Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart

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.

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station

Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station is another contemporary novel that draws on significant events that have been shaping the twenty-first century. It is set in Madrid in 2004. Adam Gordon, the first-person narrator and protagonist, is a young American poet who is staying in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship. The novel opens with him making one of his regular visits to the Prado, where he has been studying Roger van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross.

According to Wikipedia,

The emotional impact of the weeping mourners grieving over Christ’s body, and the subtle depiction of space in van der Weyden’s work have generated extensive critical comments, one of the most famous being, that of Erwin Panofsky: ‘It may be said that the painted tear, a shining pearl born of the strongest emotion, epitomizes that which Italian most admired in Early Flemish painting: pictorial brilliance and sentiment.’

In the actual novel, Lerner provides a black and white close-up of the man weeping over Christ’s dead body.

When Adam arrives at the painting, he finds a man standing in the place he usually occupies. Stopping a distance away, Adam has the uncanny feeling that he is observing himself. Although he is not, this perception clearly conveys the acute sense of self-alienation Adam continues to experience, an experience that may be exacerbated by the drugs Adam freely consumes. Nevertheless, Adam’s profound sense of disconnect, of always feeling removed from his experience, expresses a contemporary malaise.

In contrast to Adam, the man studying the painting begins sobbing. While Adam is shocked, he is also envious of the man’s intense emotional experience because Adam is not able to be moved by art in this profound way. This introduces one of the major themes of the novel: Learner questions art’s ability to perform such a function, especially within a political context. Can art or poetry still move people to action?

Adam meets up with another young man who runs an art gallery. His sister, Teresa, becomes the translator of Adman’s poems. These are fragments of Fredrick Garcia Lorca’s poetry Adam has translated, interspersed with other fragments of his own writing. Of course Adam and Teresa become romantically involved although a certain distance in their relationship is maintained.

The title of the novel refers to the climax of the narrative when the Madrid Atocha metro station was bombed by terrorists, killing 191 people and wounding nearly 2,000. This tragedy intensifies Adam’s sense that art is irrelevant in today’s world. He believes that what is needed is direct political action and that poetry or art for that matter can no longer rouse people to act. Because of the attention he gets as a poet, Adam feels like a fraud — his feelings of unworthiness seem to be compounded by his being American and deeply ashamed of the Bush administration. By the end of the novel, however, he has succeeded in getting a book of his poetry published and meeting the requirements of fellowship. The chapbook

was wonderfully made, its quality anachronistic, befitting a dead medium.

Considering all the relevant issues that Lerner raises, the trite, happy ending is a disappointment. Adam plans “to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by [his] friends.”

Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know


In his New Yorker review of Zia Haider Rahman’s “dazzling début” novel, In the Light of What We Know, James Wood draws attention to the author’s extraordinary life:

at first sight, [Rahman] would appear to be an exhausting overachiever: born in rural Bangladesh, educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Munich, and Yale, he has worked, the publisher’s note tells us, as ‘an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human-rights lawyer.’

This is a complex novel. It begins in 2008 when Zafar, the central character,  appears on the doorstep of the narrator’s home in South Kensington looking a wreck. The two are now well into their forties and haven’t seen each other in years. They met and became friends at Oxford. Since the narrator’s wife has left him and he is alone in his large house, he invites Zafar to stay with him. As Zafar proceeds to tell his story, the narrative not only moves back and forth between the characters but backwards and forwards in time. The effect becomes increasingly confusing, and deliberately so. Although the novel is ostensibly about Zafar, we also learn about the narrator’s history. There are aspects of their combined stories that resonate with the author’s life story.

As Wood notes, readers would naturally assume that

Rahman is extremely privileged, but he wasn’t always. He was born not in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, but in a rural village, a place perhaps described by a phrase in this novel: ‘a corner of that corner of the world—if a corner can have a corner.’ He came to England as a small boy, after the 1971 war for independence. According to the Guardian, his father worked as a London bus conductor; Rahman spent some time squatting in ‘a derelict building in Marylebone, before moving to a council estate’ (subsidized housing). But he earned a place at Oxford, where he studied mathematics; one can only imagine the paroxysms of distance suffered by the young student, as he attempted to measure the gap between his life with his immigrant parents and his life at Balliol College, one of the wealthiest and most entitled of the Oxford colleges. A generation or two after V. S. Naipaul made the long journey from Trinidad to Oxford, Rahman reprised it—this time, perhaps, with class rather than race as the dominant embattlement. Yet, to judge from the sharply autobiographical atmosphere of this novel, the dialectic of sudden privilege was probably much as Naipaul had experienced it more than three decades earlier: the lucky recipient bound to judge his old home critically, seeing it, with fresh eyes, from the unjust luxury of his new home; bound also to judge his new home critically, seeing it from the unjust impoverishment of his old one; and now effectively estranged from either place.

