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.
On a desert plain out West, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by a band of Indians, all of them slowly closing in. Sunlight reflects off tomahawks. War paint covers furious scowls. “Looks like we’re done for, Tonto,” says the Lone Ranger, to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
That old joke raises a question other than its own punch line. Why would anyone decide to write a novel in first-person plural, a point of view that, like second-person, is often accused of being nothing but an authorial gimmick? Once mockingly ascribed to royalty, editors, pregnant women, and individuals with tapeworms, the “we” voice can, when used in fiction, lead to overly lyrical descriptions, time frames that shift too much, and a lack of narrative arc.
In many cases of first-person plural, however, those pitfalls become advantageous. The narration is granted an intimate omniscience. Various settings can be shuffled between elegantly. The voice is allowed to luxuriate on scenic details. Here are a few novels that prove first-person plural is more of a neat trick than a cheap one.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Prior to the publication of The Virgin Suicides, most people, when asked about first-person plural, probably thought of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” This novel changed that. A group of men look back on their childhood in 1970s suburban Michigan, particularly “the year of the suicides,” a time when the five Lisbon sisters took turns providing the novel its title. Most remarkable about Eugenides’s debut is not those tragic events, however, but the narrative voice, so melancholy, vivid, deadpan, and graceful in its depiction not only of the suicides but also of adolescent minutiae. Playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes get as much attention as razor blades dragged across wrists. Throughout the novel, Eugenides, aware of first-person plural’s roots in classical drama, gives his narrators functions greater than those of a Greek chorus. They don’t merely comment on the action, provide background information, and voice the interiority of other characters. The collective narrators of The Virgin Suicides are really the protagonists. Ultimately their lives prove more dynamic than the deaths of the sisters. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling.”
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
This title would work for just about any book on this list. A collection of stories interconnected enough to be labeled a novel, Our Kind is narrated by ten women, suburban divorcees reminiscent of Cheever characters.
We’ve seen a lot. We’ve seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke’s Inn. We’ve seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies’ dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We’ve seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We’ve seen the blackballing of the Steward Collisters. We’ve seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn’t count.
That passage exemplifies a technique, the lyrical montage, particularly suited to first-person plural. Each perspective within a collective narrator is a mirror in the kaleidoscope of story presentation. To create a montage all an author has to do is turn the cylinder. Walbert does so masterfully in Our Kind.
During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
“There were the four of us — Celia and Jenny, who were sisters, Anne and Katie, sisters too, like our mothers, who were sisters.” In her New York Times review, Margaret Atwood considered this novel, narrated by those four cousins, to be concerned with “the female matrix,” comparing it to works by Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson. First-person plural often renders itself along such gender matrices. This novel is unique in that its single-gender point of view is not coalesced around a subject of the opposite gender. Its female narrators examine the involutions of womanhood by delineating other female characters. Similar in that respect to another first-person-plural novel, Tova Mirvis’s The Ladies Auxiliary, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, taking an elliptical approach to time, braids its young narrators’ lives with those of the other women in their family to create a beautifully written, impressionistic view of childhood.
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
Novels written in first-person plural typically have one of four basic narrative structures: an investigation, gossip, some large and/or strange event, and family life. The Jane Austen Book Club uses all four of those structures. The novel manages to do so because its overall design is similar to that of an anthology series. Within the loose framework of a monthly Jane Austen book club, chapters titled after the respective months are presented, each focusing on one of the six group members, whose personal stories correspond to one of Austen’s six novels. The combinations of each character with a book, Jocelyn and Emma, Allegra and Sense and Sensibility, Prudie and Mansfield Park, Grigg and Northanger Abbey, Bernadette and Pride and Prejudice, Sylvia and Persuasion, exemplify one of the novel’s most significant lines. “Each of us has a private Austen.” Moreover, such an adage’s universality proves that, even when first-person plural refers to specific characters, the reader is, however subconsciously, an implicit part of the point of view.
