On the Great Clarice Lispector

Benjamin Moser Introduces The Besieged City

In 1920, at the time of Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector’s birth in a Ukrainian village, Isaac Babel—born just down the road a generation earlier—was traveling with the Bolshevik army. He was chronicling the horrors of the war, including the anti-Semitic pogroms that caused Chaya’s family to flee. As he followed the cavalry, he was also chronicling the travails of the animal that, for millennia, had accompanied every aspect of human work and warfare. Now, that indispensable creature was gradually being replaced by motors. Babel named the process obyezloshadenie.

Twenty-five years later, “dehorsification” would provide the most poignant metaphor in a book Chaya—by then a Brazilian named Clarice—was writing. The Besieged City tells of a girl’s transformation into a woman, and a township’s transformation into a city. The settlement’s “civilization” makes its formerly humble denizens slick and chatty; and as São Geraldo expands, words, possessions, and marriage progressively dehorse Lucrécia. She is grateful to be domesticated — but the animals retreat, and The Besieged City ends with their surrender: “the last horses had already emigrated, surrendering the metropolis to the glory of its mechanism.”

*

In 1971, Clarice Lispector told an interviewer to read The Besieged City— “if you manage,” she shrugged. “Even I thought it was hard.” Elsewhere she referred to her third novel as “one of my least liked books,” and professed her own bafflement with the story of the girl from São Geraldo.

Every educated Brazilian knows G. H. and Macabéa. But only the devoted clariceano will quickly recognize the name of Lucrécia Neves Correia. In a country groaning beneath the weight of writings on Clarice Lispector, the book of which Lucrécia is the protagonist is an orphan. Essays and articles about it, in Brazil, are rare, and it seems to be little-read. Sales indicate that it is the least popular of her novels.

…her writing came to recall poetry as Wordsworth defined it, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”

The book nearly killed her career. She became famous with her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, published when she was twenty-three. Her second, The Chandelier, published three years later, in 1946, was less successful, although—more likely because—it is even more ambitious than her first. She finished The Chandelier in Naples, where she was accompanying her husband, the young Brazilian diplomat Maury Gurgel Valente. They arrived with the war raging—Clarice nursed wounded Brazilian soldiers; Maury helped reestablish the foreign service—but this dramatic start to their overseas careers ended with the Allied victory. In 1946, they were posted to Bern, the capital of a country untouched by the war. The contrast with Naples was glaring.

“The city lacks a demon,” she wrote a friend.

Boredom and exile sharpened the depression she already suffered before her marriage, and which her wartime activities kept at bay. Now, all she had to do was go to the movies, take sculpture class, and learn how to knit—though she drew the line at playing cards.

“This Switzerland,” she wrote her sister, “is a cemetery of sensations.”

She hated being away from her friends, her family, and her country. “It’s bad to be away from the land where you grew up,” she told another friend. “It’s horrible to hear foreign languages all around you, everything seems rootless.”

For all that, Bern had two saving graces, gestating simultaneously: her first child, and The Besieged City. “My gratitude to that book is enormous: the effort of writing it kept me busy, saved me from the appalling silence of Bern, and when I finished the last chapter I went to the hospital to give birth to the boy.”

The book was rejected by the publisher of The Chandelier. She asked her sister to help, warning her not to read it. “It is so tiresome, really. And you might suffer by having to tell me that you don’t like it and feel bad about seeing me literally lost.”

More rejections followed. When, at last, a publisher accepted it, reviewers who had expressed excitement about her previous work scratched their heads.

“It’s a dense, closed book,” she wrote. “I was chasing after something and there was nobody to tell me what it was.”

Few tried.

“Its hermeticism has the texture of the hermeticism of dreams,” a critic said. “May someone find the key.”

*

In the early part of this century, I began amassing materials for my biography of Clarice Lispector. “The early part of this century” was less than two decades ago. But technological changes created such a gulf between then and now that the phrase seems warranted: it was, for example, just before the digital camera made it possible to photograph as much as one wanted of virtually anything; and I can still see myself sitting in the archive, pencil in hand, copying out letters, word by arduous word.

