MARCH 27, 2018
I MUST CONFESS that for a long time I did not enjoy reading Clarice Lispector’s work. Her prose never blew my mind. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about — why is she considered the most important Brazilian writer of the 20th century? Many of my friends told stories of how they discovered Lispector and how her books revolutionized their entire view of literature. I attempted to read her novels and short stories many times, but I couldn’t overcome my frustration. “Self-centered,” “hermetic,” and “dull,” were the words I often used to explain why I did not like her work. I imagined her style as that of a beautiful but tortured woman with the need to set down her feelings. If not, why is she the subject matter of all her books? The reader must endure long and repetitive interior monologues in which the author admits her doubts and (re)affirms her “self”; characters serve only as vessels for conveying her experience and thoughts. “I am at its core,” “I am at the living and soft center,” “I am at the center of everything that screams and teems,” she claims in Água Viva, the book in which she distills her poetics. Her prose is certainly hermetic; there is no easy way to follow the waves of her odd syntax. Dull, I claimed, because when I was reading her texts I often had the urge to skip pages ahead. Lispector imposes a reading rhythm that is very difficult to follow and that, to top it all off, has a melancholic undertone. For many years, these were the excuses I had made up to dodge the “Clarice Lispector affair.” Until now.
The Chandelier, Lispector’s second novel, has now, for the first time, been translated into English. It is daring, dense, intricate, and difficult, and it is without a doubt Lispector’s most challenging book. When I first opened it, I browsed through feeling overwhelmed by the sight of long paragraphs with no breaks, except for a few uncomfortable dialogues interrupting the flow of the narrative. Once again, I expected the worst: another dull, self-centered, hermetic novel. I struggled with the first pages, trying to understand what was happening in the initial scene. I could picture the image, I could recognize the words, and yet there was something that escaped my comprehension. So I had to try something different. After giving it some thought, I came up with a “reading regime.” I called it the “Un-reading Clarice Lispector” method. The exercise had precise measures to counter my three presuppositions about Lispector’s work. Every morning, read from five to 10 pages. Five hours later, go back and read those same pages out loud, not paying attention to the meaning of each word. Try reading the text in a playful tone, and follow the punctuation marks of your breath. Finally, underline a single sentence you believe is the essence of the passage. Then change the subject of that sentence to a third-person plural. Follow this method every day until you finish the novel. So I finished it.
The results of my reading exercise were astounding, and I found out three things: first, Lispector is un-readable in terms of meaning and interpretation; second, Lispector is in fact not writing about her own life, but rather about an experience that can potentially belong to all of us; third, Lispector has a dark and deep sense of humor. Her narrators constantly comment on the inability of the characters to act or relate to others, usually in absurd scenes. The Chandelier is not a book to be read at a fast pace, but rather one to be slowly sipped and savored, a few pages at a time — one that forces us to find other modes of reading, of approaching literature, committed to finding the pleasures of the text.
Clarice Lispector finished writing The Chandelier (O Lustre) in 1944, at the end of World War II, in Naples, where she was living with her husband, a diplomat. The book was not published until 1946, three years after her successful first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, which won a prestigious prize that launched her literary career. Lispector’s second novel consolidated her style, following some of the characteristics of her prior book as well as setting the tone of most of her subsequent titles. The Chandelier has no plot or defined structure and is written in a third-person stream-of-consciousness style that focuses on sensation and perception. It is, however, particularly dense in how its scenes are constructed as very long interior monologues with a prism-like unity, which we will not encounter again in her work. The Chandelier is also paradigmatic in how Lispector finds other ways narrating not through descriptions but through impressions and adjectives unusually stacked as single brushstrokes forming a landscape.
“She’d be flowing all her life,” is the first line of The Chandelier. The river rolled and the girl could not speak, “a dead instant extended things lengthily” and a “cone of brightness was lighting a whirlwind of dusts that were dancing with hallucinatory slowness.” The flow of life is that of the instant extending itself indefinitely, or at least for the duration of a lifetime. Little seems to happen, and it is very difficult to describe what the novel is truly about. The plot is what matters the least. The center of the narrative is not the telling of events, but rather the images and sensations that the main character, Virginia, experiences, “thinking all over herself without words, recopying existence itself.” Lispector works on language and its relationship to the body. The term that better describes this process of thought-experience, lurking under words, appears toward the second half of the novel: “sub-understanding.” This process, as my un-reading regime does, works with the unconscious universe made up by language and not through the paradigm of reason.
