The Real Clarice: A Conversation with Magdalena Edwards




AS A FELLOW Angeleno translator, I kept tabs on Magdalena Edwards’s progress as she translated Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier, watching from across town and occasionally hearing about her progress in greater detail over coffee while my hairless Mexican dog sat in her lap. I understand the elation and the slog of translating dense, stylized prose like Lispector’s, and watching a colleague move through the process of completing a book-length translation felt to me like an affirmation of the importance of what we translators do. I was pleased when Edwards invited me to introduce her at the book’s launch at The Last Bookstore, and this conversation, borne out of many months of briefer prior chats, commenced then, as we corresponded over email, from Brazil and England and Iraq, Echo Park, and Santa Monica, about this book, Lispector’s distinct sophomore novel, her ever-growing cult status here in the United States, and issues of translation.

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DAVID SHOOK: The Chandelier is Clarice Lispector’s second novel, considerably longer and more difficult than her first, and stylistically distinct from her later work, which I suspect is now better known in English. How do you make sense of its place in Lispector’s oeuvre?

MAGDALENA EDWARDS: When Clarice Lispector burst on the literary scene in December 1943 with her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, published when she was 23 years old, she had already started writing her second novel, The Chandelier. Lispector’s first novel has short chapters with pithy titles like “Joana’s Joys” and “The Marriage” and “The Viper.” Lispector’s second novel, which she would complete in November 1944, is the story of a dreamy girl named Virgínia and has eight chapter-like sections, but they are not obviously delineated with titles or numbers. Long meditative passages shift from reality to memory to fantasy and suddenly everything blurs. It’s not uncommon for a paragraph in The Chandelier to go on for more than a page. Lispector biographer Nádia Gotlib writes that Lispector “always referred to it as the book that ‘despite being a sad book,’ gave her enormous pleasure to write. She ends up affirming that it was the book that gave her in fact the most pleasure.” [1] Teresa Montero, author of another Lispector biography and editor of several volumes of her work, describes the writer’s impatience with the critics’ reaction to The Chandelier, or rather, the lack thereof: “The silence surrounding her new novel seemed incomprehensible to her. In her opinion, a critic that praised an author’s first book has the obligation at least to take note of the second one, to destroy or accept it.” [2] The New York Times’s Parul Sehgal senses, in The Chandelier, “Lispector’s entire body of work, in miniature, biding its time.” The book, she writes, is “a vulnerable and moving performance”: “Lispector is flexing, coming into her power. She’s playing, she’s practicing. These pages are full of finger exercises, arpeggios of thought and perception.” Sehgal goes on to suggest that the novel “might best be understood as a bridge in Lispector’s work.” I love this idea of The Chandelier as a bridge, and a pleasurable one.

To all of this I would add that the music at the level of the sentence is unique in The Chandelier compared to Lispector’s other texts. For me the great challenge was to remain as true as possible to the intensity of this music, the rhythm and arrangement of her sentences, many of which are extremely long, labyrinthine, and they rush along and rise and crest and begin to build again. While living inside that music, while hearing it and trying to capture it in English, I had to do my best not to lose track of any adjectives or verb conjugations or subject-object agreements that are all needed to reproduce the meaning of each sentence accurately. What I’m saying is that this novel has two parallel modes of composition: the meaning present in the language, composed of sentences, and the meaning present in the music, composed of sounds. You can hear it in the very first sentence of the novel: “Ela seria fluida durante toda a vida.” It’s a relatively short sentence with a straightforward rhyme — “fluida” and “vida” — fluid or flowing and life, which don’t rhyme at all in English: “She’d be flowing all her life” versus “Ela seria fluida durante toda a vida” … Clarice, who was also a translator — she began publishing translations from French, Spanish, and English into Portuguese in 1941 and continued throughout her life — said of the process: “[T]ranslation can run the risk of never ending: the more you go back, the more you have to tweak and re-tweak.” [3]

What are some examples of the kind of decisions you had to make to preserve the intense musicality you describe?