“The early part of this century” was also just before most booksellers went online. It was unthinkable, when I set out, to have millions of books available with a click. Since I neither lived in Brazil nor in a place with an outstanding Brazilian research collection, I did not see any alternative but to build a library of my own. Finding books was a great labor. I vainly chased citations—even hints of citations—up and down the country. On my visits, there was never enough time to find them all.

I feel no nostalgia for note-taking. But I’ve never given up prowling for books. I earned a knowledge of the Brazilian bibliography impossible to acquire without those thousands of apparently fruitless hours. And every researcher knows that finding something you’re not looking for is very often more exciting than finding something you are. Precisely because the internet makes it easy to find what you’re looking for, it can make it harder to find the things you’re not.

“I’m struggling with the book, which is horrible. How did I find the courage to publish the other two?”

When they became available, the databases confirmed my intuition that certain books—cheap and popular in appearance—are, in fact, surpassingly rare. A paperback novel published in 1964 might cost pennies when you find it; but precisely because it was cheap and popular nobody cherished it, and almost every copy got put out with the trash.

I still collect Brazilian books because objects need curators, explicators. Every bibliophile has seen the mysterious way in which books magnify books, and fragments communicate with fragments. Books, like people, exist most happily in society.

*

Several years ago, I came across a first edition of The Besieged City. Printed on brittle, acidic paper, not widely read or re-viewed at the time of publication, this book has nonetheless survived in many copies, making it the most common early edition of Clarice Lispector. I had one. I would probably not have bought another—except for a single-page insert that I had never seen, and have never encountered since.

It reads:

The following changes are explained by the impossibility of the author, then residing in Switzerland, to be present for the typesetting of the book. Returning to the country when the book was already printed, and recognizing as indispensible the need to correct certain details, they follow below.

The fifteen amendments include single-letter typos—“com” (with) versus “como” (how); “sonhava com liberdade como uma guerra” (she was dreaming freely like a war) versus “sonhava com liberdade como numa guerra” (she was dreaming freely as in a war)—that would escape even an attentive eye, particularly one accustomed to this writer’s arabesques. The revisions change nothing for the reader. But they were important enough for the writer to go to the trouble to have the page printed, and included in the book.

The commercial value of this leaf is zero. The prose it contains, the paragraph above, is bureaucratic—even, with that dangling participle, ungrammatical. Yet it becomes intriguing when seen alongside another discovery I made when I had already edited a full draft of this translation. When arranging some books on my shelves, I happened upon a sorry-looking second edition. It had turned up at auction a decade ago, signed by Clarice Lispector. Such signed copies are rare, but this one was in bad shape—a paperback, stripped of its cover; a second edition, not a first—and not dedicated to anyone famous (“Rosa”). It was not expensive.

Now, I noticed a word, “revista,” revised, that I had not noticed before, and had never spotted on any other edition of Clarice’s works. Because I was already deep into this work, I decided to see what she had revised. Editing these books means taking them through several drafts, an unbearably tedious process that also happens to be indispensable. If I had not happened to be in the middle of that sculpting already, I would never have voluntarily put a second edition under this microscopic lens.

Yet as I did, I found modifications on every page: hundreds in all. I tried to find another copy to send to the translator. Online, there was nothing. But as I worked through the draft, I saw that to consider this second edition alongside the first and the errata was to see something extraordinary. The three documents, taken together, showed nothing less than a manuscript of Clarice Lispector’s writing in process.

*

Such a manuscript has long been a scholarly grail. With the exception of Água Viva, which exists in two versions, and some works left unfinished at her death, her drafts do not exist. They must have, at some point: she claimed to have rewritten The Apple in the Dark eleven times. But none of these versions have survived. In any case, she claimed never to revise or reread published work. “When I reread what I’ve written,” she said to a friend, “I feel like I’m swallowing my own vomit.”

As she came into maturity, her writing came to recall poetry as Wordsworth defined it, “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The appearance of spontaneous overflow was a hallmark of her style. Like Frans Hals or Vincent van Gogh, she seemed to be an action painter; she wrote, rumor would later have it, in a trance. But to see these revisions is to discover—as when viewing a painting with x-rays—that beneath the furious surface lurks a deliberate and painstaking architecture.

