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Authors: Clarice Lispector

Agua Viva

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ÁGUA VIVA

Clarice Lispector

Translated from the Portuguese by Stefan Tobler

Introduction by Benjamin Moser

Edited by Benjamin Moser

Introduction: Breathing Together

The brevity and apparent simplicity of
Água Viva
mask
several years of Clarice Lispector’s struggle to write it. A first version,
entitled
Beyond Thought: Monologue with Life,
was already complete by
July 12, 1971, when Clarice met Alexandrino Severino, a Portuguese professor at
Vanderbilt University. She gave him a copy of the manuscript for translation
into English, along with specific procedural instructions. He was not to budge
so much as a single comma.

She was still “drying out the book,” she told Severino, before
handing it over to her publisher. But a year later, in June 1972, the book had
not appeared, and Severino wrote to ask if she still wanted him to proceed.

When she answered, the manuscript had another name. “As for the book—I interrupted it—because I thought it wasn’t achieving what I wanted to
achieve,” she wrote. “I can’t publish it as it is. Either I am not going to
publish it or I am going to work on it. Maybe in a few months I will work on the
Loud Object
.”

The process of “drying out,” Severino noticed when he finally saw
the subsequent version, consisted mainly in removing its many explicit
biographical references. But
Loud Object
, weighing in at 185 pages, was
even longer than
Beyond Thought
(151). The manuscript seems to capture
an everyday voice utterly unrefined by literary or fictional artifice.
Clarice reminisces about her pets and goes into great detail about her favorite
flowers, one of which sends her back to her origins in Eastern Europe, a
reference surprising because so rare: “The sunflower is the great child of the
sun. So much that it is born with the instinct to turn its enormous corolla
toward its creator. It doesn’t matter if it’s a father or mother. I don’t know.
Is the sunflower a masculine or feminine flower? I think masculine. But one
thing is for sure: the sunflower is Ukrainian.”

If at times this manuscript is as brilliant and inspired as the
mature work of a great artist, at other times it is as dull and uninspired as a
housewife’s neighborly chitchat. Clarice often claimed that she was a simple
housewife, and in this formless, plotless conversation, an unfiltered
“brainstorm”—she uses the English word—in which she types anything and
everything that pops into her mind, that is often exactly how she sounds.

She complains, for example, about money, another constant topic:
“I’m back. The day is still very nice. But things are very expensive—I say
this because of the price the man asked to fix [the record player]. I have to
work hard to get the things I want or need.” She defends herself against her
mythology: “I mean to say that my house is not metaphysical. They can hardly
forgive bad food. All I do is open and close my purse to hand out money to buy
things. . . . Besides eating we talk a lot about what is going on in Brazil and
in the world. We talk about what clothes are appropriate to different
occasions.” And: “I sleep too and how! My readers think I am always an
insomniac. But that’s not true. I sleep too.”

Loud Object
’s direct and confessional tone, the sense it
offers of Clarice’s unfiltered conversational voice—she frequently pauses to
answer the phone, light a cigarette, or pour herself a drink of water—can
distract the reader from the reality that it, too, is a fiction. In
Beyond
Thought
she bluntly addresses the reader: “Here’s what’s happening. I
had been writing this book for years, spread out in newspaper columns, without
noticing, ignorant of myself as I am, that I was writing my book. That is the
explanation for readers who recognize this: because they have already read it in
the paper. I like the truth.”

She apparently did not like the truth enough to refrain from
retouching it in the second draft. The critic Lícia Manzo points out that
Loud Object
contains a new, and completely contradictory,
explanation: “This book, for obvious reasons, was going to be called
Beyond
Thought
. Many pages have already been published. But when I published
them I didn’t mention that they had been extracted from
Loud Object
or
Beyond Thought
.”

It does not particularly matter whether Clarice took her newspaper
articles and stitched them into a manuscript or whether she plundered a
manuscript for material for her journalism. Yet the two conflicting explanations
emphasize that in
Loud Object
she is still wrestling, and somewhat
guiltily, with fictionalization.