There are so many examples! Every line on every page is part of the musical score also known as The Chandelier. In the spirit of taking a risk, I want to offer two re-tweaks of the novel’s opening sentence. The first is mine and the second belongs to Idra Novey, who translated Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. (New Directions, 2012). Both attempts are the product of a delicious exchange between translators. First: “She would be fluid all her life.” You can hear the echoing of the “d” consonant, a sound that punctuates the flow four times in the original sentence: “Ela seria fluida durante toda a vida.” And second: “She would be flowing her whole life.” Here we have the repetition of the vowel sound “o” and precisely on “whole” and “flowing” or “fluida,” one of the words that rhymes in the original. Music lost, music gained. From the first sentence you get a sense of the failure inherent in the process of translation, the violence even, as a translator friend of mine says. And yet, you can’t quit after the first line. You have to find the music and sustain it, which brings me to the opening of a long passage where we find Virgínia under “the shade of a tree” and “surrounded by empty instants”: “She was thinking small and clear music that was stretching a single thread and unfurling bright, fluorescent and moist, water in water, meditating a silly arpeggio. She was thinking un­translatable sensations distracting herself secretly as if humming, profoundly unaware and stubborn, she was thinking a single swift streak” and then the sentence tumbles into a meditation that goes on for about a third of the page, not swift at all. I want to put my finger on the “small and clear music” mingled with the “untranslatable sensations” along with the “single swift streak.” All of these elements coexist in Clarice’s original Portuguese: “música pequena e límpida,” “sensações intraduzíveis,” “um só traço fugaz” … And I’m humbled to say that I’ve done everything I could do to unfurl these, and the surrounding instants that make up O lustre, into their present sound.

One of the great joys of working on The Chandelier has been the ongoing process of discovery. I recently learned during a Skype conversation with the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club, held at the Brazilian Embassy in London and organized by Nadia Kerecuk, that Hélène Cixous discusses The Chandelier quite carefully in her book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Cixous translates the opening of The Chandelier as: “She would be fluid all her life, but…” [4] Given that the opening of the original novel is a short sentence — “Ela seria fluida durante toda a vida” — where does Cixous get what comes next in her translation, “but”? The next sentence in the original begins: “Porém o que dominara seus contornos…” (“But what had dominated her edges…”). It’s a separate sentence. Cixous chooses to emphasize the flowing fluidity of the “she” — Virgínia — when she links the first and second sentence with a comma that does not exist in Clarice’s Portuguese. She changes the punctuation and the music of the original. Is Cixous wrong to do this? Does she fundamentally change the meaning? I don’t know … Each translator will make choices that others may not agree with, and no translation can ever be a perfect copy, a linguistic facsimile, of the original. That is the beauty and the treachery of translation.

What are some of the other specific challenges that come with translating an author like Lispector, whose work was so groundbreaking and whose person — heralded both as the most important Jewish writer since Kafka and the greatest Brazilian writer since Machado de Assis — has become so iconic?

The challenges of translating Clarice are also the privileges. It’s a double-edged experience. I’ve joined a big party with big personalities where Clarice is the star — and my saying this to you immediately makes her novel The Hour of the Star all the more prescient. Excuse me for a moment while my mind is blown …

Lispector has an incredibly robust legacy held up by a diverse community of readers, translators, scholars, writers, and artists in Brazil and around the world. I experienced this at the recent Lispector conference at Oxford University in November 2017. I encountered lively and inclusive conversations about every aspect of her oeuvre, including a fascinating presentation on Clarice Lispector in the Digital Age by Karyn Mota, a scholar from Rio de Janeiro who is currently pursuing her doctorate at Brown. What Mota’s Oxford talk made clear is that we currently have an ecosystem of “internautas” (people surfing the internet) who engage with Clarice, or chimeras of her, daily on social media, namely on Twitter, and the obsessive multiplication and circulation of these often anonymous “micronarrativas” (micronarratives) are genies forever out of the bottle.

