New Directions’ The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, is a splendorous achievement. For the first time in any language, readers can turn to a single volume for all the short stories by the twentieth-century Brazilian writer affectionately known by her unusual first name, that enigmatic woman born in a small village in the Ukraine in 1920 to Jewish parents who fled the country when she was barely a year old. This is the sixth New Directions book by Clarice to appear in less than four years under the helm of series editor Moser, who is also the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press 2009). The other five are new translations of the novels Near to the Wild Heart, A Breath of Life, Água Viva, The Passion According to G.H. and The Hour of the Star. Each book has a different translator, which suits the multivalent spirit of Clarice’s strange and unsettling oeuvre.
Clarice is a writer obsessed with language, how it moves and breathes, how far it can be pushed and pulled apart, how it breaks down. Her prose, in the stories and novels and newspaper columns, follows overarching themes: how language is used to create identity, what is at stake when a narrator narrates, the reality of fiction, how words can be used to establish and maintain power, the failure of language when humans (and occasionally animals) want to communicate, silence and the unspeakable. Much of her writing features women whose lives unfold in domestic spaces, women who navigate traditional feminine duties such as housework and caregiving alongside the perils and pleasures of love, motherhood, romance, sex, money, and the mysteries of the world beyond the front door.
Men too populate Clarice’s stories: Marcel Pretre, the French explorer in “The Smallest Woman in the World”; Artur, the high school student who finds himself increasingly misunderstood by his parents in “Beginnings of a Fortune”; the bigamist Xavier and his two live-in girlfriends livid about the prostitute he favors for dirty talk in “The Body”; and the beggar who receives a five hundred cruzeiro banknote from high society wife Carla de Sousa e Santos because she doesn’t have change in “Beauty and the Beast or the Big Wound.” There are husbands, boyfriends, brothers, and sons, men in all manner of professions and affective arrangements. Clarice never considered herself to be a woman writer or a writer of women’s literature. Language, muscular and mystical, is her supreme concern, and language is universal.
“The Crime of the Mathematics Professor”: Clarice’s Debut in English
The first translation of Clarice’s work in English appeared in December 1961. William L. Grossman and José Roberto Vasconcellos’ version of “The Crime of the Mathematics Professor” debuted in the Odyssey Review, published by the Latin American and European Literary Society. It was later included in Grossman’s anthology Modern Brazilian Short Stories, published by the University of California Press in 1967. The story follows a mathematics professor, the dog he abandons when he moves to a new city with his family, and the dog he kills “in tribute” to the abandoned dog. Despite the professor’s careful calculations, a kind of moral mathematics he seeks to deploy, he fails to redeem his crime (of abandonment, of desire to rid himself of his original dog, of killing) by solemnly burying the dead creature before him. As translated by Grossman and Vasconcellos, in the final paragraph he decides to unbury the dead dog:
It looked unfamiliar with earth on its lashes and with its open, glazed eyes. Thus, the mathematics professor renewed his crime eternally. He looked to the sky and to the earth around him, asking them to witness what he had just done. Then he started down the hill toward the little city below.
Here is Katrina Dodson’s version from New Directions’ Complete Stories, which she titles “The Crime of the Mathematics Teacher”:
The dark dog at last appeared whole, unfamiliar with dirt in its eyelashes, its eyes open and glazed over. And thus the mathematics teacher renewed his crime forever. The man then looked around and to the heavens beseeching a witness to what he’d done. And as if that still weren’t enough, he started descending the slopes toward the bosom of his family.
In Clarice’s original, the final sentence is: “E como se não bastasse ainda, começou a descer as escarpas em direção ao seio de sua familia.” Dodson’s version is word for word in tune with the original.
