Essays

My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector

By posted at 12:00 pm on January 11, 2012 5

1. The Hour of the Star in American English

coverIn this season of endings and beginnings, extended family gatherings and extensive loneliness, items ticked from last year’s list and new lists begun, this season of strawberries whether you are summering in South America or wintering in California, there is a new version of a well-loved and mind-blowing novel I must recommend — and it’s slim enough, under 81 pages, to carry in your pocket or pocketbook. The new translation by Benjamin Moser of The Hour of the Star (New Directions, Nov. 2011), the final novel published by the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) mere weeks before her death, is phenomenal. This is the novel that opens: “Everything in the world began with a yes.” This is the one that goes by 12 other titles, a number echoed in the “Author’s Dedication:” “Most of all I dedicate [this thing here] to the yesterdays of today and to today, to the transparent veil of Debussy, to Marlos Nobre, to Prokofiev, to Carl Orff and Schoenberg, to the twelve-tone composers, to the strident cries of the electronic generation — to all those who reached the most alarmingly unsuspected regions within me, all those prophets of the present who have foretold me to myself until in that instant I exploded into: I.”

coverIt is no wonder that the French feminist critic, poet, and playwright Hélène Cixous embraced Lispector and quickly incorporated the Brazilian’s oeuvre into her own lectures and writings, as early as 1979 with her text “To Live the Orange,” a meditation on feminine writing including a lyrical depiction of her first encounter with Lispector’s work dated October 12, 1978, nearly one year after the publication of The Hour of the Star and the author’s untimely death at 56. Nor is it a surprise that the Brazilian filmmaker Suzana Amaral, who had her ninth child in film school and went on to earn a masters at New York University where she enrolled in 1976 thanks to a grant and was in the same class as Jim Jarmusch, made the film version of The Hour of the Star, a project begun in graduate school that was selected as Brazil’s official entry for the best foreign-language film Academy Award in 1987. For these and more reasons I will enumerate below, the new translation of Lispector’s story of the poor girl from northeastern Brazil named Macabéa and the writer Rodrigo S.M. who attempts to tell her tale, now in Benjamin Moser’s urgent, American English prose, is a boon to readers everywhere.

Lispector’s final novel, her most accessible (not a word typically associated with this writer), her most concretely grounded in a specific place, Rio de Janeiro, and time, the present, is a masterwork of interrogation: the author (indicated as Clarice Lispector herself in the “Author’s Dedication”), the narrator (the self-reflexive Rodrigo S.M., whose desire to tell Macabéa’s story is ever-interrupted by his own), the protagonist (Macabéa, the poor girl transplanted to Rio de Janeiro to eke out a pitiful living as a typist who doesn’t know how to spell and who loves to eat hotdogs, or more often dreams of them), and the reader (you!) are interrogated by a 12-tone narrative that bangs along and promises no tidy conclusion.

Whether through direct address or the urban intensity and flat out strangeness of the prose, the reader cannot lurk behind the book’s spine, but rather is constantly called upon, as we see in the opening pages: “This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It’s an unfinished book because it’s still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It’s a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.” This call for an answer, for the reader’s participation in the act of storytelling, is all the more evident in Moser’s translation, which is truer to the original Portuguese than the version published by the esteemed British translator and scholar Giovanni Pontiero in 1986. While Pontiero’s version is at times dreamy, distant, even hyper-literary, Moser’s translation (I repeat myself with a bang!) is urgent, urban, and strange, which is how the original Portuguese feels. (New Directions will release additional retranslations of Lispector’s fiction under Moser’s editorship in May 2012, including Near to the Wild Heart, Água Viva,and The Passion According to G.H., as well as a A Breath of Life, which has never appeared in English before.)

Pontiero’s translation first appeared in the United Kingdom with Carcarnet Press and was later published in North America, simultaneously in the United States with New Directions and in Canada with Penguin Books Canada Limited, in 1992. These geographical details are of interest because Lispector’s family, originally from the Ukraine, moved to “America,” choosing between the US and Brazil, when she was two months old. This is how the family ended up in northeast Brazil and this is why Lispector became a Brazilian writer, an innovator of Brazilian Portuguese prose, though she could have become instead an American writer, one who would have injected American English with renewed forces that we can glimpse through her works in translation.