In the first part of The Chandelier, we follow Virginia, the flowing girl, and her idyllic but troubled childhood in Quiet Farm, near the town of Upper Marsh. She is the youngest of three siblings and she devotes herself to her older brother Daniel with whom she creates the “Society of Shadows.” Virginia’s sub-understanding as conveyed by the narrative voice follows the same two guiding principles of the Society: Solitude and Truth. Living in solitude but according to her own truth, Virginia has a very complex interior life that is sometimes also disturbed by what happens outside of her. Virginia has the need to flow, but time seems to be stuck in Quiet Farm and her small family universe. Her games are the only way for her to imagine an outside world. The second part of the novel begins after Virginia has grown up and Daniel has gotten married. They both now live in an unnamed city. In the city, the action revolves around Virginia’s relationship with her lover Vicente. She seems, however, to have developed a certain sense of confidence, which gives her a solidity she didn’t possess at the beginning of the novel. Following the death of her grandmother, and leaving her life on hold, Virginia goes back to visit her family in Quiet Farm. In her return, she seeks clues to better understand her childhood but comes to find the same untimely space and “vague air of complicity and fear that she had breathed.” The novel ends with Virginia’s return to the city and an unexpected accident.
One of the questions lurking behind The Chandelier is the reason for the title of the book. In his biography of Lispector, Benjamin Moser tells an anecdote of how none of her friends liked the title because they thought it was “too poor for a person as rich as her,” to which Lispector responded that the she would keep the title even though they were right. The Chandelier is indeed an odd and non-poetic name for such an intricate novel. As an object, the chandelier appears only a few times at key moments in the story, but it does not function as a symbol or motif. It is a rather plain and simple chandelier that stood on top of the parlor of the empty mansion of Quiet Farm. As a child playing games, Virginia used to lie down, immobile, and look at the glowing chandelier like a great spider until. In it, one day, she was able to foresee in a flash of light how terrible and joyful her life was going to be. Later on in the city we find Virginia falling asleep in a last instant of illuminated consciousness, trying to remember her childhood. In a state of sub-understanding, she admits her desire to see more than a lamp in the extinguished and dusty chandelier. Perhaps then the chandelier would become a metaphor for her experience of time? Finally, when Virginia is riding the train back to the city after visiting Quiet Farm, she remembers the old chandelier and wonders if her father had put it away or if she just hadn’t had time to seek it with her eyes. She looks out the window and sees, in the lowered dark glass, “mixed with the reflection of the seats and the people the chandelier.” It was then that she was able to capture the luminous raving transparency of the lit chandelier for the first time: “[A]fter all [she] had lived, even intact through the events, from which she’d had the occasional instant full of meaning — the pure sensation was coming and going with a touch of wonder and really she’d never know how to think whatever she was experiencing.”
The chandelier is, in this sense, the looking-glass and refracted light that allows us to illuminate Virginia. The chandelier is the narrator of the novel, the voice that illuminates consciousness and captures the flow of life in a bolt of lightning. Un-reading The Chandelier is taking the time to see the chandelier, reading for those rare moments when a common object casts a particular light, illuminating that very same whirlwind of dusts that, at the beginning of the book, were dancing with hallucinatory slowness.
Lispector’s second novel had to wait a long time to finally be translated into English. The Chandelier is now being published for the first time as part of a translation project of Lispector’s works by New Directions, led by Benjamin Moser. New Directions has been retranslating her books over the past few years as well as commissioning new introductions from contemporary writers. I cannot help but praise and recognize the translators of The Chandelier, Magdalena Edwards and Benjamin Moser, both of them well acquainted with Lispector’s work. Moser is one of the most knowledgeable critics of the Brazilian author, as his remarkable Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector shows. Magdalena Edwards has also published essays on Lispector where she analyzes the translation and the trajectory of her work, as well as her influence in the English-speaking world. Translating this book must certainly have been a great challenge; it requires an ear in tune with the oddness of Lispector’s phrasing. Since there is no possible translation of the intricate twists and turns of her prose, what Moser and Edwards did was to create their own version of the novel, following the tone and rhythm more than the actual meaning of words — an un-reading.
I don’t regret complaining all those years about Lispector’s work. In a note to “Possible Readers” in The Passion According to G.H., Lispector writes: “This book is like any other book. But I would be happy if it were only read by people whose souls are already formed. Those who know that the approach, of whatever it may be, happens gradually and painstakingly — even passing through the opposite of what it approaches.” This is the act of un-reading Clarice Lispector.
Christina Soto van der Plas is an assistant professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She has published in academic volumes on Latin American literature, psychoanalysis, and critical theory.