Selected Crônicas, by Clarice Lispector, translated by Giovanni Pontiero (New Directions, 212 pp., $12.95 paper)
From 1967 to 1973 the Jornal do Brasil, Rio's leading newspaper, offered Clarice Lispector, an accomplished novelist and short story writer, flexible space for a weekly column of any content and any length. This collection is a harvest of some of the Crônicas or chronicles she produced.
There is no uniform level of excellence here. It has never been a secret that sometimes deadlines summon dead lines. But there are sufficient riches in this collection to merit close attention because Lispector had a vigorously active mind; a mind coursing with both curiosity and compassion; a contemplative mind, kept open, and continuously energized by close observation of her world. (see "Keening An Eye On The World" — p. 132)
It is evident (and this reader is grateful) that Lispector was an exceptionally attentive reader, and listener. The sentences she chose to quote, whether by Thoreau or Bernanos or Berenson or Henry James or Simenon or Neruda are, in every instance, valuable and eloquent.
There are pages here that immediately bring to mind other writers. For example, "The Party" (p. 131) reminds one of Gertrude Stein. But it is not a cheap or weak imitation. Stein herself could have written "The Party" and been proud of it. Surely, "One of the Chosen" (p. 182) began to germinate, however unconsciously, during her translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some of the pieces, such as "Ritual" (p.36) are novelistic. And I would cite "Spain" (p. 165) as an intense and sensuous prosepoem.
Throughout the collection there appear sentences that cause the reader to halt, and ruminate: "Our soul uses our body in order to avoid being contaminated by life." "Birth was the death of one being dividing into two solitary beings." And, there are some pieces that I know I will return to with some frequency — most notably "The Advantages of Being Foolish" (p. 154).
JB Kennedy reviews new books, but sells used books.
In his preface, the translator doesn't mince words: "Clarice Lispector is widely recognized as the most original and innovative Brazilian woman writer of this century." Right away, that puts us on the defensive, doesn't it?
At her death in 1977, Lispector left behind nine novels, eight collections of short stories, children's tales, and a translation of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. New Directions began publishing her work around five or six years ago, and Selectet Crônicas is the fifth volume to date.
Crônicas, or chronicles, are journallike entries, and they embrace several genres—from simple aphorisms to travel observations, introspective musings, and brief essays. Those gathered in the present volume were written between 1967 and 1973 and published in the Jornal do Brasil. Apparently, this kind of newspaper writing is more or less a Brazilian phenomenon; we don't seem to have anything quite like it in this country.
In length, these crônicas run from a few lines to four or five pages, which means that they rarely stretch out their legs beyond giving us a glimpse, an anecdote or reminiscence, except for those few occasions when Lispector continues her thread of thought over three or four weeks.
Here's one called "Rebellion!":
"When love is too great it becomes futile; it can no longer be put to use and not even the person loved has the capacity for so much love. I became as bemused as any child when I realized that even in love we must be sensible and show restraint. Our emotional life, alas, is extremely bourgeois."
And another called "Yes":
"I said to a friend:
—Life has always asked too much of me.
—But don't forget that you also ask too much of life.
That is true."
Those who hope for a specific Brazilian flavor will be disappointed, but it is there between the lines. Those who enjoyed the novels Near to the Wild Heart and The Hour of the Star also available from New Directions may turn away unsatisfied as well, because Selected Crônicas isn't a ball of yarn that accumulates our interests, but a series of fragments that may be riveting if one likes to read about baby chicks, for example, and perhaps a waste of time if one does not.
For this reader, roughly one crônica in five did the trick; and while those that resonated were often worth stopping to reflect upon, far too often the pages were turned with increasing disinterest and an equal amount of impatience.
It took me some time to make out what I was seeing, it was so unexpected and subtle. I was seeing a pale green insect with long legs, which was resting. It was a grasshopper, which people were always assuring me is an omen of good fortune. Then the grasshopper began to move very gently across the counterpane. It was a transparent green, with legs supporting its body on a higher and freer plane, a plane as fragile as the grasshopper's own legs, which seemed to consist only of the color of their outer shell. There was nothing inside those threadlike legs: the inside layer was so thin that it was indistinguishable from the outer layer. The grasshopper looked like a transparency which had come off the paper and was crawling about in green. But however somnambulant, it moved with determination. Somnambulant: the tiniest leaf of a tree which had achieved the solitary independence of those who pursue the blurred traces of a destiny. And it crawled with the determination of someone tracing a line which was simply invisible to the naked eye. It crawled without a tremor. Its inner mechanism was not tremulous, but it had the regular oscillation of the most delicate clock. What could love be like between two grasshoppers? Green and green, and then the same green, which, suddenly, because of a vibration of greens, turns green. Love predestined by its own semiaerial mechanism. But where were the glands of its destiny and the adrenalines of its parched, green entrails? For it was a hollow creature, a splintered grafting, a simple attraction of green lines. Like me? Me. Us? Us. In that slender grasshopper with its tall legs, which are capable of crawling over a woman's bosom without arousing the rest of her body; in that grasshopper which cannot be hollow because a hollow line does not exist; in that grasshopper, atomic energy is conducted in silence without any drama. Us? Us.
I can recall that spring. I know I ate the pear and threw away half of it. I never feel compassion in the spring. Later we drank water at the fountain and I did not dry my lips. We walked defiantly in silence. As for the swimming-pool, I know that I stayed in the pool for hours. Look at the pool! That was how I saw the pool, contemplating it with tranquil eyes. Calmly taking without compassion what was mine.
From time to time I receive letters asking me if I am Russian or Brazilian and people invent all sorts of myths about me.
Let me clarify this matter once and for all: I am sorry to have to tell you that there are no mysteries and these myths are untrue. My story is as follows: I was born in the Ukraine, the homeland of my parents. I was born in a village called Tchechelnik, which is too small and insignificant to appear on any map. When my mother was expecting me, my parents were already planning to emigrate either to the United States or to Brazil. They waited on in Tchechelnik until I was born and then set out on their long journey. I was two months old when I arrived in Brazil.
I am a naturalized Brazilian and, had my parents set out a few months earlier, I should have been born in Brazil. It was the Portuguese language which influenced my spiritual life and innermost thoughts, and this was the language I used to utter words of love. I began to write short stories as soon as I could read and write and, needless to say, I wrote them in Portuguese. I spent my childhood in Recife and I firmly believe that living in the Northern or Northeastern provinces of Brazil brings one into closer contact with Brazilian life at its most authentic because there the country is remote from outside influences. My beliefs were nurtured in Pernambuco, the food I enjoy most is from Pernambuco. And from our housemaids I absorbed the rich folklore of those regions. I was already in my teens when we moved to Rio, this vast metropolis I soon began to think of as Brazilian carioca.
As for the way in which I roll my r's, as if I were speaking French or some other foreign language, this is simply because of a speech defect. A defect which I have never succeeded in correcting. A defect which my good friend Dr Pedro Bloch tells me can be overcome. He has offered to help me but I am lazy and I know perfectly well I would never do the exercises once I was on my own. And besides my rolled r's are not doing anyone any harm. So that should clear up yet another mystery.
Much more difficult to explain, however, is the path my life has taken. If my family had emigrated to the United States, would I still have become a novelist, that is to say, a novelist writing in English? In all probability I would have married an American and had American children. And my life would have been completely different. I wonder what I might have written about? Which political party I would have supported? What sort of friends I would have cultivated? There is a real mystery.