The Passion According to G.H. (New Directions Paperbook)

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On Sheila Heti and (Not) Motherhood

A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing. Of course, Sheila Heti knows this. Her character—who, like her similarly Sheila Heti-like character in her previous novel, How Should a Person Be? is to be understood as both a stand-in for Heti and sufficiently Heti-adjacent that scenes might, in moments, have been altered for effect—acknowledges and plays with motherhood as abstract idea throughout the book. Heti’s character knows the abstraction’s relation to the thing itself is limited, but it is perhaps her knowledge of this that is one of the forces keeping her decidedly unwilling to become a mom. She likes ideas of things. She revels in abstractions. She seems less sure of what to do with actual life. But just as that autopsied body revealed a startling lack of something to my mother’s eyes, so in the moment of marrying I felt deceived: marriage was nothing more than a simple human act that I would never be up to fulfilling…so I fear will be the first moments in the delivery room, after having the baby laid on my chest, when it will hit me in a similar way as to how those moments dawned: there’s nothing magical here either, just plain old life as I know it and fear it to be. I recognize this feeling so completely. I felt it when I got married. When we had kids. The feeling that this Big Life Event was so shockingly like the rest of life, the fact that magic maybe only ever existed in my head. Or maybe that magic only existed fleetingly. I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side. When I told a friend I was about to start reading Sheila Heti’s book she looked at me and smiled. We’d spent part of the lunch we’d just had together ogling a baby at a nearby table. We’d spent some of the rest of lunch watching a video of my three- and five-year-old on my phone. I liked it, she said. It was 150 pages too long, but I liked it. My friend doesn’t have children, but she’s thinking of it. She’s at the beginning of her 30s, still with a broad enough swathe of time in front of her, that she can be thinking about it, for a while still, without the stakes feeling too high. It was like 450 pages, my friend said. It should have been 300 pages, but I liked it. When I got the galley in the mail a week later, the first thing I did was check the page count: 278. I bring this up because I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence. Heti uses a recurring act of her main character asking an i ching coin yes or no questions throughout the book as a sort of exercise in external surety. The character acknowledges that it’s random; we watch as she asks enough yes or no questions so as to make them further her larger project. The form breaks a few times and she’s smart and charming enough to call herself on it, to acknowledge this is just a way to force herself outside her own brain, “its useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes, or a no.” Of course, the coin only interrupts her briefly and she can easily outwit it. She asks enough questions, gets enough yeses, and her habits are quickly reestablished. Once, when I was hugely pregnant the first time and walking around a small town where my husband had work and where I had come along, I walked into a bookstore off a crowded street and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said, that huge thing is never coming out of tiny little you. I had big babies and am not a big person. With both our girls, people pointed at me on the street in my final months. But it has to come out, I said to her, horrified. It has to come out, I said a second time; she looked at me and laughed. I walked another hour after that, shaken and crying. What if it was still possible to take it back? I had been so grateful to have decided. I had been so happy, for the first time maybe, to be so surely interrupted, to just let my body act. This is the trick of the physical bodily world to which we must all succumb in some way. Heti’s character can outwit nearly every yes or no that’s offered to her, but the no she gets or lets herself believe when she turns 40 is the only thing that can actually, and finally, interrupt her habits. She will not have a baby, so it seems, all of a sudden, after years of back and forth, because her body says so. She doesn’t have to think in circles any more. Heti’s character less decides not to have a child as decides to wait out her body’s ability to procreate. This is, of course, its own sort of decision. She’s a fiercely intelligent woman. She knows what time passing means. There is a scene in the book where she goes to see about freezing her eggs to prolong this timeline, but she opts against it. There is talk of money there, but it also seems that she needs this experience of deciding not to to be more wholly contained. It is a type of deciding that feels less like deciding than the vasectomy enacted by a man she meets at a party, less deciding than the IUD she gets then has removed. But still, it is the same decision insofar as there is no baby at the end of the book. It has the same physical consequences, contains the same absence in the end. Containers were what I thought about the whole time I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I thought about what words contain and how that is determined for us early, what books contain, and what bodies contain. I thought about the ways in which we are at the mercy of each of these containers, how our ability to acknowledge their limits and their capaciousness can determine so much of how we choose to live. In a class I taught a few months ago, we read a handful of what I thought of as revolutionary