In all truth, reading Near to the Wild Heart was a frustrating reading experience. Not that this is necessarily a horrible thing, but I’m shocked to find how much trouble I had getting through this—Lispector’s first novel—compared to the other novels I’ve read (and very much enjoyed).
I think that I don’t necessarily have all the right “tools” at my disposal for a truly thoughtful approach to this book but I want to think about it within a few different contexts. First, it was first published in 1943, so she was 23. I’m going to assume she’d been working on it for several years, and it is – despite the incredible maturity of the style – a coming of age novel. It is intensely concerned with transitions from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to understanding, from ignorance to knowledge.
What matters then: to live or to know you are living?
This book is all about the intensities of unknown inner lives – how people truly think and feel, it is all unfiltered and raw, the curious power of a deeply strange interior life:
She had awoken full of daylight, invaded. Still in bed, she had thought about sand, sea, drinking seawater at her dead aunt’s house, about feeling, above all feeling.
Or here again:
Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both, because both were incapable of freeing themselves through love, because she had meekly accepted her own fear of suffering, her inability to move beyond the frontier of revolt.
It is also her first novel, and the rest of her books would go on to experiment with this exact form. I don’t believe that any writer manages to get their form/style/project “perfect” on a first go around, and perhaps it is useful to think of this book as the first of her experiments. Maybe this is why it was so hard to get a hold onto. Something about it feeling less “fixed” than her later works – missing certain narrative handholds for the reader to grip onto amidst the free-flowing interior monologue and curious imagery.
It is an intensely feminine/feminist book – much of Joana’s questioning has to do with how to negotiate her interior individual life and thinking with respect to other people, both men and women, but the overall feeling or question remains focused on this idea of how men and women circle around each other. But these questions are transmitted through an existentialist discussion:
In my interior I find the silence I seek. But in it I become so lost from any memory of a human being and of myself, that I make this impression into the certainty of physical solitude.
There’s more to wonder at – looking at it compared to other books published the same year, or perhaps within the context of who she had been reading (do we know? did she keep a journal? I still haven’t read her biography), looking at the book as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and how it embraces this idea while subverting it all the time.
Otherwise – a few smaller, text-based observations:
She wasn’t worn out from crying. She understood that her father had ended. That was all. And her sadness was a big, heavy tiredness, without anger.
Interesting to me that her lyrically-mediated thoughts make it extremely hard for the reader to access her—and yet the point is to expose her as much as possible. Feel we are kept at a distance from her grief. Or perhaps she is the one kept at a distance because her state is so tenuous and so a reader (who cannot help have some form of sympathy from the main character) is also kept at a distance.
The bathroom is indecisive, almost dead. Objects and walls have given way, softening and diluting themselves in tendrils of steam. The water cools slightly on her skin and she shivers in fear and discomfort.
In this scene, she enters a bathtub in one location and then, when she comes out of the tub she has changed location, changed time period, gone from being a child at home to being a teenager away at school. It’s a wonderful and imaginative and symbolic moment.
One of the biggest questions that kept gnawing at me was how are we supposed to feel about Joana? How are we supposed to understand her? It becomes an impossible task, because she remains in a constant state of self-evaluation and self-actualization. That impossibility became extremely frustrating – and is probably, at the heart, the point of the book. Because self-understanding is a never-ending process. We remain “unformed” for all of our lives, or “forming,” we are constantly evolving.
And the last lines of the novel – which I won’t quote in order to leave the mystery and the beauty to other readers—about immortality and the acceptance of death. They are incredible. They are revealing.
So these thoughts on Near to the Wild Heart are all half-formed and written haphazardly – the book is affecting, curious, frustrating, beautiful, both luminous and incisive, but also incomprehensible and inscrutable. It forces you to read slowly, to think, to ponder. It also asks you put it down and take a breath—it is not a book to absorb in one sitting (Hour of the Star, on the contrary, lends itself to a continuous, one-sitting read). This is a book perhaps best taken as part of a life’s work. It’s a piece of artwork, a narrative collage, something to study, not something to devour or even to enjoy, although there is enjoyment in the reading of it.
(I read this book for the Dead Writer’s Book Club – we’re having a Google Docs discussion as well as on Twitter, and I may come back with other thoughts after the discussion. Wanted to record these here now before talking about the book with anyone else – and really looking forward to others’ thoughts.)
This week I am finishing up what I hope will be the final revisions on this long Ramuz translation—and it is a pure joy to go through this text again, for the third or fourth time, word by word, reading most of it aloud, looking at the way the sentences work in a series, work against one another, and marveling at how quickly Ramuz wrote this book. A draft completed in only a few months, rewritten again over another few months.
