Books

Cover of book: Too Much of Life

Clarice Lispector
Too Much of Life

It seems impossible to imagine now, given the prosaic nature of most newspapers in the West, but in Brazil, particularly in the previous century, novelists and poets were given free rein in the nation’s most prestigious papers. Their realm was the crônica, or chronicle, a free-form column where language often grew chatty and profound. From 1967 to 1973, the glamorous literary genius Clarice Lispector was one of the form’s most beloved practitioners. Too Much of Life offers new translations of the crônicas she wrote for the Jornal do Brasil, alongside other magazine and newspaper work, published by her editors exactly as she filed them.

In her novels and short stories, Lispector chronicled the exhaustive flow of thinking and feeling, and the ecstatic joys and sufferings of the human heart. She privileged sensation over plot and bent syntax to her will. To encounter her work is to touch, as she once wrote, the “nerve of life”: all the instants and infinities, nature’s sublimity, indivisible beauty, rebirth and renewal, and the divine implications of the everyday. Death and god are ever-present impositions, but also great abstractions. A spiritual shock is always expected, inevitable. In her novels it does not take much. One day we may fortuitously encounter a dusty cockroach (The Passion According to G.H.). Or a man we want to love us may demand we assiduously study joy before he can return our affections (An Apprenticeship or The Book of Pleasures). If that all sounds too intangible and serpentine, well, it is. But then, so is life! Lispector’s newspaper columns are comparable but more casual. They are vast and fragmentary, swerving from one topic to the next. In one column, for instance, she details her torturous childhood piano lessons and then sharply turns to discuss her thoughts on uppers. Conversations, uncanny interactions and messages of solidarity with student protesters against the country’s military dictatorship appear regularly. Sometimes there are small drafts of fictions; in one article, a leaf lands on her eyelashes and she thinks God is showing “great delicacy”. This scene reappears in her novel An Apprenticeship, God now “immensely tactful”. Most often she writes monologues that collapse into the metaphysical. If this mass of writing can be distilled down to a single idea, it may be this – the impossible, endless question of how to live.

Here is what we learn: the right and wrong way to cry (“the bad way is when the tears flow unstoppably and yet give no relief”), the joys of not understanding (“It’s an odd blessing, like being insane without being crazy”), how to pick the right perfume (“like every art, it requires a degree of self-knowledge”) and the heterosexual agonies of loving men (“Are men children? Yes. Are men fathers? Yes. Do we argue with men? We do. Can we manage without the men we argue with? No.”)

We also learn about Lispector. The crônicas are “the closest thing to an autobiography that Clarice left”, wrote Benjamin Moser, her biographer and frequent translator. At the beginning of Lispector’s tenure at Jornal do Brasil, her writing, while still inflamed with mystery, tended towards the despairing. This was understandable – she was undergoing her own difficult, slow rebirth. The previous September, Lispector had drifted off to sleep with a cigarette in her hand, setting her apartment on fire. She tried to save her papers by attempting to extinguish the flames with her bare hands. Her nightgown melted into her skin and her right hand was badly blackened and bent. Famous for her beauty, Lispector was pained by her body’s scarring and decline. Around the time of these early dispatches, she was in analysis five days a week, tending to the “great sacrifice of not being mad”.

In the crônicas, she struggled with revealing too much – or too little – of herself. What emerges is a splintered portrait. A single mother, besotted and bewildered by her two sons. A writer who felt at odds with the mantle of “intellectual”, who fretted over failure, style and the limits of language. An insomniac, up at dawn, enraptured by the smell of flowers. An orphan, still haunted in middle age by a tragic childhood. Born in a shtetl in Podolia, Ukraine – a region known for its many Jewish mystics – Lispector’s family fled the pogroms and immigrated to Brazil when she was a baby. In a rare column about her parents, she writes about the guilt of not healing her sick mother, who is believed to have died from syphilis, contracted after she was raped by Russian soldiers. Childbirth was superstitiously believed to be a miracle cure.

Lispector’s introspection has often been defined as “hermetic”, but her columns make visible her sincere connection to the world. She is in constant dialogue with her readers. They send her roses, call her on the telephone and write letters declaring that their capacity for love has been strengthened because of her weekly writing. One day a woman comes to her door clutching a copy of Jornal do Brasil and bearing the gift of fresh octopus, which she then cooks for the writer. Lispector takes to her column to find the woman’s address, so she can return her dishes.

Like the octopus, Too Much of Life is a strange and slippery gift, filled with impassioned revelation and profound doubt. This is not a perfect book: banality and boring digressions are bound to occur in a weekly column. But its best passages feel transformative. Some sentences get close to the feeling Lispector describes in one of her articles, about a fantasy she has of a novel not yet written, which she already adores and knows might crack open her entire life: “I would be reading and suddenly, when I came across a particular sentence, I would say – my eyes brimming with tears – in an ecstasy of pain and ultimate liberation: Good God, I hadn’t realised that everything is possible!”

Penguin Classics, 752pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Clarice Lispector, Too Much of Life".

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