The following is from Clarice Lispector's second novel, The Chandelier. As a child, Virginia is inseparable from her brother Daniel. Growing up in the quiet countryside, the two form a philosophical club called Society of Shadows—they are the only two members. This is the first time The Chandelier has been translated into English. Clarice Lispector wrote over a dozen books, and since her death has been widely recognized as one of Brazil's greatest modern writers.
Before falling asleep, concentrated and magical, she would say farewell to things in a last instant of lightly illuminated consciousness. She knew that in the half-light “her things” were better living their own essence. “Her things”—she was thinking without words, sly inside her own darkness—“her things” like “her animals.” She would feel profoundly that she was surrounded by things living and dead and that the dead ones had been alive—she was feeling them with careful eyes. Slowly she’d go sub-understanding, living with caution and consideration; without knowing she was admitting her desire to see in the extinguished and dusty light bulb more than a light bulb. She didn’t know that she was thinking that if she saw just the light bulb she’d be on the wrong side of it and wouldn’t grasp its reality—mysteriously if she went beyond things she would grasp her center. Though she thought “her things” as if saying “her animals,” feeling that their effort wasn’t in having a human nucleus but in staying on a pure extra-human plane. She was barely understanding them and her life was of reserve, enchantment and relative happiness; she’d sometimes feel curled up into herself—wasn’t most of her existence thing? that was the feeling; most of her constellation was living with its own unknown force, following an imponderable path. And in truth if there were any possibility of her not being intimately quiet, by virtue of that inexpressible impression she would be. Seated at the table, looking at her fingers alone in the world, she was thinking confusedly with a precision without words that was like light and delicate movements, like a buzzing of thought: thoughts about things exist in things themselves without attaching to whoever observes them; thoughts about things come out of them as perfume frees itself from the flower, even if nobody smells it, even if nobody even knows that that flower exists . . .; the thought of the thing exists as much as the thing itself, not in words of explanation but as another order of facts; quick facts, subtle, visible exactly through some sense, as only the sense of smell perceives the flower’s perfume—she was resounding. The quality of her thought was merely a circular movement. She was noticing a scratch on her finger and attentive to life forgetting everything as through slumber is forgotten whatever was thought an instant before sleep. Like someone whose body needed salt as an essential substance and then ate it with thirsty pleasure—she’d always felt a simple and avid pleasure in making an effort and saying to herself clearly: I see a chair, a box of powder, an open pair of scissors, a black drawer . . . The great still-life in which she was living. Nevertheless she felt she was mixing things up, arranging them at her pleasure and bothering them. Ah, if I had time, just a little time, she seemed to be saying to herself with her head bent and confused. Anyway she’d noticed: when she’d open her eyes wide she’d see nothing. Except the words, thoughts made of words. When she’d stare with gaping eyes at her seated grandmother she’d lose the notion of the grandmother and see nothing, not even a little old lady. The truth was so fast. You had to squint. It was occurring to her in strange and swift seconds of vision that her communication with the world, that secret atmosphere that she was cultivating around herself like a darkness, was her final existence—beyond that border she herself was silent like a thing. And it was that final interior life that was carrying forth without lacuna the thread of her most elflike existence in childhood. The rest would stretch out horribly new, had created itself as if out of itself—that body of hers now and its habits. And that religion was so little rich and potent that it didn’t have ritual—its greatest gesture would exhaust itself in a quick and unnoticed glance, full of “I know, I know,” of a promise of fidelity and of mutual support in a closed and almost evil union; united and simple, no movement would symbolize it, it was the accepted mystery. Really however she didn’t know what was happening to her and her only way of knowing it was living it.
“She was trying to feel her past like a paralytic who uselessly gropes the unfeeling flesh of a limb, but naturally she knew her history as all people do.”
