Clarice Lispector – The shipwreck of introspection

Image: Claudio Cretti / Jornal de Resenhas


Considerations on the books “A Hora da Estrela”, “The Passion According to GH” and “A Breath of Life”


Clarice Lispector's fiction went through two distinct phases in terms of receptivity by Brazilian readers. Known only among critics and writers in the first phase, which begins with the publication of her debut book, the novel Close to the Wild Heart (1944), the greatest reception to his work took place in the second, from 1959, with the appearance of the book of short stories Family relationships, which conquered university audiences and aroused interest in the author's other novels, the chandelier e besieged city, published in 1946 and 1949 respectively, and The Apple in the DarkIn 1961.

Seconded then by his presence as a chronicler in the pages of the Newspapers in Brazil, from Rio de Janeiro, although Clarice Lispector did not produce chronicles with a journalistic flavor, the prestige she enjoyed in that phase, to which they belong The Foreign Legion (1964) and clandestine happiness (1971), among other collections of short stories and chronicles with greater repercussion among critics, was fed by the disconcerting impression that it would produce The Passion according to GH (Romance), also from 1964, and the magical attraction that came from the human figure of the fiction writer, in which the feminine charm, keeping the Slavic trait of her Russian origin, combined with an elusive, shy and haughty personality, more solitary than independent – “a ball of yarn rolled inside”, as the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa said of his heteronym Álvaro de Campos.

I believe that the author's death opened a third phase of the reception of her work, conditioned by the peculiarities of two books, The Hour of the Star, which preceded the death of Clarice Lispector by months in 1977, and A Breath of Life, published posthumously. The first no longer bears the novel label, still preserved in An Apprenticeship ou The Book of Pleasures (1969), nor fiction, as in Jellyfish (1973) – and the second, completed on the same date, bears the subtitle of pulsations. By a sort of retroactive effect, both allow for the unveiling of certain articulations of the entire work of which they are part, within a unique creative process, centered on inner experience, on probing the states of individual consciousness, which begins in Close to the Wild Heart.

This debut novel, whose title was inspired by a quote from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) - “close to the wild heart of life” – and which has affinities with the “shocking psychological realism” of James Joyce, before Odysseus, brought to Brazilian literature, as a focus of the art of narrating, with the consequent aesthetic and formal implications – from the interior monologue to the breaking of the external causal order, from the oscillations of time as duration (longer term,) to the fraying of the novelistic action and the plot –, the perspective of introspection, common to modern novels.

But instead of constituting a fixed focus, detained in the exploration of the moments of life, of those “little separate incidents that one lived one by one”, to which Virginia Woolf reported in to the lighthouse, the introspective point of view, dominant even in our writer's short stories, would offer the conduit for problematizing traditional narrative forms in general and the position of the narrator himself in his relations with language and reality, through a game fiction writer's identity with herself and her characters – game sharpened to the point of paroxysm in The Passion according to GH, contains one of the triggering keys for this process.

Here we only intend to follow the main incidents of the identity game, taking as matter of an exam that is more exemplary than analytical, to the benefit of saving space, three narrations in a monologue style: the novel The Passion according to GH and the last two books by Clarice Lispector The Hour of the Star e A Breath of Life*.


Three stories come together, in a regime of constant transaction, in The Hour of the Star: the first is the life of a girl from the northeast, weak, sickly, which Rodrigo SM proposes to tell, when he sees her on a street in Rio de Janeiro (“It's just that on a street in Rio de Janeiro I caught in the air the feeling of doom on the face of a northeastern girl. Not to mention that I grew up in the Northeast as a boy.”, p. 16); the second is that of that interposed narrator, Rodrigo SM, who reflects his life on that of the character, eventually becoming inseparable from her, within a tense and dramatic situation in which they participate, and which constitutes the third story – the story of narration herself, that is, the oscillating, digressive course she takes, preparing her material, delaying her story: “I'm warming up my body to start, rubbing my hands together to have courage. Now I remembered that there was a time when to warm my spirit I prayed: movement is spirit. […] I intend, as I have already hinted, to write more and more simply. Incidentally, the material I have at my disposal is too sparse and simple, the information about the characters is little and not very elucidative, information that painfully comes from me to myself, it is carpentry work.” (p. 18.19).

