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This Book Is a Question


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Claire Lispector by Maureen Bisilliat, August 1969, IMS Collection. CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In an interview with Jùlio Lerner for TV Cultura, Clarice Lispector described her final writing project, the novella The Hour of the Star, as “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs.” “That’s not the story, though,” she continued. “The story is about a crushed innocence, an ‘anonymous misery.’ ” This idea of a “crushed innocence, an anonymous misery” is the axis upon which all of Lispector’s work revolves. Lispector, a Jewish Ukrainian, was forced to flee with her family. They migrated to Brazil, where they lived in Recife, in the northeast. In Recife, Lispector’s mother died when she was nine and her father struggled to find a means to support the family. In the same TV interview, Lispector is asked, “Clarice, what did your father do professionally?” This is a common question used to determine one’s social class. Lispector’s face in the frame during the interview appears sad: her eyes, turned away, her mouth half-open. The question is a form of wounding: you can answer and remain fixed in your social class or you can lie or, of course, you can answer obliquely. Lispector tells the truth. She responds, “A sales representative, things like that.” Indeed, Lispector was intimate with precarity. In her preface to The Hour of the Star she wrote, “I dedicate it [this book] to the memory of my former poverty, when everything was more sober and dignified and I had never eaten lobster.”

“My truest life is unrecognizable,” Lispector writes in The Hour of the Star, “extremely interior and there is not a single word that defines it.” This sentiment, of being inexplicable to others, speaks directly to Lispector’s own experience. Though she was the child of immigrants raised in poverty, when Lispector became a recognized writer, she appeared to the Brazilian middle class as a member of their class. And yet, at the same time, she appeared mysterious, an enigma. This seeming strangeness is due to the middle class’s blindness to the working class. They are unable to comprehend Lispector because they are unable to see beyond the confines of their own social class. Like Barbara Loden, who appears incomprehensible to middle-class women, Lispector, excised from her social class, with her melancholia, her alienation from middle-class society, and her removal from the literary world, appears incomprehensible, too.

By marrying her law school classmate, Maury Gurgel Valente—who, upon graduation, became a diplomat—Lispector moved from the working class to the middle class. Lispector never abandoned her origins, though, continuing to write about the poor and marginalized up until The Hour of the Star, written as she was dying. Her childhood always remained intact and within her. In “O manifesto da cidead,” she writes: “That is the river. That is the clock. It is Recife … I see it more clearly now: that is the house, my house, the bridge, the river, the prison, the square blocks of buildings, the stairway, where I no longer stand.” Like Macabéa—the female protagonist of The Hour of the Star, who, Lispector writes, “always noticed small and insignificant things”—Lispector remained acutely aware of the world, seeing everything. As she writes in “Literature and Justice,” “Ever since I have come to know myself, the social problem has been more important to me than any other issue: in Recife the black shanty towns were the first truth I encountered.” This contradiction, that of living as a member of the middle class while identifying with her precarious childhood, resulted in alienation, in melancholia. When she moved to Rio, she left the place that had formed her. This loss resulted in a wound, in a void that could not be filled in with anything. As an adult, Lispector suffered from melancholia, a condition that worsened as the years passed. In Switzerland, where she was stationed with her husband, she saw a psychoanalyst who prescribed pills to alleviate her depression. But because her depression was a symptom of her melancholia, the external manifestation of it, the pills were unable to alleviate it. Surrounded by people who could not see her, people who she felt separate from, Lispector retreated further into her interior world.

“Yes,” she writes in The Hour of the Star, “I have no social class, marginalized as I am. Yes, the upper class considers me a weird monster, the middle class worries I might unsettle them, the lower class never comes to me.” The terms monster and monstrous appear repeatedly throughout Lispector’s work. She felt herself a monster or, rather, she felt herself seen by others as a monster. For example, in The Hour of the Star, she asks, “Who hasn’t ever wondered: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a monster is “a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance. Later, more generally: any imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening.” A monster, then, might be a working-class Jewish woman from northern Brazil who passes as a middle-class member of the Brazilian bourgeoisie: one part intellectual, one part peasant, one part worker, and one part diplomat’s wife.

