Speak as Little as Possible: On Clarice Lispector

1252599621-largeRachel Aviv in The Nation:

Clarice Lispector doted on the ugly, dull and superfluous. Over the course of her fifty years as a novelist, her characters became less intelligent. She began with self-conscious and lonely heroines and moved on to less pensive creatures: dogs, chickens, cockroaches and the smallest woman in the world. The triumph of her career is a dimwitted virgin named Macabéa, who subsists on hot dogs. Macabéa’s “story is so banal that I can scarcely bear to go on writing,” Lispector notes in her finest book, The Hour of the Star, published a few months before her death in 1977. Macabéa works as a typist in Rio de Janeiro but knows the meaning of few of the words she commits to the page. She sleeps in cheap cotton underwear, with her mouth wide open, and then rushes to work in the morning, smiling dumbly at everyone she passes. Her few moments of leisure are spent drinking Coca-Cola–a refreshment she adores “with servility and subservience”–and watching horror films in which women get shot in the heart.

Lispector was fascinated by the possibility of extinguishing self-consciousness; she idealized animals and idiots because they were free of the desire to translate their experiences into words. Macabéa is the perfect fool, whose life has been reduced to a “tiny essential flame”: she does nothing more than exist, without wondering why. Then she gets hit by a car and dies. The novella’s drama derives not from Macabéa’s pitiful story but from Lispector’s struggle to render in full a life so mundane. “I feel so nervous about writing,” she admits, “that I might explode into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.”