In honor of Queens College’s designation of the academic year 2013-14 as the “Year of Brazil”, all of us writers here at QC Voices are taking a moment to discuss certain interesting cultural, economic, and social aspects of this enormous country that has, in the past decade or so, become one of the most important and influential developing countries in the world.
After delving briefly into Brazil’s cultural history, I found it happy coincidence that I might have the chance to investigate a literary figure that I’ve been curious about after encountering some of her works at the Center for Fiction in Midtown Manhattan, the enigmatic novelist Clarice Lispector.
Born in 1920 as “Chaya” in what is now Ukraine, Clarice emigrated with the rest of her family to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1922 to escape the devastating pogroms taking place in the revolutionary aftermath of WWI, and at thirteen she claimed her desire to write after encountering Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. She eventually took up journalistic work while studying law at the prestigious University of Brazil, and rose to national literary fame at the precocious age of 23 with the publication of her debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, a partly autobiographical stream of consciousness bildungsroman reminiscent of the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Clarice Lispector was also the wife of a Brazilian diplomat, which marked her life with a profound sense of cultural hybridity, as she went on to live and write in places as varied as Italy, Switzerland, England, and Washington, D.C.
As usual, I have a long list of things I’d like to read. But lately I’ve found that in both my reading and writing, I’ve been stuck in a rut – all the voices I’m encountering have begun to sound alike, their stories intersecting with each other in unexpected places, and my own words seem to spiral into the same points time and again. Last time I found myself in this place, I made myself read James Purdy’s In A Shallow Grave, a short, surreal novella about a southern war veteran whose skin has been turned inside-out from a combat injury; subsequently, he hires young men to rub his feet and deliver his letters to a woman he’s courting (and yes, it got weirder from there). But it did the trick: it freshened my prose, and made me refigure in my own imagining of what’s possible in literature.
In researching Lispector’s life and work, I came across some of her words on her own creative process, that suggested I might find some similar refreshment in her work as I did in Purdy’s:
“I read what I’d written and thought once again: from what violent chasms is my most intimate intimacy nourished, why does it deny itself so much and flee to the domain of ideas? I feel within me a subterranean violence, a violence that only comes to the surface during the act of writing.”
-C.L., A Breath of Life
Through her words, I sense that Lispector is possessed of that sort of iridescent, introspective darkness, an inward look towards spiritual depths, that has more than once served to point the way towards my own creative wellspring. I’ve just ordered her novel, The Passion According to G.H., a story about a woman who has a mystical experience in her Rio penthouse, which leads to her eating a cockroach. Not exactly conventional holiday reading, but I think it’ll do the trick. I’ll be posting my review sometime after the new year, and leave you with a few more eery words from Clarice, this time on traveling home (for the holidays?):
“And now — now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me? Don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.”