The Hour of the Star: Clarice Lispector speaks on life, death and the question ‘Who am I?’

 

Everything in the world began with a yes.  One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes.  It was ever so.  I do not know why, but I do know the universe never began.

Let no one be mistaken.  I only achieve simplicity with enormous effort. 

The Hour of the Star is a novel that centres around the short and miserable life of Macabea, a modest girl from the Nort-East of Brazil, an area filled with immigrants and plagued by drought and poverty. Macabea’s life and future are determined by her inexperience, her ugliness and her total anonymity. She is an orphaned child from the backwoods of Alagoas who was raised by a ‘wicked-step-mother’ of an Aunt in Maceio before she found herself in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Macabea is unwell, unattractive and without having done anything, is singled out as one of those in the world who will lose.

Meanwhile, the clouds are white and the sky is blue.  Why is there so much God? At the expense of men. 

She had been born with a legacy of misfortune, a creature from nowhere with the expression of someone who apologizes for occupying too much space.

In the short space of the novel (really a novella) the story of Macabea will inform us she has a bullying employer who is thinking of firing her, a philandering boyfriend who treats her with contempt and a sexy workmate who is obviously everything Macabea isn’t. Macabea is a virgin, and she wants to look like Marilyn Monroe. Thus begins and ends the length and breadth of her ambition.

Macabea is a character forged from the lower strate of Brazillian society, taken almost directly from stereotype.  What Clarice Lispector does with her however,  is investigate the psychological consequences of poverty. Macabea’s ignorance does not spare her from fear or loneliness but perversely it does leave her prepared for the misery that confounds in her in a way. Within Macabea is some resilience and a will to survive. Not with the pomp and thrust of the privileged. There is nothing forced about Macabea’s life. But more with a collision with a series of understandings both psychological and emotional. Clarice Lispectors heroine almost patiently waits for life and destiny to do its worst. yet despite the repeated attacks life throws at her, this patient movement, this repeated forward motion somehow links itself with a will to live. Macabea knows nothing of religion, but she prays anyway, although she does not know to what, and this instills in her a kind of grace that elevates her from her surroundings. It isn’t accurate to say it is her ignorance. It is her spirit. A deeper aspect of her that sees the world in a certain way not born of reflection or experience, but of the breathing in and out with life itself.

 

In the brief and sad time we have with Macabea she makes several discoveries about herself and the world around her. She experiences her own body, an awareness that is not something pleasant, as Macabea is sick, thin and ugly. She also has an experience of a relationship with a young man who almost immediately betrays her by running off with her best friend.

In the telling of this tale, the author is almost as important as the protagonist. The author wails on the part of Macabea, and you get the feeling he feels as though this life could easily have happened to him if he weren’t so lucky as to have been born into the circumstances he was born into. In a remarkable narrative twist, Lispector tells us this is a male narrator but she never actually leaves the scene. We are left with somehow seeing her as puppet master of her narrator:

But the person whom I am about to describe scarcely has a body to sell; nobody desires her, she is a harmless virgin whom nobody needs.  it strikes me that I don’t need her either and that what I am writing could be written by another.  Another writer, of course, but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out.

and later,

(When I consider I might have been born her – and why not? – I shudder. The fact that I am not her strikes me as being a cowardly escape. I feel remorse, as I explained in one of my titles of this book.)

Despite the narrators protestation of emotional detachment, we see a man wailing endlessly for the disaster that is Macabea. He may state things that are unthinkable, but his passion for her plight shines through every one of his words.  Despite this, the narrative comes at us from within the narrator, we see the story wriggling out of him. He creates a relationship with between himself an Macabea, between reason and instinct, knowledge and innocence, the imagination and reality.  The writer is able to transform reality and Lispector therefore shows compassion for her heroine who ‘did not know how to adorn reality.’  Whenever Macabea experiences an insight as a slap (bam) she is left dazed and confused by the incomprehensible size of reality, but she is always left with one considerable privilege:  inner freedom.

Clarice Lispector uses The Hour of the Star to question some of our most basic notions of truth, happiness and integrity.

If the girl only knew that my own happiness stems from the deepest sorrow and that sorrow is an abortive form of happiness. Certainly, she was a contented creature despite the neurosis.  The neurosis of battle. 

