For decades, the brilliant Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector was hidden from American readers by awful translations that erased her dense, challenging prose (think James Joyce). That changed in 2012 when New Directions, with the help of editor Benjamin Moser, began publishing vibrant new translations, including her astonishing 1943 debut “Near to the Wild Heart” and the notorious “The Passion According to G.H.”
Late to the party is “The Besieged City,” which Lispector called her “least liked” and Moser notes as her worst-selling book. The issue seems to be the difficulty, which is high — at least in the first half. The easier second half rewards the uphill trek.
Lucrécia Neves, the book’s protagonist, lives with her widowed mother in an apartment in São Geraldo. It’s the 1920s and the city is evolving, a mix of old and modern: “When the sun was about to set, gold spread over clouds and over stones. The inhabitants’ faces became golden like armor and that’s how their rumpled hair was shining. Dusty factories were whistling continually, the wagon wheel gained a halo. In that pale gold in the breeze was an ascension of an unsheathed sword — that’s how the statue in the square was rising.”
Lucrécia is a young woman who spends her time watching, observing the city, walking its streets, climbing a hill where horses gather. She has two boyfriends, Lieutenant Felipe and rakish student Perseu. Her mother annoys her, alternately too eager to marry her off and too desperately clingy.
The language is beautiful but abrupt, with jumps and gaps. “Things were growing with deep tranquility. São Geraldo was displaying itself. She standing facing the bright world. Felipe was talking with lost sound. … The girl was looking while standing, constant, with her patient falcon-like existence. Everything was incomparable. The city was a manifestation.”
In Lucrécia, Lispector tries to inhabit natural thought rather than narrate it. Like Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man,” this is associated with youth. When the turning point in the narrative comes, Lucrécia has married, matured and established a distance between herself and the world.
But first she is bound to São Geraldo, inhabiting the place in a passionate dream state. “From staring at the stream for so long her face had fastened to one of the rocks, floating and becoming warped in the current, the only spot that was hurting, barely hurting from floating and dreaming so much in the water.” Dreams materialize. When it rains, is it really raining? When Lucrécia dreams in her apartment she becomes a horse; when awake she stomps her hoof, not her foot. Metaphor gets all mixed up with what is real.
In some passages, it seems obvious that Lucrécia is making the city. “Everything she was seeing was becoming real. Looking now, without uneasiness, at the horizon sliced by smokestacks and rooftops.” Lucrécia manifests the city by looking at it: she sees a thing (a much-used word in the book) and it becomes itself. It is not the description but the observation of its “thing-ness” that makes it so. Lispector, meanwhile, is manifesting São Geraldo and Lucrécia with words.
It is a difficult mix: text that is immediate and observational that simultaneously blurs the lines of dreams, imagination and reality. Almost exactly halfway through the book it reaches its crescendo, then swiftly turns to a more conventional narrative.
The married Lucrécia is able to narrate her passage through time more traditionally. She wants to be a proper wife; it takes some work but she matures and adjusts to the outside world. Things seem easy for the affluent, affectionate couple. She even makes witty jokes about opera.
Although the marriage is a good one, there are hinted-at betrayals, unspoken thoughts, emotional upheavals. Lucrécia has grown into an adult aware of her actions and responsibilities.
It is only after meeting the more sophisticated — and easier to read — Lucrécia that it is possible to appreciate the craft of the earlier part of the book. This is a conventional story: a small-town girl moves to a bigger city thanks to a fortunate marriage. But instead of telling us that, Lispector reveals her to us only inside herself and her world, present in her hometown of São Geraldo so viscerally that it’s an almost Zen-like state.
In a letter included at the end of the book, Lispector, who died in 1977, writes that Lucrécia, without intellectually realizing it, wants to reach “that kind of spiritual integrity a horse has.” She writes that “the horse in which there is the miracle that the impression is total — so real — that in it impression already is expression.” For a horse, seeing is enough; it doesn’t need to think about or describe what it has seen.
Eventually, Lucrécia and her husband return to São Geraldo, and there is some slippage. It’s as if Lucrécia is connected to the city like an organ and the flow between them brings back some of her old self. Not surprisingly, the process is not entirely linear. Lucrécia can’t really go home again; the swiftly modernizing city has changed and no longer needs its horses.
New Directions: 240 pp., $23.95
Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times. She lives in Alabama and can be found on Twitter @paperhaus.