Review: The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector

From time to time I get reminded of authors that seem cool enough, and I tell myself that I’ll finally go through the effort of reading something of theirs. I hadn’t opened any of Lispector’s books yet, but I had formed an image of her as wild and unfettered. I imagined her bedridden during the last years of her life as she dictated new stories to her secretary, who would then type them carefully on a typewriter. I don’t know if I got that impression from something I read about Lispector or if I made it up in some daydream, but it makes no difference whether it happened or not. Lispector died of cancer in 1977, eight years before I was born; she has become definite enough that whatever delusion I prefer to believe about her won’t diminish who she was.

‘The Hour of the Star’ is the last book that Clarice Lispector published in life, and in it you witness an author trying to conceive a story for a character that she was compelled to bring to life: a poor, ugly, innocent girl from the same impoverished region of Brazil where Lispector lived as a child. She transformed herself into a male narrator with fictional circumstances, to develop the details of the protagonist and the world around her so the entire narrative would finally spring to life.

This girl we are following, named Macabéa, lost her parents, came to a big enough city to live with her repressed aunt, now lives in a hovel with four roommates with whom she doesn’t seem to interact, and works as a typist although she’s terrible at it. Lispector describes her as too innocent, inexperienced and dull-witted to be miserable despite her nasty circumstances. She can only look forward to the joys she can reach: food and songs she likes, and being alone at home for a few hours. She daydreams about finding a man who would love her, but she knows that can’t happen.

The most memorable secondary character was the idiotic thug that ends up dating Macabéa, a young guy who calls himself Olímpico and who came to the city from the same impoverished region as Macabéa. The guy is fascinated by implements of violence, and his main goals are to seem tough and move up in the world. He mistreats Macabéa and attempts to silence her if she shares some thought he considers unladylike. I wished that Macabéa would acquire some self-respect and dump that shithead, but the poor girl was happy enough that someone spent time interacting with her.

We also meet one of Macabéa’s coworkers, who is painted as a poor man’s sophisticated, buxom woman. I recall vaguely that she initially criticized the protagonist for her many faults, but she grew to pity her, which I guess is better. We also meet a doctor who can’t wait to have enough money so he can quit and devote himself to doing nothing, as well as, in the final sequence of the story, a former prostitute turned clairvoyant who offers a compelling monologue.

Because Lispector came up with seemingly every little aspect of this novel in front of our eyes, Macabéa as well as other characters come off as contradictory, but you have to roll with it; Lispector didn’t have enough time left to make it consistent even if she intended to. She also complains about having to invent enough description, and I recall that she suggested that she just intended to write down what was necessary and then go to sleep.

On the surface, the story is about Macabéa figuring out who she is and who she would prefer to become, but the insights that Lispector offers through her chosen narrator suggest that this whole book is about the author coming to terms with her impending death: trying to understand why she would need to write about this Macabéa, or write at all, so close to her own demise; what does it mean for a writer to live through these characters that inhabit our minds; and what kind of hope the author can offer to this wrecked fictional child of hers (I know well how traumatizing it can be to ruin the life of one of your characters; I haven’t gotten over at least one of them).

Lispector writes from the gut; pure subconscious stuff that half of the time she herself can’t understand. That’s the kind of material I want both in the books I read and in the stories I create. I can’t stand authors that intellectualize everything, who often oppose their own tastes and impulses out of some weird ideological dislike for such. Their texts most of the time annoy the hell out of me. I also vibed with Lispector’s silly humor, and in general felt a kinship with her. Hers is the first novel that I’ve finished in a long while; these days I have little time and energy left to read, and when I do I end up DNF-ing most of the books I start, often because they test my patience.

Lispector was a unique writer (or at least she seemed like that to me; I haven’t read any other Brazilian writers, so maybe they all write like her) who wrote in search of her own personal truths, in contrast with your average bastardly author out there that seeks to deceive you as they deceive themselves.

Anyway, I got plenty of quotes out of this book:

Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?

I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort.

I write because I have nothing better to do in this world: I am superfluous and last in the world of men. I write because I am desperate and weary. I can no longer bear the routine of my existence and, were it not for the constant novelty of writing, I should die symbolically each day.

In no sense an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is like a dank haze. The words are sounds transfused with shadows that intersect unevenly, stalactites, woven lace, transposed organ music. I can scarcely invoke the words to describe this pattern, vibrant and rich, morbid and obscure, its counterpoint the deep bass of sorrow.

I feel happier with animals than with people. When I watch my horse cantering freely across the fields— I am tempted to put my head against his soft, vigorous neck and narrate the story of my life. When I stroke my dog on the head — I know that he doesn’t expect me to make sense or explain myself.

Speaking for myself, I am only true when I’m alone. As a child, I always feared that I was about to fall off the face of the earth at any minute. Why do the clouds keep afloat when everything else drops to the ground? The explanation is simple: the gravity is less than the force of air that sustains the clouds. Clever, don’t you think? Yes, but sooner or later they fall in the form of rain. That is my revenge.

She had what’s known as inner life and didn’t know it. She lived off herself as if eating her own entrails. When she went to work she looked like a gentle lunatic because as the bus went along she daydreamed in loud and dazzling dreams.

She herself asked for nothing, but her sex made its demands like a sunflower germinating in a tomb.

I shall do everything possible to see that she doesn’t die. But I feel such an urge to put her to sleep then go off to sleep myself.

I must ask, without knowing whom I should ask, if it is really necessary to love the man who slays me; to ask who among you is slaying me. My life, stronger than myself, replies that it wants revenge at all costs. It warns me that I must struggle like someone drowning, even if I should perish in the end. If it be so, so be it.

I use myself as a form of knowledge. I know you through and through, by means of an incantation that comes from me to you. To stretch out savagely while an inflexible geometry vibrates behind everything.

That not-knowing might seem awful but it’s not that bad because she knew lots of things in the way nobody teaches a dog to wag his tail or a person to feel hungry; you’re born and you just know. Just as nobody one day would teach her how to die: yet she’d surely die one day as if she’d learned the starring role by heart. For at the hour of death a person becomes a shining movie star, it’s everyone’s moment of glory and it’s when as in choral chanting you hear the whooshing shrieks.

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