Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
A cool thing to do is to lay out all four of New Directions’ reintroduction of Clarice Lispector’s novels on your kitchen table, so that each quarter of the author’s portrait join together, forming a mesmerizing and beautiful whole of Lispector’s gorgeous, haunting face. An even better thing to do is read them, and the best place to start is with Lispector’s breakthrough novel Near to the Wild Heart, which was originally published in Brazil in 1943 when Lispector was only twenty-three years old.
Upon its publication, Near to the Wild Heart was lauded as “the greatest novel a woman has ever written in the Portuguese language.” Described as Joycean, especially since the book’s title and epigraph were lifted from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lispector’s style is at once more poignant and precise than Joyce, whom Lispecter claimed had no direct influence on her first book. In this new translation, it’s easy to see how “Hurricane Clarice” was unleashed on an unsuspecting intelligentsia, and why Lispector was hailed as a genius. Also, it makes you wonder: why greatest novel a woman has ever written in Portuguese? Saramago has nothing on Lispector.
However, genius might not be the appropriate word. Mystic might be better. The most mind-blowing passages are those that deal with the intensely introspective and spiritual awareness in her childhood, which the main character Joana relates to her husband Otavio. It’s hard to believe Joana could have had such lofty and insightful thoughts at such a young age; feeling waves of ecstasy, she finds pleasure in “the taste of evil,” since isn’t “it in evil alone that you could breathe fearlessly, accepting the air and your lungs?” Though her aunt calls Joana a “cold viper” who is “capable of killing someone,” Joana is actually exploring reality and the deeper aspects of existence, yearning to “sleep on God and mystery.”
The child suffers from an “asphyxiating happiness” and feels “scattered in the air, thinking inside other beings, living in things beyond myself.” Clearly, Joana is not a normal child, but one blessed by a strong sense of intuition and perception. She has many epiphanies: “the first truth is in the earth and the body” and “all you have to do is be quiet in order to discern, beneath all the realities, the only irreducible one, that of existence.” Putting the essence of reality into words is all but impossible, but through Joana’s observations, Lispector is miraculously able to express the ineffable.
That such an enlightened child grows up to face the same mundane yet essential challenges as everyone else seems only fitting. As an adult, Joana has to deal with marriage, cheating, having a baby, leaving, being left. A difficult, independent woman is the inevitable result of a precocious child-mystic; Joana’s need to feel everything, to feel the fire of life bursting inside her body, is at once her gift and her curse. Her mysticism serves as her motivation for what some would now call feminism, but others would recognize as spiritual liberation. Joana questions if death is the only way to keep herself near to the wild heart of life, if death is the only way to link herself back to her childhood self, and the book ends in a sublime prayer, a manifesto of the modern individual: isolated, yet yearning for connection, and for obliteration.
After reading Near to the Wild Heart, one thing is easy to understand: Lispector wasn’t called “Hurricane Clarice” because of her breakthrough into the literary scene, but because her words tear into your mind and leave a trail of devastation.
This is the first of a four-part review of New Directions’ reintroduction to the work of Clarice Lispector
Translated from The Portuguese by Alison Entrekin
New Directions, May 2012