Clarice Lispector – Near to the Wild Heart

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.)



Ramuz translation out: “The Two Old Maids”

I have mentioned before how much I love the international journal Cerise Press—consistently excellent content and a lovely design as well. But I’m extra delighted about their latest, the Spring 2013 issue, as it includes my translation of a 1906 short story by Ramuz. This particular story was originally published in the Journal de Genève in 1906, and as far as I can find was never anthologized elsewhere or re-published.

Ramuz is especially good at writing about old women, old maids in fact, and this story, aptly named “The Two Old Maids” is one that showcases that skill. The story is really only a very brief portrait—a single evening in the night of two older seamstress sisters living in a small town when they get a glimpse of a life that was denied to them.

My favorite part of the entire story is when Ramuz steps back and sets the scene – just before the women sit down at the window to look out into the garden (which is an action that will devastate them – this looking out – best not to look out):

And so the daylight departed slowly from the back of the room up to where they were sitting. The furniture entered into the shadow; it appeared to be drowning. The shadow began at the base and then rose like water, until eventually each piece was submerged.

Looking outside, the light was a surprise because it was still so bright yet already dark inside. The sky was yellow, then it became green. A gust of wind bent the branches on the trees.

A large garden extended in front of the ladies’ house. The garden belonged to Mr. Loup, the surveyor. The trees were all black too, making great masses in the sky. In between them, a bit of lighter colored grass stuck out. Then there was a movement in the air. Up above, the green had gone, turned to blue, darkened and a star began to shine at that moment, opened like an eye.

Oh, what softness was on everything! The evening lies down, lets itself go. A renunciation. And then noises come from further away, weaken and disappear. So good to breathe in this silence! Even if it makes lonely souls sad.

You can read the entire translation – and the rest of this excellent issue here. Enjoy!

muscling her own weight

This is from “The Summer After Barbara Claffey,” the second story in Christine Schutt’s 1996 collection, Nightwork:

She is watching from her window the man’s approach across the lawn. “You can wave from here,” Mother says in the voice she uses with the new Jacks, and I do.

I wave and wave, even though she is not looking. I wave at my mother muscling her own weight under this Jack’s arm. I cannot hear what they are saying; it is quiet in this town.

But the neighbors must notice my mother and her Jack. Either side of us and across the street, the Dunphies, the Smiths, Barbara Claffey down the street, must press to windows startled as by birds that swoop and mate so queerly close. I sometimes draw the blinds to them—but not to Mother. I am ready for Mother and her sudden turning to see if I am watching her, to see if I am paying attention to how she stands, tottering in her shoes, ankles gagged and tense and helpless—and Mother is not helpless. My mother is brave, I think, and her upturned face is shining. I see this, and see them both, willful lovers, tilted away from the house, leaning hard into the night.

This collection is extremely hard to put down. The writing! The mood! Interestingly, much about these stories is inscrutable—what exactly is going on? what kind of situation has the narrator found herself in? The stories move forward in impressionistic little flashes and fascinating off-kilter dialogue, but the atmosphere is sharp and dark and well-defined. There is so much menace, and each story seems to function within a borderland space of taboo and transgression. The story I’ve quoted from here actually reminds me a lot of her first novel Floridathis intense mother/daughter relationship and the precariousness of the mother’s dependence on various men.

I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished…  

a disorganized post about organizing my reading

I had my suspicions that it wasn’t a good idea to leave my 2013 reading so open—no defined projects, nothing to focus on—and I was right, because I have spent the month of January jumping somewhat aimlessly between books that weren’t speaking to each other. Luckily most of what I read was quite good: one exceptional novel-manuscript by the talented Steve Himmer and several books I would still like to write about, namely Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Steve Edward’s memoir Breaking Into the Backcountry about living alone in a cabin in eastern Oregon for ten months. Still, I like a little more continuity in my reading and so I put an end to my random reading last evening and made a proper plan with matching spreadsheet (oh yes, big nerd).

Before I tell you about the new project, I should give a quick re-cap of a current one. Last year I began reading Virginia Woolf start to finish and I am not curtailing that project, but I am reading her diaries at the same time as her fiction, and trying to keep pace—which means that I am somewhere in 1923 (17 July 1923, to be exact), quite a few months after she published Jacob’s Room (1922) and she’s now begun working on Mrs. Dalloway. I’m really looking forward to rereading Mrs. Dalloway but I have a few diary years to catch up before that. And I find that the diaries are best read slowly, a few pages every evening.

