Clarice Lispector's Punch

Image: Marco Buti


Comment on the chronicle “The Boring Children” and the book “A hora da Estrela”

“I could take the easy way out, […] but I want the worst: life. Those who read me like this, get a punch in the stomach to see if it's good. Life is a punch in the stomach.” (Clarice Lispector, star hour).

One of the fundamental artistic procedures in Clarice Lispector's literature is the construction of a narrator who submits the stories he narrates to a double perspective. With great critical acuity, Nádia Battella Gotlib synthesized the characteristics of this narrator, who is constituted from a double focus articulated in chiasmus (structure in X in which the planes of the narrated story and the narration dialogue tensely and specularly): “What the narrative discourse brings is […] a test of resistance in taking the thread of experience to its ultimate consequences – to the maximum point, the apex of a specular system, an X in which opposites meet, from which each of the poles continues its journey, on the contrary, in the reflection”.[I]

Here, then, is a fundamental reading key for reading Lispector's work, whose texts tend to tell a story and, simultaneously, discuss narrating/writing the narrated story itself. Let’s see, for example, “The boring children”, a chronicle that opens the book the discovery of the world, originally published on August 19, 1967 in the column that the writer produced for Jornal do Brasil:

the boring kids

"I can't. I can't think of the scene I visualized that is real. The son is hungry at night and says to his mother: I'm hungry, mommy. She answers sweetly: sleep. He says: but I'm hungry. She insists: sleep. He says: I can't, I'm hungry. She repeats in exasperation: sleep. He insists. She screams in pain: sleep, you bore! The two are silent in the dark, motionless. Is he sleeping? – she thinks wide awake. And he's too scared to complain. In the black night both are awake. Until, from pain and fatigue, both nap in the nest of resignation. And I can't stand the resignation. Ah, how I devour revolt with hunger and pleasure” (LISPECTOR, 1984, p. 9).

This text articulates two narratives: the story of the dialogue between mother and son and the story of the narration-creation of this scene (a story about hunger) by the narrator who, by fictionalizing it, takes advantage of what “is real” and “devours” it. with hunger and pleasure the revolt” that this reality datum causes him. It should be noted that the stories fulfill the function of each other's narrative frame, characterizing a framed narrative. It is in the game between them that criticism is built in relation to what both narratives, with their respective literary genre clichés, imply – criticism that dialogues with Brazilian literature and society. Note that:

(a) In the game of narratives that frame each other, the nuclear scene is characterized as taking place “in the black night” of any given day, a circumstance that, combined with the state of “hungry pain” and the son’s insistence, ends up triggering the mother's irritation: “The son is hungry at night and says to his mother: I'm hungry, mommy”. The scene is dramatic because the conflict between the two is caused by a hunger that only momentarily subsides due to the resigned nap that takes place, in the child, as an effect of the reprimand suffered and, in the mother, as an effect of her own pain. This scene presents condensed feuilleton elements: the mother's gradual irritation reveals her pain of probably not having enough to feed her son,[ii] the child's insistence and frightened silence point to the irremediability of the situation and the permanence of hunger, added, in the end, to fear and pain. Although the dramatic conflict is universalizable due to the absence of precise data on space and time, the scene unveils, as a metonym, the misery that historically affects part of the Brazilian population. In this way, the feuilleton elements lend themselves to the construction of a social drama that denounces the poor living conditions of the underprivileged;

(b) The story of the narrator-writer, who in the end assumes the leading role by exposing himself in the 1st person, also has a burning tone, but one of indignation: the scene he envisions is real, disturbing and triggers an unresigned lack: the his hunger for revolt.

There is a contrast, therefore, between the indigence of those who have to resign themselves to their situation of hunger and the indignation of those who, with pleasure, are satisfied, devouring their revolt 'with hunger'. By virtue of the indictment of social class differences between the narrator who creates/narrates and the characters he creates, indignation and revolt are restricted to the one who constitutes himself, via writing, as a spokesperson for the underprivileged.