Only thus could she connect herself to the past of which she lacked the memory. Stripped of memory she was living her life simply without ecstasy; yet a strange attention would sometimes overtake her, vaguely she was trying to think how she had emerged from childhood toward the ground, she was trying to orient herself to no avail; in an odd moment it would seem to her that she’d lived the same instant in another age, in another color and in another sound—her rhythm would suddenly break off, she would halt and with a calm made of shock and caution fumble in her interior, try to discover. As soon however as she became aware of this nebulous and dark examination she would rush into a confused sweetness, in the understanding of the impossibility and bewildered for a second she would lose her daring footsteps. She would seek with patience to remember more clearly her girlhood without events; some fact would arise in her memory like pillars spread out in a lucidity without foundation. As soon as she got close to them she would feel them dissolve at her touch. What had she lived off back then? she was gathering some poor facts that weren’t really dug up on her own but by the remembered word of others or by the recollection of already having managed to remember, she was assembling them, organizing them but she lacked a fluid that might solder their extremities into a single principle of life. Events were aligning spaced out, solid, hard; while the way of living was always imponderable. A certain effort would cause the memory to return, a certain attitude that she couldn’t quite figure out as if not finding a good sleeping position on a night of insomnia. Ah, if only I had time, she’d shake her head in reproach and pity. She knew she’d never quite have it. The place where she had been born—she was vaguely surprised that it still existed as if it too belonged to what is lost. She herself was now living on her feet like a raised column—what was left behind was the world before the column, a warm and intimate time, yet if she’d think about it trying to revive it, suddenly an impersonal time, fresh air coming from an abyss of sluggish clouds. She was trying to feel her past like a paralytic who uselessly gropes the unfeeling flesh of a limb, but naturally she knew her history as all people do. She was seeing herself separate from her own birth and yet was feeling diffusely that she must be somehow prolonging childhood in a single uninterrupted line and that without knowing herself developing something initiated in forgetting. The Society of Shadows . . .—she was all of a sudden smiling palely while her eyes were shining for an instant and were extinguished in the effort of reconstruction. The Society of Shadows . . . She was remembering that she and Daniel lived in little secrets, frightened; little secrets . . . was that it? no, no. Above all she had always possessed an extraordinary memory for inventing facts. Yes, and that they would meet in the clearing, yes, in the clearing. How they must have experienced fear . . . one is so courageous as a child; is that it? after they’d agreed to tell Father about Esmeralda’s meetings in the garden. Poor Esmeralda, but why? she didn’t know, the truth is that she’d told, Father had shouted, she herself had pretended to faint or really had fainted . . . so sly! life had changed then, she was sure of that, certainly because she was no longer a girl at all; then she’d sew, go on walks, visit some houses in Upper Marsh, serious, silent, Daniel would help their father at the stationer’s. Though she didn’t remember that period with clarity—she was living so much each day—she now felt she was being impatient with herself. Except what she didn’t forget—she was smiling—was that someone had drowned himself in the river . . . it might have just been a hat but they’d been frightened. In any case she was keeping the secret. Ah, she’d gone into the basement, the basement! and was that important? her memory was dissolving into shadow, the splendor going out in sweet and poor silence. A profound fatigue, a certain befuddlement was taking her over, anyway nothing had ever happened to her . . . and so why that awareness of a mystery to preserve, that gaze that meant having existed ineffably. She was vaguely aware that she’d already once lived going beyond the moments in a happy blindness that was giving her the power to follow the shadow of a thought over the course of a day, a week, a year. And that mysteriously was living perfecting oneself in the darkness without obtaining so much as a reward for that imponderable perfection. Later she’d try to tell Vicente things about her childhood and about Daniel and surprised would hear him say laughing: I already know more or less what you two were like, but what did you actually do? So she hadn’t told him anything? she’d stay quiet and scared. You could wear yourself out just being; every minute that had passed she had been, she had been. She couldn’t tolerate talking about herself, she gathered herself up insoluble, anguished—in short the essential thing would escape words spoken and that was in the end the feeling of having lived whatever she’d recounted; the delicate incessant indecision of a life seemed to be in its relationship with whoever was living it, in the intimate awareness of its contact. Sometimes she’d manage some thing similar to herself. It was however an easy and almost skilled freedom, a process of freedom—a power being used and not something moving forward while still creating itself; the difference that might exist between something that had been flung into the air and something that could fly on its own. Every once in a while however the imitation would manage to be more truthful than the thing imitated and would almost reveal it for an instant. What she was reaching was a form of memory.