Elizabeth Bishop’s Translations of “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector”
Elizabeth Bishop published her “Three Stories by Clarice Lispector” — “The Smallest Woman in the World,” “A Hen,” and “Marmosets” — in the summer 1964 issue of The Kenyon Review. For years these translations were somewhat hidden gems. Bishop never included them in any of her books the way she did with her poetry translations. Readers can now find the trio of stories in two recent Bishop compilations: Library of America’s Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters (2008) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Prose: Elizabeth Bishop (2011). The evocative triptych features three female creatures vying for agency, if not survival, in the face of human interaction: Little Flower, the smallest woman in the world, squares off against the French explorer Marcel Pretre who claims to have “discovered” her in the “depths of Equatorial Africa”; the Sunday hen is due to be killed for supper by the humans she lives with; and Lisette the marmoset is purchased by the narrator as a pet for her children one summer day in Copacabana. (For a sense of how Dodson handles her translations of these stories, it might suffice to say that she titles two of them differently: “A Chicken” and “Monkeys.”)
Clarice and Bishop were neighbors during the time Bishop shared an apartment with Lota de Macedo Soares in Leme, Rio de Janeiro. Bishop first arrived in Brazil in late 1951, while a freshly separated Lispector moved back to Rio in 1959 alone with her two sons after 15 years of living abroad with her diplomat husband. In late 1962, Bishop gave Lispector a selection of nine of her own poems — “Questions of Travel,” “Manuelzinho,” “Electrical Storm,” “Brazil, January 1, 1502,” “Song for the Rainy Season,” “The Armadillo,” “Sandpiper,” “The Riverman,” and “A Norther—Key West” — along with the following hand-written note: “For Clarice Lispector, from her admiring translator, Elizabeth Bishop; Rio, November 22, 1962.” When I first fixed my eyes on this sheath of papers at the Clarice Lispector Archive at the Museu Casa de Rui Barbosa in Rio’s Botafogo neighborhood, years ago as a graduate student, my hands shook with excitement upon recognizing Bishop’s small, slightly slanted handwriting in the upper-right hand corner of the first typed page.
Bishop’s translations of Clarice’s stories suggest overlapping thematic interests: questions of foreignness, the feminine, motherhood, language, identity, and the relationships between humans and animals. Questions of self-possession. In addition to this Clarice-as-rendered-by-Bishop prism, a kind of conversation between two great literary minds, the most important thing about the Bishop translations is the fact that their publication led to additional translations of Clarice’s work in English. Bishop considered taking on one of Clarice’s novels, but ultimately declined. In her May 26, 1963, letter to Robert Lowell, she wrote: “Knopf apparently is definitely interested in one of her novels. I’ve refused to do any of that kind of translating, however. It’s too boring & time-wasting.” The Apple in the Dark, the very un-boring novel translated by Gregory Rabassa and published by Knopf, appeared in 1967 and clocks in at well over 300 pages. That same year Bishop published an original trio of texts — the prose-poems “Giant Toad,” “Strayed Crab,” and “Giant Snail” — grouped under the title “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics” in The Kenyon Review. Bishop’s Sub-Tropic trio offers a kind of lyrical response to her 1964 Clarice translations.
Katrina Dodson’s Clarice: “A One-Woman Vaudeville Act”
I have always been fascinated by the fact that Clarice might have been an English language writer. I say this because when her family fled the Ukraine in 1921, they first landed in a refugee hostel in Bucharest, and from there they waited to see whether their relatives in the United States or Brazil would sponsor them. When they heard from Clarice’s maternal aunt and her husband in Brazil, they were issued passports by the Russian consulate in Bucharest and traveled to Hamburg where they would board the Cuyabá, a homeward-bound Brazilian ship. The Lispectors crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the northeastern port town of Maceió, which, as described in Moser’s Why This World, had a dock “graced with its own replica of the Statue of Liberty.” But it was no Manhattan. And if the Lispectors had heard from Clarice’s mother’s half-siblings in the United States first? In my mind, this twist of fate heightens the stakes for Clarice’s English-language translators. Many have tried to render her into what might have been her mother tongue: Grossman and Vasconellos, Bishop, Rabassa, Alexis Levitin, Giovanni Pontiero, Earl Fitz and Elizabeth Lowe. And there is the new crop of translators recruited by Moser, including Dodson, Idra Novey, Stefan Tobler, Alison Entrekin, and Johnny Lorenz.