There is a lovely passage I underlined recently, one of the few passages in which Woolf writes about children:

We came back from Rodmell yesterday, & I am in one of my moods, as the nurses used to call it, today. And what is it & why? A desire for children, I suppose; for Nessa’s life; for the sense of flowers breaking all round me involuntarily. Here’s Angelica—here’s Quentin & Julian. Now children don’t make yourself ill on plum pudding tonight. We have people dining. There’s no hot water. The gas is escaping in Quentin’s bedroom—I pluck what I call flowers at random. They make my life seem a little bare sometimes; & then my inveterate romanticism suggests an image of forging ahead, alone, through the night: of suffering inwardly, stoically; of blazing my way through to the end—& so forth. […] Let me have one confessional where I need not boast. Years & years ago, after the Lytton affair, I said to myself, walking up the hill at Beireuth, never pretend that the things you haven’t got are not worth having; good advice I think.

And she goes on at quite some length on the subject – it’s a very interesting moment in her journal, one of her most introspective.

In any case, while I do my catching up with Woolf, I need a new project, something to give some meaning to my reading, and as I’m elbow-deep in revisions of one of my novel manuscripts, and as this book is set in southern Japan, I thought to do some concentrated immersion. It is the perfect excuse to broaden and deepen my experience with modern and contemporary Japanese literature. I’ve put together a very preliminary list – works by well-known authors whom I’ve already read one or two novels, works by some lesser known writers, books by as many women as I can find in translation (and one Yoko Ogawa short story collection in Japanese – as slowly and painfully as I can) and many of the men as well.

This is an aside but I took many of these names from the Akutagawa Prize winners – and while there are actually a lovely number of women on the list, most of them have not been translated. More of the men on the list have been translated into English. So it goes.

Here is the early list – and I welcome any additional suggestions:

  • Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
  • Yoko Ogawa – Amours en Marge (quite a bit of Ogawa is available in French)
  • Yoko Ogawa – Mabuta (in Japanese – wish me luck)
  • Yasunari Kawabata – Thousand Cranes
  • Yasunari Kawabata – The Dancing Girl of Izu (we spent time on the Izu peninsula last year and I’d wished I’d read this before going)
  • Fumiko Enchi – Tale of False Fortunes (I am a big fan of Enchi’s Masks and The Waiting Years)
  • Shusaku Endo – Silence
  • Shusaku Endo – Volcano
  • Shusaku Endo – The Sea and Poison (if it’s been translated)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ark Sakura (Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes is one of my all-time favorite novels, it’s about time I read more from him)
  • Kobo Abe – The Ruined Map
  • Junichiro Tanizaki – The Makioka Sisters
  • Kenji Nakagami – The Cape and Other Stories
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Silent Cry
  • Kenzaburo Oe – Rouse up O Young Men of the New Age
  • Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction
  • Taeko Kono – Toddler Hunting
  • Minako Oba – Of Birds Crying
  • Risa Wataya – Isn’t it a pity? (which is supposed to be translated soon)
  • Yu Nagashima – Yuko’s Shortcut
  • Yoko Tawada – The Bridegroom was a Dog
  • Hiromi Kawakami – The Briefcase

That’s what I’ve got so far – what am I missing?

Tove Jansson – The True Deceiver

A few months back, the lovely Helen of Gallimaufry sent me a copy of Tove Jansson’s The True Deciever. She suspected I would like it and was she ever right! Discovering Jansson’s fiction is one of the highlights of my reading year. I loved the book. Loved it.

The True Deceiver is strange and dark and interested in human nature and animal nature and how the two get confused with each other or confront each other. The book is about Katri and her brother Mats and their relationship with Anna Aemelin, a wealthy woman who lives alone in a big house at the edge of the forest.

When the novel opens, Katri and Mats, who have a ten-year age difference, are living above the local shop. Katri is definitely a guardian figure for her brother and both Katri and Mats are outsiders, although for very different reasons. Katri is feared by the villagers because she doesn’t want their friendship, because she trusts no one, because she wields an uncanny authority over a giant but nameless German Shepherd. She is also a math genius. Mats, on the other hand, is considered simple-minded. He loves reading adventure stories. He loves working on boats and members of a family of local boat builders give him odd jobs from time to time.