Ah yes, she would have liked to move into the future so that the present might already be past and she again might try to understand it as if this game of losing were summoning her to a vice or a mystery. She was trying to be sincere as if that were the way of seeing reality; never could she then sum up her current life without joining facts to facts and not reaching the feelings themselves. Three times a week she could go to Vicente’s house and love him because three times a week he would hand in to the magazines whatever he was working on three times a week. The other days were a great white pause. She would wake up, drink water, sit down in the living room deposited in the flowery robe that stretched across her breasts and behind—Mother, Mother arising through her. She’d pace back and forth without knowing what to do with herself as if she had more body than she needed. She’d hardly feed herself. But suddenly something in her would break down and her being would eat with great gusto, violently, miserly, bonbons, sweets, very spicy dishes—she who had always been frugal like a plant. After thinking for an entire day about a food that was for sale very far away, she’d decide to go out and buy it and gained in life. She’d bring it home shuddering with impatience and devour it. With empty, tired, slightly dumbfounded eyes, she’d fall asleep heavily. After Vicente she’d grown fatter, and since she was somewhat tall, her body was now existing with twice the power, more firm. Her waist had grown more pronounced, her skin had lost its dryness and the gilding of the sun and stretched out smooth and white—her hips had broadened and now she was a woman. But her face had lost its vague fire. She’d keep calm with a slightly outmoded appearance like a recent arrival. Only in white did she acquire an urbane tone and as if she felt it she chose that color for her best attire. But without the outings, without space for a broad life, she was always tired. Her hands playing distractedly on the table, she’d even imagine that it wouldn’t be long now before she died because a constant force was attracting her toward the earth and sleep was useless, inside it she did not find repose. She was getting the impression that she’d already lived everything despite not being able to say in which moments. And at the same time her whole life appeared able to be summed up in a small gesture forward, a light daring and then in a soft wince without pain, and no path then to head down—without landing straight on the ground, suspended in the atmosphere almost without comfort, almost comfortable, with the tired languor that precedes sleep. Yet around her things were living so violently sometimes. The sun was fire, the earth solid and possible, plants were sprouting alive, trembling, whimsical, houses were made so that in them bodies could be sheltered, arms would wrap around waists, for every being and for every thing there was another being and another thing in a union that was a burning end with nothing beyond. In reality however she possessed a harmony of her own, yes, yes, yes, like a flower that makes up a whole from its petals. Which didn’t stop the despair of the things that she was not from at times being born from her heart and stopping her from getting too filled with whatever she had never possessed, so ambitious and envious she had always been.
She’d returned from Vicente’s house feeling ill, her body was aching, she’d vomited with wide, sad eyes. On the second day of illness the fever rose. She was no longer feeling especially envious. She looked at herself in the mirror, saw her sparkling and motionless eyes, her parted lips. Her breathing was burning her chest, it was wheezing and superficial. She was going to go back to the table and sit but in a sudden movement of almost unexpected rage entered her bedroom, got dressed and went out, the gestures united in one single push by the fever that didn’t let her pay attention to the time that was elapsing. The fresh wind was pacifying the heat of her body and her face—and that was connecting itself almost immediately to the instant of rage. She felt so weak that her limbs were giving out at times; then she would lean on a tram post pretending to await transport. She finally sat on a garden bench and lost for long and hollow minutes the awareness of herself and of the place where she found herself. When understanding returned like a heart that starts beating again with power, she was in the middle of a thought whose beginning she couldn’t remember: so it’s preferable to give . . . so it’s preferable to give . . . Children were playing ring-around-the-rosy, their shouts sparkling in the garden, resplendent drops of the water from the fountain filling the air with fine glitter. She couldn’t look at it, lowering her injured eyes and fixing them to the dark earth, to the grass pacifying and tender as in a cold balm. The clean children with bows in their hair were now playing badminton living extraordinarily. The cries were piercing her with effort and one of the stranger ones was freezing inside her, she was gnawing on it astonished still hearing it almost as if touching it with her fingers, crystallized in dark scarlet, running with a vacant shimmering along a sinuous ribbon . . . she was growling it without understanding it, without understanding the world, horrified and calm. The birdie crashed at her feet. One of the children shouted at her:
She looked at them in silence without a movement. They came near, peered at her with attention and curiosity, the little intelligent eyes examining her face, approaching like trusting rats. They formed a semicircle of waiting and silence. The skinny girl who was waiting for the birdie howled from far off with the veins of her neck bulging:
Since nobody was answering, she herself came over, put her hands on her waist, her body hitched up, extended her neck forward. She furrowed her face as if the sun were out and set to looking at Virgínia. She was staring at the children mute; suddenly an onset of rage overtook her while in the interior of her body a wave of more ardent breathing was moving:
“What is it?”
A few girls put their hands on their mouths hiding little laughs.
“Her hands playing distractedly on the table, she’d even imagine that it wouldn’t be long now before she died because a constant force was attracting her toward the earth and sleep was useless, inside it she did not find repose.”