To see these several stages is to see how much, and for how long, The Besieged City obsessed her. She began it in 1946; the second edition dates to 1964. This means that, in some form or another, she was working on this book for eighteen years. Even when she was still in Bern, her protracted rewriting shocked her housekeeper. It was better to be a cook than a writer, the woman told her employer — since “if you put too much salt in the food, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Clarice wrote her sister:

I’m struggling with the book, which is horrible. How did I find the courage to publish the other two? I don’t know how to forgive the thoughtlessness of writing. But I’ve already based myself entirely on writing and if that desire goes, there won’t be anything left. So that’s the way it has to be. But I’ve reached the conclusion that writing is what I want more than anything else in the world, even more than love.

Her letters from Switzerland show she was severely depressed; it may not be too much to say that, with this book, her life was on the line. Was that why it was so hard to let go? When she did, she was embarrassed that she clung to it so ardently. The claim on the errata that she had not overseen its publication is untrue, for example: she was in Rio for several months before the book came out, and never returned to Switzerland.

In the second edition, she cleans up some grammar: the last sentence of Chapter 4, in the first edition, could refer either to Lucrécia or to the living room; the second edition resolves this. She changes pronouns to names—“Lucrécia” instead of “she”—or replaces the neutral pronoun with something explicit: “An instant when one would express oneself ” becomes “An instant when she’d express herself.” She minimizes the passive voice: “resistance itself would have been broken so often before” becomes “she’d have so often before broken resistance itself.”

This is tidying: copyediting. Elsewhere, she inserts the word “já” (now, already), a quickening additional syllable. She adds: beginning Chapter 5 with “A bit later,” for example. She ex-plains: “she rubbed the railing with her sleeve” becomes “she rubbed the railing of the Library with her sleeve.” In the same chapter, she eliminates “like telegram signals.” And in Chapter 7, she even strikes a sentence—“The mornings were humid in São Geraldo”—that she had inserted in the errata.

*

The most significant changes have the effect of cracking a window, opening a door. Throughout, she breaks up the long black blocs of the first edition, splitting paragraphs into five, six, and even seven separate sections. This extra white space allows the reader to move down the page with far greater ease.

Stranger is the punctuation. Breaking rhythms, adding pauses, shifting emphases, hundreds of commas are sprinkled throughout, changing the music of her prose, clarifying difficult passage—and then, just as often, muddying them further, weird little hairs in the soup. She changes some passages. Others, exactly comparable, she stets.

Yet there is nothing offhand about her punctuation. “My punctuation is my breath,” she said. In the 1950s, she haughtily ordered the French publisher of Near to the Wild Heart to lay off her commas: “You will agree that the elementary principles of punctuation are taught in every school.” At the end of the 1960s, when she began writing for the Rio newspaper Jornal do Brasil, she impressed upon her editor, over and over again, that the young woman was not to disturb “so much as a comma.”

The theme crops up constantly. This insistence, and the attention she paid to The Besieged City over nearly two decades, makes the changes she chose not to make as noteworthy as those she did. The longer one studies them, the more cryptic they come to seem. One can only conclude that this mystery was at least partially the point. In November 1958, an editor wrote to invite her to contribute to a new magazine: “We would like to read your stories which we never considered intelligible.”

The appeal was well-phrased. She sent the stories.

*

One challenge of translating The Besieged City is its range of “vision words”: divisar, encarar, enxergar, espiar, fitar, observar, olhar, parecer, perceber, pressentir, prever, rever, sentir, ver, vigiar. With all their aspects, in all the idioms they populate, embroidered by Clarice Lispector’s poetic usages, they describe nuances of seeing. Sometimes Lucrécia looks or sees instead of saying or thinking: “This city is mine, the woman looked.” Sometimes these words are used in ways that are hard to understand.

Yet if the language can be inscrutable, there is nothing unintelligible about Lucrécia Neves. Unlike the protagonists of Clarice’s first two novels, Lucrécia is vain and pretentious, content to remain on the surface. Lucrécia—there it is in her name—is lucre, just another one of the porcelain knickknacks in her mother’s sitting room: “Behold, behold, all of her, terribly physical, one of the objects.” Her ambitions are material, and she is the most insolently superficial woman Clarice ever portrayed.