Although he has no name, we learn that the narrator is a Pakistani-American, born in Princeton, NJ, where his father taught. It is the narrator who becomes an investment banker, but his career is derailed during the 2008 financial crisis, when he is betrayed by his partners and employer and made a scapegoat. But it is Zafar, who was born in a remote corner of rural Bangladesh, whose life unravels and whose personal history is more closely aligned with Rahman’s. In telling his story, what we eventually learn from Zafar is how he finally became consumed by rage. It’s not just that he was marginalized at Oxford because of his racial background, but rather that his class difference marked him as other. It seems that in order to vent his rage, Raman was obliged to divide his own conflicted self into two entities. At the end of the novel, Zafar disappears; presumably he has returned to his native land. The way I read this is that Rahman, in order to complete his precarious assimilation into western culture, had to erase this part of his identity. To his credit, Raman succeeds in giving Zafar voice in this remarkable novel.

A broader but relevant dimension of the novel is that the story of this friendship begins in the late 1980s but builds to a climax during the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Not only does the story draw on the financial crisis of 2008, but much of the plot’s development takes place in Afghanistan following the events of September 11, 2001. Thematically, we witness the machinations and corruption of the latest incarnation of Empire and how the political landscape impact on the characters lives..


Cuenca so far

Having never been to Australia, I had wanted to visit this winter, but as oil prices continued to plunge and the Canadian dollar dropped 30%, it quickly became too expensive, so my husband and I decided to spend more time in Cuenca, a UNESCO Heritage Site. We had explored much of Ecuador last year, and of all the places we visited, Cuenca by far had the most promise. We thought it lovely — the domes of the new cathedral reminded me of Florence, so we decided that when we returned to Ecuador we would spend more time there. Evidently we are not alone in our thinking, as it has become a popular spot for American and Canadian expatriates.

We arrived on a hot, sunny New Year’s Day and were picked up at the small local airport by our friendly host. We rented a condo from him in the new town which is just perfect for our needs. There is only one bedroom, but it is upstairs in a loft-like set-up, giving us extra space. Downstairs we have a large, fully equipped kitchen and a living area where we spend a good deal of time. The neighborhood is modern and mostly residential, with a number of restaurants and shops within easy access.

Cuenca is divided into two parts, the old town and the new; they are separated by the Tomebamba River, along which one will find a beautiful walk way lined with trees. The old town, or historic center, is only six blocks from our condo, but to get there, you have to cross the river and walk up a steep hill or climb the fifty stone steps. Cuenca is over 8,000 feet about sea level, so the thin air (less oxygen) takes some getting used to. I suffered from altitude sickness during the first week. Two days were especially bad, so I slept a lot. For some people it is much worse. You can actually pass out or get sick to your stomach. I only suffered from a lack of appetite (much needed), some dizziness and general fatigue, making me a bit lethargic, but I am getting over it now that I’ve been here two weeks.

There are two seasons in Cuenca, the wet and the dry. What we consider winter is their wet season, but it is actually the warmer of the two. In the afternoon it generally ranges from 70-75 F in the sun while the evenings can be cool, requiring a jacket. This year is unusually dry, so when it finally did rain, the next day I noticed that many of the trees were in bloom. Here is a shot of Jacaranda trees on a street only a few blocks from where we are staying. There are other blossoms as well, some yellow, some pink and a few are red.

Ecuador actually grows and exports many flowers. There is even a flower market across from the New Cathedral.

The main square, or Parquet Calderon, is simply gorgeous and one can sit and watch the people, who are generally quite gentle and friendly.


Another beautiful square is San Sebastian. It is smaller, but even lovelier. On the corner there is a popular café called San Sebas. Mostly expats eat there as they serve delicious hamburgers, evidently an important staple for the homesick.

There is no shortage of food in Cuenca. A quick look on Tripadvisor shows over forty restaurants. My husband and I are gradually making the rounds. While some are inevitably better than others, they do not disappoint. One that I especially like is called the Windhorse Café. What an enchanting name! It is a very small café, run by an older couple who must have migrated here some time ago. The breakfasts, soups, salads and lunches are all delicious and unbelievably inexpensive.