Saying what the character will be like, Rodrigo SM talks about the quality of the words, the speech or the kind of verbal action that should configure it: “Yes, but don't forget that to write no-matter-what my basic material is the word. This is how this story will be made up of words that are grouped into phrases and from which a secret meaning emerges that goes beyond words and phrases. Of course, like every writer, I am tempted to use succulent terms: I know splendorous adjectives, fleshy nouns and verbs so slender that they pierce the air in the air in the middle of action, since word is action, do you agree? But I'm not going to embellish the word because if I touch the girl's bread, that bread will turn into gold – and the girl wouldn't be able to bite into it, dying of hunger. So I have to speak simply to capture its delicate and vague existence.” (p. 19)

This demand for simplicity in the use of words already establishes, with the previous portrait of the Northeastern girl, Macabéa, the aesthetic and ethical conduct of the narrator in relation to the character: “I limit myself to humbly – but without making a fuss about my humility that no longer it would be humility – I limit myself to recounting the feeble adventures of a girl in a city turned against her. She who should have stayed in the backlands of Alagoas in a calico dress and without any typewriting, since she wrote so badly, only had until the third year of elementary school. Because she was ignorant, she was forced to copy slowly letter by letter in typing – her aunt had given her a meager course in how to type. And the girl gained a dignity: she was finally a typist. Although, it seems, she did not approve of two consonants together in language and she copied the word “designate” in her beloved chief’s beautiful, round handwriting the way she would say “disguise” in spoken language.” (p. 20)

Reflecting on Macabéa, with whom he identifies, even before she presents herself in full, with her body present, Rodrigo SM also becomes a character; and her life, which is composed in proportion to that other fictional existence of the Northeastern girl, whose fate is abbreviated by an unfavorable star (she will be killed by a car when crossing the street), takes shape in proportion as, struggling with the words , exposes, as a third story, the adventures of the narration: “Back to myself: what I will write cannot be absorbed by minds that are very demanding and avid for refinements. For what I will be saying will only be naked. […] This story lacks a singable melody. Your pace is sometimes uneven. And it has facts. I suddenly fell in love with facts without literature – facts are hard stones and acting interests me more than thinking, there is no escaping facts […] But I suspect that all this talk is done only to postpone the poverty of history, because I am scared. Before this typist came into my life, I was a somewhat contented man, despite the bad success of my literature. Things were somehow so good that they could become very bad because what fully matures can rot.” (p. 20-22)

The narrator-character's voice is jocular enough to announce that the poor story of the typist will unfold accompanied by the drumbeat, "under the sponsorship of the most popular soft drink in the world", with "a taste of the smell of nail polish and Aristoline soap”, and serious enough to mediate Macabéa’s confrontation with the craft and role of the writer. The adventures of the narration involve the difficult and the problematic of the act of writing – questioned about its object, its purpose and its procedures: “Yeah. I seem to be changing my way of writing. But it turns out that I only write what I want, I'm not a professional – and I need to talk about this northeastern woman or I'll suffocate. […] Does action really exceed words? (p. 22) […] Why do I write? First of all because I captured the spirit of the language and so sometimes the form is what makes the content. (p. 23) […] And behold, I was afraid now when I put words about the northeastern woman. And the question is: how do I write? (p. 24) […] My writing history? I'm a man who has more money than the hungry, which makes me somewhat dishonest. And I only lie at the exact time of the lie. But when I write I don't lie. What else? Yes, I have no social class, marginalized that I am. The upper class sees me as a freaky monster, the middle class suspects that I might unbalance them, the lower class never comes to me. No, it's not easy to write. It's hard like breaking rocks. But sparks and splinters fly like mirrored steel.” (p. 24).

