Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
In the introduction to A Breath of Life, series editor Benjamin Moser writes that the new editions of the four Clarice Lispector “is the most important project of translation into English of a Latin American author since the complete works of Jorge Luis Borges were published a decade ago.” After reading A Breath of Life, which was published a year after Lispector’s death in 1977 and only now available in English for the first time, two things are clear. One is that, yes, the New Directions Lispector translation project is an incredibly important contribution to the canon of world literature, and two, Lispector has secured her reputation among the most respected writers of philosophical meta-fiction.
Like works by Miguel de Unamuno or Jorge Luis Borges, A Breath of Life consists of a dialogue between a narrator and the narrator’s fictional character, and much of it reads like “a double-diary,” with entries from the author followed by entries from the character. In this case, the narrator is “a serious and honest man,” and his character is Angela Pralini, who the narrator describes as not so much a character but “the evolution of a feeling” or “an idea incarnated in the being.” The narrator claims that the book “is not autobiographical,” but the reader can see that Lispector has split herself up into the narrator and Angela in order to have a conversation with herself; A Breath of Life is Lispector’s conscious mind attempting to communicate with her subconscious. Angela is described as living “in a kind of constant prayer. A pagan prayer.” She writes not in words but “anti-words” which come “from an abstract place inside her where one doesn’t think, that dark and vague and dripping place like a primitive cave.”
As with the other three Lispector novels, A Breath of Life is a plunge into the subconscious and the primeval life within; an exploration of consciousness beyond verbal thought, where perception is linked to sensation, and the ever-changing present moment is the only true reality, despite its fleeting nature. Her work is more akin with the writings of Kant or Kierkegaard than that of most literary fiction. In all four works, Lispector tries to capture the experience of existing in this reality, pinning it down in words written in an abstract and surreal style and syntax, but the dialogue structure of A Breath of Life allows it to be more digestible than the other highly philosophical books, Agua Viva and The Passion According to G.H.
In the beginning of A Breath of Life, the narrator warns: “anyone who reads me does so at his own risk,” and this warning can serve for all of Lispector’s work. Reading Lispector is an intellectual adventure not to be taken lightly. The book is similarly filled with quotable phrases and aphorisms, musings on God and Time (which, according to Angela, are the same thing), and elaborations regarding the creative process: “writing is a stone cast down a deep well” capable of “stirring up hidden things.” Serious writing is a dangerous business, and unlike any other author, Lispector is willing to embrace the danger and come out the other side of the void.
In the introduction, Moser writes that his biggest question is if Lispector was mad at the end of her life, when she wrote A Breath of Life. If so, Lispector would be pleased, for her character Angela states that “madness is perfection. It’s like perceiving. Seeing is the pure madness of the body.” In order to see and understand reality, one has to be mad. If nothing else, the four new Lispector books show that the author was blessed with exceptional gifts of insight and perception, and an ability to translate those pre-thought sensations of being alive into words, making her truly a mad genius, and gem of international literature.
This is the fourth of a four-part review of New Directions’ reintroduction to the work of Clarice Lispector
Translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz
New Directions, May 2012