For her part, Anna is a strange character indeed. A famous children’s book illustrator, she lives alone in the big house her parents left her when they died. She draws eerily intricate paintings of the forest floor which are then superimposed with bizarre, almost cartoon rabbits. Anna lives very much outside the local community, and so in their shared outsider status it is quite fitting that Anna, Katri and Mats are finally connected.

That connection is engineered by Katri for purely financial means. She wants to find a way to give Mats something he desperately wants. It begins with Katri working as a kind of assistant to Anna, and following a break-in (faked by Katri) the two move into the big house. Katri approaches the relationship on purely economical terms – what can be gained? what must be given up? Despite her constant mental calculations, she can’t factor in the other person’s personality quirks. And Anna is unable to think in such mercenary terms. If Katri’s modus operandi is hostile honesty, than Anna’s is overly gracious pretence. The two are worthy opponents and their “battle” will work profound changes on each side.

Just as fascinating as this uncommon story is the way in which Jansson tells it. She wavers between the 3rd person and the 1st person, switching at will and using the 1st to give us snippets of Katri’s thoughts and less often, Anna’s. The 3rd person narrator has a “knowing” tone as well, further complicating the mix of voices and opinions.

The book is set in the deepest darkest winter, when the villagers practically tunnel through the streets to get around town. The weather continues to reflect certain of the book’s events, although this isn’t a heavy handed technique in any way. As the story ramps up and Anna and Katri discover previously unknown parts of their personalities, Jansson’s winter descriptions shift to mirror their inner and outer struggle. It’s wonderfully done.

The True Deceiver was my first experience with Tove Jansson’s fiction for adults, but it certainly won’t be my last. Let me just finish up here with a bit of the writing, taken from a sample in Katri’s 1st person voice:

Every night I hear the snow against the window, the soft whisper of the snow blown in from the sea, and it’s good, I wish the whole village cold be covered and erased and finally be clean… Nothing can be as peaceful and endless as a long winter darkness, going on and on, like living in a tunnel where he dark sometimes deepens into night and sometimes eases to twilight, you’re screened from everything, protected, even more alone than usual. You wait and hide like a tree.

my new life as a flashlight

Yes, it is old news that every year the Best-of-the-Books lists make people angry and divide opinion. These lists are never going to satisfy the varied tastes of the reading public. And thankfully so. It would be kind of scary if everyone held fast to the very same yardstick for measuring excellence. That doesn’t mean I think we should continue allowing some of these lists to get away with their appalling blindness to the mountains of excellent literature coming from outside-the-mainstream publishing spotlight. I’m not going to detail my thoughts on this particular subject, mainly because Roxane Gay has already done this so well. Her essay, “Toward a More Complete Measure of Excellence” at The Rumpus is thoughtful, measured, and realistic, and yet contains enough subtle anger and dismay to satisfy my own oversized sense of literary injustice.

The thought that I’d like to work through here is about women writers and men writers and who is getting credit for big ideas, for the “best” writing, for “defining and critiquing society.” This issue, always at the back of my mind, has been hovering around me quite intensely for most of the past year. I can pinpoint a moment of renewed interest when I read a thoughtful response by Michael Nye, the managing editor of The Missouri Review, to VIDA’s The Count on the male bias in publishing. Nye was troubled to see that the male bias was true for The Missouri Review, but he found it was mostly because women submitted less and he wondered how to fix this problem. I would be interested to see a study on this—I suspect it is true that women submit less, but I’d be curious to see someone attempt to figure out why and whether there is a way to fix this without radical upheaval of multiple unrelated systems.

In my work as reviews editor at Necessary Fiction, I have also found this to be true. Significantly more than half of the books submitted to me for review are written by male writers. Obviously, the submission statistics for reviews at NF are further biased because we’re interested in the already published, and there seems to be more men being published. In any case, around April of this year I did a quick tally of our reviews and saw that we’d reviewed 10 male writers, only 4 women and 1 multi-author collection. I was quite surprised and since then I’ve worked to even out those numbers.

