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.
A 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.
A 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.