In Clarice’s final work The Hour of the Star, a slim novel published in 1977 mere weeks before her untimely death of ovarian cancer at age 57, she dedicates “this thing here” to a number of composers including Schumann, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Carl Orff, Schoenberg, and “to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present and who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.” I have no doubt that “all those prophets” include her translators, past, present, and future. She goes on to describe the “I” she “exploded into” and to invoke — provoke — her translators and readers, critics and champions: “This I is all of you since I can’t stand being just me, I need others in order to get by, fool that I am.”
Katrina Dodson, who recasts the Complete Stories into English with an energetic mastery that feels utterly contemporary while evoking the intoxicating dissonance of the original Portuguese prose, calls reading Clarice’s work “a disorienting experience” in her “Translator’s Note.” Dodson then candidly discusses her translation process:
Translating Clarice has meant growing attuned to the ways her sly surrealism, which can veer into the absurdist or fantastical, is embedded in her style. The logic of a deceptively simple narrative or series of declarations becomes distorted or ends in non sequiturs. … The most dizzying feature in Clarice’s writing are the surprises on the level of the sentence. Certain combinations seem contradictory or disproportionate like “delicate abyss,” or “horribly marvelous.” The usual expression takes a detour, as when an elderly matriarch scornfully calls her offspring “flesh of my knee” instead of “flesh of my flesh.” A comma trips up the pace where it doesn’t seem to belong, like a hair she’s placed in your soup. … In keeping up with Clarice’s shifting registers and translating nearly four decades of work in two years’ time, I’ve often felt like a one-woman vaudeville act, shouting, laughing, crying, musing, singing, and tap-dancing my way breathlessly across the stage.
I can attest that attempting to translate Clarice is no easy venture. I tried when I was a graduate student enrolled in the famed UCLA translation workshop with the late Michael Heim, indefatigable teacher, generous mentor, and formidable translator of Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann, Anton Chekhov, and Günter Grass, among others. He assigned us the task of finding an “impossible text” to translate, precisely so he could teach us how to make good choices as translators faced with worst-case scenarios. I settled on Clarice’s short story “Silence,” which I read as a statement on how to live and how to write. I figured that redeploying her “Silence” into English would help me better glean Clarice’s wisdom. Here is my scratchy version of the opening paragraph:
It is so vast, the silence of the mountain evening. It is so uninhabited. A vain attempt is made not to hear it, to think quickly in order to disguise it. Or to create an agenda, the fragile stitch that barely ties us to the suddenly improbable tomorrow. How to transcend that peace that watches us. Silence so big that hopelessness is ashamed. Mountains so tall that hopelessness is ashamed. Both ears prick up, the head leans, the entire body listens: not a sound. Not a cock crows. How to be within reach of silence’s profound meditation. Of that silence without memory of words. If it is death, how to reach you.
And here is Dodson’s undoubtedly superior translation, where the connection between silence and death, and more specifically between the second-person narrator’s avoidance of silence and enchantment with death, is made much more clear while maintaining the edginess and multiple layers of the original:
The silence of the night in the mountains is so vast. It is so desolate. You try in vain to work not to hear it, to think quickly to cover it up. Or to invent some plans, a fragile stitch that barely links us to the suddenly improbable day of tomorrow. How to surmount this peace that spies us. A silence so great that despair is ashamed. Mountains so high that despair is ashamed. The ears prick, the head tilts, the whole body listens: not a murmur. Not a rooster. How to come within reach of this deep meditation on the silence. On that silence without memory of words. If thou art death, how to reach thee.
