“One cannot prove the existence of what is most real but the essential thing is to believe. To weep and believe.”
-Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star
There has been a lot of talk in bookish circles lately about the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. After my curiosity got the best of me, I picked up a copy of her 1977 (and second to last) novel, The Hour of the Star. There can be nothing more exciting for a committed reader to stumble across than a previously unknown (to me) literary voice and be absolutely blown away. I don’t think I’ve been as excited about a piece of literature since reading my first Nadine Gordimer novel some ten years ago now. I’ll stop the comparison right there, however, because they are very different writers. Still, I now feel the same need to read Lispector from start to finish as I did upon that first encounter with Gordimer.
The Hour of the Star is absolutely unique. Both easily readable and unfathomable at the same time. A straightforward story of life and love and death and yet every page filled with inscrutable and delightful little tangents. Its central concern is an impoverished, ugly, uneducated young woman named Macabéa who has moved from a backwater town to Rio. She’s hopeless and hopelessly unlovable, even though the narrator is desperately obsessed, you could even say, in love with, this woman’s life and, eventually, with her death.
The book has a strange narrator—a man named Rodrigo about whom the reader ultimately learns very little. He is interested in truth/reality and storytelling and how the two affect one another; he often says things like the following:
Forgive me if I add something more about myself since my identity is not very clear, and when I write I am surprised to find that I possess a destiny. Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?
That “when I write I am surprised to find that I possess a destiny,” that’s just brilliant. As is the final question in that quote.
Rodrigo could easily be Lispector and the blurring between these two writerly identities is a wonderful and fascinating part of the book. Rodrigo doesn’t really influence the story, not as a character would, but only as the person selected to tell Macabéa’s story. There is some notion of the two having met at some point, but it isn’t important and Lispector could have easily taken an authoritative omniscient and told the story herself. And yet Rodrigo’s voice adds something really unique to the narrative—an ordinary human obsessed with the pathetic story of another ordinary human. There is this sense that Rodrigo as a writer has created Macabéa, turned her from fiction into flesh and in that transformation he’s given a part of himself, so whatever happens to Macabéa happens to him as well.
To be frank, I am holding her destiny in my hands and yet I am powerless to invent with any freedom: I follow a secret, fatal line. I am forced to seek a truth that transcends me. Why should I write about a young girl whose poverty is so evident? Perhaps because within her is seclusion.
And what does happen to Macabéa? Not much really. She lives in a slum, works as a typist. Has small entertainments on the weekends. She has a friend named Gloria who seems to know more about the world. She has a crush on a young man who pays her some attention. But Macabéa is heading toward a moment of fame, a sad and horrible kind of fame, but fame nonetheless. And Rodrigo must tell the reader all about it.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of all I could say about this tiny little novel. As it’s one of her later ones, I plan to come back to it once I’ve had a chance to read her earlier works. She has nine novels and nine collections of short fiction, so I’ll have my hands full with this for awhile.
If I’ve piqued your curiosity about Lispector, take a look at the New Directions page for her. They’ve just come out with several of her books in new translations and there are links on this page to many, if not all, the critical reviews that have been floating around about her work.