female writers: Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Rachel Cusk, Samantha Hunt. All of these women I think of as fierce consciousnesses, not beholden to the traditional expectations of the novel, not beholden to traditional expectations of the Female. In each of the books we read by these women there are pregnancies; there is an acute awareness of the female womb. One of these pregnancies ends in an abortion, one in a dead baby, but the womb as character, as part and parcel to the character’s status as Female, is present in each. In the Lispector, Passion According to GH, the book is largely about language. She is interested in absencing words, as we understand them, from their expected meaning; and she does this even with her “pregnancy.” The main character in the novel is “pregnant,” but she knows immediately that she will abort the baby, so then, “pregnant” as in filled with something that will one day turn into a baby, is not that, but something else. Of course, women have for centuries been pregnant and it has not resulted in a baby, but Lispector lets us see this clearly, that even the most seemingly certain word, an empirically provable fact of the body, does not have to be. [millions_ad] Each of these women forces the words around the female body to become something other in their telling. Hunt, in her short story “A Love Story,” whose character is a mother, is asking her status as “mother” to also hold within it the word “sex,” to also contain words like want and need. Each of these books succumbs to the fact of the female as a specific type of body that is also a container, a vessel maybe for the womb and for procreation, each of these books seeks to explore what else “Female,” “Mother,” “Pregnant” might be. Heti’s character seems both to want to explore this and also to be fighting against the fact of the limits of it, both in what her body might hold, but also in the words as they were delivered to her up until then. Close to the end of the book we spend some time with Heti’s character’s mother at her house close to the sea where she lives alone. We know already this is Heti’s character’s dream of old age as well. It is also one of the reasons she gives for not wanting to procreate. She wants to be old by herself and without obligations. It seems her mother has achieved this, though, of course, her mother also has her. Her mother is perhaps the most compelling character in the whole book. For obvious reasons, I guess, but, most of all because she seems to have managed to largely not mother, even as a mother herself. When this woman describes going to visit her mother in medical school when she was a child, she says, “there seemed to be nothing so glamorous or romantic in the world as a mother who lived alone in an apartment with her colored pens and books.” Later, she explains that she had a friend ask her once (though she doesn’t say at what point in her life) if her mother was dead. Close to the end of the book, while staying with her (still living) mother in her house by the sea, there is the following scene, Right before my mother left the room, she spoke, with some confusion, about women who say that raising kids is the most important thing in their life. I asked her if motherhood had been the most important thing in their life, and she blushed and said, No—at the very same moment that I interrupted her and said, You don’t have to answer. I was there. Her mother, it seems, was able to be both Mother and Not Mother at the same time; a sort of extraordinary feat of female ambivalence; a resounding accomplishment of the abstract outpacing the physical fact. And, of course, this also isn’t true. She is a mother. She birthed this woman and her brother. She is just Mother in a different size and shape and with different preoccupations and interests than we might expect. Both my mother and my sister are lawyers. They both have four kids. They’re both married to lawyers. My sister is a partner at my mother’s law firm and the only major difference between her life and the life my mom lived is that she works fewer hours, because she is a partner at the firm my parents built when we were kids. If you ask my sister what it is that bothers her about our mother she will tell you that it is the fact that, if someone at a party tells my mother that she looks familiar, she will mention she’s a lawyer, and not that she’s a mom. She’s a very successful lawyer. Her kids, my sister argues, are also a success. The fact that her first response is to trumpet her accomplishments infuriates my sister. It is one of the things about my mom I like the most. My mother and I don’t speak much. On the surface, my life could not be less like hers. I run though, and she runs. I look like her. I love my kids fiercely, if not in the way of other mothers. I am obsessed with work. I am both a corrective to everything I see as how she wronged me, and more mother just like her than I might ever say out loud. All of this to say, part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in. Heti’s character doesn’t actually decide one day not to be a mother, the same way, when I found myself accidentally pregnant at 28, I more just decided to not get rid of it for a few months; she lets time run out and then watches as her body decides for her. We watch as her body, month after month, controls her thoughts and moods and feelings, even as she continues to be brilliant on the page. We’re reminded again and again that we are contained not just by our bodies, not just by time and the roles long since established by biology and culture, but by the way we’re taught to think about the words that are meant to define our bodies, contained by the specific, intransigent ways those words might mean in our own lives.