Perhaps the least satisfying part of
An Apprenticeship or The
Book of Pleasures
, the novel that preceded
Água Viva,
was the
way Clarice extracted large chunks from her newspaper columns and dropped them,
often unmodified, into her novel. The process could work flawlessly, but
sometimes the pieces felt undigested. In
Loud Object
she does the same
thing. She must have known that these reminiscences were out of place, since
almost none reached the final book. In the drafts, doubts about how to use her
personal experience lead to repeated meditations on the creative process
itself.

Throughout
Loud Object
she is aware that she is doing
something completely different, but she does not yet know what or how: “What
will my liberty lead to? What is this that I’m writing? As far as I know I never
saw anybody write like this.” Such remarks frequently recur in the manuscript.
The knowledge of the novelty of her invention is sometimes thrilling, sometimes
frightening, and in one case is followed by a surprising interjection: “Who
invented the chair? Someone with love for himself. So he invented greater
comfort for the body. Then the centuries went by and nobody noticed a chair
because using it was a merely automatic question. One needs courage to do a
‘brainstorm’: we never know what might come and frighten us. The sacred monster
died. In its place was born a little girl who lost her mother.”

Of all Clarice Lispector’s works,
Água Viva
gives the
strongest impression of having been spontaneously committed to paper. Yet
perhaps none was as painstakingly composed. Even the apparently artless
exclamation about her mother—who died when Clarice was nine, a victim of the
pogroms in her native Ukraine—reappears in at least two other books, as well
as in an essay she later published about Brasília. As she writes in
Loud
Object
, “Art is not purity: it is purification. Art is not liberty: it
is liberation.”

Clarice had serious doubts about the work. “She was
insecure and asked a few people for their opinion,” her friend and editor Olga
Borelli recalled. “With other books Clarice didn’t show that insecurity. With
Água Viva
she did. That was the only time I saw Clarice hesitate
before handing in a book to the publisher. She herself said that.”

“I don’t know why you liked my book
Loud Object
,” Clarice
wrote the poet Marly de Oliveira. “Since once the first impulse had passed, I
reread it and was horrified. It’s so bad, so bad, that I’m not going to publish
it, I already pulled it from the publishers.” Olga’s delicate interventions may
have saved the book, and with it the new kind of writing Clarice was
pioneering.

Clarice’s writing had always pushed the limits of her language. In
1954, in her longest known statement on the subject of translating her work, she
wrote her French publisher a series of letters that reportedly “damaged the
health” of her editor.

“I admit, if you like, that the sentences do not reflect the usual
manner of speaking, but I assure you that it is the same in Portuguese,” she
writes. “The punctuation I employed in the book is not accidental and does not
result from an ignorance of the rules of grammar. You will agree that the
elementary principles of punctuation are taught in every school. I am fully
aware of the reasons that led me to choose this punctuation and insist that it
be respected.”

In editing these new translations of Clarice’s
Água Viva
,
The Passion According to G. H.
,
The Breath of Life
, and
Near to the Wild Heart
, I have kept her point very much in mind.
Because no matter how odd Clarice Lispector’s prose sounds in translation, it
sounds just as unusual in the original.

“The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts
of our literary history, and even of the history of our language,” the poet Lêdo
Ivo wrote.

The Canadian writer Claire Varin has regretted her translators’
tendency to “pluck the spines from the cactus.”

The tendency is understandable. It may even, to some extent, be
inevitable. Clarice Lispector’s weird word choices, strange syntax, and lack of
interest in conventional grammar produces sentences—often fragments of
sentences—that veer toward abstraction without ever quite reaching it. Her
goal, mystical as well as artistic, was to rearrange conventional language to
find meaning—never to discard it completely.

Paradoxically, the better one’s Portuguese, the more difficult it is
to read Clarice Lispector. The foreigner with a basic knowledge of Romance
grammar and vocabulary can read her work with ease. The Brazilian, however,
often finds her difficult. This is because her subtle rearrangements of everyday
language are so surprising that they often baffle the reader, particularly the
reader with little experience of her work.

