“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life.” This is the epigraph, borrowed from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that captures the modernist spirit so essential to Clarice Lispector’s revolutionary novel, Near to the Wild Heart. As her fierce and precocious protagonist struggles through adolescence and young adulthood, Lispector offers a wealth of luminous meditations on human nature, consciousness, individuality, and God. In this new translation by Alison Entrekin (New Directions, 2012), the intensity and brilliance of Lispector’s prose thrills to life. Surprising, powerful, and revelatory, Near to the Wild Heart recounts with unforgettable candor the life of an audacious young woman in modern society.
Lispector’s breakthrough novel rose to instant and lasting fame in Brazil upon publication in 1943, and it’s no wonder: the ideas presented within are mind-blowing. Take, for instance, Joana’s description of what it feels like to be in a relationship:
Just as the space surrounded by four walls has a specific value, provoked not so much because it is a space but because it is surrounded by walls. Otávio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself and which Joana received out of pity for both. . . Besides: how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and soul?
This startling metaphor is remarkably precise: haven’t we all felt, at one time or another, “enclosed” by a loved one, albeit protected? Don’t the structural walls of relationships also compromise our identity, defining us with a substance that is not ourselves? Add to these astute insights Lispector’s radical writing style, which mirrors the process of thinking – much like in Woolf’s The Waves. Though nominal events do take place in the text – Joana’s father dies; Joana goes to live with her aunt; Joana attends boarding school, gets married, and leaves her husband – inner mental life constitutes the book’s central concern. Fraught with dense introspection, many pages are devoted solely to Joana’s philosophical quandaries:
. . .She asked herself many questions, but she could never answer herself: she’d stop in order to feel. How was a triangle born? As an idea first? Or did it come after the shape had been executed? Would a triangle be born fatally? Things were rich. – She would want to spend time on the question. But love invaded her. Triangle, circle, straight lines. . . As harmonious and mysterious as an arpeggio. Where does music go when it’s not playing? -She asked herself. And disarmed she would answer: may they make a harp out of my nerves when I die.
Indeed, Joana is a beautiful thinker, but the wilderness of her imagination also isolates her from others. Other characters perceive her with confusion, sometimes labeling her “evil” or “unfeeling”: “She’s a cold viper, Alberto, there’s no love or gratitude in her,” her aunt says. On the other hand, her husband, Otávio, is baffled by the fatal mix of attraction and repulsion Joana arouses in him. Nonetheless, he can’t deny the way she profoundly impacts his life: “She would rise up in him, not in his head like a common memory, but in the center of his body, vague and lucid, interrupting his life like the sudden pealing of a bell.” A sort of irony emerges in the push-pull attitude Joana exhibits toward relationships, alternately embracing others for the comfort they promise and rejecting them when they burden her.
I question whether the actions and emotions Joana unleashes are really “evil” – they’re intense, for sure, but I think Joana is better described as amoral. And it’s precisely this lack of conventional mores that allows her to imagine and discover so much: because she moves through life without needing to label anything ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ Joana can think unrestrained. No thought or feeling is taboo for her, even if it proves her animal nature. If a man devouring meat allures her, or if contrived human “goodness” disgusts her, she’s not embarrassed or afraid to report it with gritty impartiality:
. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.
. . . she had seen a greedy man eating. She had secretly watched his bulging eyes, gleaming and stupid, trying not to miss the slightest trace of flavor. And his hands, his hands. One holding a fork with a piece of bloody meat (not warm and quiet, but very much alive, ironic, immoral) skewered on it, the other twitching on the tablecloth, pawing it nervously in his urgency to eat another mouthful already. . .The ferocity, the richness of his color. . . A shiver had run down Joana’s spine, with the sorry cup of coffee in front of her. But she wouldn’t be able to tell afterwards if it had been out of repugnance or fascination and lust. Both no doubt. . . As if she were watching someone drink water only to discover her own thirst, profound and ancient.
As difficult of a heroine as Joana is, and as difficult as Lispector’s prose may be – sometimes verging on abstraction – there’s something deeply relatable about both: a deep yearning to understand and to be understood permeates the text of this book. Beneath the surface of her words, Joana is deeply self-conscious, frustrated with her ability to say what she actually means. Wearily, she repeats:
‘Yes, I know. . . The distance that separates emotions from words. I’ve already thought about that. And the most curious thing is that the moment I try to speak not only do I fail to express what I feel but what I feel slowly becomes what I say. Or at least what makes me act is not, most certainly, what I feel but what I say.’
This is the challenge, which Moser points to in his introduction, that forms the crux of the book: to capture “the symbol of the thing in the thing itself;” to successfully unite words with meaning and emotions. This linguistic struggle parallels Joana’s own psychological struggle to make herself understood in relation to others, while simultaneously preserving her individuality. Should she exist alone, full-fledged – like a solitary word – symbolizing only that which she contains in her own form? Or should she attach herself to other layers of meaning – people, beliefs, or God – which will necessarily plaster themselves over her own essential meaning?
Joana’s conundrum, though complex, is common. Haven’t we all been bound in the archetypal struggle of communication at some point? “Try to understand my heroine, Aunty, listen,” Joana says. “She is vague and audacious. She doesn’t love, she isn’t loved. . . However what Joana has inside her is something stronger than the love that people give and what she has inside her demands more than the love people receive. Do you understand, Aunty? I wouldn’t call her a hero, as I promised Daddy myself.” Yet Joana is a heroine of sorts: as much as she might defy our expectations, she’s brave enough to tell the truth. By maintaining her selfhood to the last, Joana gives us something deeply real. Though the truth may not be convenient or comfortable, those who have the courage to tell it are the real heroes.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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