Reviewed by John Biscello
The word is my fourth dimension
And on the eighth and endless day, where the bottomless hallelujah meets Ouroboros, God created Clarice Lispector. Maybe. Maybe the music of that name was more pure music and vivid living syntax, and less history and persona. Or maybe Clarice Lispector’s innate capacity to shape-shift, from lantern-eyed panther to clucking hen to hothouse orchid, demands to be perceived as multiform epiphanies in an infinity of mirrors. Possibly, maybe resides at the Bjorkian core of Clarice Lispector’s output and purview. As an existential Lou Costello, she questioned with rabid circuitous intensity, again and again: Who’s on first? Who, exactly? And as a literary high priestess with a lifelong crush on void, she understood clearly that everything knows everything … we are a species of kissing cousins in a grammarless whirlpool. From mortar to manna, Lispector’s legacy in prose is one of paradoxes and trap-doors, rococo balconies kissing sea air, perfumed arias and empty cola bottles, gutted mermaids on dusty streets bleeding out brackish emeralds. In her world, silence favors its motives and heaven commits the meek to memory.
Confession: I have spent the entire summer reading nothing but Clarice Lispector, completely surrendering to her spellcasting and bewitchment. Ukrainian-born and Brazilian-raised, the iconoclastic Lispector reminds one of the elasticity of perception, how “nowhere” in a slanted mirror reforms to “now here,” with Lispector’s alter-egoism vacillating ungraspably between nowhere and now here.
There are writers you encounter, those infused with the holy seethe, whose quest is blatantly mystical as they search for what Lispector called “the word that has its own light.” This is writing as the cruciform of alchemy, as ritual means to transfiguration. Not writing that is about something — predicated on recalling and recounting — but writing that is the mysterious and ineffable something itself … language as point of origin and departure.
Which brings me to Lispector’s Água Viva. Originally published in 1973, the new edition of this avant-garde gem was released in 2012 by New Directions, the pioneering publisher which has dedicated itself to resurrecting Lispector’s canon. Água Viva is many things, though straight novel not being one of them. It is a happy birthday dirge and confessional, a sustained incantation punctuated by necessary silences, a chamber music concert performed in the bluest hours by a splintered soloist. Or, in the words of Lispector herself, “This isn’t a book because this isn’t how anyone writes. Is what I write a single climax? My days are a single climax: I live on the edge.” It is from this edge which the reader plays captive witness to a birthing process … a being’s birth prior to he/she/they/etc., the thingness of being, the it-ness of being, a being flailing at the light and at its own beingness. Here, in an airless manger, the crescendo of a tempest is played out with freeze-frame exactitude, contained in synoptical passages and refrains, in bursts and abbreviations, what you might call lyrical shorthand for a mute soul wandering moonstruck and wordless … and yet words … words upon words like a swan-fest of hands attending to an emergency.
Lispector — whose words are the fevered playthings of duende and saudade, a goblin-eyed melancholy that dances between never and forever — is spiritual kin to the exquisite agony of Saint Teresa, to the riotous firewalking of Arthur Rimbaud, to the solipsistic autopsies of Samuel Beckett. Yet no matter what is being conjured, or negated, innocence is insisted upon — “I want to write to you like someone learning” — and it this lucid naivete, this vividness of instants strung together to form textural composites, which gives Água Viva its stunning capacity to live outside of time, at the crossroads where dream and reality intersect. Its achievement lies in the fact that it is a book that could have been written tomorrow, many yesterdays ago, or is being conceived in the very moments in which you are reading it. It is a voice, moving syntactically in time to breath, that has made of its ghost something immortal and beyond claim, and yet brokenly human: “The sacred monster has died: in her place was born a little girl who lost her mother.”
If Água Viva hypnotizes through the allure of cryptic intimacy, an intimacy of a more direct and accessible nature can be experienced in Too Much of Life: The Complete Crônicas (September 27th release date, New Directions). This book is a collection of all the crônicas — topical commentaries and mini-essays popular in Brazilian newspapers — which Lispector wrote for the Jornal do Brazil, from 1967-1973. Given carte blanche to write whatever she wanted, Lispector used the crônica genre as an exploratory sounding board, and brings playfulness, zest, vulnerability, insights, curiosity, warmth, and idiosyncrasy to a verisimilitude of subjects and themes. Ideas are tested out and workshopped, philosophies spun, interviews conducted, aphorisms hatched, vanity tips issued, family matters discussed, socio-political issues addressed.
For well-over 800 pages, this is Clarice Lispector as one-woman chorus and psychic weather forecaster, and the charm, wit and engagement that she brings to her columns transcends barriers … hers is the transient voice that could furtively swap rooms between the Ladies Home Journal and The New Yorker, and make itself at home in either. In one of her pieces titled “Breathing,” readers are treated to a candid reflection of what it means to be a writer, an X-ray of beginner’s mind: “Given the fact that my life is writing, people often ask me how I write. And from the expressive faces of those people, I sense that they are also secretly writing and struggling too. I cannot give lessons in writing since, for me, the process is entirely unconscious, and until everything ripens and falls into place. I don’t even really know how to write. Writing is about knowing how to breathe within the sentence. And how to put some silence both in the lines and between the lines, so that the reader can breathe with me, unhurriedly, adapting to my rhythm as well as to theirs, in a sort of indispensable counterpoint.”
As a bonus, the only recorded footage of Clarice Lispector, giving an interview in São Paulo, 1977.
Originally from Brooklyn, NY, author, poet, performer, and playwright, John Biscello, has called Taos, New Mexico home since 2001. He is the author of three novels: Broken Land, Raking the Dust, and Nocturne Variations; a collection of stories, Freeze Tag; and a poetry collection, Arclight.
His fiction and poetry has appeared in: Art Times, nthposition, The Wanderlust Review, Ophelia Street, Caper, Polyphony, Dilate, Militant Roger, Chokecherries, Farmhouse, BENT, The 555 Collective, Instigator, Brass Sopaipilla, The Iconoclast, Adobe Walls, Kansas City Voices, and the Tishman Review. Broken Land, A Brooklyn Tale was named Underground Book Reviews 2014 Book of the Year. Visit his website at: johnbiscello.com.