Clarice Lispector: The Hour Of The Star
Following on from a recent post by dovegreyreader, I spotted a copy of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour Of The Star (1977) in Waterstones, knew I recognised the name from somewhere, and picked it up. Of course, The Hour Of The Star isn’t its only name, indeed there are a further twelve suggested titles, including I Can Do Nothing, .As For The Future., and The Blame Is Mine. Take your pick.
In this novel, written in the year of her death, Lispector uses the guise of a male writer – Rodrigo – to tell a story that “could be written by another…but it would have to be a man for a woman would weep her heart out.” Said story involves the sad life of Macabéa, a character borne from a face spotted one day by the narrator. From this glimpse arises an interesting novel of contrasts and the need for Rodrigo to put down in writing the story of this imagined girl, a story so immediate he even declares, “I am writing at the same time as I’m being read.”
√From the off, Rodrigo addresses the reader of The Hour Of The Star with his concerns about writing. In a philosophical tone he discusses how his novel can never truly have a beginning, using a grander scale to illustrate his point:
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 that the universe never began.
Things soon settle – in an unsettled way – as he agonises over the story to tell, supplementing concerns with apologies (“Even as I write this I feel ashamed at pouncing on you with a narrative that is so open and explicit.”), and all done in an engaging, urgent style.
Macabéa, the girl, is the main character in Rodrigo’s novel’s. Her introduction is repetitive, or at least his mentions of her, and the cyclical nature of this erratic mind – the opium-drunk narrator of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl came to mind – tells us perhaps one time too many about Macabéa’s mental make-up. About how she lives in the here and now. About how she has little ambition beyond being, despite her frailty and ugliness, Marilyn Monroe. And about how, such is the emptiness of her existence, she doesn’t know what it is to be happy or sad:
As the author, I alone love her. I suffer on her account. And I alone may say to her: ‘What do you ask of me weeping, that I would not give you singing?’ The girl did not know that she existed, just as a dog does not know it’s a dog. Therefore she wasn’t aware of her own unhappiness.
But her life is not wholly without incident. She has a job as a typist (“she was so backward that when she typed she was obliged to copy out ever word slowly, letter by letter”) and acquires a bizarre butcher-loving boyfriend along the way. One by one the novel’s tiny cast flits in and out of her life, each experience leading on to an unexpected conclusion that proves to be more shocking to narrator than his creation.
The Hour Of The Star‘s joy is in reading the parallel threads as we learn of the narrator and watch him create his character with each page turned. Macabéa, our uneducated lead lead, blunders through life without a care having limited conversations and understanding. She can’t help being who she is, for it’s outwith her control. The blame can rest easily with both her upbringing and Rodrigo. On the other hand, our tortured narrator is educated and knows that he can intervene in Macabéa’s tale but, as the alternative titles allude, doesn’t. For this, he takes to defense:
As for the girl, she exists in an impersonal limbo, untouched by what is worst or best. She merely exists, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. Why should there be anything more? Her existence is sparse. Certainly. But why should I feel guilty? Why should I try to relieve myself of the burden of not having done anything concrete to help the girl?
Make no mistake, The Hour Of The Star, is a novella in which very little happens and while it may, at first, feel repetitive, hypnotic is more apt. A second sitting, with knowledge of later events, certainly rewards, and credit is certainly due to Giovanni Pontiero, for his vibrant translation. And such brilliance gives a taste of life in a Brazilian slum, only to remind us that tragedy is everywhere, especially ahead of us.
February 15, 2008