Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.)



6 Responses to “Clarice Lispector – Near to the Wild Heart”

  1. Anthony

    I must get back to Lispector, after I’ve filled in my Coetzee gaps. This sounds like such an intriguing book. Lispector is one of my most thrilling discoveries of recent years.

    • Michelle

      You remind me to get back to Coetzee – whom I have left sitting too long. Near to the Wild Heart is a very intriguing book. I may have had such a hard time with it because I had to finish it in time for a discussion, and I think it lends itself to an absolutely free/boundless reading. There are moments that absolutely thrill.

  2. MarinaSofia

    I haven’t read this one, so thank you for a very honest review about your bewilderment and struggles with it. I love the way we all make allowances for writers we like…

    • Michelle

      Oh yes, I love reading an author from start to finish and even if there are some books that don’t astound as much as others, it’s great to have the fuller picture. And Lispector is so unique.

  3. Stefanie

    I hope to read this one sometime over the summer. The bio I am working my way through mentions that Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf was a big influence and a philosopher whose name currently escapes me but I want to say Schopenhauer. Reviews of the book were really positive and reviews insisted she was influenced by Virginia Woolf but Lispector had never read Woolf and didn’t read her for another year of so afterwards out of curiosity over why everyone said she wrote like Woolf.

    • Michelle

      Thank you for this Stefanie – I knew that it was a mistake not to read the bio along with the fiction. It really helps to know some of what she was thinking about as she sat down to work on her texts. And I’d heard the story of Virginia Woolf – it’s fascinating isn’t it?

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