For a handful of people, Clarice Lispector’s “A Breath of Life” being published in English for the first time is very good news. Sadly, that handful is fairly small.
Lispector, an extraordinarily gifted writer who revolutionized Brazilian letters, was described as “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.” Ukrainian-born and Brazilian-bred Lispector died in 1977, one day shy of her 57th birthday. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Ben Moser, translator and author of the 2009 biography “Why This World,” Lispector has lately had something of a rebirth in America.
On May 31, New Directions will publish the first English-language version of “A Breath of Life” in tandem with new translations of three of her other works. The four, together, are a set.
“A Breath of Life” was originally published in Brazil, in the original Portuguese, after Lispector died of ovarian cancer. Like David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” the manuscript was assembled posthumously by a trusted colleague — in this case, her friend and assistant Olga Borelli — and the author never had a chance to review the final product.
Structured as a dialogue between an author and a character of his creation, “A Breath of Life” is a weighty text, dealing with creativity and obliteration, imagination and emptiness, meditation and God, objects and philosophy. It has lines like, “My most intimate friend? A typewriter. There’s a pleasant taste in my mouth when I think,” in which Lispector detours language into unusual territory while tapping a resonant truth.
This twisting language is something Lispector was known for in Brazil more than in translation. Moser, who is the supervising editor of the New Directions series, writes of her “weird word choices, strange syntax, and lack of interest in conventional grammar.” Previous English translations smoothed out those rough edges; these new translations bring them back.
That may be enough for “Agua Viva,” originally published in 1973. Plotless and slim, “Agua Viva” is a first-person narrative of creation and time. “I’m stealthily entering into contact with a reality that is new to me and still doesn’t have corresponding thoughts, much less any word that signifies it,” Lispector writes. “It’s more of a feeling beyond thought.” Its seemingly fleeting, discursive jottings were actually painstakingly revised by Lispector, who worked on the book for three years; when it was published, it was hailed as the achievement of a master.
The same cannot be said for “A Breath of Life,” which struggles with a muddiness that sets it apart from the other novels. In its best moments, the author and character take on different facets of the writerly imagination: the desire to narrate and to create. More often, however, their issues bleed and overlap, and the voices have a hard time remaining distinct. This crossing-over is acknowledged in the book — in fact, it’s the only real action — but it leaves “A Breath of Life” feeling more labored than inspired.
Inspiration struck the young Lispector, who was just 23 when her first book, “Near to the Wild Heart,” was published in 1943. Its title was taken from James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” an apt comparison. Like Joyce, Lispector strove to capture the quicksilver passage of thought, to inhabit its formulation and digression without a narrative overseer. It was a sensation, and made Lispector one of Brazil’s most celebrated writers.
“Near to the Wild Heart” begins in the mind of Joana, a young girl in the presence of her father, as she observes the sounds and sights of the world in childlike close-up. Shifting to Joana as an adult, we see episodes of her unhappy youth and her heated relationship with her husband, Otavio. Then she discovers he’s got a lover, and the betrayal compels her to make her way on her own. This doesn’t give away too much — the plot is armature around which Lispector’s brilliant intellect spins inquiry and philosophy on par with the best writers of the 20th century.
Always, Joana’s internal narrative expands each moment into a universe of thought: wild, chaotic, ricocheting between despair and joy, contradictory and logical, utterly fierce. “She wanted even more: to be reborn always, to sever everything that she had learned, that she had seen and inaugurate herself in new terrain where every tiny act had meaning, where the air was breathed as if for the first time.”
Joana tries to figure out what she wants and how to live in the world, feeling desire and emotion and thought at odds in her mutable self. “I slide from one truth to the next, always forgetting the first, always dissatisfied,” she thinks. “Her life was made up of complete little lives, of whole, closed circles, which isolated themselves from one another.... It was always useless to have been happy or unhappy. And even to have loved. No happiness or unhappiness had been so strong that it had transformed the elements of her matter, giving her a single path, as the truth path must be.”
Transformation and transmutation are to be found in the controlled, accomplished “The Passion According to G.H.” Published originally in 1964, the book is the story of an upper-class woman who enters her maid’s room and, in an extended zig-zagging mental riff about God, identity, love and different kinds of hell, works her way to killing, then eating, a roach. An act of transcendence, perhaps; a reference to Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” most definitely.
This is exactly where Lispector should be, on the shelf with Kafka and Joyce. If in atomizing the world she can write like Virginia Woolf, imagine doing so without the Bloomsbury cohort of literary intellectuals. These four books showcase her intellectual heft, restless creative spirit, contradiction, humor and darkness — imagine the ferocity it took to begin, in Rio de Janeiro, all on her own.