Another presence, which disputes with that of the narrator, is insinuated in this type of speech: the presence of the writer herself, already declared in the dedication of the work[I], and whose interference extends to its capricious denomination, being The Hour of the Star just one of 13 different titles that can be assigned to it.[ii]

Suspending her public mask of accredited fictionist, by identifying herself with SM, in fact Clarice Lispector, and through him with the northeastern woman herself – Macabéa, to whom the interposed author is attached –, Clarice Lispector also becomes a character . And it is still her, Clarice Lispector, who dedicates the book, 'this thing there to the old Schumann and his sweet Clara who are now bones, alas” (p. 7).

Not only does he dedicate his book and many others,[iii] as it is dedicated to “all those who reached frighteningly unexpected areas in me, all those prophets of the present and who foretold me to the point of exploding at this moment: me. This me that is you, because I can't stand being just me, I need others to keep me on my feet [...] to fall into that full emptiness that can only be reached with meditation. […] I meditate without words and on nothingness. What gets in the way of life for me is writing.” (p. 7). Through this message addressed to readers, Clarice Lispector opens up the game of fiction – and her identity as a fictionist. Committed to the act of writing, fiction itself, pretending a way of being or existing, will demand a previous meditation without words and the emptying of the Ego of the one who writes.


Such emptying, which opens up the game of interchangeable identities in The Hour of the Star, bringing fiction closer to passionate, existential meditation, which accumulates several thematic registers, already achieved in the first novels, in the form of a reflective commentary that cuts out the interiorized action – such emptying is thematized in The Passion according to GH, the fifth novel by our author and the first that he wrote for her entirely in the first person.

The account of a long, painful and tumultuous introspection, which gave rise to a trivial incident – ​​the crushing of a domestic cockroach that the character faces in the back room, recently vacated by the maid who inhabited it, from her luxury apartment –, it is a transposition of the mystical experience – like a parody of spiritual asceticism, including ecstasy, in which the character loses his Self and the narrative loses its literary identity.

Nothing separates the narrator from the character, linked together by the indecipherable onomastic GH, which leaves them anonymous, only giving them a precarious public identity, upset by the incident. When moving from the familiar and social part to the obscure and marginal part of the apartment – ​​the maid’s room –, GH takes possession of a feeling of strangeness, which intensifies at the sight of a cockroach, crushed by it, in a frantic attack: “It was then that the cockroach began to emerge from the bottom. […] She was brown, she was hesitant as if she were enormous in weight. It was now mostly visible. (p. 52) […] An all-controlled rapacity had taken hold of me, and because it was controlled, it was all power. […] Without any embarrassment, moved with a lot of dedication to what is evil, without any embarrassment, moved, grateful, for the first time I was being the unknown person that I was – except that not knowing myself would not stop me anymore, the truth was already there. it had overtaken me: I raised my hand as if to swear an oath, and in a single stroke I closed the door on the half-emerged body of the cockroach —–” (p. 53)

Facing the corpse of the nauseating insect, which she will ingest in an act of sacrilegious communion, the narrator's inner metamorphosis takes place, the dispossession of her soul. On the one hand, the animal's grotesqueness, on the other, the paroxysmal introspection, submerging the character in itself, the I that suffers the experience and tries to tell it divided into an other, anonymous, impersonal and neutral as the desert. “And at my big dilation, I was in the desert. How to explain to you? I was in the desert like I've never been. It was a desert that called to me like a monotonous and remote chant. I was being seduced. And I went towards this promising madness” (p. 60).

A dialog thread entertained with the reader, made an imaginary interlocutor, remains in this stretched monologue: “While I write and speak I will have to pretend that someone is holding my hand (p. 16) […] Hold my hand, because I feel that I am going. I'm going back to the most primal divine life, I'm going to a hell of a raw life. Don't let me see because I'm close to seeing the core of life... (p. 60) [...] I had reached nothingness, and nothingness was alive and wet.” (p. 61).