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
If one doesn’t include sui generis works such as Ayn Rand’s Anthem — a dystopian novella in which the single narrator speaks in a plural voice because first-person-singular pronouns have been outlawed — Kristof’s The Notebook, narrated by twin brothers, contains the fewest narrators possible in first-person-plural fiction. Its plot has the allegorical vagueness of a fable. Weirder than Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters, another first-person-plural novel narrated by siblings, the brothers in The Notebook are taken by their mother from Big Town to Little Town, where they move in with their grandmother. In an unidentified country based on Hungary they endure cruelty and abuse during an unidentified war based on World War II. To survive they grow remorselessly cold. Kristof’s use of first-person plural allows her to build a multifaceted metaphor out of The Notebook. The twins come to represent not only how war destroys selfhood through depersonalization but also how interdependence is a means to resist the effects of war.
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
In the same way narrators can be reliable and unreliable, collective narrators can be defined and undefined. The narrators in this novel include both parts of that analogy. They’re unreliably defined. Sometimes the narrators are the people who find the corpse of the titular patriarch, an unnamed dictator of an unnamed country, but sometimes the people who find the corpse are referred to in third-person. Sometimes the narrators are the many generations of army generals. Sometimes the narrators are the former dictators of other countries. Sometimes the point of view is all-inclusive, similar to the occasional, God-like “we” scattered through certain novels, including, for example, Jim Crace’s Being Dead, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. Even the dictator, periodically and confusingly, uses the royal “we.” For the most part, however, the collective narrator encompasses every citizen ruled by the tyrannical despot, people who, after his death, are finally given a voice.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
What about first-person plural lends itself so well to rhythm? Julie Otsuka provides an answer to that question with The Buddha in the Attic. In a series of linked narratives, she traces the lives of a group of women, including their journey from Japan to San Francisco, their struggles to assimilate to a new culture, their internment during World War II, and other particulars of the Japanese-American experience. “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall,” the novel begins. “Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.” Although the narrators are, for the most part, presented as a collective voice, each of their singular voices are dashed throughout the novel, in the form of italicized sentences. It is in that way Otsuka creates a rhythm. The plural lines become the flat notes, singular lines the sharp notes, all combining to form a measured beat.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
For his first novel’s epigraph, Ferris quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Is it not the chief disgrace of this world, not to be a unit; — not to be reckoned one character; — not to yield that peculiar fruit which each man was created to bear, but to be reckoned in the gross, in the hundred, or the thousand, of the party, the section, to which we belong…” The line nicely plays into this novel about corporate plurality. At an ad agency in Chicago post-dot-com boom, the employees distract themselves from the economic downturn with office hijinks, stealing each other’s chairs, wearing three company polo shirts at once, going an entire day speaking only quotes from The Godfather. The narrative arc is more of a plummet. Nonetheless, Ferris manages to turn a story doomed from the beginning — the title, nabbed from DeLillo’s first novel, says it all — into a hilarious and heartfelt portrait of employment. Ed Park’s Personal Days, somewhat overshadowed by the critical success of this novel, uses a similar collective narrator.
The Fates Will Find a Way by Hannah Pittard
Define hurdle. To be an author of one gender writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite gender investigating the life of a character of said author’s own gender. The most impressive thing about The Fates Will Find Their Way is how readily Pittard accomplishes such a difficult task. Despite one instance of an “I” used in the narration, the story is told in first-person plural by a collection of boys, now grown men, pondering the fate of a neighborhood girl, Nora Lindell, who went missing years ago. Every possible solution to the mystery of what happened to the girl — Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment works similarly, as does Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods — becomes a projection of the characters affected by her absence. In that way this novel exemplifies a key feature of many novels, including most on this list, narrated by characters who observe more than they participate. The narrators are the protagonists. It can be argued, for example, that The Great Gatsby is really the story of its narrator, Nick Carraway, even though other characters have more active roles. Same goes for James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints, to name a few. What’s more important, after all, the prism or the light?