But today I find myself pausing on a particular scene. This happens just after Juliette is settled into Rouge’s house, at the most idyllic point of the novel, when everything seems to be falling in place (and obviously just before everything begins to fall apart). It is a Sunday morning and the entire population of this lakeside village is out singing and walking and enjoying the sunshine. Juliette and Rouge and Décosterd have just finished their breakfast and are out walking along the shoreline, and Maurice (the mayor’s son) is spying on them from a hiding spot beneath some bushes up the hillside. What is also important about this scene is that Juliette has just changed out of her black mourning dress into a brightly colored Caribbean-style dress.
Lui, là-haut, regarde toujours. Il a vue que les montagnes en ce moment avaient été atteintes sur leur côté par le soleil qui descendait, en même temps que sa lumière était moins blanche ; il y avait comme du miel contre les parois de rocher. Plus bas, sur la pente des prés, c’était comme de la poudre d’or ; au-dessus des bois, une cendre chaude. Tout se faisait beau, tout se faisait plus beau encore, comme dans une rivalité. Toutes les choses qui se font belles, toujours plus belles, l’eau, la montagne, le ciel, ce qui est liquide, ce qui est solide, ce qui n’est ni solide, ni liquide, mais tout tient ensemble ; il y avait comme une entente, un continuel échange de l’une à l’autre chose, et entre toutes les choses qui sont. Et autour d’elle et à cause d’elle, comme il pense et se dit là-haut. Il y a une place pour la beauté…
[Up on the mountain, he was still watching. He had seen that at this moment the mountains were touched on their side by the sun dipping down, at the same time the light turned less white; there was a color like honey between the walls of rock. Lower down, on the slope of the fields, it was like powdered gold; above the woods, like warm cinders. Everything was making itself beautiful, everything was making itself more than beautiful, like a rivalry. All these things making themselves more beautiful, always more beautiful, the water, the mountain, the sky, all that is liquid, all that is solid, all that is neither solid nor liquid, but it all holds together; it was like an agreement, a continual exchange from one thing to another thing, and between everything that exists. And around her and because of her—what he is thinking and telling himself up there. There is a place for beauty… ]
Ramuz does so much with this idea of Juliette as a figure of nature. She is so much more than a person, she is more-than-human. In this scene she is adding to the natural setting, she is a part of it, but later she will both create the atmosphere and be destroyed by it. She is absolutely enmeshed with the natural setting and this is something Ramuz does particularly well – his characters are never separate from their surroundings, but fundamentally altered by the mountains, the sun, the snow, the fields and all the workings of the natural world. I do not know of another writer (off-hand) who does this in quite the same way.
The narrative perspective in Widow (Michelle Latiolais, Bellevue Literary Press) is what strikes at first—a third person close which mostly functions as a kind of gentle wrapping (a shroud or veil is the image that comes to my mind) to what appears to be autobiographical writing. There is this feeling that all of these pieces are actually a first person narrative, and even more, that they are casted retellings of the author’s personal experiences, if not of distinct memories than of the emotional charge of real events but then recreated in new fictional surroundings.
Usually all that matters to me is the way the fiction works, how each piece creates its effect—but part of the effect of Widow involves this tension between fiction and memoir, involves the reader’s awareness that we’re reading an individual’s intensely interior negotiation of a series of events. That awareness is quite spellbinding.
The “event” (which remains almost completely off the page) is the unexpected death of a husband. And the stories alternate their focus between an unnamed “she” (the widow) and an unnamed “young woman” (an earlier self). As the stories connect and are juxtaposed, the collection creates a fuller portrait of a life and a marriage, of the transformation of a young woman into a widow, and what both those labels actually mean.
Most of the stories are quite short and the collection itself finishes out at around 150 pages, but the collection as a whole embodies the notion of intensity that most shorter work should—the stories do not move slowly into their crucial moments but begin at a place where the reader must work somewhat to keep up, and Latiolais’s language is rich in the sense that the vocabulary is elevated and the imagery often sophisticated.
To see what I mean, take a look at the quote I posted the other day from what is probably my favorite story in the collection, “Pink.”
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the collection is Latiolais’s willingness to let the reader remain unsure of meaning and message. This is where her writing reminded me of Christine Schutt, in the way that there are hints but not full resolution, in the way that the created atmosphere often informs the reader’s understanding more than a linear or plotted narrative telling. I love this kind of sideways entrance to the appreciation/understanding of story.
