobody could refuse her now, quickly, after she in a thoughtless gesture had sought, crazy, to free herself.” The eternal fight between subject and society, what to do?
Virgínia constantly suffers from nausea; Lispector says that “in secret she felt pity for everything…people were so ridiculous!, she felt like crying from joy and embarrassment at being alive. That was her impression.” She tries to love them, the others, but she feels that only when she’s alone she can understand things and that “nothing essential had been reached with her love.” And it’s especially with her friends that Virgínia experiences the highest point of her alienation, as here at a dinner party with friends:
The thin, confident women were chatting–they seemed easy for the men and hard for the women; and why didn’t they have kids? my God, how disconcerting that was. And if they did they treated them like friends, yes, like friends.
It’s a Sunday morning in 2017, spring is near and the temperature is rising. As Magdalena drives I’m at her side while the kids sit in the back. “Don’t fight! Stay quiet or I’ll bring you back home,” she says. “You’re too strict, mom,” her clever five-year-old girl, Viva, replies. “Oh well, in a few years you’ll thank me! Wait and see.” “Wait and see,” her seven-year-old son Max repeats to his sister with a wise nod and a wry smile that I catch as I glance behind. When we arrive at the Farmers’ Market the kids choose pain au chocolat and donuts from Allan at the bakery stand and run away to visit with Luis, who sells berries. They are authorized to take off because it’s a safe place and everyone knows them. Magdalena and I are drinking lemonade when she looks at me and says: “Above all, I don’t want the kids to see Vlad and me as friends! Am I wrong?”
Virgínia is always somewhere else. Sometimes they tell her something and she distractedly asks, what? She’s not only alienated from her friends at the dinner party, but even from that living room, the stage for the evening’s events, from its surfaces; she feels herself to be “a prisoner of luxury.” And most of all she doesn’t understand the city, she keeps dreaming about Quiet Farm, the black countryside, the forest, the river, all the landscape of her past. She hates the present to the point that she wants to turn it immediately into the future and for this reason goes to bed earlier every day. “Somehow whatever she would live was being added to her childhood and not to the present, never maturing her.”
Therefore she comes back home, but everything is changed. Even Daniel, the great rebel, had ended up married to a common girl with whom he shares nothing but a bourgeois life (the kind he had always despised before) and now he is accusing her, his sister, of having let him make the mistake. Virgínia realizes that “the place where one was happy is not the place where one can live.”
Lispector tells her story in a very personal stream of consciousness, which is too easy to reconnect to James Joyce because in Lispector the style is always memory and feelings; it’s not epic, it’s terribly familiar without being sentimental–thus there’s no space for self-pity, indulgence, or hope. She doesn’t even organize the points of view in chapters, but when you can’t foresee it, she just jumps from Virgínia to Vincente or Daniel or Esmeralda. Sometimes she writes down a cold sentence: “I hold myself back in order not to be loved by everyone.” But she goes forward, she takes the same line and, like in a poem, puts it inside another sentence, modulating words and sound in a way that forces the reader to read it twice and three times: “Who would have thought that that insignificant creature had just felt like someone who had to hold herself back in order not to be loved by everyone?” For sure, after reading Lispector, we know much more of how “horrible, pure, irrevocable” it is to live.
It’s the end of summer. Magdalena, Vlad, and I sit in their garden, in the dark. There’s only a light in the living room, which reaches us from the glass wall. The kids already sleep. We have cooked with them homemade gnocchi and now the kitchen is full of flour. “When you translate something like that—I mean, it’s hard because it’s like living in the mind of someone else. So you have to question yourself and realize that you’re a woman, you have a family, you live in society, so what you read and translate it’s also about you. But at the same time you have to be yourself and raise the kids—I don’t know. I like that they spend time with us, but I know that they need rules too. Ways to learn to shape their future lives,” Magdalena says.
“I think it’s great that we cook with them and they can understand that what they eat everyday is not free, that that takes time, and it’s the same thing with life,” Vlad adds. I go on: “Life is like literature: it wants the work as Scott [Fitzgerald] says.” We fall into silence. I try to imagine the kids’ point of view, making things with adults while they discuss literature, listening to them call writers by their first names as if they could be friends. And what about us? Trying to teach the kids to make practical, simple things to prevent them from becoming exploitative human beings. Will they be able to free themselves or will they conform to society? Will they find a balance between these two attitudes? Will they heap upon themselves “lies, false love, ambitions and pleasures” or will they choose to do the work, every single day, and fight for the life they really want? The three of us remain in silence. If I close my eyes I can see Tuscany. I see the countryside of my childhood and I am there.