“I know how to die. I have been dying since I was little. And it hurts but we pretend it doesn’t. I miss God so badly.”
Clarice Lispector, “Brasília: Five Days,” translated by Katrina Dodson
I’ve been a writer and a semi-regular book critic for long enough now that I rarely meet a piece of writing that I can’t classify, pretty much immediately, under one of the existing literary forms. What does it mean? I can struggle over this question—and the more struggle the better, I think—for as long as I have an ongoing relationship with something that I’ve read. Do I think it’s any good? I’m rarely won over slowly, especially when it comes to more literary writing; I don’t need love at first sentence, but I do need to detect a spark of life from the outset that promises a re-ordering of the reader’s expectations. Some evidence of things unseen, as the famous line of scripture goes. Why keep on reading if the only promise a book holds within its covers is to reveal the author’s design in a mind-numbingly literal way? (This is why I’ve never been able to enjoy Ian McEwan. Sorry, but to me his fiction is overly plodding and determined to death at the writing desk.)
For the last month or so, while working on a review of The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, the visionary Brazilian writer who’s in the midst of a revival in the U.S., I’ve been captivated by the strangeness of her work, the difficulty it presents to anyone who approaches it—out of laziness, or reflex—with a binary, “either/or” mindset. Lispector is a writer who used metafictional techniques from her earliest stories onward that Robbe-Grillet and the other practitioners of the nouveau roman thought they had invented—but she was nothing like a doctrinaire post-modernist. She diagnosed the symptoms of “the problem that has no name” in her well-heeled female characters (again, long before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in the U.S.)—but there’s little else that makes her work overtly feminist. Her novels are essentially plotless, almost exclusively interior, and they have more in common with Hermann Hesse than they do with the writers of the Latin American “Boom” (García Márquez, Fuentes, etc.), a movement that coincided with the years of her greatest fame in Brazil. Then there are the pieces of her writing that are almost undefinable, like the twin crônicas Lispector wrote in 1962 and 1974 after visiting Brasília, the Modernist insta-Capital dreamed up by urban planner Lúcio Costa and populated with mirage-like landmark buildings by the architect Oscar Niemeyer.
There wasn’t enough space in the review to talk about Lispector’s Brasília essays—I’m calling them “essays” out of default; they’re really more like prayers-in-prose, or prophetic language hallucinations—and since I still don’t know what they are, really, aside from being fucking brilliant in every way, I thought I would try and get closer to the bottom of them here. Continue reading…