On the whole, this is a beautiful and unique collection. For the most part the stories work splendidly together and there is only one outlier that bears mentioning—the last piece is a first person story/essay that confirms the autobiographical nature of the collection, but it was, at least to me, somewhat unnecessary. The essay in and of itself is strong, but I suppose I preferred the hinting and the tension that the rest of the stories worked around. And the very last fiction piece in Widow is incredibly strong—a layered memory-type piece called “Burqa” about motherhood, about living alone, about letting our children go—and it would have been lovely to simply end with the last lines of this story:
Who was that solo act, that sui generis, that singular who had then hoodwinked entire civilizations with such stunning propaganda? At least she had made art, beauty, a boy’s fine limbs.
Just a quick word on Bellevue Literary Press for anyone unfamiliar with their work. This is an independent press founded by the New York University School of Medicine, and their entire mission is to publish literary fiction that deals with science and medicine in some way. They have a very good-looking fiction catalogue (which I plan on working slowly through) and it includes a novel by Michelle Latiolais called A Proper Knowledge. It also includes a former Necessary Fiction writer-in-residence as well, Tim Horvath, with his collection Understories.
From “Pink” in Michelle Latiolais’s Widow:
She liked cathedrals better this way, liked churches better this way—as an entering into herself, into a circuitry of reproduction, not a system of birth or production, but of reproduction, the seeds in the dark ovarian caves, dropping one here, one there, a constancy of possibility happening and happening and happening—like ocean tide, that hydrolic loyalty grinding cowrie shells, all those little vulvae, until they were sand, were clay, were taken up newly plastic and made into porcelain shapes and fired, become teacups, becomes the intimacy of lips, of his lips upon her own. She would tell him all this.
Between January and March this year, I had the very real pleasure (and subsequent immediate self-doubting anxiety) of seeing several short fiction pieces, and one translation, published around this beautiful lit-loving internet:
In January the exciting and new Sundog Lit published the first of my Elemental stories, “miner’s daughter.” These are very short pieces that I’ve been playing with as I work on a longer cycle; they are also auxiliary pieces to the novel I’m slowly writing about a woman who discovers a naturally-occurring nuclear fission reactor (and abandoned mine).
PANK just recently published a second one, called “Mining.”
In March then, Two Serious Ladies, which is an online journal that has published some of my favorite contemporary writers, included a short piece I first wrote over 10 years ago and have been re-writing ever since. “Gongneung subway, 1.am”
Also, the always-beautiful Cerise Press included my translation of Ramuz’s “The Two Old Maids” in their spring issue. This journal does such wonderful work and this issue hosts a number of really beautiful translations as well as essays. Two of my favorites from this issue are Mary P. Noonan’s essay on Beckett and Jacqueline White’s on Mata Hari.
The Ann Arbor Review published a very tiny poem called “For September.” This poem is the perfect example of something I wish I could re-write now that it’s been published – an ongoing war with my inner poet.
Finally, at Necessary Fiction, I was very happy to be involved in a Round Table Discussion on Kate Zambreno’s Heroines with fellow writers/readers Helen McClory, Joanna Walsh and Christine Cody. This book has continued to stimulate some very interesting discussions around the web, and I highly recommend it.
My reading has been very much all over the place for the last few months—a mixture of contemporary titles, classic and contemporary Japanese novels, and back to Virginia Woolf’s Diaries. I’m also about halfway through Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Woolf and thoroughly immersed—Gordon filters all auto/biographical information about Woolf and her family and peers with lengthy discussions of Woolf’s fiction and other writings. It’s all extremely compelling.
I have discovered a handful of writers this winter worth looking further into. The first is Michelle Latiolais, whose story collection Widow was published by Bellevue Literary Press. She has a novel as well, which I will read soon. And I’m going to write a full post on Widow, but will say quickly here that it was an exceptional collection—the combination of emotional and cerebral that I absolutely love, with narratives just a bit inscrutable but which attain a high emotional resonance. She reminded me of Christine Schutt in many ways (and indeed, Schutt blurbed the book). The second is Mariko Nagai, whose collection Georgic I wrote about here.
