on clarice lispector

On my commute to and from Chicago this week, I had the chance to check out two novels by Clarice Lispector: The Hour of the Star and The Passion According to G.H.

The former is a novella about the bleak life of a working-class girl, while the latter is a philosophic meditation on the nature of existence and religion. Lispector published The Hour of the Star in 1977 shortly before she passed away, The Passion According to G.H. in 1964 near the middle of her career as a writer; Star is widely considered to be her masterpiece.

Both novels delight in linguistic play and feature strange but mesmerizing sentences. Haunting images are scattered throughout each work, though the language in the Passion is far denser and more surreal.

Aside from a few short stories in college, I’d never before encountered Lispector’s work, and I had little idea of what to expect going into the two books. Each has a minimalist plot, and both are written in an odd style. People often use “lyrical” to describe the author’s novels, and while I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, her prose struck me as less beautiful than unsettling, more artificial than moving.

Reading these was a strange way to kick off my month of reading books in translation: I’m definitely looking forward to reading the other authors on my TBR, which I’ll post more about tomorrow. Mini reviews of each of the novels are included below.

fullsizeoutput_2e17A polarizing work of existential fiction, The Passion According to G.H. isn’t likely to appeal to as many readers as The Hour of the Star. The retrospective plot is as strange as it is simple: a woman enters her former maid’s room, crushes a cockroach, and, finally, eats part of it. The protagonist recounts this short series of events over the course of two hundred pages; for most of the novel, she meditates on existence, religion, and death. Lispector’s prose, as always, is lyrical but strange and austere, and religious imagery abounds. The opaque language often lacks sense, and it seems designed to create a strong sense of mood, not convey coherent thoughts. Reading this, I found myself recalling the writings of medieval women mystics, but whereas serenity and love reign supreme in that body of work, angst and ambivalence dominate this novel. I can’t say I’d have read this had I known what it was about going into it, but it’s unlike any other novel I’ve read.

fullsizeoutput_2e16A strange novella about the life of a meager girl, The Hour of the Star reflects on life, love, and storytelling itself. The short work takes place in the slums of Rio, and follows the working-class typist Macabéa as she fruitlessly searches for fame and romance; a mean-spirited and absurd twist ends the plot on a note of violence. The novella is told from the perspective of an affluent but spiritually void old man, a distant observer who spends the first third of the book questioning what it means to tell a story and justifying his interest in Macabéa as a subject. It unfolds in a series of oddly structured sentences, full of memorable but off-putting images. I’ll plan to revisit Lispector’s work after some time has passed, but for now her style is too abstract for my tastes.

16 thoughts on “on clarice lispector

  1. I can understand a reader not warming to Lispector, but she was a phenomenally important writer in Brazilian literature, much loved in her time. GH is often considered her most famous and important work (masterpiece or not I don’t know). I admit it’s not for everyone, but certainly not so obscure a taste. Her entire body of work is quite broad, style wise.

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    1. That is interesting to learn about GH’s popularity, and far off the impression I received when my class read/discussed her work in college. Thanks for letting me know – I’ve updated that part of the post.

      ‘Opaque’ probably better describes the language than ‘obscure,’ regarding GH. At several points, the narrator talks about the limits of language, and I often felt like Lispector as an author was more interested in creating a strong sense of atmosphere, as a way to express the inexpressible, than in writing out clear ideas.

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      1. Like many important and controversial work, probably a lot of people bought and failed to understand or pretended to read the book as often is the case. Lispector is certainly slowly gaining respect and readership through newer translations, and broader availability of Latin American literature in English.

        I also suspect GH is the kind of book you have to come to at the right time. Perhaps someday down the road in he throws of serious existential crisis you’ll think: “What was that book about the cockroach?” 🙂

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      2. Haha, that seems about right. The premise is certainly unforgettable. Several passages in the middle were mesmerizing to read, and the end was brilliant. It’s great that Lispector finally is receiving some of the respect she deserves in the English-speaking world, since she wrote so well and distinctively.

        I really did enjoy the stories I read of hers (“The Imitation of the Rose,” “Love”), and I might have to revisit her novels after some time has passed.

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  2. This is great. I have just checked out The Hour of the Star from the library. I hope I will enjoy it because I am kind of intrigued that you described it as abstract.

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    1. Hope you enjoy The Hour of the Star! I found it to be accessible and thought it read way more easily than GH, but in both novels, I felt like Lispector prioritized experimenting with language and probing philosophical questions at the expense of compelling storytelling.

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      1. Sometimes such “bravery” and originality is exactly what I am seeking from a book. It was written in Portuguese, wasn’t it? Not sure then how well we can judge the language since it is in translation.

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      2. It was, and the book recently received a new translation. The translator, in their preface, makes a note that Lispector’s prose sounds odd/unnatural in Portuguese as well, making her work especially difficult to translate. The novel’s resonated with many, and I’m definitely in the minority of those who didn’t like it.

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  3. I went through two creative writing programs that focus on experimental writing, and while I liked it at the time, I’ve moved so far away from experimental and back into the arms of strong plot and memorable characters that I have a low tolerance for anything abstract or purposely confusing in the name of style/art.

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    1. Nice! I feel like having that much experience experimenting with writing would make you a better writer of “conventional” fiction as well. GH is essentially plotless, though the little that happens is unforgettable—it’s hard to push the descriptions of the roach out of mind.


      1. I think someone who strikes a REALLY nice balance between obviously experimental and straight writing is Lance Olsen. If you’re into photography, American culture, and storytelling, check out Girl Imagined by Chance.

        Liked by 1 person

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