As an “anonymous” Northeasterner, Lispector was “monstrous” in the eyes of the middle class. Then, later, when she was seen as a member of the middle class, she was seen as a “sacred monster.” In Esçobo, she writes: “One of the things that makes me unhappy is this story of the sacred monster: others fear me for no reason, and I end up fearing myself.” Here, Lispector articulates how we are trained, through the constant interpolation of shame connected to our social class, to despise ourselves.

Abandoning our class background is always an option. We see this possibility in The Hour of the Star, specifically, in Lispector’s creation of Olímpico, Macabéa’s boyfriend, and Glória, her best friend. When Macabéa meets Olímpico, she immediately recognizes herself in him. But he has internalized the society’s beliefs and values, their sense of entitlement, cruelty, and their hatred of the working class and the poor. “Olímpico de Jesus,” Lispector writes, “worked in a metals factory and she [Macabéa] didn’t even notice he didn’t call himself a ‘worker’ but a ‘metallurgist.’ ” He has internalized self-consciousness, something Macabéa does not have. Unlike her, he is aware of the systems of hierarchy, his place in them, and the skills necessary to propel himself out from his class. “He [Olímpico] was more susceptible to survive than Macabéa because it wasn’t by chance that he had killed a man, a rival of his, in the back of beyond, the long jackknife entering softly softly the backwoodsman’s liver. He had kept this crime an absolute secret, which gave him the power a secret gives.” Macabéa falls in love with Olímpico because she sees herself in him: he is also precarious, a laborer. But Olímpico sees his own lower class standing in her and, as a result, despises her for it. Indeed, as Lispector writes, “Having killed and stealing made him more than a random occurrence, they gave him some class, they made him a man whose honor had been defended.” Olímpico leaves Macabéa for her best friend, Glória, because doing so helps him move out of his class: “But when he [Olímpico] saw Glória, Macabéa’s co-worker, he immediately realized she had class.” As Lispector continues:

The fact that she was a carioca made her belong to the longed-for clan from the South. Seeing her, he immediately guessed that, though ugly, Gloria was well fed. And that made her quality goods.

His cruelty represents the violence that is inherent in a class-based society. To absorb the capitalist culture’s beliefs and values is to become complicit in it. In the case of Olímpico, this means seeing one’s self and others as mere objects, and seeing relationships solely for their transactional aspect. This is precisely what Olímpico does. In fact, though Macabéa is surrounded by people of her own class (Olímpico, Glória, and the psychic), each of them has absorbed the beliefs of society: that people are to be utilized as means to move one’s self forward. This self-erasure and the erasure of other working-class people to make money and acquire more capital is the result of capitalism. Because Macabéa has nothing they can extract, Olímpico and Glória ignore her. They are like the doctor Macabéa visits: “This doctor had no point whatsoever. Medicine was just to make money and never for love of his profession or of the sick.” He saw his patients as rejects of society, like himself. “He knew,” Lispector writes, “he was out-of-date with medicine and clinical novelties but it was good enough for poor people. His dream was to have money to do exactly what he wanted: nothing.”

Macabéa, on the other hand, does not engage in transactional relationships, does not objectify herself or others. Indeed, she is unaware (until she meets the psychic) of her own class standing. It is precisely this aspect of her that makes her appear idiotic to others, as Rodrigo, the male narrator, explains: “She had never figured out how to figure things out.” She didn’t know how the structures of power worked or how she might manipulate or use other people to gain access to this power. This “not knowing” is considered by others to be evidence of her “idiocy.”

Similarly, Macabéa is curious. She asks questions. This is not the case with her boyfriend or her coworker, or others of her class who, instead of looking at the world and asking questions about it, expend all their energy trying to propel themselves up the class ladder. Indeed, what Macabéa is criticized for is not her philosophical inquiries, her curiosity regarding why things are the way they are but, rather, her ignorance regarding how to use others. In fact, the entire book is described by Lispector as a question: “I swear this book is made without words. It is a mute photograph. This book is a silence. This book is a question.”

 

Cynthia Cruz is the author of six collections of poems and a volume of critical essays. She has published poems in numerous literary journals and magazines including The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, BOMB, and The Boston Review.

Excerpted from The Melancholia of Class, by Cynthia Cruz (Repeater Books, 2021). Reprinted with permission from Repeater Books.

Read Cynthia Cruz’s poems “Fragment” and “Phosphorescence,” which appeared in the Summer 2019 issue.

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