I had a brief moment of panic when it was time to begin translating The Chandelier, because I knew this would be the first published translation of the entire novel into English, an enormous responsibility and gift, but also a sure setup for failure … And then I realized that without question there would be new translations to come, hopefully several. A new translation is not a reason to dismiss, discard, or delete prior translations, of course. It’s an opportunity to add a new voice. For example, with Emily Wilson we’ve added the first female translator’s voice to the chorus of English-language translations of The Odyssey. I hope something similar will happen with The Chandelier — that this is the first of many translations into English, and that this dense and nourishing novel will also be translated into other artistic forms: poetry, theater, film, comic book, painting, and who knows what else? This depends on the translators-to-come.

Elizabeth Lowe, who translated Lispector’s The Stream of Life with Earl Fitz, has described to me her friendship with Clarice. I was particularly interested in Lowe’s insight into Clarice’s generous view of translation. Lowe recently Tweeted: “[Clarice’s] generous spirit opened doors to all translators and critics who approached her in good faith.” I’ve also read, in André Luís Gomes’s groundbreaking book Clarice em cena: as relações entre Clarice Lispector e o teatro, about the first theater staging of her work titled Perto do Coração Selvagem (after her first novel) in Rio de Janeiro in 1965–’66, directed by Fauzi Arap. Gomes writes about Arap’s later play Pano de boca, Clarice’s participation in the staging of it, and her interest in the theme of “mourning between author and character.” [5]

When I began to tackle the prose within The Chandelier, sentence by sentence, the work immediately became an intimate conversation, drenched in a kind of mourning, with the author of the original text. Our marathon-like exchange took me inside of her own creative process, which I began to inhabit with an obsessive devotion, the translator’s madness or exquisite fever dream. Each day I relished the smallest detail, and then the next one, and the next, in a state of unbreakable mania (flowing, all her life). For example, I delighted over the detail that Virgínia’s lover Vicente is a translator and that both of their names begin with the same letter, V, which appears in the first sentence of the novel: “Ela seria fluida durante toda a vida.” V for vida (life) and Virgínia and Vicente. You see what I mean?

I’m interested in how we in the English-language literary world construct our understanding of literatures written in other languages, and I’m often frustrated by how we allow the traditions of entire languages and regions to be represented so sparsely, by what seems like a mere handful of whichever writers have become most trendy. What factors do you think have caused Lispector to become so popular in English? Is her lionization fair — both to her readers and to her?

Some might say that once you find your favorite author featured in Twitter memes, it’s over. In my mind, such Lispector sightings are part of her avant la lettre strategy to resist capture. She will not be pinned down as a sacred cow of world literature or as an exemplar of anything. In her filmed interview from 1977, the year she died, she insists that she is not a professional writer, but rather an amateur and that this is how she maintains her freedom. I think about her online doppelgängers scattered across the social media landscape, and the pseudo-literary quotes misattributed to her and paired with dreamy photos of Ryan Gosling, and mostly I think these are a funny way of her saying, “Catch me if you can.”

I agree that it’s frustrating that we do not have abundant offerings of work from various languages, all the languages, in translation into English. And it is a disservice to everyone to have single authors represent entire traditions: Neruda is the Latin American poet, García Márquez is the Latin American novelist, and Lispector is, I guess, the Latin American woman writer person. That’s crazy! The oft-cited number is three percent of the literature published in the United States is in translation, and that statistic hasn’t budged much over the years. If we want more than a single author to represent entire traditions, we need to promote translation more actively.

I guess what I’m really curious about is about the moment when a writer crosses into the commercial mainstream — when they have what I might call their Bolaño Moment. Lispector has existed in English since the 1960s, but all of a sudden she’s everywhere [again?], from The New York Times to The Believer, despite having died in 1977. I’m not saying that she doesn’t deserve the attention — in my opinion, she clearly does — but I wonder how this resurgence got started.