Lispector herself was aware of, even perplexed by, chance’s sleight of hand. She wrote the following in one of her weekly newspaper columns published between 1967 and 1973 in the Jornal do Brasil: “What will never be elucidated is my destiny. If my family had opted for the United States, would I have become a writer? In English, naturally, if I had been. I would have probably married an American and I would have American children. And my life would be completely different. What would I write about? What would I love? What party would I belong to? What kinds of friends would I have? It’s a mystery” (the translation here is mine). Though Lispector first questions if she would have become a writer in the United States, she then provides the answer with another question. What, indeed, would she have written about in her Lispector-inflected American English?

2. Moser versus Pontiero in Translation

coverTo elucidate my point that Moser’s translation is both more accurate (in terms of the literal correspondence between a word in Portuguese and its paired word in English) and more effective as a narrative than the Pontiero version, I turn now to the 12 other titles of The Hour of the Star. The beauty of this exercise is that that 2011 edition includes a facsimile of Lispector’s manuscript page with the 13 total titles in the original Portuguese (a number that bears significance for Lispector as unveiled by Moser in Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector published in 2009 by Oxford University Press to great acclaim). In this way we can conduct a comparative analysis of the three texts, Moser’s, Pontiero’s, and Lispector’s original, with a small and meaningful sample of words.

I have grouped the titles into three categories: 1) identical translations; 2) differing translations; 3) translations where Moser corrects or supersedes Pontiero.

The first category is straightforward and consists of five of the 13 titles:

The Hour of the Star
.As for the Future.
Singing the Blues
A Sense of Loss
Whistling in the Dark Wind

The second category is where the translations differ. I have placed Pontiero’s versions on the left and Moser’s on the right:

The Blame Is Mine      It’s All My Fault
Let Her Fend for Herself      Let Her Deal With It
I Can Do Nothing      I Can’t Do Anything
A Record of Preceding Events      Account of the Preceding Facts

 
The first title in the original is “A Culpa É Minha” and though I find Moser’s version more compelling because it’s idiomatic, I appreciate Pontiero’s decision to keep the original’s word order, and thus keep the emphasis on “culpa” translated effectively by Pontiero as “blame.” The second title is “Ela Que Se Arrange,” an idiomatic expression in Brazilian Portuguese. The verb “arranjar” means to organize, pull together, do, get, achieve, or figure out. It can be used in all kinds of cases, from doing one’s hair to finding a boyfriend to getting out of a jam. Pontiero’s translation suggests a difficult situation where the protagonist is clearly out of her depth by using the word “fend” while Moser leaves the situation, the “it” she must deal with, a bit more neutral. I might have gone with something like “Let Her Figure It Out.” The third title is “Eu Não Posso Fazer Nada,” a double negative in Portuguese, which is grammatically correct and literally means “I Can’t Do Nothing.” Moser chooses to emphasize the lack of agency in “I can’t” while Pontiero sticks to the literal translation of “nada” or “nothing.” I go with Moser here, though I see Pontiero’s point.

The fourth pairing is an example of different choices made, correctly, by both translators. The “record” versus “account” of preceding “events” versus “facts” offers two ways of contrasting truth and point of view. In Pontiero’s translation, the word “record” indicates an official compilation of truths set against his choice of “events” as occurrences that can be told from varying points of view, i.e. “A Record of Preceding Events.” Moser’s choice of the word “account” points to a version told from a specific perspective, while his use of the word “facts” correlates to uncontestable truths, i.e. “Account of the Preceding Facts.” In this way both translators strike a juxtaposed balance between truth and narrative, a theme Lispector engages throughout The Hour of the Star.

The final category consists of cases where I believe that Moser corrects or supersedes Pontiero, whose translations are on the left while Moser’s remain on the right:

The Right to Protest      The Right to Scream
She Doesn’t Know How to Protest      She Doesn’t Know How to Scream
A Tearful Tale      Cheap Tearjerker
A Discreet Exit by the Back Door      Discreet Exit Through the Back Door

 
The first two examples hinge on the word “protest” versus “scream.” The original Portuguese is “gritar,” which literally means “to scream.” I am not sure why Pontiero uses “protest.” It is simply not correct and it misleads the reader into thinking about a more complex, or perhaps less complex, state than what Lispector indicates in the original. A scream is a straightforward action one does with one’s mouth and throat. A scream can come for many reasons: fear, joy, anger, sadness, all of the above, and more. A scream is a physical act as well as a sound. The protagonist of The Hour of the Star does not know how to scream under any circumstance, while the narrator Rodrigo S.M. tells the reader early on that he will scream: “…it’s my obligation to tell about this one girl out of the thousands like her. And my duty, however artlessly, to reveal her life. / Because there’s the right to scream. / So I scream.” The contrast between Rodrigo S.M.’s scream and Macabéa’s silence is what Lispector wants us to experience and digest.