“What, so we’re not allowed to look!” said the most daring one, with a cunning and cynical face, launching the attack. They all laughed aroused, ready for some new thing. Terror overtook Virgínia, she pursed her lips, felt lost. She looked at them helpless and cautious while her empty head was throbbing like a heart. With swift, feverish thinking that was almost painfully intense, she was needing to please them—she spoke with a humble demeanor, aﬄicted and hard, observing them: “You know, I’m not feeling well. Can you believe I haven’t eaten for two days, I only drink tea!”—she stared at them dismayed, they were backing off surprised by the change, seeming to doubt her sincerity and scrutinizing her as if it might be some story invented for children.
“You’re lying”—said one girl with watchful, black eyes, short braids, a dark-skinned and decided face.
“No, I’m not, that’s how it is, I swear!”—her hot breath was spreading close to her face—in a sudden inspiration she said to the one who must be the most important: “touch here”— and extended her hand placing it on the girl’s arm, waiting for some sign in her face that she felt the heat of her fever. Soon she saw with enormous pleasure several little hurried hands reaching toward her, touching with curiosity and caution her arm, her fingers, her hand. A boy who was running by halted, came over, and without understanding what he was doing, advanced, touched with care and astonishment Virgínia’s arm, hesitated, lifted his hand to her shoulder.
“She really is hot!” the children were saying looking at one another stunned, moving busy and excited.
“You don’t have a father or a mother?” asked one blonde wearing white linen chambray, her face delicate, exact, and fine. Virgínia seemed profoundly surprised.
“I do, I do,” she said to the young creature, assenting feverish, running her tongue across her dry lips.
“And why aren’t they taking care of you?” inquired the strong little dark-skinned girl in surprise.
“You know, they live far away, that’s because . . .”
“Oh I know,” said the boy with a sudden intelligent look, “I know, you don’t have money to go back!”
“Why to go back? how do you know about these things?” asked Virgínia.
“Just yesterday the maid at home didn’t have money to go back,” said the boy with a certain pride.
“Ah yes, ah yes,”—Virgínia was seeming to meditate.
“So? did you figure it out?” asked the oldest girl, the skinny one.
“Yes, I figured it out, I’ll go back . . .” said Virgínia looking them with fury, disguising it. “I’ll go back, I’ll go back. And now can I go?” she inquired with an indecisive, almost timid air. They looked surprised, glanced at one another quickly without answering. The dark one shook her braids:
“Who was keeping you?”
The others said—“yeah, right!” They laughed a bit wrinkling their noses at the sudden sun that had appeared. Virgínia got up, the children now with their heads raised, hands on their foreheads protecting themselves against the glare, they were retreating watching. She said:
“Fine, goodbye,” she was hesitating as if it were dangerous to withdraw. A few answered goodbye, the little blonde pressed her hand one last time with force on Virgínia’s arm. Virgínia had taken a few steps when the boy ran up shouting:
“Miss! miss! the maid said that when she’d go back she’d buy a ticket in that yellow station, you know, that big one . . .”
Virgínia was stopping listening to him in silence. The boy had nothing else to say, he was waiting. He seemed annoyed:
“So, that’s what I wanted to say . . .”
“Yes, yes, thanks a lot really, really . . .”
When she passed a nearby bench a lady dressed in blue, without a hat, with a big purse, was seeming to say something to her. She stopped, bent her head: ah, yes, the woman had watched the scene, hadn’t heard anything and was asking her out of pure curiosity, with a certain overfamiliar and malicious eagerness, what had happened.
“The world is full of naughty children,” she said showing that she’d be understanding about any fact that Virgínia might tell.
“Yes,” said Virgínia and moved away. The garden was spread in long horizontal lines, the grass was swaying in the fluctuating shadows of the branches, the air was stretching out bright, softly electric. And suddenly warm drops of water started to fall. She took shelter in the gazebo along with a fat old man, with a heart condition, who was slowly gasping with fright and pity, his eyes staring at the rain as at hopeless disaster. A sluggish, thick, and noiseless rain was falling, filling the space with long shining streaks.