Lispector as a world literature phenomenon is currently marketed in English by her English-language biographer Benjamin Moser, whose book Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press) was published in 2009, and by New Directions, which debuted its series of Lispector translations in 2011 with a new English version of The Hour of the Star translated by Moser, who is also the series editor. The current marketing language is that New Directions is resurrecting Lispector in English — she has been neglected and is finally getting her due. I don’t agree. Lispector in English has been very much alive and well since her first translations appeared in the 1960s. Early publications of Lispector in English include Elizabeth Bishop’s translations of three Lispector stories in The Kenyon Review in 1964 and Gregory Rabassa’s translation of The Apple in the Dark, released by Knopf in 1967. Other early translators include William L. Grossman and José Roberto Vasconcellos, Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz, Richard A. Mazzara and Lorri A. Parris, Alexis Levitin, and Suzanne Jill Levine. The newer set of translators include Katrina Dodson, Alison Entrekin, Johnny Lorenz, Idra Novey, Stefan Tobler, myself, Moser, and Rachel Klein, who translated a handful of stories that appeared in BOMB and The Paris Review, and … well, I think it’s important to emphasize that we’re only discussing English translations here.

There is also a constant flurry of Lispector-related publishing activity in Brazil. New editions and volumes of her work, books about her and her writing … Rocco, the Brazilian publisher that releases new volumes of her original writing, published a book of Lispector’s stories called Todos os contos in 2016 that is modeled on, and has the same cover as, The Complete Stories translated by Katrina Dodson and published by New Directions in 2015. Teresa Montero, one of Lispector’s Brazilian biographers, published a new book in September called O Rio de Clarice: passeio afetivo pela cidade (Autêntica, 2018), which is about Lispector’s Rio de Janeiro, the places that she frequented and that often appear in her writing.

The question at hand is whether Lispector’s lionization is fair to her and her readers. I would tweak the question and ask how does the cat stay in play. I believe Clarice wouldn’t, doesn’t, want to be caged, like a zoo animal on display. Lionization is a kind of caging, even death, for an author. How does an author on the world stage remain wild and free? I think Clarice offers many answers, and variations on this question, in The Chandelier and her other writing. Again, I feel that The Hour of the Star is an essential text here that offers a recipe for what to do if Clarice herself becomes an international export commodity like Coca-Cola or Marilyn Monroe. I think Katrina Dodson’s question — “Will the real Clarice Lispector please stand up?” — in her stunning Believer essay “Understanding is the Proof of Error” cuts handily to the chase. When an author becomes lionized, we are at risk of losing her completely in a sea of refraction — she becomes something or someone else a thousand times over. We’re always grasping at her, the real Clarice, and the hungrier we are for her, the more she evades us.

I know that you’re a writer and performer as well as a translator, and that you’ve recently performed a one-woman show based on Lispector’s work. Tell me about the show, and about Lispector’s influence more broadly on you as a writer.

I was invited to spend a few weeks at Yaddo, the artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, to work on my translation of Clarice’s The Chandelier in the summer of 2016. When I was there, I met many wonderful writers and visual artists and performers. It was during this intense creative time that the seedling of my one-woman show based on my experience translating the book emerged. I Wanna Be Robert De Niro opens with a translator named Madalena who is translating The Chandelier into English, but she begins to have a problem. She gets into a conflict with the original author because she feels that Lispector is too harsh with Virgínia, the main character of the novel. Madalena first appeals to Lispector to change course, but that doesn’t go anywhere, so she decides to try to do something on her own, possibly to alter the story so that Virgínia’s fate is less tragic. Madalena turns to Robert De Niro for help. Why? Because De Niro was born in 1943, the same year that Lispector began to write the novel originally titled O lustre. Over the course of the hour-long show I play the translator named Madalena, as well as Robert De Niro as a boy and as a grown man, and Virgínia as a young woman at the dinner party in The Chandelier. Throughout the play, Madalena addresses Clarice directly, appeals to her, pleads with her, fights with her, but to no avail. I performed a sold-out five-show run at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June 2017, which was thrilling and cathartic. Translation can be incredibly lonely, and this was a powerful way to share the process. I’ve spoken a lot to Katrina Dodson about what she calls “the translator’s excess” — that excess creative energy that is the by-product of the translation process and that can lead to new work. Katrina has been working on turning her translation journal into a book; Idra Novey, who translated The Passion According to G.H., wrote a book of poems titled Clarice: The Visitor (Cahiers, 2014) and a novel inspired by Clarice called Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown and Company, 2016); and I wrote and performed my one-woman show, and have a few other projects that have been percolating.

