Clarice Lispector – in the beginning it was in fact the verb

Andy Warhol, Liz #6, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 1963.


For Clarice, the text is not a rag of the world imitated by the verb, but a verbal construction that brings the world in its bulge

Clarice Lispector's work began in 1943 with a book, Close to the Wild Heart, which, seen from today, gives the impression of one of those fruitful turning points in literature. Within the dominant line of the Brazilian novel at the time, he was a creative deviation. For those who deal with literature and were just starting their careers (which is my case), it was as if a different possibility had arisen.

It was not the same thing as the renewed prose of the great modernists of the 1920s, Oswald de Andrade in Sentimental Memories of João Miramar, Mario de Andrade in Macunaima. These were men of literary warfare, and they invented language as conscious shock weapons to bring down the academic citadel. In them, innovation was inseparable from the healthy transformative scandal, and for this reason it announced itself and was carried out as a program, without, evidently, ceasing to be the most legitimate, not least because it was the best and most brilliant formula of its time.

By the 1930s the Brazilian novel was no longer the predominantly accommodated bloc that the modernists attacked. It was a solid renovated set, generally neonaturalist in style, taking advantage of the linguistic liberation promoted from 1922 onwards. For this type of novel, reality seemed the decisive element. He tried to show in the most direct way possible what Brazilian society was like, what the problems and anxieties of man were, with an acute sense of reference, that is, a dominant concern in relation to the scenario, society, behavior. For this reason, most novelists of the time gave the impression that language was somewhat subordinate to subject matter. And the theme came to the forefront with its force of protest, denunciation and revelation, as it happens in the narrative of social trends, predominant at that time here and in the world.

The most salient achievement of these novelists in terms of writing was perhaps the definitive disqualification of the “elevated” tone, through the valorization of everyday speech, which had a moment of triumph in the hands of authors who knew how to successfully incorporate it into the text. Some, like José Lins do Rego, communicated to the page the very expressive rhythm of orality. Others, like Graciliano Ramos, adapted the erudite language to the naturalness required by the moment. But in both cases it was a question of elaborating on material or an earlier tradition; to invent through the renovation of the preexisting. The 1930s did not see an innovative surge equivalent to that of the prose of Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade, who, at that time, had disciplined themselves in terms of their initial freedom.

Now, in 1943 and 1946 two writers appeared who resumed the effort to invent language, a rare and dangerous thing, which when it works raises the profile of literature: Clarice Lispector and João Guimarães Rosa. For them, the problem seemed to be to strike a new balance between theme and word, so that both were equally important. Thus, the reader would feel that the text is not a shred of the world imitated by the verb, but a verbal construction that brought the world in its bulge. As with the two great writers of Modernism in the 1920s, the literary word regained its sovereign status in prose.

At that moment, 1943, some realized that Clarice Lispector was bringing a new position, different from the solid naturalism still reigning. Different, too, from the psychological novel and, still, from the experimental prose of the modernists. It was a new experience, in both senses: the writer's experiment, the reader's understanding. The young novelist, still a teenager, was showing the predominant narrative in her country that the world of words is an infinite possibility of adventure, and that before being narrated, narrative is the form that narrates. In fact, what is narrated gains reality because it is instituted, that is, raised as its own reality through the proper organization of the word. Clarice Lispector introduced the adventures of the verb, making the dignity of language strongly felt.

That is why his first book was a shock, whose influence walked slowly, as Brazilian literature itself broke away from its more contingent matrices, such as regionalism, the immediate obsession with social and personal “problems”, to enter a phase of widespread aesthetic awareness. In this sense, the young novelist was a creative sign of the new times, and her immense subsequent vogue meant that readers gradually arrived at a vision that was marginal at first, which later became a point of reference.

Therefore, Close to the Wild Heart, with all his youthful ineptnesses, brought a new tone above all for his ability to put the word at the center of everything. Faced with its rather nebulous universe, the less alert reader might think that this atmosphere had already appeared in books such as those by Lúcio Cardoso, marked by the influence of Julien Green. But not. In Clarice Lispector, it was the work on the word that generated the mystery, due to the approximate march of the discourse, which suggested without indicating, surrounded without reaching, opened up multiple possibilities of meaning. The mysterious world was an expansion of the verb's own mystery.

By the way, I wrote a few years ago: “[In Close to the Wild Heart], in a way, the theme passed into the background and the writing to the fore, making it clear that the elaboration of the text was a decisive element for fiction to reach its full effect. In other words, Clarice showed that the social or personal reality (which provides the theme) and the verbal instrument (which institutes language) are justified above all by the fact that they produce a reality of their own, with its specific intelligibility. It is no longer a matter of seeing the text as something that ends up leading to this or that aspect of the world and of being; but to ask him to create the world for us, or a world that exists and acts insofar as it is literary discourse. This fact is a requirement in any work, obviously; but if the author becomes more aware of it, the ways of writing change and critics feel the need to reconsider their points of view, including the disjunctive attitude (theme A or theme B; right or left). This is because, just like the writers themselves, criticism will see that the strength of fiction comes, above all, from the convention that allows the elaboration of 'imaginary worlds'”.

Thus, in 1943, the young writer, who emerged from the most complete anonymity, not only essentially modified the possibilities of literary writing in Brazil, but forced critics to review their perspective. After that start came the brilliant career we know.

*Antonio Candido (1918-2017) was Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP. Author, among other books, of Literature and society (Gold on Blue).

Originally published in Clarice Lispector. The passion according to GH Critical edition coordinated by Benedito Nunes. UNESCO/Edusp editions (1988).


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