To save money, one can also buy fresh food. There is an old market near the centre that sells fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meat and fish.  We shop there for the shrimp, which are large and cost a mere $5 a pound. The produce is also much cheaper than in the supermarket. We also found an excellent Italian butcher that sells all the meat we need, such as chicken and steaks. We have yet to try the chorizo sausages, but they look tempting.

Mornings I spend on my computer and listen to meditation taps, then my husband and I walk to a restaurant for lunch, do some shopping, and return home to read. Fortunately we don’t have cable television, so after making dinner, I spend the rest of the evening reading. This is my idea of the good life.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

From The Paris Review interview with Marilynn Robinson, No. 198, Fall 2008.

Several years ago I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and was simply bowled over. It was the best novel I had read in some time. The opening immediately drew me in as it begins with a train crash — a train hurling forward suddenly derails, disappearing into an isolated lake in the mountains. As I recall, the story picks up some years after this disaster, with two sisters being looked after by their homeless aunt as their mother has committed suicide. This is a novel about a family that has been devastated. Eventually one of the sisters leaves to live with a friend in a more “normal” household, one in which housekeeping is maintained. As Robinson suggests, housekeeping is a means of staving off inner collapse. Since its publication in 1981, Housekeeping has become a modern classic.

Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

As Robinson’s readers know, it was twenty-four years before her next novel appeared. I began reading Gilead somewhat warily, as I doubted it could be as good as her first novel. I was also put off by its religious aura. The novel did not speak to me, so I put it aside. Recently, however, I made another attempt and found it much improved. The writing is surprisingly plain in a kind of conversational way: the story is narrated by an aging pastor who is writing an extended letter to his young son, a son who will not get to know his father. I liked the old-fashioned rhythm of the pastor’s speech and the underlying humor.

The novel is set in the fictitious town of Gilead, Iowa, and the narrative spans a period of some one hundred years, from the 1850s to the 1950s. The early town is comprised of abolitionists who are digging tunnels to help runaway slaves escape to the north.

The first half of the novel reads like a meditation on the nature of grace. The ailing pastor considers himself blessed to have fathered a child so late in life. His first wife died in childbirth many years ago. Ann Hulbert, in her 6 December 2004 Slate review of the novel, writes:

In the Bible, the balm of Gilead is a rarity, yearned for in vain. In the gospel song, it flows copiously, making the wounded whole and healing sin-sick souls. Both properties are true of Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead. Long-awaited and altogether unlike any other work of fiction (even her own), it has sprung forth … with what I can only call amazing grace. It is as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered.

Fittingly the story reaches its most interesting point about halfway through. The narrator’s grandfather took the side of John Brown and hid him when he was wounded and being hunted down by the army. Of course, John Brown is a pivotal figure in American history: he believed slavery could not be ended without violent insurrection and is credited with having triggered the civil war. The grandfather’s acceptance of the necessity of an armed conflict created a divide with his pacifist son, the narrator’s father, and some of the town’s people.

The second half of the novel focuses on the history of the narrator’s namesake, who fulfills the role of the prodigal son. After a long absence, Jack (as he is sometimes called) returns to Gilead and the narrator fears that Jack will take up with his young wife when he dies.

The narrative draws to a close as the young John Ames prepares to leave town. We learn that he had returned to seek help from his father. John Ames had changed his ways but was not able to reintegrate into society because he took up with a black school teacher with whom he fathered a child. Although they wanted to marry, due to segregation and miscegenation laws, they could not. In fact, they could not even live in peace together under the same roof.

Despite his compassion, the narrator implies that John Ames’s sad plight may be retribution for his having earlier abandoned a poor young woman who had his child, a child that died. Perhaps the inclusion of this kind of thinking is realistic, but I find it detracts from the highlighting of racism at the very center of John Ames’s trouble.

While the narrative maintains a sober religious tone throughout, which is a dominant characteristic of American history, I find the novel’s structure brilliant in that Robinson makes race a central point of that history by beginning with early abolitionists that led to the civil war. No wonder the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. The ending speaks of the lasting consequences of slavery and the persistent legacy of racism. This is the wound that has not yet been healed.

The pastor John Ames dies at the end of Gilead, but in her two subsequent novels, Robinson continues the narrative. Home is apparently about the life of the younger John Ames and Lila takes up the life of the pastor’s widow.