Madness, hell, infernal pleasure, raw life, Sabbath orgy – all these apostrophes, which qualify the metamorphosis of GH, also mark the metamorphosis of the narrative, converted, on the verge of nothing, unspeakable, which hinders the act of enunciation, into an impossible one. search for the inexpressive and silence. Only the expedient of the support interlocutor, to whom she is addressed, ensures the recovery of the I in fiction – the monologue in the dialogue – and the possibility of speaking about what has no name: “Depersonalization as the great objectivation of oneself (p. 176) […] Deseroization is the great failure of a lifetime. Not everyone manages to fail because it is so hard work, it is necessary to climb painfully until finally reaching the height of being able to fall – I can only reach the depersonalization of muteness if I have first built a whole voice” (p. 177).

Surrendered to the silence, to the non-understanding of the mystics, GH is confronted with neutral matter, the raw life in which she and the insect participate, and which she calls the God, using the word as a common noun, instead of God . then invoked in Jellyfish with the English pronoun It, this neutral God would be the Other, the different and strange, in which he alienates himself, and in which he finds, paradoxically, an externalized intimacy, as expressed by the reflexive twist of the verbs to be, to exist and to look: “The world looks at me. Everything looks at everything, everything lives the other; in this desert, things know things. (p. 66) […] What I called nothing was nevertheless so glued to me that it was… me? and therefore it became invisible as I was indivisible to myself, and became nothing (p. 79) [...] The aim is mine and I don't understand what I'm saying”.

The introspective path, to a paroxysmal degree that leads to paradox in language, is thus inverted in the alienation of self-consciousness. Through the shipwreck of introspection, the character descends to the dark, dangerous and risky powers of the Unconscious, which have no name. After diving into the eschatological subsoil of fiction, into the sleepy waters of the imaginary, common to dreams, myths and legends, the reconstructed voice of the narrator can only be a doubtful voice, given over to language – to the powers and impotence of language, far and close to the real, extralinguistic, unspeakable: “Ah, but to reach muteness, what a great effort of voice… My voice is the way in which I seek reality… Reality precedes the voice that seeks it, but like the earth it precedes the tree… I have as I designate – and this is the splendor of having a language. But I have so much more as I cannot name. Reality is the raw material, language is the way I go to get it – and how I don't think… Language is my human effort. By fate I have to go get it and by fate I come back with empty hands. But – I return with the unspeakable. The unspeakable can only be given to me through the failure of my language. Only when construction fails do I get what she couldn't.” (p. 178).

This feeling of the failure of language accompanies, like a continual bass, the game of identity of the narrator, converted into a character, and of her narrative converted into an agonizing literary space, as it is presented to us, too, in The Hour of the Star, where a clash and a debate take place. Passionate meditation made up of intuitive flashes, and fiction itself, always meditative, made up of sudden illuminations, produce each other reciprocally, producing the doubtful, dramatic movement of a wandering, self-torn writing, in search of its destination, impelled by the vague object of desire, which descends to the limbo of impulsive life to ascend to a form of endless improvisation, in which the distinction between prose and poetry seems to be abolished, and which, continuous verbal flow, succession of fragments of the soul and the world, already can no longer be called a short story, novel or telenovela – improvisation because it unfolds, such as musical impromptu, amidst multiple recurring themes and motifs (self-knowledge, expression, existence, freedom, contemplation, action, restlessness, death, desire to be , personal identity, God, the gaze, the grotesque and/or the eschatological).

