Story on a String: The TFT Review of ‘The Hour of the Star’ by Clarice Lispector

Story on a String: The TFT Review of 'The Hour of the Star' by Clarice LispectorMacabéa never got used to the idea of being human. She can’t explain.

Reality makes little sense to the protagonist of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, but not knowing is an important factor in her life. Macabéa has instinctual desires. Like a child knows how to be hungry, she knows many things without knowing. Macabéa feels more at ease in the unreality of everyday life, living in “slo-o-ow motion […] obscurity was her earth, obscurity was the inner core of nature.” She is only certain of one thing: she’s never had much to offer.

A reader of Lispector’s final novel might do well to adopt Macabéa’s perspective, or lack thereof, for this text investigates the knowledge of not knowing and the rich poverty of the inner void with stratagems of obfuscation, leaps of language, and suspensions of syntax and form that are perhaps best received by the gut. Lispector reminds us in the author’s dedication: “One cannot prove the existence of what is most real […]”—a sentiment echoed a few pages later by the narrator: “The truth is always an inexplicable and interior contact. My truest life is unrecognizable, extremely interior and there is not a single word that defines it.”

After the dedication and a title page containing 14 possible titles (15 if you count the author’s signature), the text proper begins through a proxy, Rodrigo S.M. His mandate is to relate everything about a nobody, “so as to confront her with her own existence […] for one has a right to shout.” Rodrigo starts in mystic fits and stops, with an existential toothache, and the life of the typist Macabéa is always about to unfurl. So impoverished, she blows her nose on the hem of her undies and scarcely has a body to sell, Macabéa looks into the mirror, but her reflection is Rodrigo staring back at Rodrigo, who needs a shave.

As Hélène Cixous wrote in Reading with Clarice Lispector, “The text The Hour of the Star does not begin.” Instead, Rodrigo’s reluctant beginning is an opening and re-opening of an act that fully admits it’s an act—complete with an incessant drumroll to heighten expectation. It is also the setting and re-setting of a stage for a text in which identities conflate and the inside and outside of narrative blur. Lispector-as-Rodrigo writes: “It’s my obsession to become the other man. In this case, the other woman. Pale and feeling weak, I tremble just like her.”

Here is a text of a woman writing as a man who is confronting himself through a poor ugly girl. The narrative is explicit: Macabéa is a typist who cannot type and who lives life as it comes. She goes to work, walks in the rain, tells a lie, meets a boy, is happy because she is unaware of her misery, gets dumped, visits a doctor, consults a fortune teller, discovers she has a destiny, gets hit by a Mercedes, and yes, Macabéa dies. All the while, Rodrigo suffers to find the words, to find a beginning, a point of contact. He too is explicit, if maudlin: “Through her [Macabéa] I utter my cry of horror to existence. To this existence I love so deeply.” And through Rodrigo, Lispector utters her cry as well. “Amen for all of us,” she writes.

The text proceeds as an aphorismic weave of Rodrigo’s (often contradictory and ever-transforming) revelations and Macabéa’s intuitions. Lispector announces her authorial presence, then points to her disappearance, reminding us of her presence throughout. The narrator posits this story as the “unremarkable adventures of a girl living in a hostile city”—but her story is riddled with parenthesis, interruptions, and sentences left hanging despite terminal punctuation. A haze of human emotion envelopes the whole mass—another trick of obfuscation—a play on the tradition of the Cordel: melodramatic tales-in-verse recited by street vendors in northeastern Brazil to entice passersby (“I gave you fair warning that this is what is known as popular literature,” Rodrigo writes). However, Lispector’s singsong is purposely discordant, her sentimental ballad self-consciously contorts.

Cordel literature is also a tricky reference in this text for reasons beyond Lispector’s hand. The above paragraphs quote the first English translation of The Hour of The Star by Giovanni Pontiero (Carcarnet Press, 1986, released in the US by New Directions, 1992). In this edition, Pontiero translates one of the novel’s 15 original titles, História Lacrimogenica de Cordel, as A Tearful Tale. A new translation of the novel by Benjamin Moser (New Directions, 2011) presents a copy of the original, un-translated title page, but only after proffering A Cheap Tearjerker instead.

