“I write because I’m desperate and I’m tired, I can no longer bear the routine of being me and if not for the always novelty that is writing, I would die symbolically every day. But I am prepared to slip out discreetly through the back exit. I’ve experienced almost everything, including passion and despair. And now I’d only like to have what I would have been and never was.”
Clarice Lispector wrote this in the first pages of A hora de estrela/The Hour of the Star, published 39 years ago this month, soon before she died. The title pages show what a process it was.
The woman in the story, Macabéa, arrives in Rio di Janiero from her childhood home in Alagoas, northeast Brazil, but there the similarity seems to end. The infamous Clarice was fascinated by the “anonymous misery” of her character:
“She thought she’d incur a serious punishment and even risk dying if she took too much pleasure in life. So she protected herself from death by living less, consuming so little of her life that she’d never run out. These savings gave her a little security since you can’t fall farther than the ground. Did she feel she was living for nothing? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. Only once did she ask a tragic question: who am I? It frightened her so much that she completely stopped thinking. But I, who can’t quite be her, feel that I live for nothing. I am gratuitous and pay my light, gas and phone bills. As for her, she sometimes occasionally on payday bought a rose.”
Macabéa’s boy-meets-girl story doesn’t end well. He leaves her for a curvier and blonder colleague: “You, Macabéa, are like a hair in the soup. Nobody feels like eating it.” She has her hopes of passionate love raised to the greatest heights – and that’s where the story ends. And that’s where Clarice ends herself, too:
“For the last three days, alone, without characters, I depersonalise myself and take myself off as if taking off clothes. I depersonalise myself so much that I fall asleep.”
I took this with me on holiday to Rio. Rather than taking a “favela tour” (!), I read about someone who lived in one. It wasn’t comfortable. As Benjamin Moser notes on his new translation of The Hour of the Star, he had tried to avoid what the Canadian writer Claire Varin had regretted in her own translators, the tendency to “pluck the spines from the cactus.” This is prickly, painful, with occasional bursts of colour. When I left Rio last weekend, it was springtime, and the cacti were starting to bloom. Back home in Finland, it’s autumn, first frost, and dying leaves.