I met Ben Fountain in the fall of 2009, when we were both residents at Ucross, an artists’ retreat and absurdly beautiful deer-filled paradise in northeastern Wyoming. Our offices were a few feet away from one another, and we would often cross paths in the kitchen as we retrieved more coffee or hot water for tea. We talked about Joan Didion, about Haiti, about literary journals, about running, about Annie Proulx, about snakes, about rejection. I had just been dumped by my agent, and Ben was starting a new novel after his previous one had died on the table. To this day, I believe Ben’s presence at Ucross helped me write as much as I did. All day we worked, and at night, after dinner, we played ping pong and gave each other updates on our books. I knew in my bones that the novel Ben was writing was it, that it was brilliant. I was right. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a 19-year-old soldier home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game, is extraordinary. Here is a novel that is deeply engaged with our contemporary world, timely and timeless at once. Plus, it’s such fun to read.
Ben Fountain is also the author of the short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. I still can’t believe he answers my emails.
The Millions: The prose of this novel knocked me out: it’s beautiful, exuberant, funny, dirty, sweet — equal parts slang and poetry. I’m curious how you crafted sentences like, “They could be the congregation of the richest church in town, Our Anorexic Lady of the Upscale Honky Bling,” and, “Day perches on his seat back surveying the field like an African king high on his throne, looking down on all his little subject bitches,” and, “Maybe it’s age, he thought, leaning back on his blanket, watching the sun do its stately pinwheel through the trees.” Is a lot of this first draft brilliance, just listening to the characters in your mind, or do you work the language over and over to get this kind of shine? I suppose this is just a boring old craft question, but I must know: How do you do this?
Ben Fountain: From the start — beginning with the first impulse for the story — it seemed that the book needed to have a particular attitude in the language, a hopefully headlong, borderline reckless mashup of high and low, ineffable and vulgar, etc. If it was going to happen, it had to happen at the level of the sentence and build from there. There was a sound, as much as anything, that the book needed to have, and that’s what I went after in the writing, trying to home in on the sound of it and find the words for it on the page. Usually I had to work it over and over to get it right, but that’s true of pretty much everything I do. Even the “simple” sentences seem to come hard.
TM: I know, from being your writing camp buddy, that you wrote the first draft of this novel by hand, on various legal pads, and that you then transcribed the longhand work to the laptop. Was this how you worked on the book from start to finish? How did the labor of this novel inform the finished product?
BF: I always do it that way — write the first draft out on legal pads, then enter it into the computer, print it out, mark up the hard copy with pen or pencil, feed those into the computer, print out another hard copy, and so on. I don’t particularly like composing on the computer because, well, I just don’t. Having that damn cursor always blinking, like it’s saying come on, come on, think of something. I like pens and pencils and papers, and writing it out longhand seems to match the pace of my thinking, which, as you might infer, is none too swift.
TM: I was interested in the times that Billy — and the novel’s slightly elevated, yet intimate, third person narrator — makes pronouncements about America; for instance: “Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want,” and, “Somewhere along the way, America became a giant mall with a country attached.” Where did you get the cojones to make such grand, true, wise, angry pronouncements about our country?
BF: Well, Billy turned out to be a clarifying lens through which to view America. He’s seeing it all with fresh eyes, as one sees a foreign country for the first time, where you don’t take anything for granted, and where everything seems to be such a mystery. A lot of these pronouncements about America simply came from trying to put myself in his skin, and seeing as he sees things. And maybe Billy, as a poorly educated, relatively unsophisticated 19-year-old kid from a small town in Texas, isn’t having these thoughts per se, not in so many words, but the narrative voice is conveying the substance of what Billy is thinking and feeling. If we could sit Billy down at any one moment and have him articulate precisely what he was experiencing — walking him through the experience, patiently, taking as much time as was needed — this, or something much like it, is what we’d end up with.
TM: Do you see yourself as a political novelist?