The last two cases are examples of Moser superseding Pontiero’s translation. “Through” simply works better as the necessary preposition than “by” for the title “Discreet Exit By/Through the Back Door.” As for “A Tearful Tale” versus “Cheap Tearjerker,” both indicate the maudlin valence of the title. But, Moser’s choice is more specific and culturally grounded, which is a better fit with the original: “História Lacrimogênica de Cordel.” In Brazil the “histórias de cordel” are a staple of northeastern popular culture. They are self-published pamphlets or chapbooks written in rhymed verse by local poets who recite to passersby in order to entice them to buy a copy, as well as travel between towns to spread their tales of fiction — namely love, woe, adventure, and religious themes — as well as popular versions of current events.

3. My Hour of the Star As Told in 13 Paragraphs (With Clarice’s 13 Titles)

I first read Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, in Pontiero’s translation, in 2000 in Santiago, Chile, where I was teaching high school ESL part-time for a pittance at the international school. My fellow Ivy League college grads were back in the United States surfing the dot-com boom, immersed in law school, starting businesses, and paying their dues in publishing, academia, and the arts. My parents had no idea why they had paid so much tuition so I could “find my roots” in the still-developing country where I was born and that they had left for good. (It’s All My Fault)

In late August of 1977 I was one month old and whisked away to the United States where my parents would attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. In truth it was a little less dramatic than “whisked,” especially because my parents missed their original flight and had to return home with their suitcases and me for one more night in Salvador Allende’s Chile. Let me clarify: though Pinochet assumed power in 1973, the country still belonged to Allende and the people (people whose children have now grown up and are naming their newborn sons Salvador). The next day, our departure a success, we left my grandparents, cousins, and native soil behind. (The Hour of the Star)

During my early months in Hyde Park, I heard and learned Spanish first from my parents. The Sérgio Mendes and Maria Bethânia albums they loved even more after their honeymoon in Brazil played on the nights they had time to cook dinner together and share a stiff gin and tonic. I spent my first year of preschool mute while practicing my English at home every night, a show of verbal restraint that will surprise my present day colleagues and friends. The point is, I grew up in a stew of Spanish, Portuguese, and English, alongside smatterings of other languages spoken by my parents’ international classmates and their children. (Let Her Deal With It)

I was not even five months old when Clarice Lispector died and left The Hour of the Star hot off the presses. I doubt my parents knew her work, but maybe one of their Brazilian friends received the news with sadness and then waited for a copy of the novel to arrive via air mail, an extravagant gift sent from a loved one back home. This was the same year that Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States, that women were integrated into the regular Marine Corps, and that Elvis Presley died of heart failure at Graceland. (The Right to Scream)

When I read Lispector for the first time at 22 going on 23, my mother’s age when I was born, it was coincidence, or fate. A few of my ESL students were in Ms. Kerr’s English class at the Nido de Aguilas International School, and so I picked up the slim blue book with a drawing by Paul Klee on its cover. I buzzed while reading paragraph after paragraph that felt so intuitive and challenging, so open-ended while being direct. I realize now that I barely grazed the book’s contours. At the time I was most gripped by Macabéa’s boyfriend, Olímpico, who worked in a factory and called himself a “metallurgist,” though he really wanted to be a bullfighter, or a congressman, or a butcher. His speeches were both unbelievable and familiar. When he breaks up with Macabéa because he’s met another woman named Glória (who is Macabéa’s buxom coworker), he says: “You, Macabéa, are like a hair in my soup. Nobody feels like eating it.” (.As For the Future.)

