Clarice Lispector: Sofia and Joana

Image: Andrés Sandoval / Jornal de Resenhas


Commentary on two stories that address the relationship between teacher and student

“The relationship between teacher and student will, in fact, be one of the writer's favorite themes, explored as a deep and complex game of giving/receiving, learning/unlearning, loving/hating” (Nádia Battella Gotlib)


“Sofia's Disasters” is one of Clarice Lispector's most intense short stories. Originally included in the foreign legion (1964). In an autobiographical tone, the narrator refers to the unique experience she had, at the age of nine, in the classroom with her teacher. The unmistakable fictional structure, made up of a dense syntax that records a certain inner turbulence tied to a flow of thought capable of reverberating blunt, sometimes indigestible, abysmal images – no less endowed with sublimation – entrusts materiality to the wandering adventure of this former student who recaps his misbehavior in class. Caustic and implacable is Sofia's task, who insistently exposes to her colleagues the fragility of that “fat, big and silent gentleman, with contracted shoulders” and with a “tight little jacket”.

The master's and disciple's mornings are shaped in this way: from the back of the room, sitting at the last desk assigned to her, she speaks loudly and faces him with a challenge, inhibiting him until he loses focus and stutters. But she does so moved by a binary impulse of rage and love, in the confused hope of awakening him to the life before which – intuits little Sofia – this guy who “had gone heavily to teaching primary school” cowered.

The short story borrows the title of a novel written by the Countess of Ségur (Sophie's malheurs [1858]), a work, incidentally, that many teenage readers of Clarice's generation traveled through. It turns out that the disasters imposed on Clarice's character go beyond the reigns of a mischievous child. The haughtiness of this Sophia (from the Greek, sophia: wisdom) implies stumbles of another order, in a risky and painful crossing, which gives vent to the purest, innate, assertive and paradoxically lucid ignorance that the author of The passion according to GH potentialized in the course of all his literature – an ignorance that borders on genuine learning, whose essence the lexicon insists on pursuing and naming.

As can be foreseen in Clarice's plot, the discourse rises up against conventions. The dual measures forces, causes friction, sparks. The teacher personifies, in this plot, the adult that the child sees himself compelled to save, without knowing exactly what and for what ("it was as if, alone with a climber paralyzed by the terror of the precipice, and, however unskilled , could not but try to help him down”). The man, who instead of “with a lump in his throat had contracted shoulders”, looms – prematurely and prohibitively – as a paradigm of desire to the Sofia of school days, a time when he ran with immeasurable vigor through the expansive and asymmetrical terrain of the school, sliding the hands on tree trunks on which students carve secret and intimate designs with their penknives.

If these were the protagonist's morning actions, the nocturnal daydreams translated different concerns: “At night, before going to sleep, he irritated me”; “[…] I will no longer speak about myself in the vortex that was in me while I daydreamed before falling asleep”. And she adds: “I was being the whore and he was the saint. No, maybe not that. Words precede and surpass me, they tempt and modify me, and if I am not careful it will be too late: things will be said without my having said them.

Indeed, both the spatial and temporal matrix stand out in the tessitura. The adult narrator, in the present of the utterance, operates her school reminiscences in her memory – she recalls that, at the age of thirteen, the news “screamed” by a “former friend” that “the teacher had died in that dawn”. Revelation arouses discomfort, activates and mobilizes intrigue. If it weren't for this sudden information, the reader might not know, in detail, the main scene of the short story.

One day, the teacher assigns the class an activity. He requests the development of a given composition based on this short story: a man, without money, dreams that he has discovered a treasure; soon, he walks around the world in search of fortune, but does not find it. He then returns to his humble home and, deprived of food, sustains himself by the roots he cultivates in the backyard; he prospers and gets rich as he decides to sell his crops.

Sofia is the first to complete the lesson: she leaves the premises triumphant, with more time for recess. However, when her colleagues had already finished the task, she decided to return to the room in order to pick up an object and was surprised by the master, among piles of notebooks. Unprepared, just seconds later the student realizes that there is someone there: “Alone at the chair: he was looking at me.”.

The passage that follows manifests an extraordinary poignancy, exemplary of the voracious manner and of such authorial strength in penetrating and scrutinizing the human condition. The teacher, contrary to what the helpless Sofia supposes, does not retaliate for the mistreatment he is subjected to on a daily basis. In reality, he is astonished because he has just finished reading the essay and is ecstatic with the (in reverse) interpretative horizon that the student with the bold attitude offers to the “treasure” inscribed in the fable; he is mostly delighted with the outcome it gives to the story.

“Sofia's Disasters” brings to light ingredients that are dear to Clarice's poetics: a physical detail is, therefore, enlarged and takes on a grotesque conformation; an event results in psychological destabilization, culminating in estrangement that generates vertigo and nausea; a silence is optimized and leverages a language of unusual and overwhelming radiance, whose style, in experimental diction, draws unusual associations, serpentine by figures such as oxymoron, hyperbole, synesthesia, nodding to the dazzling exercise of literary work; a female voice is shown in perspective of alterity and an insect is referenced.