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“How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite,” wrote the poet Jack Gilbert in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart.” Lispector’s prose in The Hour of the Star is saturated with this almost of language and constantly points to its not quite. For the English-speaking reader, the prose is also bound by the almost and not quite of translation. Consider one of Rodrigo’s revelations toward the end of the book:

“Macabéa is dead. The bells were ringing without any sound. I now understand this story. She is the imminence in those bells, pealing so softly.”

This is Giovanni Pontiero’s translation. The original text (A hora da estrela, 1977) reads:

“Morta, os sinos badalavam mas sem que seus bronzes lhes dessem som. Agora entendo esta história. Ela é a iminência que há nos sinos que quase-quase badalam.”

Even to a reader ignorant of Portuguese, the disparity of punctuation and proper nouns between these two renditions appears questionable. This brings us to Benjamin Moser’s new translation in which the paradox of the bells and their quase-quase, Moser’s “almost-almost”, gives the English reader a different taste.

“With her dead, the bells were ringing but without their bronzes giving them sound. Now I understand this story. It is the imminence in those bells that almost-almost ring.”

In Moser’s afterword to The Hour of the Star, he calls attention to the foreignness of Lispector’s Portuguese in Portuguese: her bizarre diction, odd syntax, and unconventional grammar, “that veers toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it.” He claims translators tend to smooth and flatten her prose, often correcting the punctuation as they see fit, and one of Moser’s tasks in this new translation is to restore the jagged bits. When we place Moser’s translation side-by-side with Pontiero’s, Moser’s reads as more raw, a bit jumpy or crass, with a syntax that starts to unhinge. Pontiero’s in comparison is gracious and almost-almost manneristic, his syntax leaning toward logic and proper sentences.

For example, consider Pontiero’s insertion of an ellipsis:

Pontiero: “It is the vision of the imminence of … of what? Perhaps I shall find out later.” Moser: “It is the vision of the imminence of. Of what? Maybe I’ll figure it out later.” Lispector: “É visão da iminência de. De quê? Quem sabe se mais tarde saberei.”

Pontiero’s tendency to translate toward convention and meaning is even more visible here:

Pontiero: “One thing did, however worry her: she no longer knew if she had ever had a father and mother. She had forgotten her origins. If she had thought hard she might have concluded that she had sprouted from the soil of Alagoas inside a mushroom that soon rotted.” Moser: “But one thing she’d upsettingly discovered: she no longer knew what it was to have a father and a mother, she’d forgotten the taste. And, if she thought about it, she might say she sprouted from the soil of the Alagoas backlands like an instantly molded mushroom.” Lispector: “Mas uma coisa descobriu inquieta: já não sabia mais ter tido pai e mãe, tinha esquecido o sabor. E, se pensava melhor, dir-se-ia que havia brotado da terra do sertão em cogumelo logo mofado.”

And here, Pontiero drops the verbal force:

Pontiero: “Plastic was the last word in luxury.” Moser: “Plastic was the greatest.” Lispector: “Plástico era o máximo.”

Even in this minimal sampling one begins to see how Moser amends the semantics and intentionality of sentence where Pontiero fails—and yet (as is particularly visible in the case of the mushroom, even for the non-Portuguese reader who can at least notice the comparative brevity of the original passage) Moser does not reach the distinctive rhythm(s) of Lispector’s sometimes errant, sometimes terse, sometimes popular Portuguese.

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If in The Hour of the Star Lispector has achieved what Deleuze claimed a great writer does—that is, cause language to take flight by carving out a nonpreexistent foreign language within her native or operative tongue—how then does the English reader experience Lispector’s text? When reading in translation, is it better to be like Macabéa, the girl who never considered the existence of a foreign language at all? Or is it useful for an English reader to somehow position herself between variant translations and grope with instinct, not intellect, toward the untranslatable essence of the Portuguese original (located where)? Is a reader of translation simply condemned to an always-approximate and inessential experience at best?

“What, in fact, does a piece of fine writing ‘say’? What does it communicate? Very little to the person who understands it,” wrote Walter Benjamin in “The Task of the Translator.” Perhaps this can point us toward a more optimistic route. Our Macabéa did not have the means to express herself, but “what was there to confide? The atmosphere? One doesn’t confide everything, for everything is a hollow void.”

Catherine Foulkrod lives/writes in Brooklyn. ...read more

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