BF: Everything is political, if we’re living among other human beings. Certainly everything in a society is political, right down to what we do in bed with other people. If it’s not political– i.e., the Texas sodomy law was finally declared unconstitutional a few years ago — it’s because a political choice was made. And war is perhaps the ultimate political sphere. Some presentations of the Iraq war — Hollywood movies, especially — have tried to be neutral, to simply present the soldiers’ experience on the ground without political commentary. Well, what you get then is a video game. To me, the question of “why” follows close on the heels of “what” — why are these people trying to kill each other? Why are these violent things happening? Any realistic exploration of the war is going to have to include the political element, otherwise it’s just not worth the time.
TM: I was intrigued by this notion of Billy, All-American Hero, existing outside of the American way. He views his fellow citizens at a remove; they seem to him a familiar-yet-strange species, constantly grabbing his biceps, thanking him for his service, asking him how it feels to be in battle, to lose his comrade, and so on. He plays a role for them, and he’s painfully aware of that role. This is so rich and complicated; Billy as a character is perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel. Can you talk a little bit about what went into the making of Billy Lynn, and how you navigated his identity: as a young man, as a Texan, as a grunt, and so on?
BF: I touch on this some in my answer to your earlier question, how I tried to negotiate the territory between Billy’s relative youth and inexperience, on the one hand, and his acute visceral reactions to what’s going on around him. Billy may be poorly educated, but he’s no dummy; on the contrary. He wants to see things for what they are and is largely succeeding, and that puts him way ahead of most of us, educated or not. And there’s his basic decency, maybe an implicit morality in his insistence on seeing things for what they are even as he tries not to make waves or inconvenience anyone, if he can help it. As for trying to get myself into his skin, well, I was a 19-year-old male, once, about six centuries ago, and I tried to tap into my memories of that, where so much of your existence centers around sex and booze — physical gratification — as well as anxiety about who you are and what you’re going to do with your life, and even what it means to live a good life. That whipsaw between intense physicality and existential confusion, back and forth, back and forth, from one moment to the next. Being young is an impossible, crazy-making experience, much of the time.
TM: How much research went into this novel? And, tell me, honestly: How much time did you spend thinking about Beyonce, who performs with Destiny’s Child in the novel’s halftime show?
BF: Lots of research on military life, war, the Iraq war in particular. I’ve never been in the military myself, so I was starting from a standpoint of profound ignorance. It’s not a casual thing, undertaking to write a book like this when you’ve never been in combat or even in the military; I’ve been shot at, in Haiti, but that’s something different from combat. So I read everything I could get my hands on — memoirs, reportage, all the magazine articles; watched the documentaries; talked to the soldiers who were generous enough to talk to me. I felt like I had to earn the right to write this book, and the only way I could do that was by working very hard to imagine myself into the soldier’s experience, and hopefully write it correctly.
Beyonce? Ha ha. She’s a very pretty woman, no doubt. But I didn’t spend too much time thinking about her, and probably won’t, unless I decide to try a novel about a pop music star.
TM: Speaking of Destiny’s Child, was it a challenge to balance the real-life, pop cultural references of the book with what’s fictionalized?
BF: It didn’t feel like any more of a challenge than any other part of the book. For one thing, the action of the book, at least in the “now” sense, is set at a pro football game at Texas Stadium, so the entire setting is in the context of a pop-culture entertainment event. Placing the action in that context basically teed up everything else for me. And, by the way, very little had to be fictionalized; pop culture in this day and age is so surreal, so over-the-top and borderline insane, that all I had to do was take samples from life, for the most part.
TM: And because this is The Millions, I must ask you, What are you reading now?
BF: I recently read an extraordinarily fine novel in galleys called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, due to be published in September. It’s set in the Iraq war. I also read another very fine book in galleys called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee. I recently re-read Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, in a new translation by Benjamin Moser — a tremendous book, and New Directions has just put out four new translations of Lispector’s novels that I’m looking forward to getting into. Presently, I’m into Tom Bissell’s Magic Hours, which is a great delight and ongoing revelation. I have never read a boring sentence by Tom Bissell.
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)