Tuesday 28 October 2014

'Near to the Wild Heart' by Clarice Lispector (Review)

While browsing the library databases recently, I stumbled across a book by a writer I've been meaning to try for a while now.  It was a pleasant surprise, so (of course) I put a hold on it, and it arrived in a fairly short time - which is why I have the pleasure of introducing today, for the first time on the blog, the woman the Brazilian press named Hurricane Clarice.  Let's see if the nickname is an apt one...

Near to the Wild Heart (translated by Alison Entrekin, published by New Directions) was Clarice Lispector's debut novel back in 1943, when she was just twenty-three years old.  It's a swirling, Woolfian tale of a young woman who stands out for her inability to conform to comfortable bourgeois norms - hers is certainly a mind less ordinary.

Joana, the main protagonist of the novel, is a woman trying to work out what she wants from life.  She's beautiful but cold, brilliant but unapproachable, a woman who stands out for good reasons and for bad.  Eventually, she deigns to marry the handsome Otávio, even though he's not really a match for her.  However, it's clear from the offset that theirs is a relationship always destined to explode.

Near to the Wild Heart is a fascinating story written in two parts.  While the first looks back at Joana's childhood and introduces the novel's main players, the second focuses on the disintegration of her marriage.  There's a mix of description and internal monologues, and the writer slowly develops her creation's relationships, introducing important figures, such as her childhood teacher, and gradually setting her beside other women.  There's no doubting who the star of the show is, though.

The book is built around the character of Joana, a woman who, even as a child, was different enough to arouse fear in those in her vicinity:
"Even when Joana isn't in the house, I feel on edge.  It sounds crazy, but it's as if she were watching me... reading my thoughts...  Sometimes I'll be laughing and I stop short, cold.  Soon, in my own home, where I raised my daughter, I'll have to apologize to that girl for goodness-knows-what... She's a viper.  She's a cold viper, Alberto, there's no love or gratitude in her.  There's no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her.  I think she's capable of killing someone..."
p.43 (New Directions, 2012)
While her aunt's words might be slightly hyperbolic, she does have a point.  Joana is formed by her disturbed childhood, and the early death of her mother, then her father, contributes to her unusual attitude towards life.

The childhood Joana was a stormy character, but the finished product is as hard as ice.  As a woman she is self-contained, as beautiful and unforgiving as a diamond, quite able to dispense with the need for human company or affection.  She's obsessed with working out what she is and what she wants from life, hoping to get to the bottom of what 'living' actually entails.  Lispector contrasts this analytical approach to the animal-like living of other characters in the novel, highlighting the conflict between just living and really existing.

The blurb describes Joana as amoral, and to some extent that's true.  Quite apart from the petty offences she commits as a child, she is painted as almost inhuman, incapable of feeling what others feel, a fact she recognises herself:
"The certainty that evil is my calling, thought Joana.
  What else was that feeling of contained force, ready to burst forth in violence, that longing to apply it with her eyes closed, all of it, with the rash confidence of a wild beast?  Wasn't it in evil alone that you could breathe fearlessly, accepting the air and your lungs?  Not even pleasure would give me as much pleasure as evil, she thought surprised.  She felt a perfect animal inside her, full of contradictions, of selfishness and vitality." (p.9)
There's a feeling of superiority wrapped up in these thoughts.  However, as she learns more about life, she also senses that other women, the dumb, cow-like figures she meets, have something she'll never have.  Despite herself, she is forced to acknowledge their natural, unthinking power over men.

Otávio, the man she marries in an attempt to 'try' love, is a very different character.  He's a dull, dutiful (to an extent) husband, unaware of who he's really marrying.  In a sense, though, he gets what he deserves, as he has chosen to tie the knot in order to abdicate responsibility for his well-being, sensing the steel beneath Joana's surface and hoping that she will be strong enough for the two of them.  It's a miscalculation he might live to regret...

From the start, it's inevitable that Joana will grow to resent her husband, and it's no surprise that she feels uncomfortable with her new life:
"Before him she always had her hands out and how much oh how much did she receive by surprise!  By violent surprise, like a ray, of sweet surprise, like a rain of little lights...  Now all of her time had been forfeited to him and she felt that the minutes that were hers had been ceded, split into tiny ice cubes that she had to swallow quickly, before they melted.  And flogging herself to go at a gallop: look, because this time is freedom! look, think quickly, look, find yourself quickly, look... it's over!  Now - only later, the tray of ice cubes again and there you are staring at it in fascination, watching the droplets of water already trickling." (p.98)
For a woman who is used to having complete freedom, being forced to share it, to give it up, is a painful experience, and once she realises her loss of power, it's only a matter of time before her thoughts, as always, turn into actions.  Having decided that her marriage is a mistake, she calmly sets about dissolving the union.

Near to the Wild Heart, with its periods of stream-of-consciousness writing, is certainly a blistering debut work.  Comparisons with Woolf and Joyce are inevitable (particularly as the title comes from a line by Joyce); however, the truth is that Lispector hadn't even tried their work at the time of writing the novel.  It's something that's hard to believe when you experience Joana's internal monologue, almost an inquisition at times.  Her frantic switching of thoughts, with quick sentences darting between ideas, definitely reminds the Anglophone reader of the writers named above.

That's not to say that it was a complete success.  I felt that the internal monologues were a little too abstract at times, and the first half gets bogged down towards the end (I was starting to get a little restless).  The second part, though, is much better, the examination of the breakdown of the marriage wonderfully undertaken.  It would be hard to say that Joana is more human (I'm not sure that's possible...), but she's certainly a more rounded character than is the case towards the end of the first part.

Overall, Near to the Wild Heart is an engaging book, mesmerising in places, and an interesting introduction to a much lauded writer.  I'm very keen to try more, so I'm sure I'll be back on the library databases at some point.  Perhaps reading Lispector's later works will help me understand her more, taking me further towards the eye of the hurricane that is Clarice...