In the fall of 2018, I had the opportunity to create a second performance for the Lispector conference at Oxford University. “The Body Speaks: Translating Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier” was quite different from the first show, because it didn’t take place on a stage, but rather in a gallery space used as our main lecture hall. In this piece, I performed the role of the translator Madalena, the main character Virgínia, and Clarice herself, for a moment. Here, the translation of The Chandelier is no longer in progress as an intimate conversation between translator and author as it was in I Wanna Be Robert De Niro, but rather the publishing phase of the text comes into play. What was interesting for me was to share with an audience the visceral understanding that for Lispector the scene of writing is the most important thing, and that the process of publishing a text creates both an opportunity for mourning and the need for momentum to move on to the next work in order to be, always, engaged in the act of writing. As Lispector says in her filmed interview: “I think that when I’m not writing, I’m dead.” In a letter she wrote to Lúcio Cardoso in 1944, she talks about trying to find a publisher for O lustre, and she says the solution must come “quickly, quickly, because I’m bothered by work at a standstill.” [6]

I debuted a new performance that engages the story of translating The Chandelier at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo (UNIFESP) in early October: “Uma vaga noção de viagem: traduzindo Clarice Lispector para o inglês.” My performance occurred the Monday after the October 7 presidential elections (the run-off election between Bolsonaro and Haddad was on October 28), a very intense and emotional Sunday in Brazil. My piece was the closing presentation at the end of a day-long conference attended by students and professors at UNIFESP, including co-organizers Paloma Vidal and Marcelo Moreschi, and the open-ended nature of the creative dream state I sought to evoke gave, I think, a sense of hope and movement forward to all present: “Ela seria fluida durante toda a vida.” I also gave a performance lecture at PUC-Rio, on October 4, titled “A Sociedade das Sombras: Clarice Lispector traduzida para o inglês.” In some ways my second performance in São Paulo was a (mis)translation of my performance lecture in Rio. It was thrilling to present my work in Brazil, and I can’t wait to go back.

It’s been a true pleasure to get to know so many translators, writers, artists, and performers who are inspired by and work with Lispector’s language. I recently connected with the Los Angeles–based dancer and choreographer Heidi Duckler, who has adapted several Lispector works for the stage with her company Heidi Duckler Dance, and has completed one Lispector-inspired dance film. Heidi and her team are also preparing a stage adaptation of The Chandelier that will debut during the 2019/20 season at The Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts.

In terms of my writing, if I could speak to Clarice in person, I would thank her for teaching me to find new ways to embrace, deeply and flowingly, the process itself. Ah, yes, the scene of writing: “Virgínia did not understand where the sweetness came from: the ground was black and covered with dry leaves, so where did the sweetness come from? a desire was taking shape in the air, fluttering about intently, dissolving and had never existed. She cleared off the leaves and with a stick wrote in crooked letters…”

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David Shook is a poet and translator partly based in Los Angeles, where he founded Phoneme Media, a nonprofit publishing house for literature in translation.

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[1] Nádia Gotlib, Clarice: Uma vida que se conta (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Atica, 1995, rep. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2013).

[2] Teresa Montero, Eu sou uma pergunta (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Rocco 1999).

[3] Clarice Lispector, “Traduzir procurando não trair,” Revista Jóia, n. 177 (May 1968).

[4] Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993). Cixous gave The Wellek Library Lectures at UC Irvine in May 1990. The lectures were published by Columbia University Press in 1993 with a translation credit given to Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers. In the footnotes it says that the quoted sections of Lispector’s second novel O lustre, which Cixous refers to as O Lustro, come from “our translation” — a joint effort on the part of Cixous, Cornell, and Sellers.

[5] André Luís Gomes, Clarice em cena: As relacões entre Clarice Lispector e o teatro. (Brasilia: Editora UnB/Finatec, 2007).

[6] Clarice Lispector, Correspondências, ed. Teresa Montero (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Rocco, 2002).


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