Two years later I returned to The Hour of the Star, but this time in the original Portuguese. After completing two quarters of intensive Portuguese with Alessandra Santos, a teaching assistant from Porto Alegre, Brazil, who channeled Bjork and quoted “Clarice,” as I soon learned everyone called her, I took my first Brazilian literature seminar where we read all of Clarice’s novels and stories. It was the spring of 2002. I realized I had been focusing on the chicken and forgetting completely about the egg. I decided I had to go to Brazil to practice the language and start my field research on Clarice and Elizabeth Bishop, who published her translations of three of Lispector’s stories in the Kenyon Review in 1964. I applied for several grants, started making my espresso at home, and hatched plans to go first to Vassar College to visit Elizabeth Bishop’s archive. And I began to fall in love, again, with my college boyfriend whose name starts with a V and who would become my husband. (Singing the Blues)

I love my graduate school copy of Lispector’s novel in Portuguese, A Hora da Estrela, the one published by Editora Rocco in 1999, the one with my tidy underlining and handwritten notes in pencil, notes that give literal translations of Portuguese words, as well as paraphrases such as: “You, reader, do not have the right to be cold, but I do” (in reference to Rodrigo S.M.’s attitude towards Macabéa and followed by another note: “S.M. is read as sadomasochism by some critics”). Or: “Girl as white butterfly as page (words) as light, then, virginal.” Or: “M. encounters a beautiful man and wants to possess him like an emerald.” Or the delicate pencil circle around the final word in the novel: “Sim.” And the accompanying note: “Circularity — see beginning.” Yes. (She Doesn’t Know How to Scream)

That Macabéa, the skinny and silent girl from the northeast, could want to possess a man, a beautiful man, the way some would possess an emerald, is not something I thought about deeply when I first read the novel. But today I can make a connection between this notion of possession, which could never be executed in Macabéa’s case and suggests the impossibility of possession in general, and Lispector’s short story, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, titled “The Smallest Woman in the World.” The protagonists of this story are Marcel Pretre, the French explorer, and Little Flower, the indigenous woman he discovers and names (or so he thinks). At one point she says, in response to a question the explorer asks her: “‘Yes.’ That it was very nice to have a tree of her own to live in. Because — she didn’t say this but her eyes became so dark that they said it — because it is good to own, good to own, good to own. The explorer winked several times.” The verb Bishop translates as “to own” is “possuir” in the original, which can also be translated as “to possess.” Bishop’s translation of “The Smallest Woman in the World” coupled with her versions of Lispector’s stories “A Hen” and “Marmosets” function as a provocative trio, a meditation on questions of motherhood, possession, silence, and the encounter between the self and the other. (A Sense of Loss)

My first trip to Rio de Janeiro included several visits to Clarice Lispector’s archive at the Casa de Rui Barbosa, visits that provided nerdy ecstasy competing with the bustle of the streets with their popcorn vendors, juice bars on nearly every corner, men jogging barefoot towards the beach in nothing but their sungas (the Brazilian equivalent of speedos, though less tight-fitting in their cut and made in as many fashionable prints and colors as women’s bikinis), and the rituals of the beach itself, from the culinary delights of “quiejo coalho” grilled at your feet and served up on wooden skewers to the way the locals adjusted and readjusted their miniscule bathing suits upon arrival, pre-ocean dip, and post-dip while drip drying standing up and openly staring at one another. I loved that whenever I told people about my research on Elizabeth Bishop and Clarice Lispector, they would shout, “Clarice!” And then tell me a story. (Whistling in the Dark Wind)

In 2004 I spent a few weeks at the Houghton Library at Harvard, where Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell are held (this was before the publication of their complete correspondence Words In Air, which FSG released in 2008). I poured over the references Bishop made to Lispector in her 1963 letters to Lowell, a mixture of high praise and heavy criticism. Bishop says: “I have translated five of Clarice’s stories — all the very short ones & one longer one.  The New Yorker is interested — I think she needs money, so that would be good, the $ being what it is (almost twice as much already as when you were here) — then if they don’t know them, Encounter, PR, etc.  Alfred Knopf is also interested in seeing the whole book.  But at the moment — just when I was ready to send off the batch, except for one, she has vanished on me — completely — and for about six weeks!” I never did find Bishop’s translations of the other two stories. (I Can’t Do Anything)

