Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector, transl. Alison Entrekin, ed. Benjamin Moser (Penguin Modern Classics – February 2014)
This newly translated novel by Clarice Lispector is a classic in the truest sense, which is to say that it has withstood the test of time and still has the power to provoke a reaction in a reader today as it had back in 1943, when the original Portuguese version was first published in Brazil.
Near to the Wild Heart is not so much the sequential story of Joana’s life as it is a comprehensive study of her as a multifaceted being. The writing is structured in such a way that it allows us to contemplate the protagonist as a complex and, at times, almost contradictory individual. We learn about her high-spirited creativity which she expressed as a child, her jealousy in regard to her fickle husband, her thoughtfulness and meditations that focus on inner worlds and her maliciousness as seen through the eyes of her aunt.
It is worth noting that the title of the book was borrowed from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The quote from which it is taken is so important that it stands as an epigraph: ‘He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life.’ Indeed, what we are presented with in this book comes close to a portrait. The image is not always flattering but it aims to capture the sitter’s very essence. To be more specific, this portrait is fashioned in a cubist style and it can be said that each chapter explores a different shard of Joana’s personality. We are introduced to ever new and unexpected character traits.
The book focuses not so much on Joana’s actions but we learn about her through her interactions with other people as well as through the pensive relationship she has with herself. As the sequential order of things is somewhat blurred, the narrative the reader may amass while reading this study seems almost accidental. At times the writing comes across as controlled mystification and is unashamedly ambiguous—much is down to the reader’s own interpretation. Towards the end of the book, Joana remembers her childhood and thus takes the story full circle, which is an indication of the importance of memory and perception in this tale.
Lispector’s work is not only reminiscent of Joyce but of the Modernists in general. In particular, the influence of Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust becomes apparent. She strives to express Modernist aesthetics even though, when the book was written in 1943, the movement had long passed its heyday. And yet it can of course never be too late to embody a movement that is dedicated to perpetual innovation. Indeed, the exuberance it inspires in the reader is timeless. The book’s opening is an example of the work’s daring experimentation, even though this playful approach is not consistent throughout the book:
Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack.... clack, clack, clack... The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. This silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? Clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. Amidst the clock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large, pink and dead.
Soon a more reflective voice takes over and the writing becomes more philosophical. Lispector expresses her abstract ideas in a very direct fashion as Joana’s intellectual journey seems, in parts as least, autobiographical:
Then Joana suddenly understood that the utmost beauty was to be found in succession, that movement explained form – [...] Curiosity, fancy and imagination – these are what have shaped the modern world.
Although this is a slender volume, it is not a straightforward read. Some images and ideas are established at the outset and not picked up until much later in the book. Joana’s meditation on a falling stone, for example:
...if a rock falls, the rock exists, there was a force that caused it to fall, a place from which it fell, a place through which it fell – I don’t think anything has escaped the nature of that fact, except the very mystery of the fact.
Several pages later, as if by chance, we are told how Joana’s unfaithful husband Otávio ‘was falling vertiginously’ from Lidia to Joana.
Although it can be said that Lispector is a late Modernist, she doesn’t fit easily into her own cultural context and remains a somewhat solitary figure within Latin-American literature. Perhaps this is because she was born in the Ukraine and lived in Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain and the US as well as Brazil.
Lispector comes across as an intrepid writer who is unafraid to search and examine the most fragile wavering of her soul. She is clearly a serious, no-nonsense author, especially if we consider that Near to the Wild Heart was the remarkable debut novel of a twenty-three year old. Although the work is impressively deep and powerful, at time it is almost too elaborate and self-important for its own good. For all its marvellous richness, the one thing you won’t find here is a sense of humour. Lispector’s work has been met with much praise: Colm Tólbin called her ‘A genius’ and Jonathan Franzen ‘A truly remarkable writer’. My advice: When reading this book, abandon all knowledge you may have about how a book should be written and enjoy the refreshing approach that echoes through time.