Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

For this week’s review at Necessary Fiction, I reviewed Clarice Lispector’s seventh novel, Água Viva. This strange and wonderful book was originally published in 1973, first translated into English in 1978 and now re-translated by Stefan Tobler for New Directions and published this year as one of four Lispector novels in re-translation.

Here is some of what I had to say in my review:

Written by an unnamed narrator and written to an unnamed “you”, Água Viva is a meditation on the act of creation using the idea of the written word, as opposed to other creative media, as its vehicle. With this “letter,” Lispector asks what it really means to write to someone, how to transpose thought into missive or message, and what part of an individual is captured or lost in the act of writing:

I want to write to you like someone learning. I photograph each instant. I deepen the words as if I were painting, more than an object, its shadow. I don’t want to ask why, you can always ask why and always get no answer—could I manage to surrender to the expectant silence that follows a question without an answer? Though I sense that some place or time the great answer for me does exist.

It is also a meditation on the individual—how does a narrator portray the self? Is this possible? Is it desirable? Lispector’s stated goal throughout the text is to somehow re-create, through words, the instantaneous instant, the “instant now.” An instant that is constantly changing, constantly being reborn. This rebirth becomes painful for the narrator, and she both embraces it and rejects it repeatedly.

You can read the whole review here.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading two Lispector novels now, and it’s definitely time to read her start to finish. I felt somewhat at a disadvantage reading and reviewing Água Viva without having read all of her earlier works. It is an incredible book—strange in a beautiful way, challenging but also rich with thought and image. I enjoyed it for what it was, and I think anyone interested in this kind of self-reflexive hybrid essay/fiction would find much to savor in this short novel. It is definitely a book to be read and read again, and new meanings will come out of it all the time.

At the same time, it made me want to have all of her writings in my head for constant reference against this strange novel. I’m just greedy that way. From what I understand, Água Viva is different enough from her other works (and it was different enough from The Hour of the Star for me to believe this) that it sits in its own category. Meaning that among her already innovative/experimental body of work, it is an extreme. So I spent much of my time reading her thinking that I wanted to go back and experience all she’d written that had brought her to the moment of writing this particular book, just to see the development.

Also, I think I will get a few copies of Lispector in French, including Água Viva, just to see how she reads in another romance language. So much of the discussion around Lispector focuses on her language and how she plays with grammar and punctuation. Stefan Tobler’s translation was incredibly smooth, easy to read and obviously careful, but not so smooth that I couldn’t experience the strangeness of Lispector’s writing. There are moments when the images don’t make sense or when words come together in unexpected ways. I loved that.

So next on my Lispector list is Near to the Wild Heart – her first. And I can hardly wait to move through her nine novels in the order they were published.

But to wrap up today, I give you some of my favorite lines from Água Viva:

And all of this is me. All is weighted with sleep when I paint a cave or write to you about it—from outside it comes the clatter of dozens of wild horses stamping with dry hoofs the darkness, and from the friction of the hoofs the rejoicing is freed in sparks: here I am, I and the cave, in the very time that will rot us.

3 Responses to “Clarice Lispector – Água Viva”

  1. Stefanie

    How exciting! I am so glad you are reading Lispector! I got sidetracked from the biography because of library book I’ve been waiting for that I have to read on a deadline, but I look forward to getting back to it. Ans, once I clear away a couple other books I have been meandering my way through, I plan on starting Near to the Wild Heart because I want to read through her chronologically too!

    • Michelle

      I’d really like to read that biography – but I think I’ll wait until I’ve finished all of her fiction, atleast her novels! And hooray, we can “discuss” Near to the Wild Heart!

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