As Impalpable as Energy: Freedom and Possibility in Clarice Lispector's First Novel

By Pat Finn

In his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” George Orwell famously asserted that “good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” In the context of his essay, this statement denotes a familiar idea, namely that novelists ought to attend to the integrity of their work rather than the fickle and, for Orwell, often politically suspect demands of critics. When considered literally, however, this statement, like so many of Orwell’s absolutist proclamations, takes on the weight and luminosity of a universal law: an axiom that is all the more attractive because of the absurdity of its grand ambition, doomed from the start, to make a totalizing claim about a subject as inexhaustible as the novel. The idea that good novelists are always unafraid isn’t true, but it feels true, which is more important because it gets at something essential in the way we think about the novel, the “most anarchical of all forms of literature” as Orwell writes in the same essay. Bound up with the idea of the novel, it seems, is the idea of freedom, and if novelists are to embody their vocations they themselves must be free. And people who are truly free are not frightened.

Joana, the protagonist of Clarice Lispector’s autobiographical first novel Near to the Wild Heart, is certainly not frightened. As a figure of the novelist, or artist, Joana combines the contrarian charisma of Milton’s Satan with the tireless intellectual questing of the Stephen Dedalus of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the novel from which the title of Near to the Wild Heart is drawn. Joana is at once modern – alienated, self-aware, and primordial – as indicated by the novel’s constant emphasis on her closeness to nature, or the “wild heart of things,” which allows her to remain fundamentally detached from society, her family, and even her own protean identity. At certain points even, Joana is less a plausible individual than an embodiment of the concept of freedom itself, a characteristic that places her in strange relation to the other characters in the novel, who are all very much bound to the world of human affairs. At one point in the book, when Joana meets for the first time with Lídia, her husband’s pregnant mistress, the other woman is awed and repulsed by Joana’s extreme indifference to the news of her husband’s infidelity. While at first she accuses Joana of being “evil,” she later says to her: “I wouldn’t mind taking Otávio from another woman. But I didn’t know that there was you…Not just anybody, like me but someone so…so good…so sublime.” Joana, for her part, is too insightful to take seriously anything that Lídia says; she knows that the only possible attitude someone like Lídia can hold toward her is one of confusion: “When I leave she’ll despise me only as long as she is in awe. I am fleetingly wonderful…God, God…I walk running, delirious, my body flying, hesitating…where to?” Earlier in this same chapter, when contrasting herself to Lídia, who represents for Joana the “immutable…bright base” of normative, maternal femininity, Joana thinks: “I am nothing but a desire, anger, vagueness, as impalpable as energy. Energy? But where is my strength? In imprecision, in imprecision, in imprecision…And bringing life to it, not to reality, just the vague impulse forward.” Joana lives comfortably within the intense, monadic instant. She views herself not as an individual – with a history, a place in the social order, and subsequent responsibilities – but as a series of discontinuous experiences, each one as singular and full of possibility as the last. What does it matter to Joana if her husband leaves her? In the lived moment there is neither ownership nor identity. The consequence of this is that Joana always has nothing to lose.

It’s easy to see why upon the release of Near to the Wild Heart in 1943, Brazil’s literary establishment became transfixed not only by the novel – which was universally hailed as brilliant and original, with many critics claiming that there had never before been anything like it in Brazilian literature –  but also by its mysterious twenty-three year old author. Indeed it’s hard to mark a definite distinction between Joana – a free, unrestrained imagination who is the very embodiment of artistic possibility – and the artist who created her. Joana is, for Lispector, a kind of mythologized self-portrait, a fact that many early readers of the book suspected and that Lispector would later confirm. Like Joana, Clarice Lispector was brilliant, beautiful, and an outsider. Born in 1920 in Ukraine to Jewish parents, Lispector immigrated with her family to Brazil when she was an infant. While she wrote in Portuguese and always insisted on her Brazilian identity, Lispector nevertheless carried with her a much remarked-upon essence of foreignness, or European-ness, which was reflected not only in her speech and mannerisms, but in her writing as well. As Lispector’s most revered biographer Benjamin Moser notes, when Near to the Wild Heart first appeared it was not generally compared to other Brazilian novels but to the work of European writers such as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and Gide. The novel’s intense inwardness, its exploration of emotional and psychological states and their potential philosophical consequences, is achieved at the expense of a distinctive sense of place. It is not told in the straightforward, linear manner of the realist novel, but as a serious of disconnected vignettes that narrate various episodes in the life of Joana, stretching from her early childhood to her young adulthood. From these we learn much about the rich, tumultuous inner life of Joana, and essentially nothing about Brazil in the middle of the twentieth century.

There can be no mistaking the fact that Near to the Wild Heart is a novel about an outsider. Through the virtuosic employment of free indirect speech narration, Lispector summons a consciousness that has turned back on itself, and has become stranger and more distinct with each passing year that it fails to connect with other people. Loneliness, however, is not something that is lamented in this novel but valorized. Because Joana feels that she is fundamentally different from other human beings – more amorphous, fluid, sensuous, as well as imaginative – she is free: free from responsibility, from received modes of understanding the world and, most importantly, free from fear, or at least from the ordinary kinds of fear that other people experience. Instead of being afraid of loneliness, of never being loved, Joana is afraid of “not loving,” of never herself being able to become emotionally invested in the world because she is always too strongly caught in the thralls of experience. Joana then is more concerned with the threat she poses to the world than to the threat the world poses to her. In an early section of the novel, Joana muses on the “feeling of contained force, ready to burst forth in violence,” that she feels is essential to her experience of herself. Though she here calls this intimated potentiality “evil,” echoing an accusation that is laid against her by other characters numerous times in the novel, it can just as easily be viewed, in neutral terms, as creative energy. This sensation is evil for Joana, insofar as it is symptomatic of the overwhelming strength of her own will, the extreme sense in which she feels herself to be alive in a way that is too intense and fundamental to be contained by moral categories. Joana feels that she sees too clearly and feels too deeply to have anything as banal as a fixed identity, an immutable sense of self; she can exist only as possibility. “I will surpass myself in waves,” Joana prophesies in the last section of the novel, “and may everything come and fall upon me, even the incomprehension of myself at certain white moments because all I have to do is comply with myself and then nothing will block my path until death-without-fear, from any struggle or rest I will rise up as strong and beautiful as a young horse.” These are the book’s closing lines, and for Brazilian readers in the 1940s, they boldly heralded the arrival of the young author who would become known as “Hurricane Clarice,” a moniker that nicely captures the kinetic force of her prose which, like her avatar Joana, exists most essentially as an impulse forward.

While I am not a reader of Portuguese and thus cannot speak to the fidelity of Alison Entrekin’s translation of Near to the Wild Heart, I can say that this edition is, in itself, a book of very high literary quality. The vitality and verbal inventiveness that Lispector has always been praised for come through clearly in this edition, only the second English language translation of this novel ever published. New Directions’ release of this novel along with three other titles by Clarice Lispector this past June marked an important moment in Lispector’s publication history, as her works are now more accessible to American readers than they have ever been. This is an exciting development for American fans of modernist fiction. Near to the Wild Heart is one of the twentieth century’s classic bildungsromans, and is essential reading for anyone who has ever contemplated the exhilarating strangeness of being alive and human.

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