Dodson’s successful rendition of Clarice’s “Silence” and my long ago attempt both point to what Moser highlights in his “Introduction” to the Complete Stories:
Clarice undid reflexive patterns in grammar. She often had to remind readers that her “foreign” speech was not the result of her European birth or an ignorance of Portuguese. One of the most highly educated women of her generation was no more ignorant of the standard Brazilian language than Schoenberg was of the diatonic scale, or Picasso of anatomy.
In his “Translator’s Afterword” to The Hour of the Star, Moser says: “no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it sounds just as unusual in the original.” He assures us, however, that “her books are not untranslatable.” He believes that Clarice’s translators must “resist the temptation to explain or rearrange her prose, which can only flatten it and remove from it that ‘foreign’ aura that is its hallmark, and its glory.” The hair in one’s soup, as Dodson sees it. Glittering.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
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1. The Hour of the Star in American English
In this season of endings and beginnings, extended family gatherings and extensive loneliness, items ticked from last year’s list and new lists begun, this season of strawberries whether you are summering in South America or wintering in California, there is a new version of a well-loved and mind-blowing novel I must recommend — and it’s slim enough, under 81 pages, to carry in your pocket or pocketbook. The new translation by Benjamin Moser of The Hour of the Star (New Directions, Nov. 2011), the final novel published by the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) mere weeks before her death, is phenomenal. This is the novel that opens: “Everything in the world began with a yes.” This is the one that goes by 12 other titles, a number echoed in the “Author’s Dedication:” “Most of all I dedicate [this thing here] to the yesterdays of today and to today, to the transparent veil of Debussy, to Marlos Nobre, to Prokofiev, to Carl Orff and Schoenberg, to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.”
It is no wonder that the French feminist critic, poet, and playwright Hélène Cixous embraced Lispector and quickly incorporated the Brazilian’s oeuvre into her own lectures and writings, as early as 1979 with her text “To Live the Orange,” a meditation on feminine writing including a lyrical depiction of her first encounter with Lispector’s work dated October 12, 1978, nearly one year after the publication of The Hour of the Star and the author’s untimely death at 56. Nor is it a surprise that the Brazilian filmmaker Suzana Amaral, who had her ninth child in film school and went on to earn a masters at New York University where she enrolled in 1976 thanks to a grant and was in the same class as Jim Jarmusch, made the film version of The Hour of the Star, a project begun in graduate school that was selected as Brazil’s official entry for the best foreign-language film Academy Award in 1987. For these and more reasons I will enumerate below, the new translation of Lispector’s story of the poor girl from northeastern Brazil named Macabéa and the writer Rodrigo S.M. who attempts to tell her tale, now in Benjamin Moser’s urgent, American English prose, is a boon to readers everywhere.
Lispector’s final novel, her most accessible (not a word typically associated with this writer), her most concretely grounded in a specific place, Rio de Janeiro, and time, the present, is a masterwork of interrogation: the author (indicated as Clarice Lispector herself in the “Author’s Dedication”), the narrator (the self-reflexive Rodrigo S.M., whose desire to tell Macabéa’s story is ever-interrupted by his own), the protagonist (Macabéa, the poor girl transplanted to Rio de Janeiro to eke out a pitiful living as a typist who doesn’t know how to spell and who loves to eat hotdogs, or more often dreams of them), and the reader (you!) are interrogated by a 12-tone narrative that bangs along and promises no tidy conclusion.
Whether through direct address or the urban intensity and flat out strangeness of the prose, the reader cannot lurk behind the book’s spine, but rather is constantly called upon, as we see in the opening pages: “This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It’s an unfinished book because it’s still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It’s a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.” This call for an answer, for the reader’s participation in the act of storytelling, is all the more evident in Moser’s translation, which is truer to the original Portuguese than the version published by the esteemed British translator and scholar Giovanni Pontiero in 1986. While Pontiero’s version is at times dreamy, distant, even hyper-literary, Moser’s translation (I repeat myself with a bang!) is urgent, urban, and strange, which is how the original Portuguese feels. (New Directions will release additional retranslations of Lispector’s fiction under Moser’s editorship in May 2012, including Near to the Wild Heart, Água Viva,and The Passion According to G.H., as well as a A Breath of Life, which has never appeared in English before.)
