My introduction to the work of Clarice Lispector was subtle, almost unnoticeable. A pilates teacher of mine—lovingly known for her inability to stay silent through class—had peppered our sessions with quotes of her’s, mostly from Lispector’s seminal work Agua Viva. The quotes always stuck and I noted them down after each class, not fully aware of who they came from or why they lingered. They were just phrases I liked, companions that I clung to. I had not read Lispector before; in fact until a few years ago, I was largely blind to the diversity and power of Brazilian literature.
Pilates is not necessarily a common teaching ground for Lispector’s words, nor literature in general, but my teacher loved her. She loved the prose, the ambiguity, the ability for “breath to hold itself so gently in her sentences.” After inquiring about the name of the author of such potent words after class one day, I was firmly directed into the arms of Lispector, where I have comfortably remained ever since.
The Hour of the Star is Lispector’s last published work. In plot, the story is quite simple. Written shortly before she died, it tells the tale of a poor typist in Rio named Macebéa. The book is short, and predominantly filled with a melting pot of musings on life, truth, existence and spirituality—themes that pervade much of Lispector’s collection. It’s narrated from the mouth of a wealthy and elderly Brazilian man, formally and exclusively known as Rodrigo S.M. The lifestyle and upbringing of Rodrigo S.M. and Macebéa are in direct contrast, yet both characters seem lost, almost vague.
Macebéa hails from Alagoas—a town in northeast Brazil—and later settles in Rio de Janeiro. The Hour of the Star echoes the journey of the author, whose family first arrived in Alagoas after emigrating from Poland. Macebéa is poor, uneducated and dirty. She is perceived to be so acutely dim that she does not realise her dullness… Yet she is also impossibly bright. She harnesses the reader’s sympathy and attention fully. Our narrator Rodrigo S.M. is in ways deeply profound and philosophical, in others comical, self-serving and dry. He has this ability to make a crude comment on Macebéa’s outfit or lifestyle only to follow with a poignant statement about God, life or otherwise. He is angst-ridden, crippled with insecurity in his fiscally comfortable world.
“Trapped in a somewhat sexist and class-driven world of urban Brazil, she seems too foreign for this big city; crumpled by a city with a personality so much larger than her own.”
Rodrigo S.M. follows Macebéa’s day-to-day life around Rio. He comments on her poor status in finance, intelligence and culture. She is a girl who is both too simple and too complicated. Trapped in a somewhat sexist and class-driven world of urban Brazil, she seems too foreign for this big city; crumpled by a city with a personality so much larger than her own. It’s also the same feeling of displacement that seems to shadow Lispector herself: forever an emigrant, floating through place. Despite this, Rio de Janeiro has an unwavering appeal through these pages. It is eccentric, passionate, hot and clammy. The sweat of the city seems to seep through each pore of Lispector’s text.
As the novel frequently moves between dark and light, there is a sense of instability that Lispector counteracts with her firm hold on the reader, refusing to allow us to avert our gaze. The novel is both mysterious and revealing; sweeping generalisations make way for astute statements and small observations. Only the work of a great writer and translator can find this balance as well as Lispector does.
Translation is an art as much as writing itself. The Hour of the Star has been translated numerous times, and I imagine, more in the future. The beauty in translation is that each read can reveal something different. While the key message remains the same in most sentences, by nature of language, with every translation each word can subtly change meaning, adjusting our interpretation even just slightly. Considering that the book was written in Portuguese, with a vocabulary that far expands that of English, there’s certainly room for interpretation. In parts of the novel, the tone drifts slightly, making you question if you’ve missed something: sarcasm, perhaps, that might be familiar to those of the novel’s mother tongue but not easily understood by someone reading in English.
Though The Hour of the Star digs deeply into the dark abyss of the human condition, it is also an impassioned, open-armed welcome to all those who feel they are struggling to be something, to do something. It is a philosophical novel, tenderly piercing our notions of normality, of society, of life, and of death. French feminist Helene Cixous once said of Lispector: “there, further ahead, where the philosopher loses his breath, she continues, still further, beyond all knowledge.” In her isolated plain beyond all knowledge, Lispector delicately and vulnerably exposes our beautiful, tragic world for exactly that: its beauty and its tragedy.
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, translated by Giovanni Pontiero (1992) and Benjamin Moser (2011), 1977, 87 pp.