Bishop borrowed, or stole, a snippet from Lispector’s story “The Smallest Woman in the World” and put it in one of her poems. In the story, there is a reference to the race Little Flower comes from: “The tiny race, retreating, always retreating, has finished hiding away in the heart of Africa, where the lucky explorer discovered it.” The final line of the final stanza of Bishop’s “Brazil, January 1, 1502” directly quotes Lispector’s story:

Just so the Christians, hard as nails,
tiny as nails, and glinting,
in creaking armor, came and found it all,
not unfamiliar:
no lovers’ walks, no bowers,
no cherries to be picked, no lute music,
but corresponding, nevertheless,
to an old dream of wealth and luxury
already out of style when they left home—
wealth, plus a brand-new pleasure.
Directly after Mass, humming perhaps
L’Homme armé or some such tune,
they ripped away into the hanging fabric,
each out to catch an Indian for himself—
those maddening little women who kept calling,
calling to each other (or had the birds waked up?)
and retreating, always retreating, behind it.

Rather than say Bishop borrowed or stole, which perhaps focuses on the question of possession more than necessary, one could say she echoes her Brazilian contemporary, the enigmatic writer who disappeared from time to time without a word or a trace, frustrating the American poet to no end. (Account of the Preceding Facts)

I was on my honeymoon when I met Benjamin Moser, the translator of the new version of The Hour of the Star. My husband V and I were married in Rio de Janeiro, the city where we got engaged and where we wanted our families and friends to meet each other, far from their everyday lives. We were supposed to begin our honeymoon on the island reserve called Fernando de Noronha off the northeast of Brazil, but in the days before our wedding the Brazilian airline Varig went bankrupt and so went our plans. We stayed in Rio and booked the biggest suite at our friend Denise’s bed and breakfast in the bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa, which is where we met Mr. Moser, up to his chin in research for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector. I told him about Bishop’s letters that mention Clarice, and he shared stories of his research travails and victories. (Cheap Tearjerker)

The Hour of the Star is a book I know I will always return to. I am not sure how many times I have read it. I have had the privilege to teach it as an ESL high school teacher, as a graduate student teaching assistant, and as a university lecturer before an intimidating number of students. I hope to teach it again now that I have two English translations to analyze and compare with students, especially those who do not speak Portuguese and want a feel for how the translator shapes the translated text. I don’t think I will ever have an answer to the questions posed by Lispector’s final novel, all the more reason to read it again and again. Nor will I have a satisfactory explanation for the logic behind the final lines: “My God, I just remembered that we die. But — but me too?! / Don’t forget that for now it’s strawberry season. / Yes.” (Discreet Exit Through the Back Door)





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5 Responses to “My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector”

  1. Jack M
    at 3:36 pm on January 11, 2012

    I’m gratified that more people are discovering Lispector’s work. The Hour of the Star is incredible.

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    at 1:30 pm on January 12, 2012

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  3. CW Mote
    at 5:36 pm on February 1, 2012

    A very enticing read on one of Brazil’s finest artists, with an excellent look at the challenges of translation. The personal narrative that informs the author’s interpretation of Lispector is also a pleasure to read. I only have two things to note: 1) the Portuguese title is “A Hora da Estrela” (small typo); 2) wasn’t Allende overthrown in 1973? Chile in ’77 was under the iron fist of the Pinochet regime. (Perhaps I misunderstood the chronology.) Besides that, well done.

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  5. Roberto
    at 3:07 am on March 22, 2014

    Belo texto, Magdalena, parabéns! Beautiful passages about your experience with the book! I have also my “slim blue book with a drawing by Paul Klee on its cover” by my side now. I have been studying and comparing both translations and your text is very interesting. I’ve been comparing the 13 titles too and I now can see how much gets lost in translation, especially the one about “Cordel”, a kind of literature so important for people from the Northeast of Brazil like Macabea. But so bad it that doesn’t have any correspondence in English. The title “Lamento de um Blue” seems to be a inadequate use of the word in English by Clarice. “Blues” as a musical gender doesn’t have variation of number, not even in its use in Portuguese. (tocar “um Blues” “Lamento de um Blues”) You play 2 ou more Blues tunes or A or ONE Blues tune/song. Looks like the translators couldn’t resist it and did what all of them do: corrected the author! Obrigado!

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