Pontiero’s translation first appeared in the United Kingdom with Carcarnet Press and was later published in North America, simultaneously in the United States with New Directions and in Canada with Penguin Books Canada Limited, in 1992. These geographical details are of interest because Lispector’s family, originally from the Ukraine, moved to “America,” choosing between the US and Brazil, when she was two months old. This is how the family ended up in northeast Brazil and this is why Lispector became a Brazilian writer, an innovator of Brazilian Portuguese prose, though she could have become instead an American writer, one who would have injected American English with renewed forces that we can glimpse through her works in translation.
Lispector herself was aware of, even perplexed by, chance’s sleight of hand. She wrote the following in one of her weekly newspaper columns published between 1967 and 1973 in the Jornal do Brasil: “What will never be elucidated is my destiny. If my family had opted for the United States, would I have become a writer? In English, naturally, if I had been. I would have probably married an American and I would have American children. And my life would be completely different. What would I write about? What would I love? What party would I belong to? What kinds of friends would I have? It’s a mystery” (the translation here is mine). Though Lispector first questions if she would have become a writer in the United States, she then provides the answer with another question. What, indeed, would she have written about in her Lispector-inflected American English?
2. Moser versus Pontiero in Translation
To elucidate my point that Moser’s translation is both more accurate (in terms of the literal correspondence between a word in Portuguese and its paired word in English) and more effective as a narrative than the Pontiero version, I turn now to the 12 other titles of The Hour of the Star. The beauty of this exercise is that that 2011 edition includes a facsimile of Lispector’s manuscript page with the 13 total titles in the original Portuguese (a number that bears significance for Lispector as unveiled by Moser in Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector published in 2009 by Oxford University Press to great acclaim). In this way we can conduct a comparative analysis of the three texts, Moser’s, Pontiero’s, and Lispector’s original, with a small and meaningful sample of words.
I have grouped the titles into three categories: 1) identical translations; 2) differing translations; 3) translations where Moser corrects or supersedes Pontiero.
The first category is straightforward and consists of five of the 13 titles:
The Hour of the Star
.As for the Future.
Singing the Blues
A Sense of Loss
Whistling in the Dark Wind
The second category is where the translations differ. I have placed Pontiero’s versions on the left and Moser’s on the right:
The Blame Is Mine
It’s All My Fault
Let Her Fend for Herself
Let Her Deal With It
I Can Do Nothing
I Can’t Do Anything
A Record of Preceding Events
Account of the Preceding Facts
The first title in the original is “A Culpa É Minha” and though I find Moser’s version more compelling because it’s idiomatic, I appreciate Pontiero’s decision to keep the original’s word order, and thus keep the emphasis on “culpa” translated effectively by Pontiero as “blame.” The second title is “Ela Que Se Arrange,” an idiomatic expression in Brazilian Portuguese. The verb “arranjar” means to organize, pull together, do, get, achieve, or figure out. It can be used in all kinds of cases, from doing one’s hair to finding a boyfriend to getting out of a jam. Pontiero’s translation suggests a difficult situation where the protagonist is clearly out of her depth by using the word “fend” while Moser leaves the situation, the “it” she must deal with, a bit more neutral. I might have gone with something like “Let Her Figure It Out.” The third title is “Eu Não Posso Fazer Nada,” a double negative in Portuguese, which is grammatically correct and literally means “I Can’t Do Nothing.” Moser chooses to emphasize the lack of agency in “I can’t” while Pontiero sticks to the literal translation of “nada” or “nothing.” I go with Moser here, though I see Pontiero’s point.
