New Directions brings back four of the Brazilian author’s novels.
Here’s a quick literary personality test. If you were a budding author envisioning the plaudits to come your way as your literary career advanced, whom would you most want to be compared to: Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce?
Now if someone were to elevate this quiz to the highest form of cultural studies in our land, the Facebook poll, should you answer “all three,” a picture of a woman would appear on your wall. That would be Clarice Lispector, the midcentury author often hailed as Brazil’s greatest writer but who never showed up on any of your syllabi in college. Now, thanks to her biographer and impassioned champion Benjamin Moser, four of her books are being resurrected by New Directions, including a posthumous novel translated from Portuguese into English for the first time.
When the Ukrainian-born Lispector—as a teenager her family moved to Brazil—published her first novel in 1944, Near to the Wild Heart (New Directions, $15.95), she and the critics were divided on its success. As Moser tells us in the introduction, the book was lauded as “a miracle of balance, perfectly engineered,” and yet she told a confidante while she was writing it, “When I reread what I’ve written, I feel like I’m swallowing my own vomit.” The book is a quilted-together introspective novel that inhabits the mind of a character named Joana from her time as a young girl into early adulthood. As in the work of the best of its practitioners, the stream of consciousness in Wild Heart is marked by a fevered precision, as though the river’s flow is simply sharpening the blade to a point. When Joana realizes love does not provide her the happiness she was promised, Lispector writes, “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.”
Though she wrote her first novel at 23, that youthful energy persists throughout these other new translations, even as her later books take on more adventurous forms. In fact, Lispector’s maturing gifts and restless intellect make Wild Heart feel like a fitting first novel, one that doesn’t quite reach the depths of her later works. Água Viva (New Directions, $14.95), published in 1973, is the closest she came to straight memoir, though it’s more a patchwork of vignettes concerning memory and her own assessment of her work. It is, in other words, for Lispector heads only. The novel published posthumously in 1978, A Breath of Life (New Directions, 15.95), is structured as a dialectic between an author and his character Angela, where the distressed author (standing in for Lispector) worries “I became an abstraction of myself: I’m a sign, I symbolize something that exists more than I do.”
Perhaps her most famous work, The Passion According to G.H. (New Directions, $15.95), turns Kafka’s Metamorphosis on its ear. When the well-to-do protagonist G.H. enters her maid’s room, she is thrown into a spiritual crisis when she slams the door on a cockroach, severing it in half. The rest of the novel follows G.H. through a spiraling psychological and spiritual, almost Jungian, self-examination, one that ends with her consuming the ooze leaking from the halved cockroach. It’s no wonder G.H. has remained Lispector’s most highly regarded work: Even to a reader first encountering her work, there’s a feeling of encountering something completely new and classic at the same time.
All four of the Lispector reissues are out May 31.