In a conversation about this issue with my husband, he mentioned that what I was doing might not be considered fair. He wondered whether our reviews should reflect the publishing situation. I’ve been searching, and I can’t yet find what the publishing situation is. The most easily available statistics are from Vida and they are about books reviewed, not books written. Because so few books by women are reviewed, I can only conclude that men are publishing more. So if there are 65% (I’m throwing this number out off the top of my head) books by men being published, than reviews should reflect that number. Perhaps there is some logic to that, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in being fair to a situation that is intrinsically abnormal. As far as I know, there is nothing “normal” about the male bias in publishing except that it has become “the norm.” We have the chance to publish 52 reviews each year at Necessary Fiction; you can bet I will try very hard to find 26 excellent books written by men and 26 excellent books written by women.

I’m quite happy to say that when we finish 2011, Necessary Fiction will have reviewed 23 male authors, 21 female authors and 6 multi-author collections. I’m proud of those statistics because I helped create them (along with Steve Himmer who consistently came to me, unasked, with a review of a woman’s novel, and with Jess Stoner who realized that she’d been reviewing a lot of men’s fiction and wanted to make sure she included some women. Jess and I actually spent hours combined, combing the Indie houses for a frustratingly short list of women’s books available. Several otherwise excellent houses have no women authors at all. Many have less than 15% on their lists.)

But here is where my literary heart starts to get a little antsy. I love reading. Period. I don’t actually give a rat’s ass who has written the book as long as it changes me somehow, as long as it gets up into my brain and moves ideas and emotions around. Reading is a frightfully powerful activity and I’m reluctant about the decision I’m about to announce because it feels somehow false to me. The list of male writers that I love (worship even) is long and diverse and makes up a significant part of my reading and writing background. So why purposefully exclude these wonderful and talented writers from my book discussions? Yet on second thought, aside from Nadine Gordimer and a handful of books by various women, that list of male authors makes up the major part of my literary education. So yes, this is a problem. Until just as many male writers can say the same thing about a long and diverse list of female writers, until men wake up and find that women are getting the majority of all publishing contracts, then I’m not going to feel at all guilty for kicking some male writers out of my discussion room. I’m pretty sure they will still get talked about. The same cannot be said for many women writers.

If you haven’t guessed it already, here’s my announcement—in 2012 I’m going to read women writers exclusively for this blog. This is, however, more than a quibble with statistics; I have a thematic exploration in mind. Litlove recently reviewed Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, and in her essay she writes,

The early parts of this novel are just so much fun. Eugenides enjoys himself enormously with college students, pretentious theory and interfering parents; he conveys so well the way that desire, in the early twenties, is almost always covertly aspirational, no matter what form it takes. His characters want this person, this class credit, this discourse of knowledge in the hope that something shiny and powerful will rub off on them. So far, so good, but I did feel I could easily be reading an Alison Lurie novel, or at a pinch, one by Anne Tyler. Not that this is bad! I count both those women among my favourite writers, but it was not what I was expecting from a male author hailed as the new great hope of American letters.

Now, those last three sentences are fascinating to me (and I apologize to Litlove for “picking” on her this way, I hope she doesn’t mind) because I know exactly what she means, and yet it’s such a terrible statement actually. One I have probably made on any number of occasions. On some subconscious level we don’t expect a male author to be meddling so much in the domestic. Especially not when the book is being upheld as one of the “big books.” So what do we expect? Stern politics? Tantrums of philosophy? Social meditations? Historical explorations? Nature vs Humanity?

Now, I do not believe for one second that men write bigger books than women. I’m quite certain we can find examples of books from both men and women that fulfill all literary subject categories, big and small. But I do believe that men’s books are more often credited with being “big” compared to women’s books of equal profundity. I do believe that many excellent, “big” books written by women get overlooked in book reviews and End-of-the-year Book Lists. I do believe that for every woman’s book that gets discussed thoughtfully and energetically, there are three or four men’s books that get the same treatment. So I’m going to spend a year reading women’s books and writing about women’s books exclusively on this blog. I’m going to inundate you with a flood of excellent literature written by women. I’m going to discuss these books, I’m going to complain about these books if I need to, I’m going to praise these books when they deserve it. I’m going to give these women writers just a tiny bit more time in the spotlight.

Well, I don’t have a spotlight, I realize—my little blog here is probably better described as a flashlight. But even the feeblest of flashlights in a dark room has gotten many a reader through some very exciting pages.


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