The fourth pairing is an example of different choices made, correctly, by both translators. The “record” versus “account” of preceding “events” versus “facts” offers two ways of contrasting truth and point of view. In Pontiero’s translation, the word “record” indicates an official compilation of truths set against his choice of “events” as occurrences that can be told from varying points of view, i.e. “A Record of Preceding Events.” Moser’s choice of the word “account” points to a version told from a specific perspective, while his use of the word “facts” correlates to uncontestable truths, i.e. “Account of the Preceding Facts.” In this way both translators strike a juxtaposed balance between truth and narrative, a theme Lispector engages throughout The Hour of the Star.
The final category consists of cases where I believe that Moser corrects or supersedes Pontiero, whose translations are on the left while Moser’s remain on the right:
The Right to Protest
The Right to Scream
She Doesn’t Know How to Protest
She Doesn’t Know How to Scream
A Tearful Tale
A Discreet Exit by the Back Door
Discreet Exit Through the Back Door
The first two examples hinge on the word “protest” versus “scream.” The original Portuguese is “gritar,” which literally means “to scream.” I am not sure why Pontiero uses “protest.” It is simply not correct and it misleads the reader into thinking about a more complex, or perhaps less complex, state than what Lispector indicates in the original. A scream is a straightforward action one does with one’s mouth and throat. A scream can come for many reasons: fear, joy, anger, sadness, all of the above, and more. A scream is a physical act as well as a sound. The protagonist of The Hour of the Star does not know how to scream under any circumstance, while the narrator Rodrigo S.M. tells the reader early on that he will scream: “…it’s my obligation to tell about this one girl out of the thousands like her. And my duty, however artlessly, to reveal her life. / Because there’s the right to scream. / So I scream.” The contrast between Rodrigo S.M.’s scream and Macabéa’s silence is what Lispector wants us to experience and digest.
The last two cases are examples of Moser superseding Pontiero’s translation. “Through” simply works better as the necessary preposition than “by” for the title “Discreet Exit By/Through the Back Door.” As for “A Tearful Tale” versus “Cheap Tearjerker,” both indicate the maudlin valence of the title. But, Moser’s choice is more specific and culturally grounded, which is a better fit with the original: “História Lacrimogênica de Cordel.” In Brazil the “histórias de cordel” are a staple of northeastern popular culture. They are self-published pamphlets or chapbooks written in rhymed verse by local poets who recite to passersby in order to entice them to buy a copy, as well as travel between towns to spread their tales of fiction — namely love, woe, adventure, and religious themes — as well as popular versions of current events.
3. My Hour of the Star As Told in 13 Paragraphs (With Clarice’s 13 Titles)
I first read Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, in Pontiero’s translation, in 2000 in Santiago, Chile, where I was teaching high school ESL part-time for a pittance at the international school. My fellow Ivy League college grads were back in the United States surfing the dot-com boom, immersed in law school, starting businesses, and paying their dues in publishing, academia, and the arts. My parents had no idea why they had paid so much tuition so I could “find my roots” in the still-developing country where I was born and that they had left for good. (It’s All My Fault)
In late August of 1977 I was one month old and whisked away to the United States where my parents would attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. In truth it was a little less dramatic than “whisked,” especially because my parents missed their original flight and had to return home with their suitcases and me for one more night in Salvador Allende’s Chile. Let me clarify: though Pinochet assumed power in 1973, the country still belonged to Allende and the people (people whose children have now grown up and are naming their newborn sons Salvador). The next day, our departure a success, we left my grandparents, cousins, and native soil behind. (The Hour of the Star)
During my early months in Hyde Park, I heard and learned Spanish first from my parents. The Sérgio Mendes and Maria Bethânia albums they loved even more after their honeymoon in Brazil played on the nights they had time to cook dinner together and share a stiff gin and tonic. I spent my first year of preschool mute while practicing my English at home every night, a show of verbal restraint that will surprise my present day colleagues and friends. The point is, I grew up in a stew of Spanish, Portuguese, and English, alongside smatterings of other languages spoken by my parents’ international classmates and their children. (Let Her Deal With It)
