Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

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

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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.

Shepherding Sadness: The Fiction of Mia Couto

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The Mozambican writer Mia Couto has been having a great year. Last week, he was nominated for the 23rd Biennial Neustadt International Prize for literature, his fellow nominees including César Aira, Edward P. Jones, and Haruki Murakami. And a mere six weeks before that, Couto won a major international literary award: the Camôes Prize for Literature (which includes a tidy 100,000 euro take-away).

The Camões Prize, which honors a writer working in the Portuguese language, serves a similar function in the Portuguese-speaking world that the Man Booker Prize does in the English-speaking world. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese built an empire that ranged from Brazil in the western hemisphere to Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Goa in India, Macau in China, and East Timor in the Indonesian archipelago. That empire largely dissolved in the previous century, but out of the over five hundred years of an empire’s usual cruelties and tragedies there also developed a pan-Portuguese culture, the language serving as a midwife for remarkable literary and musical invention. Mia Couto, long regarded as one of the leading writers in Mozambique, has now been recognized as one of the greatest living writers in the Portuguese language.

So, why all this recent success for a writer that you’ve probably never heard of? Well, Couto is no new kid on the block. He is the author of over twenty books: novels, short story collections, and poetry have been adapted into films, plays, even a musical, and have sold over 2.5 million copies worldwide. Yet despite David Brookshaw’s fluid translations of Couto’s work into English, those sales come mainly from the eight countries spanning the globe where Portuguese is the official language.

As if on schedule, two new editions of Couto’s work have been published in English recently, the collection of stories The Blind Fisherman, and his latest novel, The Tuner of Silences.

The Blind Fisherman is actually a compendium of Couto’s first and second story collections, Voices Made Night, and Every Man Is a Race, books that established his literary reputation. I remember coming upon that first collection while visiting London in the early 1990s. Here’s the beginning of the first story, “Fire”:
The old man approached slowly as was his custom. He had shepherded his sadness before him ever since his youngest sons had left the road to no return.
That arresting phrase about shepherding one’s sadness, an image both local and universal, kept me reading. Still standing there in the bookstore by the third story, “The Day Mabata-bata Exploded,” I was not only hooked but caught when I read a description of a cow that, while being led by a young cowherd, steps on a landmine:
Suddenly, the cow exploded. It burst without so much as a moo. In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices fell, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox. Its flesh turned into red butterflies. Its bones were scattered coins. Its horns were caught in some branches, swinging to and fro, imitating life in the invisibility of the wind.
This passage is typical of Couto’s strengths as a writer: terrible things remain terrible but are transformed into strange beauty by the power of language, which describes the world and alters it at the same time. He is a master at inverting reality, reversing the order of the world with a swift aphoristic grace that leaves us puzzling over our normal assumptions. “Life is a web weaving a spider,” he writes in another early story.

Perhaps language is a survival skill in the face of so much violence and turmoil in his country’s recent history. Mia Couto frequently writes of Mozambique’s long war of liberation from Portugal, its subsequent civil war that lasted nearly two decades, and the tragic aftermaths of so much destruction on the lives of ordinary people. Couto, born into a privileged white Mozambican family, himself dropped out of medical school to engage in the liberation struggle, until Mozambique gained its independence in 1975.

His first novel, Sleepwalking Land (named by a jury of the Zimbabwean International Book Fair as one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century) depicts a bleak world of shattered lives, and yet this world, transformed by violence, is transformed by Couto into something else, more hopeful, perhaps — certainly more magical. Though so many of his compatriots have been stunned into a kind of sleepwalking in their lives, Couto declares that we are all kin, that each of us resembles a “sleepwalker strolling through fire.” Above all, from the beginning he has been a poet of the disenfranchised, and in the author’s forward to Voices Made Night, he wrote, “The most harrowing thing about poverty is the ignorance it has of itself. Faced with an absence of everything, men abstain from dreams, depriving themselves of the desire to be others.”

While Mia Couto has won the premier literary award of the Portuguese-speaking world, he would be the first to admit that the former colonies of Portugal also have their own vibrant indigenous languages, which in turn are influencing the development of written and spoken Portuguese. The aphoristic strength of Couto’s prose seems particularly touched by the tradition of proverbs, a form of African oral literature that spans the continent. Ruth Finnegan, in her comprehensive Oral Literature in Africa, observes that, “In many African cultures a feeling for language, for imagery, and for the expression of abstract ideas through compressed and allusive language phraseology comes out particularly clearly in proverbs.”

The power of Mozambican proverbs like “A reflection does not see itself,” or “When you live next to the cemetery, you cannot weep for everyone,” have clearly worked their way into Couto’s writing. His prose can often pause a story as a reader contemplates the richness of sentences such as “love is a territory where orders can’t be issued.”

This aphoristic strength remains in full force in Couto’s latest novel, The Tuner of Silences. The narrator of the novel, Mwanito, is the son of Silvestre Vitalício, a man who attempts to escape the Mozambican civil war by transporting his two sons to a remote and desolate corner of the country. There, he creates his own “country”: Jezoosalem, “a land where Jesus would uncrucify himself,” a land where “God will come and apologize to us.”

But the civil war is not the only tragedy Silvestre has run from. The death of his wife has altered him, created within him a need for silence. Mwanito, too young to remember the brimming world left behind, apprentices himself to his father’s stillness: “Some are born to sing, others to dance, others born merely to be someone else. I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence.”

Because their Father refuses to discuss the cause or details of his wife’s death, Mwanito and his older brother Ntunzi can’t help speculating that perhaps their father killed her himself. Whatever the real story, the uncertainty over the truth creates a distance between the boys and their father.

Another citizen of Jezoosalem is Zachary Kalash, a former soldier and friend of Silvestre’s who now hunts to provide food for everyone. To this end he presides over a cache of weaponry in a shed that Mwanito can’t help visiting, as it offers him an escape from silence: “[S]trangely enough it was the war that taught me to read words. Let me explain: the first letters I learnt were the ones I deciphered on the labels that were stuck on the crates of weapons.”

Though Silvestre has tried to create his own small world “far from everything, far from wars,” one that was “governed by obedience,” with the sudden advent of Marta, a damaged and naive Portuguese woman in search of the husband who deserted her, the emotional structure of Jezoosalem is upended, and unhappy truths can no longer be contained, and only language, and stories, might offer redemption.

Each chapter of The Tuner of Silences begins with an excerpt from a poem, almost always by the Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, or the Brazilian poets Hilda Hilst or Adélia Prado. Here we find a striking example of the international ties of literature in the Portuguese language. Though perhaps unknown names to most of us in the English-speaking world, they are well-known poets to an educated reader of Portuguese. This literary tradition is only slowly beginning to become visible to us in the U.S. The Portuguese writers Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago are now widely acknowledged as world-class writers, the Cape Verdean writer Germano Almeida’s reputation is growing, and Benjamin Moser has been heroic in his efforts to build a wider audience for the great Brazilian modernist writer Clarice Lispector, both through his biography of Lispector, Why This World, and his project to re-translate and reprint her entire oeuvre. Nightboat Books has begun a project to translate the work of Hilda Hilst, beginning with her novella, The Obscene Madam D.

So, The Tuner of Silences not only offers a reader an example of a great writer’s most recent work, but with those chapter epigraphs it also cracks open a welcoming window onto a vast world of literary pleasures that has for too long remained under the radar in the English-speaking world.

Surprise Me!