A Year in Reading: Simeon Marsalis

William Faulkner Books provide me an escape from the horrors of our modern reality until they call me back to what I am trying to escape. When I read the work of authors who captivate me, as Faulkner’s work does, I feel there is something underneath the text the writer is communicating. Here, I must add that I am captivated by things that contain content I dislike. For a more nuanced explanation of this phenomena, read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992). I was reading an early draft of Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance (2018) when my friend told me that my novel, As Lie Is to Grin (2017) reminded them of Absalom, Absalom! (1936). I had not read this book, and was embarrassed by the fact, so I went to my local bookstore to find a copy. Faulkner had taken great care in the naming of places. The city where Sutpen finds his first wife is called Jefferson. Every time I saw Jefferson, the fictitious town began to take on a historic meaning. Every time he wrote Jefferson, I began to wonder if the whole tale about Sutpen was not a thinly veiled psychoanalysis of Thomas Jefferson and his offspring. So distracted was I by this presumption that I went to a bookstore in my old neighborhood, to see if this link were true. In my hands was Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy (1997). It was supplemented by DNA evidence, which confirmed the theory that our founding father had, in fact, had children with his wife’s sister (after her death), who was one of his slaves. We had been robbed of history because Jefferson had tried to conceal the unseemly parts of his life with falsified legal documents and delayed freedoms. I wanted to get closer to Jefferson, so I went back to the bookstore, and picked up something he had written. Although, The Jefferson Bible: The Life & Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1803), was not written by the former president, but edited by him. The Jefferson Bible was a combination of verses from a select few gospels that told the story of Jesus Christ, without mention of (what Jefferson perceived to be) the fantastical. The narrative fits within the Founding Father’s grasp of reality, underneath that apathetic God-head. The tale begins with Jesus’s parents being taxed. In the end, there was no resurrection. This was not what interested me though, what was in my brain then were these three texts, all-in-one. The City of Jefferson, or the person, peaked between lines 38 and 39 of Book LXVIII in a wildly confused man on a cross, calling out to a dead prophet, Elias. Clarice Lispector I made a new friend in late February. She gave me The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (2015) translated by Katrina Dodson. It was around this time that I had been walking around New York City, with my head in Sharifa Rhodes Pitt’s Harlem Is Nowhere (2011), so my memory of Lispector’s stories was incomplete. I do remember, “Explanation.” I laughed out loud. She wrote (Dodson translated), “Someone read my stories and said that’s not literature, it’s trash. I agree. But there’s a time for everything.” I purchased Machado De Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881, translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1998) and Hilda Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D (1982, translated by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araújo in 2012). John Keene wrote the introduction, which was funny, because I had just finished his Counternarratives (2016). Hilst’s work reminded me of Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (1964, translated by Idra Novey in 2012)—this made me pick up my copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915, translated by John R. Williams in 2011), again. Although, it is hard for me to get through that story now, with all of these other words, from another world, on top of it. Not that the work seems less modern, but I could not get back to the original feeling I’d had when I first read it. Or so it seemed, on certain afternoons. Washington Irving There was one book that stalled my reading in 2017: Washington Irving’s A History of New York (1809). I was trying to finish reading it before my stay in New Orleans was to end, this June. Irving had created a character, Diedrich Knickerbocker, who was retelling the history of New York from the beginning of the universe. It was written in lofty prose to mock the Historical Societies of the time. From their pretenses about the origin of man and race to the way they quoted from unreliable yet primary sources, Irving had crafted a witty tale in which the pioneers were would-be-dictators, drunks, and dullards. I can imagine that the publishing of this work meant a great deal to Irving. The year that it was published, the 24-year-old was mourning the loss of his 17-year-old wife. To drive sales, Irving took out advertisements in New York’s newspapers declaring that an old Dutch Historian, Diedrich Knickerbocker, had gone missing. The number to Knickerbocker’s hotel was listed for any who had information. Some days passed. Irving took out more ads in the paper declaring, We have not found Knickerbocker, but we have found his manuscript, an inexhaustible history of New York, which we will publish to recoup the cost of his stay. Needless to say, the history was Irving’s novel. [millions_ad] More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: ‘The Complete Stories’ by Clarice Lispector

  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.