A schizoid way of writing, we would say repeating Barthes, at the cost of the “vertiginous split of the subject”, of the unfolding of reflective consciousness, but which founds fiction and, together with it, the fictitiousness of the narrator’s identity to which he refers Le Plaisir du Texte, in confrontation with the fictional identity of his character. the narrator of The Hour of the Star she is Clarice Lispector, and Clarice Lispector, as much as Flaubert was Madame Bovary, is Macabéa. However, unlike Flaubert, who always remained, as an author, behind his characters, Clarice Lispector exposes herself almost without disguise, showing herself, side by side with her characters, also her persona, in the pathetic condition of the writer ( guilty relative to Macabéa), who pretends or lies to reach a certain truth of the human condition – but knowing that she lies, as if in a reply to the Cartesian saying I who think, I am, the Cogito of the philosopher René Descartes, she asked herself permanently I who narrate, who am I?


expression of that cogito inverted philosophical, A Breath of Life maintains a triadic scheme of composition regarding the characters, similar to that of The Hour of the Star: Interposed author and female character, this time a writer (Ângela), both as heteronyms of the novelist, Clarice Lispector, more present than absent.

The splitting of the narrating subject, its unfolding, transposes itself here, unlike what happened in The Hour of the Star, to the level of Clarice Lispector's own work, of which this posthumous book is a recapitulation – paraphrase and parody –, under two foci, that of Angela and that of the Author, feminine and masculine in opposition. Sometimes as part of the language of the first, sometimes as part of the language of the second, phrases, concepts, ways of acting and thinking, phrases and passages from short stories, chronicles and novels by the fiction writer are disseminated and modified in the work.

“Angela is my attempt at being two. (p. 32) […] However, she is me” (p. 33), says the Author. “I am an actress for myself” (p. 37), replies Angela talking about herself and for herself. Declared a creation of the Author, this writer has, however, her own personality; the elocution of that one alternates with that of this one: two alternating monologues that never converge into a dialogue. There is no correspondence between the two different verbal guidelines of the same narrative improvisation, which form, however, a single wandering, empathetic, hyperbolic, repetitive writing, contaminating the reader with the sneaky force of a malignant, infectious enthusiasm – of a infectious enthusiasm, as Jane Austen would say – which spreads from the declared presence of Clarice Lispector.

Character of her characters, author and reader of her own book, which is recapitulated in and through it, Clarice Lispector, orthonym in the midst of her heteronyms, finally inscribes herself at the close of the work, writing the anticipated epitaph where the text begins and ends in A Breath of Life: “I have already read this book to the end and I add some news at the beginning, which means that the end, which should not be read beforehand, is joined in a circle at the beginning, a snake that swallows its own tail. And, having read the book, I cut it much more than half, I only left what provokes and inspires me for life: a star lit at dusk. […] However, I am already in the future. This future of mine that will be for you the past of a dead man. When you finish this book cry for me a hallelujah. When you close the last pages of this spiteful and daring playful book of life then forget me. May God bless you then and this book end well. So that I can finally rest. May peace be between us, between you and between me. Am I falling into speech? may the faithful of the temple forgive me: I write and thus get rid of myself and then I can rest.” (p. 20)

The game of identity that the narrator maintained with herself ceases when the text, pre-death meditation, turns into a funeral stele.

* Benedito Nunes (1929-2011), philosopher, Professor Emeritus at UFPA, is the author, among other books, of The drama of language – a reading of Clarice Lispector (Rile up)

Originally published in the magazine end of evils, No9, 1989.


* The quotes come from The Hour of the Star (Livraria José Olympio Editora, Rio, 1977), The Passion according to GH (“Romance”, Editora do Autor, Rio, 1964), A Breath of Life (“Pulsações”, Editora Nova Fronteira, Rio, 1978).

[I] Cf. “Avant-garde Literature in Brazil”. In: Avant-garde Literary Movements in Ibero-America, memorial of the 11th Congress, International Institute of Ibero-American Literature, University of Texas, Mexico 1965, pp. 109 – 116.

[ii] Letter of March 4, 1957 (Rio). Source: Archivo-Museum of Literature of the Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation.

[iii] Letter from Clarice to Andrea Azulay. Source: Olga Borelli.




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