But another way to read Lucrécia’s “objectification” appears when placed alongside Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, also published in 1949. This book, too, shows how women see and are seen. Beauvoir understands human relations as a battle of gazes, and the battle between men and woman is fought between one who looks and one who is looked at; subject and object; master and slave. The male gaze is the default, to which women must adapt. Male pronouns are universal: “man” encompasses woman but “woman” does not encompass man. Man is the first sex. Woman is the second.

Woman therefore “becomes an object; and she grasps her-self as an object,” Beauvoir writes. “Once she has accepted her vocation as sex object, she enjoys adorning herself.” This is the objectification—particularly Lucrécia’s tacky, frivolous savoring of it—that Clarice Lispector ironizes. Lucrécia lacks the fire, the rebelliousness, of the girls in Clarice’s early stories. Instead, like the objectified women Beauvoir describes, she endeavors to make herself into a thing—and succeeds.

To do so, a woman must discern, distinguish, foresee, look, observe, perceive, see, seem, spy, watch. Her tool in this under-ground work is the mirror, which, properly employed, will help her turn herself into an ideal—a shiny object, a public statue. In the mirror, she contemplates “her marvelous double,” Beauvoir writes: “the promise of happiness, a work of art, a living statue.” Lucrécia is “a statue at whose feet, during civic festivals, flowers would be placed,” and who aspires to be a faceless Greek fragment: “Dreaming of being Greek was the only way not to scandalize oneself.”

…she estranges herself from the perfect language, the language beyond words, “beyond thought.”

At first, Lucrécia, like the horses, kicks; she, too, has hooves. Through contemplating herself at the mirror and cannily adapting to its demands, she is dehorsed. Marriage completes the task begun in girlhood: “ The recently married woman felt it had been years since she’d seen a cow or a horse.”

*

After the second edition of 1964, Clarice would not muck with the text again. But she never spoke of any of her books as insistently as she spoke of this one. She often mentioned it in interviews. “I was pleasantly surprised to learn that some people who had read The Besieged City and who hadn’t liked or under-stood it on their first reading, identified more with the work when they reread it,” she said in 1960. In 1970, she wondered, in response to an unnamed critic’s incomprehension: “Does this mean I couldn’t bring to the fore the book’s intentions?”

In A Breath of Life, the great work left unfinished at her death, Clarice Lispector returned one last time to this book. The writings she produced in the three decades since she began The Besieged City unfolded numinous meanings that are only latent—subjacent—here. They provide the key that was missing at the time of publication. A retrospective knowledge of Clarice Lispector’s work shows that Lucrécia’s thing-ness is not merely sexual, or sociological: it represents the mystery of the creation, by God, of the being—and the creation, by the being, of the thing.

“The object—the thing—always fascinated me and in a certain sense destroyed me. In my book The Besieged City I speak indirectly about the mystery of the thing. The thing is a specialized and immobilized animal,” she wrote in A Breath of Life. The word “thing” acquires layer upon layer of resonance in Clarice’s work, and comes, finally, to represent an aspiration, both linguistic and spiritual. “People speak, or rather, used to speak so much about my ‘words,’ about my ‘phrases,’ ” she wrote of this book. “As if they were verbal. Yet not one, not a single one, of the words in the book was—a game. Each of them essentially meant some thing.”

The objectification of Lucrécia is a warning, as it would have been for Simone de Beauvoir. But it is also a kind of terrifying ideal. “What did I mean to say through Lucrécia—a character without the weapons of intelligence, who aspires, nonetheless, to that kind of spiritual integrity of a horse, who doesn’t ‘share’ what it sees, who has no mental or ‘vocabular vision’ of things,” Clarice wrote in her answer to the critic in 1970. Lucrécia’s desire to escape from language connects her to other figures in Clarice’s work, from Virgínia in The Chandelier to Martim in The Apple in the Dark to G. H. in The Passion According to G. H. In that book, Clarice reveals the full horror of stripping away everything a person sees in a mirror: false personality; clichéd, received language; all the sticky deposits that gather on our animal soul, and give it, for ourselves and for others, an intelligible form.