A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s a writer’s rite of passage and also her curse. Gabriel Garcia Marquez admitted to copping from Kafka when he began writing short stories. Zadie Smith borrowed the structure of On Beauty from Forster's Howard’s End. Most writers try on the voices of writers they admire, at least until they carve out their own. William Faulkner famously said that a novelist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” While it seems that Faulkner was speaking of a writer’s resources, this also applies to the work on the page -- stealing material from other sources, be it books, writers, lives. This year, as I embarked on a novel, I became a kind of kleptomaniac, with all of the ghosts and voices and ideas from the books I’d just read haunting my attempts to put words on the page. Adoring a book meant that some aspect of it either influenced or turned up in my own writing, often catabolized and not in flattering ways. And I learned that while I’m good at stealing, I’m not very good at covering my tracks. That being said, what follows is a list of the books that occupied my mental space this year, a list that I borrowed from mindfully or unconsciously, and a few that I’d still like to steal from (but will try to withhold from), a list beginning with books by two Brazilian female authors who were also friends, Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Both Lispector’s Passion According to G.H. and Hilst’s The Obscene Madame D are intense, sprawling fictions whose action, paradoxically, is extremely limited. In Lispector’s book, G.H. crosses the room to kill a cockroach and in Hilst’s, a dead husband sits atop the stairs while speaking with his wife, hidden below. This physical stillness opens an intimacy and interiority that lets them transcend time, and leads to an interrogation of the nature of the big questions, identity, existence, language, death, and life. I reread and recommend Kelly Link's collection Magic For Beginners, and I specifically adore one story, “The Faery Handbag.” It’s an incredible mash-up of fairytale and conventional story of love and loss, with a speculative element and other disparate items jammed in, too, including and most importantly, a grandmother’s lost handbag that literally contains a village. Herta Müller’s The Passport sits on this list for its haunting imagery and simple beauty that builds an ominous village landscape, with flies buzzing and a tree that eats its own apples. Even cutting a melon is a menacing act. Dodie Bellamy's Cunt-Ups is all sex and sharp edges. She borrowed from William Burroughs’s cut-up method, taking scissors to her erotic poetry and laying them out in lusty and violent (re)configurations Joanna Ruocco’s stories in Man’s Companions are concise gems, playful and linguistically surprising, evoking a synesthesia of ideas. Veronica Gonzalez Peña's The Sad Passions is told in six distinct voices that reveal facets of a shared family history -- a mother’s mental illness, a sister sent away, and another born very late. Blood connects the characters but the cities they inhabit are also organisms, spaces where each person becomes "a cell within its system.” Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers won me over with its intricate plotting, exquisite language, and fantastical premise (its protagonist Julia Severn is enrolled at an institute for parapsychology). I would likely be smitten with any book that connects elements of parapsychology, experimental French film, performance art, and characters who wear the guise of another. The stories in Amina Cain’s Creatures are intricate structures, with sentences like lattice work that create open spaces that breathe and become like living organisms themselves. Beatriz Preciado's Testo Junkie is a mélange of manifesto, memoir, novel, and social critique -- a book that actively attacks divisions of genre and gender as the genderhacking author documents her experiments with testosterone gel. Matias Viegener reappropriates the status update in his 2500 Random Things About Me Too. Originally published piecemeal on Facebook, the collected lists tuck online voyeurism into a book that's just as addictive and binge-worthy and beautiful. It’s also charming, gossipy, thoughtful, and intelligent -- a memoir distilled to its essence. Agnes Denes's Book of Dust is another book of lists that ends this list. Denes is a land artist with a poetic sensibility. In Book of Dust she uses dust as a metaphor for human life in order to explore the scope of the universe, including the powders that give life and the ones that kill (meteoric, radioactive, and happy dusts included); it begins with the birth of the universe and stretches to speculate on potential catastrophic futures that seem relevant today, despite having been written over 40 years ago. Denes said of an earlier artwork, a time capsule that she made and buried, “It was about communication with the earth and communicating with the future.” The same intent and preoccupation applies here. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector

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     Cheap Tearjerker 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, not unfamiliar: 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)
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