The next day, yes it had been at that time, she’d visited the young doctor. He was laughing imitating her. With a falsely paternal demeanor he would brush his body against hers, brush against her cheek that face with two days of beard growth while on the other cheek he was giving her little slaps . . . while she surprised and confused was feeling almost good, very good—he was tall and pale and women were worthless to him. He had a wedding ring; how could you ever guess his relations with his wife? He was getting closer in that calm, white office and she was still sitting on the table where he’d examined her quickly. He’d had two nights of childbirth in a row, he’d said at the beginning with tact and ceremony, hadn’t even been able to shave, he was saying as she was taking off her hat while carefully storing the hairpins. And after he examined her they sat talking, he was losing his coldness, joking so intimately, so distantly . . . in the white, clean office seeing her as just anyone, desiring her without sadness, not even waiting for her to let him try something, just wanting to make himself desired, cheerful, mischievous, and distracted, having fun with his own virility. Yet serious, his eyes watchful and mobile.
“But doctor . . .”
He had moved off for a second looking at her with a severe appearance, imitating her solemn and hoarse voice: “—but doctor! . . .” A weight was lightly squeezing her neck, her arms, she was feeling a shapeless taste of blood in her throat and in her mouth as always when she’d feel fear and hope—she could overturn some idea and accept the adventure, yes, the adventure that he wasn’t offering her. From a new center in her body, from her stomach, from her reborn breasts a sharp thought, desperate and profoundly happy, was radiating outward, without words she was wanting him, in an instant he was becoming some thing prior to Vicente. Without sadness, as if on holiday, to rush into the future! and since he was coming even closer, she awkwardly, quick, brushed her mouth against that cheek rough like a man, near the ear . . . He looked at her fast shocked and odd! she was wavering with open eyes, the office was spinning around red, a heavy and grave blushing rose to her neck and face while she was trying to make excuses with a difficult and foolish smile. He looked at her attentively for an instant, with wisdom touched upon certain common words and suddenly everything was dissolving into a simple joke. She looked at him dry and ardent, extended her hand to him, he said leading her: don’t get mad, nausea means nothing, you can tell your boyfriend . . . , she exited the office entered the dark, crimson, somber, luxurious and so cool elevator. When she received the dusty, luminous, and strident air of the street she walked fast, free. Little by little she went more slowly through the afternoon, choosing broad streets. A certain indifferent and opaque serenity was making her movements easy and the rest of the day simple—she’d forget, Virgínia, she’d forget. But she’d passed a woman beside her with a perfume of lemon, water, and grass, frightened and penetrating, a smell of lemon and grass—like a horse her legs gained a nervous, happy, and lucid power. Quiet Farm. She was inhaling the mysterious perfume that nonetheless was emerging. Because it was so . . . so alive . . . so . . . , she gave up, pulled back her head feeling herself lacking the courage to go on so strong was her hope. The sun shone pale on the sidewalk, a cold wind pierced the whole afternoon, she hurried her body clenched with power, her heart trembling as if a pure feeling had passed through it . . . a great fatigue that was made of ecstasy, bemusement, permission, and perfume seized her and without being bothered, softened, she felt that her eyes were filling with tears because of the doctor and that they were starting to run warm and radiant down her cheek. She went onto a staircase and blew her nose; she was wanting to alight on the same fluctuating, iridescent, and hard feeling but didn’t know which thought to focus the sensation on, so incomprehensible and fleeting was the world.
She later understood that the doctor had assured her that she wasn’t pregnant . . . How Vicente would laugh. She herself thought she’d never have children. She’d never even feared them as if through some quiet understanding of her most secret nature she knew that her body was the end of her body, that her life was her last life. Ah she liked children; life with them was so rich . . . so . . .—the rest was being lost in a gesture without force, almost inexpressive. But how to watch a life weaker than her own? she’d avoid children with care and when faced with them a desire would quickly possess her, the desire to escape, to seek out people to whom she could give nothing. Above all she wasn’t one of those women who have children. And if someday she made them be born, she’d still be one of those women who don’t have children. And if all the life she’d live should diverge from the one she ought to have lived, she would be as she ought to have been—what she could have been was herself profoundly, ineffably, not out of courage, not out of joy, and not out of awareness but out of the inevitability of the power of existence. Nothing would rob her of the unity of her origin and the quality of her first breath, though these might be entombed beneath their own opposite. In reality she knew little about whatever was hiding beneath her undeniable life. But not dissolving herself, not giving herself, denying her own errors and even never erring, to keep herself intimately glorious—all that was the fragile initial and immortal inspiration of her life.
From The Chandelier. Used with permission of New Directions. Copyright © 2018 by Clarice Lispector.