It may seem ironic that any writer should seek to escape the “vocabular vision.” But Clarice Lispector was a mystic. That is why Lucrécia’s identification with the horses is so revealing, and fraught. She tries to drown wordlessness, “that feels no need to complete impression with expression,” with babble. As she does, she estranges herself from the perfect language, the language beyond words, “beyond thought.” The Greek word for horse is álogo—“unreasoning, without speech.” Could becoming a Greek horse be the only way to avoid scandalizing oneself?

*

Yet the struggle against objectification in the concrete, sociological, Beauvoirian sense—the struggle between intelligibility and unintelligibility—is present in this book too. The incomprehension that greeted this book had serious, nearly fatal, consequences for her career. Her next novel was rejected, year after demoralizing year, by every good publisher in Brazil—and by lots of bad ones, too. The Apple in the Dark would only come out in 1961, twelve years after The Besieged City.

Her tool in this under-ground work is the mirror, which, properly employed, will help her turn herself into an ideal.

Clarice spent the 50s in Chevy Chase, in the Washington suburbs. Far from home, unable to publish, struggling with one of her sons’ mental illness, she was also trapped in a marriage that, while unsatisfying, was not abusive or particularly miserable. Indeed, it offered advantages: a partner who loved her, stability for her children, financial freedom to pursue her writing. Marriage also allowed her to avoid the stigma that, in those days, attached to any Brazilian woman who left her husband.

Yet the battle did not relent between the diplomatic spouse—by all accounts she was exceptionally capable—and the creature “straight from the zoo” that explodes from her early books. She was tormented by awareness of the phoniness into which her husband’s role pressed her. “I remembered a time in which I arrived at the refinement (!?) of having the waiter at home pass fingerbowls to all the guests in the following way: every fingerbowl had a rose petal floating in the liquid,” she wrote.

Already in Switzerland, she was taking barbiturates. Throughout her years abroad, she struggled against what Sartre and Beauvoir called “bad faith”—the temptation to slide into anesthesia. The woman who makes herself an object was one of the three types of woman that Beauvoir catalogued as acting in bad faith; but the existentialists, who had seen the agonizing conflicts that arose under Nazi occupation, knew that the calculations leading to bad faith were not flippantly made.

Surrender, for many people, was a matter of life and death. It could be lavishly rewarded — and not only in the form of the hotels and haberdashers to which Lucrécia, following her marriage, ascends. The choice between Clarice Lispector and Clarice Gurgel Valente was not one that could be swiftly resolved. Beauvoir nonetheless insisted that a woman must choose freedom over the tawdry temptation of happiness.

The Besieged City was written amidst this struggle. This may be why, for every passage she clarified in her revisions, she left another rough—sometimes roughed it up more. To go through it carefully is to see passages as grammatically gristly as anything this difficult writer ever wrote. To see everything she left unexplained is to see her resistance to the reflexive—to see her wavering between good faith and bad.

Good faith meant commercial failure and critical befuddlement, the end of her marriage and the breakup of her family. But Clarice Lispector was not resigned to obyezloshadenie. In 1959, she left her husband and returned with her two sons to Rio de Janeiro. Then, in 1964, the year of the second edition of The Besieged City, she published The Passion According to G. H.It made no concessions. The horses were back.

–Benjamin Moser
Les Eyzies-de-tayac, September 2018

Excerpted from THE BESIEGED CITY. Used with the permission of the publisher, NEW DIRECTIONS. Translated by Johnny Lorenz. Edited by Benjamin Moser. Copyright © 2019 by Clarice Lispector.

Benjamin Moser
Benjamin Moser
Benjamin Moser is the author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle award. At New Directions, he edits the new translation of Clarice Lispector's work, of which The Besieged City is the eighth volume. For promoting her work around the world, the Brazilian government awarded him the first State Prize in Cultural Diplomacy. A former books columnist at Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times Book Review, his latest book, Sontag: Her Life and Work, is coming in September from Ecco Press.





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