In
Água Viva
, Clarice pushed her language as far as it
could go without risking incoherence. The book was written in fragments, and
Olga Borelli’s editorial method, she wrote, was “breathing together, it’s
breathing together.”

Because there is a logic in life, in
events, as there is in a book. They follow one another, they must. Since if I
took a fragment and wanted to move it further ahead, there wouldn’t be anywhere
to put it. It was like a puzzle. I took all the fragments and collected them,
kept them in an envelope. On the back of a check, a piece of paper, a napkin . .
. I still have some of those things at home, and some of them still even smell
of her lipstick. She would wipe her lips and then stick it in her purse. . . .
Suddenly she noted something down. After collecting all those fragments, I
started to note, to number them. So it’s not difficult to structure Clarice, or
it’s infinitely difficult, unless you commune with her and already are in the
habit of reading her.

As ultimately published in August 1973, the book was called
Água
Viva
. This is the only one of Clarice’s titles that offers no ready
translation. Literally “living water,” the words can mean a spring or a
fountain, a meaning often suggested inside the book, but to a Brazilian the
words will first of all refer to a jellyfish.

This was not the meaning Clarice intended—“I preferred
Água
Viva,
a thing that bubbles. At the source”—but for a work without
plot or story, the hint of invertebrate floating is especially apt. Perhaps this
is what Olga Borelli had in mind when she compared this book to those that had
come before it: “
The Passion According to G. H
. has a backbone, doesn’t
it?”

Água Viva
does not, and this initially made Clarice uneasy:
“That book, I spent three years without daring to publish it, thinking it would
be awful. Because it didn’t have a story, it didn’t have a plot.” The question
of what exactly she was writing preoccupied Clarice, and with good reason. “This
is not a book because this is not how one writes,” she announces at the
beginning. It does not, in fact, resemble anything written at the time, in
Brazil or anywhere else. Its closest cousins are visual or musical, a
resemblance Clarice emphasizes by turning the narrator, a writer in the earlier
versions, into a painter; she herself was dabbling in painting at the time. The
epigraph comes from the Belgian artist Michel Seuphor: “There must be a painting
totally free of dependence on the figure—or object—which, like music,
illustrates nothing, tells no story, and launches no myth. Such painting would
simply evoke the incommunicable kingdoms of the spirit, where dream becomes
thought, where line becomes existence.”

The title
Beyond Thought
referred to these “incommunicable
kingdoms of the spirit,” the unconscious realm she had meant to simulate, and
provoke. “Could it be that what I am writing you is beyond thought? Reason is
what it isn’t. Whoever can stop reasoning—which is terribly difficult—let
them come along with me.”

As Borelli understood, this “spineless” writing is
not random, or even abstract. Instead, its consistency more properly belongs to
the realm of dreams, in which ideas and images connect with a logic that may not
be immediately apparent but is nonetheless real. This was the writing Clarice
described when she wrote in
The Foreign Legion
, “In painting as in
music and literature, what is called abstract so often seems to me the
figurative of a more delicate and more difficult reality, less visible to the
naked eye.”

In
Água Viva
she would discover a means of writing about
herself and that “delicate and more difficult reality” in a way that transformed
her individual experience into a universal poetry. In a body of work as
emotionally powerful, formally innovative, and philosophically radical as
Clarice Lispector’s,
Água Viva
stands out as a particularly magnificent
triumph. The reviews reflect the same amazement Clarice had provoked thirty
years before, when she published
Near to the Wild Heart
. “With this
fiction,” wrote a critic who had attacked
An Apprenticeship
, “Clarice
Lispector awakens the literature currently being produced in Brazil from a
depressing and degrading lethargy and elevates it to a level of universal
perennity and perfection.” The book has inspired passions among Brazil’s
greatest artists. The famous singer Cazuza, for example, read it one hundred and
eleven times.

BOOK: Agua Viva
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