I had never heard of the Brazilian author Clarice Lispector and don’t fully understand why. She is an important modern writer. In 2009, Benjamin Moser published his biography on her entitled Why This World and it appears to have renewed interest in her work as a series of new translations followed. In his article for The New Yorker, Moser informs us that she
was nine when Virginia Woolf asked a question she later quoted: ‘Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ The question, Woolf believed, applied as much to women of her own day as it did to women of Shakespeare’s. How did Clarice Lispector—of all people—succeed at a time when so many other women were silenced?
Her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, was written when she was only twenty-three and caused a sensation when it was published in Brazil in 1943. There is not much in the way of plot, yet it can be described as a coming-of-age story, thoughtfully structured and narrated from the first person point-of-view, which makes the intense interior monologues all the more compelling. We are introduced to the narrator, Joana, when she is still a child, living alone with her father, who is a writer. She feels neglected and is trying to get her father’s attention, so she reads him a short poem she has written, but he fails to grasp its import. It becomes obvious that he is preoccupied with his own writing and doesn’t have time for his daughter. In the next chapter, we meet Joana when she is married. The juxtaposition of the two scenes, as in Eisenstein’s film editing, enables us to see how in her marriage Joana is caught in a role similar to the one she played for her father. The sense of her entrapment is effectively conveyed. Her husband, moreover, is busy, writing a book on civil law, a legal system that subjugates women.
What has changed, however, is that Joana has developed a strong sense of herself that she finds interrupted by her husband’s presence. When she concentrated on herself, she “continued living the thread of her childhood.” It’s as if married life, being domesticated, is a cage for the animal she feels inside herself.
It is curious I can’t say who I am. That is to say, I know it all too well, but I can’t say it. More than anything, I’m afraid to say it, because the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say.
In other words, while language constitutes identity and enables a degree of self-expression, paradoxically, at the same time, it represses something essential. For Joana, “Music was of the same category as thought, both vibrated in the same movement and kind.” Seeing has a similar capacity. Being fully alive to her senses, being certain that she is alive, bring what Woolf called “moments of being,” a profound sense of connection to the world and the interconnection of all that is alive.
We then go back in time, following her father’s early death, and find Joana living with an aunt who is disturbed by her niece’s strong character and defiant nature, marking her as decidedly different. Before long, Joana is sent to a boarding school where we meet her teacher and his jealous wife. The tense, triangular relationship is then repeated when we return to her marriage, as another woman is now present. This is Lidia, her husband’s mistress, who is pregnant with his child. Although Joana longs for her own child, her husband leaves. At first, she is devastated, but she soon comes to realize that she is now free to be herself and passionately embraces her new life — her life. Fittingly the title of the novel is taken from a quote by James Joyce: “He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.”
Clarice Lispector was born in the Ukraine in 1920. When she was a child, her parents, who were Jewish, immigrated to Brazil. Moser notes that in his biography
I examined her roots in Jewish mysticism and the essentially spiritual impulse that animated her work. As the Kabbalists found divinity by rearranging letters, repeating nonsensical words, parsing verses, and seeking a logic other than the rational, so did she. With some exceptions, this mystic quality, which can make her prose nearly abstract, is less visible in her stories than in novels such as “The Passion According to G.H.” or “The Apple in the Dark.” But to see Clarice’s writing as a whole is to understand the close connection between her interest in language and her interest in what—for lack of a better word—she called God.
Thus we can see Joana’s profound sense of liberation at the end of the novel as her full spiritual awakening.