In this way, therefore, the narrative carried out by the narrator, who is a writer, is not reduced to the function of framing the dramatic scene. Through the contrast established between the two narratives, this story of the invention of a story “that is real” ends up being, itself, framed by the other. The contrast present in the mirroring established between the two narratives (and the respective genres to which they refer: the feuilleton/social drama and the modern narrative) fulfills a critical metalinguistic function in which both the literary codes that characterize them and the themes they address and the position of the one who writes/creates are problematized. In this way, Clarice Lispector draws our attention to the (un)comfortable position of the one who makes the complaint, but does not solve the concrete problem that gives rise to it.

What Lispector thematizes, via metalanguage, in this chronicle, is the same that she thematizes in star hour, the novel of “facts without literature” from which “there is no escape”.[iii] the dramatic and complex chasm that, in Brazil, separates “those who have [from] those who don't”.[iv] The refusal to propose solutions fulfills the function of keeping the reader uncomfortable with the issues that the text problematizes, urging him to face the anguish caused by them. This is how Clarice reaches the reader in the many texts in which she explores the conflicts I X other, center X margin, identity X difference.[v]

In “The boring children”, as already mentioned, the conflict between the two articulated narratives critically discusses the literary genres to which they are linked: on the one hand, the (melo)dramatic serial that becomes a social drama; on the other, the modern metalinguistic narrative. Irony is the figure of speech that stands out in the text, since it addresses both one and other genres and their possible representatives in Brazilian society: the intellectual/artist and the poor – in addition, of course, to targeting the artist himself. reader

The perception of this irony passes, however, through the recognition that such genres and their characteristic traits are treated by Lispector as rhetorical resources and, from a certain angle, as clichés. According to Linda Hutcheon: “[…] it is part of the particular strategy of both parody and irony that their acts of communication cannot be considered complete unless the precise coding intention is realized in the recipient's recognition. […] irony requires a triple competence from its reader: linguistic, rhetorical or generic and ideological. […] the reader has to understand what is implicit, as well as what is actually asserted. […]. The reader's generic or rhetorical competence presupposes knowledge of the rhetorical and literary norms that allow the recognition of deviation from those norms that constitute the canon, the institutionalized heritage of language and literature”.[vi]

The writing procedures addressed here reveal, finally, something that seems central to Clarice Lispector's very unique poetics: the love of irony and paradox and the consternations they are capable of producing. The abyss structure that constitutes star hour it was already present in germ in this apparently unpretentious chronicle from 1967. The punch dealt by Lispector in her texts is also twofold because it disturbs us both by the narrated stories and by the narration that informs them, generating uneasiness when opening up to our imaginations, “ perhaps even unhealthy and without pity.”[vii]

*Arnaldo Franco Junior Professor of Theory of Literature at Unesp-São José do Rio Preto.



[I] Cf. GOTLIB, NB “A thread of voice – stories of Clarice”. In: LISPECTOR, C. The passion according to GH (Ed. Crítica and Coord. Benedito Nunes). Paris: Association Archives de La littérature latino-américaine, des Caraibes et Africaine Du XXe. siècle, Brasília, DF: CNPq, 1988. p. 170.

[ii] The mother X child conflict can also be interpreted by the reader as a representation of a common domestic situation in which the role of mother is problematized – which may have nothing to do with poverty. This will not be, however, the interpretative bias privileged here.

[iii] See LISPECTOR, C. star hour. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 6. Ed., 1981, p. 21.

[iv] See LISPECTOR, C. star hour. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 6. Ed., 1981, p. 32.

[v] Read, p. e.g., the short stories: “The smallest woman in the world”; “Happy Birthday” and “The Mathematics Teacher's Crime” – examples of the articulation of the narrator's dual perspective with chiasm and mirroring.

[vi] See HUTCHEON, L. A theory of parody. Lisbon, Editions 70, 1989, p. 118 – 120.

[vii] See LISPECTOR, C. star hour. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 6. Ed., 1981, p. 17.

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