I’ve also read two quite different francophone women writers, neither of whom has been translated into English but who were both incredibly well-published in their lifetimes and who walked along the periphery of the “nouveau roman.” The first is Hélène Bessette who was French, and the second is Clarisse Francillon, from Switzerland although she lived for most of her life in Paris. Imagine my delight at finding at small back room at the public library in Vevey that houses the Francillon collection—all of her own work plus the library she donated to the city when she died in 1976. Imagine my further delight when I learned I could check anything out and that it wasn’t restricted to use on site. I toddled home with a tall stack of her novels and am getting acquainted. Her novel Le Carnet à Lucarnes (The Skylight Notebook) is described in the Dictionnaire Littéraire des Femmes de Langue Française in this way:
L’héroine y incarne au féminin trois archétypes de l’imaginaire occidental: Hamlet, le tourmenté, Don Juan, l’insatisfait et Faust, l’orgueilleux.
[In this book, the heroine represents a feminine personification of three western archetypes : Hamlet, the tormented, Don Juan, the unfulfilled and Faust, the proud.]
Several years ago I read “Grafting,” a short story by Mariko Nagai and it has stayed with me ever since. The best kind of haunting. And so I was delighted to find that “Grafting” opened Nagai’s 2010 story collection from BkMk Press, Georgic.
“Grafting” is based on an old Japanese folktale (with likely older origins) called ubasute-yama (姥捨て山) , which literally translates to something like “the mountain where you abandon the old woman” or “the mountain where you throw away your old mother.” The folktale is about sending the old people away from the villages to fend for themselves in the forests. Nagai’s version of this story does not waver much from the original tale—a rural setting, a pressing and terrible need for a small village to reduce its number of mouths to feed.
But Nagai makes this folktale real, she makes it something that happens and could happen again. Despite the rural setting and historical feel, this is the story of every generation and how it must find a way to let their elders go. The violence in the idea of ubasute-yama isn’t made stronger in comparison to what happens in our lives here and now, it serves to remind us just how violent our “kinder” and humane abandonments really are. It may seem a very strange association but I couldn’t help thinking of Houellebecq and his obsession with the humiliation of aging, and the discussions of assisted-suicide he works into several of his books.
There are ten stories in Georgic and each is as unsettling and complicated as this first one—in “drowning land” a young boy sleeps for three years and then miraculously, suddenly, saves his village; “Confession” is about the after-effects of World War II and the trials of Japanese soldiers and civilians; in “Autobiography” a mother tells and re-tells her story, fashioning an autobiography of herself and a biography for the child she sold to save herself and the child. Each of these stories touches on something much more complicated than the historical event or story it embraces on the surface.
And Nagai’s writing is extremely textured, unsettling at times, clear and direct at others. She mixes poetry with straightforward emotion, like here in “autobiography”:
If they are to see your palms, they will claim your life fortunate, unmarred by misfortunes and fickle gods. They will not see how the rivers are dry, how the streams are cut in the middle twice: one for the husband no one talks about and one for the child who may still live in another country, blaming you for her fate.
In “Confession” she plays with framework, slipping back and forth between two stories, two manifestations of the same narrator actually and two events she lived and is living, and through this Nagai teases a difficult story forward:
A woman coughs in the dark corner. Another mutters a prayer of hope. Of salvation. Of deliverance. For my daughter. What is true in the sunlight is no longer visible, no longer visible in the darkness.
(I am done for.)
A woman coughs in the dark corner. Another mutters a prayer of hope.
(And is this not a dream? A woman coughs, but only in a dream; another mutters a prayer, but is this really a dream?)
It is her style that carries most of this collection, in the sense that without her careful writing it would be too easy to background these stories into a too-far past, to deny them their relevance to a contemporary setting.
The stories in Georgic are not easy stories—they are deeply emotional (I had to take them very slowly, so as not to be overwhelmed), unafraid to look directly at ideas of human need and personal justification, and interested in the effects of imposed poverty, both material and spiritual. Nagai is also doing something very interesting in terms of fictionalizing history.
Nagai has a book of poetry, Histories of Bodies (Red Hen Press, 2007) and another book of fiction, Instructions for the Living (Word Palace Press, 2012) and she has a novel forthcoming in 2015 from Aqueous Press.
This morning I am thinking about these two quotes from The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector.
From sculpture, I suppose, I got my knack for only thinking when it was time to think, since I had learned to think only with my hands and when it was time to use them. From my intermitten sculpting I’d also acquired the habit of pleasure, toward which I was naturally inclined: my eyes had handled the form of things so many times that I had increasingly learned the pleasure of it, and taking root within it. I could, with must less than I was, I could already use everything: just as yesterday, at the breakfast table, all I needed, to form round forms from the center of the loaf, was the surface of my fingers and the surface of the bread. In order to have what I had I never needed either pain or talent. What I had wasn’t an achievement, it was a gift.
Opening in me, with the slowness of stone doors, opening in me was the wide life of silence…