One of the most incredible aspects of Clarice Lispectors style is her ability to work from abstracts. She does not launch from a firm platform.  Lispector is able to work from emotion to give credence to the most ludicrous of Macabea’s summations about her day. We are convinced by both the narrators perspective and by Macabea’s.  The book deals with the enormity of the human condition, a philosophical subject far beyond the reach of Macabea’s ability to grasp, and yet Macabea is able to experience her own resonance with these questions.

Only once did she ask herself that traumatic question:  Who am I?  The question frightened her to such an extent that her mind became paralysed. 

This question of Macabea’s – Who am I? – is the question of all of us. When we ask it we are left with ‘Am I a monster or is this what it is to be human?’  Clarice Lispector reminds us repeatedly of our own emotional fragmentation. Of our own unanswered question. This is the question that will have us move beyond ourselves and our limitations. Macabea is able to arrive at this through her intuition. She is instinctively drawn, despite the smallness of her life, despite the lack in her intellectual prowess, into the labyrinth of the eternal question at the heart of our very humanity.

 

Our narrator and our writer both know that life will toss what it will at us as we struggle with our own inner journey, and yet strangely it is Macabea who seems most able to cope with what comes her way. Clarice Lispector – through her narrator – battles with enormous philosophical concepts while Macabea dilutes life to simple superstitions and fantasies.  Macabea’s fears are instinctive and irrational. Clarice Lispectors apprehensions are the fruit of scrupulous introspection. Strangely, the roots of these spiritual crises are the same. Both writer and character are on the edges of society.

Macabea’s attempts to gain enlightenment could not be more skewed. First she visits a Doctor to find out if she is healthy – something we know from the narrator she is not. Then she visits a Clairvoyant to find out about her future. The Doctor is a man who has grown cynical and revolted by the poverty he sees around him. His sole ambition is to make enough money so that ‘he can do exactly has he pleases: nothing.‘ He is revolted by Macabea, willing to give her the terrible truth of her condition. However, when his efforts are met with passive acceptance he is puzzled and exasperated. The more she accepts her plight, the less he wants to help her. It is this basic acceptance of her own anonymity that is both her courage and the cause of the enormous gulf between her and the human beings she tries to interact with. The foolish conniving boyfriend who wants to be ‘somebody’, the best friend Gloria who knows how to shimmy her way into a man’s mind, and the clairvoyant Madame Carlotta who is both the kindest and cruelest person Macabea encounters, and ultimately, profoundly unhelpful. Macabea is not ambitious for herself. She accepts life as it is, cruel, heartless and dishing out blow upon blow upon blow.

Aside from the philosophical complexities of what it is to be human, Clarice Lispector asks many questions in this small novel about the role of fiction and the moment of inspiration. In this novel she links the structure of the narrative with an exploration of the creative process. Just as she claims in her opening paragraph, she writes simply and yet each sentence throbs with metaphor, parable and legend. She gives space (if not credence) to the mystical. Things intimate and remote overlap. her narrators asides to the reader interrupt the narrative in a post modern style  of restlessness. She also uses the narrator to umbrella the narrative with questions about his own ability to tell the ‘truth’. We are not eventually even sure if he is telling his version of the truth.

She was subterranean and had never really flowered.  I am telling a lie; she was wild grass.

The narrator will inform us he is tired of writing and tired of the characters, but he is forced to go on by something outside of himself that compels completion even though he is sure he is boring us with the story of so dull and uninspiring a creature.  There are few details here for us to anchor ourselves to. Clarice Lispector wants us to think and feel, not lose ourselves in a tale. Doubt outweighs certainty in this authors analysis of the human psyche. Clichés are transformed fresh into riveting new insights in this brilliant writers hands. It is words and her own tale itself that will ultimately turn Macabea into a woman and allow her to live. it is her own narrative – the one we observe and the one that comes from within.

Giovanni Pontiero closes his brilliant essay (from which a great deal of these insights have been gleaned) with these words:

In the next breath Clarice Lispector defines The Hour of the Star as a book ‘made without words… a mute photograph… a silence… a question.’  For in all her narratives she treats silence like sorrow, and transforms it inot a fount of eternal truths.

The Hour of the Star Ends with this:

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.

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