I was not even five months old when Clarice Lispector died and left The Hour of the Star hot off the presses. I doubt my parents knew her work, but maybe one of their Brazilian friends received the news with sadness and then waited for a copy of the novel to arrive via air mail, an extravagant gift sent from a loved one back home. This was the same year that Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States, that women were integrated into the regular Marine Corps, and that Elvis Presley died of heart failure at Graceland. (The Right to Scream)
When I read Lispector for the first time at 22 going on 23, my mother’s age when I was born, it was coincidence, or fate. A few of my ESL students were in Ms. Kerr’s English class at the Nido de Aguilas International School, and so I picked up the slim blue book with a drawing by Paul Klee on its cover. I buzzed while reading paragraph after paragraph that felt so intuitive and challenging, so open-ended while being direct. I realize now that I barely grazed the book’s contours. At the time I was most gripped by Macabéa’s boyfriend, Olímpico, who worked in a factory and called himself a “metallurgist,” though he really wanted to be a bullfighter, or a congressman, or a butcher. His speeches were both unbelievable and familiar. When he breaks up with Macabéa because he’s met another woman named Glória (who is Macabéa’s buxom coworker), he says: “You, Macabéa, are like a hair in my soup. Nobody feels like eating it.” (.As For the Future.)
Two years later I returned to The Hour of the Star, but this time in the original Portuguese. After completing two quarters of intensive Portuguese with Alessandra Santos, a teaching assistant from Porto Alegre, Brazil, who channeled Bjork and quoted “Clarice,” as I soon learned everyone called her, I took my first Brazilian literature seminar where we read all of Clarice’s novels and stories. It was the spring of 2002. I realized I had been focusing on the chicken and forgetting completely about the egg. I decided I had to go to Brazil to practice the language and start my field research on Clarice and Elizabeth Bishop, who published her translations of three of Lispector’s stories in the Kenyon Review in 1964. I applied for several grants, started making my espresso at home, and hatched plans to go first to Vassar College to visit Elizabeth Bishop’s archive. And I began to fall in love, again, with my college boyfriend whose name starts with a V and who would become my husband. (Singing the Blues)
I love my graduate school copy of Lispector’s novel in Portuguese, A Hora da Estrela, the one published by Editora Rocco in 1999, the one with my tidy underlining and handwritten notes in pencil, notes that give literal translations of Portuguese words, as well as paraphrases such as: “You, reader, do not have the right to be cold, but I do” (in reference to Rodrigo S.M.’s attitude towards Macabéa and followed by another note: “S.M. is read as sadomasochism by some critics”). Or: “Girl as white butterfly as page (words) as light, then, virginal.” Or: “M. encounters a beautiful man and wants to possess him like an emerald.” Or the delicate pencil circle around the final word in the novel: “Sim.” And the accompanying note: “Circularity — see beginning.” Yes. (She Doesn’t Know How to Scream)
That Macabéa, the skinny and silent girl from the northeast, could want to possess a man, a beautiful man, the way some would possess an emerald, is not something I thought about deeply when I first read the novel. But today I can make a connection between this notion of possession, which could never be executed in Macabéa’s case and suggests the impossibility of possession in general, and Lispector’s short story, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, titled “The Smallest Woman in the World.” The protagonists of this story are Marcel Pretre, the French explorer, and Little Flower, the indigenous woman he discovers and names (or so he thinks). At one point she says, in response to a question the explorer asks her: “‘Yes.’ That it was very nice to have a tree of her own to live in. Because — she didn’t say this but her eyes became so dark that they said it — because it is good to own, good to own, good to own. The explorer winked several times.” The verb Bishop translates as “to own” is “possuir” in the original, which can also be translated as “to possess.” Bishop’s translation of “The Smallest Woman in the World” coupled with her versions of Lispector’s stories “A Hen” and “Marmosets” function as a provocative trio, a meditation on questions of motherhood, possession, silence, and the encounter between the self and the other. (A Sense of Loss)