Here are some valuable segments of this web: “At the sound of my name, the room became de-hypnotized. And very slowly I saw the whole teacher. Very slowly I saw that the teacher was very big and very ugly, and that he was the man of my life. (...) To my torture, without disturbing me, he slowly took off his glasses. And he looked at me with naked eyes that had many lashes. I had never seen his eyes that, with the countless lashes, looked like two sweet cockroaches. (…) What I saw was as anonymous as an open belly for an intestinal operation. I saw something taking place in his face (…) as if a liver or a foot were trying to smile, I don't know. (...) I saw inside an eye. .


If the coexistence between Sofia and the man in the “tight little jacket” takes place in a public space (the school), the approach and conversations between Joana and the teacher, in Close to the wild heart (1943), takes place in a private room: the living room of the educator who offers advice.

In Clarice Lispector's debut novel, the protagonist is an adult and married, experiencing an excessive existential and marital conflict. Otávio, her husband, has a mistress; Joana, by chance, meets a man and has a relationship with him. Time is blurred for her; there is a coming and going of ephemeral memories. In fact, her particular way of interacting with the world is digressive: she mimics the obscure behavior, the introspective and acute state of feeling of this woman.

The narrator, in third person, is receptive to all these impressions – he combines his discursive voice with the reminiscences of the anti-heroine who is orphaned very early, lives with her uncles and, subsequently, is taken to a boarding school. At this point in Joana's life – a tense phase of self-knowledge and uncertainty (“mysterious puberty rising”) – instinct is expressed through the transgression that characterizes lying and stealing a book.

Going to the teacher's house is not only due to the need for protection – other reasons make her look for him. Reflective speech and status professional of this guy who would be old enough to be his father; the possibility – at the end of the interview – of escaping redeemed and relieved of the cumulative sins that weigh on her; the dizzying search for understanding – all of this unsettles Joana, all of this spurs her on.

In the first part of the book, it is announced that the teacher “miraculously penetrated Joana's dark world and moved there lightly, delicately”. “- It is not worth more to others, in relation to the ideal human being. It's worth more within yourself. Do you understand, Joan?” “-After all, in this pursuit of pleasure animal life is summed up. Human life is more complex: it boils down to the pursuit of pleasure, its fear, and above all the dissatisfaction of intervals. It's a bit simplistic what I'm talking about, but it doesn't matter for now. Do you understand? All craving is the pursuit of pleasure. All remorse, pity, kindness, is your fear. […]”.

In this ambiguous territory, Joana tests her own limits. She feels watched over by the professor's wife, which is why she cultivates hatred and admiration for her. It's as if that woman's air of superiority was justified by having a home and a husband to take care of. She lets on that he has a schedule to get to work: it wouldn't be fair to spend so much time with a disoriented girl.

And without being able to say goodbye, because she had the second dizzy spell of the day, the orphan escapes from the house. Before that, she observes a “naked statue, with lines gently erased as at the end of movement” over the gleaming china cabinet. She continues towards the beach and leaves behind “that strong man”, whose fingers intertwine with the cover and pages of a book. In the sand, the girl's feet “would sink and emerge heavy again. It was already night, the sea was rolling dark, nervous, the waves lapped at the beach.”

Hours later, back at her uncles' house, she gives herself over to voluptuousness. Not by chance, the chapter portrayed is entitled “The bath”: “The water is blind and deaf but happily unchanging, shining and bubbling against the clear enamel of the bathtub. The room suffocated with warm vapors, the misted mirrors, the reflection of a young woman's already naked body in the damp mosaics on the walls.”

In the second part of the novel, the reunion as a teacher is recorded. Joana is no longer a girl – her intention is to inform and hear him about her marriage to Otávio, which has a set date. The protagonist lacks courage to tell the news: she discovers that the teacher has been abandoned by his wife. He had put on weight, he had been sick; now aged, with “his big body slumped over the chair”, he is scattered and in pajamas under the care of a young male nurse. The house doesn't maintain the conservation it used to; what catches the visitor's eye, instead of the cupboard, is the “clock and medicine table”. The virility of the one with black hair fades away – at the moment, the “professor looked like a big castrated cat reigning in a cellar”. As if that weren't enough, accidentally one of his slippers slips off his foot, and “his foot with curved and yellowed nails appears naked”.

Sofia and Joana

Evidently, the relations of coexistence that Joana and Sofia establish with the teachers violate the conventional order. Clarice diagram, already in Close to the wild heart, dominants that emphasize the oblique and untimely side of life. In other texts, his teachers reappear playing roles of lesser or greater prestige – this is the case of novels. The Apple in the Dark (1961) and An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures (1969), and the short story “O crime do professor demática”, in Family relationships(1960). With the representation of these characters from the teaching arena, knowledge, in itself, would be more like the enigmatic figure of a thicket: serious and moving... passionately ruffled.

*Ricardo Iannace is a professor at the Postgraduate Program in Comparative Studies of Literatures in the Portuguese Language at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Portraits in Clarice Lispector: literature, painting and photography (Ed. UFMG).





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