My first trip to Rio de Janeiro included several visits to Clarice Lispector’s archive at the Casa de Rui Barbosa, visits that provided nerdy ecstasy competing with the bustle of the streets with their popcorn vendors, juice bars on nearly every corner, men jogging barefoot towards the beach in nothing but their sungas (the Brazilian equivalent of speedos, though less tight-fitting in their cut and made in as many fashionable prints and colors as women’s bikinis), and the rituals of the beach itself, from the culinary delights of “quiejo coalho” grilled at your feet and served up on wooden skewers to the way the locals adjusted and readjusted their miniscule bathing suits upon arrival, pre-ocean dip, and post-dip while drip drying standing up and openly staring at one another. I loved that whenever I told people about my research on Elizabeth Bishop and Clarice Lispector, they would shout, “Clarice!” And then tell me a story. (Whistling in the Dark Wind)
In 2004 I spent a few weeks at the Houghton Library at Harvard, where Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell are held (this was before the publication of their complete correspondence Words In Air, which FSG released in 2008). I poured over the references Bishop made to Lispector in her 1963 letters to Lowell, a mixture of high praise and heavy criticism. Bishop says: “I have translated five of Clarice’s stories — all the very short ones & one longer one. The New Yorker is interested — I think she needs money, so that would be good, the $ being what it is (almost twice as much already as when you were here) — then if they don’t know them, Encounter, PR, etc. Alfred Knopf is also interested in seeing the whole book. But at the moment — just when I was ready to send off the batch, except for one, she has vanished on me — completely — and for about six weeks!” I never did find Bishop’s translations of the other two stories. (I Can’t Do Anything)
Bishop borrowed, or stole, a snippet from Lispector’s story “The Smallest Woman in the World” and put it in one of her poems. In the story, there is a reference to the race Little Flower comes from: “The tiny race, retreating, always retreating, has finished hiding away in the heart of Africa, where the lucky explorer discovered it.” The final line of the final stanza of Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502” directly quotes Lispector’s story:
Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.
Rather than say Bishop borrowed or stole, which perhaps focuses on the question of possession more than necessary, one could say she echoes her Brazilian contemporary, the enigmatic writer who disappeared from time to time without a word or a trace, frustrating the American poet to no end. (Account of the Preceding Facts)
I was on my honeymoon when I met Benjamin Moser, the translator of the new version of The Hour of the Star. My husband V and I were married in Rio de Janeiro, the city where we got engaged and where we wanted our families and friends to meet each other, far from their everyday lives. We were supposed to begin our honeymoon on the island reserve called Fernando de Noronha off the northeast of Brazil, but in the days before our wedding the Brazilian airline Varig went bankrupt and so went our plans. We stayed in Rio and booked the biggest suite at our friend Denise’s bed and breakfast in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa, which is where we met Mr. Moser, up to his chin in research for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. I told him about Bishop’s letters that mention Clarice, and he shared stories of his research travails and victories. (Cheap Tearjerker)
The Hour of the Star is a book I know I will always return to. I am not sure how many times I have read it. I have had the privilege to teach it as an ESL high school teacher, as a graduate student teaching assistant, and as a university lecturer before an intimidating number of students. I hope to teach it again now that I have two English translations to analyze and compare with students, especially those who do not speak Portuguese and want a feel for how the translator shapes the translated text. I don’t think I will ever have an answer to the questions posed by Lispector’s final novel, all the more reason to read it again and again. Nor will I have a satisfactory explanation for the logic behind the final lines: “My God, I just remembered that we die. But — but me too?! / Don’t forget that for now it’s strawberry season. / Yes.” (Discreet Exit Through the Back Door)